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P R O L O G U E

The crowded streets of Hong Kong bustled with activity.

A press of human bodies swarmed this way and that, each person frantic to get to his or her own destination, and each equally sure that his or her own personal mission was of utmost importance. The result was a mob of noisy, unruly people, all pushing one another and angry for being pushed in turn.

Above and in some cases among the mass of human flesh, hundreds of robots flitted back and forth in the dying light of the early evening. Sundry needle-like antennae sprouted from the backs of the metallic swarm, and each relayed messages on its own encryption wavelength.

Some were mediabots, designed to search for anything newsworthy and to report back to their human journalists. Others were loud commercial 'droids that obnoxiously shrieked advertisement slogans in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, taking credit card numbers and distributing commerce sites on cyberspace. Still others were dark spy 'droids that drifted quietly in between their flashier comrades to follow an unsuspecting businessman.

All of them reflected the ruby-colored light that bled from the setting sun in the west behind a forest of towering space-scrapers that grow over an undergrowth of smaller, older buildings. The eastern sector of the city had already fallen into semi-darkness, or at least as dark as was possible in the face of the blazing neon illumination that emanated from the myriad of bars, night clubs, theaters, and store fronts.

It was in this semi-darkness that Hyang Chao strolled. Today had been a good day, and Hyang was happy.

The bronze buttons that dotted the front of his dark green Hong Kong civil police uniform reflected the erratic light of the city's neon second-sun. Had one been able to push back the hem of his right sleeve, a deep slash promising a permanent scar would have been visible. Hyang had acquired it during the robot riots several months ago.

It was because of this scar and the memories that accompanied it that Hyang now carried with him a light caliber laser rifle when it was his turn to patrol this area of the district. Better to look paranoid than to be once again unprepared.

Hyang let his gaze slide back and forth across the patchwork of light and shadows, searching for anything amiss. As his gaze lit upon the entrance to an alley between a coffee house and a karaoke bar, Hyang stopped in his tracks.

In one of the few shadows left in the man-made half light, a figure crouched.

Bent double, as if with agony, the figure seemed to shiver. The unruly mop of raven-hued hair atop face obscured behind filthy hands was matted by a dark, coagulated substance that looked like blood. The last rays of the setting sun stained the figure in sanguine shades.

Had this man been assaulted? Impossible! Hyang himself had patrolled this area not five minutes ago, and any disturbance would surely have been audible. He frowned at the notion that he was somehow responsible for this man's misfortune.

Hyang took a step forward.

"Hey there. Are you okay?" he asked.

The figure didn't respond, but continued to shiver. Hyang noted that the black, American-style biker's jacket that the man wore was torn in many places and stained with more than merely dust and age. What was that he was sitting on? If Hyang hadn't know better, he would have said it was a riot shield.

He frowned. Was that a glint of metal he had seen between the folds of the man's jacket? Hyang loosed the strap on his laser rifle in case the man turned out to be one of the drug-slaved lunatics that prowled the streets of the poor areas at night like a pack of giant, craven rats.

"Hello? Are you hurt?" Hyang asked. Once more, no response. He repeated his question in Mandarin, in case this was a citizen of the mainland, but still no response. Nervousness had made his body spring-tense. He took another step closer.

Abruptly, the man exploded into motion.

Hyang fell back with a half-cry as the man sprang out of his crouch and stood tall, arm pointed at the security officer. Out of panic, Hyang pulled the trigger of his laser rifle. The near-imperceptible whine of the piercing energy's release made Hyang's skin crawl.

Too quick to be human, the figure dropped and grabbed the silvery dish upon which it had sat. Sure enough, it looked like a riot shield, complete with the dark tinted slot through which one could see from the other side.

The brick of the karaoke bar's wall exploded behind Hyang: the laser beam had been reflected. Hyang blanched as he realized that the shield's near-perfect chrome color hadn't even been darkened in the spot where his laser had hit. Immediately, the figure flung its shield aside and pointed its right hand at Hyang.

The too-bright eyes that seemed to glow in the twilight were hawk-blue, and danced with fever and insanity. In the man's left hand was a long scarf the color of noon sunlight, surprisingly clean in contrast with the rest of him.

The dirt-caked creature's right arm was still pointed at Hyang. Instead of a hand at the end, there was a large, bulbous crimson device. Hyang could see light shifting deep within the machine through the hole at the end of it. It trembled, as though the man fought an internal battle, and could not decide whether to attack or not.

A weapon? Hyang decided to play it safe. Slowly, taking painstaking care not to seem threatening, he lowered his rifle until it hung at his side by its shoulder strap. Then he held out his hands, palms up.

"I'm not going to hurt you. See?" He hoped his voice sounded strong and rational, rather than terrified. His nose involuntarily wrinkled. Rather than the sour smell of stale sweat, cheap liquor and drug-induced vomit that Hyang had come to expect from such urchins as this, a vaporous miasma that stank of motor oil and an unplaceable, coppery scent filled the alley.

The egg-shaped device slowly drooped, and the man's eyes focused upon Hyang, although they did not lose their fever-brightness. The voice that spoke was cracked, grating. Barely human, and weighted with suffering.

"Itamimasuyo."

Hyang's mind raced. The man was speaking in a language that was neither Mandarin, Cantonese or Korean, and so, unintelligible to the security officer. It had the syllabic sound of Japanese. Hyang committed the sounds the man had spoken to memory, and said the one phrase he knew in Japanese.

"Watashi wa nihongo o hanishimasen." I don't speak Japanese.

The man fell forward to his knees, and caught himself from further descent on his hands.

His hands!

Hyang blinked and stifled a gasp. The egg-shaped device on the end of the man's right arm had disappeared. Now there remained only a metallic crimson gauntlet. Surely he had been wearing no gloves when Hyang had first seen him?

"Itamimasuyo." This time, it was barely a whisper.

"Let me help you," Hyang suggested, hoping that the tone of his voice would convey his intentions. "You don't look well. That wound on your head--"

There was a flash of silver and crimson fire--a bolt of light in the shadows--and the man had gone. as suddenly as the wind. Shield, scarf and grimy man in the torn jacket had all vanished instantaneously. Hyang looked over his shoulder and then back at the space the man had occupied.

A ghost?

He shivered, though the night was warm.

As Hyang turned to report back to the precinct office, he thought he heard a sad, slow whistle, as if carried a great distance by the wind. Drawing closer to the comfort of the inner city, he sought out a wandering translation 'bot.

Pressing his thumb against its scanplate and punching in his credit card number, Hyang picked up the small microphone that had extended from within the floating, spherical robot and spoke. "Language: unknown. Japanese suspected. Translate to: Cantonese. Phrase: Itamimasuyo."

The robot whirred for a moment. "Connecting to server. Please wait," it said in a pleasant voice that was neither distinctly male nor female. Several seconds passed before the machine responded. "The phrase: itamimasuyo is Japanese in origin. The translation is: It hurts very much. Translation ends. This has been a service of TransLaboroid Incorporated. Thank you for your patronage. Have a nice day."

Hyang glared at the receding robot and cursed the wasted money. He could have told that the man hurt without having a roving translator robot repeat it to him. The Hong Kong security officer cursed and looked at his watch. Now he was going to be late in reporting for his next set of rounds.

His good mood had fled.

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