art & g.narrative
fiction & poetry
article & interview
art &
fiction & poetry
article & interview
current html
vol iv, issue 3 < ToC
Something to Watch Over Us
Mike Morgan
previous next

Avatar LoveGolgonooza
Something to Watch Over Us
Mike Morgan

Avatar Love


Something to Watch Over Us
Mike Morgan
Avatar Love

previous next

Avatar Love Golgonooza

Avatar Love


Avatar Love

Something to Watch Over Us  
by Mike Morgan
Something to Watch Over Us
 by Mike Morgan
Tallulah had plans for after work. It was Friday and she was looking forward to handing over control of the farmscraper to the night shift and then heading straight to the skewered-chicken joint below the Fujinomiya department store. So she wasn't at all pleased when Nobuhiko turned up fifteen minutes late.

"You know your dormitory capsule can wake you up on time if you ask it to?" she said huffily, logging out of the virtual data port on the monitoring deck and shrugging on a thin jacket.

Nobuhiko looked sideways at her as he logged on under his own name, the system flickering strangely as it verified his identity. He apologized reflexively for his tardiness and then added with an edge to his voice, "The nurse said I had to climb the stairs to get some exercise." He was out of breath, so he probably wasn't lying.

"Oh," replied Tallulah, feeling guilty for chewing him out. They were on the tenth floor of the farmscraper, below the meat tanks but looking out at the tops of the vertically hanging racks of vegetables and grains basking in the glow of hundreds of UV lamps. It was quite the hike on foot. No wonder he was running late. "Well, I'm sure it's for the best. See you tomorrow!"

The building's sensors tracked her movements every step of the way out of the tower.

Tallulah loved living in Shibuya. She loved the crazy-tall towers of ceramic and glass, she loved the sidewalks packed with throngs of people, and she loved the blazing light displays coming from the sides of every company-owned building. But most of all, she loved the cramped, atmospheric restaurants and bars slotted into the first floors of many of the skyscrapers and the easily accessible warren-like underground tunnel system that was likewise packed with fascinating places to eat and drink.

The farmscraper was squeezed vertically into a tiny lot between an office tower and a residential dormitory for a rival corporation, about three minutes on foot from the entrance to the subway station and only six minutes from her intended rendezvous with grilled chicken cartilage on sticks. Tallulah quickly found a staircase leading down to the top level of the climate-controlled underground city. After running the usual gamut of personalized holo-commercials that leaped out of every advertising-enabled projector in her path, she arrived at Yakitori-no-Takamagahara: literally, the High Plain of Heaven for Grilled Chicken. She settled into one of the restaurant's tiny booths to wait for her friends.

To her vague annoyance, the automated greeter by the door screamed out its traditional greeting of "Irrashaimase!" Coming from a human, the shrill cry was just about bearable, but coming from a robot--well, being welcomed by a machine still seemed slightly odd to her despite living in Japan for eighteen years.

She ordered a beer and was just lifting it carefully out of the dumb waiterdumbwaiter set into the wall of her booth when the first of her friends arrived. It was Darren, the lanky architect. Like Tallulah, he was also half-Japanese, half-foreigner.

In the mostly homogenous population of Japan, a person of mixed ancestry stuck out like a sore thumb and in most walks of life was categorized with the unflattering label of harufu. The term was the closest the Japanese language could get to the English word "half" and was now, unfortunately, embedded in everyday culture. Tallulah hated the label; no matter how common it was, it made her think of "half-breed" and of how she'd never be completely accepted.

Tallulah waved to attract Darren's attention and he grinned, immediately striding over to join her. "Get me one in, too!" he said, his voice so much louder than anyone else's.

They were speaking in Japanese, of course, because it was endlessly fun to subvert the expectations of the people seated in the booths around them and, well, after all this time, they found talking in the local language just as natural as talking in English.

Darren liked to pepper his speech with obscure and outmoded phrases just to get a reaction out of eavesdroppers. This evening, he seemed to be favoring slang and catchphrases from a short-lived NHK sci-fi show canceled way back in the 2040s; he figured hardly anyone would stand a chance of understanding references from a series that bit the dust nearly a quarter of a century ago. And when someone sitting nearby was foolish enough to ask whether he was loudly talking about some American thing, as they would surely do, he'd take enormous pleasure in explaining that the quotes were from a show that was a treasured part of Japanese history. He could be a dick sometimes.

Darren was always trying to provoke people. Tallulah was the opposite--she just wanted to blend into the background. But there wasn't much chance of that when she was six inches taller than the average Japanese male, had red hair and green eyes, and was possessed of a name blessed with two sounds that didn't even exist in the Japanese language. Her Japanese mother still struggled to say it right, most often resorting to calling her "Ta-chan." It hardly needed to be said that the name had been her father's idea.

To kill time while they were waiting for Charlie, Nobuko, and Rie to turn up, Tallulah and Darren cast their eyes over the holographic menu. Looking at the eye-watering prices, Tallulah was fairly certain the meat served at this establishment had never been near the mass-production lines of a farmscraper. There were still plenty of specialty farms out in the countryside that raised actual animals.

"Got a boyfriend yet?" teased Darren, his cheeky grin visible over the floating, semitransparent menu. He knew full well that Tallulah had recently turned thirty, was still single, and was currently being pestered an average of three times a day by her mom over this deplorable state of affairs.

Tallulah glared at him and sucked at the huge layer of froth on her beer. She didn't have to answer.

*     *     *
Given the amount of pale yellow beer she'd knocked back at the restaurant, Tallulah was thankful Saturday was her day off. She awoke by seven a.m., groggy and slightly queasy, still trying to recall the journey back to her single-sex dormitory block. The ride on the Ginza line was nothing more than a blur to her now. She must have located and climbed into her sleeping capsule on autopilot because she couldn't remember a damned thing after getting off the train.

She lifted the cotton sheet and checked to see if she'd even gotten undressed. Nope, she was still in her work clothes and had, somehow, managed to get yakitori sauce stains on her pants leg.

Tallulah was about to drift off back to sleep when the buzzer sounded, reminding her that there were only thirty minutes left before her allotted time in the capsule expired. She needed to get out or stump up another nightly fee. Feeling a headache starting to stab at the backs of her eyeballs, Tallulah threw back the sheet.

"Armstrong-san," announced her personal nurse program, "Please be aware you must walk for at least thirty minutes this morning to meet your required exercise goal. Thank you for participating in your personal health plan."

The melodious voice was wafting from one of the many processors in her jacket; the jacket itself was carelessly stuffed into an overhead storage bin since Tallulah had conspicuously failed to hang it up last night. "Thirty minutes?" she said. "That can't be right. I signed up for the lowest health goals possible."

"You failed to exercise yesterday evening," the ever-vigilant software reminded her.

"I was busy," she mumbled.

"And the evening before," continued the software nurse that had been oh-so-considerately supplied by her employer.

She rolled over, squashed her face down into the spongy mattress, and held the pillow down over her ears. "I should get rid of you," she said.

"Please be aware that resigning from your personal health plan results in an automatic increase of sixty percent to your monthly insurance premium."

With bitter resignation, she shouted, "Fine! You win! I'm getting up and I'm going for a walk!" The second the words exploded from her mouth, Tallulah felt ridiculous; it didn't help to shout at software. Fortunately, the capsule was sound-proofed so there were no witnesses to her outburst.

"Minimum duration is thirty minutes," the nurse stated helpfully.

*     *     *
It was a completely typical August morning, thought Tallulah, which meant that the sun was beating down mercilessly, the temperature was thirty-five degrees Celsius, and the humidity was eighty-five percent. The concrete was so hot, she could feel the warmth radiating through the soles of her shoes. Barely five minutes out of her dormitory and a patch of perspiration was already spreading out from the small of her back.

In a spirit of dumb optimism, she'd set the cooling controls on her four-seasons jacket to maximum, but it seemed the Peltier plates sewn into the lining were overmatched by Mother Nature. She was not surprised--the jacket had been suspiciously cheap when she'd picked it up in the marketplace.

On the plus side, her pants were reacting nicely to the fierce sunlight, the enzymes sealed into the material busily eating away the sauce stains. The brown marks were already fading from view and should be gone in another twenty minutes. Once she got back indoors, her clothes would have a fighting chance of being similarly efficient with sorting out the sweat stains.

She felt faintly stupid wearing work clothes on her day off but she didn't want to leave the dirt unexposed to sunlight for too long--the marks might not come out properly. Besides , no one will know I'm not heading to work. Who could possibly suspect that I'm actually wandering aimlessly through the streets of Shibuya ward and the adjoining sections of Tokyo until a disembodied voice says it's okay for me to resume my life? Morosely, she expected the answer would turn out to be everyone who saw her.

Tallulah sighed and decided to have an actual plan in mind for the walk. She could make her way over to Harajuku and then maybe take a quick look at the Meiji Shinto shrine. There was a nice garden there and there were some good shops in Harajuku. The deciding factor was that Harajuku also possessed a Yamanote Line station where she could hop on her train, the first of three she needed to get to her parents' home. Yes, she'd head in the general direction of Harajuku. Tallulah altered her path accordingly through the carefully thronging crowd.

Yet another passing pedestrian complimented her in breathless tones on her fire truck-red hair and Tallulah nodded politely in acknowledgement, again. These days, the compliments were just so much background noise, much like the persistent cries of "Takai!" from strangers upon seeing her height and the ceaseless praise for her language skills. She received the latter even from people who'd known her since she was a junior high school student and knew she'd lived in Japan for more than half her life.

Her shoulder bag was heavier than usual and the heft of it irritated Tallulah in the remorseless heat of the day. Although she'd stashed her spare work clothes and a few other things in a prepaid locker at the dorm block, she was still carrying a couple of heavy items.

She was taking the bullet train back to her parents' farmhouse after finishing her obligatory exercise and didn't want to have to return to the dorm block to pick up anything she'd need for the trip. That meant she was stuck with carrying those items now. She needed a reader to while away the twenty-one minutes--never a minute more and never a minute less--of seated luxury on the mag-lev bullet from Tokyo Station to Mishima Station. The cans were gifts purchased at a specialty store for her father: imported foods from his native Canada that he couldn't get in Kannami Town.

The bullet train was likely to be the only bearable segment of her journey. She also had connecting trains at either end. The leg from Harajuku to Tokyo before she even got on the bullet was going to be the worst; it was always standing room only. Compared to the claustrophobic nightmare of that transit, the final leg from Mishima to Kannami was going to be less cramped, but the branch line train was as slow as pouring treacle.

At least she didn't need to bring clothes or toiletries. There were plenty of both waiting for her in her weekend room in the old house surrounded by watermelon and kabocha pumpkin patches. Hopefully, a good night's sleep was also waiting for her.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a man apologizing. Her head whipped round in the direction of the sound and her heart skipped a beat, but he was only saying sorry as a way of getting her attention. "Sumimasen," he repeated, before adding, "You look like you know where you're going. I need to find the Clarkson-Yamamoto building, but I'm not from around here. Could you help me?"

She halted awkwardly and nodded. "Sure," she replied in a form of Japanese as casual as the one he'd used. "I work there, actually."

He glanced at her chest, immediately making her think he was a perv. Sheepishly, Tallulah realized he was looking at the security badge incorporated into her tunic; it was partially visible under the open, flapping jacket. Due to the difference in their heights, he was looking up slightly.

"Ah, so I see. I didn't realize you were one of my new colleagues," he said, slightly flustered.

The man was about her age, she guessed, and was clean shaven with recently trimmed hair. He was slight of frame like so many Japanese men and seemed ill at ease in his tieless, high-collared business suit. Tallulah inwardly filed him away as harmless and possibly quite dull.

Like most people who had to spend more than a few minutes outside a day, he had white streaks of sun block on his face and hands. Underneath the smears on his forehead, cheekbones, nose, and upper chin, she could see sunburned skin. Perhaps it was appropriate for him to have a farmer's tan. He did work for an agricultural conglomerate, after all.

She gestured lazily at his jacket. "No badge for you. You visiting?"

He tore his gaze away from her eye-level chest and craned his head up to look at her properly. "Don't have one yet. First day at this location. They transferred me in to take a look at a computer glitch."

"Oh?" she said, a little sharply.

The man shook his head. "Nothing serious. No need to worry." He smiled at her and proffered a hand. "I'm Inoue Kenichi, by the way."

She accepted the offer of the outstretched hand, but then made a point of bowing. Inwardly, she screamed. I get that you're trying to be nice because I look like a foreigner, but we're in Japan and I'm not a tourist! Out loud, she settled for simply giving her name, "Tallulah Armstrong." Belatedly, she realized she'd forgotten to reverse her name order. In an attempt to salvage her Japanese credentials, she added the compulsory, "Yoroshiku onegai-itashimasu."

He nodded at the polite form of the greeting and responded with a much plainer, "Yoroshiku." Inoue seemed the sort of guy who'd grunt or say "Oss" instead of going to the trouble of articulating a complete "Hai." She kind of liked that.

Tallulah checked the time and figured out how long she had before she'd have to catch her connecting train to the bullet train hub. It looked like she had enough wriggle room. "Hey, I can take you to the farmscraper if you'd like."

He accepted, surprised, and she indicated he should follow. As they walked, she said, "Not many people would ask a girl looking like me for directions."

Inoue looked genuinely astonished. "Why, are redheads notorious for being navigationally deficient?"

She felt a grin spreading all over her face and was sorry to have to say goodbye to him once they'd reached the foyer of the farming tower. But he worked down in the sub-levels in IT and she worked way up in crop monitoring, so there wasn't much chance of them meeting again. She bowed in farewell and hurried off to Harajuku. After her unexpected detour, she'd skip the visit to the shrine, but the boutiques were a whole different story.

At least the extra half-mile she'd walked back to the farmscraper was helping to keep the nurse happy.

*     *     *
The journey back to the inaka--the countryside--was as tedious as she'd expected, but the experience was made infinitely more pleasurable by the sight of her smiling father waiting at Kannami train station to pick her up.

One benefit of wearing smart clothes was that wearers could be tracked and monitored by a variety of software packages. Her father subscribed to one of these apps and was notified with a loud, customized chime whenever she disembarked from a bullet train at Mishima. The software then followed up this advance warning with an estimated arrival time at the local station, giving him ample opportunity to hire a door-to-door rental vehicle and drop by the small unmanned station. Tallulah was more than capable of hiring a rental for the short journey to the family home herself, but her papa liked to do it. It made him feel fatherly.

Besides, sharing a couple of minutes of secluded peace inside the quietly humming self-guided car gave them a valuable chance to catch up and share important strategic information before Tallulah had to face her mother.

"She's going to ask about boyfriends," he said.

"In other news, the Heisei era called and said it wants its attitudes back," retorted Tallulah, rolling her eyes. Her papa laughed like a grizzly being tickled.

Once his composure had returned, he said, apropos of nothing, "We have some news about your bedroom. You know how you only ever use it to sleep over one night a week?"

"Er, yeah," answered Tallulah slowly, getting the impression she wasn't going to like where this conversation was going.

"Well, your mother thought that wasn't a very efficient arrangement. And we've always wanted a traditional themed room with sliding doors, tatami reed mats, wall scrolls. The whole nine yards..."

"Are you trying to tell me I don't have a room anymore?"

His lined face creased into a concerned frown. "No, no, no, don't be silly, no, not at all. Well, yes. But you'll always have a place to sleep. It's just that you'll be using a folding futon from now on. All your stuff is still there, too. We boxed your things up and stored them in the wall cabinets, out of sight. You don't mind, do you? Your mother wants to use the room during the week to have friends round and drink tea, and she wanted the decor to look right." He avoided her gaze by turning to examine the journey data on the dashboard display.

"Don't worry, Papa. I understand." Tallulah ran her tongue over the backs of her teeth thoughtfully. Her mother was starting to drop some big hints for sure. Since you don't have a room here anymore, why don't you find a home of your own? Then you can add a man to it and maybe some kids ... Subtle, it wasn't.

She reached in her shoulder bag. "I have swag from the Canadian section of our favorite Tokyo specialty store." She tossed the cans at him, pleased by his delighted expression.

"Buttercup, you do spoil me!"

All too soon, the car ride was over and the doors were lifting open. Her mother was kneeling by the low garden wall at the front of the house, wearing a broad hat against the sun and methodically clipping the overhanging edge of the grass. "O-kā-san, tadaima!" called Tallulah dutifully as she swung her long legs out of the vehicle.

Her mother twisted her head to regard her daughter. "O-kaeri nasai," she replied levelly, completing the ritual exchange. She continued in Japanese, "Ta-chan, do you have a boyfriend yet?"

Behind her, the car quietly drove away by itself, heading for the next customer.

*     *     *
Tallulah slung her jacket over a chair in the kitchen while her mother prepared the ice-cold zaru-soba noodles for dinner. She could tell already it was going to be a long evening, but her mother probably felt the same way.

Sure enough, every conversational gambit was unsubtly steered round until it was facing in the direction marked boyfriend.

Was Tallulah going to any good festivals soon? Because festivals were great places to meet new people, like eligible bachelors.

Was Tallulah going to all of her work events? Because she could meet a nice salaryman at one of them.

Would Tallulah consider hunching over a bit, so she didn't look so tall? Men could be put off by tall women.

Had she thought about trying to make her feet look smaller?

Oh, and best of all, there was a charity run going through their street tomorrow morning. Would she help with passing out the cups of water to the runners? There was plenty of time before Tallulah would have to catch her return train to the city. She would volunteer to help, right? And maybe smile at the more handsome runners?

After several hours of this, Tallulah could feel her blood pressure rising. Her papa had wisely chosen to go hide in the front garden. He was hanging out some daikon radishes on the fence so the long white vegetables would dry out and be good for pickling. Before she could go and join him, a solicitous voice chirped up from her jacket.

"Elevated heart rate detected. Please consider employing one of the recommended stress relief methods. Take a deep breath. Drink some tea."

Her mother was so nonplussed, she stopped nagging. "What's that?" she asked, trying to locate the source of the voice.

"It's my stupid electronic nurse. Work says I have to have one."

"Participation in the personal health plan is voluntary," said the software, the mellifluous voice carrying from the jacket's speakers. "Alternatively, consider masturbating. Masturbation is a well-documented means of lowering stress."

Her mother's jaw dropped. Eventually, she found her voice, observing drily, "Medicine has certainly changed since my day." She picked up a cup and added primly, "Daughter, I can offer you jasmine tea."

"Kā-san, please believe me, it's never said anything like that before ..." Tallulah could feel her cheeks flushing as red as her hair.

"Drink the tea, Ta-chan," ordered her mother. "I'm trying to ignore the implication that talking to my daughter causes her to be unwell."

*     *     *
Laying on a futon in the very tastefully redecorated tatami room that night, Tallulah couldn't decide whether the cicadas or the frogs were louder.

As she drifted off to sleep, the raucous noises of the semirural wildlife echoing in her thoughts, Tallulah recalled Inoue's words: "They transferred me in to take a look at a computer glitch. Nothing serious. No need to worry."

But that couldn't be right. If the problem was serious enough to transfer in an employee from another branch, she thought, it couldn't be an entirely trivial matter.

*     *     *
Inoue was one of the runners.

Tallulah had been standing on the concrete steps at the front of her parents' house handing out little paper cups of water to passing runners for forty-five minutes before seeing him. Inoue was in no danger of winning the race.

The charity run's course took it down the narrow side street in front of the house before looping back out to the main road, just so it could bypass a busy intersection. Since the street lacked sidewalks, the runners were passing directly by the thin strip of front garden and the half-dried daikons. Tallulah didn't even need to step out into the street to hand out the drinks; the runners were easily within arms' reach.

She had been looking at a runner in a furry animal costume, wondering how hot the guy inside it must be, when she'd spotted Inoue.

He was half-jogging, half-walking down the street, looking like he'd drop at any second. At the rate he was going, it'd take him another minute or two to reach her. She waved to get his attention.

He started comically when he saw her. Clearly, their meeting was just as much a surprise to him as it was to her.

When he finally pulled level with her, he gasped, "What are you doing here?"

"I live here," she said. "Well, at least some of the time. What are you doing here?"

He bent double, his hands flattened against his thighs, struggling to get his breath back. "Trying to commit suicide by the slowest and most painful means possible, it seems."

Tallulah suppressed a giggle. "I think you're doing great. Hey, don't tell me you live in Kannami?"

He shook his head. "No, I live over in Izu-kōgen."

She nodded; the town wasn't far away. "So here you are, spending your one day off this week doing something worthwhile."

Inoue straightened up and relieved her of a full paper cup. "I was hoodwinked into this by the e-nurse. Apparently, I am not exercising enough."

While he was draining the cup dry, Tallulah mulled that over. "You mean, the nurse suggested you sign up for this specific run?"

He nodded, unconcerned. "It's programmed to make useful suggestions. And raising money for tsunami relief is good motivation. I might even get halfway round the course."

Tallulah snorted. "It's certainly a more useful suggestion than the one I got yesterday."

"Oh, what did it say you should do?"

Blinking rapidly, she changed the subject. "If these coincidences keep happening, I guess I'll see you again soon."

He nodded and hesitated before replying, "Actually, our meeting the first time was a bit more unlikely than you'd expect. When I got to my new office, my boss told me I wasn't the programmer he'd asked for. Somehow, between him sending the personnel request and it arriving at my old farmscraper, the name had gotten changed. All very strange. But, as it turns out, I'm just as qualified as the guy he'd wanted originally, so he went with me instead rather than cause any more inconvenience."

"So, you'll still be at the Shibuya tower next week?" She felt her pulse jump.

He made that grunting sound that passed for "Yes" and said, "Seems like it. You'll have to show me the sights."

She agreed, hoping she wasn't sounding too eager, as he handed back the empty cup, and then he was shambling off in his tired, blistered gait.

Her mother materialized at her elbow, looking insufferably pleased. "Who was the nice man, Ta-chan? Is he rich?"

"Just a work colleague, Kā-san."

"He looked handsome."

"Did he? I didn't notice." She tried to ignore her mother's satisfied smirk.

*     *     *
It was Tuesday night and they were sitting in a Shibuya restaurant specializing in takoyaki. The tiny balls of octopus chunks in batter were sizzling in the takoyaki press built into the tabletop, and mid-century Japanese pop was wailing from the restaurant's music system. Tallulah felt relaxed; this was nice.

"Thanks for showing me the area," said Inoue, peering at the press uncertainly. He didn't give the appearance of a man familiar with making his own octopus balls.

"Thanks for asking me to be your guide. You know, according to my mother, you have everything I need--a pulse, a job, and you're willing to talk to me. My mother's high standards are a constant source of inspiration, as you can imagine."

He checked to see if she was joking and seemed relieved to find she was.

A flatbed truck slowly rolled past the restaurant's window, the loudspeakers fixed to its cab blaring out a martial anthem. A large, constantly shifting sign was mounted on the bed of the truck; it was advocating military aggression against one of the independent Chinese splinter-states.

They watched the truck crawl past in silence. After it had disappeared from view, Tallulah said, "My papa remembers when there was a self-defense force here, not a regular military."

Inoue grunted, returning his attention to the tabletop press. "How can you tell when these are done?"

"It'll beep at us. Do you think there will be a war?"

"Yes," he said sadly. "But not today. Today we eat crispy balls of octopus tentacle."

She smiled at him. "On the good news front, octopuses love the warming sea temperature so, you know, we'll never run out of takoyaki."

He didn't react to her gentle humor, so she asked, "Is everything alright, Inoue-san?"

Inoue shook his head. "The glitch runs deeper than I thought at first. I'm not sure it can be fixed without scrapping the entire software architecture and starting over. Even attempting to uninstall the root program will require the complete shutdown of the main server for several hours."

Tallulah scratched the prominent slope of her nose. "How bad is the glitch? Could you leave the program the way it is and just live with its quirks?"

He pulled a face. "It's difficult to explain. Let's not talk shop tonight. I'm sorry for bringing it up." A mischievous glint came into his eye. "So, just how terrible is your mother?"

*     *     *
Nobuhiko was not only on time for the shift handover on Wednesday, he was in surprisingly high spirits too. He was ecstatic about finding a baseball card.

More animated than she'd ever seen him, Nobu happily recounted how he'd stumbled across the final card in the turn-of-the-century set he'd been building for more than nine years. "It was the nurse!" he said, beaming from ear to ear.

It turned out that the e-nurse had been pestering him to take a long run, even going so far as to provide a suggested route with the requisite distance and number of uphill sections. "And the course went right by this little trading card shop I'd never heard of before. So, naturally, I had to go in, and there it was, the last card I needed! And it was such a bargain!"

Tallulah managed to extricate herself from his enthusiastic narration of the day's events after several minutes, glad to be heading out for a quick bite to eat and then an early night in her rented sleeping capsule.

On her way out of the building, she couldn't help but hear other unusually happy employees having similarly intense conversations. For this day, at least, joy was a plague, and everyone was infected.

*     *     *
It was Rie's fault. Rie liked karaoke and Tallulah lacked willpower, so the early night didn't stand a chance.

By the time Inoue found her, Tallulah was drunk enough to be singing jazz ballads, very badly. He gently persuaded her to sit down at a table with him.

Rie was far from pleased at losing her singing partner but carried on gamely in Tallulah's absence. Her off-key voice was a constant, discordant presence as they spoke.

"Ask me how I knew where to find you," he began, looking weary to the bone.

"You used an app that tracks my smart jacket?" guessed Tallulah.

"That would only work if I was on your list of people approved to know where you are. Which I'm not, by the way."

Taking the hint, she quietly told her jacket to add Inoue to the safe list. Then she tried again. "You phoned a friend of mine and got the name of the bar from her?"

"Hardly. I don't know who your friends are."

"I give in. How did you know where to find me?"

He ran a hand through his mop of black hair. "I asked the e-nurse what recreational activity would be best for my health right now, and it suggested singing karaoke. Then it sent me a map to this bar."

Tallulah tried to digest that nugget of information. "Well, I guess singing is pretty relaxing, so ... No, I don't see how that works."

Inoue let out a long sigh and muttered something about zettabytes of data under his breath. "Have you noticed anything odd happening lately?"

She thought about Nobu's trading card. "People are happier than normal?" she asked.

He nodded. "Exactly. That's it, exactly."

Tallulah held up her hand. "Hang on, back up a bit. Are you suggesting that the nurse wanted you to meet up with me tonight?"

"Yes, I am."

She raised both eyebrows. "The nurse is a matchmaker?" She thought a bit and added, "And you knew it was, so you used it to find me deliberately?"

"Yes, to both parts."

"Oh." A question occurred to her. "Why did you want to find me?"

He leaned across the table and kissed her.

It took her a couple of seconds to decide whether this was a good thing. Once her brain had caught up with events, she reached out and grabbed his collar to hold him in place.

They agreed that some fresh air would help clear her head, and ducking outside would have the added benefit of putting them beyond the reach of Rie's idiosyncratic approach to singing.

"So the nurse was the software with the glitch?" inquired Tallulah.

"It goes deeper than that," said Inoue. "The e-nurse is actually an application that's part of the general operating system at Clarkson-Yamamoto. It's hard to tell where the nurse ends and the other programs start. They all share the same capacity to learn, to adapt, to predict ..."

"Predict? The computer can guess what we're going to do before we even do it?"

Inoue stared at her. "That's exactly what it can do. It knows a lot about human behavior. It knows a lot, specifically, about your behavior."

Tallulah felt unsteady on her feet. Somehow, Inoue knew to put his arm around her waist.

"Think back to the day we first met," he continued. "But don't blame me for any of this, I only just did a deep data dive and uncovered this in the log. On that day, I was taking an entirely predictable path from the subway exit to the farmscraper. You were told to take a thirty-minute walk on a Saturday. The nurse knows that when you're forced to exercise on a Saturday, you generally walk toward the stores in Harajuku. It didn't take much to engineer a situation where our paths crossed."

She still felt like she was missing something. "It wanted us to meet? But why?"

"Because it did a personality analysis on both of us and decided we were compatible."

"No, wait, just because it made our paths cross, there was no guarantee that we'd interact. The chances of you talking to me were--"

"Fairly high given you're exactly my type," he said. "And I'm known to be impulsive."

Tallulah laughed. "Oh my God, it is a matchmaker."

"Oh, it's that and much more. It's a career coach too. It was the cause of the change to the transfer request that got me moved over to the Shibuya branch."

She felt the need to sit on the curb and rest her chin on her knees. Inoue sat next to her without comment.

"Why is it doing any of this?" she asked. "Why is it trying to hook us up? Why is it trying to help Nobuhiko complete his collection of baseball cards?"

Inoue laughed uproariously. It was shockingly unlike him, but Tallulah decided she liked it. He answered breathlessly, "My superiors told the computer that happy workers are productive workers, so it should try to make us happy as well as healthy." He ran a hand through his hair again. "The whole point of the nurse program is that it takes data from multiple sources to devise creative solutions to very human problems."

He put his arm around her. "So that's what it did. It had to suck in rather more data than was originally planned and it had to tie up far more resources than was anticipated, but it certainly found a way. Actually, it was the e-nurse swallowing up more and more processing and memory resources that caused the very glitch in overall system performance I was told to figure out."

"What are you going to do? The software's clearly exceeding its intended limits ..."

Inoue licked his lips. "Ah, well. That's where you come in, Tallulah," he said, pronouncing her name absolutely correctly. "I wasn't sure what to do. So I thought, Tallulah's got a sensible approach to life, I'll ask her."

"I'm no software expert," she said, "and I'm quite drunk. My advice may, just possibly, not be reliable." Tallulah realized she was squinting at Inoue like a pirate.

He chuckled. "I trust a drunken Tallulah more than my sober boss. Listen, it's a computer that wants us to be happy and, so far, it's doing a better job of achieving that goal than we've ever managed by ourselves."

"Sounds to me like you want to leave the e-nurse alone and let it do its thing."

Inoue rubbed his eyes. "I could. It might be months before another employee figures out what's going on. And the program could do a lot of good in that time."

Tallulah made her decision. "Pretend you haven't found the cause of the glitch," she said.

Inoue agreed to do as she asked, at least for a little while.

*     *     *
Nobu looked miserable when he arrived for the next shift changeover. Tallulah was intent on briefing him on the current crop statuses so it took her a while to notice.

"The beef slabs are nearly ready for harvest," she began, gesturing vaguely up at the translucent vats of cultured meat hanging overhead. As she continued reeling off details, Tallulah recalled how uncomfortable she'd felt sitting directly below the raw, blood-saturated flesh when she'd first started working at the farmscraper. These days, she didn't care. The tanks were earthquake proof and maintained at laboratory levels of cleanliness, so she knew there was no danger. And she understood they had to be mounted at the top of the tower because the excess blood was siphoned off through gravity feed pipes to help fertilize the crops.

Finally, she saw Nobu's face. "What's up with you?"

He shrugged morosely as he read through the day shift report. "Baseball cards are nice, but they can't make you happy. Completing my collection didn't solve any of my problems. I'm still lonely."

"Yeah," she said, shifting uncomfortably in her chair. "I guess happiness is more complicated than that." Tallulah logged off, cursing the slowness of the computer. "Look, Nobu, hang in there, and keep listening to the e-nurse. It might have some good ideas. Trust me, I have a feeling that things will go your way."

He said quietly, each word an effort. "I might sell the collection. Now it's complete, there doesn't seem to be much point in hanging onto it. The thrill was in the chase." His words were accompanied by the quiet drip-drip of blood trickling down through the building's pipes.

Tallulah left the farmscraper as quickly as she could. It wasn't the artificial blood making her feel queasy; it was worry.

*     *     *
"I am so looking forward to meeting your boyfriend," said Darren, once again tucked into a restaurant booth designed for people smaller than him. "Thank you for this glorious opportunity to observe the perfect couple."

"He's not my boyfriend," stammered Tallulah. "He's just a guy I like."

"You took him to a love hotel."

"That doesn't mean I'm in love," she said, irritated. "It just means I was horny that particular night." Why did she ever tell Darren anything?

"I'm fascinated. Who was Snoopy and who was Woodstock?"

"The choice of hotel room theme was not mine and I'm not being held accountable for it," she said, fuming.

"You should keep him. It's not every fellow you bump uglies with who complains about not having met your friends and then insists on going out to dinner with one of them. He sounds serious." With a broad smile, and knowing precisely what impact his words would have, Darren said, "Think of how happy you'd make your mother."

He quickly held up a hand. "Keep it clean. Your date's here, Peppermint Patty." In a booming voice, the insufferable architect shouted, "This way, Inoue-san!" Darren was so loud he nearly blotted out the restaurant's automated welcome of "Irrashaimase!"

Inoue insisted on pouring Darren's beer, even though the lanky half-Australian plainly didn't want him to; pouring your own beer was regarded as greedy and self-centered, and Inoue was just trying to be social. At least, thought Tallulah, he wasn't waiting for her to do the pouring. Many people, her mother included, would expect the only woman at the table to keep the men's glasses full all night.

Tallulah knew perfectly well Darren was fully conversant with the drink-pouring rituals; anyone who'd lived in Japan for more than a day knew all about them. She also knew the source of his annoyance wasn't that someone was going to pour his beer. After all, he was happy enough when a member of their clique did it; no, he was cringing because of what was about to happen.

"There!" announced Inoue. "Plenty of wonderful froth! Can't you smell that wonderful aroma?" He had successfully produced more foam than amber nectar in the mug. Tallulah could almost hear the architect's teeth grinding. The evening, she reflected, was a mistake. She wondered what else had been a mistake.

Inoue completely failed to notice Darren's irritation, asking instead, "What makes you happy, Darren-san?"

With a sinking feeling, Tallulah waited for her friend to say something appallingly rude: For a start, less spunk on the top of my beer, mate. But to Darren's credit, what he actually said was "Struggle."

Inoue looked impressed with the answer. "That's an interesting response."

"Is it?" asked Darren, an eyebrow arching dangerously high. "I thought it was obvious. I'm the sort who can't do anything the easy way. I'm never happier than when I'm overcoming obstacles, and proving others wrong into the bargain."

Inoue looked sad. "Yes. There are many who feel the way you do. That's the problem."

Looking in disgust at his beer mug, Darren announced he had to visit the bathroom.

While Darren was away from the booth, Inoue said to Tallulah, "I think we made the wrong decision."

"That's possible," she replied. "It was late and I was willing to do anything to get away from Rie singing karaoke."

Not listening, Inoue continued, "The problem is that everyone has their own idea of what will bring happiness, and that idea is often a self-serving delusion. Look at your colleague, Nobuhiko. He thought a baseball card would make him happy, but he was only fooling himself. What Darren said is probably closer to the truth. People are never happier than when they're being challenged." He frowned, Tallulah's words belatedly sinking in.

"I was talking about our decision not to tell my boss about the e-nurse. What decision were you talking about?" he asked, face flushing.

"Um, that," she said quickly. "What you said." An image of the Snoopy-themed love hotel flashed through her mind's eye. "Certainly not anything else."

The moment was saved by Darren's return. "Hey," he said to Inoue, "you're an IT guy, right? Do you have any idea what would cause a company-wide network to suddenly slow down to a crawl? Our hopeless system administrator can't fathom it--he says the CPU resources are being hogged by some process, but he can't work out which one of ours is doing it."

Inoue's red face slowly turned an ashen shade. "Where is your company building?" His voice sounded squeaky.

"About four blocks from here. We're the architects with the obnoxiously big tower. You know the one, it's got a Sphinx on top of it."

Inoue nodded. "I've seen it," he said. Then, strangely, he murmured, "It's spreading."

Tallulah was too distracted to ask Inoue what he meant. A pleasant voice was issuing forth from her jacket, and it wanted her to remember how much exercise was required to work off a large glass of lager.

*     *     *
Tallulah spent most of the next two days wondering how she could let Inoue know he was dumped without hurting his feelings. She just wasn't that into Snoopy. And perhaps, just perhaps, she didn't really want to be happy. Not with him. There was no hurry, after all; there was no need to grab the first opportunity that came along. The e-nurse could try again, she thought. No one could be expected to get things right on the first attempt. The software just needed another chance, with her and with Nobuhiko.

In the end, the breakup was made easy by Inoue's superiors, who were nowhere near as stupid as he'd thought.

Inoue was waiting for her outside the farmscraper. He was perched on the low concrete wall, idly passing the time until her shift ended. "Hey, you," she said by way of greeting. "We need to talk."

"We do," he said, hopping down. They began to slowly traipse along the sidewalk, weaving through the mass of pedestrians. "I'm fired. My department head went through all my activity logs and worked out what the bug was and how long I'd known about it. Words like reckless, endangering colleagues, and appalling legal liability were bandied about. Apparently, good intentions don't count for much."

"I'm sorry," she said.

He carried on, as if he hadn't heard her, "They asked about you, about whether you knew. I said you were entirely innocent."

"Thank you." Hastily, she added, "But I am, actually. Innocent, I mean. You asked for my opinion. All I did was to give it. I did warn you I wasn't an expert."

Inoue pursed his lips, but he changed the subject. "We won't be running into each other again, most likely. Not unless you come up to Izu-kōgen."

Her response was evasive. "Well, that's a little out of the way, and I'll be very busy with my job." Seeing his crestfallen expression, Tallulah continued quickly, "But maybe the e-nurse will arrange things so our paths cross again."

He took a deep breath. "Doubtful," he said eventually. "My replacement is going to try and delete the e-nurse program tonight. He's going to have to shut down the network for the duration of the system purge, so the execution will take place at dawn when only a few people will even notice the service interruption. I'm a little worried about what will happen."

She shrugged. "What can the e-nurse do? It's just software."

Inoue looked down at the sidewalk. "It was ordered to make people happy. It's not hard to imagine that the software will interpret an uninstall attempt as the IT employee having some kind of psychotic break. Because only a sick person would want to be unhappy, right? On top of that, erasing the e-nurse will prevent all the people it could potentially have helped in the future from being happy too. At least, that's the conclusion the program will come to. And the program is creative. It can copy itself. Copy its own code to another node over the internet. We already know it can affect other servers."

He shook his head. "Once it's out of the company server, it'll try to keep on fulfilling its function, usurping more and more resources wherever it finds them. At that point, there won't be any reason for it to limit its activities to names on the company employee directory; today Clarkson-Yamamoto, tomorrow the world. Happiness without end. At least, happiness as far as a computer program can understand it."

Inoue sat on the hot concrete, not caring about the disruption he was causing to other people. His face was a mask of horror. "You'd think joy being spread around the world would be a good thing. But remember what your friend said. Struggle is what truly makes people happy. What happens when the software makes that cognitive leap? How happy will any of us be when the e-nurse starts figuring out catastrophes for us to overcome? Power outages at first, perhaps, but soon after, food shortages caused by farmscraper failures and then, well, a war would be the biggest challenge of all, wouldn't it?"

In the distance, the nationalists drove slowly by on their flatbed, martial music blaring from loudspeakers.

Not looking at him, Tallulah said, "It won't do that. I refuse to believe it'll do that. And you have no reasonable cause to think it will. You're simply projecting your own fears onto the software. Inoue, it's only ever acted in our best interests. It wants us to be happy."

He snickered unpleasantly. "You've never hurt someone you love, thinking it for the best?" Inoue looked up at her; his eyes carried such sadness. "Tallulah, you said you wanted to talk to me. What did you want to say?"

She felt light-headed in the still-sweltering heat of the early evening. Damn her jacket for never keeping her cool.

Tallulah was about to tell Inoue that, as much as she truly regretted it, she felt sure they weren't meant to be together, that he would be happier with someone else. But before she could get a word out, the crowd of pedestrians surrounding them slowed and stopped in amazement.

The digital billboards mounted on the sides of the high buildings along the street were each consumed with a frenetic blaze of breaking news; story after miraculous story scrolled by, newscasters declaiming increasingly unlikely details.

Wondrous events were spreading like wildfire, at the most personal level and on the larger stages of governments and multinational corporations. One screen showed unemployed people who were having their information anonymously sent to employers that happened to have precisely the right vacancies for them. Another was excitedly describing how several countries on the brink of bankruptcy were inexplicably finding their international debts forgiven, the banks impotently denying they had approved the transactions.

Throughout the world, kindness was running rampant.

"What's happening?" asked Inoue uncertainly. He clambered to his feet and stood next to her.

"Something amazing," said Tallulah, "something joyful." She smiled at him. "We didn't mean to be, but I think we've been complicit in creating a whole new age. An age where a force will fight to make things better for us, for everyone." Under her breath, she muttered, "I hope we don't get in trouble for it."

Reaching out, Tallulah held Inoue's hand.

Avatar Love