Kubota looked up at the light, waiting for it to change. It was dark already in the western suburbs of Tokyo, and the evening darkness added to his gloom. Kubota drummed his fingers on the steering wheel; the light was never-ending. He fished in his shirt pocket, looking for his last package of cigarettes. It was empty. In one motion, he crumpled and threw it against the passenger-side window.
Kubota hated the rainy season. Especially on working days. By the time you made it to the car, even with an umbrella held up against the deluge, your shoes, socks and pant legs were hopelessly soaked. Then the inside of the car steamed up from the moisture, fogging the windows, and because it was too warm in late June to use the heater, you had to put on the air-conditioner instead. So the chill worked its way up slowly, inexorably, from your legs, to your crotch, to your gut, threatening even your very soul.
Kubota shivered again, and cursed. The light changed to green. He gunned the engine, anxious to get home and get dry. Suddenly there was the blast of a horn, the slithering of tires, and the loud crunch of metal on metal. And all went black for Kubota, in his tiny Honda mini-car.
The bright light stabbed at his eyes. Kubota blinked. His legs hurt: aching pain mixed with a strange tingling. He focused with an effort, and saw the nurse bending over him.
"Good morning, Mr. Kubota. It's about time you wake up."
"You were hit by a truck. He was trying to race through the beginning of the red light, like everybody does these days. It took them an hour to get you out. Do you remember anything?"
"No. Just the rain, and then a loud noise, and that's it. Thank god I wasn't hurt badly. How long before I can get out of here?"
The nurse smiled tightly. "Well, you just relax, and the doctor will be along in a few minutes. Here's some juice, and we'll see about breakfast later. Just relax, and don't try to move around right now. You've had a bit of a bang-up, I'm afraid."
She left, and he waited for the doctor to arrive. Shit, he wanted to get out of here and back to work. The project was the most exciting of his life, and he was damned if anyone was going to take his place because of some asshole truck driver.
Crippled. Crippled and legless for life. No damage to internal organs, amazingly, but one leg gone and the other might as well be, because the nerves had been crushed. Once the illusion of tingling and pain had gone, he couldn't feel a thing below the waist.
At work, they pensioned him off. The project had to go on, they had no facilities for wheelchair workers, and anyway, nobody would feel comfortable with a cripple around. After all, you couldn't work for the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, even if you were just a scientist, with only half a body.
So that was it. Just like that. No more star wars work; no more research on lasers and guidance systems; no more feeding off the fat contracts that the Ministry of Defence gave out in their efforts to compete with the Americans. Kubota was out, and his life was over at the age of thirty-five.
And then three months later his uncle died – his mother's brother, and since he had never married and had only one sister who was also gone, the money and land came to Kubota himself. The uncle had been rich, very rich, and even after inheritance taxes, there was so much left over. Light grew on the horizon. Kubota began to see a life for himself, after all.
Adaptation of military technology for civilian use, that was the way to go. Kubota had read about it in Newsweek – the Japanese edition – while lying immobile in his hospital bed. There had always been spin-offs, of course, but with the end of the cold war and heavy Pentagon cutbacks, American science was hurting badly. The hope for the future, they said, was in commercial application; more bucks for your bang, so to speak. Japan had not faced the same problems because industry was mainly oriented towards consumer goods, and also because the Ministry of Defence was an island unto itself, immune to government cutbacks of any kind. Besides, as far as everyday products were concerned, it was easier to wait until the Americans came out with something, then take the idea and make it better and cheaper. So there was little motivation in Japan for adapting military technology to civilian use.
But Kubota, in his newfound freedom, would lead the way. He needn't worry about the commercial aspect, because he was rich, immensely rich. So he could concentrate on what mattered even more: technology adapted for the benefit of society, for the good of all, rich and poor alike. "Social application of military technology": he liked that, it had a nice ring. This was what counted, more than profits for the few. While his body-what was left of it-went through the slow and painful process of rehabilitation, Kubota's mind was elsewhere, planning and designing for the future. He would start with what he knew best.
On the day he was discharged finally and came back home from the hospital – a cold, wet day near the end of the year – he told his wife of his plans.
Kneeling beside him on the tatami mat, refilling his sake cup from time to time, she listened quietly, proudly, intently. She was completely loyal, completely trustworthy, and would follow him to the end. She had never known any other: she had loved him from the beginning. Even now, though he was no longer whole in the eyes of the world, to her he was everything. Like a loyal samurai wife, she would love, protect, and obey. Together they would act. Without prejudice, without malice, without fear.
Acting cautiously, they rented several small warehouses in different parts of Tokyo. One was for deliveries; the others for assembling parts. They started placing orders, gradually collecting equipment and supplies. Workers were needed, but this could be managed so that they could not discern the end result. For manual labor, they used high school and university students. For more specialized jobs, such as welding and assembling electronic equipment, they took kids from the various technical colleges. Paying good wages, always in cash, they never hired anyone for more than a couple of days, and never more than once. Sometimes she took charge while he kept out of the way; for more technical things, Kubota himself supervised. The students were happy for the work, and they never had the slightest notion of what was building. Slowly but surely the project went forward. They had time, both time and money to spare, and it wouldn't do to spoil things by rushing.
Kubota looked up at the van. It was perfect, the crowning touch.
Really a small truck, it had been arranged through an acquaintance of his wife's cousin. Surplus, it came from NHK, the national television network. A division of trucks like these, bristling with antenna, drove day and night through residential neighborhoods, searching electronically for TV owners who had not paid the license fees mandated by law. Kubota's van had been stripped of its electronic equipment, but the fittings were still there, and it could easily be adapted to his needs. The NHK logos were still painted on the sides: it had been promised that these would be removed, but the acquaintance did not know who had actually bought the van, and Kubota thought the logos could be useful.
A change of license plates, he decided, would be sufficient.
Finally, in late autumn of the following year, the day had come. Day of triumph, day of glory, day of justice. The first test of a new dream. The dawning of a new age.
The truck lay parked at the side of the road, facing uphill, its engine ticking over softly. Two hundred and fifty feet ahead, an intersection. It was late in the evening, long past dark, and the traffic had finally dwindled from a roar to a trickle. Kubota sat in the back, surrounded by an array of equipment. He stared at the monitors in front of him.
"I think we're ready now. Do you remember the drill?"
"Yes, of course," she answered from up front.
"OK, then, I'm setting up for the test."
He flicked a couple of switches in front of him, watched the monitors for a moment, and then punched his final instructions into the computer. They waited.
Several minutes later, the light up the hill changed once again to yellow. This time, they both heard the sound of an engine accelerating. With growing excitement, she glanced out the window ahead; Kubota watched the monitors intensely.
The light changed to red. The speaker at Kubota's side gave out a warning ping. A small red sports car came speeding downhill through the intersection, three full seconds after the light had changed. The speaker emitted a beeping sound; Kubota hit a button with his right hand. The beeping changed to a high-pitched electronic howl.
"We're locked in." His voice was low, but it vibrated with energy. "Locked in and tracking."
The car came flying down toward them. The antenna on the roof followed as it went racing by. Kubota checked the monitor: it showed no other traffic in the vicinity. He waited a few seconds, until the range had increased to almost two hundred yards, and then hit the red button on the panel in front of him.
A beam, invisible to the naked eye, darted out from the micro-laser mounted on the roof. Locked in by radar to the speeding sports car, it instantly burned a hole through the flimsy metal shell of the trunk, into the gas tank. The explosion was quick and final.
The machines in front of Kubota ceased their beeping and whining; the monitor went blank.
They sat in silence for several seconds. His wife looked back through the small window. He looked up, and they smiled wordlessly at each other. She put the van into gear. Slowly, they moved off into the night.
Patrick L. Halliwell (PhD. Montréal) is a Canadian musicologist, composer and author. He is a specialist on Japanese music, society and culture, and has published scholarly articles on Japanese koto music. Born in Winnipeg, and raised in Toronto and Ottawa, he has spent most of the past twenty years in Tokyo. His original music may be heard on Canada's CBC Radio 3 internet radio.
His official website is: www.lakipi.com
February 10, 2009
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