A Scattering of Stars: Last Meal (Part 1)

The door to Isaac’s room was closed; it usually was these days. I gave the knob the barest turn, but stopped as soon as I heard the clack of the lock, then knocked as lightly as I could. I could’ve brute-forced my way through the door; it was a simple semaphore stored in a shared keyspace. I could have deleted the locking code off the door object. I could have deleted the door itself if I had to be drastic. Miss Swann, our case worker, made a point of reminding me from time to time that I had admin rights on everything in the flat as a sign of trust. That meant not abusing it for trivial things. Really, it meant not abusing it for anything, even a younger brother who never left his room.

I tried to do what Miss Swann told me, when I could; it made her visits less awkward. She wore a tan pony avatar with a blonde mane, the Imago logo prominent on the backs of her hooves. Her pink pearl earrings were original Majeur, but her violet skirt-suit was a knock-off Buonaspetto. She always carried a furrowed smile and she asked if we had enough credit in our accounts. On Isaac’s last birthday, she brought a carrot cake and access credentials for Irokai’s Accelerated Learning program. Then she smiled painfully through gritted teeth when I gave him the new wings and flight routines I’d bought down at the Bazaar. While I watched him glide from building to building, she asked a lot of stilted questions about how much they’d cost, where I’d got them, and if I’d kept the proofs of purchase. I let her see the receipt, and she apologized for being so nosy. I’d eaten a lot of krill to save for those wings. I knew exactly how much they cost.

“Go ‘way, Lily.” Isaac’s voice was muffled, but audible. He at least wanted me to hear him.

“Isaac?” I knocked again. “We really need to talk.” I bit my lip, my ears flat back against my head. “It’s about Mom’s rabbits.”

Isaac didn’t answer, which was its own sort of progress; when he was angry, he’d tell me to leave two or three more times. I counted seconds under my breath, figuring by ten I’d knock again. At seven, the latch clacked, and the door swung open. Across the threshold, the tiny digitally-rendered flat disappeared, leaving only the illusion of a tree-dotted meadow, with a dirt trail leading away from the door into the distance. Miss Swann talked WideOpen, LLC, into letting him keep the expansion; she even got him a license for the modifications Mom had made. Miss Swann smiled broadly when she told us about the deal, how we could keep the animated sky and the breeze, but we’d have to delete most of the forest. Every time I knocked that week, Isaac told me to leave. He even told Miss Swann to go away.

Isaac swooped down from one of the last remaining branches and landed next to me; he had on his owl wings, which he wrapped around his shoulders in a feathery cloak. The younger rabbit’s coat, normally white, was faintly grey from dust, and his ears lopped lower than normal. He’d at least kept his shorts, though the green shirt he’d put on that morning had gone missing, probably hastily paged out and forgotten in an inventory file somewhere. He bounced impatiently on his broad flat hinds, his arms crossed tightly across his chest. “I was flying.”

“I see that.” I nodded and motioned away from the door, then started walking. “How are your studies going? Miss Swann says you’re almost done with the art and literature lessons. You’re ahead of where I was at your age.”

“You’re only three years older than me,” he replied, his wings shifting. “They’re not as fun as when Mom gave them.”

I stopped and waited for him to catch up to me. The path split; one fork led back through a miniature glade, then back to the door to the tiny flat. “I know they’re not,” I said quietly, “but Mom isn’t here.” I stepped onto the other fork, and clouds rolled in across the sky in response. Mom really put a lot of work into this space, more than I’d even let her make to my room. “And it’s four again, as of today.”

Isaac hesitated at the fork, looking behind him towards the door. “She’s been gone for years. She should have been back by now.”

“She should, but she isn’t.” We’d had this talk before, usually before he told me to go away again. “That’s what makes why I’m here that much harder.” I waited for my brother to join me on the path, then started walking back towards a small wooden hutch. “Could you please summon the rabbits?”

My brother’s wings snapped wide, as if he might take to the sky as his answer. Then he pulled them tightly in against his back. “I don’t want to.”

I held out a paw to him. “Please?”

He took my paw in his, and I squeezed it as reassuringly as I could. He sighed audibly, and his eyes went slightly out of focus, his attention on his interface. A few moments later, the door to the hutch opened, and three rabbits sluggishly shuffled down the ramp. The first was small, with white fur and lopped ears, and grey wing-patterns spread across its back. The second was larger, with a lilac butterfly pattern and spots down its sides that looked like mine, with white and violet sparkles that danced in the air around it. The last was bigger than both of the first, with bright silver eyes and a deep grey coat into which I wanted to bury my muzzle and cry until I’d forgotten how. All three moved slowly, so slowly, stumbling towards Isaac with plaintive cries. Their pelts slowly cycled through a deep and ugly crimson, then back again.

I opened my own interface, the window into the digital structure of Irokai, and flipped quickly through nested menus to my message queue. The first message was from Miss Swann, flagged important, wishing me a happy nineteenth and reminding me she’d be stopping by to check on me and Isaac. A few others carried invitations for drinks or trips to the Bazaar. I skipped past my inbox, down to the folder labeled Rabbits. Pinned at the top was a long thread. The first was addressed to Mom, routed to me via Miss Swann:

Dear Valid8 customer,

We regret to inform you that Sekur has sued us for copyright infringement and violation of trade secrets, alleging that our authentication service duplicate code that they claim to have registered with the Irokai Patent Office. While we believe their suit to be without merit, the cost of a protracted legal battle with a larger company would have forced us to raise our rates beyond what any customer would reasonably have paid for our services. Effective immediately, we have taken our services offline and will be ceasing activity under the Valid8 brand.

The next few letters were from Miss Swann to both Valid8 and Sekur, explaining our situation and asking for help. The last was a form letter from Sekur, directing all inquiries to their public relations office. An attached note from Miss Swann said only, I did everything I could; sorry. There were more letters below those, the ones I’d written myself to both companies. Those didn’t even have replies.

I closed the interface again, returning my focus to the present. The largest, the grey one, was trying to nudge the other two to move closer to my brother, who had sunk to his knees in the digital dirt. The smallest pressed its head to his knees, whining and shivering, its pelt cycling from white to red. Isaac picked it up gingerly in his arms and stroked it, broad slow motions from the back of its neck to its tail. “Miss Swann says we’re out of options. Valid8’s systems are offline. Without them, we can’t make food for the rabbits. If we can’t feed them….” I couldn’t finish that sentence. “I’ve looked at Mom’s code,” I said as I settled in beside him. “They’re not expert systems.”

“I know,” Isaac responded, not looking at me. His voice had already taken flight.

I hesitated. “I don’t mean Mom didn’t do a good job with them. I just mean…” I bit my lip and picked over my words. “I mean they’re not that sophisticated. They don’t really feel pain.”

“I know,” Isaac repeated. He still didn’t turn his head; his voice was soaring away from me.

“I could…” I chewed on my lip again. “I could change their appearance, if it would help.”

“It wouldn’t.”

We knelt in silence for a while, Isaac petting his avatar beside me, mine against my knees, feeling the breeze blow and watching their pelts slowly cycle. “Maybe they’re not hurting,” he said, from somewhere very far away, “but they look like they are.” He reached out with one paw and brushed it against the big grey rabbit in back, drawing her in closer as her pelt slid back towards red again. “I know when I feed them, they smile and hop around. They chase butterflies, they play tag.” He held out his paw in front of him, and a dull grey block started to phase into space in front of him, followed by a staticky burst and an error chime, the instantiation aborting because of Valid8’s shutdown. “Right now they just look sick, and that makes me feel bad, so I don’t like looking at them.”

I rested my paw on his, brushing the large grey rabbit’s fur. “I understand.”

We were quiet for a while longer, before Isaac continued. “Mom asked me to take care of them while she was gone, and I—” His voice broke there. “I tried, Lily.” The first sob hit as he slid onto his hip, falling against me. “I tried to do what she asked, and I couldn’t.” He dumped the smallest rabbit from his lap with a cry from them both and clutched himself to my side. He flung his free arm out in front of him over and over, in cycles of static and chime while the tears rolled down his face and I did my best to hold him with one arm and all the rabbits with the other. The large grey rabbit pressed herself to Isaac’s legs and we wept together while the clouds rolled across the sky.

When Isaac’s tears stilled, I spent a few credits and pulled a kerchief from my pocket, then wiped his eyes and kissed his forehead. “I’m sorry this has been so hard on you,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

Isaac didn’t look up. “She isn’t coming back, is she, Lily?”

The question sent me my heart spiraling into the sky. “I don’t know, Isaac,” I admitted. “I don’t know.”

“Can I….” Isaac cleared his throat and wiped at his eyes with one arm. “Can I say good-bye? I want one last flight with them.”

I nodded and rose. “Take your time. Miss Swann won’t be here for a few hours yet. Let me know when you’re ready.” Then walked back to the fork. Isaac stood and picked up the large grey rabbit in his arms, then spread his wings wide. He crouched, pumped once, and rose into the air, sailing into the sky. I walked past the fork, to the tiny glade that Mom had written. I leaned against one of the trees, scrubbed at my own eyes, and opened my interface again. Below the long thread, there were a few more notes, mostly research on what had gone wrong and how Mom’s code worked. Two messages I’d flagged as important and do not delete. The first was from Mom, dated three years ago; I opened it and scanned it, trying to remember the feel of Mom’s grey fur against my muzzle as I read:


This is going to be hard on you, but I know you can do this. By now I’m sure you’ve been told, but you should hear it from me directly: I’ve been hacking Irokai’s corporate partners for a long time, longer than Isaac’s been alive. I’ve copied a lot of code, and I’ve broken a lot of encryption to make things for people. I don’t know how long it’ll take me to pay off all the debt I’ve incurred. You’re capable, though, and I believe in you. Just please, don’t do what I did. It’s not worth it; it got us some nice things in the short term, but it’s taking me away from you and Isaac. Those rabbits aren’t much, but they’re one-hundred percent clean code, no hacks, no backdoors. I’ve even subscribed them to a validation service, so you’ll need to make sure they’re actually fed. I’ve left Isaac a note telling him that’s his job while I’m gone, but he may need help. I’m counting on you to look after him. I’ll be home after I’ve paid back all those stolen cycles, and we’ll be a family again. I love you.

Miss Swann would probably furrow her brow at the second. It was from Jules, titled only, “RE: Help.” It had an attachment.

Lots of Mom’s friends sent condolences, right after her suspension. A few made cryptic comments about wanting to help. I asked how they thought they could, and they just shrugged and winked and smiled.

Miss Swann smiled painfully when I’d told her about the offers. “I would be careful,” she’d warned me. “Your mother knew some colorful characters.”

Jules wasn’t like Miss Swann. He didn’t furrow his brow when he grinned, and he grinned at everything. He had a custom-built avatar, a white-furred wolf with crystal claws and crackling Tesla orbs for eyes, and he wasn’t afraid to show off all the work he’d put into himself. He ran a club in Beni Prefecture called the FutureShock, and he kissed his boyfriend — and his boyfriend’s wife — in public. They were raccoons, John and Mitsuko, but they were more than that. John had wings like Isaac’s and eyes that glowed, and Mitsuko had a flower growing out of her ear and vines wrapped around her arms. They had custom tail-animation cycles that synchronized when they stood next to each other, and when they held paws, they shone. None of their models or outfits were trademarked. Mom told me they were all friends of hers.

They all offered to help.

Mom had always said that, when I was older, she’d introduce me around the club where she’d spent her time if that was something I wanted, but I’d have to wait until I was mature. “Some rules you can bend, and some rules you can break,” Jules had told me with that open-muzzle grin, “but some rules even I won’t cross.” In the meantime, he would come over from time to time, stopping by our tiny Murasaki Prefecture flat to chat while Isaac fed Mom’s rabbits. Mitsuko worked in Irokai Hospitality; she helped Isaac with his homework and walked me through mesh modeling tutorials. John coded Isaac a pair of jet wings, and he took my brother out to Kigiku Island and watched as Isaac chased birds through the sky. Miss Swann always furrowed her brow when we came home from those outings, and she asked if she could review our upgrades.

The first time I asked Jules how he knew Mom, it was right after her suspension. I was fifteen; Isaac was just barely twelve. That’s when I first heard about FutureShock. Even after she’d decided to spawn children in Irokai, she went back from time to time, but that was all he’d say. “You’re too young,” he insisted. “When you’re eighteen, Irokai says you’re mature, and I can tell you everything. Until then, some rules, even I won’t cross.” By my seventeenth birthday, it had just become “some rules.” He said it when he adjusted the colors on a top I liked at the Bazaar. He said it when tourists stared at his claws, at John’s and Isaac’s wings, at Mitsuko’s vines. He said it when he tweaked Isaac’s avatar to make him faster in the air. “Some rules,” he said, whenever I asked him what he knew of Mom, what the club was like, what else he could do when lightning danced between his eyes.

A week before my eighteenth birthday, Miss Swann asked me what I wanted. I thought about the FutureShock, about the promise of seeing the place that Mom had spent so much time. I thought about all the things John and Jules and Mitsuko wouldn’t tell me. “Can we go to Kigiku Island?” I asked. “I’d like to rent a pair of wings and go flying with Isaac. We can take the rabbits, maybe have a picnic.” I tried not to stress the one verb too heavily.

Miss Swann beamed. “I’d be happy to help with that.” The wings she borrowed were beautiful, with gold and grey feathers like a hawk’s; they clashed with the lilac spots on my sides. I said as much, and she frowned ever so slightly. “Well, this is just a rental pattern; they’re not customized. I’m sorry; that’s really expensive. But they’re really pretty. Don’t you think so, Isaac?”

Isaac had his jet wings that day, white and grey steel that seemed to grow from the surface of his pelt. Even his fur had a faintly metallic sheen when he wore them. “They don’t match,” he said as he revved his engines.

I shrugged. “They’re just rentals; it’s fine, really.” A timer in the bottom corner of my vision ticked slowly downward; the wings were set to disappear in just under four hours, and I wanted to make the most of them. “Are you ready?” My brother grinned and leapt, catching the air in his turbines. Jules had spent months tuning his flight performance, and Isaac had spent the time practicing with them; he was as natural in the air as he was on the ground, and the rabbits scampered after him, chasing his shadow across the ground. My wings sat on my back like gaudy fashion baubles, and I kept leaping and spreading my wings, only to glide back to the ground, unable to catch the breeze.

Isaac landed beside me, and his eyes went unfocused. “I bet you’re too heavy.”

I ignored the jibe and opened up my interface and flipped through menus. The installation script had put a chunky, blocky description set in my avatar options, listing the details of the wings’ configuration and the terms of the rental. Sure enough, the wings were configured wrong, programmed for someone ten kilos lighter than my avatar. Without thinking about it, the words were out of my muzzle. “Some rules,” I muttered, as I opened my personal debugger, fixed the setting and closed the menu. The wings disappeared.

Miss Swann galloped over and grabbed my shoulder. “Lily! What do you think you’re doing!”

“I— the wings were configured wrong,” I stammered, surprised at the sudden shift in weight. Some part of me still thought the wings were there; their deletion code was probably broken. “I just had to update the settings.”

“That’s a vendor-only setting!” Miss Swann snapped. “You should have told me; I could have gone and gotten them adjusted!” She stamped a hoof. “You’ve violated the rental agreement! This… this is not going to look good for you!”

“I… I don’t care,” I snapped back. “It’s just a configuration setting, not a hack!” I could see from the look in Miss Swann’s eyes that I was getting myself — and probably Jules — in trouble, but I didn’t care. “All I did was fix somebody else’s stupid mistake! All I asked was to go flying with my brother, and you got the wrong wings, and they don’t match, and I could fix them if you’d just let me!” I took a deep breath, then spat my anger at our case worker. “If this is why Mom got in trouble, then she didn’t deserve it!”

“Lilian Vary, we are going home.” Miss Swann’s voice was cold, her brow furrowed. She ran her fingers through her mane. “This is those characters’ faults; I knew they would get you in trouble one day.”

“No, they didn’t. They rescued me,” I snapped. And then because I couldn’t fly, I ran, leaving Isaac and Miss Swann and Mom’s rabbits behind.