The following is an excerpt from “Zero Sum Game”, a science fiction novel set in Hiroshima, west Japan. To find out more about Cody L. Martin – go here!
Hina Takamachi is leading the ordinary life of a Japanese schoolgirl … coping with parental worries, exam pressure and conflict with classmates … until one night, someone – or something – crashes into her life and changes it forever …
Hina didn’t freak out until she stepped on the staircase leading up to her apartment. She had walked home in a blank state, her body knowing where to go, her mind shutting itself down. A few blocks from her apartment, the adrenaline wore off and conscious thought returned. She remembered what she had done to those boys and the more she thought about it, the more it scared her. She had beaten up four high school boys. It had happened but it didn’t seem possible, more like a memory of a movie she had seen, not something that had taken place. The thought frightened her, and when she stepped onto the first stair, so close to home and safety, she couldn’t contain herself. She ran upstairs, unlocked and threw open the door, slammed it shut behind her, took off her shoes, and bolted into her room. She slid the door closed with a loud crack of wood against wood.
She dropped her bag, sat on the edge of her bed, then stood and paced her room. After a few more back-and-forth circuits of her room, she felt like a yo-yo and sat back down on the bed, curling her toes into the comforting softness of her pink rug. She stared at her hands. They had beaten up four high school boys, they had blocked the sharp edge of a box cutter with nothing to show for it. She looked at her thigh, with which she had bent a metal bat. She was strong, definitely the strongest girl in school, maybe even the strongest person in the whole school. But what she had done today was impossible. Nobody could have done that, at least not without fake props and a movie camera to capture it. But the props hadn’t been fake. Those had been a real box cutter and a real bat.
Her full-length mirror leaned in a corner. She stood before it and examined herself. She looked the same as she always had, her uniform looked the same, everything seemed normal. She glanced over her shoulder, trying to see as much of her backside as possible. She still looked the same. She sat back down on her bed, then slid onto the pink rug, feeling its softness underneath her. She took a deep breath to calm herself and closed her eyes.
“Good evening, Hina.”
Her eyes snapped open, and she said, “Hi, Dad.”
Her room was empty. She opened her door, but no one stood in the foyer. She heard the TV in the living room and walked in, finding her father sitting on the couch. “Did you say something?” she asked him.
He shook his head. “Welcome back. I heard you come in but you went straight to your room. Is everything okay?” Her father looked at her in concern but Hina shook her head. He said, “You’re getting home kind of late tonight.”
“I stopped at the cat cafe after school.”
Mitsuo smiled. “Did you have a good time?”
“Yeah. You should see Zeus, he’s getting so fat.”
“Dinner will be ready pretty soon.”
“Okay. I’ll be in my room. Sorry for rushing in.”
“Be careful. Don’t slam your door like that.”
“I won’t. Sorry.”
Her father nodded and went back to watching TV. Hina retreated to her room and closed the door, much gentler this time.
“It wasn’t your father, Hina.”
It was the same voice as before, and now that she was alert, it didn’t sound like her father at all. No one was in her room. She looked out on the empty balcony; it held only her clothes, hanging out to dry. She wondered if the boys she had beaten up were trying to scare her, hiding in her room somewhere. But she put the thought out of her mind. They couldn’t have gotten in without her father knowing. Also, she lived on the fourth floor; it wasn’t like they could scale the building and hide on a ledge, taunting her from outside. The voice had sounded close by, almost like it was all around her.
She started for her bedroom door when the voice ordered, “Hina, stop.”
She stood still. She faced the corner of her door and closet, unable to see the room behind her. She was quiet for a few moments, then whispered, “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” the voice replied. It seemed to come from everywhere, like music did when she wore headphones.
Hina tensed. “Can you see me?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.” The voice didn’t sound menacing or cruel, it answered her questions in a flat and straightforward manner. But she needed to test whoever was watching her. If they weren’t in her room, they could be watching her through binoculars from across the street.
She opened and closed her right hand several times although she stood rooted in place. “What am I doing now?”
“You’re repeatedly making a fist with your right hand.”
They could see her. But how? The clothes hanging outside blocked most of the balcony.
“You are tapping your chest. You’re tugging on your bangs with your left hand. Touching your nose.”
Maybe the stalker wasn’t watching with binoculars, he could have set up a secret camera somewhere. Those kind of cameras were tiny. In fact, it wouldn’t even have to be a high-tech spy device. Most cell phones had cameras, and someone could have hidden one right here in her bedroom. How long had it been here? Had they been watching her for several days, seeing her get undressed, watching her sleep? She turned around, addressing the room in general, searching for possible hiding places to stash a phone.
“Where are you?”
The reply chilled her blood. “I’m inhabiting every cell of your body.” Before Hina could finish contemplating that thought, the voice continued in its same matter-of-fact tone. “I am also on you. I am your school uniform.”
Hina pulled off her clothes and tossed them in the corner as if they were covered in hazardous waste. She even took off her socks, losing her balance somewhat and hitting her elbow on the closet door, rattling it in its tracks. She took a few steps back from the pile of clothes, wondering if it would start moving like some sort of monster in a science fiction movie. She tried to calm herself. Her breathing rung in her ears. She needed to listen for the voice again. She waited several moments, standing in the middle of her bedroom in her bra and panties, holding onto herself. She heard nothing and repeated the movements she had made earlier, but no voice spoke out. It seemed it had been in her uniform. But it had also said it was in her body. If so, why wasn’t it talking to her now? She wondered if it was some sort of parasite, but she was sure her science teacher hadn’t said anything about parasites talking to their hosts.
She edged towards her school uniform. It lay in the corner like a pile of ordinary everyday clothes in need of a wash. She gave it a small kick. The door behind her banged, and she screamed and spun around.
“Is everything all right?” Concern filled her father’s voice. “Can I come in?” The door slid open a few millimeters.
Without thinking, she reached down and grabbed her uniform, covering herself up. “No. I’m changing clothes, Dad. Get out!”
The door slid back shut. “I’m sorry. I thought I heard you scream or something.”
“I’m fine, Dad. Geez, leave me alone!” She yelled louder and angrier than she had ever yelled at him since she had been a little child. She stood in silence for a bit, listening to her rapid breathing and feeling her heart pounding. She heard nothing from the other side of the door.
Then: “Okay.” That one word made her feel guilty. It held no anger or irritation, no parental steel for a child who had snapped at her father. It had been a plain declarative statement and nothing more. She heard the TV in the living room switch to a different channel.
She let out a sigh of exhaustion.
The voice again. Hina dropped her uniform and jumped into the center of her room. Hearing nothing for a moment, she reached out and laid her foot on her clothes. A moment later the voice returned. “Hina, please stop—”
She brought her foot back, and the voice stopped. It seemed to talk when she touched her uniform. She got down on her hands and knees, crawled forward, and grabbed a handful of the shirt.
“Please, listen to what I have to say. I am not here to hurt you.”
“You can only talk when I’m touching you?”
“The majority of my catoms are within your uniform, so in a manner of speaking, yes.”
With trepidation, Hina put the uniform on. She noticed the itch she had experienced earlier, but it faded away after a few seconds. She finished dressing, complete with socks, and stood in the middle of her bedroom, unsure what to do next. “Who are you?”
“I’m a Claytronic Atom Mark 2 Military Armature.”
Hina hadn’t understood any of that.
“I am a battle suit,” came the much simpler reply. “My function is to protect you. I tried to help you today.”
“Tried to help…” She remembered back to the fluent English, the perfect math answers, and beating up four high school boys. “That was you?”
“Are you controlling me?” The thought scared her.
“Only to a minor degree. Mostly unconscious and reflexive actions. If there is an action you do not wish to perform, I cannot override your conscious control.”
The explanation made sense but it didn’t answer everything. “What about today? I spoke English fluently.”
“I am programmed with multiple languages. I altered your vocal cords, mouth, and tongue to produce the appropriate sounds. You were speaking but did nothing to stop my alterations. As such, I continued to produce the correct sounds as you talked. Was that wrong?”
“No. It’s just…kids don’t talk that well, with perfect accents and pronunciation. I got…embarrassed.”
“I see. Certainly, embarrassing you was not my intention. You were supposed to speak English, and I attempted to help. The same with the math problems in Hayama-sensei’s class.”
“You wrote the answers, but when I wanted my hand to stop, it did.”
“And the fight, what about that? Was that all you, too?”
“No. You wanted to fight those boys. I simply helped you achieved it. I gave you the reflexes to do so, exerting only a finite amount of control over your muscles. If you had not wanted to fight, and ran away, there was nothing I could have done to stop you.”
Hina realized the voice was right. She had been angry at the boys, wondering what she had done and why she had been picked as the victim. She admitted to herself that beating them had felt good; it wasn’t like she had maimed or killed them. They had been bruised when she had left although a part of her hoped they had suffered something broken as well—a rib or an ankle or wrist would be fine with her. But she had stood her ground, and when the chance to get back at them had appeared, she had taken it.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I need your help.”
A timid knock interrupted the voice before it could explain further. “Dinner is ready,” her father said.
She remembered how she had yelled at him earlier and felt guilty again. “Have dinner with your father,” the voice said. “I can tell you’re hungry, I’ve been monitoring your biological signs. But, please, don’t tell him what has happened, either here or earlier in the day. I promise I will explain everything later.”
“Okay.” She walked into the kitchen and found her father eating at the dining table instead of his usual spot in the living room. She sat down and said, “Thanks for the meal.” She ate in silence in the kitchen as her father watched the TV in the living room, angling his chair to do so.
When a commercial aired she said, “I’m sorry, dad.” He faced her for the first time since she had sat down. “I was changing clothes and you surprised me and…I shouldn’t have gotten mad at you.”
“I thought I heard you yelling at something. I was worried about you. Plus you ran in here like a dog was chasing you.”
“I know,” she said in a more snappish tone than she had intended. “And I know you were concerned for me. But…”
“But what?” her father prodded.
“But nothing,” she replied. She ate the rest of her meal in silence. She knew her father had worked this morning after pulling a double shift yesterday, and he had still found time to make dinner. What had she done? She had spent time at a cafe. She knew he was being his normal self, but it seemed he was getting more protective of her after the divorce, like he had something to prove to her.
Her father ate dinner and watched TV at the same time. When they finished, she took their dishes, put them in the sink, and headed to her bedroom.
As she reached for the door to slide it open, her father said, “I’m glad you bought your uniform today.”
Hina stopped. He smiled.
“That’s a major problem solved. It’s okay, Hina. I know you haven’t had it easy since last week. I’m turning in early. Turn everything off when you go to bed.”
“I know,” she said.
“Of course you do. You’re such a big girl.”
He rose from the table and walked to the bath room.
“Dad,” Hina called out, and he turned around. “Did Mother ever yell at you?”
Mitsuo chuckled. “Of course, all couples yell at each other sometimes. You can’t be married and not ever get mad at the other person.”
Hina thought about this. She remembered her mother getting angry at her father for some little thing he had done, or more often, hadn’t done. She could remember only a handful of times her father getting mad at her mother.
“Did you ever yell at her?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Because you get angry at someone doesn’t mean you don’t love them. Or that they don’t love you.” He entered the bath area, drawing the curtain that covered the entryway.
Hina went in her room and lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling. “Hina?” said the voice from earlier.
She gave a slight start, she had almost forgotten about the voice. She sat up and settled into a cross-legged position. “Yeah.”
“Is now a good time?”
“Yeah. But before you start, what should I call you? Do you have a name?”
“My previous master called me Dolim. He explained it was the name of a childhood friend. He found it comforting.”
The man in the shrine, she thought. He had wanted her to have his battle suit. But he had given her a large piece of rubber, not a school uniform. So what had happened to it? she wondered.
“Dolim is a weird name. Can I call you something else?”
“As you wish.”
Her mind went blank. What do you name a battle suit? She recalled the names of the cats at the cafe but they didn’t seem to suit the suit. No pun intended, she thought. After about a minute of thinking, she still couldn’t think of a name. “You’re a voice in my head, so how about I call you Voice.”
“Acceptable, if a bit unimaginative.”
Did it sound a touch indignant? Hina thought it did. “Because of that, your new name is Voice. Live with it.” When no reply came, she said, “You have a story or something to tell me?”
“I’m a battle suit, not a bard,” Voice said. “I will attempt to explain my mission as clearly as I can. It will take some time.”
Hina propped her pillow against the headboard and settled in. Voice continued. “Because I am inside your cells, I can manipulate your retinas and visual cortex. It might be easier if I were to showcase images along with my story.”
Hina pulled her legs up and hugged her knees. “Will it be painful?”
“No. Imagine a scratch on a pair of sunglasses. There but not there, in a sense.”
She didn’t understand but nodded. “Okay.”
“Please try to look straight ahead.”
She stared at her plain white closet doors.
“I shall begin,” Voice said.