Abyss & Apex : Third Quarter 2011: Death, Rebirth. An Heir, a Karakuri.

Death, Rebirth. An Heir, a Karakuri.

by J.M. Sidorova

 

The front door chimed exactly at the appointed time. Sandra checked the cam-view: an old, balding man. “Mr. Ota, sir? Please come in.”

While Mr. Ota was on his way up, Sandra peeked out the window. She expected to see a whole motorcade of his retinue but none was evident. The street was empty, only mourning rattles on every other window or door were spinning at the slightest breeze, making their noise: cricket-like, but much more discordant. Nonstop for a third day. She was getting tired of it.

She bowed to the man when he entered, and said she was honored. Said she thought herself too humble to even be considered.

“You are,” he agreed, switching to a careful English. “But you are an outsider. A foreigner. You can look in places we will consider inappropriate to look in.”

Sandra grew more curious. A high official like him had to be saying exactly what he meant to. Besides, she could already smell his stress sweat, a surprisingly lumberjack, bass note, by the way, for this old-aged, lightly built man. “Well then. Who do you want me to look for?”

He produced a die-size cube and placed it in front of Sandra on the desk. “This will tell you about the case. Rotate the top half clockwise and the message will play. The touch of your hand will be recorded as acceptance of confidentiality.”

“All right.” Sandra gave the cube a twist. A female voice confided, “The Daimyo passed away three days ago. He had desired his favorite karakuri concubine to be buried together with him. His wish was respected. Today it was discovered that the burial chamber was broken into and the karakuri was stolen. We want you to find the robber and identify him to the yonin Ota.”

Sandra swallowed. Frankly, a job like that—commissioned by the ruling House of the domain—would be a dream come true. But there was a snag. “A karakuri. What kind, exactly?”

He pointed with his long-nailed index finger. “Her serial number and data sheet are recorded on this die.”

“Is it a . . . human-like robot?”

The way Ota looked at her made her wonder if he saw her anxiety. But perhaps he just thought her question grossly impolite: a concubine, after all, what else could the karakuri doll be, unless the old Daimyo had been a complete pervert?

“Yes, human-like.” He squinted at Sandra and added, “She was deactivated for the burial.”

Who knows what he read in her hesitation, she thought. A pause dragged. She’d be looking for a robot’s thief, she reasoned with herself. She won’t even see the robot itself. Besides, the robot had been turned off. Just an object, a dead log . . . She had absolutely, positively no reason to be afraid of it!

It was her birthday, too. To receive such a gift of a client and turn him away – what a bad choice! What bad publicity for her fledgling business of a “private nose”!

She took a breath and named the price. If some part of her wished Mr. Ota would refuse, it was up for a disappointment. He pulled out a handkerchief, massaged the bags under his eyes. Folded it, said, “Paid upon recovery.”

“Deal,” she said. She pushed back and balanced her chair on two legs. She wanted to hurt the man just for forcing her to make the choice. “What if the trail led back to the family? Is the young heir fond of dolls?”

Mr. Ota refolded the handkerchief. “An outsider can look in places we won’t deem appropriate to look. I can, however, assure you that the karakuri is not in the castle. The burial chamber will be available for your inspection tomorrow at eight in the morning. I must thank you for your acceptance.”

Tony’s present was still under her desk, unwrapped. She peeled an envelope from the box, sniffed it (paper and glue, maybe a hint of Tony), tore it open. Inside was a sheet of printed text. She read, “Sandy, look what I found: ‘The seventh Daimyo Tokugawa had a collection of karakuri dolls no equal of which ever existed, and Yume was the fairest among all the dolls. She was as tall as a human, and moved with the help of artfully concealed pneumatic pipes and pumps. She could write poetry and carry out small parts in Noh plays.

‘When he came of age, the Daimyo’s favorite son desired to possess Yume. The Daimyo conceded. But the Heir’s passion kept growing and soon he wanted her as his wife. He went to a doll-maker who gave him Shinto spells that would help Yume acquire a soul. The Heir took Yume to a remote castle, and for a whole decade he dressed her in rice paper garments covered in spells. Then one day of a second decade, Yume wrote a poem:

Blown through the lips of a lover,

Air moves my hand.

A day breaks.

The Heir blew his breath into Yume’s pipes and she received a soul.’”

Below was Tony scrawl, “Happy Birthday, Sandy! It’s Yume’s miniature model. Complete with Shinto chant scrolls.”

“Tony, Tony.” Sandra crumpled the piece of paper and shot it across the desk. Tony was an expat, like her. And a banana, as they said back home: “yellow” on the outside, “white” on the inside. Born to a third generation of Ikedas of Boca Raton, Florida, and searching for his true place in the world ever since. He was her survival guide, her indispensable consultant on everything from bioengineering to table manners. Also a friend, most of the time. Also a lover – once, and she called it a mistake. Also a . . . she punched his number and when he picked up, said, “Tony, what the heck?”

“Oh, hey.” He snorted. “You got it? What do you think?”

“I think I won’t unwrap it.”

“It’s just a foot-tall toy. I reverse engineered all the parts from the sketches of the original. She powers off an air compressor. How bad can it be?”

“You hand-crafted a toy? From sketches? Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it will sell back home, if I ever get around to making more of them. I was just tinkering.” He waited, then continued, “It’s a true story by the way. I didn’t make it up.”

“What, the soul gaining? Foof!”

“Don’t foof me.”

“Fine. Hey – I just landed a job. A big one. Confidentiality agreement kind of big. Pat me on the back?”

“Pat-pat. Didn’t expect less from you.”

“Thanks. Gotta run. Later?”

“Later.”

She didn’t open the box. She went to the storage closet and tucked it into the farthest corner, under two suitcases, a microscope case, and a pair of her high waders.

Sandra liked to say she had discovered her calling because of a puppy and an Easter egg hunt. She had named him Flopsy – only her seven-year-old self could have come up with such a flop of a name. “Flopsy, search!” Grandma’s backyard was vast and ended with a sagging wooden fence. She remembered the sight of her neon-pink rubber boots and Flopsy’s wobbly butt that she was following on a meandering path between mole mounds and dandelions. The egg was sitting atop the fence post. It was small and blue. She leaned into the fence to pick up the egg, she twisted it to open. But instead of candy, a yolk rode out on a slimy blob, and Flopsy licked it off her lap. This was it, the fateful moment. Had she not been what she was, she would have squeaked, eew, gross, or got upset with Flopsy. But she didn’t. She let him lick her fingers clean and then challenged him to a race back to the house.

Flopsy was a bloodhound, and soon he outgrew his name. It fell to Sandra to glow red when she had to call, in front of all these cool teens with their German shepherds, Flopsy, heel! when they would line up for tracking exercises. First it was the Young Scouts club, then US Search and Rescue Teams. The dead serious stuff.

Then suddenly Sandra was twenty two and Flopsy was old. Blind and deaf. Only his nose served him till the end.

Sandra’s father used to say that after our loved ones pass away their spirits inhabit us – for a while, sometimes forever. He hadn’t been talking about dogs, but Sandra thought otherwise. Why else had she found herself at MIT, working on a portable electronic nose, a smellprint detector? She’d wanted to be Sandra and Flopsy in one.

She’d liked it at MIT. People at MIT were very much like her, she’d thought. Not as in “possessed by their deceased hound dogs”, but similar nonetheless. But then folks in the lab next door put together three human-like robots and neglected to restrict their whereabouts in the building.

That’s how Sandra discovered she had a debilitating phobia.

In a year and after dozens of hours of therapy, she had no longer been thinking about a career in high tech. Or a career, period. Everything she wanted to do, everything she was good at involved running into human-like robots.

They were getting more and more common.

Then a friend’d told her about possibilities abroad. Here was a place where robots were no less numerous, but they were kept off the streets. They didn’t mingle with people. They were the bottom caste, held down by law and punishment. It suited Sandra just fine.

It had been fine. But now there was this case of the Daimyo’s karakuri.

Mr. Ota, the Yonin (which stood for a House chamberlain, more or less) met Sandra by the gates to the Inner Garden, which was their name for the burial chamber. A servant busied himself with mounting a lantern on a tripod. There were clusters of bamboo on each side of the gate. The stems were carved with hieroglyphs root to leaf. She tried to read but it was not the Kanji she could understand. “What does it say?”

“Many things. These are prayers. They are recited when the stems rustle in the wind.”

Mourning rattles were not the only devices around here that delivered noise to heavens, Sandra thought. “The gate wasn’t forced open,” she said.

“No.”

The servant turned the lantern on. Floodlight punched the gate, bounced off. As if taunted by it, sun showed its tip above a faraway mountain chain. Mr. Ota turned the lock.

A pure essence of lilies hit Sandra’s nose. So dense, the smell seemed to coat the insides of her nostrils. There was a raised bed in the middle of the room. An oval object in the far end of it, off to one side, reflected the light. When she came closer she saw it was a full facial mask made of copper. It had no orifices and it covered an exposed head of the corpse. The rest of it was covered under a blanket of white lilies with the biggest ever flowers, their petals curled back, their twisting stamens, their drooling pistils stuck out like tongues.

A ratcheting noise came from the ceiling – several panels retracted to expose skylights. The light softened. “It may be better this way,” said Mr. Ota. Underneath the cover of lilies, the man in the mask, the corpse, lay buried in rich soil, dark and moist, the thickness of a good down blanket. In the space next to him, the soil was turned over, an underside of tangled, meaty white roots folded back like linen…

It was no grave, it was a conjugal bed. A bed from which the Daimyo’s mate had just raised herself to — take a shower, look in the mirror? Bare feet – pat, pat, pat on the stone floor. Movements that were too precise, too smooth for an actual human being… Sandra’s stomach curdled. She waited the rush out, then made herself go around the bed, tug at the sheet of matted roots. It lifted almost as one piece. She pulled until she met resistance over the Daimyo’s body.

“Lift no more,” Ota ordered.

She didn’t object.

She unzipped her equipment bags, unpacked and set gas traps everywhere. She put her sniffers, both mass-spec and bio-recognition kinds, on the matted root blanket and all over the floor, where there were lumps of dislodged dirt; she connected them to the comp, turned them on and let them sift the air. Mass-spec ones read molecules by demolishing them, and bio-recogs read them by looking for a match to a panel of receptors. Just like a bloodhound’s nose. She let the sniffers run for five minutes to equilibrate. Now to the fun part.

The art was not in what you collected, but how you reverse engineered the world out of these bits and pieces. What clustering algorithms you used. Sandra wrote her own code and then of course, she had her instinct. Her inner Flopsy, who told her what was an egg yolk, the unexpected, and what was an Easter candy. For Sandra, these long lists of chemicals morphed into animals, bacteria, the sweaty Mr. Ota. Or the decomposing body of the Daimyo. Or the lily­­—

She came to a snag. The lily smell was not a lily smell. Wrong esters. The ones she read came from a rare Oregonian white earthworm, Driloleirus americanus, a giant of its kind which was famous for smelling like a lily when disturbed. And there was an awful lot of a Botrytis fungus around here, the worst fungal disease found on lilies, except that the lilies she saw did not look diseased.

Now that was an egg yolk. She had no time to puzzle over it though, because she found something else. The karakuri’s signature, laid out loud and clear: the artificial DNA.

Those two pyridines with coordinated silver atoms instead of normal human (and every other organism’s) thymine and cytosine were a dead giveaway. Now Sandra could track the karakuri. A worm-lily-fungus-silver-bound artificial DNA combo was a fragrance that was hard to miss. She turned off all but one of her sniffers and tuned it to the smellprint. “I am ready,” she said.

She tracked the scent out of the chamber and into a bamboo grove. She led the chase down a wet and mushy slope of a ravine, between moss-ridden alders and fanning ferns, and then towards a river.

The man was lying face down in the shallows. The smellprint was all over him. He had bruise marks on his neck.

“This may have been one of your robbers,” Sandra said. “Not anymore though.”

“Sasaki was the gardener.” Ota was panting. “He had access to the chamber.”

Thirty minutes later Sasaki’s corpse was stripped of all the information it could give. His smellprint joined that of the doll. The trouble was, the scent ended in the river.

“What is a lily that is also an earthworm and a fungus?” Sandra shot the question straight from the doorstep.

Standing in the doorway of his apartment, Tony was blinking and tugging at his hastily–and incompletely–zipped cargo pants. “Jesus, Sandy.”

She came uninvited, deliriously tired. She’d spent a whole day cruising up and down the river in a dinghy Mr. Ota had provided, trying to find the place where the karakuri’s signature made landfall. Or going back to the burial chamber and sniffing for other smellprints she could link to the doll on a chance that hers had dissipated. All to no avail. She wanted to vent, badly.

She stepped past Tony into the living room, wrestled out of her wet boots, and whipped a bottle of sake out of her leather jacket’s breast pocket, as if it was a rabbit out of a hat. “Come on, Mr. Ikeda, wake up. It’s a birthday party.”

He scratched his head, yawned.

“Did you open my present?”

“No.”

He headed to the kitchen.

She followed. Suddenly it occurred to her what he may have been doing with his gift. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help being phobic. Why won’t you accept it for a genetic trait that it is? Why are you trying to habituate me?”

He found his pince-nez on the kitchen counter and clipped it on. Turned and leaned back onto the counter, crossing his arms. She made an involuntary note: pants loose and low on his torso, a hairless chest, shoulders tilting. His hair was tiger-style: one lock yellow, the next black. She’d always liked his smell too (a hint of cardamom), just not the smell of his apartment (a hint of fruit rot). Don’t make the same mistake again, she warned herself.

He said, “A one-foot tall wooden toy. That is not in the Uncanny Valley. Not ninety percent human-like. Not even twenty percent human-like.”

“I just want to deal as little as possible with whatever visually reminds me of the Uncanny Valley, that’s all,” she felt defensive precisely because she felt she was unfair to him: after all, she had accepted a job with a Valley robot in it.

“Sure, aha,” Tony said, “The slopes around the Valley tend to erode.”

She thought she misheard him. “The only reason any of it is a problem, is not because of people like me, but because the other side of the bell curve is pathologically attracted to the Valley look. They want their robots to move and stare at ninety percent human-like, they get kicks out of it! If not for these perverts, no one would be making Valley robots in the first place. Anyway, I’m having a sake. I’m having,” she consulted with the bottle, ”this obscenely expensive dai ginjo that used to sell for as much as one person’s half a year supply of rice, and that is made out of rice grains that were each hand-polished by robotic slaves in their robotic sweat shop dungeons. And that is FINE by me. Where is that set of sake cups your last employer gave you? The blue ones?”

“In the cabinet on your left. Top shelf,” said Tony. “Can you please not microwave those cups?”

“I want it warm.”

“They are not microwave-proof, it’s written there.”

He watched her roll her eyes and switch to a more humble-looking pair of cups. He accepted the drink, blew on it and slurped. His pince-nez fogged for a second, and dimples formed on his blowing cheeks, momentarily giving his face a fussy, effeminate look. Or so Sandra made a point of seeing, because it lowered her risk of making any more of those “mistakes”.

“So,” he said, “you are working for the rich and powerful now?”

“What makes you think so?”

“The question you asked at the door. A lily, a worm, a fungus. That’s a burial lily. A rare and expensive flower, only rich and powerful can afford it.”

Sandra downed the sake and reached for an opened bag of Cheezy Puffs. She poked her nose in and inhaled a shot of ticklish-powdery-pungency, then sent her fingers in. Crunch, crunch. She sneezed. “A burial lily?”

Tony took another slurp. “A genetic chimera that combines features of a giant earthworm, filamentous fungus, and the Easter lily. When there’s light, it photosynthesizes, when it’s dark it switches to dissolving and ingesting animal matter. Very clean and hygienic – an ultimate sublimation of a corpse.”

Sandra remembered the resistance of the root blanket over the Daimyo’s body, then, against her will, she saw the karakuri’s body in her mind’s eye, the worm-roots that pried their way in… “What if a robot was buried?” she said in a hoarse voice.

Tony gave her a sharp look. “Is this job-related, or morbid curiosity?”

Sandra splashed more sake into her cup. Her Cheezy Puffs-stained fingers left an orange smear on the bottle. “Confiden—“

“Yeah, yeah, okay. Depends on the model. Whether it’s made with bioorganics.” He studied her face. “A burial lily can only digest what it knows from nature. Only L-amino acids, for one, and things made out of these. Valley robots of course can be ninety percent human material, at least on the surface—”

Whatever else he said, she did not hear it. She scrambled to the bathroom where she hung her face over the toilet bowl, breaking cold sweat over the nausea that pressed upward through her like a slow, steady plunger.

It let up, sometime later. “You okay?” he asked uncomfortably when she came out. A stupid question, she thought.

Digestible or not? Destroyed, or intact?

The cricket-chant of mourning rattles went on and on. The Daimyo’s body must have been but a lily scent by now, effusing into the skies. If the rattles helped alert the gods to the Daimyo’s passage, then those gods must have been hard of hearing and they had no sense of smell . . . She squished her nose – it seemed the lily smell still lurked in her nasal passages.

She spent the rest of the night and the next day by her comp, poring through the data from the burial chamber, looking for compounds that would tell her what state the doll had been in. She scrolled up and down lists, plotted graphs, tweaked the algorithms… Everything speaks in secretions. Shouts in volatile organics. A hinoki cypress, ensnared by a bugworm, curses its fate in a lingo of benzene derivatives. Suffocating, dying human cells scream out with halogenated alkanes. . . These latter of course, must have come from the Daimyo’s body, how else? Even in a days-old corpse there are always a few stragglers, cells that are still alive and sending out their last SOS as the roots of a burial lily are closing in…

She didn’t mean to look that deep, it could drive one crazy, seeing the world like this. But it was her job. And that’s how it was. That’s how it had been with Search and Rescue dogs, it was said that they’d always known, even at the top of the trail, if the person they were after was already dead – or would be dead when found. It made them sad. That’s why they’d stage “rescues” with live volunteers, folks whose job was to spring up as the dog was coming in, and hug the dog, rejoicing. Good boy, good boy!

Or good girl. Now of course, since it was just Sandra and her sniffers, no one was in charge of making her feel good. Sometimes she used to think people had made it all up, about dogs knowing what they’d find. Other times — that she could see it in Flopsy’s eyes, those soulful, saggy eyes. Stress reeks of steroids. Pain — of enkephalins. There had been a lot of both in the chamber. Certainly, it was just a leftover from the Daimyo, wasn’t it, not something from the doll!

Sandra’s back ached. Hunger sucked at her, but when she shoved in a daifuku rice cake, it felt like her stomach turned into a blowfish.

Look harder. She pulled out the gas traps she had used in the burial chamber, slid them into her analyzer, and punched the Heat button. This desorbed every captured chemical, flushed it into the mass spectrometer’s feeds. Then she lay flat, to calm her puffing and twitching stomach.

Think. Steroids can’t be traced to a specific person. DNA can be, but it does not tell much, other than to announce itself. It will not tell you, not with this resolution at least, whether the body it came from was alive, or dead.

She needed peptides—telltale peptides that bore scars, that betrayed how they had been digested–by the lily’s juices or else. She could trace peptides to the doll. It must have had artificial amino acids, so the peptides that contained them had to have come from the doll. Not from the Daimyo, nor Sasaki the gardener.

It took Sandra another ten hours. It was night again, more rain, more mourning rattles. But she found what she looked for: she’d determined how far the lily’s digestive juices went. And here was something else. She could have, should have missed it, if not for her own damned thoroughness. One of the two artificial amino acids that the karakuri carried was p-amino-phenylalanine. And here was a five amino acid peptide enkephalin, a hormone whose one job was to make physical pain more tolerable.

It had a p-amino instead of a regular phenylalanine.

She called Mr. Ota and ordered him to meet her. He must have heard anguish in her voice, he agreed without so much as a single question.

In the late afternoon, she walked the streets down to the river and its wharf. She breathed deeply, she tried to be one of her own sniffers, a mindless detector: freshwater – broiled eel — river rock – ramen – cigarette smoke – cosmetics . . . lily . . . She couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder. Nonsense, she must have been imagining it!

She had instructed Mr. Ota to meet in Toyoda’s, an old, smoky tea house just up an alley from the wharf. She took up a booth near the window, twisted the red paper blinds halfway open.

What if it had happened under different circumstances, she thought, that first time back at MIT? Would her phobia have been triggered if it hadn’t been late at night, in an empty corridor? And she hadn’t been standing by a vending machine, focused on a slow release of a Lunchcicle pack through turnstiles, so that the approach of that . . . thing, that human-like, but just not quite, thing, with the eyes that were so human but tracked so weirdly, caught her so completely off guard?

Mr Ota was here. She watched him insert his legs under the low table. She released her anger even before he settled, “The karakuri’s skin would have been dissolved after three nights in a burial chamber, had it been turned off and staying put. Except that it wasn’t. I have evidence showing it was active. That it was reacting to pain. You told me it had been deactivated. You lied to me!”

Ota’s balding head, illuminated through the half-turned blinds, reminded Sandra of an egg in an egg-slicer. He blinked. He rubbed the bags under his eyes with a handkerchief. He produced a lacquered tube the size of a cigar, opened it and pulled out a small scroll of paper. He unfurled the scroll and out fell a wilted lily flower. Sandra’s skin crawled.

“Please. Read.”

It was a poem, rendered in fluid Kanji:

The wrong letters

Fall from my alphabet

Like petals

Of a burial lily.

My soul is naked before you.

“I told you the truth,” Ota said, “The karakuri was put to sleep. However, she may have roused herself— I do not know how. We found this in the Heir’s bedroom. She could have written this.”

“What do you mean? Are you saying that it is out and about now?!”

“Out and about?” His look was quizzical and . . . meek.

“Yes, damn it, up and running, and on the loose! Look–I did not sign up for this. I don’t understand why the doll had to be buried with its master in the first place, and why it had to be alive and in agony, and now this, whatever this is–” she flicked the scroll across the table towards Ota, “but I think there was NO robber. The gardener came upon it, and it took off. He gave chase, it strangled him. Why, you already knew it, didn’t you? You suspected it even before you hired me! Now it is out there, and, what, I am supposed to somehow make it all—go away for you—” she stopped in midsentence.

It was the way Ota half-winced, half-grinned picking up the poem. In the way he missed the English colloquialisms she’d hurled at him. Now, as he rolled the poem up with ginger fingers, all ire was gone out of Sandra, replaced by something sad and quiet: a feeling of a broken egg in her lap, a life gone by in misunderstanding, Flopsy’s cold, knowing nose tucked under the palm of her hand. What an idiot foreigner I am, Sandra thought.

Ota looked up, as if he read her mind. He said softly, “I was following an order. My death will come in due time and while it may relieve me, it will not eliminate the problem. Our late master had ordered the burial of the karakuri. In doing so, he graciously conceded to her supplication. It was her wish to go with our master. I know not why what happened next, had happened. But we believe the Heir is in grave danger.”

“I can’t help you,” Sandra said.

A waitress minced in with a tray of five tiny tea pots, two cups, and some seaweed crackers. She bowed, kneeled, unloaded her tray, bowed. Ota made a gesture– a small twist of a hand. Could be a thank you, or a do not bother us anymore, Sandra thought. The waitress left.

“We have a contract. Please. You signed it. You are under an obligation to help,” Ota said.

“How?!”

“We cannot tell the Heir about the incident. You must understand–we cannot bring up such matters with him. It is not proper. Please take this address,” he put another die-sized cube on the table. “This is Madam Nishikama’s, a karakuri gallery. The Heir is interested in expanding his collection and will be having a private viewing there tomorrow at noon. If the runaway is going to attack, the gallery is the most likely place for it. She ought to be most comfortable there. It used to be her home. I have arranged for your entry. You will be on a health and safety inspection. You will be able to detect the runaway’s presence.”

“No.”

“My armed men will be standing by just outside the gallery.  They will enter as soon as your identify the runaway. Just one key stroke off your comp, and they will come. You will be in no danger to your person.”

Oh hell, Sandra thought. “You don’t need me there. I can make you miniature bio-recogs tuned to the doll’s smellprint. I’ll make them — let’s say, turn black when they detect a match. You can give them to your men.”

“We would be grateful for such devices. But I and my men have no excuse to come into the gallery.”

“What about your health inspection?”

“By a woman, of a health condition of the females for sale.”

“The robots?”

Hai. Robots, yes. The female robots.”

“Their health?”

“They must be free of transmissible disease.”

None of it made sense to Sandra, except that there were rules upon rules, even rules for bending the rules. She sighed. “Mr. Ota. Let me just say it: I cannot be with these kinds of robots. The ones from the Uncanny Valley. Do you know this term? It is a trough in the curve that measures a person’s comfort level with progressively more human-like robots. The curve was first described in the nineteen nineties, and it looks like two peaks and a valley in between, at a point when robots look almost human but not quite. For some people this valley is very deep. Very low comfort level. I am one of these people.”

Before, Mr. Ota had been leaning forward, now he pulled back. His hands on the tabletop clasped together as if magnetized. He swallowed. “Perhaps behind a screen. I can arrange. If you did not have to see them you could carry your work. It is only appropriate if you were behind a screen. Please. My armed men will be only a key stroke away.”

There were even rules for bending, while being unbendable.

“Tony, can you pick me up from Toyoda’s?” she said on the phone. He said he could.

No, she wasn’t afraid, she thought while waiting for him. She’d just agreed to go to the doll house, for crying out loud. But she just kept smelling lilies everywhere, and—well—it started raining. . . .

There he was, pulling in. She dived into his triwheeler, “Much obliged.”

“Are you up for a ride?” he said, his pince-nez giving off a glitter.

She considered being alone in her den and said, “Sure, why not.”

They drove down the River lane, a narrow gorge between tenement houses that sometimes overhang the river, sometimes arched all the way over it, connecting through sky bridges. Water sluiced down the concrete walls covered in red, black and white calligraffiti.

“I read in the news today,” Tony said, “another one of those kodokushi. When people live alone, then die alone, and are only discovered days, months later.”

She said, “Yes, what about it?”

It was getting dark and the signs were starting to fluoresce, and cars, gyromounts, bicycles and people around them were turning into moving constellations of glow-lights and luminescent fragments.

Tony said, “A scandal. Some well-respected elderly businessman died and when they finally came upon his body, they discovered he had been a robot.”

“No way.”

“I read it.”

“In a local version of The National Inquirer?”

He snorted. At the mouth of a short tunnel he pulled into the side lane and into a queue to get to one of the cheerfully lit vending machines that lined the tunnel’s walls. The machines played little tunes and sang approvals as they dispensed. Excellent choice, sir! Dripping water drummed on the car’s roof. Sandra said, “Why are you interested in this stuff?”

“Because of your – condition, at first. Now I’m just interested. Turns out, there is a whole cultural undertow that claims its roots in ancient history. Yume’s story is one of these roots. I found it in the Millenium Chronicles.” He keyed the vending machine to spit out a flashlight. Then two cans of beer and two cylinders that looked much like lipstick tubes, only were about twice as big. He passed the flashlight, beer cans and one of the “lipsticks” to Sandra, unsealed the other, twisted its bottom, and bit off a puck of something edible that squeezed out; all while steering into the driving lane of the tunnel.

Sandra sniffed the air. Cuttlefish. “Robots can’t die,” she said, “Can’t even self-deactivate.”

“So they say.”

They crept out of the traffic; the buildings soon receded and the Lane went on twisting with the river, following its widening valley out of town. It was dark, only an occasional boat floated by on its shimmering reflection, and some distant lights marked the other bank. Somewhere along the way it stopped raining.

“So those Millenium Chronicles,” Tony said, “according to them, Yume gets a soul, marries the Heir, starts a family. Then the old Daimyo dies, and his sons get into this dynastic fight. Our guy says he is not interested but they want him dead anyway. There is a rebellion, he gets killed, Yume and her children get expelled for being evil spirits, yet survive in the wild.”

“And you are developing a fascination with this stuff. You really are.”

“Why not?”

“Which gap in your life are you filing in with this Yume of yours?”

In lieu of an answer he pulled over at what appeared an overlook, with a guardrail between the pavement and a sandy bank. The headlights ran into a wall of darkness beyond the guardrail: the bank must have been dropping away.

“Let’s go.” He grabbed his purchases and climbed out. He swung himself over the guardrail. Sandra followed. He gave her a beer, she popped it and took a swig. He tore the flashlight out of its wrapping, punched it on, and trained it at the ground; she saw spiky tufts of grass and tiny lizards that scurried out of the way. Added on top of sleep deprivation, her very first mouthful of beer already buzzed her up. Tony was saying, “ . . . research studies. Some say robots have mental selves of a human ten year-old. Or that if they are left to their own devices in small groups, they develop proto-tribal hierarchies. Or that they can form irrational beliefs.”

Sandra sucked in more beer, trying to follow exactly in Tony’s steps.

“Like a belief in a certain kind of a ritual death that will lead to a rebirth and gain them a soul.” Tony reached the edge of the flat and sat down; from there on the terrain plunged towards the river. He killed the flashlight, downed more beer and another chunk of the cuttlefish stick, while Sandra plopped next to him. The wind flitted hair across her face. She thought she smelled garbage — that one-of-a-kind sweet and sour scent. Garbage and something else . . . Lilies? She gulped more beer.

Tony said, “You know hinin? A caste of the so-called non-humans? They were said to be born with no souls. They used to work the trades no one else would touch. Street cleaners, butchers, actors. In mid-twentieth century the military rounded them up for some bacteriological warfare research. My Great-grandfather, the one that later left with the American troops, saw some of it. Then the generals decided hinin were a poor research model, being as it was, non-human. The germ warfare shop moved to Manchuria. Anyway . . . The point is, turns out hinin claim descent from Yume and the Heir’s children. They’re supposed to have secret rituals by which they gain a soul – or an adequate equivalent thereof.” He dropped the flashlight into Sandra’s lap. “Wanna take a look?”

She tensed up. “Where? What’s out there?”

“Just shine the light down the slope. There is a shanty town by the river. A hinin ghetto.”

“Is not.”

“See for yourself.”

“Why aren’t there lights?”

“Maybe they have a curfew. Or are asleep.”

She squeezed the flashlight. “Robots don’t sleep. Don’t die. Don’t have children. Don’t get born.”

“Hai,” he said.

The flashlight felt cold. “Don’t live in shanty towns.”

“Hai.”

“If Yume was made five hundred years ago, she would have been made out of wood, rope and cloth. Cat gut maybe. That’s it.”

“Hai.” He had a little light on now in the rim of his pince-nez, and he was using it to examine the brewery’s credentials on his empty beer can.

“You are habituating me.” She shook her head, “Habituating me again, you evil spirit!” She wanted to scream at him, I am going to the doll house tomorrow, what more do you want from me?! But she couldn’t: a confidentiality agreement. At the same time part of her knew that sitting all knotted up, sniffing from behind a screen at the dolls on sale was not what he wanted from her. What he wanted was something else, and this made her angrier still, she could just punch him in those reading-light pince-nez, in this mouth that could be so small and fussy, and the next instant – so malevolently sarcastic!

She sat. She clenched the headlight. She glowered at her thumb next to the On button.

“Foof,” he said and crushed the can. “Just a settlement by the river. Nothing more.”

She sat.

“All right,” he sighed, “let’s drive you home. This slope’s eroding.”

This time she made an honest attempt to sleep, but was roused by a nightmare: a worm-lily that lay an Easter egg. She broke the egg and out floated a yolky blob, as if it was in zero gravity, except that she knew it was no yolk, it was a soul. She squished it between her fingers. It was gooey.

The rest of the night she spent at the micromanipulator, assembling disposable bio-recogs that she had offered to Mr. Ota. They were little more than pill-size glass tubes, she could plant them everywhere she went. She could keep a handful on her person at all times. In her home, too. Just in case.

She rigged them to turn black if they recognized the smellprint: worm AND lily AND fungus AND silvery DNA. She thought of adding AND p-amino phenylalanine, but it reminded her of the pain the doll may have gone through. She did not want to think about it.

Come morning she took a little something against anxiety. A few pills. They made her feel sluggish and dumb, but hell, what other choice did she have?

Ota’s detail showed in full force this time. Three black limos with tinted tops. Inside one, she was made to change into pumps, silks, a formal lady’s suit. They even thought of a wheelie bag for her equipment.

Nishikama’s shop stood on a wooded hillside, all red and golden pagodas, festive and fairy, gingerbread and candy-cane, Sandra wanted to say, but it was a wrong metaphor. A woman in a red and golden kimono and with a glossy bun of a shimada-mage coiffeur met her in the front lobby and motioned her to go inside. Sandra followed the woman down the hallway, barely glancing around. The glass-sealed spot-light-illuminated niches on each side contained human-sized karakuri specimens, frozen in picture-perfect attitudes. Down to the oldest models: a lacquered, shiny hairless head with a Buddha-smile, and below it–a wooden scaffold, cogwheels and gears, and leather timing belts–all powering a couple of wheels and a pair of wooden hands with a tray and a tea cup. Hands hardwired to a paintbrush, to a bamboo stylus. There’s your Yume, she thought sourly.

They entered a golden and red chamber: walls paneled in embossed fabric, floor cushions, tatami. Sandra started when a matronly woman who must have been Nishikama herself and who was seated before a shoji at the other end of the room got up, no—grew taller and rolled in—her kimonoed lower half rounded off with four wheels, two stacked on each side. Then Sandra realized it was just a high-tech wheelchair. The woman pulled her painted lips into a smile, bowed, and sang, “Onegaeshimaas. We are honored to accommodate Yonin Ota’s health inspector. Please proceed behind these panels.” She motioned towards the shoji. It had a pattern of cranes and lilies. Sandra bowed and trudged in.

A Buddha-smile on her face, Madam Nishikama watched Sandra set her equipment up. “I’d like them to stand before this sensor and breathe into this funnel,” Sandra told her. Madam nodded, clapped her hands, and the “inspection” commenced.

Sandra sat in her chair, focusing hard on streaming histograms on her comp screen: peaks growing, shrinking, valleys opening and closing. She heard the patting of their feet, the twinkle of their thin, closemouthed laughter, their sweet, silver-bell voices. “Where do I stand, here?” – “Can I go now?”

Graceful chimeras, silver in their DNA; their weird amino acids, atavistic pheromones, wrong metals, sudden traces of something insect, or fish, or decidedly diseased, like an Alzheimer’s, or atherosclerosis riding on their breath, jumping from the screen like a fanged maw, like holes burned through silk–focus, Sandra, focus . . . They were what they were, freaky-perfect robots, but none of them, or this room, or the rooms they’d come from, smelled of a burial lily. Or of the strangled gardener. Or of desperation and pain.

She heard the doors slide open so forcefully, they slammed into the walls.

“What is going on here?” a young male voice demanded.

Heavy footsteps, so many feet, so many iron-shod boots; before Sandra could react, her shoji screens were shoved out of the way and as she jumped up, knocking down her chair, she could not help seeing–not just the young Heir, the new Daimyo, who stood in the center of it, twisting a die in his hand, but the crowd of creatures that were all around him, a motley band of tweaked-out humans and humanoid robots, bodyguards and retainers, perfect little girls and hideous beasts—skin and carapace, katanas and jet-guns, taser-whips and forked tongues—all of it just falling into the valley, the Uncanny Valley, at the bottom of which, as Sandra was tumbling down and down, a gorgeous, humongous burial lily was curling back its lips, petals–wider, and wider, and wider.

She opened her eyes and saw the ceiling.

“Welcome back,” the same male voice said in perfect English. ”We were so worried about you.”

Sandra jolted and backed up on the tatami until she hit the wall. She didn’t even know her hand was rummaging in her sleeve pocket until she pulled out her mini bio-recog, black. And the one on her lapel. And the one on the wrist watch. She finally looked around. Only the young Daimyo was with her in the room.

“Where is it? The karakuri?” she asked.

“My Father’s favorite? She is not here.”

“Why do I detect its presence?”

He smiled. He was handsome in the manner only generations of selective breeding and years of surgical enhancements can achieve. “You are as good as my yonin tells me you are. You can smell her because I caressed her before I came here.” He opened the door. “Tea?”

A karakuri, thankfully just a primitive wooden model, minced in with a tray and a tea cup on it. It approached, bowed, and waited until Sandra picked up the cup. Only then it made a u-turn and retreated into the corner, where it stayed. Sandra put the cup down — her hands were shaking. “I don’t understand. The runaway is supposed to be dangerous. It killed the gardener . . . Mr. Ota said–”

“Who, Yuri? That’s what she calls herself now, by the way. That flower must have made an indelible impression upon her. My father’s yonin is misguided. His old mind is incapable of nuance. Yuri is quite harmless. She did it for me. The wretched Sasaki was about to foil her precious ritual, by which means, she is convinced, she becomes worthy of my affection.”

Ritual. Ritual death. A lily. An egg yolk. Sandra knew she was hopelessly behind, the pills had made her dumb, and this fainting spell . . . this fall . . . She tugged at her formal lady’s skirt that had ridden up over her knees. “Does that mean I no longer have to look for it?”

The Heir laughed. “Quite correct. Unless Yuri plays coy with me.” His stare grew hazy. “We’ve had a couple of rendezvous. She is so deliciously passionate . . . I have pardoned her for the misstep with the gardener, and she will be returning to the castle any day now.” He focused back on Sandra, eyes sharp. “Poor Yuri. I’d have to deactivate her. It was a game of dare but in retrospect it was more fun than the end result. She is—how do you call it?—damaged goods now. Besides, Ota says you were talking about skin defects . . . Yuri’s been hiding her legs from me. What good is this—soul, if skin is bad? Maybe we’ll turn her into something more like one of these–maruta,” he pointed at the wooden karakuri, frozen in its corner.

The word meant a log. Punctuating a line of English, it struck harder, somehow.

The Heir looked back at Sandra. “Well, I hope you feel better. I appreciate your efforts and I will observe old Ota’s contract. I’ll transfer your payment within a week. My assistant–a human assistant–will see you out and take care of your transportation.”

She slammed the door of her apartment shut, she hurled the wheelie bag across the room, she tore off the stupid suit, the silks, and threw those away too. She messed up her hair. She wept. Then she sat at her desk, absentmindedly twisting a blackened bio-recog in her fingers. Top end, bottom end, top end. A ritual death. A rebirth. A soul. The Heir. The karakuri concubine.

At least now she could go tell him everything, confess, and—quite possibly—jump into his bed one more time, tangle her fingers in his tiger hair, make fists, make love, make accusations, you got your story all wrong, you clueless man! I’ll tell you how it really was! Ugly, ugly, ugly! Hastily, she pulled her clothes on: pants, boots, a tank top, a jacket. She rushed out.

She rang at Tony’s door even after she could hear him fumble with locks. “I’m sorry, but I had to come,” she was outpouring as she stepped over the threshold, “I could not stand it alone, and I don’t care for their gag order anymore, so I finally can . . . what’s that smell?”

“What smell?” he said, then, tracking her stare, “Sandy–”

Yuri, or else Lily, in English, stood behind him, in the doorway to the bedroom. She was skinny and pale, and wore Tony’s PJ bottoms and his T-shirt with the words Ikeda Consulting across the chest. She looked human: a girl started out of sleep. But then she moved her head–and the Valley came back all over Sandra.

“It’s not what you think,” she heard Tony plead.

She pressed her spine into the doorjamb and shut her eyes. That’s what they’d taught her at those therapy sessions: the dark behind your eyes is a safe place, no one can come there. “Tell her to go back to the bedroom and close the door. Tell her I am done looking for her. It’s over!”

Tony walked off and said something, Sandra could not make it, but it sounded soothing. Lily replied with a question, her voice small, worried. Silver-sweet. Sandra only caught the one word uttered in English, Lily. It was more like Riry, heavily accented. Tony muttered some more. So tender it was! Perhaps that’s why Sandra growled, “Drop that accent, will you? Don’t you have an . . . English language module or something?”

The bedroom door closed. “What now?” said Tony.

“I’m going to the kitchen.”

He tagged behind. “She told me everything. She needs help.”

Sandra bent over the kitchen sink and splashed cold water on her face.

“She is here because of you. She had been following you and you led her to me,” said Tony.

“Sorry about that.”

“No, no, it’s okay.”

Sandra sat down on the floor in the kitchen’s corner. “What does she want?”

“She’s gone through the ritual. Death and rebirth. She has a soul now. She did it to win the Heir’s love. That’s what he told her to do and she did it. But it got derailed: the Heir could not come in time to let her out, instead a gardener discovered her days later and wanted to shut her down. She had to fight him. And her legs— the burial lily got to them. Now she is afraid the Daimyo will not marry her because she is not beautiful enough and she acted unladylike towards the gardener.”

“She said that?”

“She did. Her world is plain–from our perspective.”

“Don’t we like it this way,” Sandra chuckled bitterly. “Well . . . what’re you gonna do about it?”

He did not answer right away. He lowered to the floor opposite her. “I don’t know. Help her find– a doctor?” He paused. “I don’t know. She just needs a break. I’m . . . telling her what people always say to this: that if the Heir loves her, he would accept her as is.” Another pause. “Sandy?”

“What?”

“You said, she.”

“What?”

She, not it.”

“I know,” Sandra said. “I guess. You like her, don’t you?”

He looked down, then, quickly, back at Sandra. “She needs help.”

“Oh, I bet she does.” Of course he liked Lily, she thought. Yume incarnate! She’d never seen him this bashful, never glimpsed this lopsided, boyish smile . . . So that’s how it was: on the one hand, she had Tony. He could still be her friend, she thought, even her bed fellow on occasion, once Lily was out of the picture. All she had to do was do nothing. Say nothing. But on the other hand she had . . . “Did you see her legs?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“And?”

“It will heal on its own,” he said and looked away again. “Eventually.”

Or else she could say to him, “a mentality of a ten-year-old”, or, “disturbed.” “Damaged goods,” even. She’d only be voicing a fair concern, wouldn’t she? No. Because sometimes it didn’t matter. And because he knew it already.

And still.

She leaned her head against the wall and sighed. “Tell her, her dream lover is a rotten bastard. Tell her to stay away from him if she doesn’t want to wind up in a scrap pile.”

She told Tony every last detail of her encounter with the new Daimyo. She thought he looked more and more hopeful even as she spoke. Ah, Tony, Tony. In the end, she said, rising to her feet, “I gotta go. Bye!” But he begged, “Wait, no, you got to be there to confirm it! Lily won’t believe my word alone!”

And even though she protested, there she was, standing a safe distance from the bedroom, to see with her own very eyes how Tony crouched by the bed upon which Lily sat, how he spoke for a long, long time. How he took her hand in his. She saw the nods Lily made, dipping, bow-like nods that could mean, Hai, I understand. That could also mean Lily was about to cry, if only she could, but who knows, maybe robots with souls—or adequate equivalents thereof—cried when they squeezed their hands into the pit of their stomach and rocked like this, back and forth?

Then Lily stopped rocking, turned and looked past Tony, upon Sandra. They stared each other in the eyes, and then Sandra nodded. She nodded several times to Lily’s hunted stare, yes, yes, and yes, and then let her feet take her out of the apartment. They itched to flee for a long time now.

She walked back to her ward, ten blocks in the middle of the night; she breathed deep and swung her arms, and she thought, what if everything turned to the better from now on? Just maybe. Something was in the air, even if it wasn’t the “better” part of it yet, only the “maybe” part. But she could smell it all right.

She could smell it.

_______________

Born Russian, J.M. Sidorova was raised in the USSR, Singapore and Germany before she immigrated to the United States. She spends her days as a molecular biologist, sniffing out how human cells respond to damage. When she is not in the lab, she uses her research as an inspiration for speculative fiction. Sidorova is a Clarion West workshop graduate and her stories appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and M-Brane SF. She can be occasionally caught leaving notes at jmsidorova.blogspot.com

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