Change of Light

by Richard Agemo

Kira pressed the key that turned the deadbolt, and a metal click locked us inside her hotel room. “Hope you don’t mind, Blake,” she said. “I once had a bad experience.”

I once had a bad experience.

The phrase sounded familiar, and I tried to place it, suddenly recalling once speaking the same words to Mei, her sister. But Kira hadn’t been with us that day, two years ago, in Futaba Station.

And now Mei was dead.

“A bad experience?” I said. “Here, in Futaba?”

“No. Tokyo.”

I didn’t ask for details—both of us were grieving, deeply. In the span of forty minutes my emotions had plunged from jubilation about seeing Mei, my fiancée, to devastation over her death.

Kira slumped into the love seat across from the sofa that supported my sprawled limbs and sagging body. She stared at me with a frown; the shining paths of tears on her cheeks, I thought, probably mirrored mine. Her oval face and space-black hair reminded me of her sister, her elliptical eyes the same color of dark chocolate, features they shared with their brother, Kei.

Even in my grief, I found Kira, in a handsome way, prettier than Mei. Ashamed at that thought, I lowered my face.

The nano threads of the carpet took on the texture, color, and smell of the fresh grass I remembered from childhood, as if someone had told it, “North America, mid-2040’s, central plains.” And yet, my thoughts didn’t remain in my rural origins; instead, they zoomed two years into the past, to the platform at Futaba Station.

 

I still remember my hypercab creeping into the station, and how I was second-guessing my decision to accept my new assignment. I shook my head and let out a long sigh. Fukushima! would be a rush job, but the studio couldn’t resist the money the producers had offered. However, they imposed a condition: Fukushima! must be released on the 75th anniversary of the disaster—just ten months away.

I was one of the best envirotographers around, and the studio asked if I could get it done. Eagerly, I answered with a confident yes, though the more truthful answer was, I really can’t be sure.

I was given two days in Futaba and one in Daiichi to record every sensory detail with my cameras and scanners. From there, the director, simulation engineers, and bot actors would take over, creating a you-are-there spectacular with fifty roles for the audience. A thousand 8-D theatre parks in seventy countries had already agreed to run Fukushima!

It wouldn’t be the first time that a historic disaster would be commoditized, or the last. Maybe I was just rationalizing, but I believed Fukushima! would serve as a healthy, albeit terrifying, reminder of a big lesson learned: Think the impossible can’t happen? Think again.

Through the window I saw Mei, the local guide hired by the producers to assist me. She stood on the platform, her black hair gleaming past her shoulders. In her mid-twenties, she was as tall as me—almost two meters—things I already knew, but seeing her tallness, I found it strange. And beautiful.

Gripping the straps of my bags, I stepped onto the platform.

“Blake,” she said with a quick bow of her bronze face, a blue sheen darting across her hair. “Welcome.”

Awkwardly I bowed and set down my bags before extending my hand. “Mei, a pleasure, finally, to meet you in person.”

As we shook hands loosely, I pressed a finger gently against the veins of her wrist. Her chin dropped and, almost whispering, she said, “Don’t worry, Blake, I’m completely human.”

“I’ve made it a habit to be sure.” I smiled, but she didn’t notice. I touched my right ear lobe and confirmed my translation node was on. “I once had a bad experience.”

She looked up, her brows arched with concern. “What happened?”

“My bot guide withheld some basic information, and it wound up costing the studio a lot of time and money. At first they blamed me, but then another envirotographer had the same problem. There were errors in the installation code for the bot’s knowledge scripts.”

“Well, such a mistake won’t happen here. I hope you trust me.”

I realized her English was excellent, so I turned off my t-node. With a kind of bemused caring, her eyes glimmered, their metallic shine a sign of retinal implants that gave her at least 100/20 vision. I had decided to forgo such sensory “enhancements.” For one thing, they were expensive. For another, philosophically, I wanted no artificial help with my work—envirotography is an art and should remain naturally human.

“Pretty eyes,” I said to Mei, staring into them. “If you don’t mind me asking, did you choose static or non-static enhancement?”

“Non-static.” Bowing her head, she looked embarrassed, and then she raised up again. “You see, I want the upgrades—advanced infrared imaging next year.”

One non-static enhancement, I knew, by itself didn’t make one a cyborg. Many upgrades and further non-static enhancements—including mechanical ones to the skin and body limbs—were required, and full integration of all neural and physical enhancements before one is truly half-human, half-machine, officially a cyborg.

I also knew that cyborgs remained an elite bunch, with less than ten thousand on and off the planet, and that governments strictly regulate their development. One early enhancement, banned internationally, made a person love the cyborg. An electro-neural aphrodisiac, delivered by the borg’s touch, allowed it to activate pleasure centers of victim’s brain, literally making her, or him, lovesick.

Many consider borgs dangerous, but I wasn’t one of them when I met Mei. A part of me admired her choice—enhancements, especially the non-static type, are expensive and require a commitment to work properly—but she was beautiful, and it would be a crime, I thought, if her cyborganization changed that. In any case, I was already infatuated—no aphrodisiac needed.

 

Mei suggested that I check in at the hotel, but I wanted to begin work immediately. Rain was coming within the next half hour. “The smell and wetness of the rain are things I want to capture,” I explained.

“Please excuse me, Blake, I understand. I should have asked about your plan.”

“No harm done. You’re my guide, so don’t hold back any suggestions.”

After I dumped my bags in the rear seats of the pod, we squeezed into the front. The scent of Mei’s peach perfume filled the space as she told the pod to take us to the small historic section of Futaba, which had been preserved as a memorial to the many thousands who had suffered.

The pod accelerated with a soft buzz.

My equipment was optimized for several passes through Futaba, north to south, but the historic district was near the center. After I conveyed this to Mei, I thought I might need my t-node after all, because she said, “We can begin in the middle and proceed north, then go in a circle.” As I jutted my chin and squinted, she gently tugged at my arm and smiled. “Trust me.”

She was gentle, yet strongly confident, and I didn’t wish to argue with her.

The autumn sky was gray, but enough light remained so that apartment and office buildings cast long shadows—our pod whizzed in and out of them as we approached the historic district.

We stopped at a closed gate, beyond which stretched a deserted street.

“Not a popular place,” I observed.

“A shocking surprise?” Mei said.

“Guess not. You don’t have to accompany me.”

“Oh, but I want to.”

After we got out of the pod, she placed her palm over the latch of the gate, which swung open. With scanner in hand, I entered. Steady rain began falling. I was prepared to get soaked.

The stucco houses lining the street were empty shells painted in bright pinks, greens, and yellows, with no doors or windows. The idea, Mei told me, was that even though the displaced inhabitants would never return, their spirits could.

A giant gash ran through the middle of the pavement like a sheet of paper ripped in two.

Further down an old sign hung over the street, its dark Japanese characters shouting from a white background. My virtual screen provided the translation:

NUCLEAR POWER GENERATION: A BRIGHT AND FUTURE SOURCE OF ENERGY

Aiming my scanner, I slowly turned my body. “This is exactly what I need.”

Mei didn’t speak often, but when she did, her tone was soft but assured.

“My great grandfather died here during the disaster,” she said.

Puzzled, I paused and looked at her. “But everyone evacuated.”

“Heart attack.”

We worked nonstop through the afternoon and, by day’s end, I was ahead of schedule. Mei had lived in the Fukushima prefecture all her life, and she proved a quick study in helping me calibrate my scanners and cameras. Her enhanced vision also helped as I scouted for killer details in the scenes I was recording. She saved me a good deal of time, and I began to rethink my opposition to undergoing retinal enhancement.

“Kai, my brother, knows you’re here,” she said as we packed up the equipment. “I told him about you, and he’d like to have you over for dinner. He loves foreigners.”

“All right . . . when and where?”

“Tonight if you wish, at Lake Inawashiro, on his yacht.”

My eyebrows shot up. Mei’s lifted too, but slowly, as if she’d said something wrong.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “His company builds pleasure ships.”

 

Kai looked younger than his sister, and he wasn’t as tall, but they had the same oval face, hair, nose, and eyes. His shirt and pants were slick white silk, and his yacht—with its fine bamboo floors and three bot servants—projected wealth.

We dined on the upper deck overlooking the mirror-like waters of Lake Inawashiro. On the horizon, Mount Bandai’s two peaks were almost identically shaped pyramids.

During our meal, Kai listened politely as I described Fukushima! and the goal of replicating the conditions and sensory landscape of the earthquake and tsunami, so audiences could relive them. Kai’s low voice was as soft spoken as his sister’s, but his question, which he asked in flawless English, still sounded aggressive.

“So, in essence, this Fukushima amusement will profit off something that caused human suffering of historic proportions, is that right?”

“Well, I understand how one can see it that way,” I replied, trying to defuse things. “But one might also view it as reminding people of lessons learned, such as—”

“People lost family members during the evacuation, Blake. Some of the victims’ sons and daughters are still living.”

He glanced at his left hand that lay flat on dining table. With his wrist kept on the surface, he lifted the hand so he saw it from the back. A spectacular blue sapphire adorned his ring finger, which he turned so it sparkled in the light.

“This ring belonged to my great grandfather. It’s absolutely exquisite, don’t you think?”

As I nodded, Mei added, “The same ancestor I told you about this afternoon, Blake.”

Kai’s nails were translucent pink, polished and smoothly filed. The antique ring, undeniably, was stunning. In its gold setting, against the pink shades of his fingers and nails, the blue gem sparkled like a moon of some alien world.

“You are,” he said, “following my sister’s recommendations about where and what to shoot, aren’t you?”

“I¬”

“Because she knows everything,” He looked up at her. “Don’t you Mei?”

“Of course not. I only give Blake guidance. Like you, he’s his own person, Kai.”

“You, sister, were the lucky one who received the know-it-all gene from mother.”

He chuckled at his own joke, and when Mei joined him, so did I, but uneasily. I wondered if she’d taken Kai’s comment as a compliment, or if she was afraid of him.

Kai warmed up to me as the evening progressed. Perhaps it was his fondness for sake. We must have tried a dozen kinds, and he amazed me in describing their unique tastes. After the third one, however, I no longer detected any difference.

As we drank, he proposed things he and I could do together, such as tennis and sailing—without including Mei. She stayed silent, as if accustomed to his rudeness. Not wanting to sound impolite, I accepted his invitations but didn’t commit to specific days, thinking it my job would get in the way.

Kai gave me a long hug at the end of the evening.

 

Mei and I began work early the next morning. “I hope Kai’s speech about Fukushima didn’t put you off,” she said outside the hotel. “Disasters horrify him—probably more than they do most people. When he flew virtual aboard Space Swan, you know, the one that exploded, he was only ten.”

“He can be rather assertive,” I said.

“The lingering effect of sibling rivalry. I beat him at most things as kids—he became very competitive, even violent at times. Once he shoved me after I won an art contest we both had entered. Now, he jokes about me being superior to him.”

She paused and flashed a smile, then glanced at the pod. “We should leave.”

I stopped wondering about Mei and Kai. She was afraid of him.

 

We finished in Futaba and took a pod to Daiichi that afternoon. “Those walls are all that’s left of the nuclear facilities,” she said pointing at a mass of gray concrete surrounded by weeds. She turned to me, gazed at me for a moment, and then said, “The radiation is still above normal, though well within the safety index.”

I checked my wrist screen anyway. The detector clicked like a chattering dolphin. The screen read 0.22 µSv and flashed SAFE.

Holding the camera at my waist, I peered into the viewfinder as I shuffled my feet a little at a time until I made a full circle from north to south. I repeated this process with the scanner, recording fifty different meteorological measurements.

We walked down a barren hill to concrete ruins.

“This was the seawall,” Mei explained as I calibrated my camera and prepared to shoot. “Technology in those days was quite good. Engineers designed excellent buildings, but no one ever imagined an earthquake and tsunami of a scale which, by their understanding, was impossible.”

“Nothing, necessarily, is impossible,” I said. “You just have to imagine what can’t happen and then assume that it will happen, and plan for it.”

“What is your saying? Hindsight is twenty-twenty?”

I smiled. “I’m lucky, I guess, that I’ve never had to tell myself that.”

The next day, I uploaded my data and my role in the project was finished. Thanks to Mei, I had beaten the deadline. The studio would now synchronize and manipulate the images and measurements, integrating graphics and special effects based on historical data—essentially every bit of information known about the Fukushima disaster—and add real human actors (not just bots) to recreate a 360⁰ 8-D reality of, well, in a word, terror.

 

We enjoyed the rest of the day hiking in the forest north of Futaba, where boxwood, white cedar, and pine stood in uniform, even proportions along our ten-mile trek. Ferns and flowering plants, asters, “false” lilies, and geraniums, also seemed to form a pattern, like one gigantic centerpiece. The cool, pine-scented air never changed, nor did the width of our rocky trail. More than once I felt a delightful déjà vu, which was refreshing after focusing for three days on radioactive calamity.

Japan was becoming more and more attractive to me. So was Mei. I decided to stay a couple more days, and we took a second hike. “Those are falcated ducks,” she said, pointing at their formation in the sky, the green color of their heads visible even with my unenhanced vision. Later, we found the same species of ducks floating on a pond. Close up, they looked different—the green coloring of the males darker, the bills of the female long and gray—nonetheless we felt sure these were the same birds we sighted earlier.

“Always pleasant to see things from different perspectives,” Mei said.

I nodded, concluding her statement explained her interest in cyborganization—she enjoyed heightened, altered senses, and was curious to explore them.

We gazed at each other, and then kissed.

Our lips touched for only for a few seconds, but a part of her infused into me, and me into her, an exchange I can only describe as electrical in the way it made my body tingle, literally, from top to bottom, as if she had an enhancement that she hadn’t revealed to me. But I didn’t want to spoil the moment by asking and getting into a conversation I wasn’t ready to have, namely, that I hope she would abandon cyborganization and remain as she was.

When our kiss ended, she bowed her head. I asked her if something was wrong.

“I’m afraid, Blake,” she said to her hands, her fingers interlaced in perfect symmetry.

“Of . . .?”

But she only looked up at me with a tight smile, as if she had several answers and didn’t knowing which one to give. I leaned toward her to kiss her again but she stepped back. Then she took my hand and we walked silently out of the forest.

 

My two extra days in Japan turned into three extra months. Mei and I spent a lot of time together, though not every day. With the 75th anniversary of the disaster six months away, the prefecture had retained her to plan an elaborate ceremony.

Local feelings about Fukushima! were mixed. The studio had marketed it as a global entertainment event, but some locals—Kai among them—argued that Fukushima! shouldn’t open on the anniversary date, at least not in Japan, out of respect for those who perished. Mei disagreed, believing everyone should decide for themselves whether and when to attend. Of course, I took Mei’s side, but avoided the topic with Kai.

He had invited me to a private club in Futaba to play a match of tennis “on equal terms.” By that he meant we would use identical rackets, wear no jewelry, wristbands, headbands, or other gear, and dress in identical white sportswear. In disregard of etiquette, one of his bots, without telling me, had already scanned me for my size. Despite Kai’s rather strange conditions, I accepted.

“You are letting me win,” he said to me after the first set.

“Not at all. Your backhand’s better than mine.”

He laughed. “That’s a lie. You must like me.”

Something in me bristled at that, and when he asked me to join him on his yacht after the match, I demurred, claiming that I was meeting Mei soon, which wasn’t true. She and I had planned to see each other that evening, but it was only early afternoon.

“Well, that’s just fine,” Kai said as he bounced a ball with his racket before smacking it into the net. “Have an absolutely exquisite time,” he added and then walked away.

I regretted lying to Kai, but also relieved. If he’d been competing for my affections, he now knew I wasn’t interested. Yet, I warned myself to be careful: alienating Mei’s only sibling could harm my relationship with her.

 

Mei and I chose Mount Adatara for our next hike. During the hour-long pod ride from Futuba, I asked her if she’d told Kai how our relationship had become serious.

“I’ve only told him a little,” she said.

“A little, meaning . . .?”

She kept silent, her metallic eyes staring at the giant ads on the podway’s wall, the series of still photographs animated by the pod’s speed of 200 kilometers per hour.

I placed my thumb and forefinger, with just a tiny space between them, before her eyes. “This much a little?” I said, getting her attention. Then I put both my hands in front of her and, with a smile, expanded them to the width of my shoulders. “Or this much?”

It got her to laugh, and I left things at that, not bothering anymore to wonder what Mei and Kai may have discussed out of my presence. I’m not even sure I want to know now, though I could still find out. Probably.

Along the hiking trail, beech trees stretched high into the air, their white trunks slender and uniform in width and height, their branches of tear-shaped leaves pleached above our heads, a verdant canopy. We soon veered off and waded through a grove of painted ferns, then emerged onto another path that took us into a different section of the forest. Here, the tree trunks were twisted, more irregular in shape than the ones we had seen before, but all were twisted and soon looked quite similar.

We came upon a waterfall composed of four equal-sized boulders, the water splashing into a stream, calming as it rippled away. A moon bridge curved in a half-circle, creating a black shadow beneath it and, with its reflection in the water, a full circle.

“Should we cross?” I said.

“No,” she replied, taking my hand. “This way.”

When walked up to the bridge, we could see the grassy bank that jutted from below both ends. After stooping underneath the planks, we sat on the grass and kissed in the darkness. Our hands wandered and then we rolled on our sides, our bodies pressing against each other.

“Stop, wait,” she said. We parted and pushed ourselves up. In the dark, the irises of her eyes glowed faint red. “There’s something I must tell you, Blake . . . well . . . I’m not having more enhancements. I decided I don’t need to change myself for me, or for . . .”

“Me?”

We kissed again, briefly, because I wanted to say more. “Mei, I can’t tell you how happy your choice makes me . . . I was afraid . . . oh, it doesn’t matter. But I’m curious—will you keep the retinal enhancements?”

“I have to, Blake. They’re irreversible.”

We left the bridge and found the path leading to Mount Adatara’s high cliffs and breathtaking views, some of which we took in from behind iron safety rails. A week after the hike, we slept together for the first time.

It had been only a few months, but we were already certain about a lifelong commitment. Mei felt sure her father would consent to our marriage. With a Korean mother and Japanese father, Hiro himself was the offspring of a biracial union. Her mother, Mei explained, would be the difficult one. Only with great reluctance did Leiko agree to meet me.

 

Mei’s parents lived in Odaka, and Mei took me there one afternoon. We sat with Hiro and Leiko in their north-facing living room. The space gracefully combined the new with the old: a silver disc table hovered above an antique rug of two swans; from a stout tea-leaf jar sprouted glowing electric flowers; the latticed squares of a virtual shijo screen changed images based on the collection of moods in the room, shifting from basic colors in the pattern of a Mondrian, for instance, to a pair of blooming cherry blossom trees.

While I was there, tall ocean waves in the style of an Edo-era woodblock print appeared on the screen, rising and crashing.

That day with Mei’s parents, though on an infinitesimally smaller scale than what happened in Fukushima three quarters of a century ago, nevertheless ended in disaster. Hiro and Leiko didn’t speak English well, so we each spoke our native language and depended on t-nodes.

Leiko greeted me with a curt smile as Hiro grinned broadly and bowed.

In the living room, the kettle of hot water was already on the silver table. A bot floated in with the tray of bowls and tea, and poured the water. The conversation began with my work and praising Mei for her help with Fukushima! Hiro mentioned his grandfather who had died during the tsunami, and how he planned to visit his shrine on the anniversary date.

“Yes, I saw his emerald ring, sir,” I said. “The ring Kai now wears.”

“I never met my grandfather,” Hiro said. “He founded the family shipbuilding business, which I handed off to my son, along with the ring.”

Leiko said nothing the whole time, her lips constantly pursed unless she was sipping her tea, as if she were perturbed about something—or about everything. Mei had warned me about her mother. It didn’t matter that the world was nearing the dawn of the 22nd century. Spawned by human traditions, bigotry, prejudice, and racism endured, even in the most advanced technological societies.

Leiko and I locked glances during a prolonged moment of silence. Finally, she looked at her tea, took a sip from the bowl, and then set it down. “I can tell you are pleasant, a gentlemen,” she said. “But let us be clear, you will not marry our daughter.”

Mei glared at her mother. “This is unjust. We were supposed to have a fair hearing.”

“There was a time when people didn’t question things,” Leiko replied, her hands shaking. “It was so much easier. Please, excuse me.” Abruptly she stood, swung around, and scurried out of the room, pausing a moment to stare at the shijo screen, which now showed a stylized hill of trees swaying in the wind and losing their leaves.

In the shocked silence that followed, I turned to Hiro, who shrugged. “I am sorry,” he said. “It was foolish of me to think my wife might have softened her views. Mei should have never brought you here.”

“Sir?” I said.

“Leiko doesn’t want half-breeds in the family. A few years ago, she didn’t allow Kai to marry a foreigner, which caused a lot of suffering. I thought she wouldn’t want that again by objecting to you. Clearly, I was wrong.”

“But she would call you a half-breed, father,” Mei said.

“Perhaps,” replied Hiro. “But do I look like one?” Before Mei could respond, he pivoted to me. “What’s your opinion?”

Had Mei answered her father, I could have just agreed with her, but I was on my own. As I examined Hiro’s face, I couldn’t form an opinion, but if said that, I’d risk sounding impolite.

“No, sir,” I said, “you don’t look like one.”

 

I wanted to stay for the ceremony Mei had been planning, but it was still months away. I’d been working remotely, but now the studio expected me to be on-site in the Americas.

Before my departure, Mei and I only half-joked about DNA Accelerated Reconstruction as a last resort if she failed to persuade her mother. Mainly for the rich, DAR techniques for altering one’s race had improved, though the procedure still carried risks. And the science wasn’t altogether clear about possible long-term effects.

On the five-hour flight from Tokyo to LA, I learned everything I could about DAR.

Leiko’s opposition struck me as a particularly onerous form of prejudice. Mei’s father had argued with Leiko, but she remained adamant: she would never speak to Mei again if she married me. Mei didn’t take the threat very seriously. At the same time, we both knew our marriage could be rather unpleasant for the rest of her family. Both of us wanted children.

We ruled out elopement as an option.

I’d gotten my own fair skin and blondish hair from mother, and though she was deceased by the time I met Mei, I felt it would disrespect her memory to eliminate her traits as they appeared in me. DAR would mean passing onto my children my reconstructed genes, not the ones I was born with.

But after many conversations, Mei and I concluded that DAR was a viable option, and perhaps the only way to solve our problem.

A new backstory would explain how I was of pure Japanese descent but possessed a different cultural background. Around Leiko, I would be a shy man of few words, my natural Japanese only adequate. If Leiko did learn the truth, we hoped grandchildren would eliminate any lingering opposition to our union.

DAR had been available for twenty years but remained expensive. I’d have to leave work for five more months without pay. It would wipe out my savings, the equivalent of a year’s salary, to have my features altered to match those of a Japanese male.

Would my physical transformation even convince Mei’s mother? Would Mei herself like the results? Would I like the results? Predictions of DAR outcomes, the doctors warned me, were not always accurate.

I became frustrated. I told myself that I shouldn’t have to undertake such a risky procedure to get around the prejudice—no, the racism—of Mei’s mother. And it was ironic, I thought, that I had not wanted Mei to change physically, yet I was about to do just that. At least I would remain one hundred percent human.

I studied before-and-after pictures of dozens of patients and became fascinated, and then excited. My father was deceased, too, and I was no longer close to anyone in the family. More and more, I looked upon DAR as a way to begin my life anew. Mei wanted us to find a home in Japan.

She had made no progress with her mother.

 

I asked the studio for a five-month leave of absence, but the studio refused. Emotionally I’d become so invested in DAR, I quit my job. My employment contract allowed them to remove my name from the credits for Fukushima! I didn’t care. I was embarking on a real adventure, no longer interested in a simulation of some disaster.

Mei and I saw each other every day, virtually in 3-D. But after I began DAR, she didn’t wish to see my physical changes as they occurred. A part of me—a big part—longed to see her, but another part thought a one-way viewing arrangement would be uncomfortable, imbalanced, and we agreed to speak to each other without visuals.

She described the success Fukushima! Everyone who went, she said, found it to be a convincing nightmare.

 

DAR wasn’t painless. The many slow injections produced sharp tingling in my skin and dull aches around my cheeks and eyes. But my larger concern became Mei. At the start of the third month, she sounded sad, not her normal self, speaking more slowly and in deeper tones. Her mother remained upset with her. Kai, too, had fallen from Leiko’s graces once more and, according to Mei, he had simply disappeared. No one even knew where he was living.

“In ninety days this will be over, Mei. I’m pleased with my progress and would like you to see for yourself. And darling, I’m dying to see you as well.”

“No, I couldn’t bear having you look at me in my present state.”

“You mean because you’re unhappy? Because of your mother?”

“Yes. Depressed.”

Things improved in the following weeks. Mei was laughing again as we picked a new name for me—Haru—and made up backstories to explain my poor Japanese. Sometimes I had been raised in California, sometimes in England, but always as an only child with deceased parents and few family connections, anywhere. When I came to Japan, Mei said her father would help with changing my name and establishing my cover.

In the spring I completed DAR, and with the last of my savings bought a one-way ticket to Tokyo.

My hypercab pulled into Futaba Station at sunset. Everything—the tracks, the interior of the car, the platform—was bathed in reddish gold. But as I stepped out, my bronze hands clutching the straps of my baggage, I didn’t see Mei. Instead a woman, frowning and wearing white gloves, held up a sign.

HARU

I walked up to her, bowed, and said in broken Japanese, “I am Haru. Where is Mei?”

A tear dribbled down her cheek as she lowered the sign. She was young, Mei’s age, but not as tall.

“I am Mei’s sister,” she said and then lunged at me, throwing her arms around my neck while still gripping the sign, which crumpled into my hair. She pressed her face into my shoulder, her tears dampening my skin through my shirt. I dropped my bags, reached up, and tried to peel her away as her hands kept a strong grip on my shoulders.

She was sobbing uncontrollably. “Mei died. Yesterday. I am her sister. Kira. I am sorry. I took her place. Please forgive me.” She spoke in a low voice, in perfect English.

Only as I fell to one knee did I become free of her grasp.

I began crying, staring at the platform’s golden surface, before finally asking Kira what happened. She sat next to me, her knees crossed, her arm around my back, and with jagged words described the accident—hiking alone at Mount Adatara, Mei had fallen from a high boulder.

People were looking at us. As soon as we noticed them, we got up, the questions swirling in my head acting as a sort of bandage for my grief, my desperate need to understand mixing with a depthless sadness that already exhausted me. I recalled the image of Mei among those shells of houses in Futuba’s historic district, how she’d spoken of the spirits there, how she might now be among them. Honestly, it scared me a little.

And now, in Kira’s hotel room, I recalled she had dead-bolted the door.

I once had a bad experience.

She wanted sake and got up and retrieved a bottle and two matching cups. As we drank, disgust diluted my sadness as I kept thinking how she was more beautiful than her dead sister—perhaps because her eyes lacked the artificial sheen of Mei’s.

Still sobbing, I said, “Mei never mentioned you. Neither did Kai.”

“We were estranged.”

She kept her gloves on and, as she raised her sake cup and drank, she gazed at me.

By now, I craved sleep. I pushed myself up from the couch, staggered to the bed, and tumbled in. The blackness of unconsciousness had almost consumed me when I felt Kira’s body pressed against me. My eyes opened; her hand reached over my head and dangled just above my brow. She had taken off her gloves.

A sapphire ring circled her ring finger. I recognized the blue gem instantly.

“When I first met you, I knew I loved you, Blake. Oh, you’ve noticed my ring—it’s absolutely exquisite, don’t you think?”

 

END

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