In the near future of Ninth Step Station, Tokyo experiences a massive disaster that leaves it in shambles, desperate for international aid. The country is divided up by the world’s major powers, each patrolling their respective sector borders with drones and peacekeepers. In this environment, US Navy Lieutenant Emma Hiagashi and a local police officer named Miyako Koreda are partnered up to work on a string of murders across the city.
Their adventures will be told in an 11-part series from storytelling startup Serial Box, which has lined up an impressive team of writers like Malka Older, Fran Wilde, Jacqueline Koyanagi, and Curtis C. Chen. Serial Box isn’t a traditional publisher. Its approach to fiction is to tell a long-form written story like that of a television show: individual, standalone installments that follow the story’s characters and builds a longer story bit by bit. The company has already forged an impressive track record with serials such as Bookburners, The Witch Who Came In From The Cold, and others.
Users can purchase individual serials, either by subscribing to a season or purchasing it all at once at the end. Then, they can then read each installment either on the web, in Serial Box’s iOS app (Android is coming soon), or by downloading each installment in an ePub, .mobi, PDF, or MP3 audiobook format.
Ninth Step Station is the latest series from the company, blending near-future science fiction with a police procedural. The story will be available on Serial Box as an ebook and audiobook subscription starting on January 9th. Below, you can read an excerpt from the season’s first episode: “The Faceless Body,” by Malka Older.
The streets were rain-slicked and icy, but in Marunouchi, safely in the US zone of Tokyo, that was no deterrent. In the dark after-work hours, its tiny bars, ramen counters, karaoke boxes, and hostess spots were crammed with salarymen spending an extra few hours laughing at their superiors’ jokes or drinking off the stress of their jobs. A few spilled into the chilly streets, arguing drunkenly under one of the streetlights that still illuminated or checking for updates on their sleeves. Garish signs gleamed from every building, one over the other in tapestries of contrasting calligraphy. There were pockets of darkness, victims of the spike in energy prices or the drop in population. But on the whole, calamity and war increased the market for oblivion-tinged entertainment.
Even the bounty of the US zone was not endless. The metro—those lines that still ran in this divided city—closed at midnight, cutting short a ritual that, pre-war, would have gone on into the early hours of the morning. From eleven thirty until midnight, men and the occasional severely suited woman poured out of the cramped establishments. They flooded roads, bought last-minute snacks, pushed intentionally or unintentionally against each other like molecules in boiling water. They filtered in unsteady gushes under the archway announcing the west entrance of the shopping district, cracked in the 2031 Nankai earthquake and still unrestored a year and a half later. They stumbled across the street to the Kanda metro station, where the late-night rush hour bottlenecked into a tightly packed fumble toward the turnstiles.
Easy, in that crowd of black suits and narrow ties, to feel anonymous. Easy, once one had noticed the target slurping cheap ramen at a street-level establishment, to hover outside until he left. Not terribly difficult to keep him in sight through the crowd. All too easy, in the dense crush of the metro station, to unsheathe a knife close to the hip, where it would be invisible to the security cameras. Easy to jab it once, twice, three times into a dark raincoat-clad back.
The stabbed man stumbled, was held up briefly by the press of the crowd, then slipped down to his hands and knees. There was a moment of disturbance in the flow as people stepped around his huddled form; then he slid completely to the ground. The energy-saving lights were dim; the people were drunk; the last train was leaving soon. No one noticed that they were stepping on a corpse.
Miyako Koreda tapped her sleeve against the panel by the door of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department headquarters in Kudanshita, clocking in. After the old headquarters in Kasumigaseki were bombed in the final days of China’s brief, partially successful attempt to add the capital to its territory, this office building off Yasukuni Dori had been pressed into service as a temporary headquarters. It was a good location, hard up against the narrowest stretch of the ASEAN buffer zone, with good transportation options to most of the American-administered eastern half of the capital, and close to the Yasukuni Shrine, which everyone expected to be a flash point one day or the next. But although someone had been thoughtful about which interior walls to knock down, Miyako still expected the old office every time she walked through the door, and the layout felt odd.
“Ohayo gozaimasu,” Miyako called into the scattered desks of the fourth-floor Criminal Investigations bureau.
“Ohayo!” the greetings chorused back.
“Ohayo, Koreda-san,” said a heavyset man in his fifties, passing the door on his way back to the desks.
“Yamada-san,” Miyako replied, following him in. “What are you working on?”
“The Shiodome arson case,” he answered. “You?”
“Paperwork for that theft in Odaiba.”
Miyako nodded. “Looks like we might be able to pin a few other thefts on him too.”
Miyako slung her dark wool coat onto the hook by her desk and went to the tea station. The leaves in the pot were soggy, and she dumped them into the sink, rinsed the strainer, and sifted in a new, fragrant layer from the tin. While she waited for the water to heat, Miyako browsed the snack offerings in lieu of breakfast. She selected a small sweet-potato-stuffed cake—rare now that Kyushu was held by China; she wondered who had bought that—and a handful of sour plum–flavored hard candies. In her right ear, the news broadcast burbled its comforting hum.
She sat down at her desk, lukewarm cup in hand, and started to fill in the paperwork on the Odaiba arrest, speaking the answers into the voice recognition on her sleeve. Something in the newscast caught her attention on a subliminal level, and Miyako turned the volume up slightly and jumped back ten seconds.
. . . the ASEAN representative in Tokyo made a statement condemning recent Chinese rhetoric. Miyako waited, eyebrows hoisted like the cables on a suspension bridge, but the story ended with that. There wasn’t even a response from China. The news announcer chattered on, and Miyako lowered the volume again to the point where the words were barely intelligible and all she was aware of was the constant, unpanicked tone.
Nobody had started a war.
Then again, nobody had started a war.
Before she could get back to her paperwork, her sleeve sent a tingle along her forearm. That manufactured sensation triggered, as always, an echoing fizz in her gut, the combination of nerves and anticipation that came with every new case. Miyako slid her finger along the edge of her sleeve to bring up the details, and her pulse jumped again as she saw the crimson color-coding: a murder. Violent crime had ticked up since the war, but murders were still rare. Nobody was happy when it happened, but Miyako couldn’t deny the excitement of solving one.
Standing to pull on her coat, she flipped quickly through the template sent by the responding officer: body found in Kanda Station; multiple stab wounds; no identification. She paused. This might be interesting.
Then again, it might mean hours stuck with the remnants of the city’s facial and fingerprint database, in tatters since the earthquake.
In any case, this murder wasn’t going to solve itself. Miyako was on her way to the door when her sleeve vibrated with a different type of alarm. Annoyed, she glanced at her forearm again. Report to my office immediately, read the message.
The Superintendent of Criminal Investigations, Hideo Nishimura, was tall and even-featured and had probably been handsome in his youth, but the years at the desk showed in his growing corpulence and a certain slowness in breaking inertia. When Miyako walked into his office thirty seconds after receiving his message, however, he was already standing, his coat on.
“Sir?” Miyako asked, hesitating by the door. “I was about to head to a crime scene . . .”
“That situation in Marunouchi,” Nishimura said. “I know. They’re going to have to give you a few extra minutes. I need you to come with me to the Japanese sector first.”
“Of course,” Miyako answered unenthusiastically. The Japanese sector was mainly Kasumigaseki—that and the imperial palace, closed since the royal family had moved to the relative security of Sapporo—and Kasumigaseki was all ministries and government offices and the Diet. Little good ever came out of going there.
Nishimura waggled his eyebrows at her. “You’re going to be part of a special new pilot program.”
Waiting for the trap to spring, Miyako said nothing.
“The US embassy has asked us to allow one of their peacekeepers to join our investigative team. I’m partnering them with you.”
Whatever Miyako had expected, it wasn’t that. She remembered when the peacekeepers had arrived, as part of the unrolling of the US’s “friendly” occupation of the parts of Tokyo not taken by China. It had seemed hopeful then, like the world was going to take China’s egregious aggression seriously. But of course by that time there was already peace, the peace of China having gotten what they wanted for the moment, and Miyako hadn’t heard anything about the unit since.
“Come on,” Nishimura said, taking his narrow-brim hat from the hook on his door. “We’ve got to get over there so you and your new partner can head to the crime scene.”
“Sir,” Miyako started, but decided not to continue until they had traversed the squad room. The stairwell was empty. “Sir, a peacekeeper? Don’t they have better things to do?”
“We’ve had nine months of peace, Koreda,” Nishimura said, plodding down the stairs ahead of her. “Perhaps they’ve gotten bored.”
“This person won’t know anything about police work!”
“Apparently the person they are sending has a background in the military police.”
“It’s not the same!” Miyako said. She didn’t bother mentioning her main objections: that she liked to work alone, and that she definitely did not like working with loud, uninformed outsiders. Nishimura already knew the first and would assume the second. “And they won’t know Tokyo. Does this person even speak Japanese?”
“It’s because they don’t know Tokyo that they want to pair with us. Besides, they know we’re understaffed since the attacks and they’re trying to help.”
Miyako made a nonverbal noise of disagreement.
Nishimura sighed. “Okay, they’re probably not trying to help out of the goodness of their hearts, but I don’t have much choice on this one, Koreda, so let’s make the best of it, shall we?” They reached the ground floor, but Nishimura hesitated before pushing the heavy door out into the lobby. “I was going to stick this on Fukuda, but today when they finalized it, they told me that they’re sending a woman. I know how sensitive Americans can be about seku-hara; I thought I’d better partner her with a woman.”
Miyako refrained from commenting.
The US embassy was almost directly south of the Kudan area, on the opposite side of the imperial palace park. Miyako’s decades in Tokyo meant she automatically calculated a subway route on the Shinjuku and Namboku lines; her resistance to the current situation meant that it was only afterward that she remembered the Namboku line was almost entirely in the Chinese sector and no longer ran. Maybe Nishimura was better adapted, because he went directly to the Hanzomon platform without so much as a flinch.
The frigid air hit them again as they stepped out of the subway in Kasumigaseki between the large, guarded buildings of the national government ministries, now ruling a fraction of the country and bickering over what to do about the rest.
It was still early for government employees, and the sidewalk was almost empty. In the middle of the block, Nishimura stopped. “This is a ride along, an experiment in information sharing. We are not ceding them control. She follows you, not the other way around.” He nodded to himself. “It’s important to keep them happy. We can improve the relationship.”
Miyako nodded too. He was being as clear as he could about what he expected of her; whether she agreed was entirely beside the point. What bothered her was that it sounded like whether he agreed was just as irrelevant.
Once they had passed through the security-theater gauntlet required to enter the US embassy, they were immediately ushered to their appointment. The discreet plaque beside the office door read: Chief Liaison Officer to the Japanese Government, Charles Yardley III. The man who stood from behind the desk was younger than Miyako would have expected, and trim, with carefully rippled chestnut hair and an expensive suit. He bowed instead of shaking hands, as did his Japanese secretary, who had been seated in one of the chairs facing his desk. Miyako tapped her sleeve unobtrusively to turn her news feed down to the lower edge of audibility.
“Thank you so much for making this work on such short notice,” Yardley said in impressively smooth Japanese. “I know we’ve been talking about it for a while, but the final authorization just came through and we wanted to put it into action as quickly as possible.” He cleared his throat gently. “I’m sure you’ll be wanting to, ah, get to know each other, but we were also hoping that you might direct some of your attention to an incident that occurred early this morning.”
The secretary wasn’t taking notes, but perhaps she had a recorder installed. Miyako observed her closely and caught something flash in her eye. Video, then. She repressed a shudder. She wasn’t anti-bodymodding, but the idea of someone plugging circuitry into their eyeball gave her the creeps.
“We have reports that a truck transporting a shipping container that had just been unloaded was hijacked shortly after it went through port security,” Yardley went on. “We believe it was taken into the Chinese zone, but since the hijacking itself occurred in the US sector, we were hoping you could help us gain some clarity over exactly what happened.”
Nishimura murmured something polite about being sure that they could provide some information about the situation.
“Excellent,” Yardley said. “Well then . . .”
The secretary spoke up. “Perhaps it would be better if you introduced us at this point.”
Her Japanese was clear but accented, and it was then that Miyako realized with a shock that she was not the secretary.
“Oh, of course,” Yardley responded smoothly. “Lieutenant Emma Higashi of the US Navy, seconded to the Brunei Accords Peacekeeping Force and, now, to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.”