Chapter 11, in which Stephen and the Daimyo get reacquainted.
Winter 3.04 HC, 2210 (Day 64 of the Year of Winter)
I had managed to acquire a pair of jeans and a shirt with buttons in the trading house below the Daimyo’s residence. They were old and the man selling them wasn’t confident of their quality, but that made them easier to buy. Sellers like that don’t survive long; those who aren’t willing to lie in a place like this were krill for the whales.
A young man with light caramel skin and a long, soft black hair that played about his face opened the door. My eyes bulged in their sockets – I know you. I knew the kindness in his eyes, the softness of his expression, the tenderness in his gestures and the welcome in his gait. I knew these things of his from before, like from a dream, or a romance novel – he was like a fantasy. I knew him deep down, too – seeing him again filled a gap, like his face had been missing from my thoughts. I also acknowledged feeling a subservience towards this man, in a way that I never got from Gabriel or anybody else. I knew that I had done things for this man – I knew that there was a danger in him, a danger I had lived for, in another place, not here.
He stepped aside by way of encouraging me in through the door. Wordlessly, I knew to remove my shoes. This was, in more ways than one, an elevated space. In the entryway, framed pictures of old designs, architectural plans, and technological designs. A floor plan of a U-shaped building – this one? It looked like my design. Had he kept it in pride of place this whole time, in honour of me, or was it a deliberate gesture on finding out I wanted to meet with him?
A step up to the main building. We walked on old wood, varnished and polished but uneven, each board not perfectly straight, creating small gaps to reveal the stone below. The curious sound of birdsong as I trod each step, modelled on an ancient Japanese palace. My eyes followed the Daimyo, treading ahead of me and yet his footsteps caused no such sound. I was an intruder in this castle on an ironic glass ceiling, above a rowdy trading den, in a desolate Outpost, at what was supposed to be the end of winter.
Getting a meeting with the Daimyo had been easier than I was expecting. He was more than eager to accept – so much so that his response gave the impression that such an event was always his idea. Like this was always slated to happen. Part of the Master Plan.
We turned a corner, left, following the smell of coffee now. Once detected it pulled at my nostrils, bidding I speed my pace to drink it, fresh, sour-bitter, intense, demystifying. I pushed on with my stick, reminding me of the relative freedom I had felt in the water. There was no seating in the room ahead, which was only separated from the corridor by walls made from mahogany wood and white paper, framing our approach in front and the comfort behind.
“Please, help yourself,” the Daimyo smiled, his eyes fixing on me. He would never pour for me; despite his self-proclaimed affinity for old Japan and its customs, this was a line he drew for himself and I – and more alarm bells went off in my head. Stay alert.
The coffee pot, a ceramic affair with a long, thin spout, sat on a low wooden table at the centre of the room with four espresso-sized cups. I moved to pour the coffee, and found myself pouring for him, too.
It felt like a betrayal. He’d charmed me, taken me in at some point. Almost like an addiction. I couldn’t get enough of him. The coffee tasted like the first after a week of abstinence, or the first fuck after two weeks without masturbation.
He knew it, too. He knew my weaknesses, from my love of coffee to my crushed ambitions. He had orchestrated all this, the coffee, his soft welcome. He knew I had come with nothing. Nothing except for what he had left me. He had disarmed me by being a part of my past.
I couldn’t help replaying clips from our time together in my head. Our meeting – he had come in as a representative of the Government at the time, visiting our facility under the guise of engagement with industry. I remembered thinking here was another ideologue, another PR stunt.
He had heard of me. He knew I was the same Mr Black who had developed the technology behind SkyHome. Gabriel was there, too – he’d heard of both of us – our dreams, our ambitions. Wanted a private meeting. The private meeting became… intense, and more private.
Coffee the next morning. He wanted to fund our research. Things went quickly. The technology progressed – the feeling of success went to our heads. We were happy-sick. He kept visiting, and we kept meeting. At first the three of us, then Gabriel started voicing his concerns. It became tangled. The meetings changed, and he started seeing me separately. The happiness was all but a nauseating memory. Gabriel left soon after. The Daimyo – I forget his real name now, I’d been calling him Daimyo for so long – suddenly stopped visiting. The work carried on progressing, but it was heavier now. A burden I had subscribed to of my own volition.
Then he came back. The Daimyo. He came back to give me the news: Gabriel had gone.
“How did Gabriel die?” I asked. The Daimyo had expected this initial silence and allowed it to stir my thoughts, my questions. There was air to clear.
“Ah yes,” he replied, inhaling deeply into his coffee cup. A crack in the rim had been repaired with gold. Wabi-sabi. “You’ll remember the disagreement.”
Remember it? “I relive it,” I exhaled. I tried to hold on to what I was doing here, and hoped my appalling conversation starter had put him on the back foot as much as I was.
“That was a terrible time. A really difficult, terrible time for all of us,” he replied.
“Don’t give me a practiced line,” I said, putting my cup down. “Your answer is ‘c’est la vie’?”
“Of course not. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your loss.”
There wasn’t much to say to that, but I was no clearer on what happened now than when I came in. What happened to Gabriel? And did the Daimyo have a hand in it, like I had always thought?
“We did it for your father.” He added in the silence.
We? The air felt static, and I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my hands, like the temperature had instantly dropped.
“Let’s return to this,” the Daimyo said softly. “I want to talk about the vision you and I had. The future. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You remember our vision, don’t you?”
A subject adjacent to the one we had just been circling. ‘Our vision’ lay at the root of it.
“We need to keep going,” he continued. “And indeed, we’re almost there. The Book of Mars – your father – it’s for the good of everyone. The Earth must heal.”
“I no longer agree,” I said, though I found myself unable to look him in the eye when I said it. I wasn’t here to share my feelings and opinions. I was here to help my sister.
“I think you still do. We’ve done so much damage, Stephen. I know you care about that. You might have forgotten for a while. Hiding in your little hole, away from everybody else. Away from the ignorance and the stupidity of them,” he gestured to below us. “The world is nearly broken beyond all repair. Full of impossible conflicts; fat, stupid over-consumers and starving wretches.”
We made this, I thought. We at least made it worse. Dividing people up as if there were those worth our time, and those that weren’t. We somehow thought we were gods, that we had the right to determine who deserved a good life, or a fucking awful one.
He paused. “I know you got my message,” he said.
The message. Not even her. Katie.
I forgot that the place I had been living had been – still was – his all along. He probably knew more secret entrances than I did. He’d probably – certainly – been watching me all this time.
“She’s on her way here right now, isn’t she? I have no idea what she thinks she’s doing. Was it her idea for you to come here? It can’t have been yours.”
The barrage of questions wasn’t intended for me to answer, but if I didn’t come back with something, he’d win. He always won – except for once.
The thing about damage is that it lasts a lot longer in our minds than it feels it should. Sometimes it feels insane to be holding onto glimpses of childhood memories, like when I knocked my mother’s plate of food over, breaking her wedding set; or later on when I spilled bleach on the newly carpeted bathroom floor. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: I will try to never do that again. My brain says, ‘you remember what happened the last time’.
And it’s not like I can press a button and completely delete these things. Would anybody truly want that technology? It makes me who I am. I’m a product of my mistakes.
But there was so much damage here. Damage I did to myself, to Gabriel, to my hometown, and to the nation. Probably the world. Damage I’d rather not remember, but damage that was supposed to keep me from making the wrong decisions again.
“Follow me,” the Daimyo was standing over me, so close I could smell him. “I want to remind you of a few things.”