Tuesday, September 5, 2023

“The Shrine Keeper” • by Made in DNA

The system buzzed its refusal of the kanji character input.

From upon the shoulder of Ayane’s white hakui robe, Gon, her mecha-companion, dipped his head, and his double-set of wings came forward as if to take flight. “Incorrect stroke order.”

How could she have been so blind? Characters with incorrect radicals, glitched levels of code? It was deliberate. The Fushimi Shrine portal had been effectively sabotaged. So where were the native shrine keepers of Fushimi? Why had they abandoned this place and their duty?

A sweat broke out on the itinerant shrine keeper’s brow as she deleted the kanji from the digital interface with a swipe of her hand, the pixels disintegrating like dust. “I know.”

She dipped her interface brush in the digital programming ink once more and, this time, flawlessly executed all eight strokes in proper order to a soft fanfare of light and music.

The multi-layered holo mandala of kanji and alphanumeric characters floated before her. Its light blue interface outlined in shimmering gold was a stark contrast to the chaos of the portal it controlled behind her.

Embedded in the largest torii gate of the Shinto shrine, the travel portal warbled with erratic intensity from both the sabotage Ayane was attempting to repair and the enraged struggle of an unknown entity attempting to break through. Constructed from the cosmic dust of a dying star, the torii wielded the power of an event horizon—any entity or object passing between its large red pillars could be hurtled distances, great or small, to the next programmed portal.

At her ear, a viscous hiss-crack like the disintegration of super frozen ice. Ayane jerked and her hand overspun the dial of characters she was working on. She peered back at the dimension door and immediately regretted it. The hairline cracks that had formed when she started “correcting” the original problem several hours ago were far more pronounced. Through the missing pieces of the failing, mirror-flat barrier, something with an immense maw and too many teeth locked sight with her.

Gon trilled. “Five levels down. The last character.”

Back on task, Ayane reversed the dial, tweaking the mandala several hundredths of a pixel-degree, then thrust her hand into the code past her elbow, grasping the sunken programming level and pulling it forth. It jarred to a stop two layers below the surface.

“It’s stuck!” Ayane’s heart went cold in her chest. Buried beneath the innumerable, a scratch, a blur, a smudged flickering character. 

The dragonfly lit from her shoulder and flitted in and out of the three-dimensional holo. “The characters are out of sequence. That is why the portal did not open properly.”

And why Ayane was still alive. As a shrine keeper, she traveled the archipelago, as her ancestors had done for centuries, maintaining the network of shrines and their portals in hopes that one day the dark age would lift and the sparse peoples of the land would stop hiding in their metal-and-circuit castle arcologies to travel, explore, and populate once more. They could learn to live with the mutants and monsters, as the shrine keepers had. Fushimi was a major hub, or could be, if its network wasn’t silent—hadn’t been silenced. And then, if the history of this place hadn’t been lost, her hubris wouldn’t have gotten her into this situation. A situation that, she feared, would worsen if the entity freed itself.

“You’re right; this is the…” She silently mouthed the character pronunciations. Another level of sabotage. “The sixth!” Rearranging the levels and characters in their proper sequence allowed her to pull the final character forth.

“Too late.” Gon buzzed. “Loss of portal integrity in—”

“Hush!” Ayane scolded.

Erasing it with a sweep of her hand, Ayane brought the interface brush up over the blank square of input. Her heart hammering, she concentrated on each stroke of the Chinese character. One flaw, an incorrect radical or element, a too-garish stroke and she would not have a chance to correct the mistake.

The radical, the left portion of the kanji which imparted meaning, was 16 strokes. Rare. In this case, “ryuu” —dragon, monster. Whoever had chosen it had done so with great reflection, perhaps to give both clue and weight to what lay behind the choice. Perhaps to give a blundering fool such as herself pause before recklessly destroying the care given to the prison gate.

“Mistress!” Gon dove at Ayane’s head from the side causing the young woman to lose her balance and fall to the side. A ropey limb pierced the physical component of the portal supercomputer next to her. The mottled color of rotting corpses, it absorbed the exploding components, constantly morphing as it did so—broken machinery, half-formed limbs and jaws, human and otherwise.

A wyrm-like creature struggled to free itself from the battered quantum structure within the arches. Easily five meters, it dwarfed the red gate, which was now on the verge of losing its integrity against the bulk of the entity.

The beast hissed.

“Mistress, the portal is going to explode!”

Ayane recklessly threw herself down the stone steps and into the maze of statues, overgrown shrubbery, and offering sites leading down the mountain. She made it a dozen meters before sailing a hundred more on the heated front of the explosion, narrowly missing ancient trees and statue grottos, until finally coming to a skidding rest.

When she came to, she ached. Everywhere. Bone deep. She looked up the mountain toward the shrine. It was gone. Vaporized. Along with most of the peak.

Gon tsk’ed. “You’re strength isn’t in programming.”

Ayane made a face. And, slowly, sorely, got up to leave.

Many hours later, a puddle of bubbling, foul ooze slicked through the bushes, uncontrollable shapes boiling over its surface—components, fingers, prayer beads—before an orifice of teeth stretched and formed. Settled. Slicking over a tatter of Ayane’s outfit, it screeched and surged off to follow.



Made in DNA: Samuraipunk author, cheap thrill seeker, pizza lover, US immigrant to Japan. To learn more, visit https://campsite.bio/madeindna



Karin Terebessy said...

I like how this story equates the proper sequence of writing characters with the the proper sequence of writing code. Oh how my Chinese friends would yell at me if I “closed the box” before I had finished writing my character. It was a flaw in my western thinking. Just as there is a flaw in the thinking of the coders in this piece. Very interesting read!

Made in DNA said...

Thanks, Karin. I work as a translator, so yeah, stroke order is a thing. I'm half-laughing, half-cringing about it in reminiscence. So many strokes, so many ways to flub it up. I thought kanji-code would be fun. I've been a fan of kanji as "portals" since I translated an article by Japanese film director Mamoru Oshii, who wrote that kanji scholar Shizuka Shirakawa believed kanji to be how the gods were able to travel between realms. (If I am not mistaken. It's been a while.)

Rob said...

I loved the use of kanji as a future glyph-based programming language! Also, as I've come to expect from you, wonderful detail on the monster.

Made in DNA said...

Thanks, Rob (GOAT). I appreciate all your comments. Looking forward to seeing what you could put forward, Mr. 5000. ;)