A Scattering of Stars: First Blush (Part 1)

“You’re angry, Isaac.” I knelt beside the hutch, my paws gripping my knees, watching him feed Mom’s rabbits with a scowl on his muzzle. A year ago, this had been the best hour we could spend together. Now he had to be prodded into it. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” my brother responded, in that way that said I should already know. He’d been silent most of the walk from his door, answering questions with one or two words. He’d shrugged off the paw I placed on his shoulder, then swooped forward on great owl’s wings. He’d let me in the first time I knocked, but he wasn’t happy I was there.

I scooted closer to Isaac and the rabbits, then manifested a bag of alfalfa. The large grey one turned, her nose wiggling, and I coaxed her closer, rattling the sack.“Something’s bothering you,” I tried again, leaning forward as the largest started to feed.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” my brother snapped. His wings shifted constantly against his back. Even his lop ears were tense.

I shifted again, edging slightly closer. “C’mon, Isaac,” I wheedled. “You can fool Miss Swann, but you can’t fool me.”

“It’s nothing.” Isaac scowled and drew one of the rabbits — the lilac English spot — towards him and curled a wing around it. “So you’re going to a private party on your birthday. Big deal.”

I knew that’s what it was, but now that he said it, I could deal with it. “It’s not—” I stopped; two words in and I’d lost control. I drew a deep breath and let it out. “Okay, I’m sorry, yes it is, but it’s not because I don’t want you there.” I did my best to smile encouragingly, eyes wide and ears forward. “It’s just that you’re not old enough to get into the FutureShock.”

Isaac groaned and thrust an asparagus stem towards the rabbit on his lap. “Jules let you in!” The vegetation disappeared in blocky segments as the rabbit in Isaac’s lap ate, oblivious to his anger. “It’s not fair, Lily!”

“I’m four years older than you are, Isaac,” I reminded him as gently as I could, petting the large grey rabbit to give my paws something to do. “Some rules.”

Isaac scowled. “You’ve started saying that a lot, usually when you’re about to do something you know you shouldn’t.”

“Like turn on the box?” Isaac snapped his wings wide in response, and I splayed my ears and ducked my head in contrition. “I’m sorry. That was our decision together, and I’m glad we made it, but that’s the kind of thing I mean! If we’re going to break the rules, we have to be really careful about which ones, and we have to have a good reason. I can’t just ask FutureShock to let you in; they could all get in trouble. Jules could get in trouble.”

Isaac ground his teeth at me. “I think you’ve got a crush on him.”

“I do not!” I snapped in response, and pulled out a second bag of hay to give me time to think. “He’s one of Mom’s friends, and he helped us, and he’s tribe. That means a lot to me.”

We were silent for a time after that, feeding the rabbits together. “It’s just—” Isaac started, then let his voice trail off with a sigh. “Ever since last year, you’ve been going there every week.”

I pulled up my calendar and checked; he was right, I had. I had notes of my visits, and the timestamps were pretty consistent. “I didn’t think that was all that much.”

“Every week!” he crowed again. “We used to hang out all the time together. Now it’s like I hardly see you.”

I smirked. “Isaac, I’m gone one night a week, at most. At most! It’s not like I’m looking to move there. And it’s not like you don’t have any other friends, either. There’s Puri in the Explorer’s Club, and Arjun and Bina from Accelerated Learning. You talk about them a lot. Invite them over some time.”

Isaac scrunched up his muzzle and rolled his shoulders, his great wings rustling against his back. “I do. It’s not the same; they’re just friends. Mostly we study together, or talk about school. Arjun blinks out an hour after classes anyway.” I flicked my ears in surprise; this was the first time I’d heard him even mention anybody logging out before. “You’re my sister, Lily.” He drew the lilac rabbit up close and pulled out a second bundle of asparagus. “I don’t want to lose you too.”

I held out a paw, but he pulled away. Instead, I summoned a small bunch of broccoli and waved it towards the smallest of the three, the white-and-grey lop with the wing-patterns on its back. “You’re family. I’m not leaving you.”

“So come with me up to the space station!” My brother’s voice rose in a whine as he lifted up onto his knees, eyes widening in visibly anticipation. “We can do zero-G together! It sounds so cool!”

I smiled and carefully slid my fingers beneath one of his ears, then cupped his cheek. He nuzzled my paw, his wings resettling on his back. “Hakushoku Station sounds fantastic, but Jules already invited me to a party at FutureShock this year, and it’s just one night—” I held up a finger on my other paw to forestall his protest. “— and I bet Mitsuko can get us both day-passes with enough warning, but she only got one this time. Maybe we can go back on your birthday and you can show me how much better you are at handling zero-gravity than I am.” I smiled and flicked out my moth-wings, spreading them wide for a moment, then letting them settle again. He flared his own owl-wings in response, shaking them before settling them back around his neck. The gesture had become a secret exchange between us.

The doorbell rang, the one to the front of our tiny Murasaki flat. “That’s probably Jules,” I said as I rose and brushed the dirt from my knees. “I’m not leaving, promise. I’m just—” I paused and giggled at the pun in my head.

Isaac cocked his head to the side. “What?”

I held out my paw to my brother. “I’m spreading my wings for the first time. You know what that’s like.”

Isaac hesitated a moment, then took it with a nod. “Yeah. Yeah I do.”

Together, we walked back up from the hutch to the fork in the path that led back to our living room. Compared to the simulated meadow, the rest of our space always felt so small. Mom hadn’t put much work into the living room, so most of the code was stock. The walls were the faintest lavender, with glossy violet trim and a few pieces of abstract art on the walls. An old Irokai clock hung on the wall, showing the time in a gradient arc. The bay window opposite the front door looked out over the central courtyard, down at the riotous palette that was Tadashiissei Square. In the center of the square, just visible out one window, was the Jewel of Irokai: the tallest tower in the world, defined that way in the code. Translucent tiles covered its surface, lit from within in sweeping arcs of every color imaginable. It stretched up past the tops of every other building, its top touching the skybox of the prefecture. It literally defined how tall a building could be in Irokai; nothing could be bigger or brighter.

Isaac opened the front door, and there stood Miss Swann, a cake topped with a fondant carrot in her hooves. “Surprise!” Reflexively, he stepped backwards, which the pony took as an invitation, scooting around my brother into the living room. “Happy birthday, Lily!” Her jacket — a licensed Abeth Xiu design according to its tag, was almost the same honey blonde as her mane, and she’d traded in her pink pearls for solid white. She’d added a small choker around her neck, She set down the cake on the dining room table, then turned and took my paws; the Imago logo hovered just over the surface of each. “I thought we could go shopping together and get your avatar upgraded! It’s been so long since we modified it last. I’m sure that trip out to Kigiku Island was all a big—oh!” She turned sharply, finally looking back at Isaac, past whom she’d trotted, who was still holding the door open with one paw, a bundle of low-poly asparagus in the other.

The asparagus we’d been feeding to Mom’s rabbits.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Miss Swann blurted. Her eyes jumped from Isaac’s to mine rapidly. “Am I interrupting something?”

My brother looked down at his paw, then shook his fist, willing away the pixelated vegetables. “I was just—”

“Isaac was helping me with a meshwork tutorial,” I interrupted, stepping forward to put myself between Isaac and Miss Swann. “John and Mitsuko should be here soon; we’ll have time to finish the tutorial later.”

Miss Swann’s brow furrowed, but whether it was my lie or the names, I couldn’t tell. “I didn’t know you were still spending time with them.”

“They’re friends of Mom’s,” I replied, putting as much unction into my voice as I dared. “They offered to help.”

Miss Swann folded her arms across her chest and flared her nostrils. “Lily, those characters are going to get you and Isaac into trouble one day. I don’t know if you’ve studied it, but they’ve got….” She paused, her voice trailing off as her flicked this way and that. “They have a history with Irokai.”

I frowned, flatting my ears in response and crossing my arms defiantly in return. “You say they’ve got a history, but you won’t tell me what it is. You think they’re bad for me and Isaac, but you won’t tell me why. I want answers, and I’m old enough to get them on my own if you won’t tell me.”

Isaac stepped closer to me; he’d put away his wings and changed into his nice green polo shirt. “Lily?”

“No, Isaac, Lilian has a point,” Miss Swann uncrossed her arms, then held out her hooves to me. “I want you to trust me, and I see I have a lot more work to do to make that happen. Will you sit down with me, Lilian? Isaac?”

“You can sit,” I motioned towards one of the couches. “I’d rather stand.”

“Lily, don’t be rude,” Isaac hissed, tugging on my paw. “You’re going to get in trouble.”

Miss Swann walked past the couch, waving towards it as she moved towards the bay window at the far end of the flat. “No, I promise she won’t get in trouble for that. She might if she doesn’t learn her lesson from what happened with TakeFlight, but not this.” She waved a hoof at the Jewel of Irokai. “How much did your mother tell you about how Irokai came to be, Lilian?”

I shrugged. “She said it started out as a private project for one company, and then they set it free, but it didn’t work out how anybody really wanted.”

Miss Swann was silent for a few moments, staring out the window at that. “That’s an interesting way to look at what happened. Tell me, Lilian, you were working on meshwork earlier. Would you like to be able to make a new body, some day?” She held up a hoof. “I promise, it’s not a weird question.”

I looked at Isaac, who shrugged, his eyes still wide from confusion. “Maybe?”

“And you know how much time you’ve spent on meshwork tutorials, learning to make things that feel solid and and look good, right?”

“I guess?” I wasn’t sure where she was going with this line of questions, and I wasn’t comfortable just handing her answers that looked like the ones she wanted.

Miss Swann smiled. “So if you made a body for yourself, and you put a lot of time and energy into it, you’d want that time and effort recognized somehow, wouldn’t you?”

“I… maybe?” Now I was really confused. “You’re talking about stuff like all the copyright laws and protections.”

Miss Swann’s smile spread and she nodded eagerly. “You’re getting it!” She motioned toward the Jewel of Irokai. “They want to get paid for the work they did, and still do, keeping this place running. They may not own it any more, but they still spend a lot of resources on making sure it stays working. Running an artificial world powerful enough to let people grow their own digital sentiences is pretty expensive, so there’s a lot more money that Irokai has to raise to pay for that.”

Now I knew she had a point, but I still couldn’t see it. “So what does all of that have to do with Mom’s friends?”

Miss Swann returned to the couch and folded her hooves in her lap, looking up at me. “Your mother spent a lot of time and effort making sure that people who helped keep Irokai functioning didn’t get any credit for it, either in money or in recognition. I tried to explain before, but I suppose you were too young to understand. It wasn’t so urgent that you understood back then, either. John and Mitsuko were at the center of the fight to free Irokai, and they did everything they could to follow the rules, but they inspired a lot of people to break them without regard to the harm they were doing in the process. And Jules—”

“What about Jules?” I put my paws on my hips, ears snapping flat against my head. I wanted to flare and shake my wings at her, but I didn’t her to know I had them.

“Lily!” Isaac’s whisper had become a tense hiss. “Don’t yell!”

“No, Isaac,” Miss Swann held out a hoof to my brother, and he took it. I wanted to yank him out of her grip. “I know she’s just upset, but she’s not upset with me. Jules—”

“You paged?” Jules’ voice came through the front door. “Sorry, it’s open, everything okay in—” The white-furred wolf nudged opened the door with one paw, a package wrapped in silver holofoil clutched in the other. He was wearing a leather cap with a snapped brim, a matching vest over a mesh shirt. The buckles, zippers, and straps covering his pants made him look like a character from a visual novel. “Ah, yeah. Awkward.”

Miss Swann turned without standing up. “Mr. Pennrose.” She ran her fingers through her mane and furrowed her brow deeply at him. “We were just discussing Irokai’s history.”

“Were we?” Mitsuko followed Jules into the room; the raccoon had on her Hospitality uniform, though modified to make room for her grey-and-white wings and the vines entwining around her arms. She nudged the door closed behind her with her tail. “I would be quite happy to share my perspective on the matter.”

Jules held up his paw. “I don’t think we need to get into any of that in front of the kids.” He set his package down on the end table next to Miss Swann’s cake, then stepped over to Isaac and sat over his heels in front of my brother. “John’s been called to work, but Mits is still here to take you up to the station. Is that okay with you?”

“Oh, hai.” Mitsuko smiled. “I think you’ll find it quite the experience. It took me quite a while to learn.”

“Work?” I frowned and looked at Mitsuko. “What’s John doing at work today?”

Mitsuko’s smile slipped slightly. “Arbitration. Hopefully it won’t take the whole night, but he sent me ahead just in case.”

Jules turned to face Miss Swann. “More than just arbitration; it’s asshole corporatism. Splendour is ripping off an independent artist’s work in the Bazaar and reselling it in their boutique without credit. The designer’s got four years of prior art, but Splendour’s one of Tadashiissei’s old Verified Partners.” The wolf’s eyes flashed with lightning as he talked. “As soon as the artist started making noise and folks started taking interest, Splendour sued her. They’re claiming it should go to arbitration under their terms of service, but she’s not one of their customers and is insisting on her right to a court hearing. Now they’re trying to block her crowdfunding, and—”

Mitsuko put a paw on Jules’ shoulder. “You said we shouldn’t discuss it in front of the children, hai? What matters is that two rounds of legal negotiations have already failed. Splendour actually invited John to try to break the stalemate.”

Miss Swann pressed her hooves together, and her smile didn’t reach her taut ears. She run her fingers through her mane again. “It’s a shame when someone’s intellectual property rights get violated, isn’t it?”

Jules opened his muzzle to speak, but Mitsuko stepped in front of him. “It is, yes.” She knelt beside my brother as well. “Are you ready to go, Isaac? We don’t want to miss the evening shuttle.”

Isaac looked at Miss Swann, then back to Mitsuko. “Yeah.” He glanced towards his room, and the door audibly locked. “See you later, Lily.” He and Mitsuko waved, and then the two left together, the front door closing behind them.

That left Jules, Miss Swann, and I alone in our tiny Murasaki flat. The two held each others’ gaze uncomfortably for a few seconds, until Miss Swann rose and adjusted her jacket. “Well, all this discussion of politics is fascinating, but Lily and I were just leaving. I was hoping to take you out shopping before the Bazaar started closing.” She held up a hoof; in it was a clear sheet of etched acrylic that caught the light when she twisted it. “You and Isaac are growing up so fast. I thought it was about time to look into getting a new look; Imago is having a sale on customized avatars, and I got a discount coupon, good for half off even that.”

“That sounds pretty great, Miss Swann,” I said. Jules’ tail visibly drooped.

“Oh?” My caseworker’s ears shot upright, like she wasn’t expecting me to agree. “Are you… are you ready to go, then?”

I caught Jules’ eye and grinned. “I am, but not with you.” The wolf’s ears perked, and a grin spread across his muzzle, matched by a frown on Miss Swann’s. “I’m afraid I already have an invitation to a party tonight. You really should schedule your visits so I can plan for them. I’m sure there’ll be some cake left if you come back tomorrow, and we can catch up then.” I walked over to Jules and put a paw on his shoulder. “Thank you for the invitation, though, Miss Swann.”

“You’re so like your mother, Lilian.” Miss Swann’s scowl said she didn’t think that was a good thing. “You’re going to get yourself in trouble.”

“Coming from you, Molly, that’s a compliment,” Jules replied as he rose. He held out his paw to me, and I took it. “C’mon, Lily, let’s go.”