So many steps, so many barriers to solving what should be such a simple evil conspiracy…
Not only am I out here in the sweltering heat of J-District, Atlanta, but I’m out here searching for an extremely secret informant of R8PR’s. This informant is so confidential that I’m not allowed to get precise directions there. He printed out a piece of paper for me, but all of the information is scrambled in a code. “Go left at the fork” is actually supposed to mean “Ignore this advice” according to how R8PR explained it.
It’s all really fancy code that will ensure that, even if I’m caught, this person I meet remains safe. But if it prevents me from actually meeting this informant in the first place, it’ll have all been for nothing.
I’m already having trouble remembering what directions mean what…
Am I supposed to go down this alley, or wait until the next intersection to turn? Roads versus non-dead-end alleys are always so confusing to me. It’s hard to tell the difference sometimes!
I stare at the list of directions with great intensity. “Mind the gap,” it reads next. I am fairly sure this means to go down this alley. But I also clearly see that this alley leads back towards the sky rail station, which is where I just came from. Surely these directions wouldn’t be sending me, Morgan Harding, the master of getting lost, the mistress of missing locations, in an intentional loop, right? R8PR knows I’m an idiot about directions! Why would he do this!
Ugh, I just can’t—
Oof. Whoops! I bumped into an older couple on the sidewalk, who sneer at me and curse me out in what sounds like Thai. I really need to pay better attention, even if I’m lost and need a guardian to guide me to my location.
I wish I was in a video game and they gave me a waypoint to walk to. I’m a lot better at finding my way if I can see a giant beacon of light and go that way. In some ways, I think my life would be better off if I was hit by a truck and reborn inside of a fantasy RPG video game world, but with all my powers kept intact. Everyone else is fighting with swords and knives and fireball spells, but I have super strength and healing powers. I could totally blow up all the dragon lords and orc queens and whatever if I did that. Please make me a video game RPG character!
For now, though, I’m stuck in the real world, which is sadly devoid of goblins and bereft of RPG levels. Instead, we’ve just got tons of crappy robots wandering around.
J-District, as usual, is the sort of place where I stick out like a sore forehead. Most everyone around me is of Asian descent, making me the whitest person around be a longshot. Sure, across the street there’s the skinny dude with a ponytail and tribly with a literal katana strapped to his back, but he’s less “white” than “white as hell, holy shit,” which is a different ethnic group if you ask me.
Right now, the overall mood in this part of town is pretty standard. Everyone’s walking around trying to get where they want to go, but nobody’s strolling or window shopping at the various malls. Except for me, who is lost, of course.
A lot of the street space right now is taken up either by Street Chaser auto-conbinis that are taking advantage of people who need a snack before they commute back home to the suburbs, or by under-construction booths and floats. that latter part is what interests me the most. The big Summer Festivals are taking place soon, and the entire district is getting ready for them.
As much as the Eastern Union likes to say it’s a conglomeration of various independent East Asian Republics (Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Ryuukyuu, Mongolia, and Hainan, as well as the much smaller nations of Jeju, Bonin, and Ainu), it’s very obvious which part of the union controls the cultural power. It’s all Japan, here. They won the culture war and we’re all just playing in the aftermath.
And as such, the scene in J-District reflects that “Little Tokyo Preparing For Festivities” feeling much more than anything else. I’m sure the immigrants from other nations across Asia will be celebrating too—who doesn’t like a good Summer Festival, after all—but it’s going to be all about that Land of the Rising Sun here in a couple weeks.
It’s so hot, even in the evening, that I wonder how much they’ll be able to get done when the festival does happen. Will people even show up? Probably, but only to the night events where everyone gets drunk, I’m sure. I just can’t expect a mid-day festival to attract much attention when it’s pushing a hundred degrees on the regular.
But it’s still admirable to see everyone hard at work getting things ready. There’s all sorts of displays going up, like the chouchin paper lanterns you always see in media about Japan, or wooden booths preparing to show off some elaborate technological stuff while simultaneously serving you yakitori. Personally, I love the whole deal where they make tiny robots do dances on all the booths just to attract customers, because it reduces the concept of robots all the way down to their elemental nature of being extremely convenient for incredibly minor things. Soon, all of the booths in the entire festival will be set up to desperately attract your attention in every direction, and it will be kinda fun thanks to that. Also very annoying, but they will be hoping you’ll be too drunk to care by then.
My favorite restaurant from high school, Katsu-Don’t Stop!, is already decked out in Summer Festival promotional artwork and balloons tied to the roof. I don’t know the use of getting balloons ready this far in advance when they will surely deflate a little bit by the time the festival actually happens, but it’s good advertisement for their 50% off sale. I’ll certainly make sure to stop by during the festival and get a katsudon bowl or two… if there’s any room in the restaurant to fit me, that is. This district gets REALLY crowded at peak hours during the festival, trust me.
The worst part of it all for getting around town, and the best part if you actually like cool stuff, is the Nebuta Parade. Nebuta is this festival up in northern Japan where they get these massive, towering paper floats that depict ancient Japanese gods and demons and cool fight scenes and all that stuff that makes people fall in love with Japan. They’re lit up to hell with candles and rolled down the road with a bunch of people carrying them and shouting the various catchphrases that make their hometowns proud. It happens at the beginning of August up in northern Japan, but then a few weeks later, J-District does it themselves. They actually import a few floats each year, which I honestly think is the dumbest thing ever because of how easily damaged these things surely are. But they’re really pretty, so maybe it’s worth the hassle.
So you have a bunch of booths set up, and you have a bunch of floats getting ready, and soon the entire town is gonna be a huge party at all hours of the day for a good week. There’s the main parade, but then a bunch of smaller festivities both before and after. It’s really fun.
Or, at least, my experience of it is fun. I don’t have any personal connection to Eastern Union culture, so the J-District’s sudden summer transformation is mostly a touristy event that my family used to bring me to. Maybe if you had Karina to tell you about this stuff, you’d get a better insight into the inner workings of it all. She doesn’t live in the J-District, but I know she participated in the events every year, at least until this summer when she’s probaly in the real deal as we speak. Sadly, I am not Karina, and I am the only one narrating this story. If you’re looking for Japanese culture, look elsewhere, because Karina ain’t the narrator, and never will be! This is the Morgan Harding show, baby!
I’m still lost.
I really worry if I’ll manage to meet R8PR’s informant, or if the dude will just get bored and go home. Is this my penance for being a loser creep to Karina the last time I was in J-District? Most likely, yes. I deserve to get lost and never find my way, for the way I behaved back then. It makes me cringe just thinking about it.
With the best of my effort, though, I try to follow the encrypted directions given to me by my robot ally, and make my way down a side street I’ve never been on before. Gone are all the Summer Festival decorations and crowds of people walking around. Gone, too, is most of the sunlight, blocked by the large buildings on both sides of the walkway. In the place of all of that are a few young women in maid outfits, spouting stuff in Japanese, and occasionally Chinese, as people pass them by. I hate getting solicited by people on the street, so I try to keep my distance and pray they don’t decide to—
“Hey, you!” one of them shouts, pointing directly at me. “Over here!”
I do not come closer, but alas, the girl hops over to my side within moments.
Is she even an adult…?
“Hey, wanna come support my small business?” she asks, in English since I’m obviously a white kid. “I’m an entrepreneur.”
“Uh…” I can’t think of anything to say that isn’t extremely rude or isn’t just walking off faster than she can keep up. I’m too paralyzed to act.
“My friends and I are hosting a survey and we wanted to get your opinion,” she tells me.
“Oh, I see.” I’m trapped! Oh no!
“Yeah, it’d be real nice if you could step in and show us a good time… We really want to know your opinion. For the survey.” The girl winks at me.
Listen, I am not in the mood for this kind of stuff, even if I was dumb enough to walk into a red light district all on my own. So I do the adult thing and stammer out a non-response as I stumble away from her. Her eyes, shiny and interested, instantly snap away from me as if I never existed. She’s got some real business sense.
Now I keep going, past all the young women who want me to go into their clubs, and past all the older men who are offering to show me young women who will really excite me. That is not at all what I want at at the moment, and it’s just distracting me from these confusing directions.
There’s so many of these places it’d make your head spin. And it’s not just for the obvious stuff, either. There’s the normal strip clubs and hostess bars, but there’s also places where “up and coming talent” gets featured. AKA, creepazoid bars where middle aged men go to watch “idol performances.” Young women dance and sing in front of crowds in these B1-floor bars that have very strict admission policies and high entrance fees. It’s so skeevy it makes me want to puke, but that’s basically all of what idol culture is in the J-District these ways. It’s a pathway into getting into the gross, harmful stuff that still pervades our culture every day. If I had the time and legal ability. I’d probably sneak into these clubs where young women are exploited, and crack a few employees’ skulls open until they make it stop. Because violence is always the best option when it comes to fixing things, as is often the words of wise people.
After a while, though, I make it to a place where I am reasonably confident I am at the right place. Yes, this is still the red light district, but it seems interestingly not like the seedy clubs and cafes that haunted me beforehand. There’s a softer glow to this part of the district, I guess. It feels safer, and a little bit more anonymous too.
I walk up to a barely-marked door of one of these buildings labeled only “Bronco Bill’s.” It has a “closed” sign by the window.
Maybe this is the right place. Maybe not. But I turn the knob open it up, and walk right in.
Greeting me, sitting on a chair right in front of the door, is a young man shrouded in the darkness of a dim living room-style office. He’s about my age, with tight pants and a thin vest that barely covers his hairy chest, with a cowboy hat resting gently over the top of his head. He has cheeks that betray the youth his shaggy beard tries to cover up. Despite being in the middle of J-District, this main is plainly as white as a tuna and egg sandwich after a Braves game.
“Howdy,” he says.
“Hi,” I respond. “So this is it, huh?”
“This is it.” He’s got a bit of a Texan accent, fitting for the name “Bronco Bill,” I guess, but I can’t tell if it’s real or fake.
“Your name’s Bill, is it?” I ask.
“My name’s whatever you want it to be,” he replies. “So yeah, call me Bill.” He places his legs up on a leg rest in front of his chair, and folds his right one over his left.
“So, what do you have for me?” I ask. I realize at this moment that my directions don’t really say what to do AFTER I’ve found the informant, so I’m not sure if there’s any secret code to unlock for him to trust that I’m the one R8PR sent. Ugh, all this safety and he left out the most obvious thing… Unless it was one of the scrambled codes to decipher then it’s my fault for mixing it all up, but still…
“That depends on a lot of things, little lady,” he says.
“Not a lady,” I correct.
“Oh, sorry.” He loses his accent for a second, confirming that he’s not a real Texan. Ha, I got one over on him, and I just had to be misgendered for it to happen. “Well, it all depends on a lot. What are you looking for?”
I narrow my eyes. “I think you know what…”
“Oh, well, hold your horses, little one,” he says. “We’ve got more to go through before we can get to that.”
“Really? We can’t just get to the juicy stuff? I mean, you know I was sent here for a reason, right?” I hate it when these informants and messengers and all these underground-type characters have to play coy with basically everything they say. I’m just looking for some information to figure out how Mighty Slammer might be connected to the Japanese mafia! I’m not looking to be riddled and puzzled like I’m in an escape room co-created by Marge and R8PR. Ugh.
“No can do, partner,” he says. “It’s right there in the bylaws. If we wanna have a good time, it’s gotta be the whole shebang.”
“Uh, right. So what does that… entail?” I ask.
He tips his cowboy hat and flashes a smile. “What do you want? I’m open for anything.”
“Uh, I really don’t have a preference. If you want to go somewhere quiet where we can talk—”
“Yeah, that sounds pretty good,” he says. “I know a place. If you’re new to J-District, then leave it to me.” Bill stands up and exposes himself to me. By that, I mean exposes his towering height, well over six feet tall. My five and a half feet have nothing on this dude, and for some reason that fills me with comfort. He could probably lift me up in his arms if he really wanted, with those muscles of his.
“Yeah?” Bill asks.
“Oh, nothing. I just thought you might have wanted a secret passcode or something. I guess you knew I was coming, though.”
He lets out a single exhalation of a chuckle. “This must be your first time. But no worries. I won’t judge. Not in my job description, after all.”
“Yeah, sorry for being a real novice at this.”
“I’ll whip you into shape, don’t worry,” Bill says. “Literally if you want it.”
“An odd turn of phrase for our meeting, but okay.”
“You want anything here before we go out together?” he asks. “A drink or something?”
“I got Kentucky Bourbon in the cabinet if you want. On the house.”
I sigh and know that I can’t refuse free bourbon when it’s offered to me by such a dashing gentleman, even if that gentleman is a little underdressed for the situation. Bill really is an interesting fellow, but if R8PR trusts him, then so do I.
We leave Bronco Bill’s place a few minutes after we take shots together, and walk out into the steaming evening of a summery J-District. I’m really excited to learn more about all this.
Though, I’m confused why he keeps touching my shoulders. Lay off, buddy.