Prologue: What really happened to Niko Donburi – a hypothesis

December 5, 2008

All of the department heads had convened by the time Philip arrived in the main conference room at Linden Lab. Catherine, the head of public relations, was working with Torley to get a powerpoint up. Blue, Meta and Harry were already sitting at the conference table. They rose when Philip entered.

“At ease,” he said. They all watched as he sat, then they sat back down and waited for him to speak. “Pathfinder, are you ready to proceed?”

Pathfinder stood and glanced at Torley, who nodded. “Yes, Sir,” he replied.

Philip leaned back in his chair. “Meta, take notes.”

Pathfinder cleared his throat and nervously shuffled his papers. “Well, as all of you know, for some time we have been working to identify the biggest threats to the sustainability of Second Life. You know who our main targets have been,” he said, gesturing to the wall covered in screenshots of various avatars. “Our intel indicates that we might finally have an opening to take one of them out.”

“It’s about time,” muttered Meta, writing on a notepad.

Pathfinder scowled at him then turned to Torley. “Show us what you’ve got,” he said.

Torley nodded and turned on his projector, its image covering the blank wall at the end of the room. “As you know, as we all know, there have been certain, shall we say, malcontent residents that have caused nothing but problems since they’ve arrived.” As he spoke, images of various avatars appeared on the wall behind him. “Some, like Masakazu Kojima, we’ve managed to shut down completely. Some of those that we couldn’t completely shut down, we’ve at least managed to neutralize.” The group hissed as a screenshot of Hamlet Au appeared.

Torley paused to take a sip of water, his hand shaking slightly. The screen flashed as the slide advanced to show a blurry screenshot of an androgynous avatar. “Others, like Prokofy Neva here, have, to be blunt, outsmarted us and still remain alive and active. Today’s target appears to fall in this category as well.”

He advanced his slide to show a screenshot of a figure on a stage, playing a guitar. The man was tall and dressed in a suit. He was wearing glasses, which were tinted a shade of red slightly brighter than his auburn hair.

“This is Niko,” Torley continued. “Niko Donburi, which, incidentally, means smiling rice dish in Japanese.”

“Smiling what?” asked Meta.

“Rice dish, that’s what donburi means.”

Meta scowled and made a note. “Who thought of putting that stupid name in the last name selection category?”

The room quieted. Meta looked up and then glanced at Philip, whose face was red. “Sorry,” mumbled Meta.

Torley advanced the slides. “As you can see, we’ve had our eyes on Niko for some time now. He first came on our radar when we noticed his songs starting to air on Second Cast. One of the FIC alerted us to him, so we opened an investigatory file. Then our infobots started picking up his lyrics being referenced in inter-residential chats and IM’s.”

Blue spoke up. “So he performs live music, so what? I’ve never heard of the guy so he can’t be that big of a deal. It’s not like he’s Mankind Tracer or that frog and cat duo.”

“Froggy and Jaycat,” said Catherine. She flipped through a sheaf of papers on the table in front of her and ran a finger down a column.  “Fourth most popular live music act.”

Meta shook his head. “A frog and a furry, something’s wrong about that.”

Torley held up his hand to quiet Meta. “It’s not Niko’s popularity that’s an issue, it’s more what he is singing about. Pathfinder?”

Pathfinder took a deep breath and stood, facing the team. “After we started to get the infobot reports, I managed to infiltrate one of his performances.” He shuddered. “It was down in a dingy club in Artropolis, which most of you have heard of before. The place was packed with lowlifes but I managed to sneak in wearing a disguise and obtained some covert footage.”

Torley hit a button and a video began to play, Niko was up on stage performing in what appeared to be the building of a basement. The video was shot from an angle, as if the camera was being held down low. The dance floor before the stage was filled with spinning bodies, most human some not. Others were standing in groups around the outside of the room or sitting in chairs.

“There must be at least thirty, maybe forty sim owners there,” Meta remarked.

Pathfinder nodded. “I’ve been able to count thirty-seven, but they move around a lot. And, admittedly, the captured footage isn’t the best, but it will show you what we are up against. Niko’s managed to tap into their dissatisfaction in a way that others haven’t. Listen.” Torley turned up the volume so they could hear the music.

“Dear Linden, Dear Linden, why is Second Life broke?,” Niko sang. “Your grid is grey-gooed and your blog is a joke. With all of the money that we pay to you, can’t you hire yourselves a programmer or two? Signed, unverified.”

Meta tossed his pencil down. “I don’t want to hear this shit,” he said, crossing his arms.

“It gets worse,” replied Pathfinder. “Listen to the audience sing along.”

They all watched and listened as the crowd before the stage joined in the chorus. “Unverified, unverified, we hear what you say,” they all sang in unison. “But at Linden Labs, we like it this way. We know how to fix it–and probably should–just keep crossing your fingers and knocking on wood. Signed, a Linden.”

Harry shook his head. “These idiots don’t even know what they are saying. If they had any idea how fucking hard it is to–”

“That’s enough,” barked Philip. “It is obvious that this rot needs to be removed from my world, we just need to find a way to do it.” He glared at Pathfinder. “You said you had something new. That Niko has been working with.. him.”

They all knew to whom Philip was referring: Cory Linden, the brains and architect of the entire infrastructure of the world. Once he had been Philip’s best friend, but things had soured and there had been a falling out so fierce that Philip decreed that no one was allowed to even say the “c-word” in his presence, so they just referred to him as him. It had been almost a year since Philip had had him physically removed from the premises, but they all still felt his absence as they struggled to keep the grid up and running.

Pathfinder nodded at Philip. “That’s right, sir. We’ve long heard rumors that a clandestine meeting was held between Niko and him in Chicago, sometime in the latter part of August or early September of 2007. Just a few months before his, ah, departure. We’ve now been able to confirm such a meeting took place.” Pathfinder looked down at his notes. “In his most recent song, The Linden, Niko sings about meeting a grid-monkey on a train who shared with him some of our confidential information. While Niko never names this individual, he does say that said individual helped–and I quote–’debug the client and make the flexi-prim’–which is clear evidence that it was him.”

“Not necessarily,” said Torley, rising from his seat. “There were a good number of programmers who worked on that project, anyone of them Niko could have been singing about. Other than the existence of Windlight, most of the things he talks about were already known by at least the FIC. One of them could have leaked the information to Niko. By itself it is not enough to show Niko spoke with him.”

Members of the group started mumbling amongst themselves. “Whose side are you on, Torley?” asked Meta.

Torley held up his hand. “I am on the side of truth and goodness. And watermelon, of course,” he added with a titter. “But it remains that we still need enough evidence to show a violation of the ToS. And besides, Niko didn’t sign the nondisclosure, he did. You’re going to need something else.”

Philip’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward in his chair. “Pathfinder, what was the name of that last song you quoted from.”

“The Linden.”

Philip nodded. “Yes, The Linden. But notice he didn’t say ‘The Linden Registered Trademark’ did he?”

They all gasped. “You’re right, sir,” said Pathfinder, looking through his notes. “Not only did he not say it in that song, but I’m looking through all of the lyrics to his songs and he failed to use either the registered trademark TM or the registered Copyright circle R in any of his songs to clearly identify our intellectual property.”

“He’s a bloody copyright thief, that’s what he is!” bellowed Meta. “Stealing our intellectual property like a copybot.”

Philip stood and walked over to the still image on the wall, showing Niko on stage. “That’s right. He’s nothing more than a copybot who sings. A copybot blot in my otherwise pristine world.” He turned to face the group. “We’ve got to catch him in the act, though, unless we want Prokofy all over our asses. Do we have any more footage of one of his shows? If we can get a recording of him actually not using the appropriate trademarks during his songs we’ll have the evidence that we’ll need to show he is in direct violation of the ToS.”

Catherine looked through her notes. “We’ve got a pirated copy of a concert he did in Barcelona, as part of his CD release party for The SL Man. The thing was huge, with remote locations all across the grid. Over 400 if I remember.”

Blue glanced over at Harry. “Quite an impressive feat, if you stop to think about it.” Harry scowled back.

As Philip returned to his chair Torley brought up the footage of an outdoor beach venue and projected it onto the wall. “This is Niko’s most recent show, just a few weeks ago on November 10th.”

The sun was just starting to set and they could see the crowd gathered before the stage. They watched as Niko took the stage with his guitar in hand and made his way to the microphone. As the applause began to subside he announced to the crowd that, “Second Life, SL, Linden, Linden Lab and all other words or references used in this performance are either trademarks of Linden Research, Inc., or ought to be. My use of these words, phrases or references does not mean that I am endorsed by, sponsored by, supported by or even known by anyone at Linden Research, Inc., let alone an acknowledgement by them of the matters contained herein.”

At which point Niko gave his guitar a strum and began to sing his first song.

“Son of a bitch,” muttered Meta. “There goes that idea.”

Pathfinder had never seen Philip’s face so red.

“That’s it,” growled Philip. “I want him permabanned this instance. This is my world, and it took my imagination to make it come alive.I didn’t spend eight years of my life and millions of my money for this. I don’t need a reason anymore. Permaban him.”

Torley shot a glance at Catherine, who was frowning. Reluctantly she rose to her feet. “Um, Sir? I don’t think permabanning him is going to fix the problem. In fact, our studies show that it might have the opposite effect and turn him into a martyr. We’re getting enough bad press these days as it is, we can’t afford anymore.”

Philip looked furious.

“But I–I mean, we, we have another idea, right Torley?” she said.

Torley stood, his cheeks reddening. “Well, yes, we do. It’s highly unorthodox and is certainly questionable, but it is possible–”

“What the hell is it?” interrupted Philip.

Torley paused for a moment, then said, “We should just delete him.”

The room was silent.

“We can do that?” asked Philip.

Torley looked at Harry, who stood up. “Well, technically, yes. We can corrupt the sector he is in at the moment. However, let me first explain–”

Philip waved his hand and stood. “That’s good enough for me. I don’t care how you do it, just do it. By this time tomorrow I want Niko Donburi off the air and out of my hair, permanently. I’ve got other things to worry about than this troublemaking troubadour.”

They all stood and watched him leave the conference room.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” Torley asked Harry as they began to collect their things. “Philip will be most upset if it doesn’t.”

“No worries,” replied Harry. “I was able to get search up and running perfectly, right? How hard could it be to make sure this Niko guy disappears forever?”

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