Beautiful World 04: Disturbance

By the time I made it back to the apartment, the last of the sunlight had fled the sky, leaving only the grey and silver streaks of moonlight across the carpet from the open windowblinds. I shoved the door closed behind me with one foot, waiting for the soft chirp of the electronic lock and the thunk of the deadbolt it controlled before stepping out of the short entryway, past the kitchenette and into the dining area beyond. "Bedroom, light dim," I called out ahead of me, pausing next to the card table that served as my maildrop and mealspace to drop my keycard and pocketbook, followed moments later by the windbreaker, waiting for the fluorescent panels in my room to come to life, illuminating the rest of the hallway ahead.

I paused at the doorway to my bedroom to kick off my shoes and socks, not bothering to bend down to untie the laces. As I shifted my weight, my eyes jumped around the room, my home and office ever since graduation. Printouts of data and code diagrams still covered the walls, most from projects long past, covered in various colors of ink. Interspersed with those hung the occasional art print or poster, most of fantasy or futuristic settings. Directly in front of the entryway, a massive computer desk―brought into the room piece by piece and assembled in place―dominated the floor, turned to obscure the view of anyone just entering from what transpired on the monitors. Behind it was the same captain's chair I had acquired years ago, reupholstered and restuffed multiple times since its purchase. Beside that, instead of a bed sat an unfolded futon, the mattress wrapped in an oversized sheet and topped with a jumble of blankets. Next to the futon on the opposite wall was a small bureau, one drawer perpetually stuck half-open, followed by a half-full laundry basket. Finally, on the wall beside me sat a well-abused entertainment center, loaded with an old television, various classic console systems lovingly restored, and the occasional lost computer component covered in dust.

Thinking of Adam's first words at dinner brought a rueful grin to my lips.
I really haven't changed much since college, have I? I thought with a dry chuckle, stepping into the half-lit room and shucking off my jeans, tossing them half-heartedly towards the laundry basket and muttering as they fell short of their target, landing with one leg splayed on the floor. It wasn't that I hadn't grown since then, to be sure; I'd learned a lot about myself since those days, and I'd gotten better at what I wanted to do with my time, good enough that I could afford to go into consulting and self-employment, designing self-teaching software solutions and system architecture for companies too small to justify an information management department and too dependent on IM to go without. However, telecommuting and online negotiations had meant that I'd never really had to become part of the working world, and that meant that I'd really just become more of what I already was, back when I was still in school.

Maybe that was part of what was splitting Adam away from the group, I mused as I dropped the dinner box on the desk next to my keyboard and then dropped into the captain's chair in front of it. Of the three of us at the center of our circle of friends, he'd been the only one who had had to go out and get a real job, at least for some definition of real. John had gone into professional design before he'd even graduated, and his models and landscapes commanded more than enough money to make rent. I'd stepped into the working world, doing the business-casual thing, but as soon as I'd built up a decent portfolio I slid right back out again, going freelance and never looking back. Only Adam, shifting from graduate student to teaching assistant and then launching into the teaching and tenure tracks as fast as the options made themselves available, really had to worry about interfacing with the outside world on a regular basis, and that forced him into a mindset that, while not bad by any measure, just wasn't like ours once we'd found our respective niches away from the prying eyes of others.

I took a big bite of turkey club, but a thought struck that made me laugh, nearly choking on a wad of bread in the process. Maybe it wasn't Adam that was the outsider after all. He was the one dealing with regular people day in and day out, while John and I had been free to isolate and insulate oursevlves against others' opinions. Freed from the responsibility of actually interfacing with normal people except under laboratory conditions like the shops or the next contract review, maybe we'd allowed ourselves to grow inward, twisting back on our own ideas of what constituted reality, while Adam was the only one who'd managed to keep himself evolving at a pace and in a direction to match the rest of the so-called real world. Maybe he really was the normal one of the bunch, and John and I were the freaks.

I set down the sandwich and reached over with one hand to grab for my headset, trying to grin and swallow at the same time. On the screen in front of me, an arctic wolf-morph swayed in time with a silent song. His fur was shock-white, so much so that it seemed to glow against the near-black of the digital display. Hints of gold glinted at the tips of his ears and from the fur at his chest, as well as from one of his fingers. Around his neck was a gold chain that bounced as he moved, mutely jingling as the li nks jostled against each other in response to his motions. His only attire besides the body jewelry was a pair of oversized black bondage pants littered with zippers. Multicolored glowsticks hung from short chains hooked into belt loops and pulls that lit up parts of the screen in splashes of color as he danced.

Freaks indeed, I thought as I cleared my throat into the microphone, making the idlescreen freeze. "Computer, unlock," I said once I had the headset in place. A prompt-box popped up on the monitor, asking for my password, and my fingers rapped sharply against the keyboard. Moments later, the wolfmorph vanished, and in his place were a myriad of windows. Some held code segments, some contained flowcharts or data diagrams, and still others were blank, waiting for input of some kind. The one that dominated the display held a program debugger, paused in mid-execution, a small yellow arrow pointing to the line of code on which I had left it to go get dinner.

"Debugger, resume," I said, fingers already at work on the keyboard, bringing up other windows as the program resumed its execution. I flipped over to a database monitor, watching values set and reset themselves as lines of code crunched in the background. "Debugger, stop, restore to breakpoint. Editor, open weather, open terrain. Switch to weather." My hands moved even as the computer rewound the simulation, changing values, adjusting commands. "Debugger, resume." Again I swapped back to the data tracker, then back to the code, muting the microphone to grab another bite of my now-warm sandwich.

The hours cranked past as I continued my editing, until well past the time when any sane person would have crawled into bed and collapsed. Finally, as sun began making itself known through the slats in the window blind, I saw the codes I needed to see show up in the database. "Debugger, pause," I grumbled, then switched over to a fresh screen, calling up an expanse of digitally-generated meadow, light and dark patches highlighting the rise and fall of the ground beneath. A few dandelions grew among the grasses, and an impossibly yellow sun hung in the unnaturally clear blue sky.

"Debugger, resume." With a spreading grin, I watched as black storm clouds rolled in from nowhere, blotting out the sun. Lighting flashed between the cloudbanks, followed moments later by thunder rumbling in my headset. Seconds passed, stretching ominously out to nearly a minute before a searing blast of white burst from the center of the storm front, arcing towards the ground and setting fire where it touched. Another bolt followed the first, then another and another, until the space between earth and sky was filled with a virtual sheet of electricity spattering the ground. The memory of the scent of ozone filled my nostrils as I watched.

Then, a minute later, the lightning was gone. The clouds broke apart, then dissipated, leaving behind only the sun and the pristine sky. However, on the ground, where before there had been only flowers and grass, there was now a patchwork of embers and soot, clearly spelling out "JULES WAS HERE" in bold, black letters against the sea of green.

Looking at the results of my handiwork, my stomach briefly clenched, threatening to give me the chance to revisit my turkey club in all its glory, but the moment passed, and with a few deep breaths I was feeling level again. I'd made it no secret on the Irokai fan-forums that I wasn't happy with Tadashiissei's brand management or trademark prosecutions, and I definitely hadn't been quiet about my dissatisfaction with their autocratic approach in-world, but that was all civil disobedience. This... this was vandalism at best. I didn't want to think about what it could be at worst.

"E-mail, title, quote offer of business proposition unquote, open," I said, and the scorched earth disappeared behind a text window. The text had obviously been passed through some kind of low-quality translator, but the meaning was unmistakable:


I desire that your service is hired in order to write the program which writes message on landscape in Irokai. The method of this I leave for you, but behavior should as lively as possible for pulling much interest. I need this which is ended next month. Protocol everything which we decipher until present, and Irokai data dictionary, is in this e-mail; is this sufficient? If you accept, to this you should answer; at the bottom of this message the key is to encode your response one time. Attach your program to the e-mail of the reply. The payment will be by the method of your suggestion.

We wanted none of this, and you too, coming to this especially. However, Tadashiissei will not to us listen until we prove it is serious. All of us love Irokai, and you too, but with us, you agree that we cannot love Irokai without its freedom.

You are welcome to Democracy Revolution.


Several compressed files remained attached to the document, each encrypted with the same key that trailed across the bottom of the e-mail, down in the signature block. Inside them were the connection protocols that Tadashiissei used to send data around inside the game world, as well as database models that would let me create just about any static object in the game. It wasn't enough to hack directly into anyone's head, but with this and enough time and effort, I could probably rewrite most of Irokai by hand.

Whoever Fuki and the Democracy Revolution were, they were skilled enough to crack Irokai's database and dedicated enough to take on the company that owned it. Ever since I'd gotten the message, I'd wondered why they'd contacted me, given what they obviously already had going for them. Were they looking for a fall guy? Would any of this work on the real systems? I'd heard of pranks like this being pulled before, but I'd always assumed that they were people inside the system setting off jokescripts on each other; this was the first time I'd ever seen a suggestion that outside forces could be at work. Did I really want to be associated with this sort of thing?

Did I really believe in freedom for Irokai?

Lost in my thoughts, the computer snapped up the idlescreen as a safeguard against abandonment. Within a few moments of the monitor going dark, the wolfmorph from before was once more gyrating hypnotically to unheard music, lightsticks a-go-go. I watched him move for several seconds, then spoke into the headset. "Computer, unlock." The image froze once more, covered by the dialog box, and I again entered my password.

"E-mail, reply." My fingers jumped across the keyboard, hooking up source code, data dumps, configuration scripts, build instructions and a quick intro file to the response. "Encrypt." A quick cut-and-paste dumped the key provided into the input box, and a progress bar flashed up on the screen for a few seconds while the computer locked the files. "Send." The screen flashed once, and then the message disappeared.

With a groan, I peeled the headset off of my ears and dropped it onto the keyboard with a clatter of plastic, then stumbled out from behind the desk and onto the futon mattress with a heavy sigh, not bothering to finish getting undressed. With a bit of thrashing, I managed to arrange pillow and blankets to cover my head from the encroaching sun, then pressed the palms of my hands into my eyes, rubbing away the headache I knew would try to settle in my brain.

Sorry, John, but I'm not letting you jump into this naked and alone. You may be blinded by love... but maybe so am I. "Bedroom, light off," I said, then rolled over, waiting for sleep to drag me into the darkness.


Beautiful World 03: Confrontation

I was well into my third beer when Julia slid into the booth across from me, jacket-sheathed arms folding on the scuffed laminate tabletop, her fingers interlacing. "So, this is about John, isn't it." Her tone made it a statement.

I scraped a line of frost from my mug and looked up at her. Her back-length hair, tied back into a tight braid, was green this month, a dark forest green that have passed for natural on the first take. She hadn't bothered to remove her wraparound dark glasses, creating the illusion of a CENSORED bar obscuring her identity. Beneath it, her mouth was twisted into a permanent smirk, though the expression was currently more prominent than normal. She'd turned up the collar of her black windbreaker, and the T-shirt beneath it had a text-picture of pi comprised of its digits.

I smirked and lifted my beer in a mock-toast. "You know, you haven't changed since college, Julia."

The quirk of her mouth bent into a frown. "Neither have you, Adam; you're still the only one in the group who doesn't call me Jules. This isn't about me, though; it's about you. Rather, you think it's about John, which is why you called me."

I shrugged and set down my mug again, flagging down a waiter. "Call it a point of pride; I hate diminutives. And yes, it's about Johnathan. What're you having? I invited; my treat."

Julia shook her head, holding out a hand, palm extended. "Nothing for me; I'm ankle-deep-head-first in a project. You sounded desperate, though, so I got things to a breakpoint."

The summoned waiter made his way to the table, pulling a notepad out of his apron. "Can I get you two something?"

"Just a burger for me, no tomato, no mayonnaise," I asked, emphasizing the removals. "Seasoned fries. Oh, and a refill. Julia, anything? I'm paying."

She leaned back against the bench, grunting her acquiescence. "Yeah, okay, I'll have the turkey club and an iced tea. No salt on the fries, and bring it in a to-go box?"

The waiter nodded. "I'll get these started and be back with your drinks." Then he was gone again, leaving me alone with Julia's frown.

"Okay, Adam," she said somewhat testily as soon as the waiter was out of earshot. "I'll stick around for half a sandwich because we're friends, and because we've been friends, and I hope because we're going to keep being friends, but I'm not interested in solving your problems with John."

I frowned, but before I spoke, I took the time to drain my mug, setting it back down against the scratched plastic with a thunk. "I just... don't get it," I said, looking down at my empty glass. "I mean, how can he turn his back on all of us for this?"

Julia's smirk reasserted itself as she rummaged in the pocket of her windbreaker and pulled out a heavy refillable lighter. "Long as you're phrasing it like that, Adam, you're not going to get it. There's a difference between turning away from one thing and turning towards something else."

My frown deepened as I fidgeted with my mug. "Yeah, I guess," I conceded, but I came back quickly with the real point of my ire. "But... Mitsuko?"

Julia groaned quietly, covering her glasses with one hand, rolling the lighter around in the other. "I don't even want to try to discuss Mitsuko with you."

"Oh, c'mon," I said, leaning forward in my seat and pushing the empty mug to the edge of the table for the waiter to remove. "You're in software design. Of anybody in his circle of friends, you'd be the one most likely to be able to tell him."

"Tell him what, Adam?" She asked, her voice low and tight. "That he's dating a pocket calculator?"

"Now who's not respecting whose opinion?" I replied with a smirk of my own. "I'm sure she's a very well-coded expert system, but at the end of the day, she's still just that: software. She's a program. C'mon, Julia, you do this stuff for a living."

Julia shook her head again. "I work on expert systems, not digital sentience. One's programmable; the other's not." She nodded a thanks as the waiter set a glass of tea in front of her, then a fresh beer next to me, whisking away the empty.

"See, that's my very point!" I quietly crowed as soon as the waiter was gone again, stabbing the table for emphasis. "He's not in love with a real thinking being. Not a person. If he were falling for somebody from Japan and said he wanted to move out there, I'd be fine with that, but that's not what he's doing. He's talking about turning his brain into so many sample-slides and rendering himself as some kind of expert system inside one of Tadashiissei's networks, all so he can spend the rest of his life... or whatever... with a programmable sex toy!"

The frown reasserted itself on Julia's face, and she leaned forward, elbows on the table, ticking points off on one set of fingers with the other. "One, just because I said digital sentiences weren't programmable doesn't mean they don't exist; it means they can't be written." Her tone of voice had picked up a hard edge that suggested it would brook no interruption. "They can be evolved from expert systems with a sufficiently high degree of interconnectivity and a matching firmware base on which to grow. You're not into electronics, Adam; you're a biology professor. Stick to what you know.

"Two, the process of uploading doesn't to anybody's knowledge destroy anything other than the physical shell; every case of it that's been studied to date has shown no ill effect, no trauma, no disorders, and no loss of creativity or mental capacity. How many books has Imogene Franklin written since her conversion? Seven? Eight? And her literary critics say they're better now that she's no longer worrying about getting the whole thing done before the cancer kills her. Hell, imagine where cosmology might be today if this had been around during Hawking's time. John's an artist; if he really thought loss of creativity were a concern, he wouldn't do it, and Tadashiissei wouldn't let him if they were going to hire him. I know the idea of willingly giving up organics in favor of silicon squicks you, but that's a personal preference, not a fact, and no amount of wishing otherwise will change that.

"Three, Mitsuko is not a programmable sex toy; she's one of Tadashiissei's tour guides, and you're lucky that you said that to me and not to John, because he would punch you for that kind of crack. He may be just an art type, but I doubt he's forgotten his jeet kune do, and he still hits the gym pretty regularly."

During her tirade, I leaned back against the padded bench seat. Her blunt point-by-point had sucked a lot of the thrust out of my argument, but I wasn't prepared to grant that to her in public. "I don't see why he bothers hitting the gym if he's just going to go throw his body away in six months," I sulked.

"Procedural memory," Julia replied with her typical smirk. "Different part of the brain from regular memory. I'd have thought a biologist of your caliber would have realized that much."

"Oh, very funny," I snapped back, then sighed. "I'm sorry, Julia, I'm just—wait." Something she said during her rant came back to me. "How did you know about his new job?"

For the first time tonight, Julia chuckled. "Oh, he told me the day he got it. I've known for a week. We
did date for a few years."

I slumped back in my seat, defeated. "Am I the last person to know about everything that happens?"

"Not always," she said, leaning back and tucking her lighter back into her pocket as the waiter slid a plastic box in front of her. "I was the last one to figure out John and I weren't going to work out."

I sighed in response, looking with mild distaste at the burger I'd ordered and began picking at my fries. The conversation had killed my appetite. "I'm sorry; could I get a to-go box as well?" I asked the waiter, who nodded and left.

Julia took that as her cue to rise out of the bench. "If you're not eating, then I need to go. Tonight's a deadline I really can't miss." She stopped beside the table, one hand on her hip, the other holding her sandwich. "Look, I'm sorry this is hard on you. You and he have been best friends for years, and he's going through some changes that you're just not ready to face. I have it on good authority that he wants to remain friends with you, but this is something he's not prepared to give up, and you're going to have to decide either to accept it and stay friends, or give it up and him with it. I can't tell you which is the right answer, but I can tell you which answer he and I would both prefer."

I didn't look up at her. I couldn't look up at her. "Don't tell me you're on his side in this."

"I didn't break up with him because I quit caring about him, Adam." Suddenly, she sounded as tired as I felt. "I—never mind. Point is, I don't want to see the group split up over this. I want to see Mitsuko become part of the group, as much as possible. She's not the roadblock in this, and neither is John, for all his hard-assery. He just wants to be happy, and Mitsuko makes him happy. Being in Irokai makes him happy, happier than he can be out here."

Our waiter breezed by the table, dropping off a plastic box and a small tub of mustard. "So when are you going in there after him?" I quipped as I scraped fries off of my plate. I was burning every bridge at this point, but I was past the point of caring. I just wanted someone to understand, and here was Julia lecturing me like I was her student or something.

She turned away from me. "I'm not, Adam, not for a long time. I'll be glad to visit, but no way am I moving there right now."

"Why not?" I asked, trying my best to come across as genuinely curious but probably sounding more accusatory than anything else. "I would've thought a software designer of your caliber would've been the first in the group to jump at the chance to live a completely digital existence."

She chuckled darkly. "Touché. Let's just say I have my reasons and leave it at that. Look, I really have to go, or I'm going to miss my deadline, and then things will really suck. G'night, Adam. Next weekend, I'm free and I should have the cash from this project in hand. Give me a call, we'll get with John and maybe Mitsuko can join remotely and we can play Bartok or Barbuda or something."

I shrugged, closing up my box. "Yeah, maybe."

Julia paused a moment, as if weighing the tone of my response, then shrugged. "Whatever, man. Take care." Then she was out the door, leaving me alone with my beer and my frustration.


Beautiful World 02: Regret

The front of Tadashiissei's Beautiful World facility was below ground level, flowering hedges shrouding the entryway. A ramp of multicolored tiles ran between them, leading from the sidewalk down into the earth, giving the illusion of descending inside one of their digital realms even before I had gotten inside. It always felt a little disorienting, the outer world disappearing behind me as I prepared to dive into the inner one, but I always got the impression that the effect was intentional. If so, it worked; before I had even gotten in the door, I felt a little bit like I was leaving the old world behind.

The rainbow of interlocking tiles continued on the far side of the glass double doors, spreading across the floor in ripples of color. On the white stucco wall above the row of counters sat a number of digital clocks, the names of major cities beneath each indicating the local time. At the far end of the line-up hung a single analog disk, a wedge of color-wheel running from hour to minute indicating the time in Irokai. Beneath the timepieces, signs printed in English and Japanese directed travelers towards their destinations: New Arrivals, Returning Travelers, Special Assistance, Gift Shop.

The line in front of the first-timer's window was filled with teenagers laughing and gabbing with each other, while adults at regular intervals worked to keep the cluster moving in an orderly fashion towards the window. Some kind of class trip, I guessed as I eased past them, over into the Returning Travelers line, eying the arc of color overhead and doing some quick calculation: eighteen-twenty, give or take a minute.

If I spent the money for a translocation after transition, we could still make our reservation slot. Given the option, I'd have much rather taken a tram to the restaurant from Mitsuko's block, but even with the frequency of their runs, the chance of catching one in time was slim, and the last thing I wanted was to miss the reservation. We'd been looking forward to dinner at Junsei-en for a month, and I wasn't going to be the one to disappoint Mitsuko.

While the counter-clerk helped the couple in front of me in line, I dug my palmtop out of my pocket and snapped it open, revealing a tiny screen on one face with a thumbboard and trackball on the other. It took only a few quick taps to bring up the quick-messenger, a few more to select Mitsuko's name out of the contact list.
In line at the transit desk, I pecked out in a hurry. Almost home.

A few seconds after I hit send, the screen lit up in a response.
I can't wait, said the message. Is everything okay?

My thumbs hesitated over the board, then tapped out a reply.
Sugoi. I glanced up as the two people in front of me accepted their passcards back. See you soon. With a click, I snapped the palmtop closed and approached the counter, pulling my passcard out of my pocket.

The woman behind the counter wore a white shirt and dark green slacks, with a multicolored ribbon pinned to her shirt just above her nametag. She smiled as I stepped up to the window, her hands folded in front of her. "Welcome back, Mr. Dart. Here for the night, or just the evening?"

I passed over the holographic passcard. "The night. I'll need an extended-stay booth."

She nodded in response and swiped the card. "We have your reservation already in the system," she confirmed with a smile. "You can proceed back to room seventeen. Enjoy your evening!" With that, she handed me back the small rectangle of plastic, which I swiped through the reader on the wall before I stuffed it into my pocket. With a wave, I pushed open the security door and headed down the corridor towards the transfer chambers.

The path from Junsei-en's front door back to the tram passed over a wooden bridge crossing a small pond, topped with floating lotus blossoms. To one side, a few meters away, a low waterfall flowed down over a rock wall, churning the clear blue water into a white froth. On the other, the pool deepened and widened, with brightly colored
koi dancing and darting in and among the flowers that drifted across the surface. The whole was surrounded with rocks, beyond which grew a bamboo forest that obscured vision and completed the illusion of peaceful isolation.

The first time I had come here, it had all been a game. The water in the waterfall didn't come from a river, or a recycling pump. It came from an algorithm, a clever piece of code that gave the appearance of running water. If I put my paw in it, it felt wet and it made the individual strands of fur wave, but those, too, were just tricks of the mind, more data pumped directly into my head from Tadashiissei's servers. I knew, but didn't bother to test, that if I spent the money to activate a special feature and flew up to the top of the rock wall, I would be able to see that the water didn't come from anywhere. It just poured out of the side of the cliff, without origin or destination. It was all just ones and zeroes.

The second time—the first time I'd come with Mitsuko—none of that mattered. It was beautiful, and that was enough. Gone was the wonder in how they had rendered it all, the questions about bit rates and throughput and storage. All that remained was the quiet joy at listening to the breeze blow through the bamboo while gazing up at the sunset. I bought a votive candle in a paper boat in Junsei-en's shop and watched Mitsuko kneel down on the bridge to float it out onto the water, then folded her paws in mine, watching it bob on the surface as colorful fish nudged it from beneath, trying to make it tip. It had been a perfect moment, the nature of the sensations lost in the sensations themselves, the wind and the sky and the water all coming together to a single unforgettable impression, like an Ezra Pound haiku.

This time, I stood on the bridge, short claws digging into the wooden railing. Tonight, the breeze was stronger, and the bamboo hummed and chattered softly as the wind tapped stiff stalks together. The fur of my arms and tail fluttered, sending a shiver up my spine. I lifted my eyes to the full moon rising over the horizon, trying at once to remember and to forget.

Soft, warm paws touched my back, then slid around my waist as Mitsuko pressed herself to my back, holding herself close to me. I let go of the bridge and enfolded my arms over hers, curling my tail back around her waist. The rise and fall of her chest added its gentle percussion to the symphony of sensation, and for a moment all I wanted was to stay forever in this position, lost to the rest of the world.

After several moments of simple silence, Mitsuko spoke. "Something is wrong." Her voice was gentle, the delicate hints of her Japanese accent giving a lilt to her words. It had been one of the first things to draw me to her, back when I had first come to Irokai and she had been assigned to our group as a tour guide. There had been no illusions then; she was cheerfully honest about herself, and it had entranced me. I had spent as much of the trip as I could just listening to her talk.

I looked down from the moon to the dance of its reflection against the rippling surface of the pond. "It's nothing, really," I replied quietly, wishing I could feel as convinced as I tried to sound.

Mitsuko squeezed me once around the stomach in a soft hug, then stepped back, coaxing with her motions for me to turn around, away from the waterscape to face her, taking her gloved paws in my own. Her eyes were a deep emerald green, almost black in the twilight, set in a sea of short ebony fur. Beyond the mask, the white fur looked greyish-blue, the grey beyond that a deeper charcoal. "What happened?" she asked gently, her head tilting to the side in an expression of delicate concern. "You were so quiet over dinner."

My gaze drifted down from her face to take all of her in as a whole. The green silk dress she'd chosen for the occasion shimmered softly in the moonlight. The stripes on her tail bobbed slightly as the wind ruffled the fur at their borders. Her feet, like mine, were bare, a concession to the difficulty of making even sandals that looked good when contrasted with toeclaws. Her forearms were sheathed in the same silk as her dress, giving her entire ensemble a touch of antique elegance.

My eyes came back to hers, and I smiled, my ears arching as I squeezed her paws gently. "You're beautiful, Mits."

Her ears reddened in response, but she smiled, her eyes sparkling from the compliment. "You are changing the subject," she chastised gently, extracting her paws to waggle a finger mockingly at me. Her other rested on my chest, smoothing out the lapel of my jacket.

Looking into that warm radiance I knew I was making the right decision, no matter how hard it was going to be. I shrugged with one shoulder, making a moue of my muzzle. "It's Adam," I said, as if that explained everything. In a way, it did, but I clarified anyway. "He's not making this easy on anyone."

Mitsuko sighed, nodding as she leaned forward, resting her head against my shoulder. "He is afraid, and he is angry," she replied. "He thinks he is losing a friend."

"He will if he keeps this up," I rejoindered testily, regretting it almost as soon as the words were out of my muzzle. I hugged Mitsuko's shoulders and leaned back against the wooden railing, my tail entwining with hers. "I shouldn't be like that. It's not
us, or even you. It's...." I tried to find the words for it, but none came. I didn't want to use his epithet. If it had been rude before, it would've been insulting now.

Mitsuko didn't spare me the indignity. "He thinks it is all a game, that none of it is real." She sounded more disappointed than hurt.

I winced and nodded. "Yeah, that's how he put it. He's why we were almost late; he came over while I was getting ready and tried to pick a fight."

She lifted her head from my shoulder, looking into my eyes, one hand on my chest. "Should I talk with him? I could call or send a message."

I shook my head. "Somehow, I think that would just make things worse." I quietly urged her back to nestle against my shoulder. "If he doesn't think of you as real, he'd just write it off as company propaganda or something."

Mitsuko giggled, her ears flicking against the underside of my muzzle. "
Hai, that would be it," she said, stressing her Japanese accent into a bad parody of broken English. "Ikanobari Mitsuko, Irokai propaganda minister. I will convince you to move forever to my country through pretty word-pictures of chromatic landscapes and impossible acts of beauty." Then she stuck out her tongue and pulled down one of her eyelids in a faux-anime taunt pose. "Hnngh."

In spite of my best efforts, I laughed, a full-throated bark that took the wind out of my lungs. Mitsuko joined in with her own giggling, and together we just held each other and shared a moment of humor, a much-needed lift to both our spirits.

When the laughter subsided, I leaned down and tenderly nosed one of her ears. "I love you."

She lifted her head and smiled, pressing her muzzle softly to mine. "I love you too, John," she said when she broke for air.

Then she leaned back against my shoulder, and I held her in my arms. Together, we leaned back against the wooden railing and let our gazes wander upwards, watching a million pinpoint votives float slowly across the midnight sea.


Bonds of Silver, Bonds of Gold 01: Sale

The sign that hung over the large wooden door needed no explanation: five oversized golden chain links entwined in a loop. The face of the squat, stone structure was empty besides, absent even a window to let in the sun. Everyone else walking past gave the entrance a wide berth, as though standing too close invited the attention of the occupants. A few passers-by stopped to stare at me as I paced in front of the building, then hurried on their way, averting their gaze. Not my concern, their actions said. Nothing I can do.

Turning my back on the city square, I tensed my paws into fists, then raised one arm and knocked, rapping my white knuckles against the wood. As soon as I did so, it swung open to reveal a grey-furred wolf standing within. Aside from a collar made of polished steel chain locked around his neck, he was nude. Despite his exposure, he stood tall, his ears erect and unashamed. A metal tag dangled beside the lock at the hollow of this throat, glinting in the sunlight. He rested one paw on the edge of the door, then cocked his head at me, his silver eyes boring into mine in an unasked question.

My eyes darted to the paw holding the door open; he'd been declawed, his fingers ending only in soft fur. My attention snapped back to his face, I opened my muzzle to speak, but my throat had suddenly run dry. "I... I need... I mean...." I stammered, one paw rising shakily to gesture overhead, towards the sign, hoping to explain without saying a word.

"Milos, down," called a thin but stern voice from behind the wolf. "Take the boy's cloak."

The wolf's reaction to his name was instantaneous. He dropped to his knees, his head bowed and his tail tucked. The door, now free of his grasp, begun to swing closed of its own accord, until I propped it open with one hind. Milos raised his arms to me, and I awkwardly slipped the rough-spun woolen cloak from my shoulders and into his paws. As soon as he had it, he shuffled to the side, out of the doorway, never rising from his awkward crouch as he approached the wooden coat rack beside the door. He stood just long enough to hang my cloak, then returned to his previous posture, resting his paws on the floor beside him.

I stared for several seconds, watching the whole proceeding, until the voice that had spoken before cut through the jumble of my thoughts. "So, come to observe my pet, or was there something else?"

I tore my eyes away from the wolf, towards the speaker. Behind the desk that dominated the room sat a tall , middle-aged raccoon. Her eyes were yellow-flecked violet, shining like chips of amethyst shot with gold. She kept her teeth hidden behind a thin smile, and her black-furred ears stood relaxed and erect, but there was no masking the feral glint in her gaze. She wore a loose cotton robe dyed in a range of greens, cinched at her waist by a broad, brass chain-link belt. Her wrists, her ankles, and the end of her tail were similarly adorned, the metal gleaming against her dark fur.

She beckoned me within, and I hesitantly crossed the threshold into the front office. Witchlights illuminated the interior, soft yellow lights that floated around the edges of room. Woven tapestries hung on the walls and insulated the stone floor. A pair of solid wooden chairs sat to one side of the desk, the raccoon's lavishly stuffed seat on the other. The coat rack holding my cloak hovered near the door leading back to the city square and safety. Behind the desk, a second door, this one sealed with a heavy bolt and a lock, led further into the depths of the Slavers' Guild.

The door swung closed behind me as I released it, and I stiffened as it closed. The raccoon's smile tightened, her ears flicking back against her head briefly. "Come to see the wares?" she asked, stepping out from behind her desk. She clicked her claws twice, and Milos hurried over to her side, kneeling again behind her. She reached down and lightly combed her fingers through the wolf's fur. "Looking for a servant, perhaps?"

I shook my head rapidly, my ears flat back against my skull. My cheeks felt hot, but my fingers were numb. "No, that's not it, I—"

The raccoon tilted her head to the side. "Oh, I see." She nodded knowingly. "Looking to become a man, are you? Young strapping buck like you? We can rent for an hour or a night, if you like." She cupped her paw beneath Milos' muzzle and stroked the fur of his throat, eliciting a pleasant growl out of the wolf. He shifted in place, spreading his legs, revealing his plumping sheath. "This one's personal, but I'm sure we could find—"

"No!" I blurted quickly, tensing. "Not to buy, not to rent. To—" I cut myself off quickly, tearing my gaze away. My breath came in short bursts, and I forced myself to take a deep breath, then let it out in a noisy rush. "To sell," I finally mumbled, unable to pick my eyes up off of the floor.

"Oh?" The slaver dragged out the syllable. "And just... what... would you be selling?"

I turned towards the door leading outside. It might have only been a few paces behind me, but it was an uncrossable gulf away. I struggled for the words to explain and found only fear, pride, shame. I tried to put these into words, but none would come forth. My heart pounded in my chest, and I looked up, shivering, into the raccoon's hungry violet eyes.

She licked her lips, a reflexive flick of her tongue as her eyes bored into mine. "Oh, my," she murmured. The thick rug absorbed her hindfalls as she glided across the floor, and then suddenly she was beside me. I caught the faint scent of hazel from her fur as she loomed over me. "And just why would a young thing like you be on the market?"

I shrugged and pulled away from her. "It's none of your concern."

I'd taken half a step when her paw was at the back of my neck, claws grabbing the collar of my shirt. "Not an attitude you should take, child," she hissed, her breath warm against my ear, her voice low and harsh. "If I were the one holding your leash, I could order you to tell me, beat you to within a hair of your life if I didn't like the answer, and then ask again." One arm thrust out in front of me, one claw pointing to the locked door at the far end of the room, behind her desk. "This is no game, child. Once you're through there, there's no return short of release from your master." Her voice tightened on the last word, as did the cotton around my neck, catching my breath.

Instinctively, my paws went to my throat, pulling against my own shirt to breathe clearly. "My... my mother!" I shouted between gasps. "Please—" My voice broke, a shudder running through me. "I—I'll tell!"

Instantly, her grip relaxed and she stepped away, but the first sob was already starting. "My father... the plow and the winter broke him." I tugged uselessly at the collar of my shirt. "My mother can't... couldn't feed us all. Somebody... I had to do something!" The damage was done, the truth exposed. I shuddered, biting my lip to stifle the sobs welling up in my chest, breathing shallowly through my muzzle. I wiped at my eyes with one paw. "This way... this way it's one less to feed, and more coin in her purse."

Something warm brushed my leg, and I looked down to see Milos pressed against me. His fur was thick, slightly coarse but well-groomed. His silver eyes met mine, and a fleeting smile crossed his muzzle before fading back to the carefully neutral expression he wore when I first saw him. I reached down and stroked the back of the wolf's head, fingers gliding over his ears. He let out a low rumble of pleasure, pressing back against my fingers, and his clawless pads kneaded the ground.

The slaver cleared her throat quietly, and I looked up to see her standing beside her desk, arms folded across her chest, wearing a slightly bemused smile. "Milos, heel," she said quietly, all trace of hostility gone. The wolf crawled back over to her and curled up at her side, and she petted him lightly as she watched me. "Everything I said before is true, lad," she chided. "Once you belong to another, only your master can set you free. You could be killed and no-one would care."

I blew my nose heavily on my sleeve, then threw up my arms in a helpless shrug. "What does it matter?" I sighed. "A quick death from some noble's sword or a slow one in his fields. Either way it's the same fate; one's just faster and less brutal."

The slaver shook her head at that. "You'll live a lot longer if you can still your tongue. Still, I admire your attitude." She sat quietly on the edge of her desk for several seconds, then nodded. " Very well, I accept your offer. Have you any skills besides leading a dray and counting seed?"

I shrugged again. "I've sung in the local choir, and I know all the holes on a recorder."

"Singing and playing?" The raccoon tilted her head to the side. "And can you read?"

"Some," I admitted. "I've led my row in hymnal before."

The raccoon's smile widened, her violet eyes shining against her fur. Her striped tail bobbed behind her as she mused aloud. "There's a sale on domestics in a week in Barony Deterikh that fetches a high price; you'd pull ten times the coin there that you would locally." She squinted at me, considering, then nodded. "If you can make learn what I have to teach you in eight days, I'll send a hundred, sovereign, to your mother, and I'll sign a contract to that. If not, she gets your sale price on the bid less travel and ten percent. Have we a deal?"

My eyes blossomed at the figure. That kind of coin would feed her, and the rest of my family, for a year or more. "It's... yes." I swallowed heavily, eyes fixed on the door behind her desk. "Yes, I accept."

She nodded and clapped her paws together, then sat at her desk and began rummaging through drawers, pulling out a thick ledger and some additional papers. She carefully opened it and began leafing through pages. "Your name?"

I closed my eyes. "Stannis, son of Jedrick, of Barony Jazinsk."

She meticulously inked my name into the ledger, then again onto one of the forms. The tip of her quill scratched against the durable paper, uncomfortably loud in the still air. Then, she carefully blotted the ink and set the book aside, rolling the pages of the contract. She slid them into a capped leather tube, which she passed to Milos. "Take these to Stannis' mother, then return," she said to the wolf. Then, to me, she said, "Give Milos your mother's address."

I did so, and the wolf nodded to me, bowed to her, and then rose and padded over to the front door, stepping through it silently. I watched it as it fell closed behind him, then turned back to the slaver, who rose from her desk.

"Follow me," she said, motioning towards the other exit from the room, the one into the depth's of the Slaver's Guild building.

My head bowed, I fell in step behind her. My heart pounded in my chest, but my head was clear. I had done everything I could.


The Testament of Bernard Ramsey

The following is offered as testimony by one Bernard Ramsey, currently on trial for the murder of Jameson Walden and the disappearance of his son, Seth. Mr. Ramsey dictated the following to an officer of the courts on the twenty-seventh of January, nineteen-hundred-twelve.

My name is Bernard Ramsey, and I am not insane.

I know what I saw on the twenty-fourth of January, in the Year of Our Lord nineteen-hundred-twelve. I know the cause for the disappearance of both Seth Walden and his father. I beg of you, all who hear this, heed my warning and listen well.

I first made the acquaintence of Seth Walden in Nineteen-hundred-seven. His father was a banker of some regard in New York. His mother, I knew, had Indian blood within her. I can only assume that it was this connection to the savage that allowed for what I witnessed to occur, but I shall explain that presently. We met at university, attending the same biology lecture. At the time, I had been studying to be a physican. Walden had always been something of a misanthrope; he always appeared more interested in animals than in people, and I knew he disapproved of his father's profession. I had always assumed that he was studying at university to become a veterinarian; his apparent gift with animals made him, in my opnion, a natural choice for such a position.

Our relationship grew slowly; Seth was never much for building human acquaintances. I believe that his interest in me was always based in my fascination with the human form. I know that he considered most of our fellow students imbeciles, and made no hesitation about decrying them as such during our lectures. Needless to say, Seth was not well liked by either the professor or his classmates, but after one of his more lucid tirades against the ignobility of mankind I saught to discover the root of his general contempt for his fellow men.

After lecture one evening, I chanced to follow him some distance from the university. He spoke not a word to me, nor did he look at me until we were several hundred yards from the classroom. Then suddenly, he turned upon me with a frightful visage and demanded to know why I had the audacity to follow him! His totally unexpected demand drew the wind from my sails and I stammered for a moment, attempting to regain my wits. When finally I spoke, I could only come up with, "to try to understand what makes you hate the rest of our class so much, and Professor Carmichael besides."

He threw back his head and laughed; it was not a pleasant sound. "Hate? Hate implies focus. I care not one way or another about them. I despise them; they're human, and they have the gall to believe themselves above the rest of the animals."

By this statement, I was perplexed, and I remarked as such to him. His only answer was a bitter sigh and a shake of his head. He said two or three times that I could never understand, and asked me to take my leave of him. I agreed, not wishing to further distress Seth. My entire walk home, I pondered his statements. I could only assume that he meant he believed himself to be other than human, but that obviously made no sense to me.

This experience I repeated on several occasions over the span of the lecture series. Though the pattern to his answers varied, they all revolved around the theme of believing himself, or perhaps even being different from the rest of the students, including myself. I never truly understood why. Finally, after our final examinations, I stopped him early on our walk home and confronted him with this.

His response stands out in my mind, for it seemed at the time to have naught to do with my question. "Man is just one more animal upon this earth, Bernard. Yet you of European stock live as if you were somehow above the rest of creation. You don't understand what it means to be one with the world, in the way my mother's family does."

I was exceedingly puzzled by this. "But does it not say in the Bible that mankind was created to be shepherds over the animals? We are clearly of a different order of creation, are we not?"

Seth gave me a pained look. "Oh, please, Bernard," he said. "Are you as blind as poor Professor Carmichael? We are one with the land, and the animals. No better, no worse. Merely different. My father might agree with you, but my mother and her family has quite another explanation for our existence. One that entails a oneness with the land, not stewardship over it."

From here, the details of our conversation are lost to me, but I remember clearly that we stood there on that corner and talked for a great length of time. I learned much of his heritage that night. His father's family had long associated with so-called "robber barons" such as Andrew Carnegie. While I had always considered him to be a philanthropist, from Seth I heard a different side of the story, of a man used to exploiting the land on which he worked, acting against nature, not in accordance with it. I learned of Seth's growing dissatisfaction with his father's lifestyle and with mankind in general. His study of biology and zoology was an attempt to find some niche within modern life with which he could feel comfortable. An attempt, I should add, that ended with his suspension from university because of professorial complaints.

At this point, gentlemen, I wish to point out that I lost track of Seth Walden for close to five years. I knew that his mother had died of natural causes, and that he had gone to her family in disobedience of his father's wishes. I was never truly close to Seth Walden, though I dare say I knew him better than most humans ever will. Where he went in those five years, I can not say. I do not know, nor do I wish to know. I hope only that one day, I may forget what I witnessed the night of January the twenty-fourth.

During the next five years, I did observe with some degree of curiosity the goings-on of the Walden family. While I never heard anything of Seth himself, I know that his father rose to prominence in the New England banking community. Rumours of scandals involving conflicts with what the government had labelled Indian holdings circulated, but they either stopped or were silenced. Which, I cannot say, though I have my suspicions.

Then, a week ago, I received a telegraph from Seth Walden, requesting my presence at his home on a matter of utmost urgency. While I had begun my practice, I felt it important to answer his request. I believe that I was the closest thing he had to a friend within the wholly human community. Yes, gentlemen, that is what I said. If you would but let me finish, I hope that you too will understand the horror I witnessed.

When I arrived at Seth Walden's address, I must admit to some degree of apprehension. I knew not where he had been in the last five years. He greeted me at the door, and I was met with an odd odor, one that I thought I should know but could not place. He smiled at me and bade me enter, which I accepted. He offered me a small snifter of brandy which I also took, and we began to talk of minor pleasantries. I felt very odd, after five years to be talking so calmly with a man that, in our youth, had been so full of passion and life.

I asked him what was so urgent, and he brushed aside the comment at first, but then finally said that he had found a way to solve his moral dilemmas involving his family but that he would need some assistence. I looked at him askance and inquired into the nature of this assistence. He looked at the clock, then out the window. He said that he presumed enough time had passed, and set his snifter on the mantel. Then he bade me follow him down into the cellar of his house. Curious and a little loosened from the strong brandy, I followed.

The cellar of his house was dark but lit with a few torches that provided enough illumination to see. What met my eyes horrified me, and yet I could not tear my eyes away from the scene. On the floor, spreadeagled, was the nude form of Jameson Walden, Seth's father. His hands and feet were tied and bound to stakes that had been driven into the ground. His eyes were wild, and when he saw me he began to shout, or at least to attempt to do so. He had been gagged and his mouth tied with thick rope, preventing all but the slightest of noises to escape. I turned to look for Seth, to ask what in God's name he intended to do, but of my host I saw no sign.

The next few moments, gentlemen, are hazy. I remember running down the stairs to attend to the elder Walden, and then a hand upon my shoulder throwing me back against the wall, much stronger than any man should have right to be. I looked up and saw Seth, also now quite nude, framed in the torchlight. He smiled.. oh, God, gentlemen, his smile was that of a feral animal, not of any sane man. In a voice quite unlike his own, he said that the time had come for him to sever his ties to the world of men and return to the land whence he came.

With that pronouncement, he turned to his father still on the ground and kicked him soundly in the ribs. I heard a soft crack and the old man's screams increased, though still quite muffled by the gag. I knew that if I did nothing, Seth would most likely kill his father. However, gentlemen, if you have ever seen a madman in the flesh, you would do little to impede his progress either. Time and again, I saw Seth's foot rise and fall into his father, shattering ribs and crushing the man's breastbone. I called on God several times to end this nightmare, but to no avail.

After a good dozen kicks, Seth knelt down next to his father, now crying and gasping for breath. I heard Seth chanting in some unknown tongue, one of the Indian dialects, I can only presume. He picked up a knife from beside the form of his father, and then with one swift stroke plunged it into the man's chest. Jameson's cries silenced as he went into shock. Blood fountained, coating the two men in blood. Seth seemed to bathe in this crimson font as he drew the knife down through his father's chest, his chanting never ceasing.

Seth finally set aside the now-bloody knife and reached into the man's chest. Placing his other hand onto the man's shoulder, I saw a quick jerking motion, heard a soft rip and then Seth held within his hands his father's still-beating heart. Finally stopping his chant, Seth raised the bloody tissue to his lips and began to eat, partaking of this demonic feast.

Here, gentlemen, no doubt you will begin to question my sanity. As if all that I have said to date were not enough, it at least is backed by your physical evidence. The knife, the mutilated corpse of Jameson Walden, all found in the cellar. What follows, however, can not be explained by any medical or forensic test.

As Seth Walden continued to feast upon his father's heart, ripped fresh from the dying man's chest, his features began to flow like melting wax. The colour of his skin changed from pink to a light grey. A thick white fur began to sprout, covering his entire body. I saw his face twist and distort in the torchlight, lengthening into an almost feline muzzle. The tips of his fingers stretched, claws growing forth from them to replace the nails that receded. The thing that was Seth Walden opened its... muzzle, I presume, and I saw a row of sharp, needle-like teeth, which it used to calmly finish devouring Jameson's heart. Throughout all of this, the beast made no sound, save soft mewling noises which I can only presume stem from the pain it must've felt in its transformation.

When this hellspawn finished with the heart, it turned and tore several large pieces of flesh from the still-warm corpse and ate with gusto. I stared at this... this thing of unbridled savagery as it ate the human flesh of its once-father. Then, sated, it turned to me with Seth Walden's eyes, and it smiled again.. Oh God, kind sirs! That smile... to look into the face of pure ferocity and unhindered savagery. Without warning, it let out a high-pitched keening wail that shook the house to its very foundations. Then, without further sound, it ran up the stairs and vanished from my sight.

There, gentlemen, is my testimony. I admit that I was found in the basement of Seth Walden's home, with the bound corpse of his father. But I did not kill him, nor do I know there whereabouts of his son. For my sake, gentlemen, and your own, I would suggest that you do not attempt to find him.


Beautiful World 01: Intervention

Johnathan answered the buzz of his doorbell on the third ring, glaring across the threshold. His normally unkempt mane of hair had been swept back into a semi-coherent tail, but the tie around his neck was still untied, the collar of his light blue dress shirt unbuttoned. His cheeks were clear of stubble, but a dark patch under his neck suggested that I had caught him in the middle of shaving.

"Adam, hi," he said, verbally making a show of forcing civility into his tone. His gaze was tight, unflinching. "I'm sorry; did I or did I not tell you that I had a date tonight?"

I sighed.
This is it, I thought. Make or break time. "That's why I'm here, actually."

A scowl crossed Johnathan's face as he turned away from the door. "You don't like Mitsuko," he said, half-accusingly, as he stepped back into the apartment. It wasn't an invitation, but he didn't slam the door in my face either. Maybe he wanted to have this out as much as I did. "You never did."

"It's not that I don't like her, Johnathan, it's—" My voice cut out as I stepped into the front room that served as both living and dining space in Johnathan's cramped studio. Outer space seemed to be the theme of the week. Last Saturday, the wallscreen opposite the entrance had been a bay window letting in the last rays of sunset across a distant beach was now a porthole to a starry sky, an orange sun rising over an alien planet filling the bottom-left corner of the viewport. The other holoframes dotting the walls all echoed the theme, the images flickering from vintage spacesuit cheesecake to drifting starfields to futuristic shots of silver cigar-shaped ships docked at spindly stations.

The only static image in the room dominated the wall to the right, opposite the entrance to the tiny kitchenette. In it, an anthropomorphic raccoon in a jade-green teddy stretched luxuriously against a sea of darker forest velvet. Her tail curled over her legs and she gazed upwards towards the frame with a warm smile. Yellow and white camelia petals dotted the image, clinging to both background and subject. It looked as though someone had tossed a handful of flowers into the scene, and then captured her just in the moment before she began to laugh.

I turned towards the short hallway that led towards the bathroom. "It's that... how can I even say this?" Frustration mounted in my voice, and I blurted out, "She's not

The snap of an electric razor coming to life punctuated my statement, followed by the drone of it doing its work, the only sound in the apartment. An eon of uncomfortable moments later, it snapped off again, leaving the whole room silent. Finally, into the empty air, Johnathan said levelly, "You've met her."

"You know... you know that's not what I meant," I called down the hallway towards him. "She's not... I mean... she's...." I was at a loss for words. Nothing seemed like the right thing to say; I'd blown my entire argument in the opening statement.

Johnathan stepped out of the bathroom, back up the hallway, fingers at his neck, buttoning his shirt. "She's a digital sentience inside one of Tadashiissei's systems." For his inflection, he might have been talking about the weather forecast. He grunted, lifting his head to fasten the top button on his collar. "Your point?"

"I... my point is...." I fumbled for words, backing up towards the entrance as he continued his advance back towards the living room, trying to make eye-contact with him. "Johnathan, what kind of relationship do you really think you can have with her?"

He grinned, a genuine smile just shy of laughing, eerily reminiscent of the raccoon's in the picture. "I'm about to go on a date with her, aren't I?"

"No, that's not...." I shook my head. "I mean, what kind of life can you have?" I was trying to be nice, trying to bite my tongue, to be reasonable. There had to be words to express what I was thinking, and I fumbled for them desperately, trying to say something that would make sense to him. "You can't go every week plugging yourself into their network. You can't afford it. It was fun once in a while, but you can't keep this up forever, can you?"

His grin widened. "I don't have to."

As he spoke, his eyes widened, and I saw within them a glimmer that made me pull away as he brushed past me into the living room, gazing out the porthole while he tied his tie. "What do you mean?" I asked his back. "I mean...." I froze as realization dawned. "You can't be serious."

He turned around, smoothing out his Windsor knot, his expression thick with false innocence. "Serious about what?"

"You... you're..." I didn't want to say it; that might have made it real. "You're going in there. Permanently."

"The industry term is 'upload,'" Johnathan replied, unnecessarily. "And yes, I am."
I stared, incredulous. For a moment, my eyes slid past Johnathan to the viewport, and I felt for a moment as if I would simply fall past him and out into empty space beyond. "How're you going to afford it?"

Johnathan's expression toned down to a serene smile, and he picked up a remote off of the short table in front of his sofa. Turning towards the picture over the mantel, he thumbed a button and Mitsuko's portrait flickered out, to be replaced with a pair of raccoons in the same setting, their arms and tails entwined. Mitsuko still wore the same teddy as before, while the other, a male, bore only a pair of what looked like pajama pants made of the same near-translucent fabric. My eyes widened in recognition; it was the avatar Johnathan had worn the last time I had gone with him into Tadashiissei's servers.

The frame beeped again, and the scene changed, this time to a shuttle landing bay, where Johnathan-the-raccoon and Mitsuko wore immaculate orange mechanic's uniforms, toolbelts at their waists and hats in their paws. Another beep, and Johnathan stood at the doorway leading to a shuttle in a silvery steward's uniform, a translucent green bubble helmet tucked under one arm, while Mitsuko stood opposite him in a classic
uchuufuku, reading flight plans from a palmtop computer. Another beep, and Johnathan was motioning out the window of the shuttle towards some kind of space platform.

"Tadashiissei's offered me a job in their design department," he said as a flood of similar images flickered past. "Their first space expansion is due in three years, and I'm going to be part of the lead team. I'll even have a job in-world as chief steward on the station, and Mitsuko's thinking about applying with the hospitality staff." With a final beep, the screen snapped back to the original image, of Mitsuko gazing up at the camera, dotted in chrysanthemum petals, just about to giggle.

"You're serious," I said, turning away from Mitsuko's picture, back towards the person I thought I had known as my best friend. "You're really serious," I repeated, unable to make eye contact. My gaze slipped up to the picture of his girlfriend, to the alien world behind him, to the remote that he'd been wielding moments before. "You're really going to stick yourself inside the computer for good."

Johnathan chuckled. "Yes, I am." He stopped, and his face became the mask of earnestness. "Adam, I know I can't explain this to you, but I'm happy. It doesn't matter to me that it's all inside a computer. It doesn't matter to me that she's made of ones and zeroes instead of flesh and bone. What matters is that I love her, and that she loves me, and that we have a chance to be together, that I have I chance to be doing what I want to do, with someone I care about. I'm happy, damnit, and I don't understand why you and the guys can't just be happy for me."

"But... but it's not
real," I protested. "None of it is! It's all just a game!"
"What is real?" Johnathan asked as he shook his head. "We could all be brains in jars, for all you can really prove about the world. You don't know for sure that you're not a simulation already. Science can only answer so far up the chain of metaphysics before it has to throw up its hands in disgust. You can't conclusively prove that we didn't all come into existence five minutes ago, that this isn't some grand simulacrum being run by a cosmic computer preloaded with this configuration, our argument included. So what's wrong with going down a level, instead of up one? Why should Tadashiissei's worlds be considered any less real, just because we know where they came from?"

His words gnawed at my heart. I wanted to answer him, to deny him, but I knew that even if I could prove my point, it wouldn't matter. "She doesn't love you, Johnathan," I snapped. "She can't. She's programmed to respond to stimulus, not to feel. She's an AI, not a person." I was lashing out now, but I didn't care.

Johnathan's expression darkened. "The polite term is 'digital sentience,' Adam, and now you're just being rude. You and I, we're just programmed to respond to stimulus, too, only our programs run on organic lubricants and glands, instead of silicone wafers. What's the difference? Her code's as complex as mine, and she's as blind to her underpinnings as I am to mine. She has thoughts and emotions and hopes and dreams as much as I do. The only difference is that in her world, age is a myth, scarcity is only limited by processing power, and anything literally is possible, if you're willing to work for it. Damnit, Adam, who
wouldn't jump at a chance to live forever in a world like that?"

I turned away, back towards the door. "I can't explain it any more than I already have," I mumbled, eager now to make my escape. "You just don't get it. I'm about to lose my best friend, and all you can do is play messiah."

"No, Adam," he replied sadly as I retreated out the door, "it's you who doesn't get it. I'll be in paradise in six months, and you'll still be here, wondering where your world went. Good-bye, Adam. I can't spare you any more time, or I'll be late, and reservations at Junsei-en aren't easy to replace."

I turned around to answer, but the door was closing, Johnathan already gone behind it. The last thing I saw before it snapped closed was a rocketship blasting off from the surface of the alien world in his holoscreen, heading for the station.



I know that, to every appearance, I killed Michelle Andrews in cold blood. My fingerprints are on her purse, my dandruff on her dress. Forty people witnessed me whispering to her in the middle of a crowded restaurant not fifteen minutes before she dropped dead of a heart attack. She was registered as a Passive-2, vulnerable to any assault from someone above an Active-3, which I surpass easily. My dinner companions described my mood later to you as "brooding, nervous and cold". The police found me with blood dripping from both ears in the men's room of the restaurant, vomiting up my chicken cordon bleu and the better part of the lining of my small intestine. None of these statements are lies, nor are they the complete truth. Jurors, Monitors, Judge Sallenger, let this be, in my own words, my chance to defend myself.

Before I can discuss the killing of Michelle Andrews, I must first mention the person of Lyle Ashley Lyonson. I never met this individual face to face, and for this fact, I must say I am horribly glad. Lyonson was a killer of rare breeding, not only Active, of some rating I can't say I even begin to know, but a man of selective tastes. His victims were Active females, typically going through puberty, the newer to their power the better. He preferred to hunt his game before it could run away or fight back.

Lyonson was the cohort of a man named Trevor Thomas, a powerful if uninspired P-4 whose primary amusement seemed to be the vicarious enjoyment of the suffering of others, and Lyonson kept him well supplied in exchange for various services including getaway driver, sexual partner and confidant. Trevor Thomas was sentenced to twenty years in prison six and a half years ago, but I will now contend that the man actually sent to prison was Lyonson, at least briefly.

I know, everyone, that my tale sounds tangled and confused. I promise you that, by the end, all will become explained. The Monitor has not yet detected instability, nor deception, have you? Granting, of course, that were I rated high enough, I could simply change your opinions on the matter, but I digress. May I continue?

The true start to this twisted road is seven years prior, when my youngest sister Hazel died. She was twelve at the time, a late bloomer. I must apologize now to the members of the jury and the audience who are not at least P-1; this I trust will either be explained or has already been covered in some part in preparation for this trial. Hazel's death rattle was more than enough to disturb the better part of the household, driving my mother into a maze in her own mind from which I doubt she will ever emerge, and leaving burned in my mind both a distinctive aura of mocking glee and the image of a man's face.

My sister's death was labelled a homicide, and images gleaned from my mother's mind, matched to the description I gave to the police during the investigation, pointed the finger at Lyonson. Prior to my sister, he had chosen his victims with more caution, or else Lyonson had been lucky, selecting targets in families comprised mostly of P-0s, unable to send or receive any sort of mental link. His poor luck, perhaps.

Lyle Ashley Lyonson was recorded dead six months later, shot in the head by his once partner-in-crime, Trevor Thomas, likely for the reward money. This fact I cannot dispute. His body was cremated, the ashes scattered as per his will, for whatever the last words of a dead killer are worth. Does anyone else find it strange that Lyonson, a highly-rated Active, could not prevent his own death at the hands of a mid-ranked Passive? Lyonson was presumed asleep at the time of the shooting, but his body posture was rigid, his fingers gripped tightly to the arm of the couch in which he'd been "sleeping". However ludicrous it may sound, from the coroner's report, and what little I've been able to determine myself that Lyle Lyonson was, at the time of his own recorded death, fully aware of Thomas's actions and a willing participant in them.

For his part in Lyonson's crimes, Thomas was sent to the Masterson Institute of North Dakota to serve out his sentence. Masterson is, of course, a high-security prison with an impeccable track record, and Thomas is reportedly still there today. However, one of the people not still there is Michael Brewer, a nineteen-year-old P-3, arrested for assault and armed robbery. He was eight years into a ten-year prison sentence when Thomas would have arrived, and as both participants of violent crimes they would have been in the same wing of the Institute. Brewer's performance within the institute, questionable for most of his stay, improved remarkably as the last year of his sentence approached, and he was considered reformed by his release date, while Thomas slipped into docility, following orders but showing little initiative.

Michael Brewer was not a rich man, and his family had not taken kindly to his ranking and disowned him, a fact that likely led to his arrest in some roundabout fashion. Hoewver, he was not without friends when he left. A support group for low-ranked Passives had formed at Arcadia Univeristy not two years ago, and eighteen-year-old Michelle Andrewsand now we begin to close the circlewas in her freshman year at Arcadia, one grade below mine. Several people at the college found Brewer, working on the campus maintenence staff, and Andrews talking together often, and Andrews' diaries describe Brewer as "charming, kind of cute and incredibly understanding".

Lyonson was, probably at first, an Active well surpassing not only my own unnatural abilities but those of the scale itself. However, recently transferring into a new host had taxed his reserves. For those of you who have not followed this tale, let me now spell it out in full: I contend that Lyonson survived his own death in the mind of Trevor Thomas, later projecting himself into first Brewer and then Andrews, looking for a safe mind unconnected to his former life in which he could recover his strength and again continue his hobby of ripping the budding minds of young Actives from their skulls as they first took notice of the minds around them. I knew Andrews from the social club at Arcadia University, and that night at the restaurant she had about her the same aura I remembered from seven years ago. I pushed into her mind while she was in the bathroom, and I saw Lyonson's eyes smirking back at himself in the women's room. It was at that point that I went to the restrooms, grabbed her shoulder as she exited, forced myself as deeply into her mind as I could and proceeded to scatter every neural pathway I could find before staggering into the men's room and collapsing in a stall, leaving her corpse in front of the door.

The Monitor has not stopped me, and so at the very least I must believe what I've told you, even if it isn't true. Did I kill Andrews? If you mean did I stop her life-process, then yes. If you mean was it Andrews in control of the body I killed, then no, the person whose life I ended died seven years ago.


I hate conventions.

If you've ever gone to one, you'll understand exactly what I mean. I'm not real to them. I don't exist. Well, I do, and that's why I'm there. They all want to see me, touch me, assure themselves that I'm some physical thing, but that's the point at which my interest for them fades. I'm not a person in their eyes. I'm a fantasy made flesh. I'm a celebrity, of a sort, and that's what they want. They want the embodiment of their dreams.

I knew my arrival at the hotel would be noticed and propogated to the crowd milling in the dealers' room, the video room, and the rest of the fan-infested areas, so I didn't bother dropping into them. I'd have been crushed in the wave of well-wishers that wanted a lock of fur or something if I had, anyway. When I signed my name at the desk, I waved over the clerk and spelt out, in rapid ASL, if he could please do me the "courtesy" of informing someone in charge of scheduling that I had arrived and was in room 319, but that I wanted to lie down for a while? He nodded and said he would, and I slung my duffel over my shoulder and made my way up to the room, key gripped tightly between my fingers.

Three-nineteen was an executive suite, as befitting my status as the guest of honor for the umpteenth year running. My presence alone generated who-only-knew how much revenue for the convention and the hotel itself. At just under three thousand of us world-wide, we were still pressworthy, though the news media had grown bored with us after a few years of living in the limelight. They'd probably want to do a ten-year reunion in the near future. I wondered sardonically if they'd want Albert in the group photo, humping someone's leg wearing a straitjacket.

The bed was king-sized, made with a thick comforter and soft pillows, a small piece of chocolate resting on the pillow. I snickered and threw it in the trash; telling them that it was poisonous would have them scuttling about in a frenzy of apology and asskissing, but they meant it in the best of intentions. The road to hell, I thought.

I lay back on the bed, duffel tossed across the clothing rack, and closed my eyes, ticking off the seconds internally, waiting for the inevitable. It didn't take long. Four minutes, twenty-two seconds after starting the count, I heard the telltale rap of knuckles against my door. I rose and padded to the hall, tail flicking, peeking out the security port. Male, human, probably early twenties. Glasses, short-cropped spiky dark hair, a wisp of stubble on his chin and cheeks. I sniffed, but the only thing I smelled was a hint of soap and fresh sweat from the California heat, a pleasant shock to my nose. I stood upright and, tail held high, unfastened the chain on the door and pulled it open, cocking my head to one side in the universal gesture of inquiry.

"Hey." He was wearing a black shirt with a stylized wolf's head on the shoulder and a pair of khaki bermuda shorts, with sandals over his socks, all of it apparently freshly laundered according to my nose. His voice was low, but still shaking a bit. I could hear his heartrate jump when I opened the door, and the scent of his sweat changed, taking on a metallic tinge. Nervous, I knew, and I fought back the urge to sigh openly.

Instead, I waved him into the room, trying to smile charmingly and then turning and walking back to the bed, my tail flicking back and forth behind me, reaching behind me to crook my finger at him. When I looked at the door from my perch on the bed, though, he was still standing in the doorway with a puzzled look on his face, his nervousness gone to confusion.

I cocked my head to one side and smiled, tilting my head forward to give him the big brown eyes; I knew they loved that. Why're you still over there? I signed rapidly, still in ASL, ears and tail raised.

He raised his arms, and it actually took me a moment to realize he was signing back, in clumsy furlan, I want talk?

Since he started it, I switched to furlan myself; it was a lot easier than American with three fingers. I could do it with two, if I were hoofed; it'd been designed for use among furries, after all. Of course you do. You could talk from here just as easily, right? I patted the bed for emphasis. I could already feel my insides churning and tried to force it back into its box. Four hours and already I was feeling nervous and edgy. Another and I'd be crawling the walls.

He shrugged, a gesture that meant the same in every language, and walked over to the bed. As he sat down, I scooted over and rested my paw on his knee. He stiffened and jerked back. "Hey!" he said aloud, returning to

I withdrew the paw and inclined my head backwards, baring my throat for a moment, the furlan shortcut apology. A show, I guessed. Some of them just want to see me, but don't want to be involved. Probably he's got a mate already and doesn't want to feel like he's cheating on zim. "What did you want to discuss?" my paws asked as he settled back onto the bed.

Want meet Todd Messner, he replied in his awkward gestures; he probably only barely knew it, but it was endearing so I didn't say anything. Want talk court case, most of all.

Just talk? My paws fluttered a bit, then rested on the bed as I leaned over them, gazing into his eyes, hoping he would just hurry up and let me know what he wanted so we could get around all the foreplay.

He looked surprised again. What else?

Hard to get. I sighed internally but had gotten too good at the game to let it show. Oh, you know... a little of this... a little of that... I traced one claw around on the bed, my tail slowly swaying behind me, still studying his eyes while the fingers on my other paw spelled rapidly what I wanted to say. All you have to do is ask.

At that, he looked genuinely startled. "Say what?" He had slipped back into English.

Oh, don't be so coy. I signed, perhaps a bit testily, my fingers jerking. I know why you're here; it's not like it's any real secret....

"You sick fuck, is that all you're here for?" His words shocked me into dead rigidity, even as he rose off the bed and stormed towards the hall. "Christ, there're some sick people here and you're one of'em!" The door slid open on silent hinges and caught itself after he slammed it, whispering shut with a hiss of escaping air.

The insistent demand of my loins eventually broke through the numbed shock of my unnamed guest's departure and I ripped off my clothes, grabbing for myself. Fortunately, someone else was along presently who was more than willing to help me satisfy my needs. We danced between the sheets, then, each of us using the other for our own benefit, a beneficial exchange to all involved.

I made the rounds of the dealer's room at 18h00 as I was scheduled in my appearance contract, and afterwards I served as a model for several local artists, the pictures from which would be sold to help pay for the con itself, the artwork to be signed by both artist and myself. The whole time, though, my mind kept hauling itself back to his outburst. His outburst. I didn't even know his name.

Why did it bother me so much? I found holding the pose difficult, even though I was supposed to be relaxed. In truth, I was tense, irritated over what should've been a passing issue. I was here because I needed it and they wanted it. It's not my fault he misunderstood that. I tried telling myself that, but I couldn't make the words ring true, even in my own head. By the end of the session, my paws were sweaty and I was fighting not to pant, even as my body was telling me it was time for another fix. The suggestion of a nude modelling session with one of the artists, and some quick research into vulpine anatomy solved that problem, but it left me with an even bigger nagging doubt.

I couldn't to sleep a wink, just tossing and turning in bed. The sheets seemed starched to cardboard and the comforter irritated my fur. Curling up on the carpet was worse. In the end I gave up and went roaming the hallways, not really sure what I hoped to find but knowing it wasn't in my hotel room. A few people asked me if I was alright, that I was up really late, but for the most part they were just so glad to see me and have my attention for fifteen seconds that a plastic smile and a few pat gestures got me past the need to interact.

I found him sitting in the all-night restaurant attached to the hotel around two in the morning. He wasn't with anyone, just sitting alone, watching the news on the television over the counter, sipping coffee and picking his way through a plate of eggs and ham. He looked up as I entered and rose but I held out a paw to him, looking at him, trying to give him the big eyes without overdoing it.

He stood out of his chair and dug in his pocket for a moment, then sighed and dropped back into it heavily, looking back down at his plate. Ignoring the obvious turn of heads, I walked over and pulled out another chair at his table. When my tail was through the back and I was almost comfortable, he said, "First you think I want to fuck you and now you think I want to talk to you," punctuating his words with a jab at his plate. 

I froze again and some part of my mind rose up in indignation at being addressed like that. I stuffed that part of my mind back down and bared my throat to him, holding my head back, my eyes looking up at the ceiling.

He shook his head and looked down at his plate. "Stop it already, you look like somebody just kicked you."

I lowered my muzzle to gaze at him, and I lifted my paws to start talking, but suddenly I had no idea what to say. I sat there, waiting for the words to come to me. You wanted to talk about—

"Hey, hey, slow down," He snapped, then sighed. "I'm sorry, your paws are shaking and my furlan's not that good."

I sighed and nodded once, another universal motion, then pulled out a palmtop and scribbled on it for a moment, passing it to him to read. WOULD THIS WORK BETTER?

"Yeah, sorry." He nodded. "About earlier, too. I... I lost my cool back there."

I shook my head, writing fast. THE FAULT WAS MINE. Seeing the words on the screen, I had to admit their reality. I THOUGHT THAT WAS WHY YOU WERE THERE.

"Shit," was his only reply for several seconds. "You must get hit on a lot here."


He read the screen, then looked up at me. "I wanted to talk about the court case. I was a poli-sci major in college, wanted to be a lawyer but didn't pass the pre-law exams. I'm doing grad work right now, and I thought your court case would be a great basis for a thesis. I tried to email you but all I had was your public address."


He shrugged, picking at his congealing eggs with his fork. A waitress came by and filled his coffee, then asked if I wanted something to eat. I looked up at her and shook my head; either she was oblivious to who I was, or she didn't care. Either way, I was grateful. She wandered off and he continued. "I didn't figure you read that address; it was the one on your site, so I thought it probably just dumped to some lawyer or secretary for scrutiny, so I didn't bother. I knew you worked the con circuit." He smirked darkly. "I didn't know you worked the con circuit. I was... I dunno. I had this vision of a statesman, of a young revolutionary fighting for freedom. I wasn't expecting a gigolo." He spit the words, mocking us both.


I passed him the pad and waited for him to read, trying not to look hopeful. I couldn't believe what I was doing, and yet his words had so badly burned me that I found myself wanting to unburden. It seemed almost religious, confessing my sins to a stranger.

He looked up from the PDA and shrugged, passing it back to me. "Whatever."

PLEASE. FINISH YOUR BREAKFAST; THIS WILL TAKE SOME TIME. I held out the screen so he could see it, waited for his nod, and than began writing, scrawling the loops and whorls of the palmtop's native recognition software.



I paused, tapping the pen against the side of the case. WE LEFT MESSNER WHEN WE REALIZED WE HAD THE FREEDOM TO DO SO, AND WE TRIED EVERYTHING WE COULD TO CURE OURSELVES. DRUGS, MEDITATION, COUNSELLING, EVEN SURGERY. NOTHING WORKS. ALBERT, ANOTHER MEMBER OF BATCH ONE, CASTRATED HIMSELF HOPING IT WOULD GO AWAY WITHOUT THE STIMULUS. HE'S IN THE CLARK INSTITUTE NOW. I closed my eyes, remembering. Albert had been even more harder hit than I had; his eyes looked haunted when he wasn't in the throes of passion, and his days had been spent masturbating or looking for partners when he wasn't eating or sleeping. In the end, he'd taken a knife to himself and called 911. They fixed his body, but they could never fix his mind. The last time I went to visit him in the ward, there was nothing left of him, just a crazed wolfman grinding himself against the wall, the floor, anything that moved. They'd declawed him after the second time he'd tried to kill himself. They would've been more humane if they'd shot him.


I hesitated a moment, chewing on the back of the stylus, then finished the thoughts, explaining the rest. I HAVE TO HAVE SEX ABOUT FOUR TIMES A DAY OR I SUFFER. My ears grew hot as I wrote, holding the equipment with slick paws. THE FANDOM PROVIDES THAT. THEY DON'T WANT ME; THEY WANT MY BODY. I NEED THE CONTACT. I HATE IT BUT IT'S BETTER THAN NOTHING. YOU'D THINK I'D GET TIRED OF THE SEX. I DON'T, AND THAT'S THE WORST PART OF ALL.

I put the stylus away into the palmtop and passed it over, drumming my claws against the tabletop, listening to the soft rhythmic clicks while he read my impromptu essay. "Jesus," he muttered, looking up at me. "Is this for real?"

I nodded and he continued reading. "So that's why you thought... shit."

I nodded again, my ears perking a bit. At least he understood.

"Jesus," he repeated, shaking his head. "Why not just fuck each other? If you all need it that badly...?"

I sighed and nodded. WE TRIED, I wrote slowly, trying to ignore the pain in my paw from too much writing. IT FELT LIKE INCEST TO ME, OR LIKE I WAS AN INVALID, UNABLE TO GO ANYWHERE. SOME OF US DID THAT, ACTUALLY. I TRIED, BUT I COULDN'T. I WISH I HAD. I set down the pad and passed it across to him, massaging one paw with the other.

He winced. "Ouch. I'm sorry, man. I didn't know."

It's alright, I signed slowly, not wanting to write any more. You didn't know. And... I'm sorry too. I'm so used to

He held out his hand. "No, I read it. I understand." He stood up, dropping his fork. "C'mere." And he held out his arms to me.

In all the encounters I'd had, male and female alike, I'd been asked to hug people before, but it never felt like this. I had always been the object of affection, literally. I was the receptacle for someone else's fantasies. This time, his arms carried not desire, not lust, not even envy or childlike innocence, but genuine tenderness and concern. I sunk gratefully into his arms, resting my cheek on his shoulder. My cock stirred, briefly, then subsided.

An eternity of moments later, I stepped back and smiled. Thank you, I flashed with my fingers.

"Thank you," he returned the gesture. "You gave me my thesis topic." The corner of his mouth turned up in a smirk.

At that, I laughed, a short repetitive bark that did turn heads at the counter. Is there anything else I can offer you? I signed. Oh! I grabbed a napkin, dug a pen from my pocket and wrote my email address on it. "The real one," I wrote below, and passed it to him.

He snickered; it was the same as the one he had. "Thanks again. Nah, I should sleep. Alone." He dug some bills out of his pocket and dumped them on the table, then waved. "I'll see you, Todd." He smiled and waved to the counterclerks on his way out of the restaurant.

As I stood there, it occured to me that I still didn't know his name. I wondered if I would see him again around my schedule.

Maybe at the next convention.