The sight of the puppet’s severed head paralyzed Sayuri Ando. The torso—a mutilated lump—lay on its back with the head teetering on its chest like a grapefruit-sized logan. Loose strands of jet-black hair bobbed in front of its alabaster face, reminiscent of a weeping willow. The dismembered appendages fanned out within a three-meter radius and reminded her of the gristly leavings of a carcass abandoned by a sated beast of prey. A gothic still life, the scene oozed ghoulish tranquility amidst the razzle-dazzle of Neo-Asuka city’s nightlife.
She had not set eyes on a bunraku puppet for well over four decades now. Her childhood adoration of them crumbled the day she fled Japan and began her life on Mars.
Her body resisted moving forward, as though its instincts sensed stepping any closer would dredge up long-banished memories—memories capable of lunging her into a maelstrom of sorrow, anxiety, and anger. She seriously considered slipping away through the throngs gawking at the macabre display. Her superiors could easily reassign the case to a colleague.
“Everything okay, chief?” An all-too-familiar voice jolted her out of the trance.
“Yeah,” she said, “I was just thinking.” She hid her hands in the baggy sleeves of the haori jacket she wore and wiped the sweat off her palms on the fabric.
A lanky man in his early-twenties approached, his geta clogs clacketing. It was Shimada. Utterly transfixed by the puppet, she hadn’t recognized him until now. But in fairness his civilian attire also contributed to his inconspicuousness. Instead of the regulation black haori jacket and gray hakama bottoms, a lime green yukata draped his figure, complementing the emerald green streaks in his hair. Only the gold lacquer crest hanging from his canary-yellow girdle distinguished him as her junior partner in the force. Her generation rarely donned such bold colors, not even in their rookie-days.
“Sorry to bother you on your night off, kid,“ she said. “You got here quick though.”
They were both born in the year of the goat, but he was two duodecimal cycles younger—hence the nickname.
“Kazu and I were just a sector away at the Bon festival in Shin-Kawasaki when you called.” He pulled up the cordon for her and she stepped onto the crime scene.
Drones and forensic bots scoured the area like vultures and hyenas, protocolling everything. Scraps of the puppet’s crimson and black kimono littered the area.
Shimada whistled and shook his head. “I never imagined my first ‘twenty-three four’ would be this . . . what’s the word, theatrical?”
Article 23-4 of the criminal code penalized the dishonoring, defiling or destruction of all traditional culture, art, or artifacts. Depending on severity, the bugyo sentenced offenders to up to fifteen years in prison. Upholding and guarding its traditions for posterity lay at the foundation of the Japanese Imperial Realm and informed all aspects of society.
Sayuri had enforced these laws for decades, but had come to question their necessity and underlying purpose. Stagnant and resistant to change, this cultural navel-gazing nurtured a society interested primarily in itself and its past, constantly on the verge of sliding into cultural vanity or, worse yet, racist ideology. Besides, who gave the rulers the authority to differentiate between the traditional and the foreign or the new? In this society, traditional meant anything the rulers defined and endorsed as traditional.
“What kind of a doll was this anyway?” Shimada asked, kneeling beside the torso and peering into the head.
“It’s not a doll. It’s a bunraku puppet.” She crouched opposite him. “This one’s called an okina, the elderly man.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Slept through traditional theater studies at school, did we?”
Shimada shrugged. “I was always more into kabuki. But you seem to be quite the expert. I had no idea you were a puppetry enthusiast.”
“I used to be a fan of bunraku . . .back on Earth,” she said. “But all that ended when we fled.”
As chief doshin of public security, Sayuri encountered her fair share of 23-4’s, but this was a first. Intact this exquisite testament to craftsmanship and artistry stood approximately 130 centimeters tall. Three puppeteers controlled it: a lead puppeteer for its head and right arm, a second for its left arm, and a third for its legs. With perfect coordination they breathed life into it, making it dance lithely to the pentatonic tune of a warbling flute—at times with grace, at times with pathos.
They mainly performed in small theaters but also visited homes on New Year’s, offering dances in the genkan entryway of a house to expel bad spirits and bless the family.
A puppet so defiled would have pained Master Goro. But digging up the past now was pointless. He was long dead, as was her mother and many others.
Her earpiece feeped. “We’ve identified the culprit behind this,” a baritone voice said.
It was her boss, yoriki Takahashi. She signaled Shimada with her eyes and tapped on her ear. He got the message and tuned in with his earpiece.
Takahashi’s monotone continued. “Three anti-Realm activists stole the puppet last night from the Koma Theater. They’re in the pay of the Japanese Republic. Head to their Legation, question them, and report back to me.” The message ended as abruptly as it had begun.
Sayuri ordered Shimada to the theater to gather more details on the break-in and theft. They were to meet back at the precinct later. Shimada gave her a fleeting salute and hurried towards the maglev terminal.
The crowds had not dispersed yet. The words “sacrilege” and “damn Republican terrorists” rose above the murmurings of the bystanders echoing in the arcade. The crowd had already determined the identity of the perpetrators. Pointing fingers at the archenemy had become practically a reflex for subjects of the Realm.
Sayuri smelled a rat. The Japanese Republic held a position of dominance over the Realm both militarily and economically. So if they had no need to provoke the Realm, cui bono?
The disfigured puppet proved to be but an overture.
Within a week other activists had toppled a shrine’s torii gate, demolished a monument to the poet Basho, and felled trees in the sacred arbor. The spike in the occurrence of 23-4’s sparked uproar and dominated public discourse. People fulminated against the Republic and its henchmen for undermining the cultural bedrock of the Realm. Demands for retribution grew louder.
Legate Kurita of the Japanese Republic categorically denied all accusations and Sayuri believed her. She found no evidence even suggesting a link between the thugs and the Republic. But this didn’t bother her boss Takahashi in the least. He focused solely on sensationalizing the acts of vandalism in the press.
None of this surprised her. She’d worked in the bureaucracy of Neo-Asuka long enough to be familiar with the games the rulers played. Needing to compensate for their inability to retake control of the Japanese homeland on Earth in the forty-odd years of Martian exile, the rulers sought a distraction for its subjects. And what better way existed than to foment anger against an archenemy?
Seeking to make peace while secretly hoping to bring the other side into their respective folds under their terms, the two states had established Legations in each other’s capital. But the Realm’s irritation only grew when subjects began defecting to the Republic via the Legation. Though kept under wraps, Sayuri had access to statistics showing a clear rise in the number of defections. All indications were that many in the Realm secretly envied the prosperity of the Republic—hardly surprising given the wealth of opportunities living on Earth promised.
Sayuri fondly remembered her childhood on Earth where she spent many days with Master Goro in his studio. An eminent bunraku performer, he also constructed and repaired the puppets he and other puppeteers used. Before the Republic overthrew the Realm, he performed at schools, festivals and even in the national theater. She wanted nothing more than to apprentice under him one day.
Tensions grew. Opponents of the Realm wore non-Japanese attire in protest against the dress code and deliberately mixed foreign words in their speech. Others tore out the mandatory shrine altars from their homes. They gathered them into pyres on streets and lit them up at night. The media broadcasted the regular demonstrations in cities throughout the nation. Kids in her class rumored the protestors had already infiltrated the military, winning over several generals to their cause.
One evening, Master Goro visited Sayuri’s house. He warned them of concrete plans he had overheard a week before during New Year’s while performing at the house of a leading republican activist. The extremists plotted to attack all government officials in the district. “You have to leave as soon as possible,” he said. “It’s not safe here. Run for your lives.”
Her mother worked late in the Ministry that night, as she frequently did since the turmoil began. Her father attempted to contact her but the lines had been severed. Early next morning newsfeeds of the bombings in the government district came in. A pile of rubble occupied the space where the building her mother worked in once stood. There were no survivors.
Her father acted quickly and they managed to flee their house before the lynch mobs came. They secured passage to the Siberian Free State, a non-aligned nation, where many loyalists and their families had evacuated.
On the day they boarded the Yashima-maru and departed for the Neo-Asuka colony on Mars with the rest of the loyalist fleet, Sayuri read the news of a puppeteer murdered by a mob. Master Goro had warned several other families as well that night, saving their lives. The news agency posted a photo of a disfigured bunraku puppet hanging from a tree. On its neck hung a sign: “Traitor.”
It was pointless to press on further with the investigations. The Japanese Republic had nothing to do with the 23-4’s. These had been attacks staged by the regime to galvanize public sentiment against the Republic and in turn boost the Realm's approval ratings. The hypocrisy sickened her.
Sayuri briefed Takahashi on the latest reports of unrest and death threats directed at the Republic. He sat behind his regal desk and beamed contentment.
“The Realm is blessed to have such loyal subjects stand up on its behalf,” he said. He closed his eyes as though in prayer of gratitude. Did he believe the rubbish he muttered? She pitied the man.
“Sir, I give it a day at most before the mobs attack the Legation and either kidnap or lynch them.” She requested three squads to defend the compound.
“Never mind the Legation. You and your squads are ordered to provide security in the main promenade. Demonstrators are live-streaming a protest gathering tonight.”
Sayuri didn’t believe her ears. “Sir?”
“You have your orders.“ Takahashi stood and turned his back to her, facing the window and the dusty Martian landscape beyond. “Dismissed.”
“There’s no way I’m letting you go to the Legation alone.” Shimada stood in her office door, arms crossed. His cheeks flushed red.
“Thanks,” she said, “but I couldn’t let anything happen to you, kid. I wouldn’t know what to tell Kazu. Besides, I need you to take over for me while I’m gone. . .and maybe even after that.”
“But you can’t fight back the mob all on your own!”
“Yeah, I realize that. I’m not a total idiot, okay?” Sayuri crouched and tightened her sandals—a precautionary measure for the amount of running she expected. “I’m just going to help them slip out of Neo-Asuka before its too late.”
“What?” Shimada shook his head. “I’m telling you chief. You’re going to be knee deep in miso.”
“More like in over my head in miso,” she said. “But that’s why I have to do this alone. I’ll be fine. I’ve been in tougher scrapes. Unlike you green guys, I survived the Republican uprising, remember?” She saluted him with a smile and left.
Sayuri scuttled down the service stairwell and used the maintenance pathways to the maglev terminal. She avoided the crowds. Demonstrators filled the promenade in the city hub, listening to impassioned speeches condemning the Republic. The imperial propaganda service broadcasted the gathering. “Stop the defilers! Those who desecrate our culture must pay for their crimes!”
The maglev terminal had one shuttle not scheduled for departure yet. She overrode its controls using her authority code. In no time the shuttle barreled at maximum speed down the tube.
After several minutes the shuttle decelerated to a slow stop. She hurtled out as the doors opened and scampered down the hallway to the Legation.
The automated reception system intoned cheerily. “Welcome to the Legation of the Republic of Japan. What is the nature of your visit today?”
“Tell Legate Kurita doshin Sayuri Ando needs to speak with her now. And make it fast, you lot haven’t got much time.”
Moments later the doors to the right of the reception opened, revealing the legate, a woman younger than Sayuri, but already with a head of silver hair that complemented her navy blue jacket. In addition to her disarming demeanor, her penetrating gaze betrayed a cool intellect hidden in this career diplomat.
“Doshin Ando! This is a pleasure," Kurita said. "Please, come in. How may I be of assistance?”
“We need to talk,” Sayuri said and glanced around. “But not here.”
Kurita led the way to her office. An elaborate frieze visualizing the history of the Republic spanned the width of the wall behind her spartan desk. Sayuri never ceased to amaze at how nations always eagerly depicted its historical narrative. Kurita perched on the edge of her desk and raised her eyebrows at Sayuri. “Well?”
“Ma’am, excuse me if I cut to the chase. You and your staff need to leave. Now. The mobs are going to take you and your staff hostage. If any of your staffers resist, they'll probably kill them. All they really need is you.”
Kurita remained calm—a true diplomat through and through. “Alright, but since you’re telling me this, I presume public security is aware? They are bound by agreement to secure this Legation.”
“Well that’s just it. They’re not going to protect you. They’ve ordered my squads to provide security at the demonstration. Not a single doshin guards this compound now.”
“But that is a direct violation of the agreement between our nations. We are entitled to—“
“Yes, I know, and you’re absolutely right. But try telling that to the mob when they bash down your doors. Now please. Gather your staff. You need to drop everything and leave!”
Fifteen minutes later, a maglev shuttle jetted Sayuri, Kurita and her ten staffers to the Shin-Tokorozawa spaceport.
“Use your diplomatic privilege and request an unscheduled departure,” Sayuri said at the departure bay doors. “Port control will think you’ve been called back to the Republic because of the recent developments. Don’t dilly-dally and exit our jurisdiction as fast as you can. Those in the government who secretly sympathize with the demonstrators may force the authorities to stop and board your ship.”
“And what about you?" Kurita asked. "Why are you doing this? Treason can get you sentenced to life in the Realm.”
“I’ll scrape by. I’ve been through worse and survived this far.”
“You should come with us.” Kurita’s eyes turned earnest. “You have no future here.”
“And do what? Defect to the Republic? You must be joking!” She laughed and gradually became aware of the corner she had painted herself into. But she accepted her fate. “It’s kind of you to offer, but no thanks. I can’t defend how the Realm has been acting of late, but—and forgive my honesty—I don’t believe the Republic is all that it’s leaders claim it to be either. I experienced the rebellion—what you in the Republic call the liberation. It’s hard to shake those memories.”
“Then why help us?” Kurita made a puzzled face.
Sayuri paused. The resolve in her grew.
“It’s what Master Goro would have done.”
“He was a puppeteer I once knew on Earth,” Sayuri said and shook her head. “Never mind. It’s a long story.”
“I hope you can tell it to me someday,” Kurita said.
An aide called out to her. Port Control cleared their departure and they would be leaving any minute.
“I regret not being able persuade you to come with us.” She stretched out her hand but pulled it back. “Oops. The excitement made me forget one doesn’t shake hands here.” She grinned and bowed instead. “The world needs more people like you.”
Sayuri reached out, took Kurita’s hand, and gave it a firm shake. “Take care, legate. Safe journeys.”
The blue exhaust of the Taiyo-maru throttled the ship away from Mars. Tranquility filled Sayuri, calming her nerves. She began considering her options. Technically she only disobeyed orders when she didn’t report to her post at the demonstration—not the worst of infractions.
But she knew better. At best she would get a dishonorable discharge, but as a traitor she’d never find another job, unofficially sentenced to a life of welfare and begging. Legate Kurita had nailed it. She faced bleak prospects in the Realm.
She chuckled to herself. “Here I go again. I always end up running away from places.”
Sayuri got back on the maglev shuttle. She instructed it to head for the Embassy of the United Sub-Saharan States of Africa. She used to head the team providing security there and was on good terms with the Ambassador. The Realm couldn’t touch her there.
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Wow. You have a clear mastery of language and of the world you've created. I feel like this is only the beginning and has all the raw materials for a much longer piece -- a novel?? Love the first line for its starkness and the last for the resolution it offers as well as being a sort of teaser for what's to come next. Excellent job.
Thank you for reading and your kind comments! I agree, when I was writing this, the sense I got was that this should actually be fleshed out into a novel or novella. I'm curious myself to find out what adventures lie ahead for her. :>
Another great story! The excellent world building really does make the setting feel natural, and I loved the meshing together of sci-fi and Japanese culture! I definitely learnt something :)
Thank you :> I would like to flesh out this world sometime.