Fiction – “The Foolish Samurai” by M. Shaw

~ for Maria Leland, time-traveling samurai ~

The samurai is asleep in a sewer drain, a very large and spacious sewer drain south of the industrial district. Tomorrow he is going to break into the evil wizard’s corporate HQ. Things have gotten desperate, almost as desperate as they were last time he broke into HQ. But that’s tomorrow. Until then, he is dreaming about a bucket of fried chicken. In the dream there is nothing wrong with fried chicken. Fried chicken is perfectly okay and has nothing to do with the evil wizard. He is back in his own time, twenty-some years after he was born, sitting on cushions with his mother and his father, the Emperor, and they are all eating fried chicken with their hands and wiping them on embroidered squares of yellow silk. The samurai has not woken up yet, so he still has not realized that his mother died when he was young and his father was not the Emperor. In the dream, things are good.

***

The samurai is awake. This is wrong. It’s too dark. His body feels limp and dead. Someone is screaming the word “aniki!” into his ear repeatedly. It couldn’t be robot bounty hunters; true, robot bounty hunters often know only one word, but it’s usually something like “exterminate,” not a term of brotherly endearment. No, this could only be the girl-boy Tanji, who never sleeps. While he means well, Tanji’s grasp of others’ sleep cycles is incomplete, and he sometimes resents people who are able to sleep.

His eyes open a crack.

“Bad idea, aniki. This is no time to be lying down on the job. The plan goes off today, right? So, up and at ‘em! Show that dumb-ass wizard we’ve got no remorse!”

The samurai rubs his eyes. Dawn is barely forth-coming. It can’t be later than 5 a.m. He emits the slightest of groans.

“What’s wrong, aniki? You didn’t eat river carp again, did you? That stuff is toxic, man. Too much’ll kill you. You’ve got money, right? You should eat dumplings. I know a place. Let’s go.”

It’s true. The samurai always has money. It is ironic: he sleeps in sewer drains and has money. When he slept in barracks he was an unsalaried squire.

Minutes later, Tanji is banging on a locked metal hatch on the outskirts of the industrial district. He is being extremely rude, pounding his fist as hard as he can while shouting into the intercom. The sign above the door reads, “Dango Tango.”

“Who is it?” the owner finally answers. “Protection money next week. We’re closed now. You know what time it is?”

“Open up, fuckface! It’s His Imperial Highness The Samurai, whose true name is known to few, and I, his loyal retainer Tanji, and we demand food!”

“My apologies! I did not know!” says the intercom. The door unlocks.

Tanji dusts his palms together, as if he has been doing hard work. “Heh heh. This guy’s totally loyal, aniki. When you reclaim your throne we’ve gotta make him head cook at the palace or something. Man, I can taste those dumplings already!”

Tanji is quite skinny, and eats relentlessly when the chance presents itself. The samurai checks his purse.

***

The evil wizard always insists on doing his own makeup. If you want something done right, do it yourself. I am nothing if not competent, he thinks as he sits in his gracious drawing room, putting the finishing touches on the eye shadow. The shade is called <3 Lemon Baby and it is going to be the newest fashion. Numerous designers put in their 2 cents, but this one is the wizard's own creation (If you want something done right, etc.)

"¡Que bonito!" he exclaims, twirling flirtatiously for the mirror as he stands. The slacks, he decides, are particularly excellent. Black is the evil wizard's color.

He removes his pocketwatch (platinum) from his vest (silk) pocket. Not yet 6:30 and he is ready to go. If only suppressing unionization of the fast food workers were this easy.

"Ambition!" he shouts. It is the name of his personal assistant. Saying it fills him with energy.

Ambition steps into the evil wizard's gracious drawing room. "Your 7 o'clock is already waiting, sir. Water and sewer board execs meeting, one of them will die." He flicks his index finger against his tablet's touchscreen. "At the last meeting you told them they had a month to do something about the number of people living in sewer drains. That was three weeks ago, which is what you call a month."

"Let's get it over with." The evil wizard squares his shoulders. He has not killed a public utility exec in decades. It keeps people in line, but is awkward for all involved. If it goes off without a hitch, he promises himself, I will send out to LaDuree for macarons later.

***

The samurai tried to pay for the dumplings but the shop owner insisted. In some parts of the city the samurai finds it very difficult to spend money, which is part of the reason why he always has it. The dumplings were excellent. Better by far than carp. The only attraction of carp is that bad food reminds him of home. He finds himself desiring this less often than one might think, however. Back then, nobody thought him the Emperor’s heir. Now nobody even recognizes the contradiction: a samurai, the Emperor’s heir? Nobody knows the word “shogun.”

It has rained recently and the hem of the samurai’s white hakama is muddy. He must wash it soon. Some people are disturbed when he appears unkempt.

He sent Tanji away a mile or so back. The boy was reluctant. Walking straight back to his hovel from there would have taken him past the sleepless mills, which he has to avoid or risk recapture. The samurai suggested he take the subway, but Tanji does not like the subway because there is nowhere to run, a sentiment the samurai has to admit to sharing.

“Come on, come on, aniki,” he pleaded after belching loudly, still full from their meal, “can’t you use some help with your plan?”

“I cannot.”

“I’m gonna fuck up that wizard’s face so bad.” Tanji hates the evil wizard almost as much as he hates his parents, who sold him to the evil wizard’s sleepless program and 24-hour workhouse.

“I appreciate your enthusiasm, Tanji,” said the samurai, “but this plan will only work if I am alone. It involves disguise.”

“Ooohh, you do that ninja stuff, huh, aniki? Okay okay. I’ll take the long way around. Talk you up on the way. Canvass, yeah. Give ‘em hell, aniki.”

The samurai is now on his way to the business district of the city that was once Edo. Though he lived in Edo for years as a child, he has lost all sense of relative geography in this time. Nothing is recognizable, he cannot tell which part of the city he would now be in were he to travel back in time (the goal he often professes).

This may, however, have something to do with the fact that when the city was Edo, the samurai still saw little of it. He was never considered socially adept even in the boldly stratified, emotionally repressed hierarchy of his own time – much less so now, when orphans curse at shop owners to get free food and are successful.

1848: the samurai is rinsing sweat off of his bare chest in the dojo courtyard after practice. It is perfectly okay for you to be aroused by this image, even if men are not your usual wont. “No, no,” says Asami-senpai, who has just beaten him in a match. “You have skill, *******-san, but these days you cannot hope to prosper by your sword alone. Ever since they opened the ports to foreigners, reform has been inevitable. If you want to distinguish yourself you need to be a forward thinker, just as much – no, even more so than a skilled fencer.” The samurai thinks, But my sword is all I have.

The samurai is not what you would call forward-thinking. He is not even very smart.

The future, which is to say, now: the samurai is crossing a busy street through an underground passage. He has never truly accustomed himself to this time, so he does not know, but he hopes it may be that things have reformed so much that carving a path with only his sword has again become viable.

The passage is completely dark because all the lights are burned out. He bumps into someone. He thinks he felt a woman’s breast against his arm. He blushes.

“Pardon!” says a woman’s (blush) voice sarcastically. Then, “Oh, is that you, samourai?”

“Jehanne?”

“Oui. It is I. It is us, rather.” Several throats clear in the dark. The samurai can make out dim outlines. Four others, all Jehanne’s resistance fighters probably.

Empereur,” says Jehanne, “it is not that we would not gladly converse with you, were you willing to enlist with us once more, but what business can it be that brings your way across ours?”

“I seek a passage through time,” says the samurai. It is one of his most famous refrains.

“A passage through time,” she repeats to her compatriots. “But you are passing through time as we speak, non?”

The samurai clarifies: “I will travel back to the past and slay the evil wizard, preventing his reign from ever coming to be.”

“How inconvenient.” Jehanne’s compatriots grunt their agreement. “Are we, ‘ere, not products of the evil wizard’s reign? Would you prevent our lives from coming to be, then? We wish his terror to end as sure as any,” grunt agreement,” but you, you are not considerate of those you would rule, Empereur le Samourai.” She announces the epithet mockingly, as if she knows what she’s talking about.

The samurai has nothing to say. Temporal paradox has never been his forte. He knows, however, that he can avoid having to explain himself if he allows the resistance leader to keep talking. She does.

“Well, if you wish to change your direction of travel then that is your affair. We must be free to do as we please. But samourai, we are doing something, comprendez vous? We are working. And we know what we must give up to do it. The past, it is lost. The present, it is shit. It is the future we must think of.” Grunt agreement. “So. I would give you our manifesto again, but you would not read it. Can you not read, Empereur?”

“I will confront the evil wizard,” he says defensively. “I will confront him today.”

“Well,” says Jehanne. “Who are we to hold you back? Please do, samourai.”

They clear a path. He makes his way out.

A few blocks later he encounters a gang of robot thrushes harassing some elderly gene-modified human-sized earthworms at an ice cream parlor that serves dirt crèmes.

“Please,” croaks one of the earthworms through a thick beard, “we just want to go about our business.”

The lead thrush knocks the dirt crème out of his hand. “You got a problem with me you old shit eating piece of shit?”

The samurai clears his throat. “Leave these… things… alone.”

The thrush jerks its body toward him. The action is accompanied by the sound of rattling bolts. “You back off, asshole. We got a fuckin writ.” He opens his mouth and out, in cuckoo clock fashion, pops one of the tin Enforcer badges that the evil wizard’s police department hands out to any antisocial robot who bothers to ask.

The samurai’s eyebrow twitches.

“Yeah, that’s right. Not so fuckin’ tough now, are ya not-so-tough guy?”

“Hey, you know who he looks like?” says another of the thrushes, glancing at a wanted poster on a telephone pole nearby. “He looks kind of like the–” He does not finish the sentence.

The earthworms pledge their mortal debt. It is pretty standard.

***

The 7 o’clock did not go well. The exec took a long time to die. People cried, threw up, ran out of the room. The evil wizard felt a whispered “sorry” pass his lips. He is sure nobody heard it, but they could have. He sent out for macarons anyway. The box arrived some time ago and he has eaten them all except for the lavender, which he does not care for (If you want something done etc.)

In front of the evil wizard is an engineer presenting a plan. The evil wizard wants to find some way to push sale of private vehicles on people who normally use mass transit. The engineer is spaghetti thin, except for his bulbous, tomato-like nose and stubby sausage fingers. When he was a teenager he often felt pulled down by the gravity of his own tomato and sausage features. The evil wizard thinks of him as Pasta Man. Pasta Man is not even wearing a tie.

“These small, single-occupant vehicles will be garaged at home and driven to and from major stations,” says the nervous engineer. The evil wizard does not know what the engineer’s real name is. It’s Donovan. “There, they will attach to some larger vehicle that can carry several dozen of them to the station nearest their destination, where they detach. So we’ll pitch it on both convenience and ease of use. We’re not exactly sure what the larger vehicle will be called yet–”

“I know what it’s called,” says the evil wizard, irritation plain in his voice. “It’s called a ferry.”

Pasta Man laughs it off. His plan will be implemented, but his career is over. Come next week he may be living in a sewer drain. He has heard they are actually not that bad. “As far as cost and price point…”

The evil wizard is desirous of a peppermintini.

***

The samurai is riding in an elevator. He is wearing a very stylish 3-piece suit. He considers it stylish, anyway. Its owner, lying headless in the lube room, was considering taking it to a charity shop to make space for something this-season in his closet, but the samurai does not know about such things.

The samurai has never worn a business suit, but he once wore a green tuxedo. It had to do with liberating a town in which the evil wizard had enslaved the people with subliminally-messaged ballroom music. Everybody wore tuxes and ball gowns 24 hours a day. Green was the In color that season. When he destroyed the source of the music the residents were actually rather indifferent. They weren’t sure how to handle being liberated. They would have seen him off but their legs were too sore.

The evil wizard’s suite is not on the top floor, but it is near the top. He checked the directory at the front desk. The samurai expects a trap, of course. The evil wizard loves traps. If he did not love traps, he would be dead and the samurai would not be here, in the future. Even if he had only known that the evil wizard loved traps when they first confronted each other in 1850, things might be better. Them’s the breaks, however.

He walks down the hall. No flamethrowers pop out of the walls to roast him. He treads very carefully. The carpet does not fall away to reveal a bottomless pit. He listens to the currents of the air around him. No silent assassin disturbs its flow. He applies light pressure to the door. Nothing. He opens the door. Here it comes. There’s going to be a trap. His hand drifts to the sword tied to his belt.

“Oh,” says the evil wizard, “it’s you.”

***

The evil wizard is thinking of writing Ambition a very negative performance review for allowing someone who is so obviously the samurai into his suite. Then he decides that if he has gone that soft on Ambition he may as well not even bother. He realizes that he may eventually have to kill Ambition to remedy the fact that he has begun to favor one of his underlings, but he just cannot do the thing today.

“Have a macaron, samurai.” The evil wizard pushes the box, containing only the lavender ones, across his desk.

“They’re poisoned,” says the samurai.

“They’re not,” says the evil wizard. “I just don’t like this flavor.” The samurai stares at the box, stares at the evil wizard, does not take a macaron. “Have it your way.” The evil wizard sweeps the box into the trash. He stands up. “So. My new look. Like it?”

The samurai has never gotten a handle on these modern gender mechanics. Tanji dresses in masculine fashion and refers to himself as a boy. The evil wizard sometimes appears very feminine but does not change pronouns. Who decides who is what? What is going on here?

The evil wizard sits down. “What do you want, samurai? No, no, I know. You seek a–”

“–passage through time.”

The evil wizard feels in some way cheated. “What can I do for you?”

The samurai does several very obvious blinks. “I’m sorry?”

“I’m a busy man, samurai, and I don’t have time to beat around the bush. Tell me what you want and I’ll see what I can do.”

“Yes, well.” The samurai clears his throat. The conversation is making him very uncomfortable. It is making him think of his father – his real father, who was never very busy but often pretended he was. “It was your magic that brought me here.” This is the moment he has been preparing for. As the words leave his mouth he feels his confidence returning. I’m a busy man too, he thinks, I don’t have time to beat around the bush either, so there. “Your magic will send me back to the past.

The evil wizard rests his head in his palm. “And I’m going to do this why?”

The samurai draws his sword.

The evil wizard tries not to jump visibly. The sword is the only mortal weapon that can hurt him, even if he is fairly sure he doesn’t have to worry about that right now. He plays it cool. “Where did you get that awful suit, by the way? I hope you didn’t kill someone for that disguise.”

“A robot businessman.”

“Right, you don’t kill flesh people. How civilized of you.” The evil wizard makes a show of yawning and stretching, causing the samurai to bolt to his feet and take an aggressive posture. The evil wizard doesn’t flinch, though he is oh-so-afraid of that sword. How could he not be, when it once held him prisoner for centuries? “Come on, samurai, isn’t that a bit of a conflict of interest for me? Why do you want to go back in time?”

“You know why.”

“To prevent my reign from ever coming to be,” the evil wizard recites. “No.”

“If it’s because you’re afraid of me–” and here the samurai displays his sword quite prominently – “then you should send me back. That way you will at least have a chance. Otherwise I’ll kill you now.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” says the evil wizard. “If I send you back and you kill me in the past, how am I still alive now?”

The samurai, easily stumped by this kind of thinking, opens his mouth, says nothing, lowers his sword slightly. He settles for, “You will not deceive me with your trickery!”

“Look, I get it, samurai,” says the evil wizard. “I really do. You’re mad because I torched your home and killed your family; or so you say, because that’s not the way I remember it. But those things all happened hundreds of years ago. It’s time to move on. Things have changed. I don’t even use big magic like that anymore, mostly. Look at this.” He sweeps his arms out, indicating the window behind him. “Look at this empire. This is a real empire, samurai, not some old island nation with grand pretensions. I got all this by owning people, not burning them. And certainly not by running them through with a sword.” Nice, thinks the evil wizard, very belittling. “But tell you what, samurai. Fair’s fair. I want to make right.” This part was unplanned. The evil wizard would not normally say something like this, but he does, in a way, want to make right, or at least make amiable. The evil wizard is on the rebound. Her name was Denise. “How about I give you a job? Something with a lot of responsibility. Write your own description. You can oversee… dojos, or… something. Come on, samurai, be the daimyo you always wanted to be. Emperor is not in the cards. Time to settle. Nothing to be ashamed of. Let’s do big things.”

The samurai doesn’t go for it. They fight. The sword burns something awful. The evil wizard flees. The samurai feels oddly ashamed. He may have overreacted.

***

The samurai sees, from behind, the matching red berets of Jehanne’s resistance fighters, and hears, from beyond them, Tanji’s voice yelling, “Oh yeah? Well why don’t you try saying that to his face, shit-for-brains? You’ll get your head shoved so far up your ass that you’ll never get it out and you’ll wake up every morning looking at the inside of your ass!”

A woman riding a bicycle down the sidewalk gasps at Tanji’s language. Distracted, she runs into a rubbish bin and falls over the handlebars and into the rubbish bin.

“Tut,” says Jehanne’s voice from within the forest of red caps. “You see ‘ow much trouble your noise-making causes? I think you ‘ave made quite enough. If you will not go on your way–” She leaves off the end of the sentence, fraught with portent.

The samurai helps the woman out of the rubbish bin a bit awkwardly, trying to do it without putting his hands on her. She oofs as his forearm presses against her diaphragm to lift her out. He is confident he has not done anything dishonorable. The woman produces a handkerchief from her purse and uses it to wipe some mysterious liquid from her face, all the while wrinkling her nose and grimacing at the smell of whatever it is. With much trepidation she runs a hand over her hair, does not like what she finds.

“Oh good lord. Are those coffee grounds?” She sniffs her fingers. “Those are coffee grounds.” She begins wiping her hair on the end of her sleeve. “I cannot believe – I’m sorry. Thank you for helping me out. I’m sorry you have to see me like–” Her eyes meet the samurai’s for half a moment (he has a hard time making eye contact with someone who he is not fighting).

“No way,” says the woman. She reaches into her purse again and produces one of his pervasive wanted posters. “Oh my god. Oh my god, it’s you.”

“Aniki!” Tanji darts between a revolutionary’s legs and is at the samurai’s side in an instant. “Thank goodness you’re here. The shit they’ve been talking.”

“Per’aps,” says Jehanne.

“She talks like she knows you, aniki. But what the fuck does she know? Nothing.”

“My name’s Gretchen,” says the woman. “We haven’t met, but you saved my life once. Well, you saved my hometown. From bug-bots. I think my class trip was that week. This was three years ago, about.” She really is standing quite close to him.

Jehanne navigates her way to his side as well. Tanji steps around front of the samurai and pulls a boot knife, only to have the samurai pull him away at the same instant that Jehanne, with an almost imperceptible hand gesture, stops her people from drawing weapons.

“So, Empereur. I see you are still among us. Still stuck in this wretched present, along with all of the human race. How unfortunate for you.”

The idea of this time being the present still strikes the samurai as weird, even if he does think of his own time as the past. There is no present in the samurai’s internal world; the past and the future, and nothing else.

“Who’s she?” says Gretchen.

“We got this one, babe. Don’t you worry about a thing,” says Tanji, whose head barely peeks above Gretchen’s waist.

“Dare I ask, samourai, if we are liberated? Did you meet the evil wizard?”

With those words, the samurai is suddenly surrounded by the sound of nobody bickering. Tanji watches him with bated breath, boot knife forgotten. Gretchen’s hand rests on his shoulder, but she seems not to be conscious of it (though the samurai is very conscious of it). Even Jehanne’s men look anxious for his answer. All of the people around him place a similar faith and hope in the samurai. This is something that he knows.

“We met,” he says. “The outcome was… not the one I had hoped for.” They are all disappointed. He can feel it. He can hear the collective sigh, the entire street deflating.

Jehanne is the first to break the silence. “You are a man of great ability, samourai.”

“Damn right,” says Tanji.

“And yet you waste it. I do not understand.”

Tanji spits.

“He’s a hero!” says Gretchen. “He saved my life! He saved my parents, my whole village!” To the samurai she repeats, “Who is she? Who does she think she is?”

“Listen to her, samourai. Listen to her thank you for the life that is hers by rights. She does not question the shape of things as they are. Do you not wish for an end to it, Madamoiselle? Would you not celebrate to see the head of your overlord kicked around the gutters by such unwashed rascals as this?”

Tanji hmphs.

“I’d be worried about my job,” says Gretchen, “to tell the truth. You know that pyramid thing they show you in school, about how eventually he owns all the businesses? I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I like him or anything, but I’ve gotta pay the rent.” She looks the samurai in the eye so forcefully that even he cannot coolly keep his head turned obliquely to hers. “Now if you were in charge of everything…”

“Long live the Emperor! Right, aniki?”

“He’s a hero,” Gretchen affirms. When she begins whispering in the samurai’s ear, her mouth close enough almost to touch, he gives an involuntary shiver. “I really do wish there was some way for me to repay all you’ve done for me. But I’m in such awful shape. Look, there’s a hotel with hourly rates just down the street a little, and if you’ll come with me I can freshen up a little–”

The samurai turns to ice. The samurai turns to fire. This really is the kind of thing he is worst at. You would think he was some kind of virgin, wouldn’t you? If the fact that he’s almost 30 didn’t tell you better? And this really isn’t the time.

Tanji rescues him. “Woman, can’t you see the man has things to do? What’s wrong with you?”

Gretchen seems to notice the revolutionaries’ sabers for the first time.

“Look,” says Tanji, “you wanna help? I’ve got plenty of good shit for you, babe. We’ve got an empire to rebuild and we need all the help we can get. Come on.” He leads her toward the nearest cross street, her picking up the downed bicycle along the way and wheeling it alongside.

“You said your name was Tanji, right?” says Grechen. “Don’t take this the wrong way but–”

“Don’t–”

“–are you a girl?”

“Awww, fuck you. Okay, strike one, sweet thing. Misunderstanding. Ain’t gonna hold a grudge. We’re not like that, right, aniki?” He waves as they turn the corner. The samurai is left alone before the resistance fighters.

“We should kill him,” says a burly man in a red cap. He wears the insignia that designates him as Jehanne’s second, but the samurai does not recognize his face. “He could kill the evil wizard, he is the only one who could, yet he wastes himself in idleness. Does not that make him a criminal? We should kill him and take his sword. Then we could do it.”

And all of a sudden the samurai does recognize the man: he is a goon, one of the city’s generous complement of goons. It is not that the samurai is very perceptive where people are concerned; it is just that he sees many goons. Most are robot goons, but there are other kinds. He can’t fully blame them for being goons, after all their choices are so limited these days. If they weren’t goons, they would have to be Gretchens, trying to lead normal lives but in frequent need of rescue because they do not realize that their world is terribly terribly wrong, that history was not supposed to be like this and nobody can get along properly until it is fixed; or, failing that, they could be Tanji’s, seeing the wrong and shouting at it with every breath, but never too openly or too loudly because dissent is not safe without some kind of shield, without somebody to snatch you to safety if you pull your knife at the wrong moment. But still, they are goons, which pits them opposite the samurai on most days. Them, as Tanji might say, is the breaks.

“Leave us,” Jehanne tells her goon curtly, without looking at him. To his credit, he obeys, and takes the rest of Jehanne’s cadre with him, back to whichever of the city’s many secret places they currently inhabit. He casts an identical look toward Jehanne and the samurai as he goes, something the samurai wishes he were able to interpret beyond the fact that there is little animosity in it. It looks more like hurt, really.

“Thank you,” Jehanne says once they are gone.

The samurai looks about, unsure whether she is talking to him, but of course there is nobody else around. “I… beg your pardon?”

“Because, thanks to you, we knew where the evil wizard would be this day, we ‘ave attacked a power station. Several neighborhoods in the western part of the city will be blacked out for at least a day.”

“Why would you do such a thing?”

“We will exploit the situation in a number of ways.” Jehanne shrugs. The samurai is still taken aback by how easily she admits to leaving innocent people in the dark. “Robots will be unable to recharge in the area, and will be wary of entering. Surveillance will be down. We can do much. And so, I owe you my thanks.”

The samurai grits his teeth. “You cannot think they will thank you–”

“We do not want them thankful. We do not want the populace satiated, samourai, as you seem to. We would have them bitter, resentful, how you say, pissed off. We want them questioning.” She shakes her head. “Jacques was right, samourai, you should give us the sword. With it, we might not have to destroy so many power stations. We would do what you cannot. You and him, you fight in the manner of brothers. You may appear to hate each other, but you will do no permanent harm, for without one another you would be nothing. Without him, what would anyone idolize you for?” Oddly, Jehanne has begun to sound less impassioned than usual. “We are tired, samourai.”

The samurai finds that his hand has drifted to his sheath. She tilts her head inquisitively. The samurai looks at Jehanne, and she looks at him, and from somewhere down the street comes the sound of marching, and the nature of their look changes. Jehanne darts to a nearby alley and scrambles up a fire escape, the samurai close behind.

From the roof they observe the approaching procession. Half a dozen guards, full cybernetic juggernauts, flanking a group of children Tanji’s age or younger. A megaphone somewhere within the group advertises that they are “accepting applications” and that families may be well-compensated now or have their children taken by force later if quotas are not met.

“It’s a recruiting party for the sleepless mills,” the samurai whispers. “The children’s minds will be altered–”

Mon dieu! I know who they are, samourai.” Jehanne bites her lip a little. The samurai can see her nostrils flare, can hear the blood beginning to rush in her veins once again. “They threaten to take children by force if they are not satisfied. Let them not be satisfied. Let them try.” She draws her saber with a flourish.

“On this we agree,” says the samurai.

The samurai may not be smart, but he does think about things. He thinks about Jehanne often. He sometimes thinks that what she says is true: that given the chance, she would really kill the evil wizard. He sometimes thinks that she values what she has – her small measure of power, her followers in rank and uniform – too much to risk it. Right now, though, he is thinking about telling her that his sword is not the only thing in the world that can harm the evil wizard; it’s not the sword, it’s the tsuba, just the little piece that fits at the base of the blade above the hands, the tarnished piece of bronze handed down between the keepers of a certain shrine since before the original blade rusted away. He is thinking about telling her that if she promised to do as she says, he could give her the tsuba and she could find a way to fit it to her saber, and he could continue to do as he does for the people who need him and who, to be honest, he needs. But he spends too long thinking this, and now the procession is passing below and Jehanne has already descended the other side to attack them from behind, and the samurai is leaping from the roof with a roar and crash, both to draw their attention and to allow the children to run off while they go to work on the guards, and there’s that tingle that comes from cutting through a living mechanical body and leaving behind an electrical flow with no sense of direction that is not so unlike blood leaking from a real body. Dodge, retreat, strike, use their haphazard formation against them, they’re so sloppy, made to intimidate but not to organize, and by the end all it’s all just a contest to out-shout Jehanne whose cries of Revolucion! batter the air in the growing gaps between gunshots. Now he’s thinking of the children. He’s telling them about Tanji, telling them where to find him, he’ll tell them where to go, how to keep hidden and how to make sure they’ll never see the inside of a workhouse – but then Jehanne, too, is telling them that if they’ll fight the evil wizard then she has red berets with each of their names on them, and it seems like at least half of them, maybe more, decide to follow her instead, and they’re running back the way the revolutionaries went before, and the samurai feels the moment to tell her these things has passed and he might not want to right now anyway.

***

South of the industrial district, the samurai finds a sewer drain containing a bed frame, a number of heavy cardboard boxes, and an engineer. The samurai is about to apologize for intruding, but the engineer beats him to the punch. The man is noodle-thin and he bows in a way that suggests his face is merely giving in to the weight of its nose.

“Please don’t knife me for taking your spot or anything,” he begs. “I just moved to the sewers today. I don’t know how things work down here. I didn’t mean any harm.” He speaks the truth, the samurai knows. This engineer carries himself like a man who has never meant any harm to anyone. He looks mostly at the ground. His shoulders are almost too limp to lift a pair of chop sticks.

“Please,” says the samurai, “it is all right.”

“Is this where you sleep?” says the engineer.

“Well, sometimes, but–”

“I’m so sorry, I’ll just pack up and–”
“–we can share. You need not trouble yourself.” The samurai has not shared a dwelling with another person in over a thousand years. It is a novel idea. Besides, the man seems so thoroughly harmless that he forces the samurai to pity him.

“Are you sure?”

The samurai is sure.

“My name is Donovan. Who are you?”

The samurai tells him. Donovan apologizes again. “Why are you sorry?” the samurai says.

“I used to work for the evil wizard. I used to design things. It, uh, seemed like a good career move.”

“I do not mind,” says the samurai. “I hear that everyone works for him eventually. Like that, uh, pyramid thing they show you in school.”

“You went to school?” says Donovan. “You saw the pyramid thing?”

“I just learned about it today.”

“It’s not completely true,” says Donovan. “There’s cooperatives and things like that. They can’t compete with the evil wizard’s businesses, they’re too tightly regulated, but they’re out there.”

“Oh,” says the samurai. It’s all he can think of.

“At HQ I heard that they’re only allowed to exist so that people who are fed up will use them as an outlet to make themselves feel better without actually having to change things significantly.”

“I see,” says the samurai.

“You know, you’re easy to talk to,” says Donovan.

“Am I?” says the samurai, who has never heard this before.

“People at HQ, business types, you know, they won’t let you finish a sentence. They like to talk a lot. They do it like it gives them power. They didn’t want me to have any power.” Donovan sighs. “They weren’t very nice to me.”

The samurai is sorry to hear this, but it’s not the kind of thing he can do anything about, so he says nothing.

“I didn’t actually like that job,” says Donovan. “I thought I did until today. I’m not sure why. It seemed like it was stable, I guess.”

The samurai expects Donovan and Gretchen would get along well. Suddenly, he gets an idea. “Are you hungry?” he says. “If you don’t mind, I would like to welcome you to this… neighborhood… over a meal.”

“I don’t want to impose,” says Donovan.

“I have money,” says the samurai. “I always do.”

***

The samurai knows that Chicken Hut is an evil corporation under the direct control of the evil wizard. Every time he spends money there he is contributing in a small way to a cycle of cruelty that exploits workers and livestock, and people’s health. But he also knows that refusing to eat there would not change anything. As Donovan pointed out, the system is set up so that the samurai cannot make a difference with his buying power. He cannot do anything about the millions of other people, most of whom also know what he knows, who eat there every day, and even if all of them stopped eating at Chicken Hut, the evil wizard would prosper anyway. More to the point, he knows that if he and Donovan were to muster their willpower and walk past this Chicken Hut, there would just be another one half a mile farther along anyway.

On the way here they talked about what Donovan termed “roommate stuff.” He wanted to know if the samurai had a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, who might be coming around and would require Donovan to vacate temporarily. Blushing heavily, the samurai thought of Gretchen and replied that he did not. Neither did Donovan.

Donovan asked if the samurai often had friends over for parties or things like that. The samurai thought of Tanji. He had run into Tanji on his way back to the sewer drain. They talked about where he had sent the few children who had not gone with Jehanne or back to their parents. After that, Tanji had asked him about his encounter with the evil wizard. When the samurai finished telling him, his response was, “So the feminine look is in now? Ain’t that a rusty nutsack. Hey aniki, you know how you’re always talking about going back to the past and preventing the evil wizard from ever coming to be and shit like that? Um, do you think if you took me back with you, you could let me be part of your court or something? Did they have, you know, boys like me back in your time?” The samurai told him that it might be done. “Well,” said Tanji, “when you do go back, make sure and take me with you then. Cause I’m, like, less than shit when you’re not around. Okay, see you later aniki.”

The samurai replied that he did not have friends over for parties. Neither did Donovan.

Donovan asked what kinds of things the samurai liked to do. The samurai said, “I seek a passage through time.” Donovan grinned a bit.

Donovan asked if the samurai had any furniture that he would want to use in the drain, just to make sure he didn’t bring over the same thing. The samurai replied that he had no furniture. The samurai does not even have a bedroll; he folds up his gi for a pillow. Donovan seemed taken aback. At this point they arrived at Chicken Hut.

Chicken Hut is being held up by a robot biker gang, but they are nothing to speak of. The samurai only has to cut off one of their arms to send them packing. The restaurant cheers as the manager brings out a push broom to take care of the arm, followed by another employee with a mop for the oil it has leaked onto the floor.

The manager tells the samurai that his and Donovan’s meals are on the house. Not again, thinks the samurai. The samurai asks the manager instead to send a delivery order to a spot where he knows Tanji will be, with instructions to give the food to the children from this afternoon. The manager agrees, but still insists that the samurai will eat free. The samurai looks at the coins in his purse. I tried to spend you, he thinks.

Donovan finds a table and sticks their plastic order number in the holder. “So you really don’t have any furniture at all?” he says. “You don’t have anything? But aren’t you supposed to be someone important, like an emperor?”

It may be the fact that he and Donovan are going to be sharing a sewer drain, or it may have something to do with a number of sobering conversations over the course of the day – probably a bit of both – but the samurai decides to tell Donovan some things.

“This is to be taken in confidence,” he says, “but I was the third son of a man who died a masterless ronin. He left us nothing. I do not know what became of my brothers, but due to my skill with a sword I was eventually able to place myself in the service of a minor country daimyo.”

“Slow down,” says Donovan, “I don’t know all of these words.”

The samurai plows on. If he doesn’t get it out now, he may never. “I served for years until his fief was dissolved. As one of the house’s officers–”

“Oh, so you were someone important!”

“I had been made squad captain less than two months before this happened. To preserve my honor I was to commit seppuku at a nearby temple–”

“What’s that?”

“It means I was going to die. I was dressed as you see me now, all in white, emblematic of the spiritual purity I sought to obtain–”

“Wait, you were going to kill yourself?”

The samurai scratches his head.

“What does that have to do with purity?”

“In any case, the shrine had been constructed at the entrance to the cave where the evil wizard was sealed away. On the morning when I was to commit seppuku, I found that the dagger I had brought to perform the ceremony had a chip in the blade, making it unsuitable. I begged the use of another blade from the officer witnessing, and he sent a page to fetch one. The boy retrieved the sword I have here from a stand in front of the cave entrance, breaking the seal in the process.”

“And that was when the evil wizard came in?”

The samurai nods. “There were many men who deserved to hold this sword more than I when the time came, but when it did, I was the only one left. Even so, I could have killed him. My skills were enough, and the sword… but I hesitated at the last minute, and he used his magic to send me here. To this time.”

Donovan frowns. “I thought you were the Emperor’s son. That’s what people say.”

“I know they do. I do not know why. But it is something they want to believe. It helps them, I think, somehow. People in this time often need help. I think that has always been true, but the difference is that in this time, people need my help. In the past, that was… less so.”

“Is that why you never kill him?”

A waitress arrives carrying a tray laden with fried food of various kinds, all reeking wonderfully of chemical cooking grease. The samurai recognizes her. Her name is Thalia. They know each other, in fact. He is, after all, a bit of a regular.

“Here you go, love,” says Thalia. “One usual, and one slaughterhouse combo for your friend.” The food is on the table. The saliva is in the mouth. “Great work on the robots, love. I was worried there for a minute.” She says to Donovan, “He hasn’t let us down yet. Ain’t he sweet?”

“It is all right,” says the samurai.

“See what I mean? So,” she says to the samurai, “what have you been up to?”

“I seek a passage through time.”

“Oh yeah. So how’s that going?”


.

About the Author

M. Shaw‘s first known public appearance was in 2009 during early screenings of the web series “Magical Ben’s Magical Forest of Wheat” (credited as M.E. Shaw), in which it portrays a depraved sexual deviant of the non-cuddly variety. A retrospective look at its published fiction reveals certain preoccupations with otherness, psychosis, rape, the absurd, the fantastical, and the implicit, unspoken cruelty of the American lifestyle. All of which begs the question, What is M. Shaw? Where did it come from? The answer: a puppy mill.