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.