The tallest structure in Murasaki Prefecture naturally belonged to Tadashiissei. Rising from the center of the district, opposite the main square from the transit center, the Jewel of Irokai served as both in-world headquarters and symbol for the world itself. Much like the pictures I had seen of their physical buildings, a multicolored tessellation of translucent tiles surrounded the building itself, transitioning from the grey concrete that surrounded it. Instead of ending at the base of the tower, however, the tiles themselves curved upwards, rising as facets of a rainbow spire that seemed to hold aloft the center of the sky. Separated from others by a wide plaza and unique by design, the tower demanded that all who came to the district gaze upwards at those who had brought them Irokai.
Almost as impressive as the tower, was the crowd that had gathered around it. The clock had not yet touched eight, but already over a hundred people stood on the tessellated tiles, milling about slowly, murmuring. I scanned faces and accounts as I walked through the crowd. Many were nervous, or excited. A few people were visibly angry. Many in the audience had had at least one encounter with Tadashiissei’s terms of serve and account access policies. I kept my expression carefully level, but inside I was smiling; this was precisely the type of audience I hoped would come.
At the opposite side of the plaza from the transit center, a waist-height platform stood near the main entrance to the Tadashiissei Tower. Whoever had placed it had chosen its location well; it stood too far from the doors to be considered an obstacle, but it forced the crowd to stand close enough to the building to be an implicit barrier. A small group clustered behind it, talking amongst themselves. The rabbit I didn’t know, but she struck me as familiar. The other two, however, I recognized as soon as I saw them. John stood with his arms crossed defensively across his chest, his tail lashing and his ears against his head. Mitsuko rested one paw on his shoulder, her eyes full of concern but her tail held low and her shoulders hunched. All of them were dressed in professional wear, as if for a job interview.
As I stepped out of the crowd, a voice behind me spoke. “I do not believe you are welcome here.”
The smile that I had attempted to hold inside let itself out in a smirk. “Giri.” I turned to look at the fox. He stood relaxed, his paws jammed into the pockets of his coat. He had replaced his usual sweater, though, with a simple button-down shirt. His muzzle was expressionless, but his tail wagged behind him in amusement, almost wolf-like. “I would like to say I’m surprised to see you here, but I suppose I shouldn’t be.”
Giri half-bowed, but he kept his muzzle lifted, his gaze locked with mine. “I would say the same.”
I returned the gesture, even though there was no respect in his. “I work for Tadashiissei Security. It’s my responsibility to ensure the safety of Irokai.”
The words hurt me to say, but that was nothing compared to the pain visible in Giri’s response. His tail brushed out behind him. His eyes narrowed in a squint, and the corners of his muzzle tightened. He raised one paw to his waist, hesitating a moment before grabbing his belt. “I suggest that you leave, Rei. Have Security send someone else to cover this event.”
My own tail lashed; it was hard not to respond to his anger. Before I could do more, however, the rest of the gathered group had joined him. The rabbit put a paw on Giri’s waist, while Mitsuko and John interposed themselves between us. “Giri, go keep an eye on the crowd for me; I’ll call you when I need you.” As the fox nodded and walked away, the raccoon nodded to me. “Rei. I’m glad you could make it.”
I folded my arms over my chest. “Are you the ones who organized this event?”
John shrugged. “They organized themselves; I just put together the flyers. It’s more like a flash mob than anything else.”
“And your reason for the flyers was?” I asked, narrowing my eyes in suspicion.
The raccoons exchanged glances, then Mitsuko said. “I believe that will become apparent in a moment. John, I believe it is time.”
John nodded back, then turned to me. “Excuse me, Rei.” With that, he hopped up onto the platform, raising his arms over his head. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then when he next spoke, his voice boomed out over the crowd. “If I may have your attention, everybody?”
The crowd fell silent, turning to face the podium. “Thank you all for coming out here so early; I know most of you are probably just thinking about sleep.” He paused, letting a brief chuckle pass through the audience. “I also want to take a minute to thank the folks who run the FutureShock for helping me get this together so fast.” He paused to let the applause run its course, then lifted his arms again, projecting his voice out over the whole of the plaza. “I don’t want to bore you or waste your time, so I’ll get to the point. There’s something wrong with this place, but it’s something we can fix.”
He stopped a moment, looking down to Mitsuko, then back out over the crowd. “When I first came to Irokai, I did so because I thought it would be fun, a chance to be something else, somebody else for a while. I came back afterwards because I found something more. I found a place where I could do things I just couldn’t do outside. I found a place I could experience things that simply had no analog equivalent.” He brought his paws together overhead. “I moved to Irokai, uploaded myself and became a resident, because I found a place where magic could be real. I found a place where the old rules just didn’t have to apply any more.” He spread his arms wide, and a pair of pigeons flew from the space between his cupped fingers.
He paused a moment, letting the crowd applaud in response, then dropped his voice. “That, however, didn’t mean that people wouldn’t try to make some new rules. Different rules. Less popular rules. Outside, the rules you simply couldn’t escape were things like gravity, the speed of light, or your own heartbeat. In Irokai, they’re rules like subscription fees and access charges.” The light around the podium began to dim, as if gathering the shadows from the corporate tower over the stage. “Sure, they’re small. A nickel here, a dime there, a dollar somewhere else. It’s never too much to ask, but is it too much to pay? What’s the difference between walking and flying, if gravity’s just a number in a database? What’s the difference between raccoon and rabbit, between wolf and weasel, when you can change your body as easily as your clothes?”
The people in the audience began to murmur, with scattered claps, but John continued to speak over the swelling throng. “I took a job with Tadashiissei because I wanted to help make Irokai a place where anything was possible. Where anything is possible. When the attacks started, I pitched in and helped as much as I could, figuring out what was wrong. When that required me to make changes to the environment, I made them. I did what I had to do to make Irokai safe again. Now, Tadashiissei’s told me I have to pay for everything I did in the line of duty!” He paused, then broke into a shout. “They’re threatening to suspend my account—to turn me off—if I don’t agree to pay!”
The crowd, already grumbling, broke out into a full-throated growl. “It gets worse,” Giri called back to the stage, his own voice even but matching John’s in pitch.
“Giri!” John motioned for the fox to join him. “Come up here, tell everybody what happened to you that night in Beni Prefecture.”
Giri nodded, the crowd parting as he approached the platform. “I worked for Tadashiissei since my inception, in their security department. I saw the signs of the coming assault and tried, time and again, to warn them, to investigate, to take steps to stop it, but they did nothing.” As he spoke, he stood straighter, lifting his head, visibly projecting the pride he took in his work. “When the attacks began in earnest, they acted surprised that it would happen. After working almost two complete shifts, I was ordered to take a break. There were still emergencies to resolve, but I was assured they would be. So I went home to sleep, only to be woken by a request for help that no-one else could answer, from several people trapped in a building in Beni Prefecture. I did what any decent person would do, and I went to help. My intervention saved two residents from the virus currently keeping Beni offline.”
He paused, letting the crowd absorb his words, then sighed, visibly slumping on stage. “No sooner had I finished, than my manager arrived to fire me for disobeying an order.”
“It’s not right!” The rabbit from earlier cried out, and suddenly the growl became a rumble of discontent. “If you hadn’t acted, at least two of those people would still be stuck waiting for a restore. And who knows how many other residents got hit when Beni got taken offline.”
“No, it isn’t right,” John echoed, talking over the rumbling crowd. “If we were just customers, maybe they could get away with it. Caveat emptor, sure, but for some of us this isn’t a game any more. This is our home. These are our lives, and we have rights, and Tadashiissei can’t take those away from us just because we can’t leave! We have a right to live without worrying about getting deleted because they can’t secure their systems. We have a right to know why Beni Prefecture’s still offline. We have a right to not have to pay just to live!”
Hearing his words, I couldn’t contain my smile any further, but I knew my part to play in this even if they didn’t. “Excuse me,” I called up to the stage, letting my voice carry over the crowd as the others had. “I am here as a representative of Tadashiissei Security, and—” The crowd turned ugly, hurling jeers and threats in my direction. I raised my voice to be heard over the mob. “And I feel it necessary to remind you, John, that as a fellow employee of the company, you’re obligated to abide by certain rules and regulations governing public conduct. I think you’ll find that this event is clearly in violation of them.”
“Oh, you’re still here?” The raccoon’s tail hooked, and he smiled, but his eyes were dark. “What’re you going to do, fire me?”
I chuckled. The whole of the event could not have gone better had I planned it myself, right down to the dialog. “No,” I conceded, gesturing towards the building. “But surely you must be aware that by now, your demonstration has not gone unnoticed, and no doubt your department manager is aware of your actions against Tadashiissei, and she will have many questions.”
John folded his arms across his chest and motioned for me to join him up on the platform. “She already does, and she supports me. Since you’re here, though, I’ve got a couple of little favors to ask of you. They’re simple; they won’t take you long.” Once I was standing beside him, he held up a paw, then started ticking off points on his fingers. “One: go back to human resources and you tell them I quit. I can’t work for a company that treats me like this. I wouldn’t put up with it before and I refuse to put up with it now. Two, tell my old manager and my team that we demand that they make Beni Prefecture their top priority.”
As the crowd burst into applause, he turned to face them and grinned, then motioned for quiet. “Three,” he said as he faced me again. “Tell the board of directors that the residents of Irokai demand a seat at the negotiating table, not as employees, not as customers, but as citizens with inalienable rights, to collectively renegotiate our terms of service and account maintenance fees. Four, tell them that regardless of whether they meet with us or not, we demand an end to the user-level environment charges for residents. I’ll pay my taxes, but no more micropayments, no more death of a thousand bills.”
I crossed my arms and scowled, whipping my tail behind me. “They will be unlikely to listen to you. You did sign a contract with Tadashiissei before you came here.”
“As a tourist, yes, but not as a resident,” the raccoon countered with a smirk. “So, let’s put this in terms they’ll understand.” He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath, and opened them again, lifting his voice to the crowd. “I just pulled my bank account information from your database. Five: you tell the board of directors that until Tadashiissei meets with us on our terms, they don’t get another dollar from me.”
I let myself laugh, knowing John and the rest would think it directed at him. “Do you really think that one rebellious resident will change corporate policy?”
A strong tenor rose out of the crowd in response. “No, but maybe two might.” A tall white-furred mouse in a sleeveless top, vest, and denim skirt stepped forward, her hairless tail whipping behind her.
I turned, raising one brow. “And who might you be?”
The mouse grinned. “Imogen Franklin.” The author adjusted her glasses, then put her paws on her hips. “Maybe you’ve heard of me. I’ve written a few books that folks seem to like, and your company’s been bragging for the last few years about saving my life. Maybe if they get a cease-and-desist telling ’em to stop using my name, that’ll make ’em listen.” She grinned up at the platform. “Give ’em hell, John!”
In the wake of her words, a chorus of numbers rang out from the crowd as people rushed to be next to disable their payments. A flurry of cheers rose from the crowd as more and more people cut off Tadashiissei from their banks. Then the rabbit I saw earlier yelled out: “No more payments just to live!” Her words were infectious, and they too spread through the crowd, until the whole plaza was filled with people chanting Irokai no Minshukakumei‘s slogan.
John turned to me, a wide-eyed smile on his muzzle, his tail waving slowly behind him. He had the look of an artist, stunned by his own creation. “Do you think you can handle those for me, Rei?”
I smirked in response. “Perhaps Mitsuko will be telling them herself.” I gestured down to the empty space behind the platform where she had been standing some time ago. “While you were enraging our customers, she was summoned inside.” John’s eyes widened even further as his gaze followed my open paw. “Nevertheless, I’ll deliver your requests. Good morning.” Then, before he could reply, I bowed, opened my hardline, and teleported back into the tower, leaving behind a thunderclap and the echo of my smile.