Earth, 2525CE. Man is not alive; woman did not survive. At least, not as one might have expected.
In the 21st century, humanity finally came face-to-face with the problems that threatened its continued existence: an ever-decreasing amount of resources and an an ever-increasing population. As regional conflicts and larger-scale wars escalated over basic needs such as water rights, fossil fuels, and arable land, the intellectual and scientific elite of the world banded together - in secret - to devise a solution.
With technological advances beyond what was available to the rest of humanity, these elite created a virtual world powered by a network of computers straight out of the darkest dreams of science fiction. Humanity was then given an ultimatum: digitize or die. The creators of the virtual world would not risk leaving people outside who could interfere with its operation, so a brutal and unethical campaign to convert humanity into digital replicas was launched.
The whole process took a couple years, and no small few deaths of those who refused to be digitized. In the end, though, humanity ceased to be a race of flesh and blood and became, instead, a race of ones and zeroes. Within the network, different shards - or worlds - were set up, in part to mitigate the feeling of overcrowding and in part to set up different environments for different groups. Most were set up to be modern or pseudo-modern worlds appropriate to the culture of those inhabiting the shard, but others were set up to resemble eras out of history or fantasy, with a Wild West setting, a few feudal Asian settings, areas for indigenous peoples where their cultures could be preserved without the encroachment of urban/technological cultures. And so on.
All that, though, is in the past. Close on half a millennium ago, it is relegated to myths and legends and fairy tales and doesn't touch the day-to-day lives of people in the various shards. In most shards, there is very little - if anything - to indicate that the residents are not indeed flesh-and-blood, and those old stories are seen as just that - stories, with no basis in reality.↑Hub City
Hub City (colloquially known as Habushi) is one of three major cities in a postmodern, Japan-centric shard. It is roughly analogous to Tokyo, though a fair bit larger. Close on fifty percent of the population of the shard lives and works in Hub City or in residential villages/towns within a couple hours commute.
High-speed rail links run northeast and southwest to the other two major cities with tributary lines splitting off to rural areas where fishing, farming, and forestry provide much of the basics necessary for urban life.↑Umehana Girls' High School
Umehana Girls' High School (梅花女子高校) is one of several private boarding schools in Hub City. While the bulk of the students are from wealthy or powerful families, there are several students admitted each year on scholarship and around a handful by lottery. Girls from rural areas are given priority for two-thirds of the non-paying slots each year.
Unlike many private and public schools which focus on technical or vocational courses, Umehana is dedicated to giving young women a broad, liberal education with a strong focus in the fine and performing arts. Entrepreneurial and business skills are a secondary focus for the first two years, but come close to the forefront for the final year; students are encouraged, but not required, to have a part-time job. Neither are athletics forgotten, but the school's teams generally do not perform all that well.
In part because of the nature of the families of most of the students, Umehana has a strong belief in networking. One way that this is implemented is by each second-year student sharing a dorm room with a new first-year. Rather than a strict segregation by years as is common in most other high schools, this gets the new students involved in the social circle of their roommate, which generally includes students now in their third year so that everyone gets to know (almost) everyone else, rather than the highly stratified social structure in other schools.
Third-year students, to prepare them for 'the real world,' do not share dorm rooms with others and rather than the skirt/blouse/sweater uniform worn by the first- and second-year students, wear a uniform that has more in common with a business suit than a school uniform.↑Cafe 9&
Cafe 9& (Pronounced kyuuto, homophonic with a word for 'cute') is in the busy Fuyutsuki district of Hub City. It is a popular place for schoolboys and college students to hang out, mostly because it is a maid cafe where the waitresses dress as maids. Customers are then addressed and treated as if they were the maids' employers, with greetings such as "Welcome back, Master."
Their menu is simple - tea, coffee, sodas, and a variety of soups, salads, and sandwiches. But beyond that, it is a place where customers can relax and work on their hobbies, such as building model kits, folding origami cranes, sketching, and so on. Oftentimes, they will request the assistance of the 'maid' for their table, and as long as it is not too busy, she is encouraged to help. The owner is a graduate of Umehana Girls' High School (however many years back she's not telling), and the walls are lined with shelves and picture frames featuring the work of both customers and employees - an art gallery where the exhibits change at least twice a month.
Both Erika and Rumielle have part time jobs at the cafe, the only students from Umehana to work there this year, but the owner does give preferential hiring to her alma mater.↑Sorcerers
Sorcerers are part of the original protocol from when the shards were created. They are not actual people, but AI constructs that have existed from the beginning of each shard. Each major area of a shard has one. The one near Hub City resides in a 'hut' near the summit of a dormant volcano known as Mount Fuji. The hut, of course, is larger on the inside than the outside would suggest.
The original purpose of the sorcerers was to facilitate travel between shards. If someone had not been happy being assigned to, say, an urban shard, they could request to be transferred to and given a new life in an agrarian shard, with the caveat that they would have to remain at their destination for a lengthy period of time before being eligible to return or transfer to yet a different shard.
Over time, though, their purpose evolved and people are able to request reassignment to a different role, even within the same shard. To prevent abuse of the system, there are costs involved with requesting a change via the sorcerer. Beyond a financial cost, which generally is scaled to the ability of the the one making the request, there is a cost measured in what the sorcerers refer to as expy. People must have 'experience' in their current role before they can hop into something new, and this generally takes years to build up as an individual partakes in the various activities of daily life. In Hub City, by the time someone has graduated high school, they generally have enough expy to make use of the sorcerer's service, and they have learned enough about themselves to know if they'd be happier as something else.
People in Hub City generally don't make use of the sorcerers - if they even believe in the stories, and those that do are usually businesspeople or researchers tired of the modern life and wanting to experience something drastically different. They often become ninja or samurai and are transferred to a feudal-themed shard, or a mythical creature and transferred to a fantasy-themed shard. Caretaker programs have created several smaller shards over the centuries, such as a faerie grove or the sunken city of Atlantis (for mermaids and the like).
The network and programs that run the shards modify 'reality' so that there's no panic caused by people disappearing or new people appearing.↑