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, akibito-sama?”
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, akibito-sama.”
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-san.”
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. Hai?
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.