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.