Chapter 10

The Tunnel

Kana lifted up the electric lantern and looked at its underside. She flipped the switch a couple times and checked that the light switched on and off. When she was satisfied that the lantern was working, she resumed walking down the freight tunnel with Una trailing closely behind her. 

Kana said, “It feels weird to be back in the tunnels after the fire.”

“Yes,” said Una.

“I keep thinking that I feel wind in the tunnel, and it scares me,” said Kana.

Una reached out and held Kana’s hand. They walked together down a frequently used tunnel and turned at an intersection to a side tunnel that was in a state of disrepair. The spacing of the electric lights became sparse and Kana switched on the electric lantern. When they reached a gap in the cable car tracks, Kana began counting steps. 

She whispered to herself as she walked, occasionally saying one of the numbers louder than the others. “Forty-six…” she said out loud.

“Six…” echoed Una.

Kana stopped and turned to Una. “Stop it, Una,” she said. “You will make me lose count.”

They continued walking as Kana whispered “Forty-seven… forty-eight…” When Kana reached eighty-two they stopped and looked around. Behind a pillar, Kana found a rusted metal door that was stuck half opened. They stepped through the door and walked down a narrow hallway with only the light of the lantern to guide them. At the end of the hallway was an open doorway and they stepped through into an abandoned freight tunnel. The electric lantern illuminated ancient crumbling masonry and a thick layer of dust.

Kana turned left and the pair walked down the tunnel accompanied by the sound of their own shuffling footsteps. The light from the electric lantern flickered. Kana inhaled sharply. She looked at the bottom of the lantern and at the dim electric bulb inside. They resumed walking and the lantern flickered again. Then the light dimmed down to nothing. Kana and Una stood motionless in complete darkness.

After a long silence, Kana said, “Una, I think the battery died.” Una said nothing. The only sound was Kana’s tense breathing. She said, “Una… what do we do?”

“What?” echoed Una.

“Una… do you know the way?” asked Kana.

“Yes!” said Una.

“Really?” asked Kana. “You know the way?”

“Yes!” said Una again.

Una reached around until she found Kana’s hand. Kana squeezed Una’s hand with hers and Una pulled her forward. They walked down the tunnel with Una occasionally swerving and side-stepping to avoid hidden holes and fallen masonry that were concealed by the darkness.

“Steps!” said Una, and the two of them carefully made their way down a short flight of stairs, crossed over the remains of a cable car track, and then walked up another set of steps on the other side. Una began tugging more insistently on Kana’s hand and the pair of them walked faster. 

“Close!” said Una. She pulled faster. “Very close!” said Una. Ahead of them were faint noises and a hint of light. As the light became brighter and clearer, Una began pulling so quickly that they were almost running. They reached the light, illumination spilling through an open doorway, and together they walked through the door into a warmly lit room.

Inside the room, dozens of nubots were working at tables. A few meeks were scurrying across the floor and a nubot was chasing after them, trying to gather them up. A man sat at a drafting table, focused on his work. 

Una pulled away from Kana and ran toward the man. “Taisuke!” she called.

Taisuke looked up just as Una collided with him. Una lifted up her arms. Taisuke picked her up and set her on his lap. Una rested her head against his shoulder.

“Hello, Una,” said Taisuke. Una made humming noises. “It is nice to see you,” he said. Kana walked closer. Taisuke turned to look at her. “Hello, Kana,” he said. “It is nice to see you, too.”

Kana stood next to the drafting table. Laid across the table was a large sheet of paper that was covered with elaborate and precise pencil marks. Standing on the far end of the drafting table was a meek that was scratching its head.

“What’s this?” asked Kana, pointing to the drawing on the table.

“I am playing with new designs for the meeks,” said Taisuke.

“Oh,” said Kana, without looking up from the drawing. She ran her fingers slowly over the fine pencil lines. “What does this part do?” she asked, pointing to a part of the drawing.

Taisuke leaned forward and looked where she was pointing. He said, “It… makes the balance…” He paused, trying to find words. Finally, he said, “I don’t know.” Kana stared at him blankly. He looked back at the drawing and tilted his head slowly from side to side. Taisuke gestured with his pencil toward the meek that was standing on the table. He said, “Meeks are all one thing. If I try to think of them as parts then it would be like thinking that they are less than one thing.” He poked the meek with his pencil. “Look at Riki,” he said. “Riki has legs and feet. You could say that they are for running, but they are also for scratching his head.” 

Riki stopped scratching his head and grabbed onto the end of Taisuke’s pencil. Taisuke lifted up his pencil but Riki did not let go and he was lifted off of the drafting table. 

“No, Riki!” said Taisuke. “Please let go!” Riki did not let go. “Please be reasonable, Riki,” said Taisuke. Riki climbed higher on the pencil and began chewing. Taisuke grasped the meek by its body and pulled it off the pencil. He set Riki down on the drafting table. “You can eat this drawing,” said Taisuke. Riki sat, resting on his hind legs, and looked around.

Taisuke said, “You can see that Riki is missing an ear.” Taisuke patted the meek’s head. “He is also very scratched,” said Taisuke. “But when I try to repair him, he is very resistant.” Riki ran to the edge of the drafting table, jumped off the side, and then scurried across the floor.

A nubot entered through the doorway and ran across the room. 

Without turning around, Taisuke called out, “Kiko, just a moment please!”

The nubot froze and turned to look at him.

Taisuke said, “Kiko, did you forget to change your hands?”

Kiko looked down at her hands, then turned and ran to a row of shelves situated against the wall. She unscrewed her left hand and placed it on the shelf. Then she took one of the hands off the shelf and attached it to her left wrist. She performed the same process for her right hand. Then she held up both hands in front of her and wiggled them. Each finger was equipped with delicate and elaborate instruments and Kiko seemed briefly fascinated to just play with the subtle and intricate motions of her hands. Then she turned and ran across the room.

“Kiko!” called Taisuke.

Kiko froze and slowly turned toward Taisuke again.

“Thank you, Kiko!” said Taisuke.

Kiko ran to a stool at one of the tables. She climbed up onto the stool and began working. The nubots who were sitting next to her passed tiny mechanical parts to her and then resumed their work.

Kana wandered to the back of the room. There were several large pens with smooth walls that were almost waist high. Inside each pen were a few nubots and hundreds of meeks. 

In the first pen, nubots sat on the ground and fed small handfuls of sawdust to meeks. On the ground, meeks rolled on their backs and sometimes managed to stand up and walk a few steps.

In the second pen, meeks ran around in packs. Nubots chased the meeks. Sometimes a nubot would catch a meek, pick it up, pat its head, and then set it back down.

In the third pen, there were ladders, ramps, boxes, ropes, and dozens of other places to climb and hide. Meeks scampered through the maze. When a meek would get trapped in a tight spot, a nubot would come to lift up the meek and set it back on the ground.

Taisuke stood next to Kana and watched the meeks playing in their pens. He said, “When the meeks are young, they don’t know anything. We put them in the first pen so that the nubots can keep them fed and care for them. As they learn how to take care of themselves, they move on to the more advanced pens. Eventually they are ready to go out into the world.”

Kana leaned over the wall of the first pen and looked at the meeks rolling on the ground. “Why do you make the meeks?” she asked.

Taisuke frowned thoughtfully. “To remind people,” he said, “that things are not always confined by our beliefs. I want to remind people that, even if we choose to live by certain rules, those rules are a choice and there are other ways to live also, perhaps ways that we might like even better if we tried them.” He knelt down by the pen and petted a meek. He said, “The meeks don’t know about our rules and they don’t try to live by them. For that reason, I think that they help to remind people that there are always other ways for things to be.”

“Oh,” said Kana. “I thought you just liked making meeks.”

Taisuke scratched the meek behind its ears, and then he looked at Kana. He said, “Actually… I like that answer better.” He frowned thoughtfully again and rubbed the meek’s belly. “Is it too late to change my answer?” he asked.

Kana looked down at the pen of meeks. She said, “A few days ago I planned to come here to ask you for your help.” She looked at Una, who was standing next to a group of nubots. She said, “You changed Una for me to make it so she would not forget. I was going to ask you if there was some way that you could change her back.”

Taisuke said nothing. He nodded, waiting for Kana to continue.

Kana said, “I was going to ask you whether you would make it so that Una could forget again.” Kana watched Una for a while, then she continued. “But then I changed my mind. Now I just want to thank you for helping Una to remember.”

Riki scurried around the meek pen and stopped next to Kana’s foot. Kana bent down and picked him up. Riki curled up in Kana’s palm and, within just a few breaths, his eyes closed. As he fell asleep he began to snore tiny puffs of steam.

Chapter 9

The Bamboo Grove

Green stalks of bamboo swayed slightly in the wind. Leaves twisted and caught the light. The grove whispered and rattled with the sound of the breeze and the gentle collisions of the stalks against each other. 

Toru hoisted a bamboo bundle onto his shoulder and started on the dirt path back to the house. The slope was gentle but the path was long and by the time he had reached the barn he was exhaling heavy breaths of steam. He rested the bamboo bundle against a post protruding from the side of the barn and then he opened the door. The inside of the barn was dark but well-ventilated. Stacks of bamboo stood drying in organized rows. Toru took stock of the interior and did some mental calculations. 

He said to himself, “At my current pace of consumption, this bamboo will generate about four times my typical intake. If current factors persist, it seems unlikely that I will experience a shortage. This neglects the possibility of unforeseen circumstances, of course…” he trailed off, then shook his head and continued, “but that is always the case.” He closed the barn door.

Toru looked at his hands, which were dusty from carrying the bamboo. He attempted to brush the dust off, but his attempt just moved the dust around on his hands. He turned and continued up the dirt path to the house. At the front door, he removed his shoes and stepped inside. Lost in thought, he did not even notice that the room was occupied. When he did look up and notice, he stopped suddenly and then uttered a surprised laugh.

“Good morning,” said Chiyoko, seated in a chair.

Toru stood still for a moment and then responded, “Good morning.”

“You have said that I can come in without knocking,” said Chiyoko.

“Yes,” said Toru, “I just wasn’t expecting to see you so soon.” He inclined his head and said, “I am pleasantly surprised.”

“I had an unusual conversation recently,” said Chiyoko, “and I realized that I wanted to talk to you about it.”

Toru sat in the second chair. He repeated, “An unusual conversation?”

“Yes,” said Chiyoko. “It was about topics of a sensitive nature.”

“I see,” said Toru, nodding.

Chiyoko looked out at the blue sky. She said, “At first, I felt very concerned. Then I felt worried and frustrated. I felt that I just wanted to know what was the right thing to do so that I could do it and then get on with my life.” She adjusted slightly in her chair. She said, “But then, slowly, I started to feel a tiny sense of joy and relief.” 

Toru looked at her. “Relief?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Chiyoko. “I feel relief. I feel completely uncertain about what to do, and this caused me relief because I felt that I finally understood you. I felt that I finally understood how you must have felt about Harua.”

Toru sank back into his chair. “Well,” he said, “I still feel completely uncertain about Harua.”

Chiyoko continued, “When you were the strategist for the Kogen shogunate, you had to make a choice. You explained to me the decision that you had to make. I understood that it was a difficult decision. I even understood, at least a little bit, why you might make the choice that you made, but I never understood how it would feel to make that choice.” Chiyoko sat forward in her chair. She said, “Now I find myself unsure what to do and I feel how difficult it is.” She paused and looked down at the go board still sitting on its table. She said, “Now that I know how this feels, I feel some tiny glimmer of joy and relief to realize that I have gotten closer to understanding you.”

Toru nodded. “Does that help you to know what to do?” he asked.

“No,” said Chiyoko, “no, not at all.” She hummed a sad laugh and then added, “It does not help me in even the smallest way.” She paused and then continued, “Though it does make me afraid of feeling trapped in regret.”

“Like I am?” asked Toru. 

“That is not what I was trying to say,” said Chiyoko, “but, yes, trapped like you seem to be.”

Toru nodded. He gestured at the empty room, “Not everyone wants to live this way,” he said. 

“And yet you stay here,” said Chiyoko.

“I loved them,” said Toru. “I loved the people of Harua, both bots and humans. I loved the people of every town that the shogunate took in the following years.” He shifted in his chair. He said, “That love makes it harder… more painful to remember. But that love also makes it easier. When I feel my regrets most strongly, I also remember that feeling of love. And I remember that I made my choices because of my love for them.” He paused and slowly exhaled a gentle puff of steam. He said, “I may lack confidence in the quality of my decisions but I have faith in the strength of my love.”

“I also have faith in that,” said Chiyoko.

“And I stay here until I feel confident that I can do better next time,” said Toru. 

“Perhaps there is no way to become perfectly confident of a decision,” said Chiyoko. “Perhaps the decisions of the past and any future decisions will always have uncertainty.”

Toru stood up slowly and walked to the row of shelves. He opened the wooden case and then stood looking at its contents in silence. Chiyoko watched him for a moment and then laughed softly.

Toru said, “That was a bit surprising.” He looked at the contents of the case, a shiny metal chainsaw, neatly arranged inside the polished wooden box.

“Ah,” said Chiyoko, “yes, I forgot to mention that.” She held up her left arm and the sleeve of her kimono slid down to her bent elbow. She watched her left hand as she slowly opened and closed her fingers. “My arm feels a little unfamiliar,” she said, “but I am getting used to it.”

Toru watched as she played with the fine motor skills of her left hand. He said, “It looks good on you.”

“Thank you,” replied Chiyoko. She stood up, walked to Toru, and held out her left hand. Toru looked at it and gave an admiring humming noise. Chiyoko laughed. She said, “I wasn’t showing it to you. I was offering it to you.”

“I… do not understand,” replied Toru.

Chiyoko grasped Toru’s right hand with her left hand. She lightly squeezed Toru’s fingers. Then she began walking and gently tugged on Toru’s hand. She said, “I am inviting you to come with me.”

“Ah,” said Toru, and he walked with her as she led him to the door.

Chiyoko opened the door of the house and slipped on her shoes. Toru put on his shoes. Then Chiyoko took him by the hand once more and led him across the porch and down the stairs. She took him to the dirt path and began walking down it. They passed bushes and trees. They passed birds and butterflies. They passed a stream quietly bubbling over stones. The air was warm and a slight breeze ruffled the vegetation. A few small clouds dotted the sky and sunlight graced the hillside. Chiyoko walked with Toru to the gate and she stopped there.

Toru asked, “Where are we going?”

Chiyoko opened the gate and stepped through. “I don’t know,” she said. She held out her left hand again and asked, “Do you want to come along?”

Toru laughed like a weight had fallen from his shoulders. “Yes,” he said, “Yes, I do.”

Chapter 8

The Garden

The rough wood of the gardening table was bleached by rain and sun. Flowers in pots were lined up along the far edge of the table. Small shovels and a watering can were arranged in the middle. Saga picked up a potted flower and examined its leaves.

Chiyoko lifted a bag of soil from the ground and deposited it on top of the gardening table. She quietly asked, “How long has she been sleeping here?”

Saga glanced up at Kana, who was sitting quietly next to Una on the other side of the backyard garden. Saga said, “She found me at the funeral. She seemed very tired so I brought her back here to sleep.” Saga opened the top of the soil bag. She said, “When she woke up, she jumped out of the bed and ran outside. Then she just sat in the back corner of the garden for almost an hour.” Saga ran her hands through the soil in the bag. She continued, “Since then she has been staying in the backyard and sleeping on the stone bench. I brought out some bedding for her.”

Chiyoko looked at the stone bench. She said, “It does not seem like that would be very comfortable for Kana.”

Saga nodded and said, “But I am not going to tell her that she needs to do anything different. She barely trusts me enough to sleep in the backyard.” Saga bent her head lower and said, “I am certain that the only reason she wants to stay here at all is because the fire was so… frightening for her.”   

Chiyoko murmured, “I hope she does not mind us being here. This garden might feel like the only place that she can be safe and alone right now.”

Saga turned toward the back of the house and said, “I can’t tell if she wants to be alone or not. When I am in the house, she will move to a place in the garden where she can see me. When I come out to the garden, she moves farther away. I think she wants to be able to see that I am here, but not be so close that I might tell her what to do.”

“Ah,” said Chiyoko, “We can work with that. Do you think that she might like to do a bit of gardening? It can be very soothing.”

Chiyoko picked up the bag of soil and brought it to a bare patch in the garden. Saga brought some small shovels and they began digging holes to plant the flowers. 

Without looking up, Saga said, “Kana, Una, if you would like to help us, I have some soil that needs mixing before we plant these flowers.”

Chiyoko poured some soil from the bag onto the ground. She began mixing it with the dirt from the ground using the small shovel. Una stood up and walked between the small trees and shrubs to join them. She sat down. The plastic of her knees clicked as she settled onto the ground. Una looked at Chiyoko and then Saga, her huge black eyes, as always, seeming to be fascinated by everything she saw.

Saga gave Una a trowel and showed her how to use it to dig into the soil and mix it. Kana warily stood up and walked closer, remaining partially concealed by the bushes, but close enough to watch. Chiyoko helped Una test the soil to see if it was fully mixed. They ran their hands through the thick dirt, looking for clumps. Kana slowly crept closer. 

Chiyoko stood up. She said, “Excuse me a moment, I am going to get some more things from the house.” 

Saga showed Una how to remove a flower from its pot and hold it by supporting it from below. Then she demonstrated how to place it into the hole in the ground. Una watched every movement and gesture, and then she removed her own flower from its pot and supported its roots with her plastic fingers gently cupping the soil. She looked at Saga. 

Saga said, “That’s right, Una. Now you can just place it into the hole.”

Una gently deposited the flower into the ground and swept soil into the hole to fill in the gaps.

Kana scoffed, “Una, you dumb… you did it wrong. Now that plant is going to die.”

Una turned her huge black eyes to look up at Saga. Then she turned to look at Kana, who was scowling with her arms crossed. Kana seemed upset about the attention and she turned away. Una looked back to Saga again.

Saga said, “You are doing a good job, Una. We never know for sure which plants will live or die. We just do our best and then step back and accept that things will happen.” Saga brushed her hair out of her face. She said, “Would you like to plant another flower, Una?”

Una looked down at her hands, wringing her plastic fingers anxiously.

“I’ll be right here,” said Saga. “I’ll be watching you, Una, so you don’t need to worry about doing something wrong.”

Una looked at the empty holes in the ground and at the row of flower pots waiting to be planted. She looked up at Saga’s face and then held up her hands. Saga gave one of the flower pots to Una and then picked up one for herself. Together, they gently tipped and extracted the flowers from the pots. Saga placed her flower into the ground. Una mimicked her actions. Saga swept soil into the gaps around the flower. Una watched her and then did the same. Together they moved down the row, filling the holes with flowers.

Chiyoko came back out to the garden, knelt down by the stone path and began planting another row of flowers. Una looked up from her empty flower pots and then walked over to join Chiyoko.

Kana walked next to where Saga was kneeling down. She looked at the flowers, newly arranged in the dirt. Saga used the watering can to dampen the soil around each flower.

Kana said, “Una is not like other nubots.”

Saga nodded. “I see that. She seems very special,” she said.

Kana looked away and a tear ran quickly down her cheek. She said, “I mean that she is really not like other nubots.” She bit her lip and then continued, “Una doesn’t forget.”

Saga controlled her startled reaction. She said, “Ah, I see. That is a little different.”

Kana said, “All nubots forget when they recharge their batteries, but they don’t have to. They are made that way.”

Saga nodded, patting wet soil with her fingers and carefully not looking at Kana. 

Kana continued, speaking quickly and quietly, “But I met someone who knew how to fix a nubot so it would not forget… and I asked him to fix Una.”

Saga slowly stacked the flower pots, choosing her tasks and pace to give Kana as much time as she needed to talk.

Kana said, “Una doesn’t forget… and now I am worried that I broke her.”

Saga looked up briefly at Kana’s grief-stricken face.

“I think I broke her,” Kana said again. “I am the one who had her changed so that she cannot forget.” Kana’s voice broke and a tear fell to the ground. “I am the one who brought her with me to the burning building.” Kana’s tears began to choke her voice. She said, “I am the reason that she will never be able to forget that fire.” She wrung her hands anxiously and murmured, “Una will never be happy again, and it is because of me.” A stream of tears ran down Kana’s cheeks, which she wiped away with her dirty hands.

Saga opened her arms and Kana fell into them. Kana pressed her face into Saga’s neck and rested there breathing shallowly through thick tears.

Saga cradled Kana’s head and whispered to her, “Shhhh… it’s okay. Shhh… it’s okay.”

Kana lifted her head to come up for air. Her nose was too congested to breathe and she gasped air through her mouth. She wiped her face across her sleeve and tried to compose herself.

“Sometimes I get scared,” said Saga. “Sometimes something happens that makes me feel like I will never be happy again, or even like I may never be okay again.” She rested her hand on Kana’s shoulder. “And when that happens I want to just forget it like it never happened. But also, it seems like I will probably never forget and never be the same again.”

Kana nodded.

Saga continued, “Maybe it seems like Una will never be the same again, and that may seem scary.” 

Kana hugged herself. 

Saga said, “Maybe it also seems like you will not be the same again, and that may seem scary too.”  

Kana hugged herself tighter.

“There are times when I have seen things that scared me,” said Saga. “I have seen things that I wanted to go back and make them never happen, or just make it so that I never saw those things.”

Kana hugged herself and nodded.

Saga ran her hands through Kana’s hair. She said, “But those things did not break me.”

Kana looked at the dirt and crushed a dried leaf between her fingers. She asked, “You’re not broken now?”

Saga said, “No, I am not broken. Some of my experiences were very hard to accept, but I learned. It just takes time.”

Kana pushed the leaf bits around in the dirt. She said, “I used to be different. I could take care of myself. I did not need to ask anyone for anything. I ate and slept wherever I wanted. But now I don’t know how to do those things any more. When I try to sleep… I have bad dreams. When I try to eat, nothing tastes right. I used to be able to go wherever I wanted. I want to be like that again. But everything feels broken now. I feel broken now.”

“You can stay here for as long as you want,” said Saga.

“I can stay on the garden bench?” asked Kana.

“Yes,” said Saga. “I want you to stay for as long as you want.” Saga looked at Una and Chiyoko, who were sitting next to each other and digging in the far side of the garden. Saga said, “I want you to know that I won’t tell anyone what you told me about Una. I will keep it secret.”

Kana nodded. She said, “I know you won’t tell. That’s why I stay here.” Kana stood up, wiped her face, and brushed dirt off of her knees. Then she walked over to Una and Chiyoko. Soon Kana and Una were busy with digging. Chiyoko stood up and walked over to join Saga.

Saga remarked, “It is nice to see them digging together.”

Chiyoko commented, “They are trying to dig the deepest hole that they can. I hope you are interested in a little rearrangement of the garden in that corner.”

Saga smiled. “I would love to rearrange the garden,” she said.

Chiyoko poured some soil from a bag into a flower pot. She said, “I had a chance to converse with Una.” Saga said nothing so Chiyoko continued, “The conversation was a bit surprising. I recall seeing Una recharging this morning, and yet Una was describing to me some events that happened a few days ago. She seems to remember things from before her most recent recharging.”

“Oh, really?” asked Saga, feigning surprise and pouring some soil into a flower pot.

“Normally, I wouldn’t mention it,” said Chiyoko, ”but Una was telling me that she and Kana were in the freight tunnel where the fire started.”

“Oh,” said Saga, mixing the soil in the pot.

“Apparently Una and Kana saw the remains of the cable cars before they were destroyed by the fire,” commented Chiyoko. She continued, “It may be that Una saw some things that may be of a… sensitive nature.”

“Oh dear,” said Saga, her fingers sinking into the soil of the flower pot.

Chapter 7

The Fire

Kana looked down the tunnel as far as she could. Electric bulbs in the tunnel provided only dim orange light. Peering into the darkness, she turned and looked down the tunnel in the other direction. Then she let out a huff of frustration. 

She said, “Una! You should have been paying attention. Now we are lost.”

Una looked down the tunnel. Her white plastic face reflected the electric lights. She mirrored Kana’s frustrated pose. She looked at Kana and said, “Lost!”

Kana examined the walls of the tunnel. Rusty streaks ran down the stones. Ancient mildew darkened the cracks. Kana muttered, “I left a mark around here somewhere.” She paced back and forth next to the wall then said, “Or was that the other tunnel? Are we under the temple?”

Una put her hand underneath her chin and made a mechanical sound that mimicked a “Hmmmm…”

Kana sighed in frustration and said, “Okay, Una, we have to check with topside. Let’s go!”

Una echoed, “Go!”

Kana began trotting down the tunnel with Una trotting along behind her. Kana turned left at the first intersection and, within a hundred paces, found a ladder leading to a manhole. She climbed up the ladder, lifted the grate, and poked her head out. From street level, she looked up at a black night sky, bright windows, and an empty sidewalk. She called down to Una, “It’s the one with the weird tea shop and fish market!” She let the grate fall with a clang and climbed back down the manhole. “I knew it!” she said as she reached the bottom. She began trotting back down the tunnel the way that she came.

“I knew it!” echoed Una.

Suddenly there was a deafening sound and the ground shook. Instinctively, Kana dropped to her hands and knees. The sound was followed by several booms and a rush of air. Kana stood up and wiped her hands on her pants. She turned to look at Una. Una stared back at her.

Kana asked, “Do we run toward the terrifying noise or away from it?”

“Away!” responded Una.

Kana stood chewing her lip anxiously. “Not this time, Una,” she said.

“Toward!” responded Una.

Kana began running down the tunnel, noticing mostly her own breath and the tunnel lights. She chanted to herself as she ran, “It’s just the excitement. Don’t panic. It’s just the excitement. Don’t panic.”

She reached the first intersection and paused. She looked at Una. “Which way?” she asked.

Una shifted her weight from one foot to the other.

Kana felt her hair brushing against her face. “That’s odd,” she said, “there is wind in the tunnel.” She looked down each direction of the intersection. “The wind is blowing toward the noise?” she guessed.

As she ran, the wind increased in strength. Far ahead, she saw that there was light in the tunnel. As she continued running, she passed a point where the electric bulbs had all turned off and the light ahead was the only visible guidance. “Is that a cable car headlight?” she asked Una.

“No,” said Una.

They turned a corner and then the source of the light was clearly visible. Flickering flames illuminated the entirety of the tunnel. The wind was rushing toward the fire. In the firelight, it was clear that the tunnel had collapsed on top of a cable car train. Crushed cable cars and debris were piled underneath a gaping hole in the top of the tunnel. Kana began walking toward the fire. 

Una tugged at her hand and groaned, “Away!”

Kana shook loose and continued walking forward. As she got closer, she could see the splintered wood of crates, fallen metal beams from the tunnel supports, and the tumble of tunnel walls and ceiling. Suddenly there was a hot rush of air and a burst of flame that rose up from the fallen debris.

Kana stepped back and shook herself as if rising from a nightmare. She looked at Una and then back to the fire. 

Kana whispered, “Away.” She took a few steps back and said again, “Away!” She turned and started running.

There was a deep booming noise and another rush of air. Sounds of falling masonry echoed in the tunnel. Kana kept running until the firelight was replaced by the glow of electric lights. She climbed the first ladder that she saw, pushed open the metal grate, and emerged onto the street. She bent over gasping and coughing, then sank down to the pavement to recover her breath. Una emerged from the manhole and knelt down with her plastic hands resting on her knees. 

Kana stood up and looked at the empty street and the brightly lit windows. She tried to yell but it came out as a gasp and a whisper. “Fire!” she wheezed. She stamped her feet in frustration and tried again. “Fire!” she whispered, unable to make sound come out of her mouth.

Una turned to look at her and echoed Kana’s call. “Fire!” whispered Una.

Kana blinked away hot tears and gasped, “Una, you stupid nubot, you have to say it louder!”

“Fire!” whispered Una again.

Kana yelled at Una, “No! Like this! Fire!” This time she managed to say it at a normal speaking level.

“Fire!” repeated Una, speaking normally.

Kana shook her fists at her side. “Like this, Una… Fire! Fire!” she said at an elevated volume. Una echoed her raised voice. Kana’s face was flushed with anger and she screeched, “Fire! Fire!” Una screeched along with her. 

Kana clenched her fists at her sides, drew in her breath, bent over and yelled, “There is a fire in the freight tunnel!” at a volume that could be heard far down the street.

Windows lit up as lights switched on. Doors opened. Kana looked at them angrily and muttered, “Oh, now they come outside… now that they can hear me?” She ran down the street yelling, “There is a fire in the freight tunnel!”

Kana ran in the direction of the tunnel fire, trying to determine its location above ground based on its location in the tunnels. As she got closer, she saw rising smoke that was illuminated from below by the orange light of fire. She ran toward the smoke, which was now billowing high above the rooftops. 

 A crowd had already gathered outside. The fire chief was directing people to stand back and several firefighters were putting up a cordoned perimeter around the building. A firefighter came out of the front entrance to the building. He ran to the fire chief and began reporting, his tempered glass mask still covering his face.

The fire chief said, “I cannot hear you! Take off the mask!”

The firefighter reported, “The explosion damaged the structure. The stairway to the upper floors has collapsed and is filled with debris. There is a hole in the foundation that goes all the way to the tunnel. Smoke and fire are pouring out of that hole. The building is burning in several locations. The only remaining exit is the front entrance. The stairway access to the basement is blocked by debris. We can hear voices from the basement, but we cannot see anyone. The building is structurally unstable. Depending on how quickly the fire burns, it could all come down in less than an hour.”

The fire chief commanded, “Take two humans and two bots, bring axes. Get access to the basement.” He called over another firefighter and ordered, “Get three more people, take the fire escapes on the east and west sides of the building. Check the second and third floors for occupants.”

Two steambots pulled a fire hose to the front of the building and took it with them through the broad front entrance. Another steambot brought a second hose to the front of the building and aimed the spray into the second story windows. 

At the hydrant, two firefighters opened the hydrant pump access. As they slowly worked the enormous hydrant pump, the fire hose began delivering a steady stream of water at a higher pressure. 

The fire chief called, “I need a heavy on that hydrant pump!” A firefighter ran to his call. The fire chief said, “Take two people. Go to construction sites or anywhere you can find a heavy industry steambot. I need power on the hydrant pump. We do not have time for this!”

The firefighter ran to get assistance. Then there was a faint rumbling sound and the ground shook. The fire chief turned to see two heavies, Ryoki and Nanako, coming around the corner of a building. Their steps resonated. Their huge arms swung as they lumbered forward. Nanako strode directly to the hydrant pump. The firefighters saw her coming and got out of her way. Her metal body, as tall as a house, began rapidly working the massive hydrant pump. The steambot handling the hose was blasted off his feet by the pressure. People cleared out of the way and Ryoki went to the steambot that was now laying on its back, barely holding on to the fire hose. Ryoki picked up the steambot with one huge hand. He lifted the steambot up, holding it higher than the roof of the building. The steambot tucked the firehose firmly under its arm and directed the geyser from the fire hose into the interior courtyard of the burning building.

The fire chief ordered, “Find a way to block air flow in the tunnels! Hang tarps from the tunnel ceiling. I don’t know. Whatever it takes. Right now the building is a chimney and the tunnels are supplying the air. I need that air flow blocked as soon as possible!”

The wind flowing through the building made a deep suction noise as it drew air from the tunnels and blew it upward in a giant smoking whirlwind. Flames appeared in the front windows of the building. Then the glass broke and smoke began pouring out. 

A firefighter reported, “The building is clear except for the basement! We got eleven people out of the second and third floors. The first floor was already clear. They are still working on clearing the basement stairwell. There is a lot of debris.”

The fire chief said, “The only remaining exit is the front entryway. We must keep the front entrance open until everyone is out! Focus a hose on the front entrance and try to keep it intact!”

The building made an ominous groaning noise and the roof collapsed in two places. Flames emerged from the holes. There was a second groaning noise and the front of the building began to sag, slowly collapsing in the middle. As the building sagged, the broad front entrance started to crumple under the weight of the second and third floors. 

Ryoki set the steambot down and used his enormous hands to raise the front entrance of the building back into place. Nanako stopped pumping and went to help him. She knelt down and put her shoulder under the entryway, then her engines roared as she began lifting. Ryoki got down to his hands and knees, positioned himself inside the entrance of the building, and raised himself until he was supporting the building with his back. 

The fire chief called, “Keep the hose on the heavy! Keep his head cool! If he dies we lose everyone! Keep his body cool! If he loses the temperature differential, he will lose strength!”

Two firefighters turned the hose toward Ryoki. The water hissed and boiled as it touched the metal surfaces of his enormous frame. Smoke, steam, and flame completely obscured the entrance of the building. Nanako bent her knees and got a new grip on the front wall. Her engines roared again as she lifted. The structure cracked and pieces of the facade fell onto the street, splintering into flaming chunks. Nanako was unable to hold enough of the building to keep it in one piece. The entire front of the building cracked down the middle and the two massive pieces collapsed onto her partner. The momentum and force of the fall flattened him onto the ground. Nanako screamed. She placed her hands under the huge flaming beams and tried to lift them off of her partner. Ryoki made a vast and inhuman noise that seemed like a cry of pain, but then he placed his massive hands onto the ground and fired his engine with a single prolonged blast. There was a sound of metal twisting under the force of his effort. One meter at a time, he lifted the entire front of the building until his body once again formed an open archway to the interior courtyard. The pair of heavies stayed in that position as flaming chunks of building collapsed around them. Smoke and flame poured out of the entrance. The stream of the fire hose landed on their metal frames and burst into steam. Finally, shadowy shapes appeared in the smoke. Humans and bots crawled underneath the opening created by Ryoki’s body. 

A firefighter reported to the chief, “Basement clear! All occupants accounted for!”

The chief confirmed, “Basement is clear?”

The firefighter replied, “Clear, sir! No one left behind.”

The chief commanded, “Get that heavy out! Push the building off of him if you need to!”

Ryoki began tilting his body to tip the weight of the building off of his back and allow it to fall into the courtyard. As he tilted, the third floor of the building entirely collapsed and crashed into the second floor. The force of the fall flattened Ryoki against the ground. Flaming wreckage collapsed around him, entirely concealing his body in the fire. Nanako roared rage and frustration as she threw her body against the front of the building. The remains of the upper floors tilted backward and exploded into flame as they fell toward the inner courtyard. She thrust her arms into the center of the second floor to prevent its collapsing weight from landing on Ryoki. The structural beams cracked under the strain. The building disintegrated into burning wreckage that knocked her over as it toppled into the street. Nanako pushed herself back to a standing position. She lifted chunks of flaming detritus and flung them. Her huge arms grappled flaming beams as she dug through the fire looking for her partner.

Kana stood frozen and uncomprehending on the sidewalk. As Nanako searched through the fire, Kana could take no more. She turned and ran without thought or direction. She had no sense of whether she was running toward something or away from something. She felt only blind panic as she ran through the empty streets of the city. 

The sky was beginning to lighten as Kana’s exhaustion overtook her. She recognized a familiar alley and she walked into it. She climbed a ladder and settled into one of her sleeping boxes, nestled underneath the eaves of a store. She lay there, breathing shallowly and holding her knees, drifting in and out of sleep. 

Two days passed that Kana did not later remember. Una brought her food and water. Kana stayed in her sleeping box and stared at the birds and clouds. Sometimes she would dip briefly into sleep and then wake screaming.

The funeral took place on a grassy hill with a view of rice fields. Ryoki’s enormous body was covered in a huge white sheet. It looked like a small house draped in a table cloth. Guests stood scattered around the hilltop. Humans in black kimonos were interspersed with steambots. Heavies stood in a wide perimeter, their black armbands fluttering in the wind. Nanako knelt by Ryoki’s body, covering her face with her hands.

Kana walked through the gathering. Her eyes were weary and she dragged her feet. Una trailed behind, close enough to catch Kana if she were to fall. Una saw Saga in the crowd.  She pulled Kana gently by the hand and brought her to stand beside Saga. Una tapped Saga’s hand, who looked down and noticed Kana wearily bobbing her head and drooping where she stood. Saga knelt down and placed a hand on Kana’s arm. Kana climbed weakly into Saga’s lap and rested her face against Saga’s neck. Exhausted tears poured down Kana’s cheeks. She had enough strength to lift her arm around Saga’s shoulder. Saga held her tight, kissed her head, and ran her fingers through Kana’s hair. In just a moment Kana was asleep. Saga held her while the priest chanted the sutra.

Chapter 6

The Go Game

Chiyoko grasped the handle of the cable car and stepped on board. She took a seat on one of the wooden benches and looked out at the sidewalk and the pedestrians. On the bench next to her, two children in school uniforms chatted playfully. The bell rang and the cable car began to move. 

She watched store fronts and scenes of morning life in the city. After a few stops, a mother and two young children got on board, then an old man and his puppy, and later an old woman carrying flowers. As the cable car moved up the hill, more of the city became visible. Water towers, elevated trams, office buildings, and city hall appeared on the skyline. One by one, the passengers stepped off the cable car until only Chiyoko remained. The cable car reached the end of the line, halfway up a tall hill. Chiyoko stepped down to the sidewalk. Then she gave an appreciative curtsy to the cable car driver. The cable car waited on its platform for its departure time to travel back to the city. Chiyoko began walking up the hill.

The sidewalk became increasingly patchy until it was only a dirt path. Chiyoko stopped to admire the new spring leaves of maple trees and the abundant blossoms of cherry trees. Birds sang. Small fluffy clouds decorated a blue sky. Chiyoko followed the dirt path through the trees until she arrived at a low wooden fence and a gate, which was hanging loosely from its hinges. She opened the gate and stepped through, then followed the path up to the heavy wooden house at the top of the hill. She walked up the steps to the porch of the house. A bell hung from the wall by the door. She paused thoughtfully, then rang the bell. There was a sound of footsteps. 

Toru opened the door. His thin metal frame seemed slightly hunched. He moved with an ancient grace. He said, “Good morning, Chiyoko.” He gestured for her to enter and said, “You do not need to ring, you can just come in.”

Chiyoko removed her shoes at the door and stepped into the vast sparse interior of the house. The dark wood gave the impression that the space was the inside of a tree. The north side of the house was open to the elements and light poured in. Chairs were arranged almost randomly. A few shelves against the east wall held dusty cases and memorabilia. 

Toru moved to the north side of the house, a silhouette against the outdoor light. The slight steam rising from behind his ears was shockingly luminous in the sunlight. 

He asked, “How long has it been?”

Chiyoko replied, “About a year.”

Toru nodded. He asked, “Have I missed anything?”

“Yes,” she replied. She walked next to Toru and looked at the light reflecting off the metal of his face. She did not try to hide her sad tone as she said, “You always miss things because you stay here.”

Toru looked out over the hills and the city. Then he turned and walked back into the darkness of the house. Chiyoko walked over to the go board on its table. She picked up a black stone from its bowl and placed it onto the board.

Toru heard the familiar clicking sound and turned his head. He asked, “Are you challenging me?”

Chiyoko assumed an innocent tone. She said, “I am just placing a piece…” then trailed off with an amused humming. She walked over to the shelves and looked over them. She ran one finger through the dust on the top shelf. She asked, “Have you been eating well?”

“Yes,” he replied.

Chiyoko hummed her amusement again. She asked, “Bamboo charcoal?”

Toru walked to the go board and looked at it. He said, “Yes, the bamboo grove on this hill has been very productive.” Toru took a white stone from its bowl and placed it onto the board.

Chiyoko sat down in a chair next to the go board. She asked, “And your water is clean?” She placed a black stone onto the board.

Toru sat down across from her. He said, “The stream is very clean.” He placed a white piece. He picked up a dried piece of bamboo from the floor next to his chair. He said, “The dry bamboo is very strong. It can experience significant force and only bend a little.” He grasped the bamboo with both hands. He continued, “But it is not flexible.” In his hands, the dry bamboo made popping and crunching sounds. It split, splintered, and then broke. He picked up a green piece of bamboo, and then he bent and twisted one of its leaves. He said, “The bamboo leaves; however, are very flexible, but they are not very strong.” The leaf ripped in his hands.

Chiyoko sat looking at him intently. Her arms were folded in her lap. Her only movement was her slow breath of steam.

Toru continued, “The green bamboo sticks are a better combination of these properties. They are both strong and flexible. They can bend in the wind and also stand under their own weight.” He looked at Chiyoko and sighed a brief puff of steam. He said, “I must be boring you.”

Chiyoko shook her head slightly. She said, “No. This is why I came here, even though I don’t know what this is yet.”

Toru picked up another dried stick of bamboo and turned it in his hands. He said, “I feel that I have lost my flexibility, my ability to change my mind.”

Chiyoko said softly, “You can change your mind if you want to.”

Toru looked out at the trees and the sky. He said, “I feel that I am just an ancient stratbot, living alone with my regret and shame.”

Chiyoko said, “Regret and shame… everyone feels these things. These feelings do not isolate you.”

Toru glanced down at the go board and placed a stone. He said, “I was supposed to be better than this. I should be better than this.”

Chiyoko said softly, “Ah. That belief, perhaps, can feel isolating.” She placed her stone and looked at Toru.

Toru stood up and walked to the shelves, stopping in front of a wooden case. He opened the case and looked at the contents, a shiny metal arm. Chiyoko turned to look at him and then looked away. 

Toru said, “I keep this here for you.”

Chiyoko replied, “I know. I do not want it.”

Toru asked, “Why will you not look at it?”

Chiyoko sighed a slow exhalation of steam. She lifted the sleeve of her kimono to reveal that her arm, from the elbow down, was a polished metal chainsaw. She recited, as if it were a poem, 

It was Harua 

where I traded my left arm 

to build our defense”

She continued, “When we heard the Kogen shogunate was coming to our city, we cut the wood from our houses to build a wall. I needed to work fast. I made a choice, and I have not unmade that choice.”  

Toru held his hand above the metal arm in its case, looking at the way the sunlight reflected off its polished surface. He responded, 

“I searched the city

To recover what you lost

But you will not look” 

Toru closed the case and returned to his seat by the go board. Chiyoko rested her arm in her lap, leaving the sleeve pulled up to her elbow.

Toru picked up a stone from its bowl and looked at the board. He said, “I find that I want to lose this game. I want my reasoning to be wrong, so that my expectations may also be wrong, so that I will feel hope.” After a long moment of hesitation, he placed the stone onto the board.

Chiyoko softly said, “You can feel hope if you want to.”

Toru said, “You could stay here, with me, if you wanted to.”

Chiyoko said nothing, looking at the board.

Toru said, “Except that no, you probably could not. You crave experience and sensation. To stay here, you would starve.”

“I don’t know about that,” Chiyoko replied. 

A long moment of silence passed. Toru and Chiyoko alternated placing their stones onto the board. Toru’s white stones aggregated into regimented, methodical, and calculated positions. Chiyoko’s black stones emerged as elegant, responsive, and improvised forms.

She looked at the board and asked, “Do you think that Father intended us to be different in this way?”

Toru exhaled a short breath of steam. He asked, “Why do you call him that?”

She asked, “Do you think that Natsuo intended us to be different in this way?”

Toru sighed slowly. He said, “I apologize for being short with you.” He looked away and said, “I do not know what Natsuo… what Father… intended for us.” He looked back at the go board and continued, “but I feel that I have failed to do it, whatever it might be.” He leaned back in his chair. He said, “The board is filling up. The pieces are taking their places.”

Chiyoko replied cheerfully, “I was contemplating my next move.” She stood up, still looking at the board. Then she looked up at Toru and said, “Please excuse me.” She walked to the front door, put on her shoes and exited.

Toru leaned his head back and laughed softly. He said, “That is a strong move.” He waited by the board, wondering if she would return, then stood up and walked to the north side of the house, looking out over the hill and the city. A pair of meeks scurried underneath the floorboards. Birds hopped and tweeted in the trees. On the horizon, voluminous clouds paused above rice fields.

The hinges of the front door squeaked. Chiyoko entered carrying a small branch of a cherry tree. She removed her shoes and walked quietly to the shelves, then placed the branch on top, adjusting it so that the cherry blossoms were pleasingly arranged. She turned to look at Toru, as if accounting for his presence when deciding how the branch should be placed. She made one final adjustment and then gave a small nod of approval. 

Toru walked to the center of the room and looked at the cherry branch and the shelves. He said, “A beautiful arrangement, thank you.”

Chiyoko replied, “You are welcome.”

Toru said, “The branch seems to be cut very cleanly.”

Chiyoko reflexively straightened and looked at him. Toru glanced down at her left arm, now concealed by the sleeve of her kimono.

She said, “Yes! Of course I used my arm!” 

Toru nodded slowly, carefully. Chiyoko regained her composure, then slowly softened. Her patient exhalation of steam dissolved into a quiet laugh. Toru tilted his head ironically to the side. Chiyoko’s laugh relaxed to a cheerful giggle.

She said, “I have decided my next move.” She walked to the go board. From the sleeve of her kimono she withdrew a single cherry blossom, which she placed at the center of the board.

Toru looked at the cherry blossom and then at Chiyoko. He said, “Often, the center of the go board is the weakest move.”

Chiyoko replied, “Do you have a countermove?”

Toru laughed and said, “I do not.”

Chiyoko said, “You did say that you wanted to lose so that you could believe that your expectations were wrong. Did you expect this?”

Toru laughed again. He said, “I did not.”

“Then perhaps you got what you wanted,” Chiyoko commented.

“Yes. I did,” answered Toru.

Chiyoko hummed playfully and noted, “And you did not even need to lose.”

Chapter 5

The Mine

Kisho walked up the stone steps carved into the side of the hill. From the top he looked out over the pit mine and the gray hills beyond it. The terraced layers of the mine extended deep into the ground, but the pit was so wide that it was difficult to discern the actual depth. Heavy industry steambots walked slowly across the gigantic landscape. Each of them was the height of a house, but the far ones seemed to be tiny bugs crawling across a scale model of a vast stony terrain. The gray clouds overhead cast a diffuse light and the entire scene seemed vast and timeless.

The supervisor, perhaps thirty years old, appeared from the other side of the hill and he approached Kisho. He stopped, bowed formally, and introduced himself. “Kisho-san! It is an honor to meet you. I am supervisor Nobuki.”

Kisho had gotten used to not needing to introduce himself. He was the only senior member of Henjo heavy industry with a scar running from his temple to his jawline. Kisho responded, “Supervisor Nobuki, thank you for taking the time to meet me.”

The supervisor bowed and gestured for Kisho to follow him. They walked down a long path toward the mine. 

The supervisor said, “I have been the supervisor at this site for eight months. I was previously a manager of materials and logistics at Henjo corporate headquarters. Henjo prefers that its senior managers have direct experience on site, and for that reason they offered me the opportunity to supervise this mine.”

Kisho said, “It is a very distinguished position, congratulations!”

The supervisor said, “Thank you! I am learning a lot from my work here. And all of the other staff know to only follow my instructions when I tell them to do the right thing.”

Kisho laughed. He said, “I am sure that the staff also appreciate humility.”

The supervisor clapped his hands to his side and bowed formally. He said, “Thank you, sir!”

The supervisor brought them to the open structure overlooking the mine. From there they could see the heavy industry steambots digging and carrying rocks with their enormous shovel hands. Kisho noted the way that the desk vibrated when the steambots moved. The supervisor’s teacup rattled when the huge shovel hands excavated stone.

The supervisor noted Kisho’s glance and said, “Kisho-san, may I offer you some tea?”

Kisho shook his head. “Thank you for the offer, but no.” He looked out over the pit and remarked, “I worked here at one time, almost twenty years ago. This location has a certain nostalgia for me.”

The supervisor replied, “I feel that I have much to learn.” He said, “There are still so many noises that I cannot identify.” There was a slow and distant rumbling. The supervisor continued, “That sound, for example, is still unclear to me.”

Kisho smiled. He gestured toward a pair of bots. He said, “Do you see those two bots standing near each other?”

The supervisor squinted. He said, “Yes! I do see them.”

Kisho said, “They are rolling a boulder back and forth between them.”

The supervisor squinted more and leaned slightly forward. He said, “Ah, yes. I see that now. Thank you, Kisho-san! It is the rolling of the boulder that makes the noise.”

Kisho said, “This is not quite accurate. Those two bots are playing.”

The supervisor furrowed his brow. He asked, “They are playing?”

Kisho said, “Yes, they are playing a game. They are rolling the boulder. But it is not the rolling of the boulder that makes the noise.”

The supervisor tilted his head. “I see,” he said slowly. “What is it that makes the noise?”

Kisho smiled. He said, “The bots are laughing.”

The supervisor turned to look at Kisho, then quickly turned to look back at the bots. He said, “The bots are playing a game and the noise is the sound of their laughter.”

Kisho nodded.

The supervisor asked, “Should I order them to stop?”

Kisho controlled himself to not laugh. He said, “No, they are having fun.” The supervisor said nothing so Kisho continued, “Fun is good for them.”

The supervisor looked at Kisho again and then back to the bots. He asked, “The fun serves a purpose?”

Kisho accidentally let a tiny laugh escape, but he concealed it by clearing his throat. He said, “Yes. The fun serves a purpose, but sometimes the purpose of fun is best served if one does not worry too much about the purpose of fun.”

The supervisor replied, “Ahhhhhh… soooooo.” Then he took a small notebook from his coat pocket and began writing. He said, “Please excuse me, Kisho-san, while I write down this most interesting observation.”

Kisho nodded seriously.

The supervisor finished writing and looked up again. He said, “Fun serves a purpose!”

Kisho nodded again and said, “Yes, fun serves a purpose. You should try to have a little fun every day.”

The supervisor clapped both his hands to his side and bowed. He said, “Yes! I will!”

Kisho nodded seriously again.

The supervisor looked up toward a foreman who was waiting politely. The supervisor turned toward Kisho and said, “Would you please excuse me, Kisho-san? There seems to be a small matter that requires attention.”

Kisho nodded and said, “Of course.”

The supervisor bowed and stepped away to speak with the foreman. 

Kisho shook his head and whispered to himself, “Did I really just give him orders to have fun?” He cleared his throat and looked down. He shook his head again and said quietly, “It is probably not helpful to attempt to clarify the situation now, it would only confuse things more.” 

The supervisor returned and asked Kisho, “Please excuse me, Kisho-san, but I wonder if I might inquire about a minor matter?”

Kisho shivered slightly then calmed himself. He said, “Of course!”

The supervisor said, “The heavy industry corporations have undergone consolidation recently. Certain business practices have become standardized. While there are fewer independent firms, the corporations that are still competitive are experiencing a thinning of the profit margins.”

Kisho nodded.

The supervisor continued, “At this point, the two main competitors are Henjo and Hayachi.” The supervisor paused and gathered himself, then he continued, “Hayachi heavy industry is very dependent on its mining operations for its materials. It has very few independent suppliers. This is also true of Henjo heavy industry.” The supervisor paused one more time before finishing, “If Hayachi were to have some problem with its heavy steambots… if they were to get out of control… it is likely that the Kogen shogunate would feel compelled to respond.” He turned toward the mine, clearly tense.

Kisho nodded. He said, “That would certainly affect the business environment in heavy industry.”

The supervisor said, “Even a minor problem with Hayachi bots would require extensive involvement of the shogunate. Hayachi heavy industry would be significantly impaired for at least a year, quite possibly much longer than that. During that time, Henjo heavy industry would have almost monopoly control over the market.” The supervisor continued, “And it would be easy to create evidence that Hayachi bots were not adequately controlled, even if that were not actually the case.”

Kisho nodded again. He said, “Henjo heavy industry is in a similar position. Both Henjo and our competitor, Hayachi, are at risk of such evidence being created.”

The supervisor exhaled slowly. He said, “This is the nature of my concern.”

Kisho said, “In this situation, both Hayachi and Henjo are motivated to act first. Only ethical self-restraint would prevent either corporation from creating evidence that indicates that the other company is experiencing difficulties with rogue steambots.”

The supervisor nodded. He said, “When I heard that you were coming to visit this site, I was hopeful that I would have the opportunity to talk to you.” He turned to look at Kisho, bowed, and said, “You have a reputation for de-escalating conflict.” The supervisor continued, “I hope that I have not bothered you with this minor concern.”

Kisho nodded and said, “Thank you for bringing this issue to my attention.” 

In the mine, the steambots were piling gravel into funiculars that traveled along rails up and out of the mine. Wind swirled dust and created small whirlwinds. The rumbling noises of bots were interspersed with the clanging and general din of heavy industry.

Kisho tilted his head to the side, looking thoughtful. The supervisor began to speak but Kisho held up his hand, requesting quiet. After nearly a minute, Kisho walked to a rack of colored flags and pulled out an orange flag. He held the flag thoughtfully for a moment and then waved it back and forth over his head. At dozens of locations around the pit, similar orange flags waved in response. Deafening steam whistles sounded, two short blasts. The pattern of whistle blasts repeated three times. All around the pit, motion stopped. The work site, previously raucous with activity, became suddenly quiet.

Kisho stood with his head tilted to the side and his brow furrowed. The supervisor stood next to him, waiting. Nearly a minute passed in stillness. Then there was a faint rumbling sound. Kisho tilted his head quickly, attempting to discern the direction of the sound. There was another stretch of silence followed by a second rumbling. Kisho put his hand down.

The supervisor asked, “Thunder?”

Kisho nodded slowly, “Yes.”

The supervisor picked up the red flag and looked at Kisho. Kisho nodded. The supervisor waved the flag over his head. All around the work site other red flags appeared. The steam whistles sounded, three long blasts followed by two short ones. The pattern repeated three times.

The steambots roared to activity as their engines restarted. Plumes of smoke and steam erupted from their stacks. The bots near the rim of the mine turned and began walking.

Kisho asked, “How long will it take them to reach shelter near the lightning rods?”

The supervisor said, “Usually about eight minutes.”

There was a long silence as they watched the steambots moving toward shelter. Eventually Kisho said, “I assume good intentions.”

The supervisor turned toward him and said, “I am sorry, Kisho-san, I did not understand.”

Kisho said, “The way that I de-escalate conflict is to assume good intentions. Everyone believes that they are doing the right thing. I simply try to understand what right means to them.”

The supervisor said, “Ah. I see.” He nodded slowly, then he gestured toward the mine road. He said, “Kisho-san, I would be honored to give you a tour of the mine.”

Chapter 4

The Night Market

The moon was high above the silhouettes of rooftops. Yellow light emanated from windows. The warm spring evening encouraged even reticent citizens to emerge onto the city streets. Laughter and excited chatter echoed from open doors. 

Saga and Chiyoko walked toward the glow and bustle of the night market. Saga’s silk sleeves whispered softly as she walked. Chiyoko’s mechanical steps emanated a soft whirring noise. 

Saga noted playfully, “Chiyoko, even in this humidity, your steam is barely perceptible.”

Chiyoko laughed, a cheerful humming sound. She said, “One strives to balance elegance and efficiency.”

Saga responded, “I admire such ability to be graceful even as measured by the laws of physics.”

Chiyoko replied, “I have learned much grace from my time with you, my friend.”

The night market was boisterous and crowded. Food vendors were set up in corners and available spaces. Ladies in elegant attire glided alongside their friends and partners. Music and exuberant conversation spilled out of open doorways. 

Saga stopped at a food vendor to examine the goods. The steambot did not look up from its work, it simply called, “Welcome!” to her as it continued preparing the food. Its food cart was small and efficient with space enough for chopping, frying, and serving. The steambot’s knife moved so swiftly it could barely be seen. Each time it began chopping, the whirring sound of its gears would rise in volume. The shiny steel knife would begin to flash and fly through the vegetables. Then the entire diced vegetable was swept into a bowl. When all of the contents were assembled, the steambot stirred the bowl for just a moment. Dough was rolled, cut, then wrapped around the filling. Neat packages were swept into the oil which rolled, spat, and boiled. “Dumplings!” called the steambot as it brought out another batch of vegetables to begin dicing. 

Saga paused, looking at the dumplings. She said, “I love these… but perhaps it is better to acquire them on the way back.”

Chiyoko nodded an acknowledgement and replied, “It would be easier to eat them at home. Or, at least, it would be easier to eat them on the walk back when it is less important to keep one’s fingers clean.” 

Saga looked at her fingers and nodded. 

A cluster of people was gathered around a small group of street performers. A man was playing a shamisen and singing. Two nubots were performing a slow dance. Ladies in the crowd cooed, “Look at their little kimonos!” The nubots, slightly taller than waist high, did their version of a kabuki performance. All artistry was lost. The nubots simply moved from one memorized position to the next, often forgetting parts and then rushing back to do them before continuing. The raw naivete of the performance made it fresh and riveting. A crowd of people accumulated around the performers. The man sang.

On the mountain top

On the fallen autumn leaves

Snow fills the forest

A child tugged her mother’s sleeve and said, “It’s Ginji and Michiko!” The nubots danced the story of the tragic couple. Their families forbid them to be together so they ran away. A snowstorm caught them in the mountains and they were trapped in a cave. The song continued.

Will spring soon melt this prison?

Answer prayers. Set us free. 

A few ladies shed elegant tears, but the clumsy bounciness of the nubot performers stole laughs from them as well. The nubots finished and performed their memorized bows and curtsies. They could see that the crowd was excited and they became excited as well, seemingly not realizing that the excitement was because of their performance. The mother handed a few coins to her daughter. Her daughter walked slowly forward and held the coins to nubot Michiko. Nubot Michiko received the coins into her hand and performed the memorized curtsy. The child ran back to her mother.

Saga and Chiyoko entered the garden courtyard in front of the theater. Clusters of people were gathered around fountains and small trees. Loud conversation competed with the noises of the performance from inside the theater. Elite socialites drifted in clumps, many of them costumed like the characters in the performance.

From inside the theater came the familiar call, “Where is my brother?” 

The audience inside the theater was joined by the audience in the courtyard as they called, “Where is Hideshi?”

Even in the courtyard, people dressed as Haruki threw up their hands and called, “Where is my brother?”

Then there was the pounding of the drums representing the falling of the walls of the city of Harua. Audience members came pouring out of the theater carrying planks of wood that represented the city walls.

Saga and Chiyoko moved away from the outer path around the courtyard so that the audience members could circle the courtyard before returning to the theater.

The amateur historian who was speaking to them raised his voice to be heard over the clamor. He said, “It is widely believed that the city of Harua was under siege by the Kogen shogunate for twelve days. This is not entirely accurate. The steambot uprising actually began nearly four weeks before the walls of Harua fell. The Kogen shogunate had already surrounded the city for twenty days before Harua was successfully breached.”

Saga nodded. “That is so interesting,” she said.

The historian turned to Chiyoko. He said, “May I inquire as to your name?”

She said, “My name is Chiyoko.”

He said, “Chiyoko-san, by any chance related to the famous Lady Chainsaw?” He paused and said, “I apologize. I intend no disrespect.”

Chiyoko nodded. She said, “I have had a few names, and this is one of them.”

From the theater came the sound of drums. The performers shouted, “Hideshi is dead!” The audience responded, “O Hideshi! Hideshi!” The performers shouted again, “Hideshi is dead!”

The historian remarked, “This performance of Over the City Walls is one of the loudest in any city I have visited. I know this, but I keep coming back anyway… perhaps for that reason.”

When the performance ended, the audience spilled out into the garden. The crowd mingled in the cool spring night until the first hints of morning light began to appear. 

Saga and Chiyoko began walking back home. The night market and street were sparsely populated. Clusters of people were scattered like the glowing charcoal remnants of a fire. Chiyoko stopped at the dumpling vendor and bought a small bag of fried dumplings for Saga. They continued their walk.

Saga thanked her for the dumplings and said, “I hope that it was not too awkward for you to spend the evening at a performance of Over the City Walls.”

Chiyoko said, “It was fine, but thank you for thinking of me.”

Saga said, “The way they portray the steambots in the play is not… always flattering.”

Chiyoko said, “The drama needs to have villains for the story to work.”

Saga replied, “I worry…”

Chiyoko waited a moment and then prompted her, “What do you worry, my friend?”

Saga shook her head. “I worry,” she said, “that we tell ourselves stories that need villains for the stories to work.”

Chiyoko made a soft humming sound. After a long silence she said, “I do not know. It seems that people are eager to fill the role of hero, or sometimes victim… and both of those roles work better if there is a villain to defy.” Chiyoko looked over the rooftops toward the hint of sunrise. She said, “I was present at the city of Harua.”

Saga turned and looked at her.

Chiyoko said, “I was inside the city of Harua during the… uprising.”

Saga gasped, “I had no idea.” She said, “That was a hundred years ago. I forget sometimes that you are… two hundred… how old…”

Chiyoko interjected, “It is not polite to ask a lady her age.”

Saga erupted in a short squeak of laughter that dissolved into two tears running down her face. She turned and rested her face against Chiyoko’s shoulder. Chiyoko put one arm around Saga.

Saga lifted her face and wiped her eyes. She said, “I have been thinking lately… Just generally, in the abstract, I am afraid of people… because I don’t know what they’re thinking, but if it’s anything like what I am thinking then… it is crazy.”

Chiyoko laughed, a series of chirping humming noises that slowly trailed off. She said, “I know what you mean. That kind of mutual fear seems very familiar. I sometimes feel afraid of the things that people might do because they are scared or angry.”

Saga replied, “And I sometimes feel angry about the things that people have already done because they were scared or angry.”

Chiyoko said, “The mutual fear and the mutual anger seem to be just features of society, in the same way that fear and anger are features of each individual.”

Saga asked, “So how does this ever change?”

Chiyoko took a long moment to reply. She said, “I think there is no policy or individual or institution that can remove this mutual fear from society. It is for the same reason that there is nothing that can cause an individual to never feel fear again. Individual fear and mutual fear are just a part of life. We learn how to recognize these feelings and work with them. If we get good at that, then we can respond calmly to situations even when things are difficult.”

Saga brushed hair away from her face. She sang 

“Will spring soon melt this prison?”

Chiyoko continued

“Answer prayers. Set us free”  

Saga said, “Let’s pray at home, with sunrise and dumplings.”

Chapter 3

The Monk and the Steambot

The steambot stood holding the broom and staring blankly at the carpet of red leaves. Light mist blew over the mossy roof of the monastery. Drops and trickles ran down the metal face and body panels of the steambot. As it stood there, it let out occasional puffs of steam from behind its ears. Mist and steam mixed together in the gray light of the cloudy morning.

A monk walking on the leafy path stopped and greeted the steambot. “Good morning,” he said.

The steambot let a slow sigh of steam escape, still staring at the thick layer of red leaves that covered the path around the meditation hall. 

The monk asked, “How are you?”

The steambot replied, “Broken.”

The monk nodded, acknowledging the response. He said, “Is there something that I can help you with?”

The steambot sighed another long puff of steam. “Maybe,” it sighed. “I don’t know.” It bent its torso from side to side. “Could you look at my left side? It feels wrong.”

The monk knelt down and opened the latches to the steambot’s left body panel. The panel swung open with a squeak. The monk looked inside. “Lift your left arm,” the monk said. The steambot lifted its arm. “Bend forward and backward,” the monk said. The steambot bent forward and backward. The monk said, “This all seems to be fine.” He closed the body panel and stood up.

The steambot asked, “Are you sure? I feel broken.”

The monk asked, “Broken how?”

The steambot shifted its weight from one foot to the other. “I have bad thoughts.” It looked over the roof of the monastery, then continued, “but I don’t want to say what they are.”

The monk nodded. “Sometimes I have thoughts that make me uncomfortable.”

The steambot looked at the monk and then looked away. It asked, “You have bad thoughts?”

The monk thought for a moment. He tilted his head from side to side and said, “Yes. I have bad thoughts.” He smiled.

The steambot let out a huge puff of steam. “What?” The steambot tilted its head and looked down the path between the trees. It said, “But I was trying to be like you. I thought that you only have good thoughts and I thought that I was failing to only have good thoughts like you.”

The monk nodded. He said, “Well, I suppose you now know that you are doing a better job of being like me than you thought. I have bad thoughts all the time.”

The steambot slowly vented a small cloud. It said, “But… you… seem so good.”

The monk said, “I try to do good things. I try to say good things.” He looked at a small puddle. He said, “I think of lots of things that I do not say. I also think of lots of things that I do not do.”

The steambot made a frustrated grinding sound. It asked, “You are not really good? You are just pretending?”

The monk smiled. “I apologize if I gave the impression that I was only having good thoughts.”

The steambot said, “But you at least try to stop yourself from having bad thoughts.”

The monk said, “I usually just allow myself to have thoughts of any kind. Trying to stop myself from thinking about something would just be another thought on top of the first thought. It would be like wearing a hat on my hat.”

The steambot made another deep grinding sound and released a puff of steam. It said, “I think I am wearing at least five hats.” The steambot asked, “But if you don’t try to stop yourself from thinking bad thoughts, then what stops you from doing and saying bad things?”

The monk looked down the leaf covered path. He said, “I do judge my thoughts. Sometimes I judge my thoughts as true or not true. Sometimes I judge my thoughts as angry or hasty or incomplete.”

The steambot asked, “Sometimes you judge your thoughts as things that you do or do not want to say?”

The monk nodded. “Yes. And sometimes I judge my thoughts as things I do or do not want to do.”

The steambot said, “But you said that you have bad thoughts.”

The monk smiled. “I have thoughts that would be bad if I did them or said them.”

The steambot made a grinding noise. It asked, “How do you know if a thought would be bad to do or say?”

The monk said, “I guess I don’t know for sure if something would be bad or not. I just try to make my best guess. Sometimes I want to do something hasty or angry but I try to remember that those choices do not usually work well with other things that I want. Then I just try to breathe and take my time before making a decision so I can choose something that does work well.”

The steambot tilted its head. It said, “You just try to breathe? Like when you meditate?”

The monk nodded. “When I meditate I have many thoughts. I use my meditation time to acknowledge my thoughts and then let them go.”

The steambot asked, “Do you have bad thoughts when you meditate?”

The monk said, “Well… Probably most of my thoughts when I meditate are bad thoughts.”

The steambot let out a deep grinding noise and a cloud. “What?” It tilted its head back and forth. “I thought your mind was blank when you meditate. Or at least I thought that you were only thinking good thoughts.”

The monk smiled. “No.” He shrugged and said, “I have lots of bad thoughts when I meditate. It takes lots of thinking to find good and useful thoughts. Most of my thoughts are just things that I think while I am finding my way towards something good. Sometimes it takes me a long time to get to good things like peace, joy, and forgiveness.”

The steambot said, “Maybe I am also trying to find my way to something good.”

The monk said, “I have faith that you can do a good job.”

The steambot said, “I am having one thought right now.”

The monk raised one eyebrow and asked, “And what might that be?”

The steambot began sweeping the leaves off of the path. It looked at the monk and said, “I think that I have more work to do on these leaves.”

Chapter 2

The Shrine

Kana and Una stood waiting to cross at the intersection. A tall man stood next to them. 

Kana turned and looked up at him. She asked, “What time is it?”

The man turned and looked down at her, noticing her for the first time. He said, “How old are you? Ten? Shouldn’t you be in school?”

Kana continued to stare up at him, offering no answer. 

He sighed and pulled out his pocket watch. He said, “It is eleven fifteen.”

Kana jolted to alertness. She turned and shoved Una. “We’re late!”

Una, her nubot, turned her white plastic shield of a face toward Kana. “We’re late!” echoed Una. 

Kana turned and ran down the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians and bicyclists. Una followed, her light plastic body bouncing and clicking as she ran behind Kana down the street and into an alley.

Kana squatted over a metal grate and looked both ways to make sure that no one could see her. She lifted the grate on its hinges. The conspicuous squeaking noises were drowned out by the grinding squeal of an elevated trolley. Kana slid easily into the manhole and began climbing down the ladder to the tunnel.

At the bottom, Kana looked up to make sure that Una was following her, and then she began running down the dark tunnel. In the center of the tunnel were the cable car tracks. On the sides of the tunnel were raised walkways for service personnel. As Kana ran, she was passed by cable cars rumbling by. Each car was only a few meters long, but their enormous mass produced deep booming and clanking as they traveled down the track.

Kana reached the intersection of two tunnels. She paused for a moment, trying to remember where she was going, then she turned left and continued running. The dank tunnel was illuminated by sparse electric bulbs and the light coming in through the metal grates overhead. In that dim and spotty light, Kana tried to distinguish the subtle chalk marks she had put on the walls a few days previously. She reached a spot in the tunnel marked with a small white X. Kana sank down to the walkway, leaning against the wall. She gasped huge gulps of air. Then, slowly, she tipped back onto the walkway and sprawled out. The tunnel was empty and silent in both directions. Una sat down on the walkway, then sprawled out onto it, imitating Kana. 

Kana looked at her nubot and used her foot to nudge Una’s plastic arm. Kana groaned and scolded Una. “We’re late! You were too slow.” Una made a soft electronic groan, imitating Kana. 

Kana put her arms over her face as her breathing slowed from gasping to heavy panting. Then, from the depth of the cable car tunnel, came a rumbling and clanking.

Kana sat up, suddenly alert. Far down the tunnel appeared a hint of light. Then the light became a bright point. As the cable train came closer, the headlight widened from a point to a circle. Kana popped up to a crouch and hid behind a steel support beam. She motioned Una to join her. As the cable train rumbled past, Kana counted the cars, memorizing the number and contents. 

As the last car clanked by, Kana turned to Una and smiled. She said, “Good job, Una! You did good.” She stood up and looked down the tunnel. She said to Una, “Come on, lazy, we have a meeting.”

Kana and Una walked down the tunnel to a ladder and Kana climbed up. She waited at the top of the ladder listening. When she did not hear anything, she pushed open the metal grate and poked her head out. She looked out at a scenic city park with large trees, moss-covered boulders, and a quiet pond. A woman stood with her back to Kana, looking at a map. The woman’s small dog looked directly at Kana, alert and deciding whether to bark. Kana put her finger to her lips to encourage the dog to be calm. The small dog shuffled its posture back and forth, uncertain whether to begin yipping.

Kana climbed out of the manhole and dusted herself off while Una climbed out and closed the grate behind them. The two of them walked calmly but with purpose down the garden path and out of the exit. 

They arrived at the shrine entrance and Kana told Una, “Wait here. Chirp twice whenever anyone enters.” Kana bowed at the shrine entrance and walked to the fountain to cleanse her hands. She knelt in front of the shrine and waited. 

To her left, a man with a deeply scarred face began to speak. He said, “For so long, I have been haunted by memories and ghosts. The past felt full with the faces and places that I could not allow myself to confront. My ghosts had things to tell me that I could not stand to hear. But now, in my loneliness, I go to them and ask my ghosts to speak with me because I feel that they are my only friends.” He paused, sighed, and looked down at his hands. Then he lifted his head and continued. “And my ghosts did speak with me. And I remembered the things that I tried to forget. But a surprising thing happened.” He smiled, then continued, “My ghosts became bored with me. They said what they wanted to say and then lost interest in haunting me.” He pulled an incense stick from the jar and lit it in the candle. He bowed with the incense three times and then stuck it into the incense holder. 

He stood up and turned slowly away from the shrine. He paused and looked down at Kana, his thoughts suddenly interrupted. Kana turned and looked up at him.

He whispered, “Excuse me, miss, I did not notice you there. I hope that I did not disturb your visit.”

Kana squinted up at him. His head was obscured by sunlight. Kana said, “If it makes you feel better, I am already bored with you.”

He raised one eyebrow. A slow smile lifted the scar on his cheek. He said, “It does make me feel better, actually. Thank you.” He turned and walked down the broad path out of the shrine.

Kana heard two soft chirps and she rolled her eyes. She whispered, “Una, you dumb nubot, I told you to chirp when someone enters the shrine, not when they leave.” Then Kana heard soft footsteps approaching and she whispered to herself, “Never mind, Una.”

Saga approached the shrine and washed her hands in the fountain. She knelt next to Kana. Her fine white silk robes made elegant noises as she settled and rested her hands in her lap.

Kana looked over at Saga’s distinguished features, noting again the way that Saga seemed both fragile and strong. Kana turned back towards the shrine and said, “Do you have my money?”

Saga dipped a hand into her purse and displayed silver coins on her open palm. Kana glanced over, and whispered to herself as she added up the amount of money that she saw there. 

Kana turned back toward the shrine and said, “There were two cars of just copper cylinders… two centimeter diameter… maybe two meters long.” 

Saga asked, “Cylinders? Were they pipes?”

Kana replied, “I don’t know if they were pipes, but they probably were. They had threaded ends.” She waited for any more questions, then continued, “There were four cars with vertically arranged glass panes. They appeared to be twenty centimeters by one meter each.”

Saga nodded, “Their most recent model has needed some repairs. They are probably just restocking the inventory to handle any customer requests for panel replacement.”

Kana continued, “There were three cars that each had large spools of rubber tubing, one centimeter diameter. The tubing was not steel belted. I could not see a manufacturer name.” 

Saga frowned. She said, “Tubing? Non-reinforced tubing? Why would they need that?”

Kana said, “Then there were eighteen cars that had only enclosed crates. They were labeled Hayachi lab supply. The crates had no other labels and did not appear to be reused.”

Saga nodded slowly. She said, “Eighteen cars of lab supply is too much to be a restock of their research department. They must be expanding their research or else starting a new division.”

Kana said, “That was the whole train.” She looked at Saga’s purse. She said, bluntly, “Pay me.”

Saga’s hand dipped into a brown paper bag and pulled out a rice ball wrapped in dried seaweed. She said, “Eat this first.”

Kana responded, “That was not part of the deal!”

Saga replied, “I am renegotiating.”

Kana said, “I don’t want it.”

Saga said, “I would appreciate it if you would humor me.”

Kana grasped for a reason not to take the food. She snapped, “How do I know that it is not poisoned?”

Saga pulled the rice ball back as if she had been bitten. She gasped, “I’m so sorry!” She collected herself for a moment, then said, “Of course you must be careful not to just eat things that people give to you. I apologize. I did not think of that.” Saga shifted slightly with consternation and discomfort.

Kana continued to stare straight ahead, still angry about someone telling her what to do. Then she said, “I changed my mind. I want the rice ball.”

Saga, “No, it was my mistake. I apologize for not realizing how cautious you need to be.”

Kana said, “I want it!”

Saga continued to sit, motionless, unsure how to proceed.

Kana demanded, “Give it to me!”

Saga handed the rice ball to Kana, who shoved it into her mouth in two giant bites.

Kana tried to speak around the rice ball to say, “It needs soy sauce,”  but she merely made incomprehensible noises and spit bits of rice and dried seaweed onto her lap and the ground.

Saga reached into the brown paper bag and pulled out a small ceramic bottle with a cork stopper. She removed the stopper and placed the bottle on the ground. She said, “In case you would like some soy sauce.”

Kana looked at Saga and at the small bottle. She tried to chew the rice that was so voluminous that she could not close her mouth. The bottle sat between them while Kana awkwardly made her way through the rice and swallowed it. When she was finished, Saga placed the coins on the ground between them. Kana scooped them up and they immediately disappeared into a pocket of her jacket.

Saga closed her eyes, trying to stop herself from speaking. Finally she asked, as if begging, “Are you warm enough at night?” There was no answer. When Saga opened her eyes, the spot next to her was vacant. She turned to look behind her and saw that Kana was already gone.

She looked up to the monk who was lighting incense. She deposited a few coins into the donation and said, “A prayer for my friend, please.” Saga took a stick of incense, lit it, bowed with it three times, and then placed it with one slightly shaking hand into the incense holder.

Chapter 1

The Watchmaker

The police officer glanced down at the gutter and sighed with frustration. A pair of meeks were running around puddles and making their way purposefully towards an alley. The police officer put her watch away and began following the meeks, already suspecting where they were going. The tiny meek feet pattered over a metal grate. Their small mouselike bodies clambered over pipes and steps. The police officer could try to catch them, but that was not her job, and it would probably not serve her purpose. The neat crisp material of her uniform made a smooth zip zip noise as she followed them down the alleyway.

The spring weather made the alley cool. Even the bold spring sunshine did not illuminate much of the narrow space between the buildings. Pipes vented steam, which rapidly cooled and condensed on the stone and metal surfaces. Drips of water ran down the walls and puddled around copper pipes. 

The police officer followed the meeks until they ran, oh-so-predictably, into the side entrance of the watchmaker’s shop. She allowed herself a brief sigh of exasperation, then rounded the corner onto the street and stepped into the watchmaker’s front entrance.

After her eyes adjusted to the dim indoor light, she saw the watchmaker with his back to the door, bent over his desk. She was preparing to clear her throat to politely announce her entrance when the watchmaker turned around and acknowledged her with a small bow.

“Good morning!” he said. He set his tools down and came to the front counter as if he had no idea what the police officer might say.

“Good morning,” the police officer said. The slight lack of enthusiasm in her voice conveyed the fact that this was an official visit and would include a scolding.

The watchmaker ignored the tone of voice and said, “It is a pleasure to receive this guest.”

The police officer continued with her official tone, hoping to make her point with a minimum of nonsense. She said, “It is my pleasure to visit,” but she spoke without the usual indications of polite pleasure. She continued, “As part of my visit, I hope to mention the city’s recommendations regarding combustible hygiene.” 

The watchmaker replied, “Thank you so much for taking the time to remind citizens of the combustible hygiene recommendations!”

The police officer continued, “With regard to the presence of meeks, it is of great importance that citizens remember the rules.”

The watchmaker replied, “Of course, of course! Small combustible materials are easily available to meeks, and such would certainly result in more meeks in the future.”

The police officer continued, “Inspections, of course, should not be necessary,” she paused, then continued, “though a continued presence of meeks may, in some cases, indicate that an inspection may be called for.”

The watchmaker nodded. “Mentioning the importance of combustible hygiene inspections is greatly appreciated,” he said.

The police officer nodded briefly and bowed. “Okay!” she said, then chirped, “a good morning to you!” With that, she exited the shop.

The watchmaker waited until she was gone. He turned around to his work desk. A nubot was sitting on his desk playing with the finely crafted metal case of a pocket watch.

The watchmaker looked at the nubot. The nubot looked back at him, its large black eyes peering into his, its white plastic shield of a face tilted slightly.

The watchmaker said to the nubot, “Nubots always seem so curious. Is it because you can never remember anything from before the last time that you have recharged?”

Another nubot emerged from the supply closet. It hopped up onto the work desk. The first nubot shoved it back, trying to keep space on the work desk all to itself.

The watchmaker said to them, “Okay, okay. There is space for everyone here.” He reached into his apron pocket and pulled out a meek. “Here,” he said, “you may find this interesting.” He set the meek on the desk between the two nubots. The meek was chewing on a tiny scrap of cloth.

The watchmaker laughed and poked his finger through a hole in his apron pocket. He said, “It must have gotten that while I was talking to the officer.”

One nubot picked up the meek and held it in its hand. The other nubot looked up at the watchmaker. 

The watchmaker said, “The meeks are very mysterious. We do not know who makes them and we do not know why. They have technology that is beyond anything we can produce. How can something so small and plastic run on the power of steam? When we try to create parts that small, we must use batteries, like yours, that must recharge. The meeks, though, they are free from recharging and they are free from the power grid. They scavenge bits of combustibles and burn them in their tiny internal engines.”

The nubot looked down at the meek and poked it with one short plastic finger. The watchmaker reached into his apron and handed the nubot a small handful of sawdust. The watchmaker said, “You can feed it this.”

The nubot put the sawdust onto the desktop. The meek ran to the small pile of combustibles and began to vigorously consume it. 

The watchmaker looked thoughtfully at the bright sunshine framed by the front doorway of his shop. He said to the nubots, “I should not tell you any of this, of course. But, you will forget it all when you next recharge.” He looked back at the meek. As it ate, small puffs of steam emerged from behind its ears.