Unsummoned, the hardline flashed open, deep into the administration menu tree. The operating system has detected a change in hardware and recommends rebuilding core configuration files. Proceed? Y/N “No” was simply missing, a hole in the world. “Yes” was there, but unidentifiable, a failure in rendering engine: NO_SPACE;. Blinking at it, when it didn’t really exist, took an act of existential judo. How do I look at what I can’t see?
As soon as I did so, the window snapped closed, to be replaced by another one: An error has occurred in the configuration subsystem: Unknown error occurred; The operating system recommends restoring from backup. Proceed? Y/N Somewhere, somebody was shouting my name. It sounded like Giri, but that wasn’t possible; he’d deleted himself, hadn’t he? Maybe he’d just wiped his header blocks, and the rest of his code was trying to execute somewhere without a process table. I wanted to laugh, but I was tired. So tired. Tired and LOOKUP_FAILURE();. My gaze hovered over the null-space where the Yes would’ve been if it had existed. If I closed my eyes and didn’t open them again, it didn’t count, but it was so much easier.
I blinked, and the world froze for a few moments. A third window opened on top of the second, visually overlaying it. I had to squint to make out the text: No backups have been found! The operating system will now attempt to reboot to correct possible memory errors. Proceed? Y/N My eyes tried to stick to what would’ve been the Yes, but they wearily slid away from the undef();. We tried, Mits, I thought. We tried.
“Johnathan!” The name in full flashed under the window, rich brown in some gothic font. It snatched my attention away from the admin window. What? What’s causing that? Nobody calls me that but… A second sentence, this one pulsing with urgency, joined the first. “Exit the menu! Jules can’t force a reload until you’re out!”
I looked up—cautiously—at the interface and closed the window without picking either option. “I’m out!” I tried to yell, but no sound came out. Was I deaf, or had I been silenced? I had no way to test it, and no way to see if anyone had heard me, or if I’d made any noise at all. I couldn’t turn my head any further; my arm was still stuck, as was one foot. I’d lost track of Imogen, and the others. I’d lost track of everyone. It felt like the lessons, centering my breathing and keeping my mind clear. The less I thought, the less memory I needed, the less feedback I generated, the fewer errors I spawned. Sure enough, the shouts—I assumed that’s what they were, sent to me visually because of the hearing loss—were already rippling across the universe, sending fresh spikes, spires, and flashes through the spreading memory faults.
Something in front of my eyes twisted, a delicate, fragile tear in the universe, and then—
—the world went white, a complete and endless void, even beyond the defined borders of the server before. This was a pure emptiness, a lack of sensory input because there was nothing to sense, a world before the world had loaded. The hardline snapped open, displaying a fresh warning: Your user account appears to have sustained some level of corruption. Shall we attempt auto-repair or would you prefer to flag the damage for manual review? Fix/Flag Blue monospace text rippled across the bottom of my vision: Everybody, pick ‘manual’; the auto-repair system’s offline. You’ll look a little freaky but we’ll get you sorted out. I did as the Voice of Irokai directed, and—
—I fell forward, the momentum of my swing pitching me off-balance. Giri was gone, but I wouldn’t have hit him anyway; my fist was missing, too. So was my left foot, for that matter, and the end of my tail. I opened my muzzle to cry out, but I was dead-silent as I twisted and slammed into the ground. All around, people were starting to pick themselves up off the ground; text scrolled rapidly in a dozen fonts and colors. I pushed back onto my knees and carefully turned. The white walls had returned; the distortions were gone. Imogen—bright red sans-serif letters twice the height of anyone else’s—let out a whoop, her arms in the air. Everything from her waist down had vanished, but she shook her fists in the air triumphantly, whipping the people around her into a frenzy of applause.
I looked back to the point at which Giri had removed himself from the process list, but not even an afterimage marked his passing. I snapped open the admin panels and scanned through settings, looking for name lists. Most of the entries showed glitches in them. Number 1996 was completely missing; the list cleanly jumped from before to after. The only note for the missing entry said “unrecoverable.” I bowed my head. Briar’s going to be livid, I thought. I don’t know how much we’ll have to rebuild, but somebody’s got to have a backup somewhere. I bet Jules can— A tap on my shoulder pulled me out of my reverie, back up to a wolf and stag kneeling beside me, looking concerned.
The wolf’s muzzle opened, but when he spoke, more blue text scrolled by at the bottom of my field of vision. You okay, John? Say something, please. Jules quietly clicked his claws at me, then looked at Adam. Any idea what’s wrong with him?
The stag raised a browridge and smirked, folding his arms across his chest. How should I know, Jules? scrolled by in more brown Gothic. I’m not a programmer. This is your field.
I held up my right arm, trying to put my paw out before I remembered it wasn’t there. That got my ears flat against my head. I think my audio’s dead, I texted back in tight gold script. Where are you guys? What’s with the server? The door got hosed; did they finish the rollback?
Jules and Adam looked at each other, then back at me. One thing at a time, John, Jules sent. Let me… here, I have an idea. I’ve got your local backup system online in recovery mode. So much of the core code’s corrupted in here that I think you’re going to have to wipe and reinstall, but I think I can get the base species templates online if you don’t mind rebuilding your mods. Want me to give it a shot?
He didn’t have to ask me twice. I nodded eagerly, and his eyes unfocused as he worked. His fingers began to twitch in front of him as he typed on a keyboard only he could see, and then a minute later, he nodded. Go ahead and tell it to reset to default species settings.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then nodded again and opened the hardline to search for the reset. I had to manually add the option back to the administration menu; under any other circumstance, I’d have never wanted to use it. When the dialog asking me if I was sure I wanted to lose all my customizations, I hesitated for several long seconds before approving, and then suddenly I was back to the me I’d been when I first stepped into Irokai. I blinked and called up the template profile, scanning it wistfully; all of my updates were gone. Every last mod I’d ever built had disappeared. It’s okay, I told myself. I’ve got most of them saved some… damn, no, I had to ditch them with the station. Hang on, Jules has an offsite for that; it’s old, but—
Adam’s voice snapped me out of my introspection. “Johnathan, did it work?”
I looked up sharply at the stag. His liquid brown eyes were wide and blinking, and he looked like he was trying hard not to show too much concern. “I’m fine, Adam,” I said with a smile. “It worked.”
Jules sat back on his haunches, visibly sagging with relief. “Great,” he breathed. Then, with one finger to his throat, he spoke in a broadcast across the server. “Everybody, if you’re experiencing any kind of personal data loss, try resetting to default; you’ll lose all your mods, but it’s better than losing an arm. If you’re suffering from memory or other discrepancies…” He stopped and sighed. “We’ll try to help you when we’re back on production hardware.” He stood and stuck out his arm to me. “Sorry we’re late,” he said with a sheepish grin. “I had to get a few things out of my system.”
Adam rolled his eyes. “He had to go piss off a squad of security guards, is what he means. Speaking of which….” He looked down at a non-existant watch, then frowned at his wrist and scratched behind one ear with his blunt fingers. “He should be here by now.”
“He?” I blinked, then looked back at Jules. “He who?”
The wolf grinned from ear to ear, tail wagging behind him. He helped me back to my feet, then put a paw on my shoulder. “The head of Tadashiissei. He said he wanted to meet us here once he had a few things sorted out with Legal.”
My eyes went wide and my tail lashed. “Legal? Kūsō Kajō’s coming here?” When Jules nodded, a grin split my face. “We did it. I can’t believe we may actually pull this off.”
Jules cleared his throat, then hooked his thumb at Adam, who was looking around the area. “Thank him. He’s the one who made the last-minute plea bargain. We just…” He stopped, then looked down. “We wanted it really badly, John. Too badly to think about it clearly. You refused to think about the legal angles, and I… I couldn’t wait to be a test case. We made it work, but we both went about it all wrong from the start.”
I blinked. “How should we have done it, then?” I glanced at Adam, who turned to look at Jules as well, a smile on his muzzle and one hand under his chin.
“The way you did it at the end, only all the way along.” He looked at Adam, then back at me. “Irokai no Minshukakumei was a mistake; it just pissed people off. I probably turned off every person I could’ve counted on to help me out, throwing my tantrum. You screwed up, too, though; you should’ve understood your rights before you got here. When Adam pointed out that you and Imogen were still legally your own people, Kajō’s eyes turned six shades of angry. He knew he’d lost, and Adam didn’t even have to raise his voice to do it.”
I blinked again, then turned to the stag. “Adam, I—wow. I don’t know what more to say. Thanks.”
Adam shrugged. “I dislike taking things on faith. That includes an assumption of ownership for things that clearly don’t belong to you.”
I chuckled and grinned. “So, now what? How much longer do you think we’ll—”
A sudden gust of wind and a flash interrupted my question. In the middle of the room curled a long, snake-like dragon. His body was covered in hexagonal sapphire scales, like faceted jewels in a flexible mesh, with individual opalescent white panels at various points. White hair streamed back from his long snout, tipped in a wispy mustache that fluttered each time its head bobbed or moved, and his eyes gleamed like diamonds lit from within. Four-toed feet ended in ivory claws that fluttered and clacked against the ground, and its entire length twisted back and forth, coiling and uncoiling on itself.
More important, however, was the raccoon in the green shirt and white pants that stood stoically beside him. “Mits!” Her name was out of my muzzle as soon as I recognized her. Her arms were warm and comforting and I sank against her shoulder, tears streaming out of my eyes as I pressed myself to her. “Thank God you’re alright, Mits, I was so worried.”
Her breath was sweet when she kissed me softly. “I am here, John,” she whispered. “I will not leave you again.”
The dragon twisted, hissing his irritation. “Hopefully not, Ikanobari-san. I’ve already lost one designer; I can’t afford to lose one of my best Hospitality agents.” His eyes focused on mine, shining down on me. “Dart-san, you’ve made Tadashiissei’s legal experts very unhappy. I have brought her here as a sign of good faith; please accept this in the spirit in which it’s given.”
I couldn’t help but grin at that. “I will, sure. I wasn’t the one that made the rules, Kajō-sama. I’m just playing by the ones I was given.”
“And you have played them well,” Tadashiissei’s CEO admitted. “They’ve issued a preliminary ruling accepting your terms while they review the matter more fully, but it comes with a condition.”
I narrowed my gaze and my tail lashed, but as I opened my muzzle to speak, Jules put his paw gently on my shoulder. I glanced back to the wolf, who shook his head slightly. I nodded in return, then looked down at Mitsuko, who just smiled back in response. “What’s the catch?” I asked, without looking back to the dragon.
Kūsō Kajō, the chief executive of the company that owned Irokai, was silent for several moments before quietly replying, “They refused to re-negotiate terms with every individual, citing a lack of resources and time, and have politely requested that you assemble a collective bargaining association in the next ninety days with whom they can negotiate new contracts for Irokai and its residents.”
I stood stock-still for several seconds. My jaw hung open and my tail went limp. I looked back down at Mitsuko, then back at Jules; the wolf’s tail was sticking straight out behind him, fur frizzed. “Let me get this straight,” he said, looking up at the dragon. “Your legal team wants us to assemble a union, so they can cut one contract for everybody?”
Kūsō managed to look even less comfortable after that, his eyes narrowed and his claws clacking against each other nervously. “Not as such. To retain legal ownership of Irokai would give the appearance of coercion, and they fear any such contract could not survive a court challenge.” He hesitated, then snapped his claws together irritably. “Upon review of the business model as it is presently established, in light of these new opinions, the only path to continued profitability is for Irokai’s residents to collectively assume ownership of their environment, while Tadashiissei remains contracted to provide access and support services.” He paused again, longer, then lowered his head. “Among other possible options.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I spoke very carefully, just to make sure I was understood. “Mits, translate for me, would you?” She nodded, and as I spoke English, she converted to Japanese. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Kajō-sama, but… you’re saying that Irokai needs a government. An elected government.”
Kūsō’s eyes came back to mine, brilliant white stars blazing in his skull. “Hai.”
Silence fell over the group, held painfully still for several seconds, until Jules whispered, “Holy shit.”
I swallowed hard and looked down at Mitsuko; she was smiling, but her eyes were wide and her ears were flat against her head. “Did you know?”
She shook her head. “No, he said only that he had gotten word; he would tell me nothing else.”
I nodded. “Are you okay? Did they hurt you?”
“I am fine, John,” Mitsuko replied. She smiled gently, hugging me and resting her head against my chest. “I was scared for a time, but everything will be better now.”
For a few moments, I stood in quiet awe, running a paw down Mitsuko’s back, until the dragon cleared his throat. “Is that a yes, Dart-san?”
I looked back at Jules, whose grin threatened to split his head in half, then to the dragon once more. “It’ll take more than ninety days to do it right. That can’t be rushed.”
The dragon nodded. “A provisional representative will be acceptable if an elected representative is not available within the timeframe.” He gestured to the space beside him, and an ornate door winked into being. “The rollback has been completed; you are free to return home. Your accounts will be marked as pending until the contract question is resolved. If you need assistance with any other data loss, please contact file a support ticket with Tadashiissei Security; someone will be assigned to help you. We will need to transition the ownership of such difficulties to Irokai at some point, but that will be part of the negotiations.” He smiled coldly. “From now, your data integrity is your own concern, not ours.”
I held up one paw. “First, Giri Chō. He… didn’t make it through the server glitches.”
Kūsō nodded. “I will have Sasaki look into it for you. If there is nothing further, I have other matters demanding my attention.” He bowed his head, a move echoed by everyone around, and then disappeared with another pop and rush of wind.
I gave Mitsuko a gentle hug, then looked at Jules with a smile. “So, you ready to move yet?”
Jules grinned back, then cupped one paw to his chin and shifted his weight in mock-indecision. “Well I don’t know give me a chance to think about yes.”
I laughed and turned to the stag, then held out one paw to him. “I guess this is good-bye then, Adam.”
Adam just smiled as he shook my hand. “See you later, John.”
As he stepped back to go, Mitsuko suddenly pulled away and held up a paw. “One moment, please. Take this with you.” She closed her eyes, then drew out a small glowing sphere—the transcendus mod from my simulation. She smiled, then projected to everyone, “All of you, with our blessing.” She held up her paws, and dancing motes of light rose into the air, then settled across everyone in the room, blanketing us all in a sea of digital stars.