Malka Older

The sign on the defunct pachinko parlor proclaims 21ST CENTURY, but the style—kanji in neon outlined in individual light bulbs? Who does that?—suggests it was named at a time when that was a bold look toward the future, not a statement of fact that has been accurate for more than sixty years. As Ken watches the sign draw closer and closer on his dashboard, he wonders whether the place closed as a consequence of gambling becoming illegal when that canton split off from what used to be Japan, or whether it was a function of its location on a nameless stretch of highway between two tiny towns, one of which no longer exists. He doesn’t care enough to check. What is important is that it is closed, and likely to remain so, and unlikely to be watched.

He gets a shock as an old-fashioned bicycle toodles by the building on his display, the rider a cocoon of parkas and scarves. It’s a live feed? Ken cares enough to check on that but is reassured to find that the camera has been focused there for almost three years, apparently in response to teenagers joyriding in search of ghosts. Ken shrugs mentally; he’ll have to hope no one who knows enough to pay attention to him is watching. The odds are pretty good, given how many feeds there are out there and how few people know they should be interested in his actions.

After months of campaign research in dense potential domino centenals, the solitude out here is putting Ken on edge. It’s a strange place to meet that happened to be convenient for both him and his contact. He took the ferry over from Korea to the west coast of Japan. The plan was just to pass through Akita on his way here, but he was able to get in a few quick lay-of-the-land surveys and shoot them up the hierarchy in case they either prove to be useful or get someone to notice his initiative and hustle. Akita felt so remote and unnoticed that he broke character a little and went beyond data gathering to do some actual campaigning, but he doubts it had any effect. The same reasons that made it safe made it useless: the people he talked to were callused old farmers and fishermen who believe the election is local and vote for whatever party co-opts their traditional leaders. He tried to suggest to them that the Supermajority was important, that it could be their centenal that decided it, but it wasn’t even that they disbelieved him. They just didn’t care.

In Akita, he rented a mini-motor and crossed Honshu to the eastern coast, following the old high-speed rail tracks that cut straight across the country until his maximum-utility path deviated from them and he had to pull off onto narrow, well-maintained roads in what was clearly the middle of nowhere.

Sure, it’s not one of those centenals in the Gobi Desert or the Australian Outback where the hundred thousand citizens are scattered over hundreds of empty miles. There are towns here, tiny shrunken ones that show up as dots on his map projection, almost lost within the erratic, widely spaced centenal borders. Ken breezes through a couple on his way: white houses with grey slate roofs pitched to let the snow slide off, isolated shops with antiquated signs lit from within advertising Pocari Sweat or Boss coffee. Heavy grey clouds make the sky darker than the snowy ground, but it’s still technically daytime, and most of the light in the towns comes from glowing Information hubs doubling as vending machines. He stops to get a can of coffee at one, his Information visuals projecting translations and explanations next to the product descriptions. Then he roars off, and from there it’s just road and sharp slopes covered with trees. Even Information has little to say here.

Ken pulls his mini-motor off the road well outside camera range of the feed he was watching and walks the rest of the way. Bundled as he is against the winter’s edge, he won’t be recognizable on a feed of that resolution. If anyone happens to be watching they’ll think he’s some local farmer, stepping into the run-down building for a respite from the cold.

Not an undercover political operative slipping in for a meeting he doesn’t want anyone to know about.

Despite not wanting to be visible any longer than necessary, Ken finds his steps slowing as he nears the pachinko parlor. Below the deadened pink neon of the sign, the building is a fading, windowless grey. The smoked-glass door was once automatic, and Ken has to struggle to edge it open. The scant light that makes it into the entrance hallway dies mired in the moldy plush carpet. The next door, only a few steps away, must once have swung open easily to welcome gamblers, but as Ken pushes it, his sleeve wrapped around his hand to avoid touching the crude and dusty alloy of the handle, it stutters along the floor before finally giving in with a screech.

Which is when Ken gets his second unpleasant surprise of the day. Despite his arrival a clean two hours early, his contact got there first.

*   *   *

“You don’t vote?” The girl’s tone rises with the incredulity of someone who has sucked up every mag article and vidlet about this being the event of the decade, the election of the century, the most important vote yet, a chance to change the established order, blah blah blah blah blah. Her echo chamber of friends and rivals does not include nonvoters. She’s come to this supposed voter registration rally not only because it’s the best party on tonight in the greater Río de la Plata area, but also because it feels like virtuous pleasure, an exciting civic duty with a built-in conversation starter. In sum: a semisentient being experiencing the first election she can vote in.

“Nah,” Domaine says, taking a toke. “Why? Do you?”

Girl laughs. “Of course! I’m already registered. Why wouldn’t you vote? I mean, in this election, we really have a chance to change things. Your vote could be the one to make the difference.”

“How do you know whom I would vote for?” Domaine asks. “Your vote and my vote might cancel each other out.”

She’s still smiling, maybe because his voice has a way of making that sound like a sexy proposition, or maybe because of the alcohol and weed, the mild summer air of the dark night, and the sounds of the electric accordion from the stage. “Somehow, I don’t think so,” she giggles, which makes Domaine want to gag, but he keeps his game face on. “Anyway, the important thing is that you vote. It’s all about participation.”

Yes, it’s all about participation. No matter who wins or loses, as long as everyone plays the game. Never mind that half of Buenos Aires belongs to Liberty and is likely to continue to, and the other half has its head up its denialist ass and consistently votes itself into what’s left of the European Union. All this surrounded by a checkerboard of populist and regionalist governments in the provinces, few of them with any centenals outside the southern cone.

“How do you know whom to vote for?” Domaine asks. The girl’s wearing an oil-slick dress, and it reflects the glow of the string of light bulbs swinging above the outdoor bar like fires on the water.

“That’s what Information is for,” she says, giggling again. Which is what Domaine has been waiting for.

“Really? And where do you get your—”

“An afro that big has got to say something about sexual potency.”

Domaine snaps his head around, brushing the incipient ideologue with the edge of his ’do, to see an auburn-haired Asian woman at his right elbow.

“Mizzzzzz Mishima,” he growls, feeling his pulse rate climb.

Mishima is also wearing black but in the thinnest of airy cottons, flowing around her body in a way that probably obscures a few concealed weapons. “Domaine. Imagine meeting you at this party.”

Domaine is too busy imagining those weapons. He considers himself an eminently reconstructed male and is disturbed by how much those images arouse him. Would you be turned on if she held a knife to your throat? he asks himself. Probably, is the even more disturbing answer.

Voter girl is still talking. Domaine runs his right hand through his hair, giving it a subtle twitch by his ear. The magnet in his ring turns off his automatic interpreter, and her Lunfardo patter goes back to being unintelligible. He needs his mojo back. “Party?” he repeats, leaning toward Mishima. “Is that what this is?”

She smiles with dark-crimsoned lips, looks around. “Live music, decorative lights, various recreational drugs,” nodding at the joint between Domaine’s fingers. “Looks like a party to me.”

“Ah,” Domaine takes a long pull from his blunt, as though he had forgotten it was there. “I must have been misinformed. I thought it was a voter motivation drive.”

“I suppose they might be multitasking,” Mishima says. “You looking to sign up?”

“Baby, you can motivate me any time,” Domaine rumbles. He pretends to think about it for a moment. “I wouldn’t have to actually vote though, would I?”

“No, Domaine, you don’t have to do anything at all,” Mishima says, turning away into the crowd. She’s gotten word in her earpiece: they checked him out and found nothing in a long-distance body scan or the records of his recent movements to suggest he’s planning violence. Maybe it’s her narrative disorder acting up again.

But before she can take a step a deep rushing noise builds over the notes of the alt-tango. Mishima swings back around. Domaine has turned too, although she doesn’t realize it at first because his head is silhouetted in the glow of the huge flaming letters rising above the park, igniting one by one:


Domaine laughs with glee and spins back to Mishima, but she has already propelled past him in the direction of the fiery libel.