You asked me (via my perky ‘ask a question’ page) for something I have written that is not about videogames. I am writing a book, and I thought it would be nice to give you a small part of it, just to indicate that I haven’t always been a critic inside, I’ve been writing fiction all my life and I think I’m okay at it. Here’s the opener. It’s just enough to let you taste what it’s about. (It is about technology and people, I guess that’s what I know.) Images as always are from http://rekall.tumblr.com/.
Chapter One: Nejime Dragons
“Sync you fuck!” Ryan yells in front, turning the music up to vibrate the doors of the wrecked just-faster-than-lava car, all the tropical air rushing in through the windows, sticky through my hair, ash in my eyelashes. I can see over Aaron’s shoulder that the volcano is erupting just like NHK ticker-taped minutes ago on the hydrafoil’s TV screens. Ryan changes up a gear all awkward: Americans can’t drive stick.
SUM SUM SUMMER SUMMER MURDER, SUMMER SUMMER LET GO swells my ears, the MIA track corrupted by the mind as Aaron pushes me down in the back of the car, Ryan is yelling and laughing and singing SUM SUM SUMMER SUMMER MURDER and Aaron is kissing the fuck out of me, his hand on my jaw and up my shirt, and he is laughing too. Above me the sky is vibrating bluescreen blue like we’re unplugged.
“Don’t ask me what we’re doing,” Aaron stops to shout over the noise of the eruption outside. “Just go with it, we’re going on a ride, a ride back to the house with a detour.”
“We’re going to live this,” Ryan laughs at me, over his shoulder, the wheel swerving under his hands. We’re breaking the Japanese speed limit. The volcano siren is screaming at us. He lights the joint in the corner of his mouth. “Just go with it,” he shouts.
Aaron presses the tiny square button on his temple, and the LED lights blue. He notches up his French, and I respond. The taste of him is exhilarating, salt edamame and beer, the taste of flesh and youth and his hair smells of fuck me fuck you fuck everything. He drags his jeans off and throws them at Ryan who swerves and laughs, smashing my head against the car door, my lips detach from Aaron’s to moan gutteral glee. I pull off my T-shirt, no bra, and my nipples tingle at the wet air rushing past, sticking on my skin. It is gloriously hot; I throw my T-shirt over my head and it is sucked out of the window.
I think I know what is happening, and I expect him to put his hand up my skirt and stick it in glorious because I’m ready and I was ready an hour ago, high off Sakurajima’s broken seashell charisma, the lime-sweet chu-hi a serum pumped by music-fat beat through neon-feel veins, and this is the moment I am vaguely aware that you would want to sync: you would want to sync the ultimate glory of your dick in this new young girl’s pussy, you’d want that victory broadcast, you’d want the feeling to be liquid in everyone to addict them to your channel, to have 25,000 people feel your pleasure at being young and free and drunk on the soundtracked fuck that is happening right now in a tiny car trying to chariot-run exploding subtropical Japan.
But he’s delaying to run his hands over my skin – it’s milk white. I’m new on the island, no sun has touched me, and his tanned hands suddenly grip my soft upper arm: he’s getting a thrill from the moment before. He kisses me hard, inhaling my tangled hair, and he drags off my underwear and puts it in so that I gasp and claw the back of the car seat in front. Ryan squeals with glee in front, and yells at us that the lava is crashing down the hill: but I’m lost in my hips, eyes closed, and the rough feel of the synthetic car seat is grating and reminding me why I came: I came to leave Britain, I came to find people who could transmit, I came to find the wired kids. I scream and sigh and feel good and open my eyes to grin at him.
He grins back. “This is what the world is for,” he says. “Don’t you think?” The ash is drifting through the window in clouds and sticking across his face. The volcano settles behind him, quiet again.
The car lurches to a stop by Iso Onsen by the road; Aaron gives me his t-shirt to put on. The clerk by the car park sees us coming and Ryan speaks Japanese – tells him we’re here for the rotenburo and asks if anyone is there. He’s saying no, so we pay and head straight in. I look up at Aaron’s blue light and he’s still streaming. We’re still running, and my heart beats faster. He squeezes my hand to tell me that he’s adrenaline-het too, that they are going to make something else happen.
We separate to obey Japan’s social decorum: male and female changing rooms. I scrub down in the shower and put the yukata over my naked body, leave the changing room to hurry down the path, still shaking from adrenaline, almost forgetting to look at the clean-cut garden, bonsai and leafy trees, bamboo in quiet green pools of shadow, and through that out to the cliff where they have hewn a spa pool into the rock. I have read about this place: where the natural hot water flows out of the side of a sacred shrine to buddha. The pool looks serene; the roots of a tree have grown gently over the onsen pool to shade us from the heat, and Aaron sits in the pool, his arms draped over the lip of the onsen, waiting, and the whole of the sea horizon stretches out behind him. He sits there, expecting, his eyes blinking like two cursors, awaiting my input.
Ryan drapes himself over a shallow step at the far side of the pool and closes his eyes to the sun. Leaves from the tree drift over him and stick to his skin as he lies. It is deadly quiet. Somewhere a bamboo wind chime clonks.
“We didn’t know the volcano would erupt until ten minutes before you arrived,” Aaron says, his Irish accent curving the Rs. He takes off the soaking yukata and hurls it, wet, to stick on a rock. I don’t know whether to believe him, or to think that it is just for the viewers. Maybe they can tell if he is lying. I can see his twenty-nothing body has a deep tan from Amami life and is wearing a metal weed-leaf necklace, a symbol the Japanese treat like a fashion motif rather than a symbol of a drug they would beat you for in prison. His body is sinewy; they said there is a budoukan on the far side of Tanoshima, past a thick bamboo forest. The sulphurous water is too cloudy to make out his dick.
“Is the lava over now?” I ask, not worried, but aware that if it blows again they might shut the onsen even though it’s nowhere near where the lava spilled out.
“I think so. The ash is still falling,” he says, looking up and holding out his hand for tiny flakes of burnt earth core to land, slowly. His brows are thick and dark, but it makes his eyes darker and friendlier, and I draw closer. He’s more exotic than a Japanese man: an Irishman with a tan.
“Take off the yukata,” he gestures. “And come towards me.”
I take off the yukata, and walk towards him. I imagine what his viewers see: the white hips and curve of my waist and the ash and leaves sticking in my hair, drifting past nipples. The ash clings cloth-like to my face. I imagine what feelings Aaron is transmitting: calm, want, desire? Anticipation. I try not to overthink, alter anything I am doing. It is hard not to be physically nervous.
I gently sit down on his thighs and press my torso onto him, and he holds me, tense, and I look out at the Sega horizon. Ecco the Dolphin sea. I imagine there is an 8-bit dolphin out there, and that the world is merely a screen that I control with my spa-soaked fingers. I want to control everything. I want to have Ecco jump from the water.
“When you are syncing like you are now,” I whisper, “does it ruin it if you think about syncing? About the viewers that are living through you?”
He smiles at me. “If you want to make any money at this,” he says in my ear, “you control the experience, you bring it to the front of your mind, and don’t try to embellish it. It’s not for them. It’s for you.”
“The truth as it happens,” I say.
“It helps if you can feel something,” he says. “It helps if you give yourself.”
“And you can give yourself?”
“Everyone has a style. You’ll get to know mine, if I let you see the archives.”
“Are you going to fuck me now?” I whisper, unable to stop excitement tripping into the words.
“I’m going to fuck you,” he says, his hands trembling a little. “I’m going to fuck you in a consecrated onsen, with Buddha watching.”
I look back over my shoulder at the altar of the shrine, open to the world. A tiny torii gate stands over some offerings with origami garlands hanging from rope above, and a golden buddha stands, his hands held out for blessings under the tree roots. A torch burns by the torii. Buddha watches us, blind. The sun is disappearing.
I look back at him. “What makes you think I will agree?”
“I think you want to be one of us,” he says, nervously. “I think you have an exhibitionist in you.”
I smile and put my arm around his neck. In the spring water, our skin touching feels weightless, slides playfully. “What about Ryan?”
Aaron looks over at Ryan, a traditional blonde pretty-boy from Orange County California, Kevin from Daria only whip-smart, can’t drive stick. He is still sleeping, his jawline so pronounced it casts a shadow.
“Ryan’s gay. He’s got his own channel and he fucks actors mainly. He can do that, looking like he does. He’s a magnet for everyone.”
I shift my hips over him so he gets a thrill. “Noh drama actors?”
“No, primetime soap actors. Sometimes Korean ones too. But who needs actors any more, when people can feel the real things we feel when we sync them? But fucking isn’t all we do, you know. It’s not enough to feel like you are kicking death in the face. To make you feel satisfied. Kids on the internet have to hustle for the bizarre, the mysterious. We want to bring it to them.”
“I know,” I say. “That’s why I came here. I came here to see things. Do things. The whole thing.”
Aaron puts his lips on my left breast. “Alexis said you were emotional. Fun. We trust her.” He pulls me closer. “Now we gotta do this right, they can tell if I fake, y’know,” he says. I can feel the anticipation of it, and it’s clawing me too.
“This is the most messed up thing I’ll ever stream,” he winks at me.
“Anything for a story,” I say.
We smoke roll-ups that stick to our fingers in the heat, bumping through the muggy mosquito-infested bamboo jungle as Ryan drags the complaining Toyota down the dirt path. The loud music announces our arrival, Alexis comes to the open genkan with a beer as Ryan stalls into park.
“Y’all,” she says, wandering down the path, my Vs appearing out of the open window. “Y’all I saw your broadcast. You kids,” she says, clipped Glasgow accent. “No wasted time, eh?”
“How many views,” Aaron says, picking up the bento boxes from the back seat, their contents a wet mess from Ryan’s unsteady drive.
“Always the views,” Alexis says.
“Did you all stream?” Aaron says, shutting the car door.
“Just me on your latest bonerstream dudebro,” Alexis says.
“Oh yeah,” Alexis says. “A little exhausting. I didn’t know Sakurajima was going to blow today. Though your tendency to idolise women, particularly someone who is my friend, is still quite disturbing. Hello Kay.”
“Hi,” I say, hugging her. “Good to see you. Nice house.” I look at the huge bungalow with the sliding doors. Little droplets hang like baubles from silver webs under the eaves, where spiders bigger than a hand sit watching.
“How many feckin’ views, Alexis,” Aaron says again, putting on geta sandals and stumbling off over the house’s tatami mats.
“Whatever on the views,” Alexis says. “It’s not about the views, it’s the subscriptions.” I nod, believing her. This tall, doe-eyed fellow Scot has more subscriptions than anyone in the house. I once streamed her three-hour broadcast of Fuji Rock when it rained torrentially: she did two types of drugs, went backstage and played poker with some Japanese band I forget the name of, and had them play a private gig in a marquee she’d erected under some trees. Half the festival attended, strung out at 3am. Alexis rapped over a beat Nujabes laid out. I remember feeling someone from Weezer sexy dancing her.
“Was I good?”
Alexis smiles. “You were good. A little meta, but good. We’ll see if you fit in. It’ll take me a little while to shrug off the feeling of a having an Irish dick though. Come and have some fucking tea.”
Inside, five people sit around a coffee table in a vast complex of almost-empty eight-mat tatami rooms. Aaron is leaning behind him to a bank of computers, craning to see his views on one of them. “Oh fuck off Aaron, come on,” Alexis says. “Let’s eat.”
“Hi, I’m Kay,” I say to the strangers, who I know by internet.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Ross,” the boy-faced New Zealander says.
“I know,” I say. “You like Japanese girls.”
There is a slight chuckle at the table.
He smiles. “Well, here they’re mostly Japanese.”
A woman I know as Anna, a warm North Californian, has her eyes spark at me. She’s the queen of the natural world: she does the romance trips, the wine on Fuji, the underground rivers in Palawan, that sort of thing. Screwing her boyfriend in moss forests on Yakushima.
“Reputation proceeds, you?” Mamiko asks her boyfriend Zack, who also syncs. Mamiko is a slender, beautiful cropped-haired Kagoshiman woman with the personality of a kitten. From Zack’s syncs, she is the most earnest, gentle person I can imagine: adept at English but always checking her idioms against Zack’s American dictionary. She never syncs, but I’ve seen the most intimate of details about her. Mamiko has a mole on her stomach that is my favourite thing. Zack’s too.
“That’s right Mami-chan,” Zack says. “Nice to meet you, Kay. Alexis says you want to crash with us for a while. That’s cool. You want to sync then?”
“I don’t know yet,” I say.
“She’s gonna sync,” Aaron nods. “She got a thrill off that volcano and the onsen and my dick.”
“You haven’t even asked her how she feels about our whole deal yet,” Ryan says, trailing into the living room with green tea and an assortment of tiny cups. “She might have hated it and thought you were a terrible lay. Sit down, Kay, just push the cat off the sofa.”
I pick the little white cat up from the sofa. I’ve seen it before – I think it’s called Shio, after the Japanese for salt. It meows at me, and Anna giggles. I put it down.
“We’re gonna go Dragon Boat Racing,” Ross says, handing me some tea. “You want to come? There’s a party afterwards. Charlie and Nads are DJing afterwards, everyone’s invited up to the log cabins on the hill. Beer in ice buckets and Taka’s restaurant is serving food.”
I nod. Charlie and Nads feature often in Alexis’s streams; English and Canadian literature grads, over-read and easy. They eat men for breakfast but live with each other, in the same bed. Women who make weird things happen, queer sly witches.
“My fiancee’s stopping by, you can say hi,” Alexis says. It’s strange of her to mention it: there have been beautiful pictures of her and Matt together on the net, posing (Alexis practices selfies constantly) and looking happy, but she’s never streamed anything with him. Alexis nudges me. “Me and Anna got fluorescent paint for tomorrow. You wanna help decorate everyone?” I smile and nod again.
“What about my implants?” I say.
There is silence. Aaron smiles.“I told you she’d be into it after that!” he says triumphantly. “Sakurajima, holy shit.”
“We can take you up to Tokyo, when you’re settled,” Zack says, and I see a little flicker in his expression. “If you really think you want to.” I see him look at Mamiko, who sniffs. “We can get a plane from the crotch of the peninsula.”
The others begin to talk about the drive to the boats, perhaps deliberately. They talk about Rick Thompson. Rick is always talked about. He is never acknowledged but he’s always talked about. Everyone in streaming knows Rick.
Mamiko puts a hand on my leg and looks at me sincerely. “Kay-chan. Nice to meet you! I hope we can be friends.”
“Me too,” I say. “Are you going to help me with my implants?”
“I will try,” Mamiko says. “But we won’t think about it now,” she says, carefully stepping through her English. “It’s a journey. …Like, a trip. Very…sort of big step. I think. Let’s not think about it. See if you like us, first.”
I search my bag for roll-ups, but there are only the crap lady-cigarettes they advertise on electronic billboards, the thin low-tar ones with perfumed smoke that I’d bought drunk two nights ago in a Satsuma-Sendai divebar. I don’t look like those delicately-drawn Japanese beauties from the ads; my eyes are blue, my nose is what they’d call ‘high’ and my hair is still bleach from being a gaijin all my life. There are flowers on the packet. I see Aaron grin as I look in disappointment at the dainty white packet, my Otherness complete.
“We’ll get you something to smoke, onsen kid,” he says.
Mamiko squeaks, hugs me as dinner is served. Zack comes back from the fridge with Asahi tallboys.
Each person in the room is arrogant in their own way – there’s no concern for my intrusion and there’s no feeling that I don’t belong, though I know everything about them. I think about the last time I streamed Zack, and I think about Mamiko’s uninhibited love for him. Out of all of the people in this room, I think, Mamiko is the only one who isn’t a snake. And she’s the only one without implants.
Perhaps that’s it. Perhaps the implants make you a terrible person, I think, gazing into Mamiko’s eyes as she serves rice. Perhaps she suspects I’m not brave enough to be awful for money.
“Fuck,” Aaron says, under his breath. Near three am, and I’m lying on a cool dark futon rolled out on the tatami. The night is somehow inkier here in rural Japan than it ever was at home: it is thicker and quieter, it has a texture of hazy black silk that fireflies outside float on and mosquitoes inside dance on; Hayao Miyazaki black. It’s a dark that long after I leave I will miss. The air feels so pure to breathe. Cicadas screech in the distance nearer the sea. I lie beside the butsudan – the shrine of the family who lived here before: a scroll in very old Japanese that I can’t read lies brooding behind little doors that are now shut, but the candles and incense are there, along with bells and an offering of little satsuma oranges, the ones named after this region of Japan. It’s Zack’s house really, and Zack isn’t religious, he says, but he puts the oranges out anyway, because he likes to think the ancestors give him their blessing.
After a while, I look towards where Aaron is working at the computer. None of the paper sliding doors have been pulled, and so though he is two rooms away I can see and hear him clearly. “What is it?” I say.
The side of his face is gently illuminated by the blue computer glow. “Oh, I thought you were asleep. Creepy place to sleep by, that shrine.”
“I like it,” I say.
“I was looking at our figures.”
“Our figures? It’s all yours.”
“No – it was half you, at least, my feelings towards you were real. But the figures for this are more than I’ve ever got. More than even some of the others have got.”
“I mean – not to dishonour you – but I think the double hit of volcano and sacrilege really made it something that people want to watch. And… and of course I was thrilled the entire time, absolutely cringe-excited and nervous and all sorts of things.”
“Isn’t it nervousness that makes things a payoff?” I say.
There is a pause, and I hear the cat gently pad across the tatami mats.
“Is there a market for syncing in the dark?”
“Yes,” he says.
I see a little blue light appear near the tip of his ear, and I smile.
Alexis’s hand swerves on the wheel, the bass is too loud to think; Mamiko plasters fluorescent paint over my body in stripes, bright pink and yellow on the flesh that isn’t covered by a triangle bikini I found in a Tokyo thrift shop. The triangles are too small for my tits and have a ridiculous fringe on them, fluffing up into the wind that is rushing hotly through open windows. Anna is high in the front of the car, waving her arms rhythmically. We borrowed the MIA tape. She’s spitting LIVE FAST DIE YOUNG BAD GIRLS DO IT WELL into our ears, Alexis is grinning like a braided devil, like she is going to crash our car. I grin too; everyone here is a snake but Mamiko, and the boys are swerving around on the road behind us as if to break their tyres. Anna opens the sunroof to stab fingers at the boys’ car behind:
AAAAAAH SUKI ZUKI, I’M COMIN’ IN THE CHEROKEE
A lone Japanese man tending to his daikon patch by the road looks up at her crazed face as we zoom by, we are as alien, as awful as the word ‘gaijin’ suggests.
We’d left late. By the time we’d truly woken and had enough beer that we were ready to leave it was five and the haze was rising from the volcano. Kagoshima bay races beside us on the right, the sea sloshing up in aquamarine and turquoise until night falls and again bluescreens the sea, the moon the same flashing icon behind clouds, waiting for our click. Alexis smiles, howls, and turns up the music, the singer Annie’s beat thumps into us; I am in an early 90s rave film.
Just after nine we pull up in the forest clearing amongst cocaine-white stars; Ke$ha beats the drums thick through the needles of evergreen trees and massive amps push the music through crowds and crowds of us, the young, all painted UV and delirious, coolboxes full of cheap Ebisu lie open, tiny Japanese girls bounce up and down in Kigus, the tall westerners move hips, the Japanese move with their hands, there’s a crush of smiles and falling over.
I hear your heart beat to the beat of the drums; oh what a shame that you came here with someone I hear myself mouth as we are magnetised by the music, our vanguard floats towards it fluorescent-striped and feline, picking our way through the rocks of the grassy carpet. “Nads and Charlie,” I hear Alexis say in my ear, barely audible, and I nod.
Nads and Charlie are at the altar, a huge contraption of wires and a laptop on a table, and they are thumping on the table and spilling beer down their fronts as if their failsafe ritual was something that fed the party its line. Their eyes glint and flash as the next of the pop fuel is sprayed over the throng and set alight. They pull out sparklers and throw them into the air as if to demonstrate their commitment to the fire. Some people catch them and dance, slicing the air with light. I feel drunk and pre-sick. Nads and Charlie are beatwitches. They are conductors of electricity.
The bass, the bass.
“They say Rick Thompson is here, somewhere,” Alexis sways. “But he always avoids me.”
Rick is always talked about. He is never acknowledged but he’s always talked about.
I can feel the humid air touch my face, and as I open the first cold beer of the night and put the can to my lips, sweating, and the music presses like a hot, wet cloth onto my face, I flush and move. Alexis kisses my forehead and whispers secrets in my ears. Mamiko grabs my hand and Zack’s from nearby and drags me over into where the trees muffle the sound. A blue shiny beetle shuffles its way over a stone, and a dragonfly waves through the air.
“Are you with Aaron?” Mamiko asks me, her little kitten smile and pixie hair delighting my garbled brain. “Yeah, Kay,” Zack grins. “Are you with Aaron?”
“No,” I say. “I don’t think so. Unless he said so, we’re nothing.” I think of how they are all snakes because they are wired, relationships are business; some sort of commercial transaction.
Mamiko gleams pink for a moment, quick enough for me to be afraid for a second, until it melts, and I remember she’s not hooked up, not one of them, no implant, just human. “There’s a guy for you, he’s hooked up and out of his previous lady distraction,” she frowns at the language stumble. “No partner?” she asks Zack, who nods darkly.
“He’s a friend of ours. Mark. Good at it. Less subscribers than Alexis, more than Aaron.”
“What makes you think this is a good idea,” I state.
“He’s the sort that got famous for being himself,” Zack says. “You’ll know him when you meet him.”
I take a backup beer from an icebox on a tree stump and leave them to contemplate. In a clearing on a picnic bench a tall gaijin all in black is munching down an onigiri and sipping beer. He seems older than my age, hair like the GIs from Okinawa. I sit down at the bench with him and talk about how I miss the glass beer bottles of the liversick west. I assume he has drugs because there’s no reason for him to be observing at a party like this.
The drug dealer gaijin sizes me up. My fluorescent stripes glow dimly on my skin in the murky dark. The cicadas make an orchestra.
“You’re in Japan to get hooked up,” he says. Southern accent. Kentucky. “Don’t.”