The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY
Samantha waited to leave the sectional until Ma went downstairs to her basement studio. Once sure Ma wouldn't hear, she tiptoed around the smashed crockery and Mr. Whisker's ashes on her way to the kitchen. Raiding the cupboards and drawers, she stuffed a few self-heating burritos, sweets for Tama, paper-clips, and a garden trowel into her green knapsack. Outside, a stiff wind blew around drifts of coppery leaves. She would need a sweater.
The feedcasters were still interviewing an executive from Seneguchi as she returned to the living room. The crawl orbiting the man's head announced the total collapse of company stock in the wake of the hack.
"I am sorry for the inconvenience this incident may cause our customers," the executive said, "both current and past. But while I am horrified by the effect this data breach has had on the public and Seneguchi I am also troubled by the piling-on of blame by those in the media seeking to drag the good name of a corporation through the mud. Seneguchi is also a victim here."
At full interactive, the Seneguchi exec would be ducking a few digital cruise missiles. Coward.
Heading back upstairs, she shut the door to her bedroom behind her, and opened the folding leaves of her closet. Tama Bell still cowered inside, her fox-ears twitching, her seven-foot-high canary-yellow bulk barely obscured by the clothes stored inside.
"You came back," the yuru-chara said in a high, plaintive voice.
"Quiet," Samantha shushed. "You're being loud."
"The yelling's stopped," Tama said. "That's a good sign, right? Your parents have stopped fighting?"
"They declared a truce, is all. Now come out of there. We don't have much time."
Tama tapped her big mitten fingertips together as she waddled out of the closet, one of her ears catching a shirt and pulling it free of its hanger so it flopped over her broad face like a piece of cooked pasta.
Samantha plucked the shirt from her head, and then side-stepped Tama's attempt to gather her up in a plushy bear-hug.
"Not now," Samantha told her. "We don't have time for hugs."
"I'm worried your parents won't let me stay."
"I watched Ma chase a rendition of Kim Isaacs out of the house with a broom," Samantha said. "I don't think she's going to be super supportive of a monster hiding in my closet."
The ruff of fur around Tama's neck stood up.
"I'm not a monster, Sammy," Tama cried. "I do have manners!"
"I didn't say I agreed with them."
"I am the yuru-chara of Hector, New York!" She puffed out her chest. "The official embodiment of this community and the true spirit of cooperation with sister city Okaba of Hyogo Prefecture."
Samantha rolled her eyes. When she had assembled Tama Bell two years before, she had selected the yuru-chara template because she thought it would be hilarious to have a mascot of Hector as a virtual friend. That was before the data breach obviously, when Tama Bell was nothing more than an avatar.
"Hector isn't really in the mood for mascots today."
Or any day, she didn't add.
Waking up with Tama Bell standing over her, Samantha hadn't felt fear or even surprise, only anger. Anger at her parents for not buying the best scrubbers and anger at herself for relying on them. After the Cynthia incident two summers before, she had worked hard to strengthen her encryption and passwords. She had gone to bed aware of the hacking incident unfolding around the world, the renegade renditions popping up everywhere, but felt a measure of self-satisfaction. Data breaches happened to people who didn't take precautions. People who didn't learn from their mistakes. She, at least, would not have any unwelcome visitors.
And yet, here Tama was, a zombie rendition dragged back to life from a single mistake. Another thing for Samantha to fix.
"Where are we going?" the yuru-chara asked.
"On a picnic," she replied, flipping through her closet until she found her thermoweave sweater.
Tama Bell continued to fidget behind her, the floor creaking under her stumpy legs. "Don't you need to tell them where you're going? Your ma and Chloe?"
"I call her mom now," Samantha said. "And no, I'm twelve. I go where I want."
Which wasn't the first lie she had told that morning and probably wouldn't be the last.
The first had been when her parents had asked if any other renditions had appeared to her. Fortunately, the hackers wiped the histories from the printers they "liberated." Her parents had been so busy dealing with Mom's Kim Isaac, they hadn't even bothered checking the printer levels.
It was, however, only a matter of time before they noticed that the hopper was completely out of filament. Then they'd start wondering what else had stepped out.
Samantha went downstairs to check for Ma and then waved Tama into the kitchen. The yuru-chara immediately suggested they also bring tea cups, flowers from a vase on the windowsill, and a tablecloth.
"Sammy, we can't have a picnic without tea!"
The best way to beat Tama Bell's tendency to dawdle was agreeing to everything that moved her in the right direction. The zipper barely closed over the tablecloth but at least the yuru-chara began looking at the picnic with some eagerness.
They exited from the rear patio, Samantha hoping the juniper trees around the back yard would provide cover. There were no basement windows on the back yard either so they were safe there.
The rear gate opened on the new bike path, and after Samantha gave a quick look to make sure there were no pedestrians or augment gamers, the two of them headed out.
Microlenses surveilled the path, obviously, but Samantha knew the town had its hands full. A half-printed Apatosaurus had been chowing down the Red Barn vineyard since 11 a.m. The Red Baron had been seen strafing pest control drones. She wasn't sure how much time this gave her and Tama, but maybe enough.
"There sure are a lot of noises out here," Tama said with a theatrical whisper.
"Police chasing fugitive renditions."
Tama began tapping her glove tips together again. "I didn't mean to cause any trouble."
"Keep low and don't talk so much."
The rendition kept looking at Samantha until she finally sighed.
"Okay, what do you want to ask me?"
"No, no, it's fine," Tama said. "I don't need to know."
"Where are we going?"
Samantha pointed at the faint gleam of Seneca Lake in the distance. "That way."
"We're going to have a picnic by the cottage."
"Are we going to have a picnic with Kim Isaacs?"
"I wasn't planning on it."
"Did you see Kim Isaacs?"
"I saw him walking down this path." Tama paused, choosing her words. "He was dreamy."
"That's not what I asked you. When did you see him?"
"When you were downstairs."
Samantha's eyes flicked over to her companion. "You left the closet."
Her porpoise grin faltered. "I heard noises. Don't be mad at me, Sammy. I got curious."
"Well, he can go where he wants," Samantha said. "That guy wouldn't even talk to me."
"It's not his fault," she said. "His programming has an age-restriction. The first thing he did when he saw me was ask if I was over eighteen. When I said no he ignored me."
"I would never ignore you."
"I know, Tama." Which, in its own way, was much worse than getting the brush-off from a marriage counseling idoru.
As they approached the place where the bike path crossed Lake Street, Samantha heard noises. She told Tama to hide herself as best she could, which was not very well. Nevertheless, she crept ahead to a corner of a brick pumping station, where she saw a squad of police cars screech to a halt in front of a marauding band of orcs. The orcs were in no mood for surrender and charged the cops even as they opened their doors. A mighty war hammer claimed one cruiser's hood and another cop nearly had his head taken by a notched and rusty ax. She sensed Tama crowding in for a look and waved her back.
"For the White Hand!" the orcs screamed as the cops unleashed a volley of inhibitor darts. The orcs fell and Samantha watched as the cops dragged the limp skirmishers back into their vehicles. Once they had left, she beckoned for the yuru-chara. Another block of walking brought them within earshot of Hector Falls. She could make out the family cottage way down next to the lake.
After waiting for eight seconds, Tama mistook the delay for an opportunity. "I'm hungry."
"I know, Tama."
"Did you bring any sweets?"
Seeing the peninsula their cottage sat on filled Samantha with a mix of emotions. On one hand, she was close to solving the Tama problem. On the other, she found herself envying the simplicity of the yuru-chara. All Tama had to worry about was inspiring citizens to cooperate and her own love/hate relationship with sugary snacks. Samantha considered the willow tree at the tip of the point and wondered if she had enough strength to kill the same friend twice.
"Of course." She looked both ways before stepping onto the asphalt. "But you're not getting any until we reach the picnic spot."
Tama sniffed, wounded. "I wish you'd tell me why we have to go there. I don't see why we can't have a picnic in one of those nice sunny fields or right in the middle of the fairgrounds. We used to do that all the time!"
"Yeah, I took you everywhere when you were just an image on a screen. Now you're seven feet tall and terrifying."
"Again, not my fault!" Tama protested.
"Still the truth."
Tama abruptly sat down on the shoulder, crossing her stubby arms. "I think this is a perfect place for a picnic. I'm stopping here."
Samantha stood on the yellow lines, listening for approaching cars. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, Tama. Things are different now. You have to see that."
Tama swiveled her head, owl-like, away from Samantha.
"Look, I'll give you some of sweets."
Tama's head turned back. "What kind?"
"I've got those chocolate wafers you like and-"
"Give me the wafers."
"Can we at least cross the road before you get spotted?"
Tama rolled herself back on her feet, one arm out-stretched. Samantha unwrapped a few of the wafers and put them gently in Tama's hand, one by one. The rendition opened her maw and chomped each one down. When animated on a screen, Tama's eating habits were less disturbing. Now Samantha kept thinking how easily her own head would fit inside the yuru-chara's mouth.
The bribery worked, though, and Samantha lead Tama down the switchbacks to the cottage. The sound of the falls drowned out Tama's complaints so Samantha could focus on watching out for people.
"You stand over there by the willow tree," she ordered once they got to the bottom of the cliff.
Tama eyed her suspiciously. "Hello? Shouldn't I set up the picnic stuff?"
"Right, right." She handed her the knapsack after retrieving the paperclips and trowel.
Of course, Tama had no interest in the tablecloth or plates, pawing through the knapsack until she found the treats. She didn't even bother unwrapping them.
"I thought you were going to help set up the picnic?"
Tama grinned, crinkly bits of plastic sticking out from her shovel-like teeth.
"Fine, then stay over there by the tree and keep an eye out, okay?"
Tama slouched up against the trunk, batting at the lower branches that drooped down towards Seneca's dark waters.
Samantha found the side of the willow tree farthest from the water and counted off fifteen steps heading back towards the family cottage. Crouching down, she brushed back the grass. Nothing.
She started again at the tree, remembering she was taller now than two years ago, and stopped at the tenth step. Now she almost tripped over the red stone she had buried in the ground as a marker.
Using the trowel to pry up the rock and chop away some of the roots that had grown around it, she uncovered the lunchbox. Its surface still jittered with once-favorite cartoon characters paddling through undersea palaces. This had been her favorite movie once and yet she had buried it all the same. She pushed away the nostalgia, focusing on the frozen latch. After clearing away the sand, she was able to trigger the release with the point of the trowel.
Tama's nursery egg still lay inside, nestled within layers of packing tissue. As with the lunchbox, the screen showed life and, now exposed to sunlight, brightened. A miniature version of Tama appeared on a hammock in a cartoon rendering of Samantha's own back yard. She touched the sleeping figure, and it stretched catlike in the sling.
"Ooh, that tickles!" the Tama rendition said from the willow tree. "What are you doing?"
It had taken Samantha considerable thought before she realized what she had overlooked, almost the entire morning after her parents' blow-out. Tama's appearance proved some trace of her remained. Her thorough search of her media locker turned up only one reference to Tama, a GPS ping from their cottage. Putting two and two together, she remembered how Mom, always the sentimentalist, had insisted that they bury her faithful friend. The faint ping was enough to keep Tama active in the Seneguchi servers. When the hackers broke in to mass-liberate the old chat bots and virtual toys, the yuru-chara of Hector strolled out too.
The egg hummed and beeped softly. Now would be the time. She felt the bottom of the egg and found the small port.
Tama leaned out from the other side of the tree, arm raised as though to point at something, saying, "Who's that-" but freezing as the paperclip slid neatly inside. Samantha could press the reset key and wipe the egg clean. Do what she should have done before.
But she paused.
The egg felt heavy in her hand as she stared at the cartoon Tama Bell lying in her hammock. It wasn't the yuru-chara's fault the hackers had brought her back. It also wasn't Tama's fault Cynthia changed Samantha's profile picture to a big yellow monster. In a way, Cynthia and the hackers had the same cruel but valid point. She couldn't walk away from friends, no matter how much they embarrassed her.
She withdrew the clip and stood up. The egg went into her pocket and Tama snapped back into motion. She deserved better.
"-floating in the lake," the yuru-chara finished. Samantha followed her now completed gesture, seeing a small dark shape bobbing in the waves.
"Oh my god!" Samantha said. "Help me find a life-preserver."
"There's no time!" The rendition charged the lake shore and belly-flopped into the water. "Climb aboard. We'll save him!"
"How do you know it's a him?" Samantha said, Tama's insistence pulling her into motion.
She had a heart-stopping moment when she spotted the black leather jacket the body wore, wondering if it was Mom. Chloe said she was going to Trumansburg when she stormed out. What if she had thrown herself into the Hector Falls instead?
Thrashing through the water in her haste, the late autumn chill penetrated her sneakers and nanoweave jeans. The heating elements woven into her clothes fought back the frigid water as she pulled herself onto Tama's back. The rendition began to propel itself forward with its stumpy arms, taking only a few minutes to reach the site of the figure as it continued to float face down.
Snagging the jacket, Samantha hauled the body up, and revealed Kim Isaacs. She nearly dropped him again with the surge of relief. The idoru took advantage of her hesitation to push away from Tama Bell.
"Let me be, girl!" Kim cried out. "I'm done with this world."
"Don't be silly!" Samantha said. "We're here to save you."
"You can't fix a broken heart," Kim groaned, wet hair plastered over his perfect features. "Best let the pieces fall where they may."
Which was a line from one of his songs, she remembered, gritting her teeth. "You can't drown, you moron! You're not real!"
"I'm sorry girl, but you and I can never happen!"
Samantha breathed out, annoyed. "Seriously? Look, I lied before. I'm actually eighteen, okay? Let me help you."
Kim Isaacs shook his head, damp bangs whipping back and forth. "It's not right to play mind games. Let me do my own thing. I've had enough of this sad old world."
He let go of Tama's fur and began sliding back into the water.
"Tama, do something!" she yelled.
Her friend lurched to one side, scooping up Isaacs in her mittens and rolling like an otter to lift him above the lake surface. Samantha followed the roll, reaching out to flop the rest of Isaacs over the yuru-chara's belly.
Kim stared into Tama's wide, smiling face. "You've got an old soul, girl. What's your name?"
"My name is Tama Bell, the mascot for the Town of Hector, New York and her sister-city Okaba in the Hyogo Prefecture! Pleased to meet you!"
"Likewise, girl," Isaacs said, his voice dropping a register. "What'cha wanna talk about?"
Tama grinned. "I like sweets and helping people."
"That drives me crazy." Isaacs brought up his hands, fingers and thumbs curled into the outline of a heart. "If I was your boyfriend, I would never let you go."
Tama cooed happily.
"Okay, that's enough," Samantha said, splashing them both with cold water. "Time to go back."
By the time they reached the point, the two renditions were gabbing together happily, fast friends. As she wrung the water out of her hair, Samantha had a thought. Taking Tama Bell's egg out of her pocket, she handed it over to her big yellow friend.
"This is yours now," she told the yuru-chara. "You need to take care of it."
"I will," she said. "I love gifts! Is there candy in it?"
"And you," she turned to Kim. "I know you won't talk to me, but I hope you'll listen. I want you to watch over my friend. I want you to make sure she doesn't eat too much and that you stay out of sight. Head north to the National Forest and stay there."
Kim remained aloof, but Tama nodded her head enthusiastically. "We're going on a walk!"
Samantha watched them slip off into the woods, chasing her thoughts from harsh truths. He looked the same as a well-known popstar. She was a giant yellow monster. They were going to be picked up within an hour. But at least they'd have that hour together.
Somehow that made her feel better.
As it turned out, the police picked Samantha up the second she left Hector Point. The cruiser brought her back home, where her mothers waited for her on the front porch. She looked up at them, expecting grim faces and impending doom. Instead they rushed to the doors of the cruiser, thanking the officers as they swept her up in the best hug in years. A complete hug. An end-of-the-world hug.
She watched the news for some word of Tama and Kim, half-hoping to see them again. Eventually, they found the hackers in a cabin in Maine but they never mentioned either rendition.
A month later, maybe two, she took her bike to Hector Forest to spend the afternoon checking all the likely spots. She wasn't sure if she wanted to find them or not, but searching seemed the right thing to do. At last she came across a faint signal from the egg, still pinging away, and she tracked it to a stump blanketed by leaves in the middle of a glade.
Swiping the leaves away from the stump, she found her friend staring back at her. Tama's eyes were fixed on something in the distance, beyond the green interlacing of branch and foliage.
She sat down and watched the forest, the shafts of April sun piercing the canopy, enjoying the reunion with her friend. At last, she stood up, scattered armfuls of leaves over the rendition until she was hidden once more. She struck off into the woods, unsure of what she'd find but eager to know what had so fascinated the yuru-chara of Hector, New York.