Bright flames danced across the campfire as its embers drifted effortlessly towards the star-lit sky. Kasumi followed the embers with curious fascination. It had been seven years since she’d seen the bright white stars gleaming against the night sky. Seven years since she’d felt the grass crumple beneath her hands, or the smell of smoke grow strong then weak with the breeze. There were 98 people gathered outside, huddled around dozens of small campfires. Sitting on that grassy hill, all facing towards the dark city with only fire to keep them warm, gave her an almost primal feeling. It felt like they were a tribe - one group, one community united towards a common purpose. And that sense of purpose gave Kasumi an unusual sense of comfort.
Around her fire were five other people. On her right was the woman with the birdcage on her Tamashi head, who had comforted her inside the facility. Next to her was a man in a lab coat with bags under his eyes. To his right was a man with fanged teeth and a purple jacket, with the word Nozomi printed across his Tamashi head. Next to him was a man with leaves and vines overlapping his Tamashi screen. And finally, to Kasumi's left, was a woman with a bright white screen with a red border. She was dressed in bright white robes and had a fox mask fastened to the front of her screen. She also had a long katana sheathed to her side, and rested her hand upon its handle.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t get to your father tonight.” the woman with the birdcage said. She poked at the fire with a long stick.
“It’s alright.” Kasumi stated, “It’s not your fault that twenty-four miles is an eight hour walk now that cars aren’t around.” she turned to the woman with the birdcage, “Are you sure that distance is right?”
“Yes, I used to walk that way all the time.”
“Why would you walk that far without a car?” Kasumi asked. The woman with the fox mask shook her head.
“Because the cars were taken away from us.” the birdcage woman said, “The Triangle Company turned off the self-navigation features”
“I remember when they bought the car companies. But why would they turn off self-navigation?”
“Because it was illegal to drive without it.” The birdcage woman answered, “After prisons were abolished in 2036, the Triangle company did everything in their power to convict you of a crime. Governments decided it was ‘more humane’ to plug people into Tamashi machines instead of sending them to prison. The problem was that once people were plugged in, they never got out. Any crime became a life sentence. Laws became more strict, and good people who had never done anything wrong were plugged in for littering, loitering, paying bills late, anything you could think of” she stared deep into the flames, “That’s when the protests started. There were always protests, but they were never so desperate or violent. Riots would break out every night in the city. Some of us walked to the farmland afterwards to try and find food in places without cameras, because if you were caught leaving a protest, you were as good as gone. The rumor was that the Triangle company had paid off local gangs to smoke people out. That’s how I got plugged in”
“How did they get such control?” Kasumi asked, “I knew they were a powerful company, but that much control over legislation sounds insane.”
“The more people they plugged in, the more powerful they became. Every other company fell apart from people leaving all the time. Goods and services stopped. The economic depression only drove more people towards the machines. And the Triangle Company, with Takahashi in charge, were the only ones making money.”, she said, “It was like his grip was slowly closing around us.”
“I’m sorry to hear that” Kasumi said, “Are you alright?”
Chemistry, or Chem for short” the man in the lab coat said.
“I’m sorry, … your name is … Chemistry?” the woman with the fox mask asked.
“I’ve talked to many people here” he started, “I was plugged in during the riots, but from what I’ve heard, the riots weren’t the worst of it. There was a small war against the Triangle Company afterwards. A lot of people died.” he paused, “My point is there’s a lot of animosity towards the people who worked there, and the people who revolted. A man here was already assaulted after he admitted to designing the Tamashi heads.” he took a breath, “There’s only ninety-eight of us, and a civil war wouldn’t do us any good. Many of us have decided to take on new names - names that reflect what our Tamashi say about us. Mine is, well, Chemistry.”
“How do we know you didn’t work for the Triangle Company?”
“I worked there before the Tamashi machines were made”, he leaned forward, “and two years after that. When the riots started, I felt so guilty for everything that had happened, I plugged myself in. I couldn’t escape that guilt. I didn't intend for any of this to happen, but I can't deny that I've been a part of it. Just ... know that I’m sorry, and that I’ve carried that guilt with me ever since” he looked down and began to stroke his left hand.
Everyone stared silently at the fire. The woman with the fox mask took her hand off of her sword. The woman with the birdcage fiddled with a rock. The man with fangs on his screen only stared at the fire. After an awkward pause, a man wearing white walked up to the group. He had pale blue eyes and light blue streaks across his shirt. At first glance, Kasumi was surprised by his plainness, until she looked closer at his eyes. There was a gravity to them - a weight, almost as if he had removed every trace of doubt and insecurity from his mind.
“Hello.” the man started, as he looked over the members of the group, “You can call me ‘Order’. I’m gathering subject matter experts among the group of us. If any of you have a skill that will benefit rebuilding our society, I ask that you come with me”
The woman with the fox mask turned to him. “To what end are you gathering these ‘experts’?” she asked.
“For our group to sustain itself, we need infrastructure. We need people with the knowledge to re-establish the pillars of our society, else we give way to anarchy and chaos.”
“Then follow me” Order said, and the two walked away from the campfire.
“I’m glad someone’s taken the initiative.” Kasumi said.
“I question his intentions” the woman said, “What manner of world does he intend to build?”
“And what’s your story?” Kasumi asked her. “You’re the only one here who has a sword.”
The woman with the fox mask paused. Kasumi could see the firelight reflected against her mask. Her bright white robes contrasted starkly with the dark surroundings. There was a silent confidence about her that would make for an intimidating enemy, yet somehow Kasumi felt very safe and secure in her presence.
“You can call me Kitsune .”, the woman said, “Most of my adult life has been spent training and meditating in my garden - improving my spiritual strength. When the riots turned violent, I knew I was needed. I led several raids on Triangle Company offices, and destroyed some of what they had, but my brother always stood in my way. He’s a high ranking member of the Triangle Company. We trained together as children, but have chosen different paths for ourselves. He became a ruthless businessman and did whatever he could to gain wealth and power” she paused. “One day, we managed to find each other. He had been charged with killing me, and I, him. We stared each other down, blades in hand, but were both ambushed before our duel began” she paused, “He’s here, in this group. And you’re wrong to think I’m the only one with a blade. He’s walking around here with one as well”
“Is he dangerous?” Kasumi asked.
“I’m sorry for my speech earlier” Kasumi said, “I lectured everyone for ‘choosing’ to be plugged in. I didn’t know that many of you didn’t have a choice” she rubbed her head with her hands, “Ugh, that was so cringe-worthy”
“Maybe” Kitsune smiled, “But it wasn’t entirely wrong. Many of us did choose this life. And the Nozomi (hope) you described has come to pass. We now have the opportunity to build a world that many of us fought for. We’re free of Takahashi and the infernal Triangle Company. We’re free to pursue our own destinies and set our own paths. Many of us have taken to calling this place Nozomi after your speech and the words so plainly etched on your face”
“Wait - does it really say that?” Kasumi asked.
“Yes, your screen says Nozomi, etched in orange and black” she answered. “Not unlike the man sitting across from us”
“What does Nozomi mean to you?” Kasumi asked him, “It’s something my father said to me before I was plugged in”
“Alright, then what’s your name?” Kasumi asked.
“Well, screw him I guess” the birdcage woman said.
Gang walked aimlessly for a few minutes. He looked upon the groups of people huddled around campfires. He decided that he had to be quick about this. If he didn’t take initiative, then someone else would take charge before him. Who would be the strongest? Who would be the best? After some time walking, he found a man standing alone in a dark suit with a sword in his hand. Gang observed him closely. His suit was unwrinkled, which said he didn't like getting dirty. But his posture with the sword was perfect. He knew what he was doing.
“So what if I am?” the man said.
“What do I call you?”
Superior pointed his blade directly at Gang’s neck. Gang didn’t budge. “Why should I be the one following you?” he asked, staring Gang in the eye, “I’m the one with the sword. I’m the one with all the leverage.”
“You really think so?” Gang snarled. He walked towards the blade until it grazed the edge of his throat. “Then kill me. Slice my throat! Be the new world’s first murderer. See if anyone respects you after that.” Superior lowered his sword slightly.
“That’s right,” Gang said, “I don’t care what people think of me. They can hate me all they want. But you, in that fresh corporate suit of yours, I think you care very much what people think of you. I think you want power, and that I am very happy to share” he stared straight into Superior’s eyes, “I want to take charge of this world before some other asshole beats me to it. So are you in or are you out?!”