A Scattering of Stars: Last Meal (Part 2)

The FutureShock wasn’t any place at all. It was an unassuming steel double-door on the side of a crumbling concrete building in Beni Prefecture, notable only by a logo in the window that flickered and spun, fractally evolving. Underneath the logo were the words, Anything is possible. When I approached, a double-beep in my ear told me I had an incoming message. I opened my interface to find a warning from “the Association” waiting in my queue:

Dear Prospective Member,

Please be aware that FutureShock and its participants do their utmost to live up to the organization’s motto. Inside these sacred walls, anything is indeed possible. This venue is not for the faint of heart or the closed of mind. Anyone wishing to experience everything that Irokai not only can but should offer may enter the club after responding in the affirmative to this message, at which point The Association holds itself blameless for any loss of sanity, dignity, or innocence experienced within. In other words, don’t say yes if you don’t mean it, and don’t try to hold us accountable later if you didn’t really mean it.

If you understand everything you’ve read above and you’re still interested, respond in the affirmative and someone inside will acknowledge your acknowledgment as soon as possible. Thanks.

I responded with a yes, then forwarded it to Jules. It was always raining in Beni Prefecture, even if just a little, and my fur was soaked by the time the door opened. The wolf poked his head out, saw me and smiled. “Sorry we kept you waiting,” he said, flashing that open-muzzled grin, his eyes flashing blue-white lightning. “Come in, please.” Ambient synthesizers played inside, and the light slowly color-shifted, spilling rainbows into the street.

I stepped across the threshold, feeling the bottom drop out of my stomach as I did so. “Is this… is this the FutureShock?”

Jules shrugged and waved at the door; it closed behind me with a soft clack, and then disappeared into the wall as though the texture weren’t there. “This is the antechamber. Last chance to back out.” The walls inside were dark, covered in posters and pictures, lit at odd angles from lights that weren’t objects, just points of light directed at their targets. At the back of the space, a staircase curved downwards, and yellow light rose from the depths. “I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

I shrugged, my arms around my waist. “I’m already in trouble. Some rules aren’t meant to be broken, I guess.”

Jules frowned at that. “Tell me,” he said as he held out his paw. More than just his claws were crystal; it had started to creep up his fingers. I took it, felt an electrical tingle at my wrist as we descended. The lights from the room above faded as we walked, and the lights from below grew brighter. I told him about Kigiku, about the rental, the configuration change and the violation. “I left Isaac and the rabbits with Miss Swann,” I finished. “He’s probably mad at me. I know she’s mad at me. I’m going to be—”

We stepped off the bottom stair and into another world. A giant tree of glass and metal dug angular roots into the floor, its artificial branches spread up towards the sky. A hemisphere of solid yellow covered the ceiling, casting the entire room in an afternoon glow. Cones perched impossibly on their points, on which a host of people sat, their forms more exotic than John’s or Mitsuko’s had ever been. Silvery discs, the color of Mom’s eyes, hung around the edges of the room. I looked at Jules; his paw was solid crystal, shot through with metal veins. Lightning ran up and down inside his arm. His gemstone face split in that open-muzzled grin.

“Some rules aren’t,” he agreed. “Others are. It depends on when, and where, and how, and with whom.” A low hum resonated under his voice when he spoke, occasionally crackling or popping like static. “Out there, many rules just are; they don’t have reasons. You can’t always ask, and they won’t always explain. You just have to obey. In here…” His voice trailed off into static as he swept his arm around the room. “In here, anything is possible.”

I stared, wide-eyed, trying to take in everything at once. “Anything?” I breathed.

Jules flinched slightly, his tail flicking to the side. “Well, to a point. The one value—” he stressed the word heavily, his voice reverberating slightly, “is that everything should be negotiated. If everyone agrees, it’s okay. If somebody doesn’t, you either don’t do it or you go somewhere else. The FutureShock’s a big place; there’s a lot of rooms down here.”

“But—” I stopped short, squeezing his paw. I liked the way the crystal tingled against my fur. “How do you pay for it all? Isn’t it expensive?”

That got a chuckle out of not just the crystalwolf, but a few of the others nearby. “C’mon. I’ll explain.” He walked towards one of the silvery portals, then squeezed my paw tightly. “May I?” I shrugged, not really understanding, and his fingers brushed the surface of the disc. The surface rippled up and enveloped him, then poured right past and flowed around me faster than I could jerk away. Everything went grey, my vision shot through with stars, and the world spun around me. Then I was standing again, this time in a warm red room lined in opulent gold. Smoke curled from the mouths of dragon statues, and water pipes sat on tables around low couches. Jules caught me as I fell against him, then lowered me onto a nearby ottoman.

“What—” I breathed in sharply, looking around. “How—?”

“Teleporter,” he responded with a grin. “I wrote it myself. I make… a lot… through the Bazaar selling custom mods for people.” Lightning crackled in his cheeks. “Plus, a lot of us here are coders, designers, architects. This is a labor of love. We didn’t buy this place; we made it, one bit at a time. None of us owns it, because we all agreed we’d be better off sharing. Because this place—Irokai—is worth too much to put it up for sale.”

I tried to wrap my head around that. “So… what happened to Mom? Did she do all those things? Did she steal all that stuff?”

“Some of it,” Jules admitted, resting his elbows on his knees. “Your mother, and most of the rest of us here, have broken the letter of the law at some point, whether it’s intellectual property or copyright, probably both. Most of us down here don’t think those things are wrong, just illegal. That puts us at odds with those who want to use this place as a giant licensing scheme. Why let people fly for free when you can force them to walk and charge them to rent wings? By that logic, how long until they start making everyone crawl and charging people for feet? Before I uploaded, they used to charge people just to be here, even people who couldn’t log out. Now it’s better, but it’s still not great.”

My ears went flat against my head. “Charging people to exist? But what if someone can’t pay?”

Jules snapped his claws, sending up sparks with a whiff of ozone. “Suspension, like your mother. She’s running on a heavily delayed processor somewhere, with a really limited sensorium, and the money they’re not spending on the computing power it takes to render her is being deducted from what they claim she owes. She’ll come out after what feels like a few weeks, but it could be decades. I could run the math if you want, but it’s pretty depressing.”

Decades. Isaac and I could be in our thirties or forties before we saw her again. My ears went flat, my short tail bristling. “But you’re saying she didn’t do anything wrong?”

Jules stood up and started pacing, his claws digging into the deep red carpet. “I’m saying I don’t think I ever saw her do anything wrong, but I know she did things that were, strictly speaking, against the rules. Decompiling rendered code, copying private objects, breaking encryption. The way some contracts around here get written, even just using some upgrades as intended could be treated as violating their terms of service. I never saw her hurt anyone, and I know a lot of people she helped, but she broke a lot of contract agreements.” He paused a moment. “She told us about Isaac’s room; the forest sounded beautiful. I’m sorry he lost that.” The wolf sighed, an electrical He sighed. “We’ve all been chipping in, to try to pay off her debts without putting this place at risk. Mitsuko works for the government, and John’s on their advisory board; there’s a limit to how much they can do, but they’re trying to get her charges reduced. Others have raised credit to compensate. We want her back, too. She was tribe.”

Tribe. I remembered Isaac’s jet wings, how scrupulously John stuck to the upgrade rules, knowing Miss Swann was watching. Looking at this place… he didn’t have to do that, but he did. “I want to help, too.”

“No,” Jules said. It came out staticky, sharp.

I smacked the ottoman with a balled-up paw, ears flat against my head. “Tribe? She’s my mom.”

“You’ll get caught,” Jules replied. “They won’t go easy on you. Then we’ll have two of you to free, not just one.”

I hopped to my hinds, fists clenched. “You can’t stop me.”

“No, I can’t,” Jules agreed. “But think about Isaac. What happens to him? He’s lost his mother; do you want him to lose you too?”

Isaac. I’d left him alone with Miss Swann. My stomach clenched. “No,” I admitted, turning away. “So what do I do?”

My shoulders tingled as Jules put his paws against them. “You let us keep working on getting her back. You look after Isaac. And you come here when you want to get away from the rules you haven’t negotiated and having to buy what could be freely given.” The static passed over the whole of my back as he stepped closer. “I got you something for your birthday, if you want it.” I got the double-beep of a message, and I opened my interface to see the image of a pair of iridescent moth wings, white with lilac spots along their length. “I thought you might want to try flying with Isaac some time.”

I froze; my back felt empty without them. “Please,” I whispered.

Jules wrapped his arms around me. “I can send the object code to you to install, or I can compile them into you myself, but I’ll need you to accept a temporary admin request,”

I paused a moment. It was my eighteenth birthday. Some rules. “Install them for me?” My voice shook slightly.

“Is that….” Jules hesitated, then withdrew. “No misunderstandings. Was that a pass?”

I looked over my shoulder. “I’m eighteen.”

“Barely, and I’m… older,” the wolf admitted. “Irokai says you’re mature, but you’re still young.” He looked away. “This is a little weird; I’ve slept with your mother.”

“Is that no?”

Jules turned back to me with a smile. “It’s ‘not today,’ Give me time to get used to the idea, and for you to get used to being here.” He glanced away, and my queue double-beeped again. I opened it and found a temporary administration override. “In the meantime, you’ll want time to practice with these, and I want to make sure they fit right.”

I accepted the request, and he approached again. He twisted his fingers, and in the space between them a violet crystal materialized, lit from within and casting circles of light against the crimson carpet. “Turn around.” I did so, and his fingers touched the small of my back. I felt a pressure, and new pathways within my mind unfolded. I could feel, scattered through my being, a myriad of tiny shifts as he settled the wings into my sense of self. These were no rental; they were mine, as much a part of me as my name. Unconsciously, I flicked them, and the ground fell away below me, launching me into the air.

Jules scrambled back to his hinds, laughing. “I’d say that worked. Before you go, though—” He sent a final message, his public key. “Hold onto this. If I ever have to send you a really private message, decrypt it with this.” He turned his attention to the mirror, then tapped it, and an image of my room, back at my tiny Murasaki flat, resolved itself in the portal. “You’d better get home, though. Isaac’s probably waiting for you.” He brought one paw to his forehead. “Welcome to the club, Lily. The door’s open for you.”

I saluted in return, then flew effortlessly through the portal, passing back into my room, just as I’d left it so many hours ago. Behind me, on the other side of the door, I heard Miss Swann hammering for attention. “Lilian, are you in there? Open up!”

With a flick of my thoughts, my wings—my wings—faded, and I shrugged into the shirt I’d put on that morning. I turned around and opened the door, where Miss Swann stood, one fist raised. She quickly put her hooves on her hips, wrinkling her precious knock-off Buonaspetto. “You are in big trouble, young lady. Isaac looks up to you, and look at you! I don’t even know where to begin! Violating a rental contract, mouthing off, running away. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I’m sorry, Miss Swann,” I said, my head bowed and my voice low. “I was just really angry; I’d been looking forward to that for months. You tried to do a nice thing for me, it didn’t go how I thought it would, and I lost my temper.” The words rolled easily off my tongue. “I know I probably still have to pay for the rental, I ruined everyone’s good time, and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again, I promise.”

Miss Swann smiled painfully and ran her fingers through her mane. “Well, I suppose you have learned your lesson. In the interest of keeping the peace, I’ll talk with TakeFlight and see if I can get a partial refund. You did say they weren’t working. In the meantime, you should check on your brother. He’s told me to go away every time I’ve knocked.”

Jules had encrypted the note, but I still had the key he’d given me last year. I dropped it on the message, and the text began unfolding, dissolving as I read it, purged from local storage for maximum security:

This is a pretty simple hack; Valid8’s client code is pretty trivial. In theory, someone could set up a spoofing agent that intercepts calls to their service and always returns success. That should mean you’d be able to create food without them still being in business. It’s against the rules to run such an agent, of course, but the code itself is just educational material. If I were going to run it—and I’m not, but if I were —I’d just need to update the config so it knows whose requests to spoof. So… happy incept. Say hi to Isaac for me.

Of course he’d say it was hypothetically legal, even in an encrypted message, but the implications were clear. At the bottom of the message was a code block; I downloaded it into into my personal debugger. The configuration was fairly straightforward; I just needed to put some account information into it. In the distance, the rabbits shuddered near the hutch, pressed against each other, their pelts still flashing that ugly red. Behind me, I heard Isaac land. “Lily? I…” His voice cracked. Isaac’s eyes were red, the fur beneath them dark. His wings were gone; in their place was a simple green shirt, the one he’d put on that morning. “I said good-bye. I’m ready.”

I held very still for a moment, then blinked away my top, manifesting my wings. “Isaac, do you want me to try to save them?”

My brother’s eyes went wide. “Lily? But—” His voice went up in a wail. “But you said there was nothing we could do!”

“I said there was nothing Miss Swann could do,” I corrected. “I might have a solution, but if I do, you can’t tell Miss Swann. It has to be our secret, okay?” I held out one of my paws to him. “I won’t do this without your permission. I need to know if this is something you want too.”

Isaac placed his paw in mine. “I don’t want to lose them.” His voice was right next to mine, or maybe we were flying away together. “They’re all I have left of Mom.”

“For now, yes, but maybe not forever.” I switched my attention back to the debugger, put in Mom’s account information, and launched the agent. I tried to do what you asked, Mom, I thought, but I couldn’t either. A crystal box manifested in my free paw, with a simple toggle switch. I flipped it, and silver lightning flickered deep within. I tossed the box up into one of the trees, then turned to Isaac with the warmest smile I could manage. “I think Mom would be very proud of you, Isaac.” I held out my paw again, and a bundle of broccoli appeared in my grasp. “Why don’t we go feed the rabbits together?”