Murasaki Orbital Station, LaGrange Point V
The 22nd century
Inspector Nandita Okalani consulted her data pad and chewed on the end of her stylus. She was standing in front of docking bay 34, level D. The airlock door was sealed and red-lighted. According to Murasaki Control, this bay was occupied by the Genji, part of Aerospace Nippon's commercial space transport fleet. However, the lock on the ship's side was still engaged. It was a serious offense against regulations; as soon as Control confirmed that the docking clamp was secure, Genji's crew should have cycled the airlock and waited for inspection/clearance. That they had not followed standard procedure was very troubling.
She checked the light again. Still red. Until it turned green, the door could not be opened except by manually overriding the safety protocols. A cargo and passenger inspector like her did not have the authority to do that.
Nandita read the ship's manifest one more time. Genji was a chartered flight; fourteen passengers only, all of them top-level executives from Nakamura Corporation, plus four geisha air hostesses and the cockpit crew. She could not imagine why someone aboard Genji was not raising hell at the delay. Even more troubling was the fact that if everyone on the transport had become unconscious for some reason, the ship’s automated computer system ought to have broadcast a universal m’aidez on every channel.
Nandita activated her throat mike. "Control, this is Inspector Okalani."
"Go ahead, Inspector." The voice issuing from the micro-bead in her ear had a tinny, insect-like quality that never failed to raise goosebumps on her arms.
"Confirm docking status secure on Aerospace Nippon flight 323, Genji, out of Tokyo outbound to Baburu Resort via Murasaki Orbital Station."
There was a pause. "Secure status confirmed."
"Patch me through to Genji's cockpit. Captain John Cheung."
"One moment." There was a further pause. The operator’s voice returned and said, "No reply. Repeat, no reply. Systems analysis confirms life support and communications are functioning. Switching you to Security."
Nandita turned cold. Last month, a terrorist group had tried to smuggle a vial of genetically modified, military grade Hansen's Disease to the station inside a cargo vessel. The vial had broken en route, killing the entire crew. They had quite literally fallen apart. A decontamination team had carried the bodies - or rather, the pieces of bodies - out in sealed biohazard bags. The alarm had been raised by an inspector who, like herself, was unable to enter the craft or contact the cockpit crew.
"Security," said a new voice in her ear. It sounded like a woman. "Commander Tomiko. State the nature of the emergency."
Nandita roused herself. "Inspector Okalani. I'm at docking bay 34, level D." She went on to explain the situation , ending with, "I am standing by for instructions."
Commander Tomiko's crisp orders came as a relief. "Move at least fifty yards away from the airlock but stay within visual range. Do not approach the airlock or allow anyone else to do so. I'm sending the closest hot-squad to your location. A decontamination team will arrive shortly. And Inspector Okalani?"
"If I find a single member of the press near that ship before I get there, I'll kick your sweet ass back to Earth the hard way. Understood?"
"I understand, Commander." Nandita, who had been trembling with fear, now trembled with rage as she walked away from the airlock. What kind of person did this Tomiko think she was? Some inspectors did take bribes from the news services on Murasaki Station. Inspectors were, after all, among the first to spot new arrivals or get fresh scuttlebutt and scandal straight from the transport crews to feed to the tabloid journalistas and digital paparazzi. However, she did not, and felt that Tomiko's threat was personally insulting.
Only a few minutes passed until a security squad arrived, dressed in the familiar indigo uniforms and helmets. All of them were armed with flechette guns and shock-rods capable of delivering 50,000 volts or more. They set up a line of shatterproof shields and waited, weapons at the ready. Not one of them spared a glance at Nandita.
A tall woman in Security blues came towards her. Nandita noticed the stars emblazoned on the shoulders of her uniform and realized this must be Commander Tomiko.
"Thank you for your cooperation, Inspector Okalani," Tomiko said. She had a broad forehead, tapering to prominent cheekbones and a small chin. Her almond shaped eyes were sharp, glittering like black gems. "The decontamination team is on the way. I'm sure you have a very busy schedule, so you can return to your normal duties." The phrasing was polite, but had the briskness of an order that was expected to be obeyed.
Nandita shook her head. She was not about to be bullied. "Genji is my responsibility. It was assigned to me by Control. I will not leave until I'm satisfied that this isn’t just a mistake brought on by human error or equipment failure."
"I see." Tomiko tilted her head to one side. Her hair was cut off straight at the shoulders, dyed an impossibly flaming red that clashed with her sallow complexion. "If you thought this was a simple mistake, why did you call Security?"
"Like you, Commander, I'm required to follow protocol." Nandita left it at that, hoping the woman could not discern the real reasons she wanted to remain. Part of it was curiosity, plain and simple. She wanted to witness the events with her own eyes, rather than hear about it second- or third-hand. The other reason was a stubborn refusal to back down in the face of someone who had insulted her.
"Besides," Nandita continued impulsively, "I didn't call Security. Control did." She winced even as she said it, realizing how childish she sounded.
Tomiko's mouth curved in a small smile. She bowed slightly from the hips. "I stand corrected, Inspector Okalani." Her gaze shifted. "The decontamination team is here. Please excuse me. You may do your duty and remain as witness, but continue to maintain your distance. Do not interfere with our operation." With that, she swung away, headed towards the newly arrived group wearing distinctive yellow plastic suits and hoods.
It did not take long for the decontamination team to gain entry into the Genji once the door’s security encryption was hacked and overridden by Murasaki Orbital’s own AI in a direct downlink. After a short while, the team emerged, the leader pulling off his hood. From where she was standing, Nandita clearly heard him say, "No biohazards, Tomiko, but there's wall-to-wall corpses in there. You'd better get Medical here fast. We've got one live body, but I'm not sure how long she'll stay that way."
Tomiko issued commands into her throat mike. Within moments, paramedics arrived to whisk the sole survivor off Genji. Close on their heels came a full forensics team, laden with equipment. Nandita was politely asked to leave by a Security squad member. As she walked out of the docking bay, Nandita caught a last glimpse of Tomiko. The tall woman was standing in the midst of controlled chaos, her flaming red hair like a beacon in a sea of indigo blue. A news spy-eye hovered above, sending streaming live video directly to its subscribers.
Nandita wiped the data pad with the chewed end of her stylus. Security would be issuing their own report on the incident; her’s could wait. Her shift was over, so she went home, hoping to catch more details on the 24/7 news broadcast.
Nandita lived in an usagigoya apartment, literally, a "rabbit hutch" - a rectangular room with white plastic walls (stain and paint resistant), just big enough for a bed and a tiny bathroom with shower, sink and toilet. The space opposite her bed contained a fold-down desk/table, and a Sony monitor with pull-out keyboard for computer access. Niches for storage were carved out of the other walls, along with a narrow closet.
The room was bland, functional and cold - exactly the same as thousands of others in the Murasaki employees' complex. Unless she managed a major status upgrade, Nandita was condemned to remain in what was nicknamed The Warren. Cramped as it was, living in an usagigoya was better than being without shelter at all. She could not have afforded better on Earth, and at least here, her power and water were provided as an employee benefit.
Like most station dwellers, Nandita had tried to personalize her space. A colorful blanket made of Indian silk sarees was tossed over the foam mattress. Embroidered pillows were heaped on the bed. In the storage niches were a dwarf azalea bonsai, a pile of entertainment discs, a tanto blade in a bamboo sheath, cans of incense spray and ginseng flavored oxygen; also packets of roasted green peas, rice crackers, spicy Indonesian peanuts and wasabi flavored shrimp chips. A scattering of holo-photos in fiber optic frames cycled through a random selection of family and friends’ pictures from her native Oahu.
She sat cross-legged on the bed, wearing a simple green yakuta robe. The color matched her eyes. Nandita was hapa, a child of mixed ancestry, both Pacific islander and haole. Her mother was Indian/Chinese/Caucasian, while her father was African-American/Japanese/Russian, with some Indonesian and Malay added to the blend. As a result, Nandita had skin the color of milk chocolate; her hair was a cloud of dark brown frizz. She had wide Slavic cheekbone and only a hint of an epicanthic fold at the corners of her light eyes. Nandita was not fat, but like many islanders she was solidly plump and muscular.
On the island Oahu (part of the Independent Hawai'ian States), the hapa, though proud of their ancestry, considered themselves simply Hawai'ian - the sum total of their birth, rather than a piecemeal conglomeration. Like soup, her mother had told her. Nobody calls it meat-vegetables-broth... it's just called soup. So you're just you, Nandita Okalani. Not African, American, Indian, Russian, Chinese or haole. Just Hawai'ian.
Conservative Japanese called her esunikku, an ethnic - an insulting term that hinted of mongrel status. Fortunately, Nippon Aerospace had a liberal hiring policy. While Nandita would never get into top management (those positions were reserved for pure Japanese stock, following the usual tradition of nepotism and favor trading), she could still advance quite high. Nandita intended to stay at Murasaki Orbital until she could go no further, then possibly transfer to the International Lunar Base after its completion in five years.
She nibbled a handful of roasted peas, watching the news broadcast with interest. Security's investigation of the Genji massacre was proceeding, with no real leads developed. A nurse in Medical had sent clandestine on-line video of the sole survivor, who seemed small and crumpled against the white bed-sheets, like an abandoned doll. Nandita pulled out the computer keyboard and joined a station-wide chat for more information.
She learned that the survivor's name was Izumi Sato. Some enterprising hacker had already pulled up the woman's vital statistics and posted the form at a public access site. Izumi was a Japanese national trained as a geisha air hostess at Aerospace Nippon's prestigious school in Kyoto. Within a few seconds, Izumi's photograph was uploaded to the site. She was pretty and petite with a round face, bow lips and the wide-eyed innocence of a child. Nandita studied the picture for a moment, wondering how and why this fragile-seeming porcelain doll had survived when the others had not.
Nandita was interrupted by a buzz and a flashing icon on her monitor. It was Security. She quickly wiped her screen and answered the call. "Moshi-moshi, this is Inspector Okalani."
An image blinked on; it was Commander Tomiko, on a live video conferencing feed. "I apologize for the intrusion, Inspector."
Nandita stared at the screen, nonplused. She had not expected to be contacted for her statement so soon. "What do you want, Commander? I'm off duty."
"I realize that, but something has come up in the investigation. Since you were the first person at the scene, I need you to answer some questions. Don't worry, Inspector Okalani. You'll be adequately compensated for your time." Tomiko said the last as if it were a distasteful notion or possibly a disgraceful one.
"What do you want to know?" Nandita controlled her temper with an effort. Dealing with Commander Tomiko is no worse than confronting an irate passenger who can't understand why I won't let him to bring a crate of fighting rats into the station, she told herself. Don't let her get to you. Ho'omanawanui! Have patience and endure. For some reason, Tomiko rubbed her the wrong way. Nandita took a deep breath and waited.
"Would you come to my office on B-level?” the commander asked. “I would rather not pursue the matter over an unsecured line."
Nandita counted to ten in Cantonese, then once more in Hindi. At last, she answered, "I haven't eaten yet."
"You can order whatever you like in my office. On my credit account," Tomiko offered. Her harshly angular features seemed to soften a bit, and she actually smiled slightly. "And I'll see to it that you're paid double-time for the inconvenience."
Suddenly, Nandita realized that Tomiko was a very attractive woman. The smile utterly transformed her face. A second later and she realized what the commander was offering. Dinner and double-time payment? Yes! "I'll be happy to cooperate," Nandita said. “Be there in twenty minutes."
"Thank you." Tomiko severed the connection, and Nandita's monitor went blank.
She pushed the keyboard back, pulled off her yakuta, and opened the narrow closet to find some clothes. Five minutes later, Nandita left her apartment, wearing wide-legged, saffron-dyed cotton trousers and a sleeveless white undershirt. As she walked to the grav-lifts, she pulled her hair back from her face, fastening the frizzy mass with an elastic band. A chrome identification card hung on a chain around her neck.
Commander Tomiko's office was on B-level, near the central hub, part of the big Security complex. The glass walls were really liquid crystal displays, showing a mix of advertisements, public service announcements, crime re-enactments and 'Top Ten Most Wanted' lists. Inside was a buzzing, chaotic hive. Indigo uniformed officers grappled with suspects, tonight mostly a large group of caterwauling, kimono-clad prostitutes and their clients - a contingent of sumo wrestlers who had gotten drunk enough to go looking for thrills at the quasi-legal brothels on G-level. From the blood-streaked look of them, the huge men had either been fighting amongst themselves or had resisted arrest.
Nandita made her way to the front desk with difficulty, squeezing past screaming women in cheap rayon robes, shouting sweaty wrestlers, and harassed Security officers. The sergeant glanced down at her with disinterest. He was eating a cup of ramen noodles and watching an Australian soccer broadcast on a big monitor attached to the far wall.
"Inspector Okalani to see Commander Tomiko," Nandita said, offering her I.D. card.
The sergeant shook his head. "Commander Tomiko is busy. Come back tomorrow, or make an appointment."
"But I'm here at her request."
"Sorry, Inspector." He slurped up a mouthful of noodles and turned his attention back to the game.
Nandita reached up and knocked loudly against his desk. "Call Commander Tomiko right now and tell her I'm here. She's expecting me."
The sergeant's eyes narrowed. He put down the cup. "Look, I don't take orders from..." He broke off and turned pale.
Nandita knew Commander Tomiko was standing behind her, even before she heard the woman speak. "Sergeant Maksim, why are you eating dinner on duty?" Tomiko asked.
"Sorry, ma'am." Maksim fumbled the cup of noodles under his desk.
"Don't be sorry, Sergeant. Just do your job properly."
"Yes, ma'am." Maksim cast an aggrieved glare at Nandita. "Commander, an Inspector Okalani is here to see you. She claims you sent for her."
"So I noticed." Tomiko's voice was dry, the sarcasm barely veiled. "And had you bothered to verify, Maksim, you would have discovered that I did, indeed, ask the inspector to pay a call. Next time, don't keep my guests waiting. If you'll follow me, Inspector Okalani, we’ll take our meeting in my office." Tomiko said over her shoulder as she led the way. The commander did not have to push anyone out of her way; they naturally gravitated out of her path, as if she was projecting a psychic bulldozer.
Nandita stayed close to the taller woman, glad that she did not have to fight her way through the press a second time.
The Security commander's office was quiet, the plastic walls reinforced with sound-proofing material. The floor was a well polished bamboo laminate that also absorbed noise. Tomiko's desk was a mass of steel and glass, very modern, almost bare but for an antique red lacquer writing box and a complicated looking communication console. Except for the desk and a set of chairs, the room was empty of furniture and eerily silent.
Tomiko sat down and waved at a chair. "Please sit down, Inspector Okalani."
Nandita did so, trying to relax. Tomiko studied her with glittering black eyes. Finally, the commander said, "We seem to have a problem regarding the Genji."
"Only one problem?" Nandita said, raising her brows. "I would think the count is closer to twenty."
"True. Twenty dead, one survivor." Again, a ghost of a smile touched Tomiko's lips. "First things first. I promised you dinner. What would you like?"
"Teriyaki krill steak and sweet potato frites," Nandita said immediately. She was quite hungry, having worked up an appetite on the way to B-level.
Tomiko got up, went to the Digi-Chef on the wall, and punched in the order. "How well do you recall the cargo manifest?" she asked while she was waiting.
Nandita thought about it. "Nothing unusual springs to mind, but I didn't... wait a minute. There was something. I remember making a note of it on my data pad."
"A cat, perhaps? "
"Yes! Listed as the personal companion of Goro Nakamura." Nandita closed her eyes, and opened them again after a moment. "A genetically modified feline, designation 459-X, developed by Nakamura Bio Systems' R & D department. The animal's passport, veterinary certification and proof of sterilization were on file with Control."
"You have a good memory, Inspector." There was a chime from the Digi-Chef. Tomiko opened the hatch and removed two covered dishes. She walked back to the desk and put one dish in front of Nandita.
Nandita removed the cover and allowed teriyaki-scented steam to wash over her face. The steak looked like genuine beef, grilled and served in its own juices. A mound of fried sweet potato strips accompanied the meal. "It even smells like the real thing," she said, unwrapping knife and fork. "We don't get this kind of quality in The Warren's cafeteria."
"I'm not one to stand on ceremony," Tomiko said, unveiling her own dinner - a plate of gyoza filled with pork-flavored tofu and vegetables. "Will it disturb you to talk while we eat?" She held her chopsticks poised over a pan-fried dumpling.
"Not at all." Nandita cut into her steak and lifted a piece to her mouth. Ono-licious! Her opinion of Commander Tomiko was improving. She didn't have to buy me an expensive dinner, Nandita thought. The cost of this meal was more than her day's salary. Lower level employees had access only to the company cafeteria, where the food was more filling and nutritious than tasty. Nandita ate at the cafeteria out of necessity and supplemented her diet with snacks purchased at the Harajuku Bazaar and occasional care packages from home.
Tomiko picked up a gyoza, dipped it in soy sauce and levered the dumpling delicately into her mouth. After chewing and swallowing, she said, "The cat is missing."
Nandita almost choked on a sweet potato strip. "How did that happen? The animal's crate should have been securely locked."
"It was. Someone opened it." Tomiko reached beneath her desk and brought out two plastic bulbs of liquid. She handed one to Nandita. "Did you see a cat at the scene?"
"How could it have gotten out of the transport? The airlock was sealed." Nandita punctured the bulb with the straw provided, and sipped. The liquid was some kind of mineral water, crisp and citrusy. "Nothing could have exited the ship."
"But did you see anything out of the ordinary?" Tomiko pressed.
Nandita ate another bite of steak. "I'm sorry, Commander. I saw nothing and no one until your squad arrived."
"I see." Tomiko remained silent until she had finished the plate of dumplings. Nandita ate rapidly, not willing to waste a single morsel of the best meal she'd had since arriving at the station two years ago.
"Do you know anything about the survivor, Izumi Sato?" Tomiko asked, pushing her empty dish aside.
"Nothing beyond common knowledge," Nandita answered carefully.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to prosecute you for illegal downloading of classified material. I just wondered if you knew her personally."
"To be honest, I've never seen her before." Nandita held up a hand to forestall Tomiko's next question. "I'm just one transport inspector out of many. There are dozens of passenger flights in and out of Murasaki Orbital every day, not to mention commercial shuttles between Earth, this station, the other LaGrange stations, and ongoing construction of the International Lunar Base. We get everything here from workers to tourists, corporate visitors, ambassadors, government reps, trouble makers, manufacturers and vendors. I can't be expected to know every person on every transport. It isn't possible. Furthermore, my circle of friends is limited to local personnel. Flight crews tend to stick together."
Tomiko acknowledged the truth of Nandita's statements by nodding her head. "I had hoped..." she began, and trailed off. "Never mind. Should you happen to find a stray cat, please contact my office at once."
Nandita sensed the interview was at an end. What she could not understand is why the commander had taken the trouble to invite her here and feed her such a magnificent meal instead of pursuing the inquiry over the communication system. No information had been exchanged that was unduly sensitive in her opinion.
As if she read her mind, Tomiko said, "I like your attitude, Inspector. Not many people will stand up to the head of Security." She smoothed back her flaming red hair and continued, "On a personal level, I find you attractive. I want to get to know you a little better. I hope my honesty has not shocked or offended you."
"Not at all," Nandita replied. So, the commander has feelings after all! This could be interesting. "May I ask a nosy question?"
"Why do you dye your hair such a vivid color?"
Tomiko's lips quirked upwards. It was clear that she had not anticipated the question. "In order to be seen in a crowd, so that my officers can find me quickly when they need to."
Nandita regarded the other woman from beneath lowered eyelids, and smiled broadly. "I didn't like you much earlier today."
"I think I've had a change of heart."
Tomiko gazed back at her, a serious expression on her face. "Would 2100 hours suit you for tomorrow?"
"What did you have in mind?"
"Dinner, dancing, cocktails, pachinko, karaoke, digital gladiators, Kabuki theater, chanbara eiga films..." Tomiko spread her hands apart. "Your choice."
Nandita shrugged. "You choose. Surprise me."
"I think I might."
They exchanged smiles. At last, Nandita said, "If there's nothing else, I'd better get back home. Thank you for dinner."
"It was my pleasure." Tomiko rose and started to accompany Nandita to the door, but her communication console buzzed loudly. "I'm sorry..." she said, glancing at her desk.
"It’s okay. See you tomorrow night."
Nandita hardly noticed the shrieking prostitutes or bellowing sumo wrestlers on the way out. In fact, she was barely aware of her surroundings until she found herself standing outside her apartment door. She inserted her identification card into the slot, waited for the door lock to cycle open, and stepped inside.
Sitting on her bed was a black cat.
Nandita started, a hand pressed to her breast. The cat hissed, leaped off the bed, and streaked out into the corridor. By the time she regained her equilibrium and went to look, the animal had disappeared. She closed the door, not sure if she had really seen a cat at all. I was distracted. It's late. Maybe I imagined a black popoki sitting on my bed. There's no sign of the thing now.
She decided to tell Commander Tomiko about it tomorrow.
There was a loud knock, and Nandita jumped again. "Who is it?" she called cautiously.
"E Kalani!" chirped a female voice. "Let me in, cuz!"
"E komo mai!" Nandita called, opening the door. "Hey, Kalani, howzit?"
Kalani Ahmona was also Hawaiian; in fact, she was Nandita's second cousin, and the two woman had grown up together in the same huge house. In spite of being close as sisters, they did not look anything alike. Kalani was slender as a boy, almond-eyed, with dense black hair that she cropped off close to her skull. She had multiple piercings in her lower lip, and her right ear fairly bristled with silver rings.
"I heard you were assigned the Genji," Kalani said, gliding into the apartment, "so I thought I'd come over and talk story with you."
"Yeah, yeah," Nandita said, closing the door and engaging the lock. "You know as much about that as I do. But I do have some other news."
"Geev'um!" Kalani made grabby motions with her hands. "Oh, I almost forgot. Mama Ahmona sent us presents from home. Onion and pepper marlin jerky for you." She reached into the pocket of her grey coverall and pulled out several flat, paper wrapped packages. "I got ling hing mui cracked seeds and rock salt plums. Wanna share?"
"You lolo? Mo bettah I share, 'cause Mama Ahmona gimme the stink eye next time we're Earthside if I don't." Nandita slipped into the pidgen her family spoke at home.
Kalani produced two more packages from her pocket. "Maybe she give you dirty lickin's, too!" she laughed, threatening to spank Nandita with an upraised hand.
Nandita went out briefly to get two waxed cartons of beer from the dispenser in the hall. Although she and Kalani were close, their work schedules often conflicted and they did not see each other socially very often. When she returned, Kalani was sitting cross-legged on the bed, munching a piece of jerky. "Now talk story, cuz," she said, puncturing her beer carton with a straw. "Gimme da scoops."
"Bend yo' ears, sistah, here's the haps..."
"Ha’ah?" Kalani said, after Nandita had told her about Commander Tomiko. "You're kidding. Dat’s one mean wahine, eh?"
"Don't talk stink." Nandita enunciated with difficulty as she was sucking on a rock salt plum and her mouth was full.
"She gave you a great dinner, a little smooth talk... now a date. Next thing, you knockin' boots with her." Kalani made a long-suffering sigh and untangled the drinking straw from her lip piercings. "Then she push you out wikiwiki and get a new honey to squeeze."
Nandita shook her head and spat out the plum stone. "Aiyah! You don't even know Tomiko."
"I know the type. Love 'em and leave 'em, cuz. Break the heart. Not the settling down." Kalani finished her beer. "You want me fix you up with a real honey? Little blonde wahine from Gdansk, fresh off the transport, very cute. She's in my department. I can put in the good word for you."
"No, thanks. I already have a date."
Kalani shrugged. "Your loss."
"Better not tell Mama Okalani or Mama Ahmona or the rest of the ohana. You know how they gossip, and I don't want the whole island talking about my business."
"Kay den. That's fine, cuz. When you need a shoulder to cry on, gimme a buzz." Kalani got up and tossed her empty beer carton into the recycler hatch. "Hey, I gotta bag. Early day tomorrow for me."
"Thanks for the stuff, sistah. Don't be a stranger." Nandita gave her cousin a hug.
"And you be careful." Kalani frowned and paused in the act of unlocking the door. "Hey, cuz... you know somebody got a cat on station? Black popoki?"
Nandita froze in place. "No. How come?"
"I saw one when I was walking to your apartment. Took off like that!" She snapped her fingers. "Pretty strange, eh?"
"Yeah, funny kine. You sure?"
Kalani nodded. "Fo' real." There was concern in her almond shaped eyes. "Relax, 'Dita. You got some righteous chicken skin."
Nandita rubbed her prickling arms. "I have to call Tomiko. And I can't talk story about it, 'Lani. Maybe later."
"You okay? I can crash here..."
"No, no, go ahead. I'll be fine." Nandita opened the door. "If you see that cat again, call Security."
"Can do." Kalani hesitated in the corridor. "You need anything, you call me, eh?"
"Can do, sistah. Thanks." Nandita shut the door, sat down on the bed, and pulled out her keyboard to place a call to Security. Unfortunately, she got Sergeant Maksim. He took sadistic delight in denying her access to Commander Tomiko, instead insisting on taking a message. She told him about the cat sightings, emphasizing the urgency of her transmission. He smirked and ended the call.
When she wiped the monitor, Nandita was very tired. She lay back on the pillows, too exhausted to do more than push empty food wrappers off her bed, and fell asleep with her clothes on.
The next day after work, Nandita took a trip to C-level, to the Harajuku Bazaar that sprawled out from the hub. Shops, market stalls, pachinko parlors, vendor stands, video game arenas, peddler carts, tattoo boutiques, cosmetic surgery clinics, tea houses, strip clubs, Turkish, Swedish and Japanese baths - it was said that if you couldn't find what you were looking for in the Harajuku, it didn't exist. The deeper one penetrated into the heart of the bazaar, the more curious the goods offered and the more shifty the dealers became.
Nandita went to her favorite second-hand clothing store, the Bata-ya,
run by a hard-eyed trio of Indonesian sisters. After rummaging through
the racks for twenty minutes, she found something she liked – a
white nano-fiber pantsuit, pre-programmed to display 'bourgeois icons,'
as the tag stated. The color contrasted nicely with her milk chocolate
The images were in a constant state of flux, changing from one familiar face to another. Rod Serling, Michelle Yeoh, Betty Grable, Jimmy Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Emperor Hirohito... some came and went so quickly, Nandita did not have time to identify them. She clicked the pantsuit's processor off and took it to the counter. Some spirited haggling with Sister Two and it was hers, but the price still made Nandita wince.
To go with the suit, she bought a new pair of soft-soled zori sandals. After eating a quick snack of tofu barbeque in a steamed bun, Nandita visited one of the Japanese baths. Following an hour's worth of treatment, she emerged with clean glowing skin and manicured nails painted gold. Her ginger-lemon scented hair had been pulled to the crown of her head and wrapped in wired paper ribbons to form three stiff ponytails that jutted backwards, a cloud of frizzy brown curls trailing from the ends. It was the latest fad from Tokyo, although Nandita had refused to have her hair dyed orange and black to complete the trend.
She walked along a busy concourse, automatically avoiding bumping into anyone in the milling crowd. Nandita made it back to her apartment in time to watch a re-broadcast of Novel of the Morning, a long-running and popular tri-dee soap opera, before it was time to get ready. Promptly at 2100 hours, the door chime rang.
When she answered the door, Tomiko smiled, visibly appreciating Nandita's efforts. "Very nice,” she purred. The commander was dressed in a traditional samurai kimono, dark brown with her family’s mon imprinted on the fabric. The crest was a stylized carp bowed into a circle. What looked like a genuine katana was thrust through the light blue obi, balanced by the shorter wakizashi on the other side. Tomiko’s unnaturally red hair was pulled up into a simple tea-whisk style at the crown of her head.
“I made reservations at Otaku’s,” she said, naming a hugely popular retro restaurant on the station’s uppermost level.
Nandita stared and paused in the act of locking her door. “I thought they had a twelve-month waiting list.”
“They do.” Tomiko led the way down the corridor, not quite moving in a ‘rough-stuff’ bow-legged strut but swaggering just a little, as befitted her status. “Cat Shit Pie is playing live in Otaku’s next week,” she said in explanation.
“Ah, and you’re providing security for the band, of course.” Nandita nodded and grinned. “Is there any way you can hook me up with some tickets for the gig? I’ll be the most momboosa popular wahine in Control and beyond.”
“We’ll see,” Tomiko said, but there was a sly look in her eyes that promised that something could be done. In the grav-lift, she stayed close to Nandita, a hand unconsciously straying to the hilt of her sheathed sword in a protective gesture that the other woman found rather endearing.
Otaku’s restaurant offered holo-entertainment in the form of pop culture sensations from the past, including interactive Sailor Moon, Hello Kitty, Yu-Gi-Oh, Samurai Pizza Cats and Pokemon characters that played between the tables and involved willing patrons in their games. The holographic cartoons were periodically joined by a random cavalcade of programmed figures including everyone’s favourite green, scaly and radioactive Gojira battling with gods and monsters in the domed ‘Heaven’ that formed the ceiling.
The menu was the most desirable aspect of the restaurant. Otaku’s chief chef was a former yakuza boss who made no attempt to hide the old-fashioned static tattoos that completely covered his skin from neck to ankles. He ruled his steamy domain with an iron fist; it was rumored that staff members who earned his displeasure had to cut off the first joint of their smallest finger in propitiation. The lopped-off digits were tossed into a pot of shabu-shabu that was kept perpetually on the boil and fed kitchen leftovers daily. It was a mark of the chef’s culinary mastery that even this dubious stew was reckoned delicious by everyone who received a bowl, including the staff themselves.
Chef Hikaru used his Earth-side connections to ship fresh foodstuffs like actual beef, seafood and vegetables to the station – an expensive proposition, considering every ounce of weight during space travel cost mega-Yen in terms of fuel. Eating at Otaku’s was equally expensive. Nandita was wondering how Tomiko was going to afford two meals on her inspector’s salary when Hikaru himself lumbered out of the kitchen to greet the woman as if she was an old and valued friend.
“Tomiko-san!” Hikaru said. His sleeveless white undershirt exposed the writhing dragons, ghosts and demons on his forearms. The man’s paunch strained against the stretchy fabric, round and solid as a ripe gourd. “I wondered when you were going to pay a visit.”
“I’ve been busy,” Tomiko answered. “This is Nandita Okalani.”
“Miss Okalani, welcome to Otaku’s.” Hikaru gestured for a servitor, who was dressed in a Monkey King costume. “Show these ladies to the best table. No menu,” he added, jutting his jaw out at Tomiko. “I’ll make your meal myself.”
“As long as it isn’t human shabu-shabu!” Tomiko laughed, and the chef scowled.
Nandita was impressed. Once they were alone at the table, she had no hesitation saying so to Tomiko. “So how do you know Hikaru-san?”
“We grew up in the same Tokyo neighborhood. Our families were poor but proud,” Tomiko said. “Hikaru started with the local yakuza as a delivery boy – designer drugs, pituitary extracts, illegal chi transfusions, counterfeit nanites, hacked corporate software, that sort of thing. He got into trouble with another gang. Long story short, I had been recruited by Sony/Akuma for security training and he came to me for protection.”
“What happened?” Nandita asked, a forefinger idly tracing patterns on the white tablecloth.
Tomiko shrugged. A gleam of laser light from a passing Sailor Jupiter character highlighted her prominent cheekbones and chin, and lent a touch of gilt to her sallow skin. “I helped him with his problem. We slum kids have to stick together.”
The Monkey King servitor was joined by a slinky holographic Red Tara, who made the mudra of supreme generosity with one hand, and showered the table with tri-dee scarlet and blue utpala flowers with the other. Monkey King laid out dishes of rice and various kinds of pickles as well as tiny bowls of miso soup as an appetizer. While he was serving, Red Tara was knocked aside by a cart-wheeling Vampire Princess Miyo and battle was joined. Tomiko placed a bet on the Tibetan goddess through the gambling console attached to the table, while Nandita laid a small amount of company credits on the anime princess. Much to her delight, Nandita won.
Following plates of thinly sliced raw Kobe beef, served with soy sauce for dipping, the women enjoyed thin pancakes topped with forty different varieties of sautéed mushrooms, then langoustines in a fermented yellow bean sauce. Hot chili-spiked rice balls filled with pork and egg came next. Dish after dish issued from the kitchen, more then ten in all. Nandita particularly enjoyed the playful dessert – tempura-fried candy bars with flakes of dehydrated ice cream that had been exposed to the vacuum of space.
Over miniscule cups of genuine Blue Mountain coffee – not the genetically modified, caffeine-free variety that was all-too-common – Nandita told Tomiko about growing up on Oahu, just one more child in a large, extended and close-knit family of brothers, sisters and cousins; mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. Taking a job on Murasaki Orbital Station had seemed to Nandita like an excellent way of getting out of that claustrophobic atmosphere and having some privacy for a change.
She had not realized how lonely she would be, though. Nandita had friends and co-workers and acquaintances, of course, but she found herself enjoying Tomiko’s company enormously. The intimacy of having another person close to her, their attention focused solely on her, was what Nandita had been missing. They ‘talked story’ until the Japanese woman signaled the servitor to bring Otaku’s signature parting gifts of chocolate-dipped squid rounds. Nandita chewed the rubbery confection and waited until Tomiko and Hikaru finished their good-natured wrangling over the bill, then she followed Tomiko out of the restaurant.
Their next stop was a sumo basho that reeked of chamomile oil, spilled beer and yakatori from the vendors’ stalls. The raised ‘pure arakida’ clay ring had been imported at huge expense from the banks of the Arakawa River near Tokyo. Hugely fat men spat out mouthfuls of ‘power water’ to the auspicious east, threw purifying salt, performed their rituals and clashed together like Titans, using wrestling techniques that had not changed since feudal times. Tomiko bought wax-coated cartons of beer for them both and explained the finer points of the contest, much to Nandita’s fascination.
It was when they were leaving the hall that Nandita’s gaze was drawn to one side. The colorful chattering crowd suddenly parted, revealing a thin black figure standing alone in a pool of light cast by the open door of a pinku cocktail bar. From a distance, it looked like Izumi Sato, the sole survivor from the Genji, but that was impossible. The geisha qir hostess was, as far as Nandita knew, still unconscious in Medical.
She frowned and turned to Tomiko. “That can’t be Miss Sato, can it?”
Tomiko squinted in the appropriate direction. “Where?”
Nandita looked again. The figure was gone. “I must be seeing thing,” she muttered.
“Just a moment…” Tomiko was wearing a micro-bead receiver in her ear; a hair-thin wire led down into the breast of her brown kimono, and a second was attached to the ever-present throat mike. She murmured into the throat mike, paused, and murmured some more. “Miss Sato is still in Medical,” Tomiko said after a moment. “She has not regained consciousness.”
“Okay. I just…” Nandita rubbed her eyes, heedless of the damage to her make-up. “Maybe I’m tired or just plain lolo.”
“Do you want to go home?” Tomiko asked softly, putting a hand on Nandita’s shoulder and rubbing lightly.
The burgeoning headache vanished. Nandita moved into the touch, desire sparking low in her belly. She gazed up at Tomiko and said, “Only if you come with me.”
Tomiko chuckled, a low sensual sound. “Let’s go by the scenic route.”
Murasaki Orbital Station was built at LaGrange V, one of the most stable points in the Earth-Moon-Sun gravitational balancing act. The huge, perpetually spinning cylinder had to be inspected daily by maintenance crews for damage due to collisions with space junk and other detritus. There were a number of tracks built onto the outside skin of the station to accommodate bubble-shaped vehicles that were used to travel from the central hub to various inspection points. Always eager for profits, station management allowed the vehicles to be rented by anyone with enough New Yen to afford the price, but only when they were not in use by Maintenance.
At the rental kiosk, Tomiko had a few words with the attendant, then helped Nandita into the transport bubble. The vehicle’s poly-carbonate construction was sheathed in a thin, dark layer of frictionless protective material that shielded the occupants from radiation and solar winds; visuals were obtained via a flat-screen monitor that was connected to a tiny camera on the outside. The controls were very simple; the steering stick had a button on it that released compressed air, used to propel the bubble along the track. Other than that, the interior of the round vehicle was equipped with just a padded bench, a pre-programmed radio, and a pair of emergency survival suits with oxygen tanks.
Rummaging around, Nandita also found a handful of condoms stashed under the seat. She raised her eyebrows at Tomiko, who shrugged. “It’s popular with newlyweds,” the commander said, leaning over to adjust Nandita’s safety harness. “They call it the 60-Degrees Club…”
“Because Murasaki is located around the sixty-degree axis between the Earth and the Moon,” Nandita finished. “Very romantic.” She peered at the condom wrappers. “Cuttlefish, lemon-cactus and red bean flavors. What, no nacho cheese?”
“That’s disgusting.” Tomiko plucked the condoms out of Nandita’s grasp and allowed them to scatter on the floor.
“No, Camembert is disgusting, as is Brie. Nacho cheese is nice with jalapeño-and-sour cream lube.” Nandita pursed her lips. “You probably don’t like poi either.”
“I had poi once, when I was on vacation in Maui,” Tomiko said as the attendant pushed the transport bubble into the airlock. “I thought it was glue.”
“Yeah, well, haole don’t usually like poi. It’s an acquired taste.”
“Like nacho cheese condoms?”
“Something like that.” Nandita grinned and, greatly daring, laid a hand on Tomiko’s thigh. The cotton kimono felt cool beneath her fingertips.
The light above the airlock door burned green. Tomiko depressed the button on the steering stick to propel the vehicle out onto the track, and they were on their way, rolling around the curve of the station as if they were chasing the moon. It was only from space, Nandita reminded herself, that one could see the Sanskrit ‘om mani padme hum’ that was emblazoned on the side of the station. A chunky roll of Buddhist incantations block-printed on hand-made paper and blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama had been embedded in the central core during its construction, essentially turning Murasaki Orbital into a gigantic dharma wheel that spun continually, simultaneously generating gravity and spiritual merit.
Tomiko’s thumb stabbed the accelerator button. The bubble was flying along the track, held to the surface with electomagnets. Nandita kept her eyes on the monitor, watching the riveted metal skin roll past, the surface punctured by bowl-shaped satellites, antennas, airlock doors and other irregularities. Another transport bubble whizzed by in the opposite direction. The sensation of movement at high speed was exhilarating, even without the bonus of the wind in her hair. Tomiko flicked on the radio, twisted the dial, and to Nandita’s amazement found a classic instrumental lounge piece from ‘04, Kinobe’s Slip Into Something More Comfortable, that reminded her of home.
After checking with Control, the flame-haired commander used a bypass code that allowed the second protective skin on the bubble’s surface to retract a bit, giving them a view of space and the wheeling pinprick stars that took Nandita’s breath away. It was far too soon when Tomiko applied the brake and slowed the vehicle, preparatory to entering the airlock on B-level. Nandita had never been outside the station before, except when she had arrived in the crowded employee shuttle two years previously. Riding in the bubble was a great treat; in fact, the whole evening had been the most enjoyable that Nandita had spent in a long time.
Standing in front of her apartment door, Nandita felt ever-so-slightly awkward. On the one hand, she would like to invite Tomiko inside. She certainly desired the other woman and felt that desire was reciprocated. On the other hand, she felt it might be too presumptuous for a first date. Nandita was spared the decision when a couple of chi’ima gangsters sauntered down the corridor, apparently intent on harassing a group of doll-like, cosmetically enhanced bodikons, whose plasticized beauty was, for the most part, repellent rather than attractive. Nandita recognized a couple of the petite girls as workers in the G-level massage bars. Tomiko grimaced at the chi’ima boys, who apparently did not recognize the head of Security out of her normal uniform. They flashed her steel-toothed grins that spelled trouble.
“I’m sorry,” Tomiko said, leaning down to plant a gentle kiss on the corner of Nandita’s mouth. “May I call you tomorrow?”
“Do you want to meet for lunch?” Nandita asked. “There a snack bar near the Bazaar that isn’t bad; it’s called Bobana.”
“Yes.” Tomiko breathed the word on her lips, making Nandita shudder at the barest whisper of moist warmth against her flesh. “I’ll meet you at 1300 hours. Goodnight.” She backed away and hesitated, then quoted an old poem:
“A rock hinders and splits the stream
Nandita’s pulse thundered in her ears. She keyed the door lock and went inside her apartment… only to stagger back out again when a shadow bearing Izumi Sato’s face reared towards her, swift and unexpected as a striking snake. She gasped and clawed at the air, shock driving the air from her lungs so that she could not make another sound, even though unuttered screams were piling up behind her ribcage and stacking in her throat until she was choking on them.
“Nandita! What is it?”
Tomiko’s voice cut through the terror-generated turmoil. Nandita opened her eyes – she had not realized they were closed – and looked at the other woman. She was on the floor (how had she gotten there?) and Tomiko was kneeling beside her, supporting her shoulders. “I’ve called Medical. Nandita, talk to me. Tell me what’s wrong.”
Nandita’s eyelids fluttered as her mind was assaulted by a myriad of blurred images, disconnected and jumbled kaleidoscope pieces that no sense. One image, however, burned more clearly than the rest: a black cat that yowled and hissed and leaped into Izumi Sato’s body, turning the geisha’s eyes from brown to gold.
“Izumi,” she whispered. “Kuroneko.”
And she lost consciousness as another flash of not-memory assailed her, bringing with it the unwelcome vision of blood and death, golden eyes and sharp white teeth, inside the space transport vessel Genji.
“Well?” Nandita asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Your biorhythm chart indicates that this is an inauspicious time for you to undertake new ventures,” Dr. Chang said. She was Chinese, as shrunken and shrivelled as a grasshopper, her eyes hugely magnified by thick, old-fashioned spectacles. Tottering about the office on artificially tiny ‘lotus’ feet, her thin body wrapped in a plain blue cotton tunic and trousers, she resembled an old auntie from a rural province who clucked and fussed but also slipped rice candy to the children when no one was looking.
“You should also avoid driving at night,” Chang continued, “eating spicy foods and the ‘Drunken Crabs’ sexual position. Furthermore, there’s an imbalance of wood and water in your system, which has led to qi blockage as well as a lack of vital jing substance. I recommend special Grieving Wind tea and digital acupuncture sessions twice weekly. You can schedule an appointment with my on-line avatar.”
Nandita pushed a cloud of frizzy brown hair off her face. “What was that… thing I saw? The vision?”
“I don’t know yet because I’m not finished. No wonder you’re in a state of disharmony! Impatience leads to many evils, including bowel dysfunction. You maybe want a five elements enema? No? Then hold still and be quiet.” Chang rummaged in a drawer and pulled out a curious object. It looked like a jeweler’s loupe with multiple lenses bristling from the end. The doctor took off her spectacles and fitted the astralscope to her eye; flick-flick-flick! she sorted through a number of lenses with her thumb. “Hmmm, looks like you were clipped in a spiritual drive-by. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Chang pulled a jack from the computer and plugged it into the astralscope that was still screwed into her eye-socket. “What I’ve got is ukiyo-e,” she said. “Mostly Yoshitoshi soul origami spliced with a good dose of Kurasawa-sama.” She took some digital pictures, which appeared fuzzy and unfocused on the liquid-crystal monitor. “There seem to be traces of a non-corporeal entity with mucho mojo, plus a definite disturbance in the global etheric field that has the hallmarks of a collectively shared cultural hallucination.”
“Well, it wasn’t the Night Marchers that slugged me in the head,” Nandita said, holding perfectly still as Chang continued the examination of her Kirlian field.
“No, but it wasn’t your cultural hallucination, Inspector Okalani,” Chang said. “It belonged to someone else.”
Change put the astralscope away and slid her spectacles back up her beaky nose. “A person of primarily Japanese extraction,” she said, nodding at the monitor.
Nandita looked at the display. At first, she could make no sense of the odd image. Issuing arcane mutterings about resolution under her breath, Chang fiddled with the computer using a fingertip mouse that was a replica of an antique gold-and-pearl fingernail sheathe used by the Empress Woo. Gradually, the image on the monitor sharpened and resolved into a woman’s mouth, painted leaden white except for a scarlet tint that formed a perfect little bow.
A geisha’s mouth.
“Eeee!” Chang exclaimed, waving the glittering sheathe/mouse under Nandita’s nose. “I’m going to refer you to the itako, Madamu Butterfly, on D-level. This is more her area of specialty than mine.”
A chill ran through Nandita’s blood, making her shiver. “What’s wrong with me?”
Chang shrugged. “Eh, drink your tea, slurp some noodles, get an exorcism from a Japanese shaman. You’ll live. Now get out of here, girl, before I change my mind and give you a high spirits colonic.”
Nandita hastened to get dressed.
Tomiko insisted on accompanying her to Madamu Butterfly’s residence in Botany Bay, the station’s hydroponics gardens. The itako’s place was located above an augmented houseplant shop run by Hairy Krishnas, Japanese aboriginal Ainu who had converted to Hinduism. One had to go through the shop to reach the staircase that led to Butterfly’s office and living quarters. Nandita adroitly avoided the attentions of an amorous Venus fly-trap and walked up the twisting spiral staircase, aware that Tomiko was right behind her and probably looking up her skirt.
The thought made her tingle pleasantly despite her apprehension. Nandita felt the shakti serpent coiled at the base of her spine begin to stir. The weight of Tomiko’s gaze brushed her intimately, causing psycho-sexual kundalini energy to surge suddenly upwards, blasting through her chakras until Nandita thought she must be lit up like a knocking shop on payday when the fleet was in. Madamu Butterfly certainly thought so. When she opened the door, the unusually tall Japanese woman shaded her eyes with a hand and squinted.
“Ma! Tone it down, ladies, please! Didn’t your mothers tell you that playing with the nin giz zida fire snake would make you go blind?”
“Gomen nasai,” Tomiko murmured, while Nandita said, “Please excuse me,” and blushed hotly.
“Hmph.” Butterfly grumped. “You had better come inside. For goodness’ sake, breath deeply from your hara and let go some of that sexual tension. You’re making an old woman jealous.” The itako’s face was broad and unlined; it was impossible to tell her true age. When she smiled, though, she showed her teeth and gums like a child.
Nandita found herself seated on a puffy ottoman while Butterfly donned VR goggles and used a qi kung reiki technique to cleanse and tonify her body’s vital energies. “Yes, there has definitely been a visitation from the spirit world,” the itako said; her long-fingered, slender hands were like white spiders, skittering here and there on Nandita’s aura. The black rubber Kodak VR goggles gave Butterfly an insect-like quality that was reinforced by her too-long arms and elongated torso. “We must make contact in order to resolve the conflict that is holding this spirit back from its next-life dharma path.”
After drinking glasses of ginko and spearmint tea, Madamu Butterfly sat cross-legged on a tatami mat and squirted clear lubricant jelly on her fingertips before teasing out her Konica ocular prostheses. Nandita found it very disturbing to see the disembodied brown eyeballs being handled in the itako’s spidery hands, thin interface neuro-threads running over her cheeks and disappearing beneath the wrinkled lids. Once Butterfly had obeyed the tradition of her calling and made herself blind by disconnecting the interfaces and tucking her prostheses out of sight, she began the ceremony to ‘summon the dead.’
She put a strung bow at an angle over her lap and chanted a spirit-talk sutra. The sleeves of her white kimono fluttered as she plucked the bowstring in time with the kuchiyose. From a hammered copper digitized scent box came the odors of sandalwood and frankincense smoke; these essential fragrances were uploaded daily to the station’s public access core from Rokuon-ji, the Golden Pavilion Temple in Kyoto. No actual flames were permitted aboard Murasaki Orbital; even butter-lamps in the Tibetan ‘neighborhood’ of Bhot-Mandir were projected to avoid contaminating the station’s delicate atmosphere.
The horn plectrum held between Butterfly’s fingers was a blur. Her voice rose in pitch and volume. “Bu setsu ma ka han nya ha ra mi ta shin kyo kan ji sai bo sa, gyo jin han nya ha ra mi ta ji, sho ken go un kai ku do issai ku yaku, sha ri shi…”
Tomiko gripped Nandita’s hand as if it was a lifeline.
In the air above the Digi-Scent box, a cloud began to form.
The symbols suddenly dissolved, leaving a woman in their place. The figure was tiny, floating on an invisible current of virtual incense smoke. Disheveled hair, limp wrists and a lack of feet proclaimed that this was a ghost, one of those shared cultural hallucinations common to folklore and superstitious beliefs. The truly shocking thing was that the figure resembled Izumi Sato, who was still alive.
Tomiko must have been surprised, too, because she requested a status update from Medical on the geisha air hostess. What she heard in reply through the micro-bead in her ear made her frown. “Miss Sato is still alive but remains unconscious,” she reported.
“Her soul was separated from her body,” Butterfly said, setting aside the catalpa-wood bow. She cocked her head to one side. “Kuroneko.”
Tomiko stiffened. “That’s what Nandita said. So the black cat is involved, the one that escaped from Genji.”
The spirit’s lips moved but no sound emerged. Butterfly said, “That is no ordinary cat. It’s an ancient evil spirit, a bakeneko that possessed Izumi Sato, displacing her soul and consuming her life energy as well as the lives of everyone on the transport.”
“What does this bakeneko want with Nandita?” Tomiko asked. Nandita’s mouth was too dry to articulate words.
“The black cat spirit has chosen Nandita Okalani as its next victim,” Butterfly said. “It is greedy to suck out her soul.”
Nandita’s hara clenched, leaving her completely breathless with horror.
“I don’t know if I can believe,” Nandita argued.
She and Tomiko were seated in a ‘outdoor’ café in Botany Bay. Their table was located under the spreading branches of a bodhi tree; pilgrims had left offerings of high-fidelity memory-stick recordings scattered around the tree’s roots – incense, talismans, prayer flags, Buddha statues, sacred mountains and temples, as well as other impedimenta. Brightly feathered parrots squawked and flew from branch to branch. The café provided wide-brimmed rice straw hats for their patrons as well as umbrellas to protect the tables from bird droppings.
“What about the kahuna? They can be found over the Independent Islands.” Tomiko said, referring to the priests of the native Hawai’ian religion. The kahuna were the keepers of wisdom and secrets, living RAM and ROM that stored the ancient knowledge of the islander’s ancestors. They also practiced special auric healing techniques, taught the sacred art of hula, and propitiated the myriad gods and goddesses as well as acting as legal go-betweens in clashes between natives and visiting haole.
“Are their beliefs and spiritual abilities any less genuine than an itako, or the priestess of a cyber-loa cult, or a Chukchee shaman?” Tomiko continued. “What about your own culture? Your people believe in spirits and ghosts. Are you saying that because this psychic vampire cat-spirit is Japanese instead of Hawai’ian, its existence is somehow invalidated?”
“I’m not a phasmaphobe,” Nandita protested. “The situation just seems a bit… well, manga to me. I am willing to try, though.”
Tomiko shook her head, scowling. “You’re a ‘phobe.”
Nandita reached across the table and touched Tomiko’s wrist. A hyacinth macaw flapped overhead, shedding electric-blue feathers that floated gently to the earth-covered deck like the softest rain imaginable. Beneath her wide-brimmed hat, the Japanese woman’s face was set into an unhappy mask, like a kabuki hannya without horns.
“An alien experience takes time to assimilate,” she said quietly, holding Tomiko’s gaze with her own. “If you were walking near Pu'u Ula'ula on Mt. Mauna Loa and saw a woman in a red mu’u-mu’u with a little white dog, you wouldn’t think twice about it. But me, I’d know it was the fire goddess Pele warning about an eruption, so I’d give her offerings of ohelo berries, ohia lehua blossoms, taro and kava root because when you live on a volcanic island, you don’t want to piss off the volcano deity. E ola mau, e Pele e! 'Eli'eli kau mai! Ee-o-la-mao e! Pay lay ee! E-lee-e-lee-ka-my!”
Tomiko blinked. “I see your point.” She picked up her coffee bulb and squirted some of the hot liquid into her mouth, expertly catching the stream on her tongue. “Necro-neko are damned difficult to exorcise, and the company isn’t going to pay for a month-long Shinto ritual, not to mention shipping up the necessary ‘thousand shrine’ priests from the gravity well, digitizing the haraijo and contracting the eight million kami-sama for live guest appearances. It would cost a fortune. However, I may have a solution.”
“Oh?” Nandita raised her brows.
“We’re going to try a different approach.” Tomiko suddenly grinned. “An anime-ted solution, of sorts.”
“Can you handle it, gaijin girl?”
Nandita’s answering smile was so broad, it made her face ache, but fear still blossomed like a morbid canker in her heart
It was midnight on Murasaki Orbital Station.
Nandita was in a little-used section of Level J, next to the sewage treatment plant. Bioengineered bacteria broke down the waste generated by humans and animals onboard the station, generating electricity and fuel via a special reactor; the leftover sludge was sterilized and used as fertilizer by the station’s agriplex and gardens, while the purified water was recycled. Other bacteria in the system gobbled up hydrogen-sulphide, which eliminated the rotten-egg stink of decomposing waste. Nandita was wandering around in the bowels of Murasaki Orbital – literally.
As she walked, she sang `Ala Nei E Mäpu Mai Nei, composed by the 19th century Hawai’ian queen Lili`uokalani:
“He `ala nei e mâpu mai nei There is a breath so gently
Something rustled in the shadows that were pooled in the corners of the corridor. Nandita became quiet, keeping her breath shallow, although she was nearly deafened by the thunder-pulse of her own heartbeat in her ears. The walls were painted light grey, a color that absorbed the dim light rather than reflected it. Nandita glanced around.
“Here, kitty, kitty,” she breathed, and almost burst into a fit of nervous giggles. She stifled the sound with a hand clamped over her mouth. Nandita breathed through her nostrils and silently recited the latest hit song from Cat Shit Pie in an effort to calm herself.
The rustling grew louder.
Nandita touched a shark-tooth amulet on its thong around her neck. It was an old heirloom, said to be the physical manifestation of her family’s aumakua, a guardian spirit that took the form of a shark. She felt oddly comforted by the talisman’s presence. It was part of the shared cultural hallucination of the collective consciousness that all nations suffered; a consensual reality zeitgeist where gods and ghosts went hand-in-hand with fuzzy logic surfboards, designer embryos and past-life lawsuits where rotten karma in the current incarnation could be mitigated through the Sixth Bardo Court of Existence Appeals.
And also where a demonic entity in the form of a cat could roam a space station, seeking its next victim.
Tomiko had told her that morning about an attack reported to Security – a couple of male actors had been mauled by a feral cat on B-level as they were coming home from a play. Both men survived but a Kyrgyzstani masseuse was not so lucky. The woman had been torn apart, disemboweled and partially consumed, her remains left outside her apartment. Tomiko’s authority kept the on-line guerrilla journalistas from breaking the story - threatening to shove importunate reporters out of the nearest airlock was not, legally, considered censorship - but it was only a matter of time before a news-ghoul with more pretensions to cojones than sense uploaded the grisly truth to the public access ‘Net.
Nandita took a few more steps forward, ears straining. “Come out, come out, wherever you are…” she whispered.
Something moved in the shadows, slinky and dark and writhing near the floor.
“Do you think I’m afraid of you?” Nandita took a defiant stance. She may have been a child of mixed ancestry, but in her veins ran the blood of warriors who had crossed the warm turquoise sea; who had fought their enemies with weapons of wood and shell and stone. “Show yourself!”
A shadow detached itself from the other shadows, and a black cat stepped into light.
“So, popoki,” Nandita said, remaining outwardly calm despite the apprehension that chilled her to the bone, “what do you want with me, eh?”
The bakeneko reared up, its body stretching impossibly thin, and transformed into the semblance of Izumi Sato. The geisha air hostess was petite and very pretty, simpering behind an upraised sleeve. An artificial spray of cherry blossoms adorned her upswept black hair. She looked like a typical young Japanese woman; her eyes, however, were not brown but dull gold from corner to corner – inhuman and cold.
Nandita defiantly did a few movements of the traditional island haka, a war dance designed to intimidate one’s foe on the battlefield. She bent her arm and smacked her other hand against her elbow, then widened her eyes and thrust out her tongue, stomping from side to side. “Come on,” she taunted, moving backwards. “Take what you want, if you can.” With a last abrupt gesture, Nandita whirled about on her heel and ran down the corridor.
Yowling, the supernatural creature transformed itself back into a black cat and pursued Nandita’s fleeing figure deeper into the tangled labyrinth of pipes and hallways.
As it flashed past, a section of the wall blurred and stepped out into the open, the long steel length of a katana flashing overhead.
Tomiko was wearing a chameleon suit designed for optical camouflage; the weave of the reflective material contained micro-miniature cameras and projectors that constantly scanned the suit wearer’s surroundings and projected images on the fabric, processing the kinaesthetic shifts in real-time through a nano-processor. The effect was virtual transparency. Tomiko shook off the hood, leaving her uncovered head with its crop of flaming red hair apparently floating unsupported in mid-air.
The sword swept down at the same moment that Nandita released handfuls of paper streamers into the air. The ofuda were talismans made of consecrated rice paper, imprinted with blocks of kanji script that read akuryotaisan – begone, evil spirits! Several of the charms stuck to the bakeneko, freezing it in place. The katana struck dead center, cleaving the creature in half. The black cat fell apart, the two twitching halves flopping to the floor, bloody red meat and white bone contrasting sickeningly with fluffy black fur.
Despite repeated viewings of anime classics like Sailor Moon – the cartoons were too deeply entrenched in the Japanese consciousness not to be of use against a vampire cat-spirit - the women quickly realized that this was not the end of the matter as they had hoped.
The twin halves twitched harder and slid closer to one another. Tomiko jumped back a half-step in surprise. “It isn’t dead!”
“Weren’t the ofuda supposed to banish it or something?” Nandita asked, nervously eyeing the cat’s corpse, which was knitting itself back together again.
“Well, they’re supposed to be anti-evil talismans,” Tomiko said in disgust, shaking blood from her katana blade with a practiced flick of her wrist and sheathing it in the scabbard that was unconventionally strapped to her back. “Maybe the priest I bought them from didn’t…”
The cat blinked. One of its paws stretched out, claws splayed.
“Come on, ‘Dita-chan, we need to get out of here before it’s fully healed.”
“No.” Nandita was suddenly furious. “No, I’m not running. Not this time.”
Tomiko’s almond-shaped eyes were narrowed to glittering black slits. “We ought to regroup,” she said carefully, “try to think of another way…”
“No.” Nandita’s flesh burned where the shark-tooth talisman rested. Her skin felt hot and swollen, her eyes reddened by the current of pure rage coursing through her veins. “Hanau ka manô,” she said, feeling her hair lifted from her shoulders by a scorching wind. “The shark is born…”
“’Dita, what are you doing?”
Gods and demons and monsters…
“Nandita Okalani, what are you…” Tomiko’s breath was sucked between her teeth. “Nandita!”
The Japanese were not the only nation whose culture followed them into space.
A blue-green wave materialized at the end of the corridor, a frothing bubbling bobbing curl never touched by Hokusai’s ink brush. Riding the crest of the wave was a man who was also a shark. “Kamohoali’i,” Nandita said, her voice hollow, as if it came from within a coconut log.
“Buddha’s bouncing balls!” Tomiko exclaimed in shock.
Pele’s brother, the shark-god Kamohoali’i, came surfing towards the resurrecting demon cat, his long black hair flying from his shoulders and streaming behind him like a banner. The god wore a bracelet of ti leaves around his wrist; a coronet of ti leaves crowned his head . His broad flat feet were planted on the wave. Sharp white teeth flashed in his dark-skinned face – the hunting predator’s grin when it sights its prey.
“No'eau ka 'ihoe uli 'o Kamohoali'i,” Nandita cried. Behind her appeared ghostly dancers, hands inscribing graceful shapes through the air as the insistent thud-thud-thud of a shark-skin pahu drum vibrated against the walls. Her foot stamped the rhythm. “Honor to the skilful steersman, keeper of the water of life - the shark that walks upright!”
The wave rushed towards them, heralded by warm salt spray against their faces. Nandita’s eyes were wide open, the pupils expanded to the rim of the iris until her green eyes appeared black. The vampire cat, fully healed, crouched at her feet, ready to spring and rend and tear. Its muzzle dripped foam. zit hissed continually, exuding menace and malice. Nandita stood her ground, barely aware that Tomiko was standing beside her. Dark silhouettes swarmed in the waters, sharks gathered to feed on fantasy and flesh alike.
Kamohoali’i reached out and speared the bakeneko with his three-pronged na’ihe just as it leaped at Nandita.
Screeching and clawing at the fire-hardened wooden blade in its belly, the demon cat was carried aloft by the god – a gruesome trophy whose murky blood sizzled as it ran down the shaft and dripped into the water, sending the black-finned shark escort into a frenzy. As Kamohoali’i’s surf-propelled journey took him to end of the corridor, both god and wave and monster vanished, leaving not a trace behind except for the faint smell of salt water.
Exhausted, Nandita’s eyes closed and she fell forward, banging her knees painfully on the dry metal deck.
Tomiko’s hand cupped the back of her neck. “Or instead of running away from our shared cultural hallucination, we could just call for Hawai’ian take-out.”
Nandita giggled, then she howled until her stomach hurt and her ribs threatened to crack, while Tomiko licked the tears from her cheeks and held her in a tight embrace.
It was after midnight on Murasaki Orbital Station, and all was quiet at last.