Some time ago I wrote a couple of books, called Red, and Red: Signal of a Distant God. They were in part an attempt to do a literary equivalent of those manga comics which I read, and the Anime films which I watched.
I am a bit of a Nipponophile, and I had a lot of fun writing those two books, as I was able to indulge all my desires in that field, setting the books, in part, in a slightly futuristic Japan-style land, almost like one of the lands in the many video games which I used to play back on my Playstation. I had swords, tengu, paramilitary bad guys, and basically anything else I wanted to throw into the pot. I’m not going to go too far into details – spoilers, spoilers – as I want people to enjoy these novels without knowing what is to come next.
I do have very vague plans for a third Red novel but I don’t know if I will ever get around to writing it. It would be set a couple o decades after the other two, anyway.
Extract from Red
“Open your eyes.” the voice in his dream was telling him. “Open your eyes.”
He opened his eyes, and woke up. That was not quite what the voice had in mind. But the voice had already been forgotten, nothing but a dream that had faded with the new day.
Akai stretched, and yawned. He glanced across at his digital clock. He still had a few minutes before it would go off, signalling that he would have to get up and get ready for college.
His name meant ‘red’. The reason why he had been called that was obvious, once you looked at his auburn hair. It was as red as auburn hair ever gets. And it had done him no favours. When he had gone to school, he’d had to get a doctor’s note that the hair was natural, and not dyed. College was a little more relaxed, but a few questions had still been asked by his tutors.
Some of the other guys teased him that he had Gaijin in his blood. Akai guessed that it must be true, somewhere down the line, but it still wasn’t nice to be reminded of it.
Akai almost jumped out of his bed. There was this girl at college – well, there was always some girl at college – who was different from all of the others. Her name was Mai. He reckoned that he stood a chance with her. Little point going in, otherwise. He certainly wasn’t learning that much.
He grimaced at his reflection in the mirror. His hair was all over the place again. Every morning, always the same, like he’d just been through some wind machine. He ran a cheap plastic comb through his hair, but all that it did was pull out a few of the comb’s teeth. His hair had defeated him yet again.
He showered, enjoying the water wake him up. He closed his eyes as the hot water played over his face (open your eyes, open your eyes). He had double Synthetics later that day, and he was not looking forward to it. But at least he had kendo for the last lesson of the day. He was almost best in his class at kendo. Only Samui, his rival in most things (like chatting up girls) was better than him. Oh, and the Sensei, of course.
He flung some clothes on, recovering them from where he had thrown them when he had hit his bunk the previous night. They were creased, but he had no time to worry about that. Anyway, he hated ironing.
He grabbed his satchel from where he had left it the previous evening, when he had come in, his homework still unpacked. Homework was something he avoided at all costs. He hoped that, when the final exams came, he would have absorbed enough knowledge that he would ace them. He knew that he would pass his kendo exam, even if he took it right now.
He left his lodgings, a house he shared with several other college students. The others in the house were Ryu, Kei, Matsu and Terao. The only one of the others who he had in the same class as him was Terao – they both were in the same Steam Physics group. Steam Physics was not Akai’s favourite subject. Most of the non-physical subjects were less than favourite subjects, as far as Red was concerned.
Akai had to run to catch the Sky Tram. However early he tried to prepare for things, he always ended up running late. It was just the way that things were. Or that he was. He wasn’t sure which.
He settled down into a plastic seat and waited for the Sky Tram to reach his stop. He did not lean back in his chair. He had done that, one morning, after he had been out very late the night before, and fallen asleep. That had taken a lot of explanations not to be expelled. And if he had got expelled, what would have happened to him then? He would end up like those sararimen who he saw in Okami Park, the ones who could not admit to their wives that they had lost their jobs, so they got dressed up as though they were going to work. But, instead, they sat in the park all day, their briefcases beside them. He despised them. He did not want to end up like that. He would do anything to avoid doing that, even if it meant getting up in the morning.
Ideally, he would have liked to have been a Rock and Roll star. But how did you go about doing that? His careers adviser had only laughed at him when he had said that, and had said that he should try harder on his Metamathematics instead. But the dream of music had not left him: fame, fortune, and the girls. That would show Samui. Samui would never be a music star. But, as Akai did not play a single instrument, it was doubtful that he would, either.
Akai had bought an electric guitar. He had thought that it would be easy to play. It always looked easy on the music videos. But he couldn’t get a decent tune out of it. And the police had turned up – his neighbours had complained about the noise. He had not touched the guitar since then. It lay there, on his floor, mocking him. Occasionally he would trip over it, and curse. Maybe one day he might still be a rock and roll star, like in that song on his music player.
The Sky Tram stopped, and Akai got off. It was his stop, the one right near to his university. A few students, who could afford it, and who came from far away, lived on campus (as did some of the teachers). There was even a Gaijin among them, a young man by the name of Clavell. Akai had seen Clavell around, but had never spoken to him. They did not share any classes. Akai had though that Clavell looked strange, with his skin colour, and his goatee beard, and the fact that he was big and bulky. He didn’t fit in. Perhaps it was because his name was so hard to pronounce, and get right (according to Clavell, anyway).
The Sky Tram platform was above the pavement below. Akai ran down the metal steps leading down to the pavement. The stairs clanged beneath his feet. He was not exactly the most light-footed of people. You could not see the university directly from the Sky Tram station, not until you went down the metal stairs. Then you were faced by it. It was something you could not escape (well, until the bells rang, signalling the end of the academic day).
Tsuba University had been built around thirty years ago, in an architectural style which had, back then, looked very modern. Now it looked very dated. It had been built with money donated by some important politician of the time, who it had been named after, of course. There was a plaque dedicated to celebrating his largesse. Few of the students had bothered reading it, or knew who Tsuba was (Ken Tsuba, former MP of the OGP – that is, the Official Governing Party). It was just some boring brass plaque on the wall.
The first thing that you saw were the steps leading up to the plaza in front of the university, the steps framed with walls that always carried graffiti, no matter how often it was cleaned off. Anybody spraying the walls with graffiti were summarily expelled, if they went to Tsuba. Which meant, of course, that some students saw it as a challenge to do it without being caught, even creeping back to Tsuba University in the middle of the night, long after the Sky Tram had finished.
What was the graffiti today? Yesterday’s had been rather dull, only along the lines of Tsuba sucks and Kaori’s father was a Gaijin. Today’s was a little more interesting – We all hate the OGP. At least it had a little political comment. But that was about as intellectual as the graffiti ever got.
Everybody hated the OGP, but nobody said anything, as anybody who didn’t hate the OGP worked for them, either secretly or openly. But that was not Akai’s concern. He was not into politics. Politics was dull. Nothing ever happened. Well, that was what he thought, back then, when his eyes were still firmly shut.
Akai crossed the plaza, entering the main building of his university. His first lesson was Difference Engine Studies. Not his best one, but not his worse, either. Perhaps he could be a game designer, instead of musician. They got loads of money. But they didn’t really get the girls, did they? Mind you, with the amount of time that he had spent down the arcades, playing games, he should be a natural at designing games. They beat playing pachinko, anyway. He couldn’t see how anybody could be interested in just watching ball bearings going around.
Difference Engine Studies dragged, as did his other lessons of the day. Akai wished that something would happen, to spice up his university life. A girlfriend would do. He would settle for that, rather than Mr Yoshitaka going on about memory and caches and programming commands all the time. Akai wished that he could skip this class, but Difference Engine Studies was one of the classes which he had to take if he was to ever achieve his J-Level, and become a high earning, fully functioning member of society. Those who failed got to resit their exams and courses the following year. Those who failed the second time… well, unless they were well connected, and could afford to buy their exams and degrees, the only position for them was that of bum and dropout, the vagrants who haunted back alleys and who the OGP said didn’t exist. Nobody failed, in their wonderful world. Everybody was supposed to succeed.
Samui came from a rich family. Had Samui been failing his exams, then a little bribery would have taken place, and Samui would have – surprise, surprise – ended up the qualifications which he needed. It was denied that such corruption went on, but everybody knew that it was true. It was simply never mentioned, that was all.
Samui’s father was some politician, in a prefecture to the north. He could easily have afforded to buy his son his grades. But that would not be necessary. Akai knew that Samui would pass, anyway. And it was that, more than anything else, which got Akai to knuckle down and study. If Samui was going to pass, then Akai would, as well. There was no way that he was going to lose out to his rival.
Difference Engine Studies was followed by double Synthetics, forming the last lesson block before lunch break. Akai hated double lessons, he found that his mind wandered part way through. And Synthetics was not his thing. But he had Kendo as the final lesson of the day. Get through the boring stuff, and have a bit of fun before going home. He was going to ace his Kendo class, his physical part of the J-Level qualification. Only Samui and the old kendo master, Mr Usagi, were better than him. And this was not Akai being proud, or boastful. He knew it, just as he knew that he wasn’t exactly great at the mental and magical stuff.
The bell rang, signifying the end of Synthetics. Akai could not get out of the class room quick enough. He had totally screwed up that last experiment; but, luckily, Ms Tanaka had not noticed. Ms Tanaka was the only good thing about Synthetics. In her early twenties, with short cut dark hair and a svelte body, she was not hurtful to the eyes. Which may have been one of the problems – Akai tended to spend more time looking at her, and wondering what she would look like outside of her demure brown skirt suit, than actually listening to what she said.
Lunch break began. Many of the students had their own exquisitely packed bento boxes, but Akai had not had time to prepare anything like that. He never did. So, instead, he settled for some noodles in a chilli sauce. They were hot (in both ways) and would keep him going until his university day was over. He could cook something else when he got home, although his own concoctions would not have passed muster in even the lowliest Kyoda restaurant. His recipes were based on whatever he had left in the cupboards; but rice and noodles usually featured highly, simply because they were cheap.
He gobbled the noodles down as quickly as he could, almost burning the inside of his mouth in the process. The quicker that he finished his noodles, the more free time that he would have before his afternoon studies began. And what did Akai do with this valuable free time? Hang around sitting on the steps at the entrance to the university, bragging about what they were going to do once they finished university. Akai had told Terao and the others that he was going to be a famous rock star one day, and that he had an electric guitar. Sometimes Terao would tease him: living in the flat above, Terao knew how far Akai’s mastery of it had progressed. Or Yukio would complain that his father wanted him to go into politics, maybe someday entering the state prefecture. Politics was boring, nothing ever changed. Yukio would rather have been a writer; but his father would not hear it, considering writing to be a dissolute profession. Or big fat Gonsei, who could eat as much as the rest of them combined, would say that he was going to become a Sumo wrestler. That was one thing which the others of them could believe.
The afternoon bell always rang too soon. They always wanted a few more minutes before having to knuckle down and study some more. Just a few minutes more. But they always had to troop back in.
The afternoon was not too bad. Akai only had two lessons. The first was a lecture on Nihonese history, which Akai found very dull, but it was part of the syllabus, so he had to sit through it, almost drifting off in the lecture hall. But he was kept awake by his stomach, which was protesting about the fact that he had gulped the noodles down so quickly. Or perhaps it was the chilli sauce which his insides objected to. Either way, his innards were attempting to do gymnastics, causing him to wince in discomfort. Luckily for him, his complaining stomach had settled down somewhat by the time that the lesson ended, and he could go and do something which he was actually good at: kendo.
Akai changed into his kendo armour in the changing rooms next to the kendo hall. The Kendo training Hall was on the ground level, not far from the exit. When this last lesson was finished, Akai would have but a shirt walk to the Sky Tram.
Akai strapped his armour on, putting on everything but the grilled face mask. That would only be worn when each bout began. The students liked to see who their opponents would be. And Mr Usagi, the kendo master, did not like talking to masks.
Akai walked into the hall, his rival Samui a few paces in front of him, bragging to a student who Akai did not recognise about how Samui intended to take Akai down a peg or two. Samui must have known that Akai was behind him, as he had raised his voice to make sure that it carried.
Mr Usagi sat on a chair at the far end of the hall, glowering at these students who thought themselves swordsmen. His skill was legendary. Akai had sometimes wondered how Mr Usagi had been content to be only a teacher. Four hundred years ago, before the unification of Nihon, he might have become a legendary samurai warrior. Like Musashi – two of whose swords hung on the walls of the kendo hall, if that could be believed. Most of the students thought that they must be reproductions. Even if Musashi, the greatest of all legendary swordsmen had been real, then nobody would have been foolish enough to hang swords used by him up in a university, as they would be priceless antiques.
Mr Usagi selected students to fight each other. At first Samui and Akai were paired up against opponents who were inferior to their skills. But it allowed them to warm up, and loosen their muscles, banishing any tension which they might have felt. But for the last match they were paired against each other.
This was what both of them lived for, a chance to beat the other. Sometimes Akai won; sometimes Samui won; but with each encounter their skills improved. Perhaps they might be good enough to challenge Mr Usagi, one day. Although Akai doubted that.
They faced each other, their bokkens raised, their metal head protection concealing their features. Armour was essential: the swords might only be wooden, but they could still deal a painful clout, even through all of the padding. Mr Usagi raised his hand, then lowered it – let battle commence!
The other students had stopped, and taken off their protective masks, to watch these two fight. They all knew that Akai and Samui were better than them. So they watched these two fight, some cheering Akai, some cheering Samui. Mr Usagi frowned at the cheering, but did not interfere. A good warrior would not be distracted by such things.
Samui made the first move – what looked like a careless lunge at Akai. Akai stepped back, knowing that it was only a feint. If he had moved in at the apparent weakness, then Samui would have turned the weakness into a strength. In kendo, if nothing else, it was almost as if they knew each others minds.
They parried, seeking weaknesses which did not exist, stalking around each other. This fight was played out as much in their minds as on the matting.
Wooden sword met wooden sword, as they exchanged blows. First Samui appeared to have the upper hand, and then Akai. And then, each of them aimed a blow at each other’s head, a blow which, had it struck, might have laid them out unconscious on the floor.
The blows connected, but not with each other. The bokkens smashed into each other, with as much force and speed as either swordsman could muster. The wooden blades, which had seen a hundred fights without breaking, disintegrated in a jarring shower of splinters. The two fighters could feel the force conducted up their arms.
“That ends the fighting for today.” Mr Usagi said, standing up. “An honourable draw.”
Samui flipped his mask off, revealing his sweaty face. Like Akai, he was a little short of breath.
“You were saved by the weakness of the blades.” he said to Akai. “If not for that, then I would have beaten you.”
Samui turned his back, and stalked off, before Akai had the chance to reply.
A few minutes later, Akai had changed out of his gear, and was walking down the steps out of the university. A sensible option would be to go home and study. But, after that fight with Samui, he had too much adrenalin in his system to simply sit down and study. It was time to have a trip down the arcades. He could always study when he got back later. But, for now, he had to blow off some steam.
The arcade still didn’t have the latest version of Elite Warrior, one of the fighting games which he liked to play. Version four was supposed to be out now, with four new characters, including a practitioner of Hapkido. But version three still wasn’t that bad, even if he had already finished it with each character. He could still find somebody else in the arcade to play against. Somebody who wasn’t Samui.
He found somebody willing to give him a couple of games, before the other youth realised that he was never going to beat Akai, and conceded defeat. The last game, in which Akai had achieved a flawless victory using the Ninja (Akai was one of the few people in the arcade who could pull off the Ninja’s teleport, a very complex move) had been enough for the other guy.
He found better. He had taken out all of his antagonism and stress on pixelated opponents, instead of people in the real world. Time to go home. He supposed that he had better do some studying that night.
The sky tram carried him back to his little apartment. He could hear bad Nihonese heavy metal coming from upstairs. That meant that Matsu was in. He was the only one in the block who was into heavy rock. He’d dyed his long hair purple once, before being threatened with being kicked out of Tsuba University, and having to dye it back.
He tried to study. He managed a couple of hours before he became too distracted again. Anyway, he was hungry. All that he’d had was those chilli noodles.
Akai examined his funds. Too little money left to order food. You could say what you liked about the Gaijins, but pizza was cool. Perhaps he shouldn’t have gone down the arcade.
He shrugged. What was done was done. He would have to examine his cupboards, and concoct a meal from what he had in there. Egg noodles, some rice, soy sauce, tofu, and some almost fresh bean sprouts. Oh, and spicy chilli sauce, the one ingredient which he made sure he was never without. It could add life to the dullest recipe.
Well, what he had was a veritable feat compared to some days. Tofu in soy sauce, followed by stir-fried noodles with all the bean sprouts, and a general dollop of chilli sauce. That would keep him going for the rest of the day. He could always do some shopping on the way home tomorrow, instead of wasting his time and money down the games arcade. If he went to the market, he should be able to get something cheap. He wasn’t choosy.
Akai ate his makeshift meal sitting watching the television. Some boring game show or something. But there was a film which he wanted to see on after it, one of those old chambara samurai movies. He wished that he could have been a hero, back in those old days, living by his wits and the blade of a sword. He would have been a ronin, a wave man, a masterless samurai. But nothing like that went on these days. He would have to settle for his kendo lessons instead.
Akai went to bed after the film. He supposed that it was time that he had an early night for once. After all, he had another full day ahead tomorrow.
Akai’s eyes slowly closed, as sleep took him. To sleep, perchance to dream…
Red and Red 2: Signal of a Distant God are available as e-books on the Amazon Kindle store.