THE SAMURAI BARBER was headed to a job interview when someone shouted, “Yo, Samurai Barber! Cut my hair, yo!”
Turning to see who had so rudely asked for tāde services, tā saw that it was a child, around six or seven years old. Based on the child’s sheepish afro and the two friends who were snickering nearby, the child had probably been egged into asking for a haircut.
It was five minutes past three and tā had a job interview at four. There was more than enough time for one haircut. Tā drew tāde katana.
The katana was almost as tall as the Samurai, and it was impressive how the child was standing still, albeit with eyes shut tight, instead of running away. Tā sometimes forgot just how imposing tāde katana could be. It took a certain amount of courage to do that and it was so at odds with the child’s hairstyle.
Ah, this was an easy one. All of the child’s sheepishness could be traced back to the ends of tāde hair, probably because those “friends” nearby had only started to make fun of the child recently. Tā only had to trim off the ends and bring the child’s courage to the fore. But the child’s hair was curly and had to be straightened before tā could cut it. It would not do to cut off the roots of the child’s courage, after all.
Tā breathed in through tāde nose and out through tāde mouth, steadying tāself, and swung tāde katana over the top of the child’s head with all of tāde might. The blade touched only air, but the child’s hair seemed to reach out to it, straightening itself out for a moment. Tā used that moment to reverse tāde swing.
One smooth motion and the trim was done. But there was one more thing to do. Tā swung tāde katana over the top of the child’s head again, this time twisting tāde wrist while swinging. The result was a slight wave to the child’s hair, now looking like a lion’s mane.
Tā looked upon tāde work and decided that it was good.
The child looked at those “friends”, waiting for a reaction.
“Whoa!” said one of the friends. “That was awesome!”
“You look great!” said the other friend.
“Hah! Of course!” the child said, beaming with confidence.
“Do me next!” one of the friends said to the Samurai.
“No, do me next!” said the other.
“I’ll give you ten dollars if you cut my hair first!” said the first one.
“I’ll give you twenty!” said the other one.
“What? No fair. Rich butoh.”
The Samurai couldn’t believe that such language was coming out of the mouth of someone so young. Kids these days needed to learn some manners.
“Ain’t my fault your parents can’t get a good job!” was the retort.
“Say that again! Say that again!” said the poor kid. It looked like they were going to get into a fight.
The little lion whispered something into the poor kid’s ear. Whatever it was, it seemed the poor kid didn’t mind the rich kid getting a haircut first anymore because tā said, “It’s okay, you go on ahead.”
Judging by the way the poor kid was smirking, the little lion had probably said something like, “Just let tā go first, in the end tā will be twenty dollars poorer while you get a free haircut.”
The Samurai took the twenty dollars from the rich kid before the kid could realise what was happening. After cutting the rich kid’s hair, tā went on to do the same for the poor kid. And since tā didn’t accept any money from the poor kid, a line formed. Yup, the one thing that you could count on from the citizens of Lionfish was that they would queue up for anything that was free.
Cutting hair was what tā loved to do, what tā was born to do. And looking at all the people lined up with their problems, problems that tā could fix by fixing their hairstyles, tā couldn’t say no.
As strands of existential ennui fell to the ground, tā looked up and saw that tā was done. Tā looked at tāde phone to see the time and—
Stupid! Stupid butoh! It was already five thirty! Tā was so bloody late for tāde interview and all tā had to show for all that hard work was twenty dollars. It was a particularly bad haul. Usually some people would pay tā to cut the queue. Usually tā got at least a few hundred dollars. No such luck this time.
Another thing you could count on from the citizens of Lionfish was that they could be such cheap butohs.
THE RUSH-HOUR TRAIN was packed with people, some of them so annoyed by the Samurai’s katana jutting into them that they violated polite decorum by rolling their eyes and clicking their tongues. The Samurai didn’t care though. Tā had other things to worry about, like how to pay tāde rent and what tā should buy with the measly twenty dollars in tāde wallet. It was either an apple or a slice of kaya toast.
Oh, the crunch when biting into a green apple, followed by that tart yet sweet taste. Tā preferred that over the nauseating sweetness of the red counterparts. But kaya on grilled bread, that was the ultimate temptation. The caramel-like taste of crispy, almost burnt, bread combined with the soft sweetness of kaya spread on top – just imagining it made tā salivate. The healthier option would be the apple, but tā had a craving for the pure rush that only kaya on grilled bread could provide.
Kaya it was. It was better to indulge tāself first and deal with the consequences later. The job interview had gone as well as could be expected considering that tā had been two hours late. It could be a long time before tā got any more money.
“Good afternoon, Mister Ken, so sorry I’m late,” tā had said to the interviewer. Tā had offered tāde hand for the customary handshake.
But Ken did not deign to reciprocate the gesture. “Good afternoon? Good afternoon?! Do you know what time it is now?” Ken had asked instead.
“It’s six o’clock,” tā had answered.
“Wow!” Ken had rolled tāde eyes. “You do know what time it is. I thought that perhaps your phone had gone siáu or something. But maybe you’re the one who went siáu. Do you remember what time you were supposed to be here?” Ken had almost screamed out that last question. The verbal attack made tā flinch and tā looked down in silence.
“Well?” A vein had popped on Ken’s neck.
“Four o’clock.” The answer had gone out like a thief trying to sneak away.
Ken had motioned for tā to stand. The motion had been gentle, at odds with the simmering fury that erupted as soon as tā stood up. “Get out, you bloody butoh!”
Ken’s hairline was receding a bit too early for someone who seemed to be in their late twenties. In an effort to hide this fact, Ken had slicked up what remaining hair was left and combed it downward. The result was that it looked like Ken was wearing a black helmet.
And while a katana could not fix faulty DNA, tā had seen the strands of shame and despair taking root on Ken’s head of hair. A couple of swipes from tāde katana and those errant strands would have been cut down. Ken could have been saved from a lifetime of low self-esteem. If only Ken had asked, tā would have barbered Ken for free.
Tā really should stop giving out free haircuts, if only to stop tāself from getting too much into it and messing up tāde schedule. Tā had tried charging for tāde services a long time ago. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out because tā had done it for free before. No one in their right mind would buy something that had once been free. There was no solution to this paradox of the free market, which was why tā had applied for the package management job at the Confiscatorium. Locating confiscated goods and moving them to the auction house wasn’t barbering, was probably soul-crushing monotony, but it had to be better than surviving on donations. The only good thing about donations was that they were tax free. The downside, well, downsides, were plenty. Tā really needed another way to make some cash.
Perhaps tā could go into casting, share tāde exploits for everyone to see. There had been a couple of casts from people watching tā cutting hair that had been pretty popular. Those casts had garnered at least a couple of million views each. So maybe a lot more would plug in if tā started casting. But tā didn’t know much about how to monetise casting. Hopefully the Archive would have some guides.
The train stopped at Lakeside station. There were two orderly lines of people outside the door waiting to get in. But the lines dissolved into chaos as soon as the doors opened. The ones who wanted to get off and the ones who wanted to get on, neither group gave the other any quarter. Through a remarkable feat of human osmosis, everyone got to where they wanted to go before the train doors closed.
The train lurched while leaving the station and there was another minor miracle as almost everyone on the train maintained their balance. Almost. The sole exception was the old woman standing next to the Samurai, who stumbled and stepped on tāde foot. The pain, originating from tāde pinky toe, stabbed up into tāde spine and flew out of tāde mouth.
“I’m so sorry,” the old woman said.
“It’s okay.” Tā managed a smile. Tā had already forgiven the old woman with gauzy silver hair, for tā was magnanimous. The woman was just old.
The old woman bowed tāde head in apology, and there, rising from tāde crown, was a lonesome strand that stood apart from the rest. It was the embodiment of heartache and loneliness.
“Did you recently lose someone?” tā asked the old woman.
Maybe the old woman thought it would be rude not to answer or maybe the old woman just wanted someone to talk to. Whatever the reason, the old woman answered, “Why, yes. How did you know?”
“You look lonely and sad,” tā said.
“Oh, yes. I lost my son.” The old woman had a faraway look.
So tā patted the old woman’s head and coaxed that lonesome strand back down to join the others. The old woman laughed, eyes tearing up with what must be tears of joy. “I’m sure your son wouldn’t have wanted you to grieve alone,” tā said to the old woman.
The old woman took the Samurai’s hand away; tā looked serious now. Perhaps it had been too soon for the Samurai to mention the son, but at least that lonesome strand wasn’t alone anymore. The old woman pointed at the Samurai’s phone. “And are you looking into going into casting? I couldn’t help but notice what you were watching.”
“Yes,” tā replied.
“I can help you with that,” the old woman said. “I have… had my own channel with more than a hundred thousand subscribers. Apparently, there is a niche for old cooking recipes that I fulfilled.”
“Wow!” Tā was puzzled by the technological savvy of this wizened old woman. Getting a hundred thousand subscribers was no small feat.
“Anyone can cast, but that’s like shouting into the wind nowadays,” the old woman said. “What you need to do is to cast to a recasting network. A good network is going to have a searchable list of casters so that people can find you easily. The best network by far is Stream Monster. The rest don’t even have a behemoth computer and can’t compete. With Stream Monster, people can even subscribe to you so that they get a notification whenever you start casting. The best thing about Stream Monster is that it won’t cost you anything. They will even save your casts to the Archive for you, automatically, for free. In fact, if you are popular enough, you might even get paid! I used to get about thirty thousand dollars a month.”
Thirty thousand dollars a month! Tā might get some money out of this. It wouldn’t be much after taxes, but it was better than the inconsistent donations that tā was getting. This could be the solution to tāde cashflow problems. “But what’s the catch?”
“No catch,” the old woman said. “They just modify your casts with product placements. Subliminal advertising, very effective.”
The Samurai didn’t care about that. Tā was already thinking of all the things thirty thousand dollars would buy.
“Does tā have a name?” the old woman asked, looking at the phone that was in the Samurai’s hand. The phone yawned, a sure sign tā was about to enter sleep mode.
“Sammy,” the Samurai said, suppressing a yawn of tāde own.
Sammy perked up upon hearing tāde name.
“Hi, Sammy, would you like to set up the Stream Monster application?” the old woman asked Sammy.
Sammy looked to the Samurai for reassurance and tā gave it by nodding. So Sammy chirped happily and set up the application. Tā chirped again when tā was done. The old woman was such an expert that the Samurai was finished with the whole registration process for creating a channel a few minutes later, when the train reached the next station.
“There you go, nice job, Sammy.” The old woman took out a battery from tāde purse and fed it to Sammy. Sammy gave a contented purr.
“Do you think I should do a fullcast or a halfcast?” the Samurai asked the old woman.
“I do a halfcast myself,” the old woman said. “My viewers don’t need to know whether I’m sad or angry or bored when I’m cooking; they just need to see what I’m doing and hear what I’m saying. But if I was a good enough actor, I would go full. Fullcasts are so rare that people will tune in just to experience it, the content doesn’t really matter. It is one thing to share your vision and hearing with the world, but it is quite another to share everything. But if you can stomach that, you should do a full because you will definitely get more money with a full.”
“Full it is then.” All the Samurai cared about at that point was the money.
“We’ve never been properly introduced,” the old woman said. “I’m Greta.”
“Nice to meet you Greta, I’m—”
A scream cut the Samurai off. Everyone turned to look in the direction of the scream, to see what was going on.
“There’s someone with a sword!” came a cry from someone in the front of the train.
The weight of a hundred passengers pressed against the Samurai. Everyone was trying to get out of the train by any way possible. Tā tried to shield Greta from the worst of the crush. Luckily, they were between two exits and the crush dissipated as soon as the people behind them exited the train.
There was a figure in the compartment up ahead. Black garb, check. Face mask, check. Yup, before the Samurai Barber stood a ninja, wakizashi at the ready, spiky hair twisting back on itself like something out of a surreal nightmare and held together by a heretical amount of mousse.
Between the ninja and the Samurai was Ken. Ken had left the interview after the Samurai, so Ken must have been in a hurry for the both of them to end up in the same train. Ken’s hair had been cut. It was no longer trying to hide the M of male pattern baldness. It was now short-cropped and angular, accentuating the M instead, celebrating it. It was exactly the cut that the Samurai would have done, except for the patches of hair where the cut had been uneven. Ken had not stayed still for this haircut. It had been done against tāde will. The ninja had violated tā.
No one should force a hairstyle on another, no matter how stylish or beneficial it might be. The cut and style of someone’s hair was part of their identity. Who someone was and how they presented themselves to the world must always be decided by the person themselves. No one, not barbers nor hairstylists, should force themselves into that sacred role.
How dare this ninja assume omniscience and omnipotence! And the thing that pissed tā off most of all was that the ninja wasn’t even that good of a barber.
Ken got out, a little happy but a little peeved, as was to be expected from the sloppy haircut.
“Get out, Greta,” the Samurai said, but Greta was already gone. It must have been obvious to tā that this act of follicular terrorism was meant as some kind of message for the Samurai. Besides, Greta was unarmed. This was a situation to be handled by the ones with weapons.
The two of them stared at each other – the ninja with wakizashi unsheathed, the Samurai with a hand on the hilt of tāde katana.
“Who are you to force a haircut on that poor fella?” the Samurai asked the ninja. Perhaps it was still possible to talk tāde way out of this without a fight.
“I did tā a favour,” said the ninja. “But you would have condemned tā to a lifetime of suffering, wouldn’t you?”
“Because it is a choice that is not ours to make,” the Samurai said.
The train lurched again. The Samurai stood tāde ground without losing tāde balance. The ninja did the same.
The train screamed with glee when tā ran into a tunnel. The fireflies in the train went into a frenzy, flickering on and off.
The ninja pointed tāde wakizashi at the Samurai. Tāde stare seemed to pierce through the Samurai, seemed to be able to discern all of the Samurai’s darkest secrets. “Woo weed wa where wart,” the ninja said.
“What?” the Samurai shouted over the train screaming wooooo and the pitter-patter of tāde many feet.
“Woo weed wa where wart!” the ninja shouted back. The Samurai couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like the ninja was saying, “You need a haircut!”
In one of the short spans of darkness, the ninja charged. In the following span, the light revealed the ninja holding tāde wakizashi over tāde head, ready for a downward swing.
The Samurai blocked the attack with tāde sheath. Tā pivoted to let the ninja stumble past and fall, leaving the wakizashi stuck in the sheath.
The ninja recovered with a flip, then stared at the Samurai.
The Samurai pried the wakizashi loose and threw it away.
A flicker later, the ninja held a kris in tāde hand and it was coming for the Samurai’s head.
The Samurai dodged the clumsy stab, bowed tāde head to avoid the follow-up swipe. But stepping aside to avoid another clumsy lunge might have been a mistake, as it allowed the ninja to pick up the wakizashi.
Footwork alone was no longer sufficient to defend against two blades coming in at different angles. It was time to get serious. The Samurai unsheathed tāde katana.
In through the nose, out through the mouth.
The train sighed disappointment as tā sped out of the tunnel. “Next stop, Pagoda station,” said the announcement.
The ninja leaped at the Samurai, spinning to generate some momentum. Since the attacks were coming from the same general direction, it was easy to parry the first and deflect the second attack. The Samurai knocked the ninja aside with the flat of tāde katana.
“Stop this, seriously!” said the Samurai. The ninja stabbed with both weapons at the same time. Tā deflected the two blades upwards with a single motion.
The ninja began to attack wildly. It was a desperate tactic. The Samurai had trouble figuring out what the ninja was doing, because the ninja didn’t know either. The ninja began changing the angle of attack mid-swing. Doing this would negate any momentum generated, making the swing useless for the purposes of inflicting harm upon the human body. Which meant that the ninja didn’t want to cut through flesh and bone, only keratin.
Each strand of the Samurai’s hairstyle had been groomed to take its rightful place, each strand supporting other strands that had been laid on top of it until tāde hair took the shape of a horn, a majestic monument to tāde great barber skill. No way tā would let the ninja harm a single hair upon tāde head.
The Samurai backed away from the ninja, to get out of range of the kris. The fight would be much easier if tā only had to deal with the ninja’s wakizashi.
The ninja threw the kris at the Samurai. Tā dodged the throw by reflex, but it nicked a micron or two off of a strand of tāde hair. It was enough. Each micron of each hair had been essential. As one strand fell, the others followed and tāde hair collapsed in billowing cascades until tāde sharp horn became a fluffy pompadour instead.
“No!” the Samurai cried. The pesky ninja had destroyed years of careful grooming with that throw. The ninja came at tā again with a swing.
Enough! The swing was clumsy, leaving the stupid butoh open to a counterattack, an opportunity the Samurai was fully intent on using. But tā changed the counterattack into a parry when tā realised that it would have been lethal.
The ninja’s swing was a feint; it was actually a lunge. The Samurai could not stop tāde parry in time. Tāde katana cut into the ninja’s flesh. Because the parry had started out as a lethal swing, its momentum was enough for the katana to cut through bone. The ninja’s arm was severed below the armpit. While the hard steel of the wakizashi might have stopped the katana, calcium did little, and the blade went on to slice apart the train as well.
Maimed, the train crawled onto the station platform and fell. The ninja fell as well, blood spouting from the stump that used to be an arm. The belly of the train was splattered with huge splotches of red and fuchsia. There was too much blood. Both the ninja and the train would bleed out soon.
The ninja stared at the Samurai. There was confusion in tāde eyes as well as tāde blood-matted hair. The Samurai could do nothing; the ninja was going to die.
“Let me help you,” the Samurai said to the ninja.
The ninja muttered something, eyes glazing over. The Samurai took that for consent. The ninja was not capable of a more coherent response.
The Samurai propped the ninja up against a wall, then swung tāde katana. The blade passed over the ninja’s head. All the blood and hair mousse was sucked from each and every strand, right down to the roots, and a dark red mess splatted against the side of the train.
The ninja mumbled something. It did not matter now. The Samurai had work to do. Tā placed tāde katana above the ninja’s head and rotated it a full revolution, making the ninja’s hair crest and trough. From the back to the front tā did this, gently, patiently, until the waves of hair crested and then crashed upon the ninja’s forehead.
THE CHILD HAD brown hair with curls like ocean waves. It was a beautiful day at the beach. The sunlight reflected off the golden shore, making the child’s hair seem almost hazel. The sky was every shade of blue, stretching out all the way to the horizon, the gradient reflected in the water.
The child laughed. The water felt cool.
“Ali!” the child’s mother called out. “Careful! Don’t go in too deep or the sharks will get you!”
Careful was a word Ali did not yet understand. Tā kicked the water, seeing the droplets arc up into the air and glisten in the morning sun. A wave came in and knocked tā onto tāde bum.
“Ali!” tāde mother cried out, worried. But there was no need to worry because the sand was soft and tā hadn’t been hurt. Tā looked back at tāde mother, beautiful in a white one-piece swimsuit and straw hat, hair flapping in the wind, and laughed. Tāde mother smiled back.
Tāde father came and scooped tā up, throwing tā up into the air and catching tā. Tā liked it when tāde father did this – it was so fun! Tāde father then lowered tā gently onto the beach and attached two floaties on tāde arms. They went deeper into the ocean until the water was up to tāde father’s waist. Holding hands, tā kicked with glee. Today tā was going to learn how to swim.
Tā let go of tāde father’s hands so that tā could splash some water on tāde father’s face. Grinning, tāde father splashed some salty water back at tā. Tā looked back at tāde mother and started crying.
Tāde mother came running, yelling at tāde father, “What did you do?”
Tāde father shrugged.
When tāde mother got close enough, tā splashed some water on tāde mother’s face, suddenly switching from crying to laughing. Tāde plan had worked. They were all together now.
“Oh, you cheeky monkey!” tāde mother said. “I’m gonna get you!” Tāde mother made an angry face, but tā could see the happiness behind that mock anger. Tā giggled and tried to swim away.
“Oh no you don’t!” tāde father said, catching tā.
“Here comes the tickle monster!” tāde mother said, fingers descending upon tāde yummy little tummy. Both parents proceeded to elicit as much laughter as possible in order to appease the tickle monster.
When tā was exhausted, tā laid on tāde father’s chest and looked up into the sky where the clouds were slowly rolling by. The rise and fall of the ocean, along with the sound of waves crashing upon the beach, was comforting. One of the clouds looked like tāde mother’s face. Tā compared it to the real thing, smiling down at tā, full of love and happiness.
“Mom,” Ali said, full of love and regret.
Ali turned to look for tāde father but found the Samurai Barber staring back instead.
“Master, I failed,” Ali said, staring past the Samurai at a view of the cloudless crimson sky.
The rise and fall of the train’s breathing turned ragged and was no longer reminiscent of the ocean’s sway. When tā stopped breathing and died, so did Ali.
THE SAMURAI BARBER laid the ninja down. Then tā looked down at tāde bloody hands. They were the hands of a murderer. Tā had killed a person and a train!
Tā leaned against the wall and sat down, waited for the police. The sirens were still far off; tā had some time.
A phone peeked out from a pocket in the ninja’s pants. Poor phone – tā must have been wondering whether tāde master was okay.
As the phone squiggled up the ninja’s body, the Samurai realised that not only had tā killed a person and a train, tā had also orphaned a phone.
The phone started to lick the ninja’s face, tried to wake the ninja up with tāde feeble pushes. The Samurai saw this and it felt like a million trashmites were scurrying around under tāde skin, as if tāde skin was trying to crawl away from tā, a monster.
Sammy looked up at the Samurai with tāde singular eye, and although tā had no tear ducts, the Samurai could tell that tā was crying. Tā whined, trying to comfort the Samurai.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, go to sleep, Sammy,” said the Samurai as tā unplugged from Sammy.
Thus ended the Samurai’s first fullcast.
TWO SETS OF feet clad in black leather boots and dark blue pants blocked the Samurai’s view of tāde victim’s corpse. The police had come.
“Do you know tāde name?” tā asked the two police as they took tā away. All tā got were shrugs in response.
They brought tā to a police van which was sitting quietly, chewing some grass. The van stank of vomit, piss and blood. They shoved tā into the back after confiscating tāde katana. One of the two plugged in to the van and off they went, leaving the Samurai alone with tāde thoughts.
Tā had killed someone. The worst thing about it was not knowing the victim’s name. And the death of the train was even more tragic. The train might have lived for a long time, chugging along, happy to ferry passengers around, if not for tā. It would take a decade or so to grow another one.
If the ninja had not attacked tā, tā would have never killed anyone! The ninja was to blame.
But tā had wanted to kill the ninja for a moment. It was only for a moment, but it was enough. The ninja was dead.
But what the ninja had done was inexcusable. It wasn’t like tā could swing tāde katana at tāde own head. It had taken just the right amount of mousse and styling, and tā had to use scissors, a clumsy instrument compared to a katana, to groom tāde hair. All that effort had been wiped out when the ninja had thrown that kris.
But hair was just keratin. It was nothing compared to two lives. Tā should have been more careful. Tā could have parried with the dull side of the katana instead of using the edge.
On and on the cycle of tāde thoughts went, revolving between anger and guilt and back again. They put tā in a small cell to await tāde trial. There was barely enough room to stretch. But even then, it was not small enough to contain the storm of tāde thoughts.
Tā asked for a pair of hairdressing scissors. If tā spent any more time seesawing between guilt and anger, tā would go siáu. Perhaps there was some peace to be found in trying to repair tāde hairstyle.
They gave tā a shaver instead. Just as well. There was no salvaging what was left anyway. Tāde hairstyle had been the result of years of careful cultivation, of building a foundation and layering on top of that foundation. The only thing tā could do at this point was start over.
Tā was dragged into court after a couple of hours.
“You are charged with the murder of a train, Volvi-0410. Do you contest this charge?” the magistrate asked the Samurai.
Tā shook tāde head.
“The ninety-nine per cent no-contest discount will now be applied to your sentence. That makes it a million dollars and twenty strokes. Also, your right to bear arms will be stripped from you.” The magistrate waved the Samurai away. “Next!”
“Wait, what about the person I killed?” tā asked.
“What about tā?” The magistrate looked irritated. One could easily infer from the long line of people outside the courtroom the reason why. “It was clear from your cast that you were in the right. Next!”
“Do you know tāde name?” the Samurai asked.
“No, and you better shut up and get out before I charge you with contempt of court! Next!”
Tā was taken to a clearing with a young sapling in the center. Then tā was stripped to the waist and strapped to that sapling. A man with a whip stood behind tā.
When supersonic leather met skin, skin had no choice but to give way. When the whip retracted, it took with it bits of skin, flesh and nerves. The pain was intense, more so because it had come suddenly. There had been no countdown; no one had even shouted an order. The only warning had been the whip cracking, and by the time the Samurai heard it, the nerves in tāde ravaged flesh were already firing siáuly. There was nothing tā could do to stop tāde scream.
The man threw the whip again. The whip hit the same exact place as the last time, making the pain before pale in comparison to the hell tā was experiencing now.
There seemed to be someone else getting whipped also. Tā heard the other person scream after each crack. No, there was no one else. What tā had thought was another person was actually tāself. The only way to survive this siáuness had been to disassociate tāself from what was happening.
Tā had thought that being punished would have eased tāde conscience. But each crack of the whip drove tāde guilt deeper into tāde soul instead. There, the guilt transmuted into indignation. Tā had been wrong. It wasn’t tāde fault. The ninja had mentioned a master right before dying. It was this master ninja that was to blame. Each stroke now seared into tā a growing need for righteous vengeance.
Tā was only aware that the whipping had stopped when tā was released from the sapling and fell, exhausted but still in pain. Every moment was slow and torturous, until tā was granted merciful oblivion via a sedative.
CRACK! THE SAMURAI flinched awake, body tensing in anticipation of supersonic leather. But tā was in a hospital room and there was no one around. Perhaps the crack tā had heard had only been in tāde dreams.
Tā was wearing a cheap gown. Sammy and tāde clothes were on a table nearby. Tāde katana was nowhere to be found. Ah, that was right. Tā no longer had the right to bear arms.
Getting up, tā saw that there was actually another phone beside Sammy. It was the orphaned phone. They were both blinking lethargically, which meant that a day or two had passed since they had been fed. Another few more hours and they would have gone into hibernation. It took weeks to wake a phone up from hibernation and it was time that the Samurai couldn’t afford, not if tā wanted to find the master ninja anytime soon.
“Do you have some spare batteries?” tā asked the nurse with kind bangs that had come into the room.
The nurse took out two batteries from tāde pocket and fed it to the phones. Sammy gave a happy purr and slurped tāde battery. The orphaned phone nibbled at tāde battery sullenly.
“Thanks, I’ll pay you back,” the Samurai said.
“No problem, and no need,” the nurse said. “I’ve already added a hundred dollars to your hospital bill.” One hundred dollars! These hospital batteries weren’t even premium grade. They were just normal batteries that tā could have bought anywhere else for ten dollars. Robbery! Daylight robbery! Those weren’t kind bangs, those were greedy bangs. Perhaps the sedative had not worn off completely. It would explain tāde poor judgement.
The nurse left tā alone with tāde thoughts and the fading embers of tāde traumatised back. Tā had ample time to wonder about the ninja and how to find the ninja’s master. Lionfish had a population of two billion people and had an area of a million square kilometres. Finding the master ninja would be no easy feat.
Tā saw that tāde cast had been plugged half a billion times and that tā had close to fifty million subscribers. Tā also found out that tā was now a millionaire, even after subtracting the million-dollar fine.
It would be impossible to find the master ninja by tāself. Tā needed help. Perhaps tā could ask tāde fifty million subscribers if they had seen a ninja anywhere, but tā doubted very much the veracity of any information tā could get from them. Maybe the ninja’s phone could help.
Sammy squiggled over to be closer to the other phone, perhaps to cheer the orphaned phone up. No, Sammy was eyeing what was left of the remaining battery. The orphaned phone gobbled up the rest of the meal post-haste, before Sammy could steal it, staring daggers at Sammy all the while, which reminded the Samurai that tā was hungry. The concoction that they had fed tā via intravenous drip had done nothing to assuage tāde stomach.
“What time is it, Sammy?”
Sammy’s belly showed that it was three in the afternoon. Right in between lunch and dinner. The Samurai paged the nurse. Tā couldn’t wait – the void within demanded to be filled immediately.
“Could I have something to eat?” tā asked the greedy nurse.
The nurse looked at tāde phone. “Meal time is not for another three hours.”
The nurse contemplated the request, tāde bangs alternating between being greedy and kind. “I’ll see what I can do,” tā said, tāde bangs finally settling on kind.
“Thank you,” the Samurai said.
“Oh, no need to thank me, I’ll just add another hundred dollars to your hospital bill.”
Those bangs had been greedy all along! The Samurai must have been hungrier than tā thought to have made such a mistake. Tā knew that nurses took a cut out of any extra services they upsold to patients, so those bangs couldn’t have been kind at all. The nurse came back with a tray that had a cloche on it and left in a hurry. Why stay to watch the Samurai eat when tā had more patients to fleece?
A hundred dollars was enough for a few apples and a kaya toast. But what awaited the Samurai when tā lifted the cloche was a translucent pinkish jelly square, something which looked exactly like a battery except that this was bigger. But it was only bigger when compared to a battery; this jelly square was only the size of one mouthful. Tā wasn’t surprised, not anymore, just disappointed that tā hadn’t expected something like this.
At least the jelly square didn’t have that acidic smell that batteries have. It didn’t have any smell at all. It was tasteless but surprisingly filling. They probably added some kind of sedative to it as well because tā yawned. Both phones were already asleep and now it was tāde turn.
THE NURSE OPENED the window blinds and the morning light that filtered in was lethargic after being reflected off a thousand windows.
“Get dressed, it’s time for you to go.” The nurse left in a hurry. Tā looked busy busy busy.
The Samurai was still groggy from whatever was in that jelly. But tā managed to grab tāde clothes and stumble into the bathroom.
Tā got out of the cheap gown and looked in the mirror. Tāde back looked better than it felt. There was no scar tissue, considering the abuse it had suffered. Still, the memory of the flogging lingered, the phantom pain of a million mangled nerves.
After tā had changed and left the bathroom, the nurse was already replacing the linen. Tā thanked the nurse and said goodbye, even though the nurse had ripped tā off with those fifty-dollar batteries and that hundred-dollar jelly. The nurse smiled back, but it was a perfunctory smile.
The Samurai paid the bill on the way out. It turned out to be two hundred thousand dollars, most of which was for the reconstructive treatment that they had used to heal tāde back. This was on top of the million-dollar fine. Tā should have known that the state wasn’t going to subsidise treatments for punishments. But tā was a millionaire now. Tā could pay for everything without getting a loan. Thank Greta for that.
On the way to the train station was a store selling all kinds of utensils. All the steel on display reminded tā of tāde katana. There were all sorts of knives, but the only thing tā could legally buy to fill the void left by tāde missing katana was a cheap pair of hairdressing scissors. Sure, a pair of bone scissors would have been a hundred times cheaper, but it wouldn’t be steel. Tā could afford the twenty thousand-dollar price tag now that tā was a millionaire.
The train looked exactly like Volvi-0410, but it somehow felt different. This train went weee when going into a tunnel, while Volvi-0410 had gone wooo. This train had a rhythmic pendulum-like sway, while Volvi-0410 had a gentler sway that was like ocean waves. Volvi-0410 had been unique. Tā had killed it, had taken away something wonderful from the world.
It was all because of that ninja, and the mysterious master. If there was a master, then there were more students, more ninjas going around cutting people’s hair without their permission. Just thinking about it made tā angry. The freedom of each and every person to determine the course of their lives is the cornerstone of modern civilisation! The ultimate arbiter for how anyone decides to live their lives must be the person themselves. A new hairstyle can change someone’s life. What’s in the head affects what’s on top of the head and vice versa. People came to tā for help and tā helped them by cutting deviant strands. But what these ninjas were doing, going around imposing hairstyles on people, ninja hairstyling, it was barbaric! Tā must stop them somehow. But first, tā must find them.
“What’s your name?” tā asked as tā plugged in to the orphaned phone. Toshi showed up on the phone’s belly. “Hi, Toshi,” tā said, patting Toshi on the head.
Sammy woke up. Tā looked to the Samurai, eye following the plug from the Samurai’s nape all the way to Toshi, and pouted.
“Do you know your owner’s name?” the Samurai found tāself whispering to Toshi. The way Sammy was looking at tā, it was like tā was betraying Sammy somehow.
Toshi’s belly was clear. It was possible that tā didn’t know the answer. So the Samurai asked tā where tā was three days ago. A map showed up on tāde belly, showing the centre of the city.
The Samurai unplugged from Toshi before Sammy got any more jealous. Sammy rolled tāde eye and went back into the Samurai’s pocket. Well, there wasn’t much the Samurai could do about a jealous phone right now. Maybe later tā could get some batteries.
But now tā had a lead as to where to go: the city centre. Tā had never been there before, never had a reason.
Right outside the station near the city centre stood a stone statue of the mutant abomination that was the city’s namesake, lit harshly by the midday sun. It was a lion with the body of a fish, or perhaps a fish with the head of a lion. But since the head was recognisably a lion while the body could have been that of any fish, it was called a Lionfish. It was said that lions used to rule over all the animals of the Earth. But those days were long gone. Lions had gone extinct. Nowadays, they existed only as symbols.
There was a lion in the city flag which represented nobility. The dual lions in the corporate logo for Lionfish Incorporated represented honesty and a commitment to quality. Lions had come to symbolise every virtue under the sun. Even tā had used a lion as a metaphor for courage when tā had cut that child’s hair a few days back. But for all anyone knew, lions could have been lazy creatures that lounged around all day.
And perhaps the fact that the Lionfish statue was located in the most dilapidated part of the city spoke to how much the people of the city valued virtue. The buildings were ancient, precursors to trees, the tallest of which was only about a hundred metres tall, dwarfs compared to modern trees. They didn’t have an ecosystem, weren’t even living things, which also meant no self-repair, and so they looked like they were falling apart. It was a wonder how they could remain upright without roots to support them. That they still stood was a testament to the engineers of old. They built things to last. It was tragic, then, that the walls of these testaments to ancient engineering principles had been vandalised with graffiti.
Tā could feel when tā had stepped onto the city centre. Outside the centre, roots and gyro-organs helped to stabilise the ground, although nothing could really compensate for the rise and fall of the ocean underneath, so there was still a little wobble. In the centre, though, whatever stabilisation method was used was clearly not organic because tā could feel the wobbling in spurts and jerks. Hoo boy, it was enough to make tā nauseous.
Tā couldn’t imagine choosing to live here in the centre. Whoever was in the centre couldn’t have been here by choice, must be society’s outcasts. There was barely anyone around, however, the result of Lionfish’s effective government. Nearby there was a handful of homeless. One of the homeless wore a pair of pants that might have been as old as the buildings around. The knees had worn out, leaving just scraps hanging around the shins. Perhaps it was a pair of bermudas instead. Another wore a T-shirt so faded and torn that only the collar was left intact.
Even though tā couldn’t smell them from where tā was, the halo of flies around them assured tā that they all stank.
But something was off about them. The answer was floating around in tāde mind, just waiting for tā to reach out and grab it. Maybe the sedatives had been more potent than tā thought. Or maybe tā was just being a little siáu. Tā turned around and started walking towards the train station. Whatever it was that tā had to find, tā couldn’t find it while fighting the urge to puke.
Realisation slapped tā in the face, spun tā around. It was the people! Every single one wore a proper haircut even though they were clothed in rags. As far as tā knew, tā was the only one giving out free haircuts. The rest of the barbers in the city – barbers with a small b, amateurs compared to tā – all charged exorbitant fees for their services. These people would not have been able to afford a haircut.
The reason tā did not see it before was because they were still filthy. Their hair was matted with dirt and other vague liquids. But the cuts were masterful, considering the condition of their hair. Only tā could have done better, and only because tā would have washed their hair first.