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.