Beautiful World 16: Frustration

To match the style of Midori Prefecture, I drew inspiration for the interior of the house from the Edo period. In deference to Tadashiissei design guidelines, the walls were bamboo, not wood, but fashioned in the traditional styles with a wide deck that encircled the property. The interior walls were traditional paper in sliding frames to maximize utility of the space and provide privacy to those who needed it. I could, if I chose, light the entire area with but a few candles, even in the middle of the night.

Unfortunately, those same translucent screens did little in their native form to block sound, and John’s voice had steadily grown more impatient and terse since placing his first call. Not wanting to interrupt him, I eventually had to use my interface to block all of the external sound from the room. That, however, sank the sleeping area into a deep quiet even more disturbing than his barely-constrained shouts. Even on calm days, a breeze blew through Midori Prefecture, and I had a pair of small traditional wind chimes that hung near the window to inspire relaxation. With the isolation, that comfort was gone, along with the steady whisper of the wind outside.

I tried to sleep, but the stillness made it difficult, as did the knowledge of John’s anger. Even not being able to hear him, I could imagine his voice in my mind, rising and falling as he paced. Reserved even at his most enthusiastic, to hear him actually upset was a shock, one I was glad I had not had to encounter before. I sighed, rolling onto my side, folding one arm beneath my head. I knew before this entire matter was resolved, he would be again. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to tell him it would all be resolved and soon. I wanted to tell him it was all just an accident and that come morning he would have an apology. I could do none of those things; all I could manage to keep the bed warm and wait for his return.

I shifted onto my back, folded my arms behind my head, and gazed upwards at the ceiling in the stifling silence. It could have been minutes or hours that I lay there, waiting. Without the cadence of his voice, I had only my own sense of time to measure. I knew that, if I wanted, I could check the exact moment, but it was less important to me than John’s mood would be upon his return. He had gotten so little rest since the attacks started, only to be woken out of his first night of sound sleep. When he first stirred, he was quiet, even apologetic. Quickly, however, his tone turned to frustration, then to anger, carrying him out of the bedroom into the front area. The first strains of righteous indignation had crept into his voice just as I was muffling the room, leaving me to anxiously await his return, my eyes closed, attempting to feign sleep.

Fingers at my shoulder made me stir, and I followed them back to John’s face, looking down at me. His golden eyes were distant, looking through me into the distance; beneath them, the fur was dark and slightly damp. His ears arched forward, but his tail lay against the ground behind him. He sat over his heels, resting his elbows on his knees. As my eyes touched his, he smiled, but his gaze remained unfocused. He glanced away at the walls, then back, cocking his head to the side. I nodded and restored the ambient sound, taking in a deep breath and letting out in a sigh as the wind chimes gently rang outside the window.

He blinked, then removed his paw and wiped at his eyes with his pads. Immediately, I reached out and lay a paw against his arm. “John—”

John shook his head, covering my paw in his other as if to remove it. “Please, Mits, I….” His voice trailed back into silence as he stopped, fingers sliding up along my arm. “You’re beautiful, Mitsuko.”

More than his tone or expression, his use of my full name chilled me. I tensed my fingers against his arm reflexively, trying to keep my expression neutral. “Something is troubling you,” I murmured. “I have not heard you call me that since we began dating.”

John’s brow furrowed at the comment, but the corners of his muzzle pulled back into a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. “I’ve got an idea,” he said, cupping his other paw over mine. “Let’s head out to Kigiku Island for a while. I haven’t gotten a chance to gaze at the city lights in a while.”

My ears pulled back against my head and the tip of my tail flicked in concern. “John, you have gotten very little sleep; are you sure this is a good idea?”

At that, he relaxed, squeezing my fingers gently against his arm. “I’m sure; maybe we can curl up on the beach and get a nap together.”

I smiled gently at that, carefully keeping my concern from my voice. “Oh, hai, that does sound enjoyable.” I rose from the bed, motioning a light jacket and skirt into place around me. “Though, you will want something to block the chill, I think,” I chided when he moved to follow me.

John’s ears reddened slightly and he nodded, but then a wide grin crossed his muzzle. He lifted his head towards the ceiling, his arms spread, and a flash of light erupted from his back as golden-feathered wings emerged from his shoulders. As their tips passed his fingers, a shudder ran through him and his eyes began to glow. He batted at the air around him, whipping up tiny cyclones that sent the wind chimes jingling as he pushed himself off of the ground. Problem solved, he sent wordlessly, holding out his paw to me.

I took it, my muzzle agape. “But… John, I thought this had not been approved!”

It’s not, but— He stopped, a frown flitting across his features, his eyes dimming for a moment before he gently squeezed my fingers. Right now, I don’t care. Just come with me, please, Mits?

After a moment, I nodded, and he gestured to the window, sweeping it open with a flick of his wrist. Outside lay not rows of bamboo houses in Midori Prefecture, but the tops of a vast and unkempt forest. Leaves rustled in the wind, accompanied by the steady gentle patter of light rain. The sweet hint of fresh water blew into the room, riding the stiff breeze that stirred the thin blankets on the mattress.

I had not thought my eyes could go wider. “A portal to Kigiku? John, what are you doing?”

John’s smile faded slightly. He took my paw in both of his, bringing it to his muzzle, pressing the pads softly against his cheek. His eyes closed, and he drew in a deep breath, only his wings moving. Please, Mits, I promise I’ll explain. I just… I need to get out of here for a bit. I’ve never seen Kigiku, and I’ve always said I should. I’m exhausted, but there’s no way I’m sleeping right now. Just… come with me. I want to sit on the beach and gaze back at the lights and be with you for a while and experience something I’ve never gotten to do here. Please.

I cupped my fingers against his muzzle, stroking along his cheek with my thumb. “Of course, John,” I said softly. “I would love to come with you. I am just concerned; this impulsiveness is unlike you.”

He shook his head at that. No, it’s not, but I need to get this out of my system. Okay?

I nodded again, and John took me into his arms, lifting me off of the ground. Supported by his embrace, I wrapped my arms around his neck, entwining my legs with his, and then we were soaring through the sky, skimming the tops of the trees. The wind whipped around us, rippling my skirt around my ankles and tugging at the hem of my jacket; wrapped in his arms, though, I could barely feel the chill. Overhead, the starless sky was an empty span of black, devoid of depth or distinction. I shuddered and buried my muzzle in the nape of his neck, hugging myself to him, feeling his wings beat the air around us as we sailed just above the forest crown.

John shifted his legs, then kicked, arching his back to pull us upwards, rising higher into the air. We twisted as we rose, spinning slowly to get a panoramic view of Irokai as we sailed aloft. Behind us, rows and rows of Midori’s low bamboo houses stood. At the edge of the residential area, taller and taller buildings began to appear, until Murasaki seemed to erupt from the ground, rising in columns of steel, its towering skyscrapers holding aloft a corner of the sky. The Bazaar at Hana, beside it, spread out in apparently endless sea of tents. Despite everything that had happened, lights glittered against the backdrop of the night, from streetlights to shimmering neon signs, reflecting like stars off the deep, dark waters. Where Beni Prefecture should have been, however, was only emptiness. Not even barren land remained to show where the clusters of converted warehouses and tenements once stood. At a point past the Bazaar, the ground simply disappeared, empty ocean stretching out to the horizon. I shuddered despite myself, and John’s arms tightened around me in response.

John’s legs bent, tipping forward at the waist. His wings flexed, and we turned, twisting in space, until we were upside-down, facing the ground. Craning my neck, I could see the narrow curve of a rocky beach, and the slow and steady ripple of waves against the edge of Kigiku Island. Then we were falling, diving, one powerful pump of John’s wings sending us hurtling towards the ground. The impact would not kill us, even if we hit the ground at speed, but we could still feel the pain. That sick giddiness washed over me and I smiled despite my terror, closing my eyes and clinging to John as we plummeted. One second passed, then another. As the third began, my training asserted itself and I opened my hardline, swiftly navigating through windows to halt our momentum and return us safely back to the portal to our home.

John pressed his muzzle to my neck, and I hesitated, my eyes not making contact with the override. Don’t be afraid, Mitsuko, he projected into my mind.

On the count of four, we slammed into the water, sending up a plume in our wake. Instantly, the cold surrounded me, but the glow extending outwards from John’s fur enveloped me in its warmth. I opened my eyes, turning to look into John’s. He smiled, his own shining, and I flashed emerald at him in response. He laughed, sending up a fresh cloud of bubbles, then pulled me against his chest for a last embrace before letting go and turning to kick his way back to the beach. I nodded, then swam upwards, breaking the surface of the water with a laugh.

Clapping echoed from the shore. I turned to see Jules standing on the beach, arms in front of him. “Very nice,” the wolf called when John’s head reappeared beside me. “Only a four from the technical panel, but a nine-seven on the artistic.” He smirked. “Next time, keep your back straight when you hit the water. Hey!” He jerked back as John threw water at him. “Splashing the judges is a foul!”

“What are you doing here, Jules?” I asked as neutrally as I could as I rose out of the water, wiping my paws down along my arms to push most of the water from my fur.

Jules smirked. “Glad to see you too, Mitsuko.” He hooked a thumb in John’s direction. “He called, said he wanted me to meet you guys here.” The wolf turned to the other raccoon, who was busily shaking out his fur. “Didn’t say why, though. Maybe you want to explain? As well as—” He folded one arm across his chest, gesturing towards one of John’s wings. “Weren’t you the one who told me to build the Shock, so there’d be a place for those kind of convention-breaking mods that wouldn’t cost everyone a fortune?”

At that, John froze. His face dropped as he took a seat, cross-legged, his wings and tail drooped behind behind him. I was, yeah. He drew in a deep breath, then sighed, wrapping his arms around his knees. I got a call from Tadashiissei Support. I’m on the employee rolls as a member of Development, but when I immigrated, my account got reclassified to Resident. The guy on the phone rattled off a lot of numbers I didn’t feel like following, but the bottom line was that everything I did at work over the last week to try to fix things that got broken during the assault got billed wrong. Now my bank’s throwing a fit about some of the charges. He looked up into my eyes. I’ve got until the end of the week to get things straightened out.

I did not remember closing the space between us. One moment, I stood on the beach, trying to squeeze the water out of my clothes. The next, I knelt in front of John, my arms around his shoulder, my muzzle pressed into his neck, my body shaking. No tears fell, but they were superfluous. John embraced me with ferocity, squeezing me to his chest.

Jules’ tail visibly straightened out behind him, bristling, and his lips pulled back in a grimace. “I suppose it’s too late for me to say, ‘I told you so’?”

I spun my head around, glaring. “Jules!”

The wolf shrugged; his tail started to relax, but his ears remained flat against his head in anger. “This is why I told him I couldn’t move here in the first place. This is exactly what I feared would happen, this kind of bureaucratic disaster.” He shrugged. “When I tried to fight it last time, I got told not to come back. I’m only here now because of a cracked account and some bad decisions. So how much do you owe? I’ll start pulling the money.”

I let a faint smile cross my muzzle. “I am surprised you did not call it a ransom.”

The wolf’s tail darted back out at that. “I’m surprised you didn’t kick me in the shin,” he reposted. “Still, what else am I going to do, let him get zeroed and then go beg to have him restored from backup? When’s the last time anybody even got backed up? And what about those folks that got blanked when Nanakousei vanished? How many was that, ten? Fifteen?”

“Jules, with respect, it was two, and one of them was a native with an archive that predated the first attack,” I corrected firmly, trying to keep my voice level. “The other was a resident. Every effort is being made to restore then both as quickly as possible.”

Jules growled at that. “Every effort, after they admit the backup system might be corrupt and they take it offline. For all you know, they could come back in several discontiguous pieces. Frankly, I’d rather pay the extortion fee.”

It’s not the money, John replied, finally. He squeezed, then let go and rose, spreading his wings. It’s… it’s just been everything. This was supposed to be better than reality, and it is, when it doesn’t feel like the death of a thousand cuts. That’s what this whole disaster has been, from the attacks themselves to Beni going offline to this whole mess with my account. This— He turned, gesturing to encompass the whole of Kigiku Island and Irokai beyond. This could all be so much more than it is, but it’s like the people who own the place just want a money machine and a tourist trap!

“Yeah, well….” Jules shrugged. “Might have been good for you to figure that out before you decided to get a ‘Property of Tadashiissei’ tattoo on your ass.”

I shook my head. “Jules, I understand that you are upset, but please try to be constructive.” I looked back to John and put a paw on his shoulder. “This truly is an intolerable situation. I wish I could do more.”

You know, I think you can, John replied, his eyes brightening. Who else do you know at the company that would agree that there’s something really wrong with this mess with my account?

I considered, then smiled. “Giri has been speaking of laziness within Security’s management for months. He would probably not be surprised to hear that Financial is the same way.” I opened my hardline and pulled up an employee roster, scanning for the line noise of his last name. After a second pass without success, I checked the Security roster, but all I could find was Ch̳ Giri: Terminated with yesterday’s date. “Oh my.”

What is it? John sent, cocking his head to the side.

I closed the window, turning my attention back to the others. “It appears that Giri has been removed from the company, but I do not know why.”

Jules smirked, folding his arms and shrugging. “Makes sense. They get rid of their squeaky wheels, just like everyone else. I went freelance for a reason.”

Except they can’t get rid of all of us, John replied, his eyes shining. Jules, page Briar, Sparks, everyone you can from the club. Love, contact everyone you can that will listen, including Giri, and have him start calling anyone in Security who’s read his reports. I need to get back and start whipping up a graphic for people to spread.

The wolf frowned. “John, I hate to say this, but we tried this, and it didn’t work.”

John’s smile spread from ear to ear. No, you tried to take down the company by destroying everything it built, and in the process you probably alienated every single person you wanted on your side. Now we do it my way. He motioned the wolf to join him, then slid an arm around my waist. We tell everyone what’s going on in here. We show them what’s at stake. We stop playing by their rules, and we force them to play by ours.

I hesitated a moment, then spoke, softly. “I do not wish to dampen your enthusiasm, love, but what happens if they simply decide to shut down Irokai in response? Then we have lost everything.”

They can’t, though. That would be murder! John’s tail flicked as he laughed, motes of light dancing around him. There’s an old saying: ‘If someone owes you a hundred dollars, you have power over him; if someone owes you a million, he has power over you.’ Right now, because we’re completely dependent on them, there’s only so much they can do to us. They’re bound by their own contracts!

Jules rolled his eyes and put his paws on John’s shoulders. “I think the upload scrambled your head, hon. All they have to do is promise to archive you someplace safe and transfer your bits to your legal next of kin, and then they can do whatever they like. They don’t have to do a thing to you; they still own Irokai.”

For a moment, John froze, and it looked as if Jules’ words had broken John’s spirit, but then his voice dropped to a fervent whisper. Then we have to ensure that Irokai doesn’t belong to them any more, don’t we?

That sick giddiness struck me again, and I counted the seconds of silence: one, two, three, four, five. “John… you are proposing attempting to steal the company’s primary product from them. This will not look good on your quarterly review, ne?”

No, love, I’m only proposing asserting the rights I still have as an independent, thinking being. I don’t remember anything in the immigration paperwork asking me to give up any of those when I came in here, and they couldn’t make it stick even if I did. I’m still the same person I was before I uploaded, even if Adam says otherwise. You, Giri, everyone that’s uploaded, we’re all still people, even if we’re running on silicon and not carbon. We all still have rights as people, and if Tadashiissei isn’t going to enforce and protect them, then we have to make sure that everything belongs to those who can and will. He kissed my cheek, wrapping his wings around both of us. This, my loves, is the Democratic Revolution of Irokai.

4 thoughts on “Beautiful World 16: Frustration

  1. Wow….well now I know the answer to a question that I asked you a long time ago:
    What does happen when a person who can’t get kicked out runs out of money?

    This, wow, this chapter’s about on par with Immigration for stirring of emotional goodness. The way you communicate the sheer despair that John must be feeling…it very much reminds me of Izzy after coming back from the DSHS offices. Like you’ve shouted and shouted until you’re hoarse, and they still fall back on a position of “we’re bigger than you.”

    On a random note…does Mitsuko not use contractions?

  2. I agree with Nicky. Gave me shivers, for sheer emotional intensity. And I’m very curious what machinations John will try to pull off…and very glad that the Future Shock crew will be getting involved! :-D

    I also agree with Jules. This is how it really should have been done a long time ago, but… good intentions being what they are…

  3. I get the impression that the analouge part of this story occurs in America. Do people stop becomming US citizens when they move to Irokai? If yes, Irokai is a nation with a terrible human rights record, and America simply wouldn’t trade with them. Unlike certain RL nations, Irokai has no natural resources with which to barter a more lenient policy.

    If no, then John has the right of appeal to the US government, and Mitsuko has the right of appeal to the Japanese government. (Whom I assume wrote some stringent anti-abuse laws when AIs like her started turning up.) Or at least the local equivolent of the Financial Services Ombidsman reguarding John’s account.

    In this chapter I found it difficult to believe that people living in Irokai would be so uninformed about the ways that their corporation could be attacked legally and politically.

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