Chapter One: Observe
A newspaper lay open across her lap, a light breeze ruffling her hair and the first rays of the sun warming her scalp. Her eyes scanned the headlines in their entirety, taking in every detail, before she flipped the page over with the flick of her wrist. Save for the faint toll of bells and the honk of horns in the distance, the bus station was silent.
A rustling sound disrupted her thoughts. Miyako looked up, focusing on a grocery bag that rolled past her foot. She stamped it into place with a scoff.
Miyako sniffed in disdain before bending over and pulling the bag from under her foot. After shoving it into her skirt pocket, she looked back to her newspaper and flipped to the obituary section. Her fingers ran over the inked letters, taking in every bump and dip.
When she looked up, a small Asian girl a couple of feet away was waving to a boy across the street.
“Hey, Tomoshi-kun!” the girl called, the bracelets on her wrists jingling. The breeze grew stronger, carrying the scent of orchids to Miyako’s nose.
“Morning, Fujioka-san!” the boy replied with a wave of his own. He stood in front of a fruit stand, stained apron tied around his waist. After scanning the road for cars, the girl ran across the road to him. Miyako looked away from them and returned to her paper.
The smell of motor oil alerted Miyako to the arrival of the bus just before its horn did. The large blue vehicle rolled to a stop before her, its door opening with a screech that made her ears ring. Without taking her eyes off the bus, she folded the newspaper up, then in half, and tucked it under her arm as she got to her feet. The steps swayed under her feet as she stepped onto the bus. From her skirt pocket, she produced three coins and the plastic bag, the latter of which she disposed of in the trash can behind the driver’s seat.
“Thanks,” the driver said, voice gruff. Miyako gave a nod before taking a seat in the front. At once, the smell of old body odor and decaying teeth filled her nose. She grunted, smoothing out her skirt, before unfolding her newspaper and resuming her reading. Once again, her fingers traced the obituaries.
Status is everything.
His voice echoed in her ears. Miyako could almost feel his fingers on her cheek and his lips on the spot below her earlobe as he whispered to her.
Nothing matter more to humans than where they stand in life, Miyako. Take advantage of this. Observe the dead first. Who did they affect?
Miyako folded her newspaper back up with a sigh, resting it on one knee before looking out the window. Before her eyes, the quaint town of Kishiwada faded into rolling fields. The bus stopped at the town limits to pick up an aged man with a receding hairline.
Gather newspapers every day if it helps, came the voice again. Study. Observe.
But observe what? Miyako’s hand closed around the collar at her throat, thumb running over the ridges in the metal. How humans act? She glanced to the mirror at the head of the bus, scanning the thin crowd of people around her. The smell of body odor was stronger. Or maybe how they interact… Yes, that sounds about right.
The bus stopped again in Takaishi. This time, three teenage girls got on when the doors opened. They giggled to each other as they paid their fare and clumped into the seats behind Miyako, who let out a small hiss of agitation as their cloistering mixtures of perfumes assaulted her senses.
“Did you see how Kaoru looked at me?”
For a second, Miyako considered ignoring them. Then she thought better of it. She scooched lower in her seat, skirt sliding up her legs until she smoothed it back into place, and waited.
“Amate-kun?” asked the second girl. “No way! He was looking at me!”
“Oh, chill out! You’re both wrong.”
The third girl, the one closest to the aisle, pursed her bright pink lips and waved a hand. Miyako studied her face, studying her narrow nose and the unusual wideness to her blue eyes and recording both to memory. There was something exotic about her appearance, though Miyako couldn’t quite place what it was.
She’s not from here, Miyako realized with a jolt. She watched the girl’s eyes light up as the three teens continued talking.
“Who else could he have been looking at?” asked the first teen, whose freckles rippled along her cheeks as she spoke.
“Me, obviously.” The third teen flipped one of her pigtails over her shoulder with a snort. “It just makes sense. I mean, I’m foreign to you guys.”
“Not to us,” said the second teen. Her voice came out more like a whistle, barely audible even to Miyako’s sensitive ears.
“Oh, no, of course not. I meant to the rest of the academy. I mean, when’s the last time the school had an American student?”
Miyako’s ears perked. She leaned further back in her seat.
“Not this again,” said the brunette. “Just because you’re not Japanese doesn’t mean you’re all that, Rose.”
Rose wrinkled her nose, eyes flashing with contempt. “You’re just jealous!” she insisted after a moment.
Miyako sighed, jaw clenched. Is that all you care about? Come on, give me something interesting!
“Of what?” The first teen pointed to the second. “Ayame here is class rep.” She jerked her thumb into her own chest. “I’ve got one of the highest test scores in the class. Yeah, you get a lot of the guys, but the more sensible ones like Ayame and I. I’m telling you, Kaoru is sensible!”
Rose snorted. “Sensible, sure. But excitement is my specialty and you two are…”
“Boring?” the first one replied.
Ayame, the quiet one, shook her head with a frown. “I don’t see why it matters, anyway.”
They stopped talking, giving Miyako time to mull over the conversation she’d heard.
Teenage girls pore over guys and… schoolwork? Some seem to bear a superiority complex of a sort. More research is needed. Miyako wrinkled her nose and looked to the mirror, catching Rose’s eye at once.
“What do you want?” the American asked, an edge to her voice. When Miyako didn’t reply, she leaned forward in her seat and narrowed her eyes.
“I asked you a question.”
Miyako felt the hostility come off the other girl in waves. From the way her too-pink lips were curled to the hints of a fighting spirit in her gaze, one thing was clear to Miyako. She needed to appease the obnoxious girl sitting behind her.
“I’m observing,” she replied after a moment of consideration.
Rose recoiled. “Observing what? How much it’d take to piss me off? You’re doing a great job so far; I know you were eavesdropping, weirdo.”
With a new wave of calm, Miyako replied, “Again, I’m observing. People-watching, if you will.” She managed to quell the inkling of anger that was forming in her before it could spark.
“What kind of freakazoid people-watches? What are you studying, how many girls you can bug out by acting lesbian?”
This time, Miyako couldn’t stop her agitation from forming. “No,” she replied, voice level as she stared straight into Rose’s eyes through the mirror. “I’m observing human behavior and social status. You seem to think you’re very high up, don’t you?”
Rose’s cheeks turned red. Beside her, Ayame and the unnamed girl had their gazes focused on their laps. Clearly, Rose wasn’t the only one that was suddenly uncomfortable. The American pointed a trembling finger to Miyako.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. Her voice shook just the slightest bit.
“Analysis: teenage girls focus on boys and schoolwork. Also tend to bear a superiority complex. They love power.” Miyako paused, processing the rest of her data before continuing. “All just from observing you and your friends, who are clearly uncomfortable in your presence.”
The bus ground to a stop and Miyako rose, slipping her newspaper under her arm.
“Well, this is my stop,” she said. “It was a, er, a pleasure to meet you. Good day.”
As she marched off the bus, she heard Rose screech, “What kind of person talks like that?” Miyako smirked in response.
It was just past eight in the morning when she stopped at the coffee shop. The sidewalks were starting to fill with people as another day began. Cars roamed the streets. The air smelled of exhaust and sea water, a combination that made Miyako wrinkle her nose in distaste.
The coffee shop was small and discreet, on the corner of two streets but, as evident by the shininess of the door knob and lack of scuffing on the ground, rarely entered. Miyako’s eyes roamed over the tables that lined one side of the shop as she entered, newspaper under her arm. The barista at the counter was slouched over the cash register, eyes half-open.
Business is slow here, Miyako noted with a frown. She nodded to the barista before heading towards the back, sitting down at the table pushed against the far wall. With a yawn, she brought her newspaper back out and set it down on the table.
Time dragged on while she read. Every so often, she would stop and look to the clock behind the counter as she drummed her nails on the table. Then she would sigh and return to her reading until she once again looked up.
After a while, the front door opened and a sharply-dressed man walked in. He went to the barista first then, after paying and waiting for two cups of coffee, came to the table Miyako sat at.
“Good morning, Akane-san,” he said in a flat tone. “You’re on time. Good.” He pushed one cup towards her.
She dipped her head to him but didn’t look up. The smell of coffee wafted from the opening on the lid and her tongue grew thick in her mouth.
“Is that for me?” She scanned the Features page of her newspaper as she spoke.
“Doctor Hutchingson… he wants to know what you’ve learned so far.”
Only then did Miyako look up. He had not answered her, much to her chagrin.
“I have been here since this morning, sir.” She fought to keep her tone even, though her annoyance still managed to seep through. “Does he expect me to deliver inconclusive information?”
“Do you have that information?” the man replied, nudging the cup of coffee forward some more.
Miyako dipped her head, her cheeks warm. “Yes, Sir.”
“Then you have nothing to fear.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick metal rod, which he set on the table before him. As he pressed the top, he met her eyes. Miyako heard a beep.
“Subject Zero-Zero-One, Akane Miyako, stationed in Osaka. Tell us what you know of the outside world so far.”
Miyako closed her eyes for a moment before she spoke. "Current analysis: This part of the city is not so populated, based on the amount of traffic at this time. The people around here, especially the teenagers, have some sort of focus on power and status. Many hold it above all else, it seems." She opened up the newspaper to the obituaries. "It seems the older people get, the less others have to say for them... which suggests they've fallen from the ranks that others assigned to them, or there's not many who care. But then..." She closed the newspaper and pointed to the front page, which featured a smiling man. "There's him, a CEO of some sort of business. He was older than some of the others, but he got the most coverage of anyone."
The man arched an eyebrow, a faint smile on his lips. "And why do you think this is?"
Miyako paused, her thoughts whirling. "Because...” She looked up. “Because he had a higher social rank. He did more and the people around him noticed it."
"The others led normal lives. They never did anything for the world." Miyako's eyes widened as she processed this. “At least, nothing memorable, in any case.”
He nodded. "Very good, Akane-san. You have learned much from your observations." He picked the metal tube up, pressed the top with the pad of his thumb, and slid it into his pocket before leaning closer.
"Do you know why we're having you do this, Akane-san?" he asked.
Miyako thought for several seconds before she replied. As she thought, she raised the coffee cup to her lips and gulped down the bitter liquid.
"It's because of my mission, isn't it?" She said after swallowing. The words felt odd on her tongue. "Study humans. Find their strengths and weaknesses. See what makes them tick. If I can do that—“
"Then you can accomplish anything. How can you fulfil your task if you don't understand? Their imperfections, their faults," he paused to cough and trailed off after that.
Miyako nodded. "Of course, Sir. I understand this." She met his eyes, her gaze cold and calculating. "And I believe that with further investigation and preparation, I will be suitable for the mission Doctor Hutchingson has assigned to me."
The man gave a small grin as he reached into his jacket. "Now for the other reason for our meeting," he said. A manila folder flopped down onto the table, bouncing off the newspaper. The papers inside it slid into view.
"Files?" Miyako asked, apprehension bubbling in her stomach.
"Of a sort."
The cardstock felt smooth in her hands as Miyako picked up the folder and thumbed through the pages. The first page in the stack caught her eye with the name at the top in bold.
Tensai Academy? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of such a place. She pursed her lips.
"Registration?" she asked as she ran a finger over the words.
The man dipped his head. "You could say that."
"What for?" She arched an eyebrow as she spoke, her eyes never leaving the page.
With the flick of Miyako’s wrist, the folder shut. "I beg your pardon?" she asked. At the last second and with crimson cheeks, she added, "Sir."
"You heard me.” The man adjusted his sunglasses. “The Doctor has decided to enroll you in schooling. He thinks you will yield better results amongst your peer group."
"I'm smarter than all of them combined!"
"Then show this. If you progress, you can understand humans better. You know how to function and to observe. Now is the chance to get what you can. Besides, you can learn much from them. Leadership skills, time management... Those aren’t things you came programmed with." He poked her forehead before leaning back with a smile. “This will be good for you."
Miyako narrowed her eyes, nostrils flared, and leafed through the folder once more. "Fine." She took in the information in her hands with a sigh. "When do I start?"
"Tomorrow," he replied, taking the folder from her. "I've been instructed to give you a tour today, then take you to your apartment. The Doctor has chosen a complex not too far from the Academy. It took a pretty penny, but—“
Miyako thought back to the bus ride she'd had earlier that morning. Would those girls be at the school? Would she be in class with them? The mere thought was enough for a growing sense of disdain to grow inside Miyako’s stomach.
“—Akane-san Are you listening to me?"
She jumped in her chair, startled, then nodded. "Yes." The blush on her cheeks deepened.
"Good." He slid his chair back and got to his feet, motioning for Miyako to do the same after a pause. "Are you going to drink that?"
"No, thank you." Miyako offered the cup to him. He shrugged, watching as she slid the newspaper back under her arm, before taking the cup and swallowing the remains in one gulp.
"Let's go, then."
She focused on the sound her shoes made as together, they walked across the linoleum flooring and out the front door. Outside, the world was awake. The scent of car exhaust was strong, making her throat constrict. The man placed a hand on her back and guided her to the black SUV that waited for them. He only stepped away when she opened a back door and stepped into the car.
Moments later, the man opened the driver’s side door and sat down. Miyako looked over.
"Sir, I never got your name."
She caught his smirk from the rear-view mirror. "Just call me N." He pushed his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose and chuckled.
"N." Miyako rolled the letter around in her mouth, storing both it and his information in her mind for later use.
"Yes, that's it,” N replied with a nod.
"Indeed." N pulled out from the side of the street and into the road. "Apartment first, or the school?" he asked her.
At once, Miyako pulled her gaze away from the rear-view mirror. "School,” she replied.