Note from the Observatory: It’s with great pleasure that I present this piece to you. Not only is it the first bit of gift-writing that the site has seen, but it’s also been finished just in time to coincide with the release of Beautiful World this weekend at Further Confusion 2011! It’s also written by my wife, who swears she’ll get back to working on Thirteen Ribbons real soon now!
by Jessie Tracer / Electric Keet
The young black cat tapped at the pane of glass; when she turned it to face me it became milky and spattered with nonsense. “This is the first message I got. There are four more from before, just like it but longer.” She nudged it forward in offering. “And thank you for taking the time, Officer Red Panda.”
I accepted the display panel from Abby and returned a warm smile. “Please, call me Yasuki.” On closer viewing, the deep blue nonsense resolved into fragmented English with bursts of near-random accented letters and punctuation. “This is… very strange. It’s been many years since I saw mojibake like this.”
Her head tilted slightly, the motion almost a caricature. “Pardon?”
“It’s a sort of error that can happen with digital text.” I pointed out the errant characters. “These are the result of letters from one language being misinterpreted by the system as being from another. Moji means ‘character’, bake means ‘change’. Mojibake.”
“So it’s not corrupted data after all?”
“It certainly is! It shouldn’t even happen in normal circumstances. Mixed in with pieces of normal, readable text….” I shook my head and handed the panel back to her. “Oh, neko-san, you have presented me with an enigma. May I have the other messages?”
She swept her fingers over the surface in smooth motions. “I received that one about a month ago, and these… every few days after. I wouldn’t have waited this long, but I thought they were just side effects from my time on that other server.”
My tail frizzed slightly. “You were also displaced during the Irokai no Minshukakumei attacks?” I remembered a cramped, impossibly white room stuffed to capacity with people waiting out an emergency server reboot. There was confusion, then panic—
She nodded with a chagrined smile. “Do you remember the cat who was caught by the memory corruption inside there?”
I remembered very well indeed.
My left paw kept busy, worrying at the edge of my suit jacket while I stared at message headers. An hour in my office with the messages sprawled across my workspace hadn’t done much to clear up the matter. Even with the mistranslated characters converted back to their original Cyrillic, it was all little more than a mess. The system helpfully pronounced the intact name “Perchik Zaytsev” for me, but the messages themselves seemed to have only occasional whole words of either Russian or English. The rest were untranslatable fragments.
Worse, the source of the messages was technically impossible. Before I’d joined Irokai Security – and before my permanent upload to the virtual world – I’d spent enough time beta-testing and sorting out small bugs to know a few things about how the massive computer system operated. Every autonomous process stored information about what object spawned it. The process delivering the corrupted messages to her belonged to something which simply didn’t exist in the database. It was like getting mail addressed from a city that wasn’t on the map.
I closed my eyes tightly, took a deep breath, and considered. Something about that cat and her enigma gnawed at me. I could dive deeper into the problem, focus all my efforts on a simple but odd-looking issue, and discover an obscure bug. I could report the matter to the development department and let them do all the digging for me. I could also simply put a filter on messages from that object and call the issue fixed.
I cleared my workspace, then began to type a message to Abby Paprika. «Your case is raising more questions than answers. I wish to meet with you as soon as possible….»
“Oi. You look like a cop.”
“I am a cop.” I flashed my credentials while staring evenly at the collie, doing my best to not let the garish lights of the club distract me. “It’s convenient that you’re logged in, korī-san. I have some questions for you as part of an investigation.”
She shifted in her chair with a jangle of the buckles and rings on her jacket… and some of her piercings. “Still playing at being in charge, hunh? How’s the arm?”
“Hold on a moment.” I invoked an administrative menu which floated obligingly for only myself to see. A few hand motions later, the raucous electronica surrounding us dropped to a murmur. “I’m sure you won’t mind the attenuation sphere?”
The effect only ranged for a couple metres, so nobody outside the pair of us had noticed it. She didn’t appear pleased, regardless. “Well, well. You’ve changed. So, like I asked, how’s the arm, lass?”
I flexed my left paw a little. “Getting better. Easier than learning the prosthetic was.”
Her voice dropped into a rumbly tone, a very familiar one. “Imagine what you can do with it now, eh?”
“Allow me to remind you that I am here as Security, not your paramour.”
She narrowed her eyes and muttered stiffly, “What can I do for you, constable?”
I sat across from her and tapped my display panel on the table between us. “Somebody’s having trouble with corrupted data. I examined her mods, and the name ‘Triska Dek’ was in every code header. Since that’s your alias now—”
“That’s my name.”
I tilted my head calmly. She glanced away for a moment, then back with a huff. I continued, “I would like to know more about the work you’ve done for Abby Paprika.”
I peered at her a bit harder. “The name doesn’t jog any memories, then?” She seemed genuinely perplexed. “I see. In that case, how about name Perchik Zaytsev?”
The collie shrugged. “Not a sausage.” With concern, she added, “Listen, I didn’t cause any corruption, right? I heard about the revolution, but I swear I wasn’t involved in the hacks!”
I held up a hand. “I don’t need to hear it, Tris. As far as I care, that’s old news.”
“So much is, nowadays.”
Don’t let her try your patience, girl. “I just want to know what’s going on with this code.” I swept a paw across the panel to light it up, then handed it over.
“Hunh.” Her expression lightened. “Oh! Right. I worked this up years ago for some guy.” She coughed. “Sorry, but I respect the privacy of my clients.”
I held back my first response. “Don’t worry about the name,” I soothed. “Just help me understand – what does the code do?”
Her ears went back. “Look, you’ve nicked me fair an’ square. It violates the terms of service. All over the place.” She extended her paws toward me, palms up. “Cuff me one last time, lass!”
“Stop that! I know the code’s illegal but I don’t care about that right now. I’m only concerned for the data integrity of an uploaded citizen.” Suddenly, I had her full attention. “If I have enough information to make sure she’ll be all right, then I can consider this case closed, and I’ll be so glad that I’ll certainly forget your name in the excitement.” I smiled. “Please?”
“Surprised you haven’t already,” she grumbled.
“Uploaded, you say?” She hesitated, then leaned back with a heavy sigh. “All right. The code lets the user swap most everything about their avatar with a second configuration, incuding interaction history and memory stream. Bored with being the same old horse? Set up a new self as a fox, swap into it, customise all you like. It’s a new life. Change back whenever you want, be that other person again, remember nothing or everything as desired. It’s the alter ego starter kit.” She grinned widely. “You look startled, lass.”
Thoughts raced through my head. Perhaps the messages were meant for Abby’s other persona, and something had been confused? Could a person really go so far as to have an alternate self learn another language? I certainly have….
Pride bubbled forth as she spoke of her work. “Figured you’d appreciate that. Best part is, all of that info gets stored in a separate object, so there’s no sudden spike of data storage to bust your quota. Scored ace yens for that one.”
She was correct about the policy violations, but Irokai had bigger worries than another illegal coder. I considered the original problem briefly. “Just what happens to messages that come in for that alter ego if it’s not loaded?”
“They’re diverted to a hidden queue for later delivery, though the user can set the buffer object up to send a notice. There’s a simple script to—” She sighed, then motioned in the air, her own system menus invisible to me. “Look, I’ve gotta log out soon. Go ask Daniil Skaryna. He commissioned the code. Just don’t tell him I told you that, right?”
I nodded, slightly numb. “Oh. I’ll do what I can.”
“Take care o’ yourself, Yasuki.” She stood, waved to the bartender, glanced to me once more, then opened the hatch-door to the club, all with her tail hanging low.
The paired mirror-walls at each end of the library made it infinite. Unhindered by the imperfections that would be in real mirrors, the image travelled into the reflected distance without losing clarity. Uncountable red panda women in identical dark blue business suits stared at each other. Endless borzois stood behind mahogany desks, each of them tall and dressed simply, each of them facing the bookshelves instead of their guests.
After a long moment, the one standing in front of me finally responded. His voice was rhythmic as though he’d learned English from listening to music. “This will be in strict confidence, yes? Like medical records.”
I turned quickly and nodded. “Of course, Daniil. I can promise you that any information you give me will be secure, and used only for necessary operational purposes,” I replied with a nod.
“Good.” He turned toward me and said, “You could say that… Abby and Perchik are within the same person.”
I suddenly felt uncomfortable in my tailored suit. A familiar motive—
“By your expression, I can tell that you have now put together more of this puzzle, my lady.” He chuckled slightly. “Yes, my friend is fond of his feminine side, and he wished to make her into a separate character, but he did not wish to pay for a second account for that simple privilege. As for the modification code you mention, I bought it as a gift to them both.”
Between my own troubled thoughts and his rhythmic, almost dancing way of gesturing when he spoke, I had to consciously remind myself to remain on the task. “I see. Still, neither name matches an active account.”
“They are nicknames, you understand. Perchik was not very fond of his physical self. This is why he spent all of his savings to be here as much as he could manage. Finally, he would upload… not long before the most terrible climax of the Democratic Revolution of Irokai.” He grimaced, sounding wounded. “Even before that difficult time, I saw more of Abby and very little of Perchik anymore.”
“But she says she doesn’t know who he is. How can—”
Instantly wild-eyed, he motioned with a a silver-furred fist. “That is not to be broken under any circumstance!”
Even startled, I used the same calm, admonishing tone that I had with Tris earlier. “I promised that I wouldn’t, did I not?”
He relaxed his stance and nodded. “Yes. Yes, I suppose you did. Apologies, my lady. You see, I am Perchik’s only confidant, and that is by his design. Nobody else is to know the connection between those two, and I tell you of it only because you tell me of urgent concerns.” He stared distantly into his infinite reflections. “It pains me to see so much less of my friend Perchik, but if Abby is happy and does not know of her past… then I will not complain. I have done right by them both.”
“I understand. Thank you for being honest.” I picked at the edge of my jacket. “When did you last hear from Perchik?”
“Perhaps two months ago. I have sent messages to him, but the mod is made so that he will only see them when he switches back to that character. In fact, I sent another message to him just a few minutes ago when you mentioned his name.”
“One moment, please.” I gestured through my admin menu to track the database number of that most recent message. It had been delivered directly to Abby. Shortly after, it was unsuccessfully rerouted to the object that didn’t exist.
Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, the chief of security said, “For this purpose, I shall allow the access. However, I will hold you to your promise of a full explanation when the case is closed.”
“Arigatō, Sasaki-sama.” I bowed gratefully to his projected image, then quickly pulled up the secure private information for Abby Paprika. As anticipated, she had been uploaded on the date Daniil mentioned. My tail frizzed. “Remind me, please; how far back do our rolling data backups go?”
“Previously, fourteen days,” he said in a deep rumble. “That was extended to twenty-one for all citizens during the clean-up, in order to ensure that all reported corruption or discrepancies could be restored. It has not been reverted to fourteen, but if you are asking whether the data remains from before the system reboot, then the answer is ‘no’.”
I had the five messages displayed on my office desk when the call came in. “This is Maezawa Yasuki, Security,” I answered.
“Miss Yasuki?” Abby’s young voice seemed weaker over the call than in person. “I have a sixth message for you. I was asleep when it arrived.”
I perked up. More to work with? “Oh, please, do send it over. What time did you receive it?”
“Two hours ago.”
Two hours previous, Daniil had sent a message to Perchik. “Arigatō. I’ll look at it immediately.”
“Thanks!” She disconnected, and a moment later, the message arrived. It looked exactly the same as the others had, full of garbled nonsense.
I converted the misinterpreted characters to Cyrillic and aligned the message on the display table. It was half the length of the first four, and thus matched the fifth. Are they paired somehow? I thought. I rearranged them by stacking them as sets of two. They still didn’t make any sense. Why can’t I see through this?
See through it? I tapped the last message, made it half translucent, then dragged it over its complement. If I looked at the result just right—
I gasped audibly and set my paws in motion. Once I swapped the Cyrillic characters in each top message with the English in the bottom, the English appeared plain as day! I hurried to fix the other pairs, which proved to be parts of a single message in each language.
The three English parts formed a message which was sent from Daniil to Abby from only a month ago… and minutes before the server evacuation and reboot. He expressed worry for her having to suffer through the strange events of the Revolution so soon after being uploaded, but also gently assured her that she would be all right once everything settled down.
The three-part Belarusian message dated from several years prior, not long before Abby’s mod was coded. It was addressed from Perchik to Daniil. I felt suddenly guilty for prodding; the translated text was a sort of pleading confession. He wrote affectionately of his second personality – Abby – and how much he wished her to be as “free” of him as possible, unaffected by what he called a “troubled history”. He begged for his borzoi friend to help him effect a genuine split and to never tell her of it.
I closed my eyes and remembered. I still had dark dreams of the time after I’d lost my left arm but before the prosthetic. I spent as much time in Irokai as I could, being who I wanted to be, being whole again. When I finally uploaded, I had to go through therapy again for the arm, just like getting used to the tail that was suddenly a new part of me and no longer handled by automatic code. Every moment of practice reminded me that I’d finally shaken off the person I didn’t want to be anymore… but it still reminded me of him. What would I have given to be free of that memory? What would I give now?
I rubbed at the suddenly moist fur beneath my eyes, composed myself, and began to type a message to the chief of Irokai Security.
“Abby was the first to encounter the memory overflow inside the temporary server,” I explained to the tiger. “My best guess is that the object storing Perchik became unlinked when she switched servers, and then the corrupted memory scrambled the first and last of her stored messages from outside.”
Sasaki Rei, chief of security for Irokai, nodded slowly. “But why would she receive pieces at a time?”
“Every time her friend tried to make contact with Perchik, the notification system in her mod would try to reference an object that had been deleted in the corrupt code purge. The new message would vanish, and the mod would spit out another piece of the old, mangled messages in a confused attempt to report the error.”
He crossed his arms and leaned toward me. “You speak of them as separate people.”
I paused for several seconds. “They very much are. Even if they shared an account. Even… when they shared a physical body outside our virtual world.”
“I see.” He shook his head slowly. “I would prefer not to think of them that way, if only because it would imply that we have lost another person due to the actions of Irokai no Minshukakumei, and this time in a fashion that cannot be recovered.”
I breathed deeply to centre myself. “With all due respect, sir… that is precisely the case, however we choose to think of it.”
“That is for the ethics panel to decide.”
“Please reconsider this. Abby knows nothing of Perchik, who very much wanted it that way. The only person to know that they were linked and uploaded will remain silent out of respect for his friend… friends. Anybody else who knew him has already assumed that he simply stopped logging in. And Tris— Excuse me.” This drew an interested expression. “The person who coded the character swap mod doesn’t even know who it went to, and couldn’t have anticipated what happened. The messages have stopped – I checked that myself – so really, the original complaint is resolved. In the end… nobody is at fault, nobody needs informing, and from what I can tell, everyone would be happiest if this issue simply went away.”
The tiger closed his eyes tightly. “That would be convenient, Yasuki, but incomplete. An uploaded citizen has disappeared – either in half, or in whole. This is an existential matter of the sort that we are specifically to refer to the ethics panel. Please complete your report, and I will submit it to them.” He then put a heavy paw on my shoulder. “Off the record and for what it is worth… I think I understand what this means to you, and I hope you are correct in how to resolve it.”
Per the ruling of the ethics panel, I bundled my documentation along with the full report and closed the security ticket. It would be the closest Irokai had known to a death certificate, and I would be the one to sign it.
I opened my administrative menu one more time, selected the bundle, and entered the command to seal and archive it. I added my own name as the signatory, and for the subject I used the database number of the unlinked object. Once completed, I stared hard at the final result. The system had helpfully attempted to expand the name belonging to the number.
The subject name displayed as a short string of mojibake.