Things I Read On The Plane (Ranked) (Part 3)
Review Round-up: Nigerians in Space and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Fiction: Four Seasons in The Floating World™ by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington

Four Seasons in the Floating World

1.

Cicadas drone, and there is the distant splishing of water where the bamboo fountain perpetually empties itself. Junji stands still, but nothing can stay the steady growth of the sweat circles under his armpits. It is too hot, and sickeningly humid.

The upper stories of the Golden Pavilion glow in the morning sunshine like, well, gold, and the pond glistens silver. It’s a perfect reproduction - except for the stupid fountain, and the stupid deer that watches him (stupidly) from the tiny island.

Deer belong here more than that ugly fountain - it wasn’t called Rokoun-ji as well as Kinkaku-ji for nothing, after all - but this deer stands on its hind legs, and is dressed in the battle armor of a samurai. The blue-on-white bamboo leaves and gentian flowers of the sasa-rindō mon on the flag rising from the buck’s back mark it as a member of the Minamoto clan. Who, obviously, were out of the picture centuries before the Pavilion was even converted into a temple.

As Junji gazes at the deer, something comes loose inside him. It’s not the shuddering of Kinkaku-ji itself as the bronze phoenix atop the roof crows the charge and the entire building lurches up into the air, sloughing off water as its mechanical chicken-legs propel it forward through the pool. It’s not the Pavilion’s sprouting of many-segmented shock-cannons from the Tower of Sound Waves, nor the mecha-Ōsaka-jō flying in on a hundred neon-blasting jetpacks to wage castle-on-temple war here in the Deer Garden. It’s not even the anthropomorphic deer itself, inane a touch as that certainly is. No, it’s the stupid, lazily-rendered flag on the deer’s back that does it, a flag that shouldn’t even be there. If the figure were a human samurai of the Minamoto clan that would be bad enough, but making it a deer is all wrong, it’s even -

“A whitetail deer,” Junji informs his supervisor, his indignation propelling him even further away from what he knows is the range of appropriate tones. Cindy, the Creative Director, and Junji’s two fellow designers are all scowling at him but he won’t be stopped; the crescents under his arms suddenly wax to full moons as he throws up his hands. “What’s the matter with shika, huh? What’s so hard about using Japanese deer, if you’re going to slap the poor thing in Ō-Yoroi? Well?”

There is a pause. The supervisor doesn’t look any happier than Junji’s coworkers, but rather than addressing any of the very salient points Junji has made the man mops his pate with a silk Floating World™ handkerchief and asks, “What’s Ō-Yoroi?”

Junji, speechless, turns away from the fools and villains to stare out the mediation room’s window at the rocky shore far below. It’s someplace along the western coast of Honshu, the reproduction of the road once walked by Bashō and his apprentice shimmering salt-white amidst the sesame seed-black rocks.

Here in the Floating World™, the road is also a moving sidewalk.

Junji came here for that road - for the Narrow Road to the Interior, for the Golden Pavilion, for everything else lost to time and neglect and earthquakes and corporate auctioning. And when he signed on, he knew there would be compromises and, probably, anachronisms - but he had never suspected that it would be this bad.

“Ō-Yoroi is, uh, the armor?” says the younger of the designers uncertainly. “We thought the antlers might get mistaken for the helmet’s, uh, horns, so -”

“The kuwagata, you mean?” Junji sneers.

“I…” She sniffs, clearly on the verge of a meltdown.

“For all the samurais you shove into everything, I’d hope you’d at least know what they wore,” Junji says haughtily.

That does it, and she buries her face in the Creative Director’s chest. The older woman glares at Junji as the other designer stands up, wagging a finger at him but addressing the supervisor.

“This is absolutely typical, sir. We put a whitetail in the armor because Kaori and I agreed that the buck’s antlers might be mistaken for kuwagata,”- this directed toward Junji in over-enunciated syllables - “and Japanese deer, sorry, shika, are mainly identifiable by their spotted flanks. The whitetail isn’t native to Japan, admittedly, but,” - and here he shoots Junji a nasty smile - “considering it’s dressed up like a samurai, we assumed it wouldn’t be too distracting.”

“Nobody’s complained,” the supervisor assures them.

I’m complaining,” Junji points out.

“The okyaku -” the supervisor begins, but Junji cuts him off.

“The guests are not the point,” Junji says.

“The okyaku are the point, Mr. Miura,” says the supervisor. “They are always the point. Now, I think we can agree that this disagreement about what deer to use could be avoided in the future by -”

“The deer’s not the point!” Junji shouts, and jumps at the sound. He feels like a kitten he once saw frightened at hearing its own hiss for the first time. Looking at the supervisor’s thumb tapping something into his phone, he panics.

“The deer was never the point,” Junji offers to the room by way of conciliation, but finds no sympathy, no reception, no recourse, except to: “Quit. I quit.”

There’s a gratifying silence, and then the supervisor says, “You can’t be serious, Mr. Miura. I’ve just messaged HR; a mediator will handle this situation as -”

“I. Quit,” says Junji, feeling nearly feverish with pleasure. “Isn’t that what you want?”

“No!” protests the supervisor.

“Yes,” says the Creative Director, speaking for the first time since they all arrived. “Inevitable creative differences notwithstanding, Mr. Miura has proven himself to be profoundly difficult to work with, both pedantic and petulant. This isn’t the first time he’s reduced one of my designers to tears, and for what? Self-righteous moralizing over a deer?”

“The deer wasn’t…” Junji trails off, somewhat deflated. “It was the mon.”

“The what?” asks the supervisor.

“The crest on the deer’s flag,” the seated designer sniffs, having emerged from the director’s bosom following the older woman’s engagement with the Junji Situation.

 “Oh,” says the Creative Director. “Well, that makes much more sense.”

The supervisor, the director, and the two designers all begin to laugh, and Junji realizes that all he has to do is laugh, too, and everything will be all right. These people don’t have to be the enemy. The one he made cry, Kaori, is actually Japanese, so who knows, they might have things in common, they might become friends, if he just …

No. They’re not only laughing at him, they’re laughing at the idea that Japanese history and culture might be more interesting than a bunch of stupid giant robots; that it might be worth taking seriously. And this is the Historical Accuracy Division of New Nihon.

“I quit,” Junji says, pushing past the chortling supervisor.

“Please,” the man says, regaining his composure, but only just, “take a few personal days and -”

“Never!” Junji barks over his shoulder. “I quit! Forever!”

By the time he reaches the ground floor, Junji has begun to appreciate the magnitude of his rushed decision. He stares at the approaching tram, but decides to walk along the Narrow Road before going home to the apartment on which he just signed a two year lease.

A fence cordons off the office quadrant of New Nihon from the Floating World™ proper, but Junji sees an automated gate behind the picnic tables and makes for it. This is way out in the bureaucratic boonies, so they must have installed it for employee use.

Junji imagines Kaori coming out here for lunch, sitting on a mossy boulder overlooking the roiling Pacific that seems to border the levitating mega-resort but is actually thousands of feet below, magnified and holograph-enhanced to perfect proportions. Perhaps she laments that her position forces her to pervert something that is so perfect in its natural state. He imagines her running up behind him, inspired by his courage to walk out. They will swap occupational horror stories while getting a drink somewhere Meiji. She will apologize first, of course, and that will enable him to swallow his pride and call the supervisor -

He’s scanned his card three times, why isn’t it opening? Peering at the gate-screen, he sees CLEARANCE REVOKED scroll across. Raising his fist at the skyscraper that shines silver and gold above him, Junji knows he will never apologize. Never.

2.

Junji lights a Peace cigarette and inhales deeply, kicking idly as he dangles his tabi-socked feet off the porch of the house he was assigned after being transferred from the soldier’s barracks at Mecha Patrol Alpha Squad Let’s Go! 2098-Z. It is early morning; the maples were touched with frost in the night. It will melt in the heat of the day, so he enjoys how the crimson leaves are edged with white while he can.

Junji exhales, a delicious sensation.

Now, post-transfer, the cigarette is contraband. His LARPersonality is a Nice Guy Student, and thus, officially, he doesn’t smoke.

His shitty attitude is illicit as well, though he didn’t get that by sneaking out to visit Super Kawaii City.

Junji knows that it is not in the spirit of things to enjoy polluting the crisp autumn air with cheap tobacco smoke, nor to contemplate how, in Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s time, kawaii meant to be possessed of pitiable qualities. He knows, too, that his promotion from Extra to Main at the RealAnime Resort involves a serious pay raise. He cannot fuck this up for himself. "There are worse gigs here on the Floating World™, a fact he has learned the hard way."

Junji gazes out across his pristine back yard; tries to get into character.

It doesn’t work. He cannot shake his melancholy. Junji tells himself, again, how fortunate he is to be set up in an actual house and not living in some run-down rat hole of an apartment like when he was still a student - a real student - back home. He has a backyard here, with a stand of cedar trees in addition to the maples, and a koi pond with artificial boulders clustered at its edge.

The dry grasses rustle in the breeze. Junji sniffs: Makoto is cooking breakfast. Tamagoyaki and miso soup and broiled fish and who knows what else. Junji suspects he has gained weight since his transfer. Makoto takes her housekeeping duties seriously, of course, as did Yui, the “homemaker” who preceded her, which means big meals at breakfast and supper, plus a bento lunch every day. The smell of the food is suddenly nauseating.

When Junji was still with Mecha Patrol Alpha Squad Let’s Go! 2098-Z, the whole concept of the RealAnime Resort made much more sense to him. Paying a bunch of money to pilot a giant robot, defending Tokyo, the galaxy, whatever - that was, Junji had to admit, a pretty cool way to spend your vacation. Eating MREs for a week… less fun, but verisimilitude has its price.

Oh, how Junji misses the barracks! While living there he found them depressing, true - all that discipline. But here in this fake-ass Tokyo suburb, okyaku pay the same amount of money, but to cook and vacuum and scrub out the ofuro and go to high school. Madness. This last month of acting the part of “Junji-kun,” hapless college freshman (and unlikely roommate of the Tanaka sisters), has finally convinced him how good he had it with the Squad. There, he had been mostly left alone. His LARPersonality had been “the silent, thoughtful type,” and a Commander to boot, so except for the occasional obligatory “get drunk with the troops and reveal something traumatizing from his childhood that plays into the plot” assignment, he got to read and generally enjoy the quiet any time he wasn’t piloting his giant robot with the laser guns. And his character was a smoker.

Junji regards his expanding middle with distaste and wishes he had been assigned a Ranma-Type Live Anime Real Personality instead of Keiichi-Type. Ranma-Types got plenty of exercise scheduled into their daily routines, whereas academics like him receive “comically” endless amounts of mandatory homework, checked by his supervisor. They said it was to give him that tense, overworked look. For the purposes of verisimilitude.

Junji hears the hiss of the shōji behind him and quickly flicks his cigarette into the koi pond. He prepares himself. He knows what’s coming.

“Junji-kun?” It is Makoto - or rather, a red-haired Canadian girl who answers to the name Becky Salisbury when she’s at home in Winnipeg. She has heavy thighs, but Junji has decided her nice breasts make up for that.

He’s also decided he hates her. The sound of her calling his name almost hurts. Perhaps it is that, without looking, he knows what she will be wearing (plain housedress, frilly apron), how she will be standing (feet together, good posture, hands clasped fig-leaf style), and her facial expression (smiling, innocent, wide-eyed).

He turns, if only to confirm his suspicions.

They are confirmed.

“Breakfast is nearly ready,” she says, canting her head to the side. “I think Hitomi is done in the bathroom if you want to wash up. I made you a nice big meal, to help you concentrate!”

Junji suppresses a groan as he rises to his feet.

 “Thanks,” he says, and after a long, affected yawn, “it’ll power me through Mr. Shibuya’s class.”

“I know how hard it is for you in engineering school,” says Makoto, looking concerned. “You’re up so late every night!”

“Well, well,” says Junji mildly.

Junji drags his feet as he heads to the bathroom. He knows what awaits him, and dreads it more than any other part of his day. Taking a deep breath, he reminds himself of what he is working toward. Every paycheck brings him that much closer to escaping, to returning to Hokkaido. The insanely expensive shuttle ticket that delivered him to the hovering resort complex had been comped by his former employers at the Historical Accuracy Division of New Nihon. But no employer, here or down below, has materialized to fund his pricey fare home from the Floating World™.

Junji stands in front of the bathroom door for a full minute before he can make his hand touch the handle, much less turn it. Then, in a flash of determination, he barges inside -

- and his ears are assaulted, predictably, by a high-pitched, highly-indignant feminine squeal. He covers his eyes, but not before catching sight of Hitomi (actually her name, she is Japanese, has long legs, small tits, and the largest, darkest bush he’s ever seen), naked and soapy, wide-eyed and holding a washcloth half over her crotch.

“Junji-kun!” she squeals, as he stammers apologies. “I told you to knock!”

“Is Junji-kun spying on Hitomi again?” he hears Eiko (Venezuelan, attractive even with that nose, real name Yoselin) shout, “annoyed” about being distracted from “studying for her high school entrance exams.”

“Get out!” cries Hitomi, covering her breasts with her arm - not that she has much to hide - and then, again predictably, Junji feels something collide with the back of his head. It hurts more than usual. Junji sees stars, feels rage.

“You are such a hentai!” shouts someone, right in his goddamn ear, and Junji goes from angry to apoplectic. He whirls around, pins Eiko against the wall. She drops the frying pan she clubbed him with. He stares into her wide eyes, breathing heavily.

“Junji-kun,” Eiko says softly, breathily; color rises to her cheeks as if on cue. Junji immediately releases her, disgusted.

He takes a step back, forces himself to look abashed. He knows he can save the situation, knows instinctively that these girls have no idea his anger is real. To them, it is all part of the game. Hitomi was - officially speaking - his unrequited love interest; now Eiko and Hitomi will fight over him, competing to win his affections.

But neither will give him so much as a handjob. He knows this.

“I - I - ” he stutters deliberately, “I am not a pervert!”

And then he takes off running down the hallway. They all giggle in his wake.

But what they don’t know is that Junji has no intention of stopping. Down the hallway he runs, out the door, and up the street to the building where his supervisor is watching the highlights of last week’s performances in her office. 

“Miura Junji?” She pauses the footage, freezing some guy in mid-scream. A clumsy girl had just spilled hot tea on his lap. Hilarious.

“I quit,” he gasps. He really needs more exercise, he’s puffing and sweating. “Forever. I hate it here.”

“You’ll finish out the week, though?”

“Effective immediately,” he cries.

His supervisor radiates displeasure. “Fine,” she says. “Take off those clothes.”

For a brief moment Junji wonders if he has stumbled from one improbable anime scenario into another, but then he realizes she’s serious.

“What?” he asks. “Why?”

“Those clothes belong to Junji-kun, hapless college freshman.” She holds in the smile Junji knows is there. “Not Miura Junji, former staff at the RealAnime Resort.”

Junji knows where his own clothes are, folded neatly in his closet in the Tanaka house, but before he can open his mouth to ask if he can go get them, his supervisor tsks at him.

“Will you hurry please? We’ll mail you your clothes and personal items.”

“But -”

“The okyaku have paid for a realistic week in an anime world. Disgruntled former employees are not a part of that world. Surely you understand?” She finally lets the smile out. “For the purposes of verisimilitude, of course.”

3.

The snow drifting down outside the window of the Ultimate Sex Palace looks like ash, the flakes too large, too flat, too perfect. The streets of NeoKabukichō are thick with the stuff, pale drifts turning red, then pink, then red again. Junji leans forward until his forehead meets the window, but instead of cooling his brow the Plexiglas is warm to the touch from all the neon piping.

“Is it something? What is it?” An American asks excitedly, and then the whole group is mobbing the window around him, a sweaty pack of horndogs reeking of musk both synthetic and genuine. If there’s a less pleasant mod than cologne glands, Junji is glad he hasn’t encountered it.

As he is jostled, he tells himself the okyaku whose hand runs across the seat of his trousers is simply trying to squeeze past.

 The American who started the charge is disappointed. “There’s nothing there!”

“Are you all right?” a man asks Junji, and for a moment Junji is reminded of his late grandfather. Upon closer inspection, however, this okyaku is clearly an ager - his wrinkles end around his eyes; his wispy gray beard lacks a single split end. He’s probably in his twenties and gets off on wearing a prunesuit, but at least he’s been listening to the tour instead of woo-hooing at every flash of genital mod. Junji realizes that he trailed off mid-sentence while everyone gawked at the thirty-second preview for the Tentacle-a-Go-Go show before the aquarium sides fogged over again. Only this kinkster seems to have noticed.

The American is licking Junji’s forehead print off the window, and, distracted by this, Junji says, “I’m fine.”

This gets their attention. Shit, thinks Junji, always always English. Always. He didn’t even wake up his subtitle projector from idle-mode.

“Was that Old Japanese?” A semi-hot blond EUer asks. Her form-fitting actiondress is spattered with profane katakana.

Daijoubu? Does that mean, like, object fetish?” Someone asks. “Like, getting off on inanimate stuff?”

“No, that’s -” the blond woman pronounces a word Junji’s never heard. “I used to think I was objectum-sexual, but it turned out I just really liked my vibrator.”

This gets a few knowing laughs from the group, and Junji enters the blonde’s slang into his database - he’s heard object fetish called a lot of things, but never that particular phrase - and scratches his wrist. The epidermal dye from the temporary Yakuza tattoo itches. He makes a point never to remove his jacket on the tours, let alone his shirt, but verisimilitude, verisimilitude, verisimilitude.

Then someone asks, “Why’s it called NeoKabukichō?”

Junji can’t believe it. He fiddles with his input dial to make sure he heard correctly, but the playback confirms it. He’s given this tour ten times a day for a month, and this is the first time someone’s asked about the etymology of this district. He could kiss the pimply question-asker, mouth-fronds and all.

“Neo for new,” says Junji, cranking up his volume to silence the group. “Kabukichō for a district in Shinjuku, in Tokyo.”

“NeoTokyo, or NeoNeoTokyo?” the squidlipper asks.

“Real Tokyo,” says Junji. “The original Kabukichō was a den of prostitution, gambling, and every sort of crime imaginable. More depravity than you can imagine.”

“Try me!” calls the window-licker, but he’s shushed by several members of the group. Junji can’t believe this is happening. He grins a wide, natural smile for the first time since taking this gig.

“Kabukichō was named for a planned Kabuki theatre that -”

“Like, Kabukichan?” The frondscum interrupts, and Junji feels his goodwill for the man begin to fade.

“No. Kabukichan is a clumsy play on the words ‘Kabukichō’ and ‘chan’, as in cute, child-like. It’s another Floater original: ‘hey, let’s have a gross loli-themed district for the pedos.’ Kabukichō, though, the real Kabukichō, was -”

“What’s gross about Kabukichan?” Squidlips demands, and Junji sees several of the perverts frown.

“I misspoke,” Junji says quickly. “Gross as in large - a large paradise for those whose tastes -”

“Some Erotic Interpreter!” The window-licker hoots.

“Sure has a stick up his ass.”

“Or needs one.”

“Tour’s over,” says Junji, blushing in spite of himself. He taps an order into his requestor and a robostess approaches, a stream of amber liquid jetting from its nostril into a hover-glass. The pressurized spray doesn’t spill a drop. “Enjoy your time in Kabukichō, and remember, if you want it, you can have it… for a price.”

The slogan tastes bitter on Junji’s tongue, but as the group disperses he washes it away with the proffered drink. The robostess awaits further instructions, but he waves it off - these marionette-style ones creep him out. He mutters an ironic kanpai before knocking back the whisky.

“You’re really Japanese?” says the pseudo-geriatric. “You’re not just an EI in a suit, you’re a genuinely uptight Japanese guy?”

“I’m not uptight,” says Junji, startled to notice the ager, the blond, the window-licker, and squidlips haven’t cleared off. “I’m just not into… what? I said tour’s over. The next Geishasplosion starts in ten minutes. Have fun.”

He’s accustomed to one or two okyaku sticking around, getting him to translate some specialized bit of kink they were too embarrassed to ask about in front of the group, but this… this seems different. Way different.

“If you want it, you can have it,” says the window-licker. “Right? So I want it. Bad.”

“Me first,” says the ager. “I’ll pay handsomely.”

“And I’ll pay more to go last,” says pimple-tentacles.

“Or we could all go together,” says the blonde, certain characters on her actiondress beginning to pulse red in time with her breathing. “I’ve already reserved a gymnasium.”

This isn’t the first time an okyaku has made a pass at him, but it’s the first time someone’s tried to buy him. He is beyond furious. “You… you! How dare you…”

“What?” asks octo-puss.

I’m not for sale!” Junji tells them. Tells himself.

“That’s what’s so hot.” The ager licks his thin lips. “But I get firsties. And none of that weird group-play, I want a one-on-one.”

“Weird?” The blond huffs, her dress’ coloration turning purple. “Listen here, wrinklefucker -”

In spite of himself, Junji wonders just how much he could make if he took them all up on their offers -would it be enough to pay off his loans, lease-breaking fees, and shuttle fare back down to Earth? He could be home tomorrow…

Catching himself actually weighing the options, Junji grits his teeth - that he would consider it shows just what this place has done to him.

“Nobody’s buying me! I quit!” He flips on his transponder to make sure his supervisor gets the message as clearly as these freaks. “You hear me? I’m done! Forever!”

Junji waits for confirmation, delighting in the horror on the guests’ faces. His supervisor is panting heavily on the line, and Junji wonders if he’s given the old creep a heart attack. Then the man lets out a protracted, lusty groan, and Junji tears his earpiece out, stomps on his requestor, and hurls his hover-glass at a robostess. It slows as soon as it leaves his hand, bobbing lazily through the air. Beyond the huddled tourists, he sees the snow falling outside. The sight fills him with a profound melancholy.

“Sir,” the ager says quietly, his wrinkled face the picture of regret. Junji could cry with relief: someone has, at last, understood, albeit a pervy okyaku and not a supervisor or mediator, a colleague or an underling.

“Sir,” the ager says, “I will pay you one million newyen to gargle my secretions.”

Never,” says Junji, but it comes out as a whisper.

4.

Junji wonders if it would be possible for him to feel any happier as he laserblasts a copse of artificial Somei Yoshino. The white petals of the cherry blossoms puff upwards as if the trees were dandelions in a gale, and through his flight-suit’s filters he smells singed plastic and synthetic fragrance. He speeds onward, cackling as his aerial assault disperses a group of terrified hanami partiers. Junji almost pees himself in glee as one of the throng trips in his haste to escape.

“One more dead body under the cherry trees!” Junji shouts.

When Junji was contacted by a small group of rebels, La Résistance here in the Floating World™, it happened just as he’d always imagined it - the message Join Us engraved on a handful of pachinko balls at the parlor in Super Kawaii City where he’d picked up a graveyard shift. As soon as he attended his first underground meeting, he knew he’d found his calling, his destiny, torching the sham beauties and humbug wonders of the Floating World™, ruining things for everyone else.

Which, come to think of it, was just what his girlfriend always accused him of doing back in Hokkaido… the situation, Junji can admit now, that may have prompted his snapping up the job with the Historical Accuracy Division of New Nihon without fully considering the ramifications. Smiling coldly, Junji mentally superimposes his ex’s bored, snotty expression on all the okyaku’s panicked faces as he swoops down, buzzing the fleeing tourists.

His radio crackles, and Junji hears some spook from Floating World™ security coming over the com. Junji cares nothing for this. They will never catch him. He is too good, too sneaky. It is not for nothing he is known as Itachi, the Weasel, the Darting Menace of Super Kawaii City (and surrounding attractions).

“Give yourself up! We’ve got you this time!” says the fool.

Junji clicks on his communicator.

“I will never surrender, never!” he cackles, accelerating. His pursuers fall away as he speeds past the Flamingo Mall. Allegedly a reproduction of Himeji Castle, it is ungainly at three times the size of the original, and bright pink. He hates that mall, but it is not his target - not today.

Instead, he rockets closer to Tokyo - or rather, the corporate complex at the edge of the Floating World™ modeled after early 21st century Tokyo. It is meant to be seen at a distance from Super Kawaii City, not explored by okyaku. The skyscrapers house supervisors and directors and assistants and CEOs, and beyond these is the hovering reproduction of Mt. Fuji. Inside the artificial mountain are the offices of the International Board of Trustees.

This is Junji’s target.

Junji has grown bored with the petty catharsis yielded by inconveniencing Transportation or Waste Management. He has become a destruction junkie, and is pursuing his biggest fix yet.

“Stand down, stand down, I say!” The com crackles again, and Junji is pleased to detect panic in the speaker’s voice. This assault is unprecedented - no one has ever been good enough to avoid Security this long.

“You will never catch Itachi!” Junji cries before shutting down communications. He really needs to concentrate for this.

Junji slows, then makes a test run past the eastern face of the mountain. The roar of his jet boots is loud enough to get everyone crowding at the windows. Perfect. Junji presses the button that will release oil into his exhaust manifold, and begins to dip and swoop as the burning fuel hisses in his ears.

He repeatedly shuts off and restarts the oil flow, tails of thick white smoke whipping behind him. As he finishes, he uses his helmet’s camera to document his handiwork: in sky letters thirty feet tall he has spelled out FARTS in three languages. More than, actually, as the Japanese kanji conveniently doubles as hanzi and maybe Korean and Vietnamese, too, Junji isn't sure. The Spanish and the English make it truly universal.

Then Security arrives, but fuck those guys.

Instead of fleeing the scene, Junji takes the time to line up a final picture. The goons are framed in his display so that the air letters hang above them, like a thought bubble in an old-school manga.

Unfortunately, he isn’t the only one to take a shot. A Jorōgumo-net catches Junji in the legs, pinning his feet together and making flight nigh-impossible; forget about evasive maneuvers. His joy dies. They have him, and it will take all of his skill to just stay aloft…

Unless he risks it all with a complicated aerial somersault; strong as the webbing is, he might just be able to melt if off with the back-up burners on his thighs, assuming he can tuck his legs far enough up. If it doesn’t work, though, he’ll send himself into freefall.

Junji looks down at the churning holographic sea; thinks about how it would feel to crash into the mirror and sensor arrays beneath that false oceanic surface. Padded as these flight-suits are, it would be suicidal to chance a crash at this height.

Security is right on top of him. Junji just needs to hover here a little longer, he just needs to let them take him in… he just needs to give up, and it will be okay.

“Never!” Junji howls, and launches himself into a somersault. Try as he might, he can’t bend his knees at all, and the back-up burners cough impotently, clogged with netting. Shit.

It’s almost wonderful, the sensation of falling from such a height, world and Floating World™ alike a single unbroken blur of blue, and Junji forces himself to keep his eyes open until the very end.

When he awakes, he is in the sick ward of the on-site hospital at the RealAnime Resort, in the private wing for Mains and Extras injured during their shifts. Here, the nurses and doctors are real, not like on floors four through six, which exist for those okyaku wishing to indulge their hospital drama fantasies.

And speaking of fantasies, Junji has one of his own as he lies in bed, awaiting the inevitable visit by a supervisor. It’s not the craziest stunt he’s indulged in, especially since taking this job as Itachi, one of the many sworn enemies of Mecha Patrol Alpha Squad Let’s Go! 2098-Z; it’s downright realistic compared to his standby daydream of taking part in an anti-Floating World™ rebellion. No, this goes beyond fantasy into real possibility. At last, after all the lies he’s told himself about “a separate peace” with this place, he could finally have a way out:

Worker’s compensation.

Every part of him hurts, and if his blacking out was the result of a concussion, well, he as good as has a ticket off this dump. And before he leaves he’ll tell his fat-faced supervisor what he thinks of him, really let him have it. Junji smiles.

“Junji!” says that fat face as it pokes through the curtain surrounding Junji’s bed. “Great news!”

Junji weakly lifts a hand and lets it drop back on the mattress. He’s going to play up his injuries. You can’t be too safe.

“Just talked to your doctor,” the supervisor says. “There’s not a scratch on you! You can come back to work tomorrow, Itachi won’t miss a shift! Best of all, given that show you put on for the okayaku, I got the all-clear to comp half the repair costs for your suit - you won’t owe more than a year’s wages on it.”

Junji let’s out a long, low moan.

“But how are you feeling?” The supervisor wouldn’t last one shift as an Extra, if that’s his idea of a convincing display of concern.

“Never…” Junji starts, his voice catching on an unexpected sob of self-pity. How can he possibly quit, when he has even more debt than ever before? At this rate he'll be adrift in the Floating World™ forever, trapped in an unbreakable cycle of suffering."

“Never?” the supervisor raises an eyebrow.

Junji closes his eyes, slumps back on his pillow. Maybe if he acts especially pathetic the hospital will let him stay a few more hours. The cot is so much softer than the one in his apartment.

“Never better,” Junji says. “Never better.”


Jesse Bullington is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, The Enterprise of Death, and The Folly of the World. His short fiction, articles, and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies, and websites, and he is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Letters to Lovecraft. He can be found physically in Colorado, and more ephemerally at www.jessebullington.com.

Molly Tanzer is the Sydney J. Bounds and Wonderland Book Award-nominated author of A Pretty Mouth, Rumbullion, and Other Liminal Libations, the forthcoming Vermilion, and a second novel that will come out in 2015. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in, among many other places, The Book of Cthulhu (I and II), Strange Aeons and The Book of the Dead. She lives in Boulder, CO with her husband and a very bad cat. When not writing, she enjoys mixing cocktails, experimenting with Korean cooking, and (as of recently) training for triathlons. She tweets @molly_the_tanz, and blogs — infrequently — at http://mollytanzer.com.

This is the first appearance of this story.