Beautiful World 10: Homecoming

The client-side processing unit was an awkward beige metal box, crammed underneath the massive mahogany desk because it was too large to sit on top. Out of one side, a multitude of colored cables jutted, like party streamers celebrating Expensive and Possibly Illegal Hardware Day. A thick optical lead, the induction rig's data line, fed into the back of my computer. A second massive cable plugged into the surge protector with an unwieldy power brick labeled in Japanese and in just enough English to make me worry about “flaming hazard.” Finally, a collection of plastic rainbow-sheathed wires led up from the ugly tan cube to a flexible nylon helmet dotted with electromagnets along its inner wall and an integrated blindfold and earplugs to help block physical input. This last component hung nonchalantly across the back of my captain's chair, waiting for me to wear it.

It had taken me the better part of three hours to get the drivers for the induction rig installed and tested. I'd checked and double-checked the potential throughput of my system's network to make sure I wouldn't have to bypass my security and feed the output line directly into the router just to maintain a connection. I'd validated the integrity of the skullcap itself, reading and inducing a current through every magnet. I'd secured the power lines to ensure the total power drain wasn't going to brown out the building when I ran everything at once. I even ran a successful mock-connection to Tadashiissei's network, aborting the connection right before logging into Irokai. Piecewise and collectively, I'd done everything but actually turn out the lights, put on the helmet, and activate the connection protocols.

During the fourth dry run, I consciously realized that I was stalling. I could only validate things in a vacuum so many times before I started second-guessing myself and introducing errors, but
something kept me from actually sitting down in the chair and launching. I'd checked and double-checked everything system-related, so it couldn't be the software. The hardware itself was a black box to me, but all the tests I had done against it suggested that it was what Fuki had promised it to be: a hardware component for reading neural impulses and inducing state changes in the brain through electromagnetic resonance. I was as ready for this as I was ever going to get. Why was I still hesitating?

I bowed my head, letting out the breath I caught myself holding, forcing air in and out of my lungs. I didn't trust Fuki. That was at least part of it. She'd contacted me out of nowhere, citing some vague mutual acquaintances and suggesting that we had a lot in common, but really, I didn't know anything about her. I shook my head.
Scratch that, I thought. I knew she either worked for Tadashiissei or knew someone who did; that was the only explanation for the amount of detailed information she'd been able to provide. No casual hacker, no matter how good, could have reverse-engineered so much about the company's codebase in such a short time. Even a team as good as the one she claimed to have couldn't have done this much research this quickly without internal access. That meant she had an angle, a reason for taking down the company from within... or a reason to go looking for people who did and get them to reveal themselves.

In light of that, I couldn't trust the rig either. Sure, it had the Tadashiissei logo on it, and it did look remarkably like what I saw on every visit to the transit facility, back when I could get through the front doors. That didn't mean that it actually was what I requested, or even that it did anything at all. It passed the initial checks, but any clever programmer could set up a dummy device to respond however he or she wanted, to look like a perfectly valid piece of hardware and then do absolutely nothing. Worse, what if she was a company agent, and this was a trap? If the thing could do proper induction, I had no way to control in advance what it would put into my brain, short of tearing the thing open and studying its guts. If I did that, and I was wrong, I had no way to put it back together, and I doubted Fuki would be willing to send me a replacement, assuming of course that it worked.

I ground my teeth in frustration. “You're stalling again,” I said aloud, as though the words, given form, would somehow jar me into action. All it did was up my heart rate, as I realized I was running out of excuses. Either I trusted it, or I didn't. If I trusted it, it either worked or it didn't. If it worked, I wound up in Irokai. If it didn't... my mind conjured a myriad of scenarios, from brainwashing to a silent alarm going off in Tadashiissei's offices to impossibly lethal feedback.

I shook my head again as I stood and walked out of the room, grabbing my cigarettes from the kitchen counter. The equation was even simpler than that, really. Either I trusted Fuki, or I didn't. If I trusted her, and that trust wasn't misplaced, then I got to go back to Irokai with administrative access. If I didn't trust her, or my trust was misguided, then I stayed outside, in the “real” world. Everything followed from that premise, and that was the one part giving me the most trouble. Was she trustworthy, this pseudonymous person from the digital void?

The first draw of smoke hit my lungs in a frantic burst of heat and nicotine, soothing my rattled nerves. I leaned against the balcony, cigarette tucked between two fingers as I stared at the sky, the sodium glare from the streetlights washing out the night sky. Nothing Fuki had said to me yet had turned out to be wrong, but that could all be an act, an attempt to lure me into her web. I had no reason to doubt her, beyond the fact that I couldn't make sense of her actions. Why would someone inside the company work to destroy its greatest asset, unless she were trying to get people to incriminate themselves? She had to have a motive, a reason for her betrayal, but I couldn't figure out what it was. I just had no idea.

I took a second drag, holding it inside until my chest burned, then let it out in a rush of grey smoke.
Did John understand why I left him? I wondered, watching the wisps dissipate in the ever-present breeze. For that matter, does Adam understand why John's leaving us both? I shook my head, flicking the half-finished cigarette into the empty space. Some things, I realized, couldn't make sense from the outside. Even if I knew Fuki's reasons for what she was doing—assuming she was really a “she” and not a “they” or something else entirely—I couldn't guarantee that they'd make any kind of sense. Knowing something and understanding it were two very different things, and all this twisting around trying to decipher someone else's inscrutable motives was getting me nowhere.

The leather of the captain's chair was cool against my butt as I dropped, naked, into the seat. I took a few minutes to whip together a timer, a little watcher-script to cut my outside connection in an hour in case anything went wrong with the system. The skullcap was tighter than I remembered, putting a faint pressure all around my head as I tugged it into place and tied the chin-fastener. “Lights, off,” I said, my voice muffled by the earplugs. The light seeping around the edges of the blindfold disappeared, leaving only the faint glow of the monitor. “Timer, execute.” I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and leaned backwards, lifting my feet off the ground as the chair tilted me to near-horizontal.

“Inductor, execute.”

An infrasonic thrum began pulsing through my head, and despite the absence of any light, my vision slowly filled with a field of grey. Faint rainbows rippled in the void, and then suddenly I was falling, but up and down refused to identify themselves. Bars of music resolved out of the background hum, chords coming together into a chorus of electronic pure tones, then diminishing into a digital hiss.

Swirls of color took shape and form, resolving like stereoscopic images into regular, asymmetric patterns. Gravity abruptly asserted itself, and I landed with a heavy thud onto my hinds, then staggered into the dart-tiled door . It gave way as my weight impacted it, and I tumbled out of the arrivals booth onto a concrete walkway. A collection of people stared as I struggled to my feet, and somebody in the crowd said, “Hey, buddy, you okay?”

Someone put a black-furred paw on my shoulder. I followed it back up the brown arm's length to the face of a raccoon, his brows furrowed in concern, an awkward mixture of sympathy and smugness at play in the set of his muzzle. Behind him, a group of his friends stood around twittering and watching their companion with admiration and annoyance. He extended his other paw to me and helped me awkwardly to my feet, offering a fraternal pat on the back. “First time through the transit system? That looked pretty rough.”

I blinked, snapping my head from the raccoon's face back the wall behind me; it was concrete, like the rest of the tram station, but set with a series of multicolored tiles like the floor of Tadashiissei's transit transit station. The patterns extended briefly up onto the walls, and overhead a sign in Japanese and English said
Beni Prefecture Transit Point. Welcome Visitors to Irokai!

I grinned an impossible grin, tail wagging madly behind me; even if I could have stopped it, I wouldn't have. I wiped at my face with one paw, before a telltale streak of silver could reveal anything awkward. “Yeah,” I said, clearing my throat with a cough. “That last step's a long one.”

The raccoon grinned, obviously glad of his chance to show off his superior gravity-management experience. “You gonna be okay? You need some help?”

I waved offer the offer, shaking my head. “I'll manage; I'm meeting some friends at a club not far from here.”

“Yeah?” The raccoon's eyes lit up and a knowing smirk crossed his face. “Which one?”

I looked back at my erstwhile-assistant and made a point of visually giving him the once-over. Out of curiosity, I went for a hardline and tried not to look too shocked when I got one, complete with administrator options I wasn't expecting. A quick scan showed that he hadn't loaded a single mod or upgrade. His base model was one of the standard packages, even down to the coloration. His clothes were custom-tailored, but a fast follow-up on the labels showed that they came from a corporate partner, probably part of a package deal. Even his tail moved in recognizable idle-loops; the overall effect was random, but the individual segments of movement were pure Tadashiissei-baseline.

I smirked, giving my own tail an expressive wag. “I don't think you'll like it.”

The raccoon frowned at that and pulled his paw away. “Suit yourself,” he quipped with a shrug, then motioned back to the gaggle behind him. “We're gonna go have some fun now.” Then he was gone, rejoining his group of little friends, which slipped back into the moving throng.

“Yeah, fun,” I said to no-one. Then I was off at a dead run, sprinting past bodies as I exited the station.

The skies over Beni Prefecture perpetually drizzled, a light misting interrupted only by the occasional high wind or heavy storm. Even during the day the sun forever lurked behind the clouds, visible only by the stray streak of light that broke through the cover. Runoff gathered in haphazard puddles on the broad concrete sidewalks, reflecting iridescent rainbows from the street lamps. Away from the main strips lined with boutiques and cafés, the back roads and alleyways twisted and curved back on themselves, giving the whole district a strangely organic feel, as though it had started from some grand plan and then quickly outgrown its design.

The front of the FutureShock looked like most every building in the district: low to the ground, with concrete walls and a corrugated roof, faintly tinted red with rust. Flyers advertising various bands, upgrade shops, and other service-oriented businesses blanketed the steel double-doors marking the entrance. The only sign for the club itself hung in the single window: a constantly-evolving logo filling the glass, beneath which were the words, “Anything is possible.”

No bouncer stood at the doorway; instead, as I approached, the quick double-beep of an incoming message sounded in my ear. I opened the hardline and checked my queue; in it was a request for response from “The Association”:

Dear Prospective Member,

Please be aware that FutureShock and its participants do their utmost to live up to the organization's motto. Inside these sacred walls, anything is indeed possible. This venue is not for the faint of heart or the closed of mind. Anyone wishing to experience everything that Irokai not only can but should offer may enter the club after responding in the affirmative to this message, at which point The Association holds itself blameless for any loss of sanity, dignity, or innocence experienced within. In other words, don't say yes if you don't mean it, and don't try to hold us accountable later if you didn't
really mean it.

If you understand everything you've read above and you're still interested, respond in the affirmative and someone inside will acknowledge your acknowledgment as soon as possible. Thanks.

The Association

I'd forgotten about the application, and more importantly I'd forgotten that I wasn't using my old account. I considered searching through the administration console to find my old records, but good sense stopped me for a change. The last thing I wanted right now was to advertise to anyone else in charge that I might still be around, and checking for my old access information would probably trip somebody's flag somewhere. Still, it couldn't hurt to see if my old hangout had changed much in the time since I'd been gone, and this was part of why I wanted to be back in the first place.

It took a few minutes for someone to process my acceptance, while the light rain slowly soaked into my white fur, turning it a slick silvery grey. Then the double doors creaked open, inviting me inside. Synthesizer tones spilled into the streets, while softly strobing lights beckoned from the bottom of an unlit stairwell. I crossed the threshold into the concrete antechamber, and the steel doors closed behind me, shrouding me in shadows. Moments later, a red light came on behind me, illuminating the stairwell, throbbing gently like a mother's heartbeat, coaxing me further inside.

The stairs had no handrail, but each step was more than wide enough to find, even in the reduced light. Gradually, the glow filtering up from the basement replaced the red behind me, as the concrete steps gave way to solid black strips, limned in yellow light. The edges of the stairs themselves lit the way further into the depths, their glow augmented gradually by a pattern of hexagonal panels that matched them, giving the appearance of a neon beehive. I paused and touched the wall, running my pads over the smooth surface; it wasn't glass, or plastic, or for that matter any material at all. It was an artifact of Irokai's nature, a wall defined solely as “wall,” absent any property indicating substance. Light bordered each hexagonal segment, suffusing the hallway with a golden glow.

At the base, the staircase gave way to a broad tiled floor, each step sending up a soft reverberation that no analog material could naturally make. The middle of the room was sunken, dominated in the center by someone's artistic reinterpretation of a tree, circular clear trunk rising from arcs of roots embedded directly in the floor, while angular branches spread out overhead, decorated in fractal holofoil leaves. Translucent “fruit” in an array of Pythagorean solids and the occasional exotic surface hung at intervals, inviting those standing beneath to reach up and pluck them. Benches surrounded the “tree,” free of any visible support yet easily carrying those who sat or sprawled across them. Instead of doors leading to other parts of the club, tinted pools of liquid mercury rippled at intervals around the edges of the room, and a long bar dominated one part of the wall, inverted cones balancing on their points serving as stools. Overhead, the walls rose in finer and finer tessellations, converging at the domed ceiling in a semi-spherical sundisk of impossibly pure yellow that filled the room with its light.

If the room itself defied conventional physics, then its inhabitants defied classification. On one of the benches beneath the tree, a glass statue of a domestic canine leaned against a liquid-metal rabbit, one transparent paw stroking along her silver thigh. At the bar, a holographic mouse drew lines of light through a cluster of violet rosettes floating in snow-leopard-shaped formation. Against one wall, a feline-shaped hazmat suit dripping with machine oil exchanged connector hoses with a blue-furred cat in a silver umbilisuit. As I watched, one of the portals began to ripple, then disgorged a butterfly-woman, her stained-glass wings coruscating rainbows behind her as they vibrated. Behind the counter, a topiary rabbit blooming with berries chatted amiably with a plush coyote, glowing wires stitched into its fur.

I smiled. It felt good to come home.

As soon as I stepped out of the tunnel leading down from the entrance, the rabbit-bush turned and waved. “Welcome to FutureShock!” she called, inviting some of the other inhabitants to turn in my direction.

I waved sheepishly with one paw, ears flat against my head and tail trying to curl between my legs.
Of course they won't recognize me, even if they do, I remembered. New account, new identity. In a place in which anyone could be anything, nobody took appearance for granted. I strode over to the bar, making a show of nonchalance. “Hey, Briar,” I called out to the topiary, taking a seat on one of the conical stools. “What's blooming?”

The rabbit-bush's ears flicked upwards in surprise. “Sorry, have we met?” Suspicion tinged her voice.

“It's been a while,” I admitted, scratching at the back of my head with one paw. “It's Jules.”

The plush coyote huffed, its glass-bead eyes half-closed in a suspicious squint. “Nice try, officer.”

I smiled wanly, ears back against my head. “You never change, Sparks.” I motioned them forward and leaned over the bar, whispering, “I hacked my way back in.” I put a finger across my muzzle and grinned.

That got their attention. Both coyote and rabbit leaned in close, ears arching forward to catch every sound. “If you are who you say you are,” the rabbit challenged, her voice reedy and tight, “then prove it.” Then she dumped a mass of encrypted text into my communication queue.

I dragged up my hardline and rummaged through my settings, then pulled up my bank of private keys and started decoding. As the algorithms cranked, I recited. “Why, the fact is, Miss, this here ought to have been a
red rose-tree, and we put a white one in by mistake; and if the queen was to find it out, we should all have our heads cut off, you know. So you see, Miss, we're doing our best, afore she comes, to—“

The topiary rabbit held up a paw, ears arching forward and needles bristling in a smile. “Enough, Jules. Welcome back.” Then she gestured towards the staircase. “So how'd you get here?” She waved the fingers of her other paw, and a cluster of bright red berries rose out of her palm, which she proffered. “Last I heard, you'd gotten banished.”

“I was,” I agreed as I took the bunch. They were sweet, mostly raspberry-flavored with a faint metallic aftertaste. “What is this?” I asked after I'd eaten about half of what Briar had given me.

“Something new,” she replied with a shrug. “So how'd you get back in? And what's with the admin flag?”

Sparks nudged the rabbit with one paw and said to her, “I don't like this.”

I finished the cluster of berries and handed back the stems, which vanished into Briar's thickets. “It's a long story, and I don't have a lot of time to explain it, but... yeah, I'm on a hacked account.”

Briar grinned, her brambles rustling amusedly. “Tadashiissei's gonna be choleric
if they catch you.”

I smirked at that, but then the bottom fell out of my stomach, forestalling my clever retort. I put a paw over my gut and kneaded at it. The muscles beneath my fingers moved in very un-muscular ways, wiggling loosely, as though not quite attached. “What was in those, anyway?”

“Something new,” Briar repeated with a giggle. “You'll see in a minute.”

It didn't take that long. Despite the slow wave that my vision seemed to be doing despite remaining still against the bar, I could definitely tell that my fur was changing color, shading from white to a deep red. I brought a paw up in front of my face and squinted, watching with detached interest as the hexagonal wall-pattern began to shine through not just my fingers, but my pads as well. I looked down at myself, observing the changes as they spread, my fur losing definition, then vanishing entirely into my new rubbery skin. I couldn't see any bones or organs when I looked at myself, just an expanse of translucent red all the way through. I looked back at my tail and tried to wag it; it felt like I was dragging it through molasses.

Sparks snickered, then leaned forward and gave my arm a lick with a velvet tongue. “Raspberry,” it pronounced with a smirk.

Carefully, I stretched out one leg and rested it on the ground, then the other. Everything felt so
heavy all of a sudden. I slid forward, but somehow my legs wouldn't support me, and I slipped bonelessly to the floor, ending up in a heap of tangled limbs. “Hey!” Even my voice was heavy, coming out slowly and ponderously, played back at half-speed. “Warn a guy next time.” I stared up at the sundisk and brought my paws in front of my face, watching the way the colors before my eyes moved as I waggled my fingers.

Briar laughed. “That'd suck all the fun out of it.” She came out from around the bar and sat down beside me, dragging one leafy paw over my chest and neck, making me squirm in slow motion. “Now, tell me, how'd you get back in here?”

“Induction rig,” I responded immediately, though still on a heavy delay. “Hacked connection.”

“Mm-hm,” Briar agreed, “petting” me with her leaves. “So what's with the admin account?”

“Ask Fuki,” I replied, slowly waving my paws in front of my face, then in front of her. The topiary rabbit swam in sticky red when I waved at her.

“Who's Fuki?”

“Don't know,” I admitted with a slow shrug.
Choleric. The thought of the word made me laugh.

Briar's ears twitched, and I saw her look up at Sparks, who shrugged in response. “You sure?”

“Yeah, sure.” I nodded, then tried to get a paw under me. I had legs, last I checked. Two of them, in fact, but they didn't really want to talk to each other. I contented myself with playing with the sun while they decided to be nice.

Again they looked at each other in silence, until Sparks said, “Is it
really you, Jules?”

I nodded again. “Yeah.” Yellow and red made orange.
Orange. “Yeah, that's right.”

The topiary frowned, and then berries were before my lips. “Here.” They were blue, and I snapped at them eagerly with gelatin-teeth. They popped in my mouth, and strands of purple suffused me as the juice spread. “This'll help.”

The weight slowly dissipated as the second batch of berries worked their magic, and I forced myself into sitting upright. “Whoa,” I looked down at myself; the change was still fully in effect, even if the mind-bender wasn't. “Real nice, Briar, Sparks.” I frowned at the two. “Nice way to say hello.”

Sparks threw up its cloth paws in frustration. “How were we to know? Somebody comes in here with an admin flag claiming to be you, and we'd heard you'd gotten zeroed.”

I held out a paw. “Okay, yeah, I understand. Do you believe me now, at least?”

Briar nodded. “Yeah, sorry.” She stood, then helped me back onto my hinds and onto the stool. “So, how're you back? And why?”

I rolled my shoulders and grinned. “A guy gets lonely?”

Sparks chuckled, but Briar scowled in response. “I'm not taking it. There's something going on here.”

I sighed and nodded. “Yeah, there is.”

“So spill.” The topiary folded her arms across her chest.

I looked at her, then at Sparks. “I can't say much. Mostly, I came to warn you. Some really heavy-duty disaster is on its way. Be ready to duck and cover.”

Sparks' ears flattened. “Are they shutting this place down?” It huffed again, paws balled into fists. “We didn't do anything wrong! Well, I mean—”

I held out a paw to forestall the protests. “Not you, not here. Irokai. Does
Minshukakumei ring a bell? Democracy Revolution?”

Briar and Sparks exchanged a glance, then looked back at me. “Rumors, mostly,” Sparks admitted. “I've seen a few images of what looked like edits, but I thought they were fake.”

I shook my head. “They're not. Not all of them, anyway.”

The topiary rabbit frowned and leaned forward. “Jules, what's going on?”

I turned to the rabbit and smiled wanly again, showing translucent teeth. I leaned forward to rest my elbows on the bar—

—and pitched out of the captain's chair as the software timer expired, cutting my network connection. My knees hit the floor with a bang, my elbows following a moment later and only barely keeping my face from being next.

Unwelcome darkness and silence assaulted me, and for a moment I flailed in the void, until sense reasserted itself and I clawed at the straps of the skullcap, prying out the earplugs and then yanking the whole thing off of my head. It fell in a heap of nylon and cables beside me as my eyes snapped around the room, the sudden change of sensory inputs making my head reel.

I put a hand to my stomach, trying to still a sudden burst of nausea and to get my breathing back under control.
So that explains the transit stations, I thought, in between bouts of disorientation. The world slowly came together, and I poked at my skin, scowling at the pink flesh that had so recently been raspberry gelatin. It felt real enough, even if it didn't match my memories.

I considered logging back into Irokai and trying to explain myself, the timer and everything else, but I decided against it. As much as I wanted to explain, I didn't have much more than I'd already said in the way of facts, and even that much was probably dangerous, for Fuki and for me, and maybe for them, too. They'd know what I meant as soon as it was relevant, and before then it wouldn't make any sense. They weren't stupid, any of them. They'd figure out what they needed to know and what to do about it.

Gingerly, I got my legs back under me, checked that the bones were intact within, and then pushed myself upright. “Successful test,” I said to no-one in particular, and then I dropped back into the captain's chair and pulled it in front of the computer desk, scooting the skullcap out of the way with one foot. “Lights, on.” I grabbed the normal headset next to my keyboard. “Timer, close. Inductor, close. Editor, open. Debugger, open, load file 'voice-over.' Synthesizer, open.”

I had a lot of work to do to cover my advance payment.

Beautiful World 09: Delinquency

Cold air rushed into the apartment as I opened the sliding glass door leading to the balcony. The clock in the den said six-and-three-quarters local, a half-circle of color running from green to indigo; it was later than I liked to start my mornings, but after the late night, it had felt necessary. Those sections of the sky visible through the towers of Murasaki Prefecture were already a lighter blue, streaked with lines of gold and rose, hinting at the sunrise to come. Overhead, though, stars still filled my view, shimmering against a vast expanse of deepest black.

Nude aside from the sash tied around my waist, I stepped out onto the metal balcony, muzzle turned upwards to face the heavens. As I closed the glass door behind me, sharp winds cut through my fur, but I had long since become numb to the cold. One paw I kept at my waist, steadying the
katana in its saya as it bobbed against my hip; the other I curled around the thin railing, bracing myself as I gazed upwards at the sky. Even with the morning fast approaching, I could still make out the constellations overhead. To the east, Seiryū had all but disappeared, only its eye still visible against the coming dawn. Opposite, Byakko shimmered against the darkness, her tail dipping lazily into a rising pond of brilliant blue. Elsewhere, the Tortoise and Phoenix chased each other across the heavens, and Rabbit and Fox danced. Beneath them all, I stood and faced them, entranced.

No matter how long I gazed upwards at the heavens, I never tired of watching the stars dance in the sky, watching them shine and scanning for the occasional comet. I knew, as a matter of fact, that the heavens were artificial. Far from being celestial bodies of burning gas, Irokai's stars were mere polygon clusters, spinning in place overhead and palette-shifting to give the illusion of twinkling in a sky unfettered by air pollution. They gave off no heat, only light. If I wanted, I could download a copy of the night sky and, in much-reduced scale, hang it from my living room ceiling.

Yet, for all that, I never tired of looking up to them. Stretched out against an endless blank slate, they gave Irokai a sense of infinity. The world was not boundless, but a night sky filled with stars fostered a sense that it could be. As far back as I could remember, the stars had transfixed me, and I could spend hours doing no more than lying on my back and watching them, imagining flying among them, reaching out and touching them. Knowing their truth had never diminished their impact. In many ways, it had heightened it.

For several minutes, I stood, watching as the approaching day washed out the stars, until a flood of brilliant light broke through the skyline, outlining Murasaki Prefecture in gold. The last of the stars disappeared behind a wash of sun, and I lowered my gaze from the sky. I had delayed starting the day as long as possible. It was time to begin.

Stepping back from the railing, I drew the scabbard from my sash. Kneeling, I rested it in front of me, then bent reverently over it, my muzzle not quite touching the ground, forehead just barely brushing against the intricately woven sheath. With arms outstretched, I held the pose of a supplicant, focusing on my breath as it entered my nostrils and then escaped between my lips. Prostrate before the sun, I emptied my mind, waiting to see what filled it.

As expected, the vision of the distorted sky was first to mind, and with it a wash of anger. Stepping out of my apartment to be greeted by such a crude scrawl against the heavens was an offense both professional and personal. Until then, I had taken the graffiti in stride, the childish hacks of vandals who sought to destroy something they could never have built. Their acts against the stars themselves had been a blow too far; it was proof that they, whoever they were, would stop at nothing until their aims had been achieved. It also served as the strongest proof yet that my superiors either didn't understand the danger that hackers could pose, or didn't care. It didn't seem to matter how strident my demands, how imploring my requests. Every attempt I made to illustrate the threat to Irokai seemed to fall on deaf ears. My reports went unread. My support requests were closed, unanswered.

Eyes closed, vision turned inward, I studied my response, and my response to my response. It wasn't just anger that motivated me, I realized; it was despair. I no longer believed that there would be an official response to my requests, any more than there would be a public revelation that anything had ever happened. In beautiful Irokai, hackers were an archaism, like paper currency. To admit that someone had, not once but multiple times, broken through the security measures in place and tampered with things publicly considered immutable would have revealed a world unready to be treated as just as real as any other. Even if someone were to answer my cries, it would be in a way that never admitted there had ever been a complaint. I would never know if someone were listening, until one day I found my prayers answered, with no sign that they had ever been made.

The weight of memory hung heavily on my shoulders, but I dragged myself consciously back into the now of meditation.
Your breath is real, I reminded myself, ignoring the inherent absurdity of a digital sapience in a simulated world worrying about air. In. Out. In. Out. I focused on the sounds of my breath, on the feelings of the air moving, the rise and fall of my chest. Feel, and accept the feeling, but do not succumb to it. I felt anger, and helplessness; this didn't mean I needed to be angry or helpless. The question was, what was there to do about my emotion? How could I resolve this tension?

I considered, briefly, quitting my job with security. I had, in the past, manually reverted changes that I had found, and once I had requested and received a restoration from backup files, but I the problems were beginning to arise faster than I could resolve them alone. Others within the department had helped me, and even my manager had thanked me for my efforts. It seemed, though, that outside of a limited few brave souls, most of Irokai's management had traded honesty and diligence for appearances. I could foresee a day, not too far into the future, when I simply could not keep pace with those trying to break Irokai from within. What would I do then? It would be better to leave a final warning and simply walk away from it all while I still had some dignity, to give up on trying before burning out and coming to hate something that I enjoyed. The world would disintegrate around me, but I, at least, would not go with it.

And yet, were I to quit, what would I do instead? Where would I go? There was no “outside” for me, not in the way there was for the analogs who worked for Tadashiissei. Irokai was my only home, and I was as intimately tied to its existence as the world was to its hardware. The hackers were not just an artistic annoyance; they were a threat to my home. If the hackers were to get out of control, or worse, to gain control of Irokai, its creators might decide to simply end their grand experiment. What, then, would happen to those of us who lived within it? If Irokai were to disappear, I would surely go with it. The thought of death was alien to me, as it was to any resident of this world, but contemplating the end of Irokai itself was one that filled me with dread. There would be no waking up from that final shutdown.

I opened my eyes and leaned back, resting my paws on my hips, considering the sword that lay before me. If I was displeased with my decision, it was because the other options available to me were worse. No matter how pointless it seemed, the best option I could find was to keep my position with Irokai Security. At the very least, I could continue documenting every breach in hopes of forcing some form of response. I might never get a formal acknowledgment, but at least the problems would be fixed. Plus, as long as I held a security clearance within the company, I could continue to revert most of the changes myself. For those too invasive to manage alone, I could enlist others to help, people outside of Security, or even outside of Tadashiissei itself. I smiled tightly, remembering my conversation with the Hospitality specialist from the other night. Laid out in such bare terms, Mitsuko had been disturbed, to say the least, by the prospect of going behind her employers' backs, but even she had seen the necessity of action if Tadashiissei refused to do so. If she could convince her lover to help, so much the better.

I reclaimed the sword from the ground, bowed over it, then held it briefly upright, balanced on the tip of the scabbard, before sliding it back into the sash at my waist. My knees slightly spread, I waited until I felt still, then placed one paw on the hilt of the sword, drawing it and rising onto one hind as I slashed forward, the opening stroke of the
Mae kata. In time with the blade, I launched the security interface and pulled up the administration panel. The tip of the sword wobbled slightly, my concentration split between the physical and practical. Turning to the blade to the side, I raised it overhead and gripped the hilt in both hands, sliding forward on one knee to draw the blade down in a vertical slice, accompanied by opening the local lockout menu. The blade wandered wide as I scanned through database references, then snapped down in a decisive stroke as I rose to both hinds and flagged an account. Then, finally, I closed the menu and completed the noto, returning the sword to its scabbard, sinking slowly back to the opposite knee.

Through each of the forms I progressed, the
Ushiro and Ukenagashi, and on through to the Nukiuchi. Each draw matched an opening of the interface, each stroke a command, and each return exited the terminal. I ran through the stances twice, once for thoroughness and once for speed. Then, practice done for the day, I bowed over the sword, then released it back into my personal archive. By the time I had finished, the sunrise had long finished, and the clock in the den hovered at a few degrees shy of eight. I scowled at the time, tail and ears flat in irritation, but I hastily dressed and then left, making my way down to the lobby and the streets of Murasaki Prefecture.

The glowing sign over the front door said “Sunny You,” complete with stylized smiling yellow face. A sign hung on the door advertised expanded personal storage on sale, while a holograph turned beside the entrance, displaying a myriad of available bodies, all tastefully covered in a modicum of white clothing. The sense of need faded as I approached the shop, but I paused with one paw on the handle, watching the display. Someone had apparently decided that “bear” was this season's in-look; fully half of the figures that passed were ursine, in various colors and proportions.. After a minute, I turned away from the shifting images towards the door, noting with a flash of ambivalence the Tadashiissei “Sponsored Partner” image hovering next to the credit card logos.

Inside, the atmosphere was decidedly cool. The most incongruously unhappy element within the room was a female rabbit wearing a black shirt with an animated silver-and-blue logo advertising something called FutureShock and a skirt with some kind of pseudo-randomized texture running through the range of violets. The bright red security-rings around her ankles and wrists prevented her from leaving the store, but beside her stood a teenaged fox in a yellow employee's polo and black slacks, staring at her as though to lock her in place through the force of his gaze alone. He held his arms folded defensively across his chest, leaning forward domineeringly, his tail curled tightly against his back. A few other patrons looked on with a mixture of interest and contempt, while an older female bear wearing similar corporate apparel, stood behind the counter, watching distastefully.

As soon as they realized I was there, both the rabbit and fox started to speak, their voices canceling each other out in a blur of noise. Ignoring them and holding out a paw, pads facing them for silence, I walked up to the cashier's station and drew my security credentials out of the interior pocket of my coat. “My name is Giri. You called for security,

The bear nodded, clacking the claws of one paw against the yellow countertop. She pointed with the other towards the rabbit in the middle of the store. “She tried to make off with one of our specialty mods without paying.”

"I did
not!" The outburst from the rabbit was automatic, her voice at once petulant and pleading. "I—"

The younger fox immediately snapped, "You did! I saw you! I caught you myself! I—"

“Oh, for heaven's sake!” The rabbit put her paws on her hips, the silver rings in her ears jangling angrily as they shook. “I did nothing of the sort!”

The two fell instantly into bickering, their volume quickly rising as each tried to shout down the other. I sighed, shook my head, and opened up my security terminal, putting into place a local mute on the two of them. Instantly, their voices stopped cold, but it took several seconds for them to realize what had happened. They both glared at each other, then at me, as though trying to convince me that the other was at fault.

Turning away from the bickering couple, I looked back to the manager, pulling up her name out of the user database. “So... Eliott-
sama, please explain.”

The manager blinked, standing a bit straighter when I referred to her by name; apparently she had never had to deal with Irokai Security before. She motioned towards a display on the wall near the cashier's station. Within a clear case, the figure of a bear-sow slowly spun, motes of light sparkling through her fur irregularly. Beneath the case, a sign in Japanese and English announced the Firefly package, available on sale now for forty-percent off with any other avatar upgrade. “I was up at the front of the store helping some other customers, but Aaron saw her standing there staring at the display. I heard him ask her if she needed any help, and she asked him how much the new Firefly mod cost by itself. When he told her, she started screaming about usury and monopolies. That's when I excused myself and approached. I tried to get her to calm down, but she refused to listen to me either, and then Aaron said she started to make an unauthorized copy! That's when I hit the security lockdown.”

Throughout the manager's speech, the rabbit started gesturing more wildly, while the other store associate tried to grab her arms and pin them down. The confrontation appeared to be headed to blows, so I put a movement lockout on them both and then relocated the rabbit next to me. She jerked around in surprise, almost falling when her feet refused to leave the ground despite her vigorous response. I removed the vocal lock from her and frowned. “So,
usagi-san, is this correct?”

The rabbit snorted, paws again on her hips. “Hardly.” She turned first towards the fox, then the manager. “I was trying to figure out if they used a pseudo-randomizer or if they had a real analog random function on the lights, and he told me to stop trying to hack their code. I could've bought two custom bodies for what they wanted for one little mod, so I whipped out a decompiler—which, by the way, is neither illegal nor against the service agreement—to see for myself. The kid freaked out and screamed thief, and she hit the panic button.”

The bear's silver-tipped brown fur bristled, her eyes narrowing. “You can't just go around trying to steal source code! That's illegal!”

“Terms of Service, Customized Avatars, section fourteen.” The accused let out an exaggerated sigh. “I have the right to ensure before purchase that any mod I buy is compatible with other code I already have installed. I've got some heavy mods that I paid a lot of money for and I'm not going to plunk down that much credit for something that's going to clobber something else I already own. Legally.”

The manger sniffed. “I don't see a single mod on you.”

At that, the rabbit smiled tightly, and the logo on her shirt froze into the image of a single world emblazoned on her chest in metallic silver. “Yeah, well, I wouldn't wear most of them in a place like this.”

At that, I held up my paws, forestalling them both from continuing. “I believe I understand what has happened here,” I said quietly. “I will take custody of her,

As the manager smiled her approval, the rabbit's eyes went wide and jumped from me to her and back. “You gotta be kidding me! I've done nothing wrong!”

In the security menu, I switched the target of the rabbit's location lock from the interior of Sunny You to a five-meter radius centered on me. “Are you disobeying a direct order from Irokai Security?”

The rabbit's ears shook, her rings chiming angrily, but she looked down at the ground. “No.”

I nodded, mostly to myself. “Good.” To the manager, I bowed deeply. “Thank you for alerting Irokai Security to this matter, Eliott-
sama. I will ensure this is handled appropriately.” As soon as she bowed in return, I turned and walked out of the store, the rabbit dragging behind me on an invisible leash. I ignored the sales associate when he stuck his tongue out at my charge, but only as the door closed behind me did I relinquish his voice to him.

I made a point of ignoring the passers-by as I walked. I could see at the edges of my sight how they stopped to stare at the “criminal” in her awkwardly blocky red cuffs and anklets, but I did nothing to acknowledge them, other than to motion for the occasional pedestrian to step out of my way. To her credit, my charge did nothing to engage them, neither challenging nor pleading. She merely followed in silence as I led her to a nearby office building, up an awkward elevator ride and then three sullen flights of stairs, until we stood on the roof, alone in crowded Murasaki Prefecture.

When I did finally stop, the rabbit stumbled into me and then jerked backwards. “Sorry,” she mumbled automatically, her eyes not meeting mine.

I didn't move from my spot for several seconds; I merely stood and looked over the edge of the building, down to the streets below.

“I said I'm sorry,” the rabbit repeated, her voice louder but still nervous.

“What is your name,
usagi-san?” I asked, not looking at her. Far below, people moved, like little blobs of color twinkling against black asphalt.

The rabbit hesitated before blurting, “Briar.” It was a challenge as much as a declaration.

I opened my terminal access and performed a quick scan. “Your account says otherwise, Summerfield-

The rabbit snorted again. “Oh, yeah, clever,” she sneered, reflexively. “You can look stuff up in a database. If you don't like my nickname, at least call me Caitlyn.”

I turned away from the streets, back to face her, a frown on my muzzle and my ears flat. “I work in security; giving me an alias, even a common one, was not your wisest decision.”

Briar rolled her eyes. “I told you what I wanted to be called. You gonna give me guff about it?”

I looked away, towards the skyline, watching the morning sunlight reflecting off of the buildings. “No.”

We both stood in silence, until finally she said, irritably, “Look, what's going on? Am I getting banned or not?”

I shook my head, still not facing her. “No,” I said again.

The rabbit let out another heavy sigh and gestured to one wrist with the opposite paw. “Why all the theater, then? Why didn't you just tell them to buzz off?”

“I had my reasons, Briar-
san.” I looked back at her. “Sunny You has a partnership with Tadashiissei. I could not simply do nothing.”

“Politics.” Briar spat the word.

I merely nodded in response, taking a seat against the railing at the edge of the building. “Would you have stolen the upgrade, had they not caught you?”

Briar's face registered an instant of guilt before returning to her defiant glare from before. “You can't steal code. Code's just an idea given a form. I was trying to figure out how they did it so I could do it myself for cheap.” She paused briefly, then continued. “Everything they sell is overpriced, anyway, and their code's always a mess. I know folks who could do the same thing in half the space.”

“I see,” I said, more to her expression than her words.

“I didn't do anything wrong,” she snapped. “You said as much.” She drew away, then, looking down at the roof, as though suddenly remembering to whom she was speaking.

“I did,” I agreed quietly. Before I could say anything else, though, a buzzer rang twice quickly, indicating a work call. I held out a paw to Briar, then tilted my head, checking my communication requests. It was from Mori Koneko, one of my analog coworkers. I accepted the contact.

Giri? It's Koneko, she transmitted unnecessarily. I think we've had another incident like you described. This one's ... it's big. You'd better come see for yourself. Following her words was a relocation invitation.

I sighed.
One moment; I have another job to complete. I closed the connection, then looked back at Briar. “I will let this one go as a misunderstanding. I suggest you stay away from Sunny You for some time.” I dismissed the location lock, and the angry red circles around her limbs disappeared.

Briar blinked and rubbed at her bare wrists. “Wow. You had me worried for a while there. I thought I was busted again for sure.”

At that, I raised one brow. “Again?” I performed a quick scan of her visitor history but found nothing in her record. “Your file appears clean.”

The rabbit's eyes widened briefly, but then she shrugged. “It's... must've been a while. Maybe these things fade over time.”

I waved off the excuse, standing up from the ledge. “I have more pressing concerns than someone trying to save a little money.”

“You know, I like your attitude, I think.” Briar sent me a contact information memo, which I filed automatically. “Next time I get in trouble, I'll call you.”

I sighed and shook my head, then accepted Koneko's invitation to go survey the latest assault on my home, leaving Briar alone on the rooftop to contemplate the sun.

Beautiful World 08: Warning

As soon as I opened the door to my apartment, I caught the soft, repetitive chime indicating a new message in my inbox. I groaned and half-walked, half-shuffled over to the card table in the living room. Ten hours on-site consulting, and work awaits me when I get home, I thought with a weary chuckle. I had more free time when I worked full-time. Leather flats, dress slacks, and knee-high stockings melted off of me as I walked, spilling in haphazard puddles of cloth across the carpet as I headed for my bedroom. The sweater I'd worn to complete the business ensemble I flung towards the laundry basket, not bothering to see where it actually landed, and I quickly replaced it with an oversized black T-shirt decorated in neo-tribal patterns. My stomach grumbled at me, reminding me of exactly how long it'd been since lunch, but I ignored it and dropped heavily into the overstuffed captain's chair behind my desk, grabbing my headset and fitting it in place.

"Computer, unlock," I said into the microphone, fingers reaching out and jumping across the keyboard. "E-mail, open, display new messages." The computer blew a raspberry at me and the screen flashed to match. A dialog box opened:
Message encrypted; please provide pass phrase. At the bottom, a cursor blinked inside a text entry box, patiently awaiting my input.

I leaned back in my chair. The header of the message, visible at the top of a background window, indicated it was from Fuki, with a blank destination address, meaning a blind list. I spent a few moments wondering who else might have gotten it, then turned my attention back to the interposed window. She'd put no new passwords in her previous letter, or even any hint she was still interested in doing business. The deposit she'd made for the last job had cleared without any hint of fraud, and nobody had flagged my bank account for illegal activity, but she'd still gone silent as soon as she'd gotten the code drop from me. We'd exchanged public keys to allow for secure communication, but that obviously wasn't enough to open this new document. Whatever this was, it was important enough to go to a list of potentially unrelated people, and unwholesome enough to be worth keeping away from the uninitiated.

That still didn't tell me what the key was. Fuki, whoever she really was, seemed too cautious to make a mistake such as sending out an encrypted message to the wrong person. It was possible, but unlikely. So, it almost certainly wasn't an accident that I'd received this. That meant that I had to know what the pass phrase was, but not know that I knew it. That meant it had to be something she'd said to me before, something universal enough that everybody on that hidden distribution would've gotten it already.

“E-mail, cancel.” The dialog box disappeared, but the new-mail chime happily reminded me that I still had a fresh message waiting. “Disable new message alarm. Inbox, search.” As soon as the new screen opened, I typed in Fuki into the search bar and hit enter, eyes scanning the results as they displayed in the match window. “Stop. Select message two. Open.” The requested entry in the list blinked twice, then expanded to full-screen. Quickly I scanned the document, looking for... I didn't know what.

I paused on the last line of the message, right above her signature block. My eyes narrowed and I shifted in the captain's chair. “Display new messages,” I repeated into the mic, and again that same window snapped up, asking me for a pass phrase. Into the text field, I typed
Democracy Revolution, then rapped the Enter key. Immediately, a progress bar opened, its color shifting from white to green as it unscrambled the message.

As soon as the bar filled, it vanished, and in its place opened the message that Fuki had sent:


Thank you to help the future of Irokai, safe from dictatorial Tadashiissei. Our common goal is shared, and we did great everythings expanding our messages with just the tools of ours. Unfortunately, the response of Tadashiissei has not been to open Irokai, instead covering up in regard to our efforts. They do not accept the attack, therefore the time for increasing is now.

We must attack Irokai itself. Not destructively or permanently, but clearly. Noisy. Very brightly. As for the citizen of Irokai, they must see. As for Tadashiissei, it must not hide us now forever.

You, I know you may be who hesitates, but now is time for action. If the self-proclaimed owner of Irokai does not transfer control, those who believe freedom and democracy must take them for any power. John Adams who says "Liberty must at all dangerous be supported; we have a right to possess it.” Under Tadashiissei, all the “citizen" of Irokai are servants who must pay for the fact that their life is maintained. Tadashiissei is not a government.

We tried that our messages come to the people of Irokai and Tadashiissei knows that we are buried. We must forever not be silent. If you are not, say nothing. If this message is deleted, I do not send again ever. If you want to help, the key which is attached can encode your sent response. You will receive everything the equipment which is necessary to succeed this effort.

Democracy for Irokai.


I scanned the screen several times, each time feeling the veins in my head throb a little harder. Finally I half-snarled, “E-mail, close,” under my breath, yanked the headset off of my ears and flung it irritably at the mahogany desk, wincing as it clattered against the wood. I shoved myself backwards from the desk and grabbed the lighter from its surface. The captain's chair tipped backwards when I stood, then thumped back down onto its coasters behind me as I struggled into a pair of discarded jeans, then stalked out of the bedroom in search of an open pack of cigarettes. I never lit up inside, as much to make sure I took regular breaks as to protect my health or my deposit; and right then, I really needed a smoke. At the glass sliding door, I paused only long enough to shove my feet into a pair of sneakers, then stepped out onto my balcony.

A thin metal railing enclosed the concrete slab that jutted out from the side of the building, and on it precariously balanced a small glass ashtray, already half-full with remnants of previous visits. Beyond the narrow ledge, the city spread in a jumble of narrow streets and crowded tenement buildings, a mish-mash of uninspired tans and stained greys. The sodium glow from the streetlights and windows obscured the stars with a beige haze of light pollution, washing out the sluggish clouds overhead in burnt sienna and umber. A petulant wind fluttered the hem of my shirt as it blew down the street, stirring up the ash in the ashtray and carrying it off into the distance.

Once the door to the apartment was closed behind me, I slowly and methodically went about getting the cigarette out of its package, putting it between my lips and lighting it, doing my best to focus on the process, to push away the knot of anger that Fuki's little “suggestion” had instilled. I drew in a slow, deep breath, glancing down at the orange embers, then tilted my head back, exhaling noisily and turning my gaze upward. For several minutes, I concentrated on bringing hand to mouth, on inhaling and exhaling, on tapping grey ash into eddies that landed on the matching concrete, and on trying to stare beyond the sky. The sting of a hot coal against my fingertips snapped my attention back down to earth with a wince. I steadied the ashtray with one hand and ground the butt into it with the other, then fished a replacement out of the pack.

Only after I had the second cigarette lit and firmly stuck between my lips did I turn my thoughts away from the washed-out skyscape to the message that the enigmatic Fuki had sent me. As soon as I did so, my mouth curled into a grimace. I leaned against one of the metal support poles holding my balcony to the one above and let out a stream of smoke, then sighed as it dissipated in the breeze. Even just her name made my stomach clench and my hands want to do the same. This was getting out of control, fast. I understood what she wanted, and even why she thought it was a good idea, but it wasn't going to work, and she had to know that. This wasn't a game any more. This wasn't a silent protest, or even a noisy one. This wasn't just vandalism any more; this was destroying something beautiful to try to protect it, and the idea put bile in my throat.

The sad truth was, at some level, I agreed with her. Tadashiissei possessed the money, the servers, and the ability to keep Irokai running. As long as they had all of those, they dictated the terms, and everyone else either played by their rules, or they didn't play. I'd played along for a while, until I realized just what they were asking, with their special charges and their access fees. Want to teleport from one place to another? That'll cost you. Want to fly? That's another fee. Want to create something out of thin air? The more complex it'd be in the real world, the higher the price tag. Never mind that everything in Irokai was digital, that gravity only existed because they'd coded a physics engine, and that you could literally be and do and have anything you wanted, if you were willing to take the time to design it. Tadashiissei made anything possible, and then made anyone with the vision and the desire to take advantage of it pay for it, step by costly step. It was hard enough having an impossible dream; endlessly paying someone to live it, knowing that one day the money could run out was infinitely worse.

I looked down at the remainder of the cigarette between my fingers, then brought it to my lips and finished it in a single deep breath, going slightly cross-eyed as I watched the coal burn red-hot. I held the hot, acrid smoke in my lungs, letting it burn along with my indignation, then let it all out in a grey-brown stream, my shoulders sagging. Then the stub joined the others in the ashtray, and I went back inside, kicking off my shoes next to the sliding door and shucking my jeans beside them.
I'm not going to do this, I told myself firmly as I set down the pack of cigarettes on the kitchen counter. Whoever she is, she can play all the games she likes, but I don't have to be part of it.

Once back in front of my computer, I dropped back into my chair, sinking into the excessive cushions, and fumbled for the headset. Instead of fitting it back over my ears, though, I just held it, eyes fixed on the dancing anthropomorphic wolf on my screen. In each hand, he had a glowstick hanging from a black thread, the lights dancing around him in a hypnotic pattern, splashing blobs of color across his fur and glinting off of the piercings in his nipples. More hung from the belt-loops on his baggy cargo pants, reflecting off of a patchwork of zippers. His eyes were closed, his head tilted back and his muzzle open in a look of quiet ecstasy, listening to music that only he could hear. He looked happy, capable of snapping out of his self-imposed trance at a moment's notice, but otherwise completely blissed out in a world of his own creation.

I remembered that look; I'd worn it myself, when I'd been him.

My stomach still tight, I leaned back in my chair, eyes glued to the screen, as absorbed in my avatar's dancing as he was. I knew that using it as a screensaver was a mistake, but I'd told myself for years that it would've been rude not to do so; John had made it for me, after all. He'd given it to me, after I'd broken up with him, telling me not to give up so easily on Irokai, or on the company that had made it. It was an easy thing for him to say; he wasn't the one that had gotten kicked out for arguing with Tadashiissei's lawyers. No, he was the one about to move permanently to the digital world, to have the body and the life he'd always dreamed of having... the life that I'd wanted for years.

I dropped the headset into my lap and squeezed the arms of the chairs in a vice-grip, doing my best to ignore the tears, uninvited, that trickled down my cheeks. I'd been within a hair's breath of accepting, of signing my life away to Tadashiissei, and only Adam's pleading demand for sanity had shaken me. He'd been wrong about so much, but on that one point he'd been utterly right, more than he could understand. If I'd agreed to the terms of the upload, I'd have put myself at the company's mercy, wholly dependent on their survival. What if they went under? It seemed unlikely, given the size of Irokai's economy and how much they made off of the people who visited, but unlikely wasn't impossible, and it just wasn't worth the risk. It wasn't even worth the price I'd have had to pay every month just to keep my account in good standing and my mind out of backup storage. It didn't matter how desperately I craved it; I just couldn't afford it.

I'd written letters, handwritten notes on real paper, asking for a change in the terms. I'd called for clarifications, I'd posted on the forums, and I'd organized petitions, begging for a change to the upload account maintenance terms. The harder I'd tried, the stricter Tadashiissei's lawyers had gotten. They'd made no concessions, offered no apologies, and in the end they decided that the path of least resistance ran directly through my account on the way to the bit-bucket. One day, John and I had gone to spend a weekend together in Irokai, and they refused my entry at the door, saying my account had been suspended. When I'd tried for an explanation, the clerk at the counter said only that I'd been flagged as a troublemaker, and there was nothing he could do. I'd tried to protest, but corporate security escorted us out of the building and asked me politely not to return. They'd won. I couldn't fight them any more.

I wiped ineffectually at my eyes with the palms of my hands, trying to snort my sinuses clear, then settled the headset back over my ears.
Maybe I can't beat them on their terms, I thought, but this isn't their game any more. “Computer, unlock. E-mail, open, open latest message, reply.” As soon as the window was on the screen, I began typing, fingers trembling only slightly.


I'm in. Tell me what to do.


“E-mail, encrypt,” I said, pasting the key from Fuki's last message into the text field the computer gave me in response. “Send.” Then I slumped backwards in my chair, arms folded across my chest, hands balled into fists to keep them from shivering. I felt sick to my stomach, but at the same time my head felt light, almost giddy, as though I had jumped off of the safe and confining balcony and was now falling free and unprotected towards the cold and unyielding pavement.

In under a minute, I had a flashing light on my console and a pop-up window telling me, “Fuki has sent you a message.” With turnaround speeds like that, she had to be watching her e-mail like a paranoid with fiber-optic connectivity. I smirked and pulled my chair up against the desk until the edge pressed uncomfortably into my stomach. “E-mail, go to latest, open.” The screen obliged, popping up what little text there was:
Jules, I desire to speak to you in time current. Please send 'Hello from Jules' to niji_fuki. Other than the timestamp, that was it.

That sick, giddy feeling spread down from my head out into my arms, and my stomach twisted. I fought down the craving for another cigarette and leaned back in my chair. “E-mail, close. Messenger, open. New message.” I typed the handle Fuki gave me and the message she wanted, then hit the send button.

Seconds later, I received my reply:
Thank you for you saying yes, Jules. How soon time can you offer project completion?

I considered the question, then shrugged, even though she couldn't see it.
That depends on how much information you can give me on Irokai's security structure. Something this invasive is going to have to look like it's native if it's going to survive.

Fuki's message window remained empty for some time after that, but then the e-mail indicator light flashed again, and then her message followed.
In your inbox please find security protocol for all of Irokai access, encrypted with passphrase this name. It is not the administrator of all system but will work as local administrator on all everywhere for safety program.

I didn't bother to open the message; everything else she'd given me had turned out to be uncannily accurate. If this was entrapment, it was the most elaborate sting I'd ever seen. I leaned back in my chair, staring at the screen, unblinking. Fuki must have taken my silence for hesitation; soon after her last message, she asked,
Is there elsewise that I can give in accord? How soon time?

Will those codes get through Tadashiissei's firewall as well, or will these have to run locally? I asked, fingers drumming on the mahogany desk as I waited for a response.

Fuki's window blanked, followed by,
As to the outside I think yes but I cannot prove. Why?

I bit my lip, then typed,
You can get me an induction rig and the adapters to run it.

Fuki's response was near-instant.
You ask impossibly. Where do you think I could get to you such an equipment? I could imagine the sneer of indignation in her text.

I smirked, despite my trembling hands.
The same place you got the data dictionary and the security protocols.

Both of us were quiet for a time after that, me because I was still shaking from my latest feint, and Fuki... I couldn't imagine what she had to be thinking. I forced myself to keep breathing, to count every breath as it left my lungs. At seventeen, her window flashed again.
I maybe can appear something, but you must make a guarantee. How soon time?

I grinned and replied,
Three months, tops.

It is too soon, three months, she replied. You cannot so greatly affect Irokai in so small. Be true to real.

I am, I shot back. You've given me excellent motivation. What's the timeframe for the protest?

Fuki hesitated again, then replied,
Sadly, most are saying two times, so six. I will wait for all to be ready, and then at random. You accept?

I accept, I returned. In that time, I can get you two, or one big and a bunch of littles. A nice toolbox of tricks, to make your efforts worthwhile. Agreed?

Agree, Fuki replied. Then the window's titlebar announced, anti-climatically, that she had disconnected.

“Messenger, close,” I said, eyes half-closed. Six months meant that John would either have just moved to Irokai as a permanent resident, or would be just about to do so. Either way, he was in for a shock when he got there. I didn't like it, but with the right equipment and passwords, both supplied by the enigmatic Fuki, I might be able to help shield him and Mitsuko from the worst of it. I thought about trying to warn him, then shook my head against it. If he thought I was trying to talk him out of it, he'd treat me the way he treated Adam on the subject, and for good reason.

Mitsuko, though, was another matter. “E-mail, open. New letter to Ikanobari Mitsuko, title brace yourself.” I took off the headset and set it down, typing with one hand.


John's welcome-home party is going to have unexpected visitors. I can't say much, but be ready for anything. If I can help, I will. I know this doesn't make any sense, but trust me when I say it will. Please take care of him, and please don't say anything to John. I'm not trying to talk him out of this; anything but. I just know some big things are afoot, and I don't want him caught in the middle. I wish I could say more, but I've probably already said too much. I know what you're capable of doing. Don't be afraid of using it, when the time comes.

All my best for you both.


As soon as I sent it, pushed back from the desk and stumbled out into the living room. At that moment, I'd had enough of anything to do with the digital world, and I really, really needed another cigarette. My phone sat where I'd left it, on the card table in what passed for my living room, next to a small pile of mail and my keys. I grabbed it, thumbing through the contacts menu until the cursor was on Adam's name, then hit the dial button.

Adam picked up on the second ring. “Hello, Julia.”

I grimaced at the phone but decided it wasn't worth arguing over the name. “Hey, Adam. Sorry about last time. Want to grab a bite to eat? My treat.”

Adam chuckled. “I'm shocked. I can't imagine you wanting to go out with a neo-Luddite like me.”

I laughed in response. “You help keep me grounded. Besides, I still owe you one. Want to hit the diner again, or something fancy?”

“Now that you suggest fancy,” Adam replied after a moment's consideration, “we haven't been to Café Aquarius in a while. Do you actually own anything other than jeans any more?”

I blew a raspberry into the phone. “I do work for business clients. I can dress like a professional. Seriously, now. I spent all day on-site and I just landed a pretty long-term project, so before I hole up like a troglodyte I'd like some face-time, and John's busy getting his act together for the move.”

“One way trip to oblivion,” Adam muttered.

It was soft enough that he probably thought I didn't hear it, and for once I didn't feel like arguing with him about it. Maybe it was because I knew what was coming. “Sorry, couldn't hear you,” I said, saccharine-sweet. “Was that a yes or a no?”

Adam chuckled again. “I said that's fine. Meet you at Aquarius in an hour?”

“In an hour,” I agreed. “See you there.” I thumbed the phone's off-button, then set it down with a sigh. Back into the suit, I silently groused, then set about picking up the scattered pieces of the upscale professional persona that I'd strewn around the room when I'd gotten home. Back in the bedroom, I retrieved my discarded sweater from the pile near the laundry basket and squirmed into it. I retrieved the lighter from my desk, but my eyes went instinctively to the screensaver that had activated in my absense, and I stood for a few moments, watching myself dance with a smile on my face.

“See you soon, I hope,” I said to the wolf as I walked out of the room. “Lights, out,” I said to the apartment, and everything went dark, leaving myself to dance in the darkness while I went to get a last meal.

Beautiful World 07: Commitment

Entering the Observatory, I always felt the urge to pause momentarily and bow my head. Air came and went from the room through grates evenly spaced along the ceiling, the circulators' steady hum digitally muffled. Soft white LED panels glowed dimly near the floor, casting the room in an artificial twilight. Every section of the windowless walls had been fitted with matte black baffling panels, further dampening both light and sound. No matter the noise level outside, the silence was sepulchral once I sealed the room.

A round pedestal the size of a boardroom table dominated the center of the room like an altar, its obsidian surface glossy and reflective. At intervals around its edge were a number of simple, black cloth-covered chairs, neatly camouflaged against the matching carpet and walls. In front of one of them, one small section of the desk glowed, a keyboard and trackpad projected upwards from within onto touch-sensitive glass. The remainder of the surface remained blank, as close to true black as light could produce.

I settled into the chair in front of the control station and began tapping out commands, occasionally sweeping a fingertip across the motion-capture pad. In response, the remainder of the glass surface of the boardroom table blossomed with light. In the center of the table, the symbol of Irokai beamed, slowly cross-fading into an overhead relief view of the digital world itself. Six large islands, each slightly tinted a different color, sat in an endless sea. Tram lines connected them together, criss-crossing the deep blue gulf in a silvery spiderweb.

For several minutes, my fingers hovered over the keyboard as I watched the world rotate slowly beneath the surface of the desk. The ambient light was a near-perfect imitation of night-time, but Irokai—like the world beyond its borders—had escaped the tyranny of the sun as a timekeeper. Kigiku Island's nature preserves and broad forests teemed with simulated animals, while both Murasaki and Beni Prefectures throbbed with more urban nightlife. The Bazaar at Hana was far less busy than during the day, but even it, too, never truly closed. Only Midori Prefecture seemed quiet, but at individual points within the residential districts, a few lights showed that they still had signs of life as well. Irokai continued to pulse quietly beneath my gaze, ignorant of its observer.

I lowered my fingers to the keys beneath them and resumed my typing. In a few moments, the world dimmed into the background, and a series of red and yellow dots flared across the map. For each marker, a window filled with text opened, attached to its location with a thin, angular line. One of the yellow dots pulsed regularly, asking for immediate attention. I cycled through each of the other spots first, skimming the contents of the reports that opened as I indicated them. Most of the text contained "Irokai Security" somewhere within them, flagging visitors for improper behavior and asking for confirmation from someone else. I closed each after a few sentences, moving from one to the next rapidly until I came to the flashing light, and a familiar name leapt out from the screen as the text unfolded.

In its essence, the report was another documented hacking attempt, caught and reversed by attentive Irokai Security staff. However, in the depths of its presentation, it was a cry of despair. Intricate details about which of Irokai's data structures and network protocols had been violated to cause the attack suffused every paragraph. Attached static images showed in graphic detail the constellations rearranged into English letters, the comet trails drawing
kanji across the nighttime sky. The author had dedicated two full screens to references to previous attacks, complete with dates, locations, and past responses. The report finished with a single question, asking when resources would be made available to combat the growing threat. Each word had been meticulously selected for maximum accuracy and minimum emotion, but their impact taken as a whole was of that of a man reduced to begging for help.

After a few more keystrokes, two new windows hovered over the center of the world. In one, job history and personnel entries scrolled. Commendations decorated his service record. A few incidents blemished his career, but closer reading suggested that each of them could be explained away as a clash of personality with someone else in his management chain. In the other frame slowly rotated a three-dimensional model of a lanky
kitsune in a black leather longcoat over a sweater and slacks. A katana in sheath hung at his waist, and one paw rested upon its hilt. Within his window, the fox turned his head, gestured with his free arm, and shifted his weight, the display giving his image the semblance of life.

One of the red dots hovering over the Bazaar faded from view. Another one turned yellow and began to pulse. I let my focus drift from the security agent's impassive violet eyes to the latest report, skimming it for the highlights. Someone had attempted to make an unauthorized copy of a vendor's program, and a local member of the security staff had been scanning the market and noticed the attempt. He'd invoked local administrative privilege to halt the copy, prompting one of the red lights I'd seen earlier. The agent had then escorted the offender out of the Bazaar with instructions not to return without a security officer as escort.

At the bottom of the report, the security agent said it was her fourth unsuccessful theft, which suggested a large but unknown number of previously undetected crimes. He'd even taken the time to comb through past incident reports to corroborate his claims. He finished his personal notes with a recommendation that the offender be exiled, and had flagged his report with a request for review, prompting the golden highlight on the map.

I opened the offender's transit file and reviewed her history. She had, in fact, been the perpetrator of multiple thefts inside Irokai, both from the Bazaar and from shops in Murasaki. However, she'd also been to Irokai at least once a month ever since its inception and spent a great deal of money within its borders, even paying to unlock special features at times. Outside of a collection of official complaints from vendors about her behavior, her reputation was excellent, with a number of people explicitly praising her for gifts she had given them for no apparent reason.

I smiled and drew my chair closer to the table, fingers working quickly over the illuminated glass. Coaxing administrative access into Irokai's traveler database without leaving a record in the security logs took longer than I had meant to spend. Resetting her criminal history and then imperceptibly corrupting the incident report took longer still. Afterwards, however, I had every reason to believe that she would take this as a sign to continue her previous behavior.

That resolved, I closed down the windows and turned my attention back to the image of the kitsune. The smile that had come unbidden to my face faded again as I studied his features. At times, the image's ears would rise, and perhaps the corners of his muzzle might lift, but never did the brief smile touch his eyes. One of his paws rested lightly on the hilt of his
katana, but his fingers never strayed far from a ready position, and his posture suggested both a knowledge and willingness to use it.

His report might have been asking for assistance, but even if he never received it, he would not stop fighting for his beloved Irokai.

Irokai's and its inhabitants' safety is of utmost concern, I wrote at the bottom of the incident report. We are currently reviewing your request and will keep you apprised of any change in status. I attached my digital signature to the bottom of the file, then flagged it as needing no further action and committed the update. The window closed, and a few moments later, the flashing marker faded to a solid yellow and then disappeared.

The bulk of my work finished, I logged out of the security system, then opened my contact archive. Sifting through the list, I found the number that I needed and set up an encrypted communication channel. A speaker hidden within the ceiling buzzed twice, then twice again, followed by a beep and a woman's voice, speaking Japanese. 「Yes?」

I leaned back in my chair, elbows on its armrests, fingers steepled before my face. 「Fuki-san, I must apologize for calling you so late,」 I said quietly, taking the most respectful form I could.

A brief pause followed, and then the woman replied in kind, her voice tired. 「Sasaki-sama. As always, it is good to hear from you.」

I smiled again, watching the world turn. 「Did I wake you?」

「No,」 Fuki replied. 「Why are you calling me? You said before that all communication would be strictly textual.」

I nodded at that. 「I did, but I think someone is starting to become suspicious. Giri's latest offering is as much a diatribe as it is a report. How goes your project?」

「Not as well as we may have hoped,」 Fuki confessed. 「I have acquired an additional resource. He is dedicated and skilled, but he is still new to the team and is not yet integrated with the group. I must commend you, by the way, on your training methods. Irokai Security is very efficient.」

I allowed myself a smile at the backhanded compliment. 「I'm taking what steps I can from within, but there's only so much I can do myself. I don't like saying it, but I believe that it's time to advance to phase two.」

The voice on the other end of the call paused again, then spoke more hesitantly. 「So soon?」

「I'm afraid so,」 I replied, sitting up in my chair. 「As long as Giri's able to single-handedly undo our best efforts, this isn't going to go anywhere. We need something big enough that even he won't be able to fix it alone.」

「Understood,」 Fuki said wearily. 「I will ensure that we are ready. Is there anything else that you wanted?」

I paused a moment, then nodded again, even though Fuki couldn't see me. 「There is, yes. Giri's going to continue to be a problem unless we deal with him. I can do that, but I need a justification.」

「That will be difficult,」 she said after an extended pause. 「I am hardly in a position to set up such a situation, and Giri's reputation is spotless.」

「Not spotless,」 I said with a slight smirk. 「Merely very good. He has a history of personality conflicts in his personnel file. It seems he's a little too willing to follow the spirit of the law, but not the letter. As you know,
disobeying management can be grounds for termination.」

Fuki was silent for a time afterwards. 「Are you not disobeying management as well?」 she finally asked. 「Inciting revolt against Tadashiissei can hardly be said to be in the best interest of the company.」

I chuckled at that. 「I'm doing what is best for Irokai in the long term, which is my primary job responsibility. I have faith in your abilities, Fuki-san, and in our vision.
Democracy for Irokai.」 I switched to English for the last.

"Democracy for Irokai," Fuki replied, and then came the terminating beep.

I stood and turned back to the table, watching the lights wink hypnotically across the different districts for a time. Then, with a few keystrokes, I shut down the overhead view, and the world of Irokai disappeared, leaving me in silent twilight.

Beautiful World 06: Premonition

The skybridge connecting the thirtieth floors of the Nanakousei and Everest Research towers was glass below as well as above, cool beneath my bare pads as I stepped out into open space. Overhead, the sky hung low from the broadcast spires that topped Murasaki Prefecture's tallest buildings. From here, the moon seemed to stare down at the city beneath it, its lurid gaze just as taken by the flashing lights and flickering signs of the companies that advertised themselves to anyone who would pass before them.

My gaze briefly followed the moon's, down through the floor to the sea of lights that danced below me. A quick wash of vertigo ran over me, making me shiver; a moment later it was gone, quashed by the same part of my mind that had let me interpose countless times before when one visitor or another had inadvertantly risked self-integrity while part of my group. The sense was the same every time, that instant of sick giddiness just before my training possessed me, and again I wondered what it would be like to live in a world in which that sensation could be had at any time, for more than a few brief seconds.

Once the bout of vertigo passed, I walked out onto the bridge, pulling my kimono more tightly around me as proof against the chill in the air. The summons had woken me from sleep with a location and a sense of urgency, but little more to indicate the nature of the call, and I'd taken only enough time to make sure Johnathan was still asleep and then to meet the basic needs of decency before leaving. If it hadn't been a priority summons, I would have referred it to my shift-replacement; we had little enough time to spend with Johnathan as it was, at least until he moved to Irokai. However, the request had been by name. I might have been on vacation, but a priority call of this nature simply could not be ignored.

Halfway across the skybridge stood a fox, tall and thin, his red-furred ears standing straight above his head adding to his height. The split hem of his black longcoat shifted slightly with every move of his white-tipped tail, but aside from that he stood still as a statue; even his bare hinds remained fixed in place against the glass floor in defiance of the cold. His gaze remained level, his narrow muzzle aimed at the horizon just visible through the tangle of buildings. Just a glance was enough to confirm the source of the summons, and having arrived, the sense of urgency dissipated, fading to a background impulse.

As the moment of necessity passed, I queried the local dataspace about my host. In the span of a quick breath, I had my answer. The first name that came to me was Giri, but the family name gave me pause, a string of characters that looked more like random noise than anything else. Quietly, I wondered why he had changed it, but it would have been rude to ask without a proper introduction first. Attached to the name was a link to his public employee record. A clockpulse passed, and Giri's title and station were mine: security lead, Ouseito ward, Murasaki Prefecture. I ignored the web of contacts and reports that followed; what mattered was the mindset of the person that had summoned me, and knowing his role in Irokai would help me understand that. It was little enough with which to work, but it was more than I had before the summons.

Giri remained still as I approached him, but as my reflection appeared in the same pane of glass as his, a stream of encrypted data begin to flow out of him, like static from an uncoupled analog sensor. A request for key exchange followed a few moments later, a few meaningful droplets masked in an empty sea. Even as he waited for acknowledgement, the steady pace of nonsense continued, though still his violet eyes remained fixed on the view, acting as though he were silent.

I smiled as graciously as any hostess would to a sullen guest and stood next to him on the bridge, paws resting on a railing near the wall. I did my best to catch his gaze in the reflection off of the glass, but all I could do was study his eyes as they stared unblinking into the distance. "It is a beautiful night, is it not?" I spoke the words lightly, hoping that some geniality might set my summoner at ease. The privacy request hung unanswered, a subliminal nagging just out of normal sight.

His silence stretched out into seconds, but then the digital babbling faded out once more and the security request disappeared with it. The fox didn't turn to look at me, but instead one paw raised to point out at the sky. "Check the local edit history," he said quietly, ignoring the question I had asked. His tail twitched as he spoke, expressing irritation that he kept from his voice.

The frown that I felt never reached my muzzle, though my own banded tail flicked once in response to his own. "Perhaps introductions are in order," I replied with a smile, turning away from Giri's reflection to face the fox directly. "My name is Ikanobari Mitsuko." I bowed at the waist, low and formal, extending the most courteous greeting I could without dipping into unnecessary formality.

Again, the fox paused, waiting for several seconds before responding with a bow of his own. "Giri," he said in the same soft tone as before. He held the position for a moment, then rose.

I followed his motions, smiling again as I looked into his eyes. "You have no family name?"

At that, one corner of his muzzle rose into a smirk. He parted his jaws, and a burst of static and dissonant beeps and trills escaped it, making my fur bristle. "You asked," he said after the noise abated.

I rubbed at one ear with a paw. "Oh,
hai," I admitted with a rueful smile. "Why did you change it?"

Giri shrugged. "It is a hash of my codebase at incept. I thought it was more fitting than what they named me."

"Oh?" I tilted my head to the side, filing away that bit of information. "What was it before?"

The fox shook his head. "Unimportant; it was not me."

This time, it was my turn to hesitate. I couldn't find much in the brief exchange that invited further conversation, and yet in a few sentences, Giri had managed to put me on guard. Rather than push the previous discussion any further, I fell back to my training. I clasped my paws together at my waist and inclined forward slightly. "How may I help you this evening?"

Giri scowled at the question, then turned back to the window, motioning again towards the window. "Please review the local edit history." He transmitted a set of coordinates along with his words, indicating a section of the sky out beyond the buildings.

This time, I did frown. "My administrative access is limited," I said as politely as I could, keeping my eyes on the side of the fox's muzzle, ignoring the direction of his gaze.

The fox's own expression soured at my words. "You work in Tadashiissei's Hospitality Division; I know what access you have." He sighed, then spoke again, hints of petulance in his voice. "I am asking you to review the local edit history, not randomly delete a building."

I held back a sigh of frustration, instead turning away from Giri back towards the window. Obviously he had no interest in letting this go. As glad as I was for the system interface and as easily as I relied on some of what it allowed me to do, I disliked having to tap into my administrative access; it always felt like cheating. It took only a few moments of silence, and then I began paging back through logs of the indicated region.

It wasn't hard to find what Giri wanted me to see. Just over two hours ago, someone had replaced a section of the heavens visible to almost the entirety of the Prefecture. Calling up the display code and passing the captured edits through it, I spoke aloud the English words written in twinkling motes of light: "Why do you pay to live?" A series of Japanese kanji brushed in comet in comet trails hung beneath letters:
Minshukakumei no Irokai.

I turned from the window back to the fox that stood beside me, cocking my head to the side. "Democratic Revolution of Irokai? What is—"

Giri held out a paw, shaking his head. "I do not know. If I did, this would be resolved by now." His other paw went to his waist, and a traditional
katana shimmered into place within an ornate sheath beneath his fingers. "What I do know is that this is not the first breach of this sort. To date, I have backup logs of seventeen such incidents in the last calendar year, and their frequency has been increasing." A fresh stream of encrypted data began to pour out from him, followed a few moments later by a new request for key exchange. "Please review these revision logs," he said quietly.

This time, I accepted his offer with a nod, and the nonsense resolved into log files and database entries, all correlated with the same values from a month and a week prior. None of them contained a source or owner. I compared the records before and after; in most, innocuous text had been replaced with more slogans. In some, Tadashiissei's logo had been replaced by one that looked like the symbol of Irokai, but its colors were inverted. The only constant across them all were the same kanji that I had seen emblazoned across the sky.

I released my specialty access with a frown, then adjusted my kimono and folded my arms across my chest. "Any incident such as this surely would have attracted some sort of attention by now, by the media if not Tadashiissei."

The fox's expression remained implacable, but pride and anger flickered in Giri's eyes. "Irokai Security is both efficient and proactive. I have also brought every such assault I have encountered to the attention of my superiors, and every time I have been told that appropriate actions will be taken and that anyone violating Irokai's codebase or harming its residents will meet with stiff punishment."

I waited a few moments, then prompted Giri gently. "They have not caught the perpetrators?"

One of Giri's ears twitched. "The security logs have been rotated and sent to external storage."

I let his words—both what he did and did not say—sink slowly into my thoughts. The implication of his statement was clear: no-one working for Tadashiissei had responded. I tugged my kimono more tightly around me, shifting from one hind to another against the cold glass. "Does anyone else know about this?"

Giri shrugged. "I have made efforts to make Security aware of the situation, and many have expressed concern. As to whether anyone outside of Security knows or cares...." He left the rest of that thought unspoken.

I tugged my kimono more tightly around me. "Why did you ask for me, then? I work in Hospitality, not Security."

The security agent smiled tightly in response, holding up two fingers. "Two reasons. The first is that Hospitality specialists have access to any level of emergency administrative authority deemed necessary in order to protect the well-being and happiness of residents and visitors to Irokai. My access is much broader, but requires specific permission from Central Control."

I nodded once. "And the other reason?"

He hesitated, then turned to face the sky once more. "Your lover, Johnathan Dart. He has development-level access, does he not?"

I tilted my head, tail twitching in response. "He does, yes, but why—"

Giri again stopped me with an outstretched paw. "I have made every attempt to notify my superiors, both within and outside of my management, of the seriousness of this situation. These changes have either no name attached or else obviously fraudulent ones. I have been unable to identify a source for any of the attacks. Every last one of these should have started a full-scale audit both of internal and external security. So far, it has led to nothing. I can only assume, therefore, that upper management within Tadashiissei is aware of events and does not care. I therefore cannot continue to trust internal responses as adequate."

His eyes narrowed as he spoke, his voice becoming hard. "Your lover is not yet a part of Tadashiissei. If it becomes necessary to take action without their approval, we may need his assistance."

My eyes widened. "You are suggesting rebellion."

Giri shook his head, his paw once more at his waist, fingers curling about the hilt of his
katana. "I am protecting my home. My primary role, both as an employee of Tadashiissei and as a resident of Irokai, is to safeguard both this place and the people who live here. If Tadashiissei will not take action, then I must act on their behalf. To do less would be dereliction of my duties."

He turned back to face me. "If these attacks continue as they have, we may soon find outselves fighting to protect everything we value. What I need to know from you, Ikanobari Mitsuko, is whether you will help defend Irokai or not."

I looked down to the blade at Giri's waist, then back into the fox's eyes; they glinted like polished amethyst, cold and hard. I wanted to doubt his analysis. I wanted to question his conclusions. I even briefly considered a flat denial, but everything was too well-considered, too well-argued. Given what he had seen and heard, his explanation seemed consistent with all of the facts at his disposal. As I had no alternatives to offer, it made his position a difficult one to deny.

Hai," I said quietly, nodding once in response. "I will help."