2019 Winner – Youth 2 Division
The Geisha sat perfectly still, with flat, unseeing eyes gazing directly past Kaito’s head. His hands shook, he realized, as he finished adding the final touches to the painting on his customer’s arm. He thought that the Geisha would be beautiful in a devastatingly murderous way if it weren’t for the fact that she wasn’t alive.
If he held his breath, Kaito could hear the faint whirling of a motorized fan and the tempo of mechanized beeping coming from deep inside the machine’s metal innards. His glasses though, made of thin wire in the shape of two perfect circles, still sat atop his nose — both to see and embarrass his children who called the archaic lenses a “disgrace to all of Japan.” Without them though, Kaito probably wouldn’t even notice the nearly seamless joints between the android’s ivory-colored plates. After the latest model was released, he certainly wasn’t able to tell its mannerisms apart from a human anymore.
Kaito finalized his painting with a few strokes of white in what gave his painting an ethereal life of its own and a protective coat to keep the art from eroding. With that, he stepped back with his hands on his hips and a small, arrogant smirk on his face.
“I’d say it’s perfect,” Kaito said.
The android turned its head to look at the painting drying on its metal plates. Two dragons wrapped around its forearm, scales glowing with liquid gold and smoke billowing into the sky. With pearl clouds and jade eyes, the creatures were nothing short of divine; their fortitude paralleled their angelic forms in ways that Kaito thought was inappropriate for a platinum box of wires to wear.
“No man creates perfection,” said the android with a deceptively kind smile. “But it is good. Good for a human. I would expect nothing less from you, Ming Kaito.”
“Thank you… I suppose.”
“I have transferred the money into your account,” said the Geisha before standing with more grace than even a human could manage. It bowed, the silken layers of its dress skimming the floor. For a moment, the android hesitated. “Thank you for giving my kind some humanity. We walk around this city like every other human and yet sometimes all that anyone can see is our differences.”
“Yes, well,” said Kaito a bit uncomfortably, “art should be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of whether they’re made of metal or skin and bone.”
The android smiled slowly and then, with a final bow, left without another word.
Sighing, Kaito began to move his brushes and dirtied palettes to the sink before Yori quickly rushed to his feet, monitor blinking rapidly. Yori was, of course, the newest robot released to the public for household use. Kaito wasn’t particularly fond of such a small, ugly white box following him around all day, bumping into his ankles and beeping in alarm when he took dangerously long naps. He figured that his children programmed the machine to ensure that he was monitored (despite his numerous attempts to assure them that he might be old but not yet dysfunctional). Even so, Kaito did not find the prospect of his final years being spent with Yori.
Kaito surrendered to the small robot’s incessant noises, placing the paintbrushes and cups into the compartment that the robot offered to him. Yori whirled happily, pivoting on a single wheel as it turned to vacuum the floor. It began to play music.
“Yori, stop singing!” Kaito called to the bot as it moved into the hallway. Having not heard the command, music continued to waft through the apartment at a volume that bordered on obnoxious.
Kaito frowned, but, instead of throwing the machine onto the streets, he began to wash up for his night out. He felt the need to busy himself lest he begin to rethink his appointment. There was very little to entertain him anymore besides what many considered archaic pastimes — reading, sleeping, painting, eating. Even eating and sleeping no longer held their same appeal to Kaito. The restaurant industry had globalized to the point where there was no such thing as “new flavors,” and scientists recently reported that such high exposure to artificial light had reset the human population’s circadian rhythm to the point where they required less sleep than they did in the previous decade.
“We aren’t going to dress up for tonight’s outing,” explained Kaito as Yori followed him into his bedroom, producing a compartment with several watches in them. “This will be quick, and it will be our secret. No reporting to Hideo and Ama that we’re going to the Pit, Yori. They worry too much about me as is.”
Kaito moved past the little robot as it began to report the weather outside, slipped on his shoes, and donned one of his paint-stained shirts. He was admittedly excited for a reason to explore again; usually everything was done through the computer — meetings, FaceTime calls, emails, appointments, simulations. His children, Hideo and Alma, often were the ones that prompted him to leave the confines of his home and “network” (their words, not his). As excited as he was to take on the city though, his fingers still shook with anxiety. He wondered if he would return home in one piece.
Regardless of his nerves, Kaito grabbed his jacket, and, with Yori’s loyal clicking and beeping not far behind him, made the journey down from his 64th floor apartment to the 1st floor lobby.
Kaito’s memory was failing him, but never before had he been so cognizant of it than as he walked down the streets of New Tokyo. He couldn’t remember what it had been like before Japan became the powerhouse of the world. It was Japan, afterall, who first invented the modern android. It was Japan, not the United States, who began the first life-extending ventures, turning men and women into stronger, smarter, healthier versions of themselves like no one thought possible. But beyond these facts, the time before skyscrapers became the modern building and robots worked regularly in stores felt incomprehensible to Kaito. Just last month, a new Geisha android model was released to the public and already their newest replacements walked down the streets. It was as if a new city was born overnight, built atop the Shinto shrines and teahouses that once defined their culture.
Kaito, despite his disdain for Yori’s neurotic vigilance, found himself constantly checking to make sure its little metal form was still keeping pace with him and hadn’t been lost in the crowds. The streets were packed, even at this time of night, with androids weaving their motorbikes through honking automobiles and robots rushing in and out of store fronts. Human tourists walked in groups with thin goggles covering their eyes in what Hideo and Ama had explained were virtual tours of the city. A hazy filter of bluish-purple settled over the people and machines wandering the streets from the neon signs and looming billboards playing clips from recent gaming competitions.
They passed through an alley, making several turns past overflowing dumpsters and lounging felines. The artificial light of the city’s core and the heavy smoke slowly faded as Kaito made his way towards the Pit.
The Pit was nothing short of a tragedy. The buildings were mostly abandoned, save for the poor families and underprivileged squatters that found shelter within those barren walls. Graffiti littered the concrete skeletons of shops whose windows had long been shattered in robbery after robbery. Neon signs flickered, threatening to come unhinged from their poles. Walking down the streets were discarded Geisha androids with missing panels that exposed the wires of their faces or limbs that dangled precariously from broken joints. If the streets of New Tokyo were a testament to how far technology had come, the Pit was an example of the tragedy that came from those who could not afford to reap the benefits of Japan’s success.
They made it to their destination, simultaneously calming Kaito’s growing unease and causing his failing heart to nearly break through his ribs. Something heavy weighed on his shoulders as he pushed into the rundown warehouse-turned-hospital.
The waiting room was a case study in the government’s negligence of poverty stricken areas. Sitting in the plastic chairs were mostly humans with bloodshot eyes and spines that curved toward the ground like weeping flowers. They stared at the moldy tiles of the floor or at the beams dripping water above as though praying to a higher being. Kaito felt nothing short but paralyzing fear sitting beside them. He could only wait.
Every once in a while, a cyborg would walk out into the waiting room and call a poor soul back. Kaito startled at the sight of human flesh meeting copper plates, unnerved at the sight of a human — a human being with a beating heart and internal organs — having their bodies so unabashedly enhanced with technology in such a large capacity. Cyborg operations had long been banned in Japan. Scientists once offered parents the ability to alter the genetics of their children as though they were videogame characters. Men and women could replace their eyes with ocular implants for night vision, and athletes replaced bones in their legs with longer, stronger metal pieces as to have an edge over their competitors. Scientists and activists alike boycotted institutes against the exploitation of nature until eventually it was outlawed. They were unnatural things, afterall.
And yet there Kaito was, preparing to defy his morals and the laws of nature.
“Ming Kaito,” said an approaching cyborg, Izanami, clipboard in hand. The left side of her face, made entirely of a single platinum panel, reflected Kaito’s terrified face. “I hadn’t expected you to show up.”
“Neither did I,” said Kaito, suddenly very aware of how the others watched Yori with hungry eyes. “But I assure you that I have a vested interest in living as long as I can.”
Her dark eye gleamed with mirth. “Then let’s start.”
Kaito followed Izanami through a door out of the waiting room, Yori taking the rear with a hesitant squeaking of his wheel. Izanami was as cold as the metal that replaced half of her body — the first cyborg that Kaito had ever met. She was his customer once, sitting in his living room while explaining how her left arm had been burned off in an experiment gone wrong. Left with a cheap metal prosthetic, she begged Kaito to turn the eyesore into something that caused people to gasp in wonder instead of horror. She had no money. She had nothing to give him in return for his services except for her business card.
Kaito never thought that he would need her help, because, up until a year ago, he was perfectly healthy. He stared at her card for hours, fingers hovering shakily over his phone, as he sat in the hospital after his first stroke. Walking out from the hospital for the third time after a terminal diagnosis though, Kaito saw no other option other than to make the call.
He had no shame in admitting that he was a bit foolish, but he would rather be foolish and watch his grandchildren grow old than to spend the rest of his short life bedridden. Izanami’s procedure offered him years that no conventional doctor could.
Izanami led them into a room that was gutted except for what must have been only essential medical supplies. Counters lined the walls, covered in robotic parts, metal panels, wires, and various medical tools that resembled what Kaito might find in a dentist’s office. Though the rust-colored stains and yellowed lighting was ominous enough, far scarier were the two operating tables in the center of the room — one freshly sterilized and the other occupied by an android, strapped down with four chained cuffs. Its jaw was broken, left lying in a container on a side table to prevent its speech. Sparks flew from its ears with eyes rolling back in its head in what must have been equivalent to a human seizure.
“The others will be coming in shortly,” said Izanami, grabbing an operating apron from a hook on the wall. She began to tie it around her waist, either unbothered or habituated to the sounds of the android’s noises. “This creature here is where we will be getting most of your new parts from, including your legs, parts for your heart, and new auditory prosthetics.”
“And you’re operating on all of the people in the waiting room as well?” asked Kaito.
Izanami placed a mask over the bottom half of her face so that only her single black eye blinked back at him. “Where do you think your new organs are coming from? People will do anything for a bit of money nowadays.”
“I — I didn’t know that –”
“We all have to do things we don’t want to do for the betterment of society,” said Izanami with a click of her tongue. She grabbed Kaito’s frail shoulder and steered him toward the operating table with enough force as to not be mistaken for kindness. “I have given up my career and body for science, and I have yet to regret it. You will not either, Kaito. A sacrifice of a measly kidney or single finger is nothing for humans — not if it means creating something with the power and intelligence of steel and the creativity of man.”
Kaito laid down on the operating table, fully clothed and fully cognizant of Izanami’s sharpened nails digging into his shoulder. He stared into a light that rivaled the intensity of the sun with nothing but the sound of blood rushing through his ears.
“Your robot will be an issue,” said Izanami with the smile of Death. “But I’m sure we’ll find a use for it.”
The door to the room was thrown open and in walked four figures cloaked entirely in white. Their faces were puzzles of flesh and metal and rubber connected with bolts and rusted screws. Kaito sat up in horror as he noticed one android with his left hand replaced with a rusted saw and the other with the metal fingers of a rake. Their eyes were glassy like the screens of a computer, and their bodies collectively buzzed as one might expect a generator to if it were being overworked.
Kaito had no time to process his actions before he threw himself from the metal table, seeking safety and regretting his decision. His cry for help went unnoticed, for screaming was like music to the artificial ears of the cyborgs that surrounded him.
Izanami quickly blocked his path. “I took an oath when I was a doctor. It was a promise to never let a patient leave my care at the risk of their own harm. Ethically, I cannot let you walk out of this room. Selfishly, I desperately wish to see what you would look like if I cut off your fingers and replaced them with knives.”
Kaito was no match against the speed of the cyborgs; their metal arms and weapon-wielding appendages were upon him before he could even attempt to make his escape. Izanami stood back and watched, eye gleaming, as they pinned him to the operating table. His wrists and ankles were strapped down. His thrashing subsided after a metal hand slammed his head down onto the metal table so hard that he saw stars. Somewhere in the distance, Kaito heard a crunch! and the dying beeping of what could only be Yori.
“Do you like copper or steel better,” asked Izanami before a cloth was placed over Kaito’s mouth and the world began to fade away. She tisked. “Ah, it will not matter once I sew your mouth closed.”
The cyborg wakes up in a junkyard.
Half of his body is buried in a mound of wet dirt, compact from the heavy rainfall and what he can only assume is weeks worth of junk. Something is wrong with his eyes; pixelated, monochrome images of his surroundings impair the vision in his left eye. Slowly, he reaches to feel what is causing him so much discomfort, only to feel the cold metal of a protruding monocular lens coming from his right eye socket.
The cyborg begins to struggle, writhing around in the pile of dirt and metal that he is fossilized in. He kicks away the synthetic body parts of dissected androids and throws himself from the top of the mound. He tumbles, agony ripping through the limbs of his body, until he hits the ground.
The beeping and whirring of machines sound as they crash all around him like old, ruined toys of little boys and girls. The familiar bodies of Yori robots lay cracked open in the dirt as though ravaged and pillaged for parts. Disfigured faces of metal creatures land on his lap.
At a high pitched buzzing, the cyborg suddenly becomes aware of a flashing light being emitted from his chest… or at least, what used to be his chest. A solid panel of steel has replaced what was once skin and muscle, a glass window being the source of the strange light with what appears to be an artificial heart wired in the middle. His lungs are clear, synthetic rubber. The cyborg tries to scream, but his mouth is stapled shut. He cannot even cry, because his human eyes no longer exist.
Help me, his mind whispers.
There is no response.