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 caf├ęs, 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.

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