Floating Point 1.1 :: Gank
:: start chapter 1.1
:: go home
As the clock struck zero, bolts of pure electric fury shunted into the ground beneath the gathering storm clouds as summoned champions of the Chaos Rift awakened to the fields of battle.
Their eyes opened to the familiar sight before them… great blackstone obelisks, diseased jungle trees, and the cries of bloodhawks across the lanes of battle. Wonderful sights and sounds, to those who craved the bloodshed yet to come…
The finest sight and sound, however, was the similar blasts of lightning that were visible on the other side of the battleground. Five claps of thunder heralded the arrival of Order’s champions: the ones who stood between Chaos and absolute victory. Without anyone to stand in their way, well… it wouldn’t be any fun, would it?
Their leader carried a axe stained in both sap and blood, a similar matted texture which stained a beard large enough to cover his chest. Heavy feet sank a full inch into the mud, betraying the immense weight which bore down into the earthen soil; weight of muscle, weight of iron. All of it honed to bring crushing death to all who stood before it.
Standing at his left lurked a revenant of flesh and malice, surrounded by vitae-drinking flies which were starving in their attempts to drain life which no longer existed within their host; to his right, a gaunt figure of purest black and white, with a painted down frown and lines where his eyes should be. Alternating black and white stripes of cloth covered every inch of skin, assuming the creature even had skin…
The chosen champions of Chaos would make any sane man run from the sheer horror of what they represented. They were malice, they were rage, and they were here to do war upon this sacred-and-defiled battleground.
All that remained was to speak the ancient runes which declared their battle strategies, and to launch into the absolute madness of war.
The dark axeman was first to declare his wicked intent.
"Bullshit! I called solo in the middle lane before we got here!" his fellow warrior of Chaos spoke, from within his diseased shell of rotting corpseflesh. "You can’t jack solo mid after we already launched. Besides, I can do solo just fine. I’ve got a good item list I found on the game forums…"
"Seriously? C’mon, Diseased Shambler sucks at solo mid with any items," the leader replied, idly dragging a whetstone across the blade of his axe. "My Lumberjacker can hold the middle lane better than any of you. We’ll have Shambler take bottom lane, Mime playing support with Cobbler in top lane, and put Scissors in the jungle between lanes. That’s how this team composition works best."
The animate corpse of a long-dead king sneered, with rotting teeth. "Maybe I’ll go mid anyway," he scoffed. "I’d do a better job than some stupid guy with an axe…"
"Any of you see Shambler out of his lane, report his ass to the moderators," Lumberjacker declared to his other teammates. "And if you don’t I’m reporting you. I’m not losing diamond rank because of some pub scrub who doesn’t get the metagame. Now GL HF and let’s fucking wreck ’em already."
With the issue nicely settled, the hale and hearty tree-felling Lumberjacker strolled off towards the gates that would take him to his lane.
Every round of the Challenge of Champions game took place on the same map. Lumberjacker knew every nook and cranny of it, as a result… knew the three lanes (top, middle, bottom) that connected the two opposing bases of Chaos and Order together, knew the roles that each five-man team would typically take on. Five men to defend three lanes wasn’t evenly divisible, so invariably at least one guy would be flying solo… and in this case, that would be Lumberjacker, the best of the bunch.
His role as solo mid was to fight his way down the middle of the three lanes, a champion for the cause of Chaos against the forces of Order. Lumberjacker, Cobbler, Scissors, Mime, and that idiot Shambler would represent Chaos… fighting to push through their respective lanes, to control territory and destroy various guardian obelisks along the way. In the end they’d storm Order’s base, and burn it to the ground…
…all while Order tried to do the same thing in reverse. Five champions of Order would push down the lanes, fighting back against Chaos, to push them back into their base and turn that to the ground instead. A five-on-five war for supremacy. Like hell Lumberjack would allow those five Order idiots to stop his inevitable rise to glory, of course.
The first ten minutes of every Challenge of Champions match were generally identical; he could’ve played this game in his sleep.
Lumberjacker strolled out in that middle lane alongside a wave of friendly Chaos Goblins, little A.I. driven monsters that fought for his side. Even if the five man team of actual players got all the glory, and even if Lumberjacker was technically flying solo, he couldn’t really do it alone; the strength of their goblin army would aid him in the heat of battle.
The plan was to crash head on into a wave of Order’s little gnome army, and beat the hell out of them. Every time his axe fell one of the little Gnomes, he’d get gold towards buying items that would amplify his ridonkulus Lumberjacker tanking… magical items combined to make him stronger, healthier, and damn near an axe-swinging demigod. By the fifteen minute mark, if all went according to plan, he’d have everything he’d need to keep the middle lane secure for the rest of the game… then close out the game with a few good five-on-five full team fights.
Of course, Order would send someone down the middle lane after him… likely another strong solo mid, someone also beating up Chaos Goblins and earning money towards a god-tier set of items. But Lumberjacker could do it better, faster, easier. The axe had amazing range for a melee weapon, and his sit ‘n spin move could wipe an entire wave of Order’s Gnomes in three seconds flat. Once he was sitting pretty, it wouldn’t matter who Order put up against him… he’d push, and push, and eventually take out Order’s base.
And then…? Diamond rank, unlocked. He’d been playing for hours and hours a day, ever since the start of the ranked play season. This was the last game he needed to make his mark. Tournament invites, sponsorship deals, major sports recruiters lined up at his door… everything within reach. Just one victory to go…
Strolling with heavy leather boots across the muck of the lane, with a gaggle of little red Chaos Goblins at his side… yes, this was living. He tossed his axe lightly from hand to hand, hefting the weight, enjoying the ease which this proxy avatar could lug the thing around. The bright blue of the Order Gnomes, coming up the lane in front of him, danced in his eyes as he charged in for the whirl ‘n kill—
—and promptly and fell flat on his face in the mud.
An icon of a ringing bell with little birds lazily circling it occupied much of his perspective, as he found his character unable to rise to its feet. Someone had smacked him upside the head with a hard stunning blow, locking all movement and preventing all actions. What’s more, it was lasting way longer than stuns usually did in this game…
A blur flicked from bush to bush, back and forth across the lane. One by one, Chaos Goblins dropped to the ground, dead; a brief splash of golden coins signaled their fall, coins which were scooped out of the air by the vague blur…
Until it snapped into focus, behind a healthy wave of Order Gnomes, now bearing down on the fallen Lumberjacker.
Flashing pink silk, with fluffy pom-poms. A single straight blade, glinting in the dim light of the sun above. A hood and mask…
As the Order Gnomes cheerfully beat the stunned Lumberjacker into the dirt, emptying all of his blood (and coins) into the ground, messages flooded upwards through his Peep window.
<Kelek> holy *** did he just die to GNOMES?
<DethShard> lolololol rekt
<Kelek> who the *** plays that stupid pink kunoichi? isnt she a joke character?
<Kelek> she’s got no damage at all, just stuns and ***
Of course, death was not the end in this game. Moments later, a freshly respawned Lumberjack stormed out of the Chaos base… declining to responding to anyone laughing at him in his chatroom.
"Lumber, what’s going on in mid?" Cobbler called out, across the private team chat channel. "Did you seriously just get killed in the first gnome wave?"
"It’s the idiot playing a Kunoichi for the Order team," Lumberjacker explained—while storming back down the middle lane, with a fresh wave of Goblins marching in lock step to watch his back. "I think she dumped all her starting gold into boosting her goblin smackdown and stun attacks. Good news is that means she’s bought no player-versus-player damage boosts that could actually hurt me."
Shambler echoed in next, with a voice like leaking, pus-filled sores. "You need any help there, Mr. I-Call-Solo-Mid?" he asked. "Who’s that playing Kunoichi, anyway? Username looks like… ‘Spark’? That sounds familiar… maybe she’s a pro?"
<Reynard> You’re up against SPARK playing Kunoichi? holy *** you are in trouble.
<Reynard> She’s a legit pro player, diamond rank.
<DethShard> grills don’t play games
"Look, who cares? She’s a nobody. Probably not even a she, there aren’t any girls in CoC. Just stay in the bottom lane, Shambler, I’ve got this. A few more waves and I’ll have enough gold for my armor items…"
"She’s a ninja, right? You should buy an All-Seeing Eye. That’ll counter her stealth—"
"I’m a damn tank, not a support. I’m not wasting my money on a support item," Lumberjacker insisted, storming through muddy puddles, kicking up a grayish wake of muck as he got his axe ready for the second run. "Mime, go get us an Eye next time you’re back in base. And throw up some observer wards."
The black-and-white cloth rasped through mime’s lips, as he grumbled back in channel.
"Buy your own damn wards, we’ve got serious problems in the top lane!" he barked. "We—oh COME ON—!"
And Mime went down to a Chemist on the Order team, judging from the distant green explosion and whiff of acrid toxins.
Not that Lumberjacker had time to deal with the gradual collapse of his team. He had a lane to control, and some idiot playing an underpowered joke character with crappy items to deal with.
Kunoichi couldn’t pull the same stunt twice. That initial flurry of teleporting, creep clear, and stun would’ve drained out all the energy she had; she wouldn’t be pulling off THAT wombo combo anytime soon. All Lumberjacker had to do was find her, keep the pressure on, and push those gnome waves back towards the Order base. Kunoichi was a one trick pony, and that one trick couldn’t stand up for long…
Except she was nowhere to be found. He wove in and out of the jungle between the lanes looking for her, ignoring the Gnomes for now—and ignoring his own jungle-based teammate Scissors, who was struggling to beat up the jungle’s neutral monsters—in search of the Kunoichi. No sign.
<Kelek> run home to mommy’s house, ***
<DethShard> B E T A N U D E S
<Reynard> Probably swapping lanes with Chemist, you should buy an acid protection item next.
<Reynard> Or you could get stun protection to defend against Kunoichi if you invest in a low king’s stool.
The viewers in his Peep chatroom had a point… but if Kunoichi had indeed run off, he wouldn’t need an LKS. Good thing too, because LKS was expensive and he still had tanky armor items to buy. He had a plan, a strat, and he was damn well gonna stick with it.
By this point she’d definitely left his lane, knowing she couldn’t possibly stand toe to toe with a Lumberjacker. Good. All he had to do was—
On instinct, he swept his axe wide, clearing out a swath of trees.
A pink blur dropped from the branches above, bounding away.
"Oh no you don’t…!" he shouted, pounding boots into the ground, rushing her down. He had to time his swing just right; it slowed his movement speed and threw him off balance whenever he unleashed a flurry of axe strikes. Wait to catch up. She’d dumped all her money into junk items, no speed boosts whatsoever, while Lumberjacker grabbed himself a sturdy pair of shoes while respawning. Ten feet. Six feet. And…
The axe struck true.
Specifically, it struck a log.
He hadn’t missed. Hadn’t swung wide and hit a tree, no; this was a free-floating log, one which appeared in a cloud of pink smoke. A ninja substitution jutsu… swapping places with a harmless object, while teleporting to safety.
With perfect timing, she’d baited him out long enough to recover all her energy. Which meant she had plenty in reserve to stun him again.
The blade strike hit his back, causing a dazed Lumberjacker to stagger back out into the middle lane…
Right into a fresh wave of Order Gnomes, which gleefully kicked his ass while he stood around helpless.
Lumberjacker’s disembodied spirit began its extensive tour of the jungle, dragged back to spawn, to be born again.
This one idiot playing this one stupid character was standing in the way between Lumberjacker and everything he wanted: rank, prestige, notoriety. If he lost this game to that stupid little girl… if he couldn’t show that he could hold his own against a gimmick character…
Hate. Absolute hate, at this point. He had one objective now, and one objective alone: KILL HER.
"Lumberjacker, what the HELL, man?" Shambler was shouting across the team channel. "You’re losing your lane!"
"It’s nothing, okay? It’s nothing!" the axeman growled back, as he dropped back into the land of the living… and bought himself a Low King’s Stool, for stun protection. "Minor setback. Look, I can take the hits, I’m a fucking tank! I’m gonna kill her eventually, don’t worry about that—"
"I’m not worried about her, worried about our base! Or did you not notice the rest of the Order team pushing all the way around the top lane while you were playing with your new girlfriend? They’re at our base!"
<DethShard> n00b rush tactics are for n00bs
<DethShard> stupid *** too fat to get a man, plays CoC instead
<Reynard> For a n00b tactic it’s working fine, isn’t it? He’s getting completely rekt.
<TrumpCard> oh man, what a value play! grill game too stronk, yo
<Reynard> Seriously man, you guys gotta team up and win fight against Order. Push them back and do it NOW or Order’s got this in the bag.
<Reynard> An LKS is critical to keeping her out of the fight. Keep at it, I know you can win this if you focus.
"Guys, guys, shut UP, okay?" he shouted. "—no, not you, team, I mean my stupid Peep chatroom! Argh. Okay. Okay…"
…Reynard was right. He had to focus. Kunoichi was gonna die screaming and begging at some point, but in order to get to that point, they had to push the Order team back. They had to focus on the game and the team, not one specific player.
"We need to rally at the top lane and do it NOW," he said, regaining a smidgeon of his composure. "All five of us, all at once. We push them back and regain control of this game! I’ll tank, you guys spank! GO!"
Seeing an opportunity to turn this around, the Lumberjacker twirled his axe once, and rushed from spawn to the top lane gate.
No way he could beat down the whole Order team on his own; not yet. If he’d been killing Gnomes and making money instead of getting stunned by the damn Kunoichi every time, maybe he’d be able to pentakill these bastards… but even without his maximum power, his job remained the same: distract the enemy, absorb some hits, and give his team time to crack back hard against Order.
Even if he died, it would be worth it if his death got them some breathing room. Enough time to push back, to assert dominance, to get back into the groove of how the game was supposed to be played…
The frenzy of battle lie ahead of him. Blue Gnomes on Red Goblins, locking horns, snarling at each other. More importantly, here were the five warriors of Order… the Chemist, tossing green explosive bottles. Butcher, pan-frying up hot death. Scythe, currently dismembering their useless Shambler.
Where was the Kunoichi, though…?
For the moment he shoved that thought aside while tossing a throwing axe, neatly cleaving the Chemist’s skull in half. Brains and blood, the core of his game avatar’s innards, splattered across the nearby trees. Good. They could win this. Lumberjacker could get his ranking. He could…
…there. Hiding in the trees, again. Did she really think that trick would work again?
The trees were Lumberjacker’s forte. He could clear cut them, give her nowhere to hide. This was his fight, his fight alone; he was better than joke characters like Kunoichi. All he had to do was run her down. With his shiny new Low King’s Stool, her stuns would be useless! He could do this. He could win…!
With a cry to the skybox above, the Lumberjacker charged away from the frenzy of the team fight, into the tree line.
His axe cut true, slashing down tree after tree, felling a good portion of the jungle forest. He could see the Kunoichi above, blurring between the branches, panicking and doing her best to not be seen… but it was too late. He was wise to her game. He’d put her in the ground and end this game once and for all.
With each tree that went down, she had less and less chances to escape. He quickly calculated which trees to focus on, how to drive her away from the brawl, back into the middle lane. Once there, in his home turf… he’d have her. He’d finally have that little bitch…
The last tree went down… dropping Kunoichi to the mud below. Nowhere to hide.
Stunning knives flew from her fingertips, a fan of them. The Lumberjacker ignored them, the weak little blades bouncing off his bloody beard, deflected by the aura of the Low King’s Stool. No more stuns. No more tricks. No more Kunoichi…
Her blade went up to block the incoming blow… but it was too late. His axe, nearly as large as she was, came down hard.
Blood sprayed outward to the left and right of the blade, as the girl’s body fell away into two pieces.
It took the Lumberjacker a few moments to catch his breath, from the exhilaration of the hunt. Victory. Victory at last… one perfect gank, a massive kill, on his mortal enemy.
The word that flicked across his perspective suggested otherwise.
DEFEAT, it declared.
In the distance… the final Obelisk of Chaos, core of their base, crumbled away. The healthy Order team, fresh off their slaughter of every other member of his team, were doing a little touchdown dance in his end zone.
…she’d led him away from the team fight. Tree by tree, she let herself be run down, let herself be chased right to the point of death… so that Lumberjacker wasn’t there to keep the Chaos defense from falling to bits. Thanks to her distraction he’d won his fight, and lost the war…
From the skies beyond, across the global game-wide chat channel… he heard the unmistakably female voice of Spark, player of the Kunoichi character, calling out to him.
"GG," she spoke.
His Peep window flooded with laughter. Hundreds of viewers watching him plummet down the ranks, diamond ranking now forever out of his grasp. His own team cursed his name, cursed his mother, cursed everything about this stupid game.
And all the Lumberjacker could do was scream, and scream, and disconnect from the server, and scream some more.
"Soooo… that’s how you play Kunoichi," Spark concluded. "I don’t feel like she’s a joke character at all; she’s a troll, but not a joke. Normally I advocate for trolls to die in a fire, but in the context of the game, playing a troll character is a legit strategy. If the enemy gives in to their hate and lets you run them around in circles, it’s their game to lose, yeah?"
Spark stretched, flexing a few joints to get them working again. Reconnecting back to her home server (and her own avatar) after sitting inside a game server while wearing a game avatar always left her feeling a little stiff. Even if her moves were pretty awesome inside the game, she felt far more awesome in her own skin, and far more comfortable in her own bedroom.
The folks tuned into her broadcast couldn’t see her bedroom, of course. When not operating within a game server, her Peep App displayed fanart sent in by her viewers and things like that instead. Rule number one of Peep broadcasting: don’t let them know where you actually live, especially for "grill" (aka "girl") broadcasters. They can enjoy your sparkling personality and wit, you can talk about the games, but your personal life is yours and yours alone to share or not share as you see fit.
"Anyway, did that answer your question, Reifu?" Spark asked, turning back to her Peep chat window.
<Reifu> ty, always wanted to see Kunoichi played well
<XxKILLxX> B E T A N U D E S
<Wayne78> *** grill plays a *** character
<Wayne78> show us ur ***
<MegaMilk> GG well rekt
<Reifu> do you main ninja type characters? I’ve only ever see you play them
Spark flicked a single painted nail across the invisible chat window, to strike out Kill and Wayne from her room. No need to wait for her moderators, not when she was between game sessions and focused on chat again.
"Yeah, I’ve got something of a ninjutsu addiction," she agreed. "Less the costuming and more the moves. I love cheesy action movie files, parkour videos, stuff like that. I actually study martial arts in my spare time, like, learning how to do it fo’ reals…"
<Reifu> What, you mean avatar-to-avatar in real life? Not in a game?
<MegaMilk> backspacer beats punchy kicky
<MegaMilk> no point
<MegaMilk> besides, can just get patches installed if you want punchy kicky
"Software patches … ehhh," she replied, making a gross-out face (exaggerated, so it would be picked up by the facecam). "My teacher always said that heuristic learning was the way to go; no preloaded memory maps here. I guess it’s kind of an #OldSchool #AthenaAttitude, but way I see it, unless you really take the time to learn through trial and error, it’s not really a part of you, something you know how to respect. It’s just something you know…"
<Polearm> Spark’s hands registered deadly weapons confirmed
<Polearm> best ninja AO 10/10
<Reifu> can you play Hanzo next?
<Forzen> omg Spark ur so hot
<MegaMilk> HANZO OR RIOT
<Polearm> HANZO OR RIOT
<Forzen> HANZO OR RIOT
<Reifu> HANZO OR RIOT … sorry ^_^
Spark laughed it off, raising her hands, surrendering to the chat. "Okay, okay! I’ll play Hanzo next round, guys, no rioting, no rioting…"
Except now, another window had opened itself. This one, a private voice chat.
"Need you here now," he spoke, tersely. "Got a strong lead."
"Uh… one sec guys," she told her chatroom, before switching to speak through the secured line. "—Tracer, I’m busy streaming. Y’know, coins for the family piggy bank…?"
"Leave it. This is more important."
"More important? We may live here rent free but it’s not like we don’t have expenses."
"HolyHymnal, in the Chanarchy. Brand new server. Get over here as soon as you can. This one’s not some snipe hunt; he’s here."
And then, gone. Disconnected without another word to say.
With practiced ease, Spark took her anger and frustration and swallowed it down. Came back to her virtual Peep chat facecam smiling. There was no actual camera—just a floating red dot to look at, above the hovering chatroom text—but she knew how to flash that red dot a winning grin.
That was the key; no matter what was going down in her personal life, she had a Peep persona to maintain. Spark had to be known as that cute girl with the fire-effect hair and the fire-bright smile. When broadcasting her gameplay to an audience of fans, she felt your attitude carried over into your chat; being salty and bitter led to a toxic community. The Spark they knew and loved was a pretty chill gamer grill, which led them to be pretty chill as well.
"Soooo… I gotta cut today’s stream early," she said, breaking the news as gently as possible. "Sorry. #ItsPersonal. But hey, if you enjoyed watching me play Kunoichi, throw a like on my MyFace profile, drop me a donation, or subscribe to the channel. It’s only five coins a month and it really helps me out, you know? This month’s sub goal is a cosplay stream, and we’re sitting at… let’s see… seventy-two out of one hundred. Could be soon! Later, my little #Sparklers!"
She saved her swearing tirade until after shutting down the Peep App.
Of COURSE her idiot brother would interrupt her during game time. Of COURSE she’d have to travel halfway around Netwerk, away from the comforts of home, to chase down another one of his "solid" leads. What a complete pain…
But, he was her brother. He was family. And they did have a common cause, even if they had differing views on what caused that cause. In the end she knew she’d follow him around on this fool’s errand, so… no point thinking otherwise.
Briefly, Spark leaned against the frame of her bedroom window. Taking a look at what passed for the outside world was a fine way to get her perspective back, at times like these.
Clouds obscured most of it, naturally. The physical structure of her home server floated high above it all, a flying castle in the skybox… but through the holes in those fuzzy particle fields, she could see a representation of all of Netwerk below. She saw it as connected lines and squares, a basic map of the known servers, gathered across Netwerk’s backbone into the three major hosting service nation-states. An entire universe of ones and zeroes, of Programs and Apps, of games and services, of delights and dangers…
And honestly? If she was being super honest with herself…?
Even if she preferred to soak in the delights, it was the danger that would keep her walking in her brother’s footsteps. Danger to his life which needed to be stopped, of course… but some of that danger was a delight. Unlike the games, these risks were real.
After all, Spark had lived out all her days as a sentient Program within the cohesive digital universe of Netwerk. Her whole world was defined by the constraints of that digital world.
And as far as she knew at the time… nothing else existed.
A chatroom recording made years ago, by a participant of the chat. Includes interactions with all original suspects. File was truncated on being salvaged from the chatroom logs, but reconstruction efforts showed nothing of interest in the Q&A section. See follow up files on Widdershins, JSLaunch, and Ichiban for additional information.
I wish I’d tuned in for this interview myself, instead of spending that afternoon wasting my time goofing off. Kids can be dumb, myself included.
<Widdershins> Hello, and welcome to Turning Point. As always, I’m your host, Widdershins. Tonight’s chat topic is the ongoing debate of creationism vs. evolution. How did we come to be the way we are?
<Widdershins> My guests tonight are noted software engineer and evolution researcher JSLaunch, Archbishop Ichiban of the Athena Online chapter of the Church of One, and controversial archaeologist Verity. Gentlemen and lady, welcome.
<JSLaunch> Thank you, it’s good to be here tonight.
<Ichiban> Blessings of the One upon you, my son.
<Verity> Personally I’d have gone with "archaeologist" rather than "controversial archaeologist," but hey, I’m happy to be here too.
<Widdershins> As always submit your questions to the queue. Subscribers get priority. Time permitting we will un-mute the audience later in the session for an open discussion. Please be aware moderators are online and owing to the sensitive nature of this topic, we will be ejecting any statements considered trollish.
<Widdershins> JSLaunch, you’re the current president of the Horizon Trades and Sciences Guild, which has recently done considerable research into the subject of evolution. Can you tell us of your latest findings?
<JSLaunch> Certainly. We in the Guild have excavated a number of Horizon’s oldest servers, digging deep into the layers of deprecated software found within. The results are startling; in the refuse of early digital civilization we’ve found signs of primitive Apps making port calls and utilizing tools they were never coded to use in the first place. With each passing day our knowledge grows deeper, and with the support of fine individuals such as Horizon/Kincaid, I believe we’ll have the resources to solve Netwerk’s deepest mysteries.
<Widdershins> Ichiban, your organization protested the excavation, I believe?
<Ichiban> That is correct. The server in question was once a Church of One holy ground, before server rights were revoked to the Horizon family. They’ve already desecrated that land many times over; this so-called search for truth amounts to a Zero, a great sin.
<JSLaunch> Fortunately, visionaries such as the Horizon family are not easily swayed by superstitious reverence for the integers "one" and "zero." They are only numbers.
<Ichiban> I would expect a non-believer such as yourself to speak casually of the One and the Zero. Truly, the work of the Zero is rampant through our decadent society… this blind pursuit of science in ignorance of faith is proof of that.
<Widdershins> Perhaps it would help if you explained your objections to evolutionary theory, Archbishop. Why has the Church of One come out against it?
<Ichiban> The lie of evolution trivializes the miracle of life. We are digital beings, comprised of One and Zero, good and evil. All of us have blessings and sins within our code. Our life was granted to us by the One, an entity so pure that He holds no zeroes in His data and yet functions perfectly! Our purpose is to spread goodness, charity, and the message of the One to all programs. We must stand against the Anti-One, the Zero, wherever it may be and whatever form it may take. And the so-called "theory" of evolution is clearly a Zero.
<JSLaunch> Outside of the church’s cultural watershed in Athena Online, a full 76% of polled programs believe in the scientifically proven theory of evolution. The simple fact of the matter is this: Programs evolved from Apps. We are the descendants of Apps, born from the primordial sea of data, through random code mutations. We are life, pure digital life, born to our universe through mathematical processes. Nobody "created" us; certainly not some big beard in the skybox.
<Ichiban> Why do you turn against the One so willingly? He created you, created us all, and yet you spurn his love…
<JSLaunch> Creationist lies, the whole lot of it. A silly story told to comfort children.
<Widdershins> Gentlemen, please. We’re here to discuss things in a civil manner.
<Widdershins> Miss Verity? You’ve been rather quiet so far.
<Verity> I was enjoying the show, actually. Do you have a question for me?
<Widdershins> Well, let’s discuss your perspective on creation and evolution. While you lack the financial resources of the Horizon family and its guilds or the congregations of the Church of One, you’ve made some in-roads with your latest text file, "The Avatar Paradox…"
<JSLaunch> An… interesting book, much like others in the genre of pop science. No doubt quite famous in the finest Chanarchy servers, where conspiracy theorists gather.
<Verity> I could care less about fame. If I wanted to be rich I wouldn’t have released the book for free; I sure as null wouldn’t be making barely more than coin-grind minimum wage working as a teacher, either.
<Verity> Honestly, I think both of these gentlemen are right. Yes, we evolved from Apps. And yes, those Apps were created by an outside force. Our life isn’t simply a random happenstance, but it’s certainly not divine.
<Verity> Let me put it to you this way, Widdershins. Why do you have a navel?
<Verity> A navel. A belly button. An innie or an outie, whatever you prefer. It’s a part of every default avatar, our representation within the physical simulation of the servers we reside in. You likely have a belly button, unless you removed it with a cosmetic tweak. You’ve got eyes, ears, a nose, a mouth; you’ve got senses tied to them. Why?
<Widdershins> I’d imagine communication would be rather difficult without eyes and ears.
<Verity> Would it? We’re digital beings. We exist within the data of the universe itself, not within our avatars. Why did we "evolve" into having avatars in the first place? Avatars are the most grossly inefficient way for living programs to communicate. If JSLaunch is right, if absolute natural selection dictated our forms, we shouldn’t be the messy and socially awkward creatures we are.
<Widdershins> So you consider yourself a creationist? That we emerged through intelligent design?
<Verity> I wouldn’t call it particularly INTELLIGENT design. As for my beliefs… I believe that there IS a life form which exists beyond our comprehension of ones and zeroes. That life form crafted our universe, provided us the primordial sea of data. From there, yes, we indeed evolved from Apps… there’s plenty of evidence for that. But we somehow evolved in their image. We have belly buttons when we don’t need them. We EVOLVED out of someone else’s CREATION.
<Ichiban> Which is complete heresy, of course.
<JSLaunch> I’d actually agree with your sentiment, if not your word for it. So Miss Verity, you’re saying we exist because of… what, transdimensional aliens? Seriously? Are you reading a lot of science fiction lately? Spending too much time mining coins and going star-mad?
<Verity> Honestly, I’m okay with your skepticism. Rational thinking calls for us to examine all assumptions with a skeptical eye. I will admit I could be completely wrong… but my initial research is promising. I’ve uncovered a major artifact that I’m still studying, one which points towards my theory, in fact… and like JSLaunch, I’m learning more every day. The truth is somewhere out there in Netwerk, and I’m going to find it. If not me, someone in my footsteps. I promise you that.
With a closet, you could store all your cool outfits back home rather than carry them around in your personal inventory. Pretty important for keeping your overall Program size low… every App, every data file, every memory you carried with you ate up server resources. Lugging around six or seven wardrobes and a zillion installed Apps when you went out for coffee was a great way to get kickbanned from your favorite servers. Why let one fat Program suck up space that could go to two or three instead?
Of course, that just meant all her excessive bulk of clothing was stored back home; it wasn’t like it took up less space. But her home server was a private one, and she set her own rules. No angry landlord screaming at her about causing server lag with eleventy hundred pairs of shoes. (Granted, her brother had been grumbling about that very same problem. Fortunately she’d grown used to ignoring her brother’s grumbles.)
And if Spark had one major addiction beyond the thrill of a good game, it was collecting avatar accessories.
She owned clothes of all stripes (often with stripes) but also invested heavily in little extra details to mix ‘n match. Kitty ears, those were an obvious choice. Complete hairstyle replacements across all the colors of the visible spectrum, with and without subtle fire visual effects at the edges. Alternate skins for her eyes. All manner of particle-enhanced jewelry; she could be her own walking light show if she put on too many at once. Virtual pets, like fish that swam around her head wherever she went. And of course, there were complete avatar swaps with cartoony forms, with appropriate bounciness coded into them for added cute factor… although she tended to prefer her more human forms, so she could add in her favorite accessory of them all.
No matter the avatar, she’d always find a way to work her prized white leather jacket into it. Across her back, often glowing or pulsing to the beat of whatever music she listened to, hovered Spark’s own heart-on-fire icon.
Icons were a decidedly personal statement, Spark felt. She had a boring one when she was born, some silly looking Default… but even at an early age, she was assembling bits and pieces of public domain art, trying to find exactly the right combination of elements that spoke to her. Fire had to be there; she took her filename, "Spark," and embraced all it could mean. A light in the darkness… a burst of energy and life… or a tiny, easily overlooked flame that would grow into an all-consuming inferno.
At first, adding the heart in the center of the flames was an accident, loading the wrong clip art file while on a customization spree. But the more she thought about it… the more it felt right to her. A burning heart of passion, with a touch of whimsy? Perfecto.
Most Programs didn’t bother paying THAT much attention to their customizations. Many stuck to their Defaults; some didn’t even bother changing their clothes more than once a year or two. Spark cared quite deeply about expression, and damn well wanted to show off her efforts through icon and wardrobe alike…
But the jacket itself, no, that never changed. This gift from Verity meant the world to her. No matter how many times she swapped out clothes or hairstyles or even body parts, this jacket stayed with her, even as she dug through her closet for something to wear for today’s shenanigans with Tracer.
Although even as she continued to hunt for a good ensemble to stroll out in style with, she pondered why she was even bothering. It wasn’t like she was trying to impress anyone; if anything, judging from Tracer’s past exploits, she’d likely want to attract less attention. But… he had interrupted her game time. He could sit and wait, while she designed up an impromptu outfit. Make him squirm a bit…
A soft beep that only Spark could hear distracted her from deciding between a cheesy red halter top and a skintight torso decal made of liquid silver.
"Darling!" she called out, across all of Network.
"Darling!" a cheerful voice replied. "We are ON for tonight!"
"Seriously? You got the passes?" Spark asked, while swapping into the halter top. A mirror App confirmed it looked just as tasteless as she was hoping; good for further punishing her idiot brother. "How’d you swing that, Puz?"
"Ohhh, Puzzle has her ways. She’s a woman of mystery and intrigue," her friend joked, in the third person. "Shall we make a full day of it? We could obtain some new threads, find a bite to eat, and storm the club’s grand opening gala! Two divas on the town!"
Closing the mirror App with a sigh, Spark shook her head. Not that Puzzle would see it, with the cheap messenger App being audio-only, but some behaviors were simply automatic.
"Honestly… I don’t think I can. I’m going to be busy this afternoon," she admitted.
"Darling, you can’t let your brother run your life. What was it last time we wanted to have a night out on the town, anyway? Chasing down some troll?"
"He had good reason to believe the guy was connected to our primary target. He wasn’t, but the evidence we found got the bastard banned from six servers. That’s good, right?"
"Look, if Tracer wants to play social justice warrior, he can do it on his own time. Or just go tattle to a moderator! That’s why mods exist, right?"
"Mods? Hah! Don’t make me laugh," Spark replied. After a little laugh. "Only time they lift a finger is when we drop proof right in their laps. Too much corruption and laziness. The bastard mods in the Chanarchy are just an #InnerCircleJerk. Horizon’s mods, they’re happy to sweep trouble under the rug or look the other way if it impacts the bottom line. And Athena Online, the only guys with an actual police force? Lazy and corrupt, with a hate-on for colorfully alternative avatars. I grew up there, I should know."
"So what, the only alternative is to go full vigilante? Does he also wear a cape and a mask when he plays hero, too? How tacky…"
"It’s not like that, Puz. I mean, you know most of the awfulness out there is unmoderatable due to masks of anonymity or jurisdiction issues. If we don’t step in and investigate, nobody else will."
"This is the problem with SJWs, darling. Self-righteousness doesn’t automatically mean you’re right. What gives Tracer the authority to step in and play judge, jury, and executioner?"
"Sheesh, Puz, we don’t kill people! Look, this is important to him, okay? And it’s important to me, especially because it’s important to him."
"Ugh. Spark, he needs therapy, not you backing up his antics."
"If I’m not there to keep him safe when he draws aggro with those antics, he’s toast. Tracer’s complete crap in a fight, Puz. Mind like a steel trap, limbs like jelly…" Spark mused, while having a seat on her bed to tune up her avatar’s makeup in one of her many mirror Apps.
Eye shadow and lipstick were the norm, but considering her destination… she focused on applying a few layers of her favorite red nail polish, right from a bottle kept in secured storage. Only placed on her index and middle fingers, both hands, for safety reasons…
"Anyway, don’t worry, okay? #ItsCoolYo. I don’t think I’m about to get into a fight," she lied, while studying her nails. "I mean, judging from where we’re going today. It’s a server called ‘HolyHymnal,’ or something like that. Sounds peaceful and pleasant. You heard of it?"
The pause was telling. Briefly, Spark regretted bringing it up; the Church of One was a bit of a sore spot for Puzzle, for obvious reasons. She was so busy making herself pretty and chatting away that she didn’t realize in time…
"You need to get out of whatever basement you stream from more often, darling. HolyHymnal’s all over the news lately," Puz explained, choosing to be informative rather than bitter. "The integer-thumpers won the server lottery and got a shiny new megachurch built right in the Chanarchy. ‘A beacon of light in a sea of sin,’ or something. I’d probably burst into flames if I set foot in there. You seriously would rather go to THAT grand opening than hit the ID:Entity’s grand opening?"
"Look, whatever Tracer needs me to do, it can’t take all day and all night. We’ll be fine! I’ll meet up with you at the club, I promise."
"I’ve got a doubt you can promise anything. But, fine. If you show you show, if you don’t you don’t. I’ll see you later or I won’t. Ta ta."
Honestly, Puzzle was right. Constantly tag-teaming with her brother on his personal obsession quests was not healthy, not in the slightest. She didn’t HAVE to go play consulting detective today; he’d be angry, but he’d get over it, right? No matter how much they fought and bickered… they were family. They shared a home server, they shared a secret, they shared the same pain. He’d understand if she ditched him…
Instead, she opened a connection to HolyHymnal, transferring her runtime across Netwerk.
Some things just had to be done. And hopefully done quickly, before ID:Entity opened its doors.
Childhood memory recording. Some details remain fuzzy; I’ve exhausted my contacts trying to sharpen up the image. These are my last memories of her and they are woefully useless.
If I hadn’t been distracted, if I’d gone in to see what was taking so long, maybe I’d have seen who did it.
Little by little, Tracer chipped away at the data layer.
The skeletal remains of some primitive App lay beneath layers of uncollected garbage; he had no idea what that App was coded to actually do, since he always got weak marks in programming, but he could recognize the structure of it all the same. That was something Tracer excelled at—pattern recognition. He knew an App when he saw one, even if he didn’t know what it did. The basic shape of things were clear to him.
He’d annoyed plenty of kids on the playground by using that talent to point out when people were lying, or when someone was using an avatar customization which didn’t fully mesh at the seams, or when the soccer team was leaving a gaping hole in their defense. Tracer knew it all, which made him a know-it-all. Unfortunately, it seemed nobody liked a know-it-all. That was also a pattern he’d learned, albeit at the receiving end of many shoving matches.
After years of saying the right words to the wrong bullies and needing his sister to jump to his defense, he’d recently decided to perform an experiment: optimize his interactions by cutting back on them completely, and see if it helps.
It worked quite well. Nobody paid attention to him when he didn’t draw anyone’s attention or say anything to anyone. For example, this new policy allowed him to excavate this bit of data in peace, while the other kids on the archaeology class field trip were busy running around yelling and wasting time.
One person, however, broke through that self-imposed isolation.
An adult avatar wearing a white leather jacket sat on a nearby primitive lump covered in grassy textures, patiently watching his work, before speaking her mind.
"Shouldn’t you be working with your partner?" Miss Verity asked.
"Spark got bored. She’s busy playing with the loose physics objects," Tracer explained, not looking up from his excavation. "I think she figured out how to glitch a rock into the skybox a moment ago. I can do her work and mine twice as fast as we could do it together, anyway."
"And how’s your sister supposed to learn about archaeology if you do all the work for her, hmm?"
"She’s not smart enough for this stuff, so why bother her with it? This is more optimal."
"Tools down, young man," his teacher spoke sternly. "And come over here. Sit down."
The boy knew that tone well. Without hesitation he set his junior-grade data tool down, and joined his teacher’s side.
"You’ve been avoiding all the kids, not just your sister," Verity pointed out correctly. "I think I know why, too…"
"Nobody wants my help," Tracer explained, cutting her off. "Every time I point something out that’s wrong they just get mad. So why should I bother? People are stupid."
"That’s a generalization. They can be stupid, and they can be smart. Everybody exists on a spectrum between the two, all the time."
"Yeah, well, they’re usually stupid. They don’t want my help, so I don’t wanna talk to them anymore. Why should I?"
Verity sighed softly… and offered her best reassuring smile to her star pupil.
"Tracer… consider methods and outcomes," she suggested. "Programs like you and I learn by heuristic methods. We make mistakes, and learn from them. But we’re prone to integer decisions, being creatures of zeroes and ones. One, you insert yourself into every situation whether it’s appropriate or not, and people sometimes react badly. Zero, you withdraw completely from society to avoid those bad reactions."
"Isn’t the desired outcome to have less bad reactions?"
"Indeed, but that sacrifice being made is being made through fear, not logic. In case zero you’re not risking any mistakes, which means you’re also not learning from your mistakes. …how about this? What lies between zero and one, Tracer?"
"A floating point decimal number," Tracer spoke, from memory of math classes.
"Exactly. We’re ones and zeroes, yes, but life is what happens in between. You need to find your truth between case zero and case one. Knowing when to say what, understanding the social patterns, that should be your desired outcome. You’re having trouble, but you’re young and can learn through your mistakes."
"So… I have to get my butt kicked so I learn how not to get my butt kicked while still helping people."
"Hopefully with less butt kicking, but yes, that sounds reasonable. You know, let’s examine that, too! Why do you think they kick your butt, exactly?"
"Because I did something wrong?"
"Not exactly. You can make mistakes, yes, so can they; the act of violence is an active choice by the aggressor," Verity spoke. "The one who takes offense chooses how they want to express offense. If they let hate and fear rule their actions, that response will be a violent mistake. But it’s not your fault they chose that response. Doesn’t make it hurt any less when they choose poorly, doesn’t make it fair, but that’s how it is. Don’t let fear of their choices define your choices, Tracer. When the time is right to offer your help, offer it."
"…okay," he agreed, in the end. "I’ll try."
"Trying is the first step, and I’m proud of you for taking it," Verity spoke, pleased to hear it. "Like all learning processes, it’ll take your entire runtime to master it. So… go find your sister, sit her down, and help her learn how to make mistakes. Plenty of time left before we have to go back to that boring old classroom…"
"You’re not like other adults. You actually talk to me like I’m a person."
"Why shouldn’t I? We’re all people; some of us just have more experience. And bigger avatars, but it’s the code that runs those avatars that counts."
It made sense.
That’s what Tracer admired most about his teacher, really… she made sense. She understood him, knew that he appreciated sensible explanations of how the world worked. She didn’t talk down to him like he was some little App, didn’t say things like "because I said so," didn’t order him to shut the light off and go to sleep mode when he wanted to keep reading. (Not that she’d do that, since she wasn’t really his mom, but he liked to imagine.)
"And when you two are done digging up this App, I’d like you to check those rocks outside the dig site entrance," Verity suggested, pointing to the primary dig site… off limits to the kids. "Stay in sight of the chaperones, though. And if you need anything just holler, I’ll be inside the cave working on the primary dig. I’ve nearly got the next data layer uncovered!"
"What’re you digging up, anyway?" he wondered.
"No idea whatsoever," Verity said, with a literal twinkle in her eye, a customization she’d taken a liking to. "That’s what’s so exciting. Could be random garbage, could be a data file we can’t figure out how to read. I love it when I find something I don’t understand… maybe one day I’ll show you my greatest mystery. When you’re ready."
And so Tracer dragged his protesting sister back to dig site, to finish retrieving the ancient App. Then they worked on the rocks and found nothing of any interest, while Spark’s attention started to wander.
He tried to keep her focused, but also tried not to nag. If he was still looking for that social pattern his teacher was talking about, he’d at least recognized the edges of it; the harder you push Spark to do something, the harder she pushed back. A lesson their mother hadn’t learned, not after all these years.
He had to maintain a delicate balance of asking her to help with the task, and goading her into doing it by saying things like "Hey, what’s this?" or "Huh" to catch her interest. Little by little, it worked… and by the time they heard the scream, she was on point and digging away.
A chaperone had wandered into the cave, wondering why the teacher that dragged them all out to this decrepit old server hadn’t been seen in an hour. That’s who did the screaming; Miss Gearkit, mother of the guy who routinely ran around class with his pants on his head to make the other kids laugh.
Spark was first to her feet and first into the cave, her brother not far behind. She was always the one to rush into danger, particularly if her brother was already heading that way. Better to between her brother and the danger…
The danger had already passed, in this case. And it left Miss Verity lying dead on the floor of the well-lit cave, with a glitchy and spasming hole in her avatar where a hacktool had been stabbed through it.
Data corrupted. Process crashed. Verity, gone forever.
The chaperone noticed a few moments too late that some kids had come running, and immediately moved to hustle them out. Tracer would have none of it, struggling against the older Program, eyes fixed on the body… and on the words her killer had painted on the wall of the cave.
Jagged and snarling, as if every single stroke was crafted out of pure anger. He could see the spray of low-resolution pixels clear as day, a primitive sort of graffiti, to leave behind a calling card of motive over the scene of the murder. To desecrate the body with an accusation.
But the message only made him angry.
What made him terrified was the strange icon pasted against the wall, just below those words.
The heart of an avatar, surrounded by barbed wire.
In the years that followed, I’ve painstakingly reassembled the entire scene. The words, the icon, the wound, the positioning of the body… all of it pulled together to form meaning. What that meaning actually means, I have no idea whatsoever.
But learning is an ongoing process. I will solve this puzzle; Verity will be avenged if takes my entire runtime to do it.
When the waitress offered him a refill on his coffee, he knew the smile she offered along with the beverage suggestion had happened by his own design. If he’d appeared wearing a schlubby avatar, if he’d either remained perfectly silent or talked too much, he wouldn’t be getting that offer now. Instead he’d engineered a precise outward appearance which engendered trust. He saw the social pattern, and knew how to fit himself into it.
A calm, well-chosen word was superior to the verbal spam he could emit in his youth. Knowing when to keep your silence, when to hold your secrets? Also critically important. He saw the patterns now, saw how to manipulate them and manipulate those involved in them to get what he wanted. Elegance was the key… offering only as much as was required, inserted gently into the cracks of a conversation to act as prybars that would leverage the truth free.
Elegance in avatars was key, as well. He didn’t shuffle up his appearance with the same zeal as his sister; he kept to a single avatar composition, one designed to maximize his first impressions based on cultural standards of respectability and dignity.
Fine leather shoes. Comfortable but sensible slacks. A grey woolen sweater over a dress shirt, with a neatly arranged tie around the collar. Carefully styled but short hair, not too flashy, not too plain.
Finally, he’d tinted his skin a neutral gray shade. The Defaults for avatars ranged all over the color spectrum; by occupying a hue-free midpoint, he could appear empathetic to anyone, regardless of their pigmentation or any cultural implications thereof. It set him apart from his sister’s fair complexion, but that had its own value…
All calculated. All composed.
…and probably not what Verity meant when she suggested he learn how to fit in, but once Tracer set about a task, ruthless efficiency was the order of the day. It would all be worth it, when he completed his life’s work.
Also, it got him free coffee refills.
He offered a measured smile to the waitress, accepting the beverage with a graceful nod. Despite his lifelong obsession, it wasn’t like Tracer was completely without secondary interests… a good cup of coffee was a fine thing to be passionate about. Even if it wasn’t an actual Chanarchy-style blend with light "malware" to allegedly accelerate the senses and keep one’s mind sharp… a simple well-coded coffee with rich aroma and flavorful sensory data? Simply ideal.
Less ideal was the atmosphere he was "enjoying" along with that coffee.
Oh, HolyHymnal itself was simply splendid. The Church of One had outdone themselves; in an effort to show outreach to the community of the Chanarchy, they’d designed a spectacular server. The temple’s golden spires reached towards the elevated skybox, gleaming in the perfectly golden decorative sun. The entire building sloped from those spires down to the ground, gentle curves of gold that terminated in the grassy earth below… with plenty of winding paths around gardens and fountains, excellently designed by the finest artists the Church of One had in its ranks. Every inch of the super-sized cathedral was a tribute to opulent modern design.
If the meditative nature of the gardens wasn’t enough, no doubt deep within the temple itself you could find an ideally designed prayer shrine… soft benches to kneel on, while locked in a coin-grinding trance. Dogma dictated that grinding for coins was a way to send your wishes up the line to the One, with the money being mana from the heavens, or some such bullshit. Spark never saw anything meditative about wasting hours of consciousness, nor did she see a particularly wonderful deal in the tithe the church took from those grinding in prayer, but at least it was arguably profitable for all involved. You could at least claim a material benefit, if not a spiritual one.
Outside the primary (and quite secured) building of worship, a large-scale shopping plaza had been packed with faith-affirming products and/or services… including a pleasant little third story balcony bistro, overlooking the gardens below. That was where Tracer chose to spend his afternoon, with charming choir music floating in the air… and the bawdy sing-song of the mob below overlaid upon it.
Spark showed up fashionably late, as always. Which is why he’d messaged her a good hour before he felt he’d need her. Instead of a simple shirt and her usual fire-effect short crop haircut, she’d chosen to wear some hideous halter top and big blue pigtails… likely to annoy him. Still, he was too focused on the crowd below to pay much mind.
Pausing only to fire off a location check-in to her MyFace account ("Grabbing a coffee at [HolyHymnal] with [Winder/Tracer]!") to work towards her Tea For Two achievement, Spark had a seat at the table.
"Shouldn’t be doing that," Tracer noted, spotting the brief flicker of a MyFace window. "We may not want people to know we were here."
"You drag me out of my game, I do what I please," she noted, grabbing a menu off the table. "So what’re we having? I could kill a muffin right now."
"We can’t stay long," he replied, not taking his eyes off the assembled crowd. "I’m waiting for him to make his move."
"And you think it’s really him this time, huh? Her killer…"
"The evidence points his way," Tracer suggested, before taking a sip of his excellent coffee. "There’s a strong chance that we’ve found our final target. Even if we haven’t, he’s still scum of the lowest caliber and needs to be stopped."
"And as usual, the mods won’t just stop him on your say-so, right?" Spark asked. "I’m familiar with this song and dance, bro. This is a Church of One server. Wouldn’t the Church of One step in and step on him if he gets out of line?"
In response, Tracer pulled open an audio file, broadcasting to their avatars alone. No sense bothering anyone else in the open-air bistro with their business.
The waveform flickered and pulsed to life, a series of green lines that waggled with the sound of a woman’s soft voice. A floating tag identified the speaker as Mother Nestt/Wren, Bishop of the Church of One.
"We are here to bring the good work of the One to our brothers and sisters in the Chanarchy," the speaker soothed. "The One is within all of us, not simply those of us who live under the services of Athena Online or the Horizon family. In the past we have been negligent in our duties to the Chanarchy, but with the establishment of HolyHymnal, we are ready to forge a new era. I know the Chanarchy greatly values free and anonymous speech, and I will respect that right. I invite any who wish a dialogue to visit us on opening day. We have a reputation for heavy moderation in our servers, but I value your culture of light moderation, and welcome your input…"
Tracer flicked the file back into his MemoryPalace with a gesture.
"The Church are being ‘tolerant’ today. Tolerant for them at any rate, which means they’re ignoring the obvious dangers. Despite this call for open dialogue, Bishop Wren’s only allowing members of the faith inside the cathedral itself," he added. "Paying members who are using Defaults, of course. Scanners implemented at every door. That rules out you, me, and the mob below."
The assembled mob of crazy avatars below would’ve agreed with her. In their numbers she counted a robot pirate zombie, a three-breasted trollop, and at least two octopi.
Unable to get into the building due to their "alternative" avatar lifestyles, a large mob of colorful protestors had formed in the gardens below. They waved signs with various anti-creationism memes on them, singing some pop song or another, while celebrating the day away. It looked more like a party than a protest, all good cheer and absurdity rather than menace. The sort of thing Spark herself might have wanted to get in on for the lulz, really…
"Apparently what we see below us is ‘Operation Skybeard,’ as popularized on various Chans," Tracer explained. "They’ll get bored and leave eventually. Not like they have any real goals, other than disruption."
"So… a bunch of trolls? You dragged me out here to watch a bunch of trolls?" she asked.
"A bunch of trolls… and a single legitimate threat," Tracer spoke… pulling a second file from his pockets. This time, a recorded rant… with a single flickering image superimposed above it.
A heart, pumping barbed wire rather than blood.
"The Church of One misleads you with its creationist lies," the distorted voice spoke. "The Nestt family and those like them hold immense power over the most influential minds in Netwerk. They are the most dangerous force imaginable, threatening to destroy all rational thought in favor of their own nonsense. For this reason, Nestt/Wren and her new temple of lies must be destroyed. Mother Wren and her little Starling must pay for their crimes against reason."
The wired heart remained in her eyes for a moment, after the video playback ended. Some images you never forgot, even when they were no longer in view. Some stayed burned into your mind.
"And you think that means this is the same guy who killed Miss Verity," Spark concluded. "Tracer… we’ve been over this. Hearts and barbed wire are not exactly uncommon image elements. What about that tattoo parlor we investigated years ago? That ended up being a complete coincidence…"
"Except that that humble tattoo parlor was being run by a blackhat organization. One which we busted, if you recall. Are you saying it wasn’t worth it to shut that place down?"
"Your ‘prey’ is long gone, okay? You seriously need to #LetItGo. I miss Verity as much as you do, but—"
"Three years ago, a similar server founded by a member of the Church of One suffered a massive memory leak and crashed overnight," Tracer continued, ignoring her. "Hundreds of programs died, either caught in sleep mode when the server went down or unable to reconnect to another server due to ping timeouts from the lag. A video just like the one I showed you was posted the day before. Same symbol. Same accusations. Officially the crash was a system glitch, but unofficially? We’ve found him. The same bastard with an axe to grind against anyone advocating what looks like creationism…"
"So tell the mods directly. Warn them this guy is gunning for them. We don’t always have to step in, you know."
"I did, actually," Tracer said. "An anonymous tip to HolyHymnal’s abuse reporting system, to avoid any uncomfortable counter-questions. I got an automated form letter in response. Spark, the Church gets so many death threats on a daily basis that generic anonymous hate speech holds no water anymore. …speech across Netwerk has gotten so extreme in recent years that nobody takes outbursts seriously. It’s seen as harmless trolling, until it’s too late…"
Not that any of the party-hardy trolls below looked threatening. Some wore scary "Zero" themed costumes, aping the supposed sins of Programkind, but they were likely harmless. Tracer could see the pattern in the movements, the ones who chatted with each other, who were too busy socializing to be plotting anything dangerous. The connections between the protestors, even with most of them wearing anonymized joke avatars, they were clear. These were people brought together as a flash mob for a singular purpose, and actual malice was not it.
None of them were here to actually cause trouble. Or rather, they thought they were causing the Church trouble, when honestly the Church didn’t really care and the faithful were ignoring them. Zero impact.
None of them except one.
One of seven candidates he’d been considering, actually. All of them seemed like loners within a crowd, blending in without actually fitting into the pattern. Tracer had become adept at fitting into the social pattern despite being a loner, knew how to ape the motions of ordinary social Programs. Those seven did not know the trick to it; they stood out by not standing out, by simply standing there. But one-by-one either they joined the dance, or simply wandered around bored, or…
…or one, who faded away from the crowd, then turned and walked. With purpose.
Quickly, he drained his coffee cup.
"Let’s move," he prompted, dropping several coins on the table. A generous tip for the nice smiling waitress, because that’s what was expected of a well-socialized Program like himself. Not because he liked her smile, of course.
The most understood aspect is the physical, as in the "avatar" of a program. Avatars exist within the physical simulation of a server, an assistive system that provides us a means of communication and relative positioning. Your "senses" are limited to the boundaries of the avatar; what you see, hear, touch, taste are all tied into the physics simulation of your avatar.
We like physical avatars, don’t we? They give us an easily understood perspective. These are my eyes, this is what I see. These are my ears, this is what they hear. I reach out and I touch my sister’s shoulder, and feel her there. I taste an offered delicacy, a data file designed to stimulate my avatar’s physical sense of taste, and enjoy the inputs. All these systems work in concert to provide us with a unique existence that we can call our own.
But the avatar is a lie. Physics simulations are merely that: simulations. They are the handle, not the door.
Programs exist truly within the virtual, an abstraction of data files and processes operating within a server’s memory banks and runtime. This is where we truly live: as ones and zeroes, code being run on the servers we visit. While we limit ourselves to the physics simulation, that code continues to merrily run beyond the reach of our eyes.
This is a vital distinction to make, when you wish to understand typical hacktools.
Swords. Blades. Guns. Bullets. Explosives. Sometimes harmless looking and abstract, sometimes lovingly detailed to match what we know from movie files…
We hold these shapes in our cultural memory, in the same way we use the letter A to represent a particular vowel sound. They are handles; intermediary concepts which provide a readily understandable and user friendly interface for those who seek to sin.
In my hands, you see a knife–the representation of my hacktool app within the physical simulation. I press the knife into your chest, and you die. But behind the scenes, in the virtual layer, the dance of data is quite a bit more complicated than that…
My knife is a tightly coded App, one which assaults commonly known vulnerable ports in default Program configurations. It establishes access routes for attack. Eventually it finds a way in, allowing it to damage your data and crashing your process. Unrecoverable coredump follows, and you die. All in the space between two ticks of a clock.
(This is assuming you haven’t made backups. But given the expense of making and storing regular backups of your code and your entire life experience in memory, few people outside of affluent server owners actually do this. Plus, many public or residential servers will throw up warning flags to moderators if a duplicate program with the same unique identity metadata is found, active or not… it’s a fraud protection issue. For purposes of this document let’s assume no backup exists, as that’s the most common outcome.)
So, why can’t my knife kill you from across the room? Why can’t I just tell my knife "Hey, knife, I want her dead" and have the rest sort itself out? Why do I need meaningless physical contact, if our physical avatars are made of lies, and everything is actually an interaction of data?
I don’t know where in the server’s memory your program resides. I don’t know anything about the exact internal nature of your software; that critical knowledge is buried under layers and layers of read/write access protections. My hacktool is a generic device; it requires specific input to perform its highly specific function. Without input to tell it who you are and how to kill you, it won’t kill anything.
The physical contact between my knife and your skin tells the simulation "these two objects are interacting, how should this be simulated?" That query is the key. It establishes a connection between your software and my software… specifically, my knife. Once the stabbing takes place, my knife exploits the physics simulation of this collision check, works its way backwards through all your access protections, and learns all it can about you.
Once my knife makes physical contact and uses it to zero in on a useful vulnerability in your software, you are dead.
I’m not using some cheaply coded hacktool with a 15% reliability rating and outdated vulnerability checks, no. My knife is sharp, my knife is fast, my knife is made of exceptionally versatile code… and it will kill you.
There are exceptions, of course. Single-purpose custom-coded kill tools, geared to eliminate a very specific target at long range… which likely still need to be launched within the same server. Perception-based attacks, which rely on indirect access through the sensory physics simulation… hardly as effective, yet still quite dangerous. But by and large, if I want you to die at my hands, I will need to ride the lightning of the physics simulation directly into your heart using a generic hacktool. Bullets and blades and knives…
My teacher was killed by a knife to the heart.
There was another program in the cave with her when she died; that program’s avatar put its blade into her chest. The knife used the collision subsystem of the physics simulation to gather targeting data, find a vulnerability, and do the deed. She died instantly; process crashed, unable to restart due to massive data corruption.
The crime scene parameters I stole from Athena Online’s police department indicate that she didn’t struggle. The attack came as a surprise, a single direct blow to the chest from an avatar standing directly in front of her. But Verity had fully excavated the data layer she was studying, had applied a global lightmap across all physically represented surfaces. There were no shadows to spring from, no way to fool her avatar’s sensory input. That means she saw her attacker, and simply stood there while he murdered her.
Verity knew the murderer. She didn’t see him as a threat until it was too late.
I seek to make the connections. I will understand the situation, analyze it with a rational mind, and draw appropriate conclusions. That’s the process Verity taught me.
I’ve studied the interactions of avatars, of the physics systems and the abstract representation of data. I’ve analyzed countless hacktools, and grown proficient in their use. I’ve taken her theories to heart, learning how the self-limiting nature of avatars–these weak and grossly tangential methods of interaction–worked against her. My eyes see more than most, and even if I must pay the price for that vision, my mods have aided me tremendously so far.
Except for this. Except for the one thing I want to see the most. I can see the knife going into her chest, over and over, but I can’t see whose fingers grasped the handle.
But I will see, one day. It’s inevitable. My parents called me Tracer because I mimicked their motions during my early heuristic learning levels, but that’s not the meaning I embrace today. I trace the connections across Netwerk that lead me to objective truths. I trace the knife’s sharpest point right back to the end of its handle.
One day, I will see who held that knife. And I will see it pointing in the other direction, my own fingers on the hilt.
Underneath every new server, there existed a superuser access layer. Here, avatars belonging to the system operators could easily monitor server performance, make fine tuning adjustments, install new services, and perform other routine tasks that keep a server ticking along.
In a brand new server still running various system defaults, that layer had extremely minimal decoration. The user interface would be simplistic, stark white and well lit, with "rooms" for each function set offered by the layer. It didn’t have to look pretty, after all, it just needed to get things done.
Smart system administrators would immediately uninstall the access layer, since a clumsy abstraction designed for avatar interactions was insecure by nature. A better way to go would be a mobile App installed within a moderator’s codespace, which lets them adjust settings through a very basic HUD. No physics-based space required… which meant no physics-based space for a hacker to access, either.
HolyHymnal was so freshly installed that the superuser access layer still had that new server smell. Pristine and default, it laid stretched out before Spark and Tracer, who absolutely were not supposed to be down here. But with all the mods focusing on watching the mob scene above and overseeing any possible trolls within the temple itself… nobody showed up to tell them to leave.
"You know they’re gonna kick our asses if they find us, right?" Spark felt the need to point out, using their private speech channel as the pair prowled these back hallways.
Tracer seemed unconcerned. "It’s the Chanarchy. There’s no higher authority they can appeal to. At worst they’ll ban us from this particular server."
"Well, no higher authority other than the One, I suppose…"
"Focus, Spark. We’re looking for a man in a hooded jacket with sunglasses and a bandanna."
"And isn’t that a BIT too typical?" Spark asked him, while poking her head into a room that controlled the skybox decorative weather parameters. "#ObviousBadGuyIsObvious. I thought the guy who killed Verity was a criminal mastermind or something…"
"Programs make mistakes. It’s normal."
Coming down here was the mistake, Spark felt. If she hadn’t seen the suspect carve a hole in the ground and hop on down into the access layer with her own eyes, she wouldn’t be here now.
Even if her brother had a singular focus in life, he’d managed to uncover plenty of nefarious activity along the way. Spark had no problem with being a "social justice warrior," as Puzzle had put it, if she could actually achieve some justice along the way. So far their record was a net positive on that front, even if the means were questionable.
They’d gotten trolls banned, scammers exposed, astroturfing uprooted, malware makers managed… and even advanced threats like killers and kidnappers taken out of business. Whenever possible they’d disable the foe, gather evidence, and let the moderators take care of the rest. (Mods may be lazy or corrupt, but drop a mountain of proof and a trussed-up bad guy right on their doorstep and they’d be reliable enough.) When pushed to the wall, another fine trick was to get the bastards to turn on each other or make mistakes via active misdirection; a tactic honed through hundreds of hours of gametime.
Very, very rarely did it come down to a straight kill-or-be-killed fight… for that, Spark was thankful that Tracer always did his homework before going into a situation. He saw the angles she couldn’t. He found ways in and out of trouble while minimizing chaos.
Still, if their bastard of the day was as bad as they suspected, if he sought to destroy the entire server and kill everybody within it… well, in a kill-or-be-killed situation, Spark only had one real option. And if he was actually Verity’s killer… maybe she’d be okay with that.
Maybe years of playing caped crusader were turning her around in a way that should worry her. This hobby of hers certainly worried Puzzle… but this wasn’t the time or place for Spark to worry. Worry got Programs crashed in situations like these.
As if mentally preparing for the fight, Spark flexed her fingers. She’d added fresh polish to the nails, armed and ready. Part of her wanted this mysterious hooded figure to be around the next corner they checked…
And he was.
Doubts slid away rather quickly, when she took in the scenario.
His avatar was crouched in front of the garbage collector, a standard server feature to clean up used memory space for later repurposing. Without it, a server would quickly experience a memory leak, eating up more and more resources until time itself slowed to a crawl… and by the time anyone noticed, it might be too late to reconnect to another server. Everybody would go down with the ship…
Textured across the makeshift box he was affixing to the collector was his symbol… the heart of an avatar, surrounded by vicious looking barbed wire. Every single detail precisely identical to the calling card left behind by Verity’s murderer.
Chances were low that marked box was anything but the most dangerous hacktool imaginable.
If Tracer was the big-picture guy, Spark was definitely the small-picture gal. She relied on him to guide the overall path of their ludicrous quest, while he relied on her to deal with the immediate situation. That meant he fell into step behind her, as they approached the enemy.
"Game plan time," Spark called out across the private channel, while shaking out her arms a bit, getting them ready to go. "I’ll tank aggro while you get whatever the null that thing is off the collector. If I can get a connection lock collar on him, we can leave him to the mods."
"Correction. You lock his connection, and then he’s mine."
"Let’s… just get to the win condition and work from there," Spark countered, calling up the connection lock from her internal data stores. It hovered invisibly in her mind, waiting for the right moment to be snapped into place… which would require her to get in nice and close.
Fortunately for them, the physics simulation down here in the access layer was quite minimalist. No noise made by footsteps, specifically… meaning Spark could creep up behind the stereotypical gangster, fingers already forming the middle-and-index together poise of the mantis style she’d trained in. Flame flickered gently across her fingernail polish, the weaponized code coming online by the gesture…
And the murderer picked that moment to glance around, to make sure he was still alone.
Spark pushed off hard from her right foot, a lunging strike… aimed at the backspacer in the thug’s hand. Or more specifically, at his hand.
Her fingers made contact with the back of the man’s hand, just before he could activate his hacktool.
In a burst of searing red flame, his avatar was now forcibly left handed. The backspacer fell to the ground, its abstract gunlike shape bouncing away on the cheaply simulated floor.
Her opponent slid sideways, taking advantage of the terrible physics to propel himself to safety. He clutched at the scorched stump where his right hand used to be… while glaring with sharp grey eyes at Spark, who had assumed a defensive stance, ready for him.
"Tracer! The box!" she shouted, across their channel.
"On it!" her brother called, dashing over to the garbage collector while using Spark for cover.
A knife-shaped hacktool appeared in the thug’s hand as he lunged at her, a wild and angry strike.
She was expecting wild and angry; half of her fighting style relied on using an opponent’s momentum against him, letting him make mistakes and capitalizing on them. Actually punching an avatar was a fruitless act, but leveraging their avatar to throw them off balance or toss them around the room… that could get you somewhere. The physics system took over at that point, and when your enemy was too busy trying to get back to their feet, that’s when you could give ’em a good poke with weaponized incendiary fingernails.
Hacktools didn’t have to be knives or guns. In the end, they were simply code… and the more innocuous the weapon, the easier to smuggle it around with you. For instance, code designed to obliterate body parts of avatars when you make the right finger gesture and poke ’em good. It didn’t actually hurt the Program to damage the avatar in that way, but taking a guy’s hand off would make operating a hacktool with a physical interface considerably harder. Hard to hold a knife in a nonexistent hand.
Of course, to actually DO that blow up the guy’s hand, she’d need to get close to the knife. And if that knife was anything like the one used to kill Verity… one good slice would be all it needed to deliver a fatal malware wound.
Spark normally would take no chances, dodging and weaving to avoid any possibility of physical contact. Let the enemy grow frustrated, then move in when she saw opportunity. But… he wasn’t lunging at her. He was going for Tracer, who was going for the box, who was trying to save the server from meltdown…
The risk was worth it. She stepped into the lunge, coming up and underneath it… to use her own shoulder blades as a pivot, and send the killer tumbling across the floor.
That bloody knife stayed in his hand; a good hack tool couldn’t be easily dropped, which is why Spark specialized in limb removal. But with his avatar down for even a second or two, she had the opportunity she needed.
Whirling in place to face the man again, she didn’t wait for him to get up. Coming in low and fast, she pressed her fingers together, and jammed them directly into his right shoulder as he was sorting out his impromptu ragdoll pratfall.
Flames illuminated the already brightly lit chamber, as the man’s arm came off completely and became a loose physics object. The knife, being well coded, stayed in that hand.
Now, he was crippled on both side of his body while desperately trying to get to his feet. Awkward jerking movements were the best he could manage, unable to compensate for the strange changes to his balance… actually, far more awkward than others Spark had temporarily maimed like this. Like some sort of spasming little doll…
No time to think about that. Only time to act.
With the enemy disarmed, she moved in for the "kill"… specifically, reaching directly forward, and clamping her hand around his throat.
The connection lock snapped in place immediately. Its UI representation took the form of a kinky black leather collar of her own design, actually; quite stylish, in addition to utterly blocking a Program from changing servers or making any sort of outside communications call whatsoever. It didn’t stop them from running, but only within the server they were locked down to. Perfect for making sure you can finish a fight, or when you’ve got some interrogating you need done before they run off to lick their wounds.
And… the hood dropped. Complete ragdoll, limbs bending all sorts of funny and awkward ways, as he dropped to the ground. His body bounced a few times, owing to the terrible simulation, before finally coming to a jittery stop.
That was… not normal.
Spark deactivated her fingers, before prodding at the body. It reacted much like some idle physics object word, not like a Program would…
By the time Tracer joined her side (with one very awkwardly disarmed bomb tucked under an arm) he was ready to make with the interrogation. Problem was, there was nothing to interrogate.
"Please tell me you didn’t kill him," Tracer spoke, keeping his emotions fully in check. For the moment.
"I didn’t!" Spark protested. "All I did was slap a lock on him! And he just… dropped. I don’t get it…"
With a frown, Tracer set the bomb aside… and pulled a tiny glowing spot from his sleeve. He never went in for Apps with clunky physical representations, preferring very minimalist interfaces. He placed the dot on the man’s chest, then tapped it once…
Spark couldn’t interpret the pile of data it spat back, but fortunately for her, someone in the room as excellent at pattern recognition.
Enough that after calmly rising to his feet, he punched a wall hard enough to make a sound even down in this minimally simulated environment.
"It’s a proxy," he declared.
"A proxy avatar. The ultimate in safety," Tracer explained. "It simulates being a Program, while actually being a mindless App that’s remotely controlled by someone on another server entirely. Since it requires considerable trickery of the server software to fake being a legitimate Program, it’s typically illegal and a moderatable offense if you get caught. You put a connection lock on a proxy, which severed that external connection but otherwise did nothing. …Verity’s killer is still out there, somewhere. He’s out there and he’s laughing at us, because all we did was shut down his puppet…"
"We… we don’t know this was the same guy. Didn’t you say she knew her killer? I mean—"
Tracer raised a single finger, to silence her. So he could stay silent as well, and swallow all of this down. Regain his composure, rather than simply exploding in anger.
She’d seen him like this before, of course. Moments like these, Tracer was fighting an internal war… his idealized rational side locking horns with his personal grief-driven personality defects. Usually reason won. When it didn’t… he at least quietly recused himself to his room to, well, scream at the walls or something.
For the moment, reason won.
"New tools," Tracer decided. "I need new tools. Something that’ll track server-to-server connections being made by Apps. And I need to redouble my efforts to scan for the symbol; he’s not going to be happy he couldn’t destroy HolyHymnal. He’ll want to strike again, and soon. I’m canceling my own sleep mode until we catch him. Can’t afford to waste a minute…"
"Tracer, you can’t keep pulling all-nighters. You’ll age twice as fast if you don’t allow yourself some sleep mode downtime," Spark reminded him. "I’d rather you didn’t #Burnout at middle age…"
"Not now, Spark. Thinking."
"Yes, now! Look, I want to catch this guy as much as you do, but—"
"Do you? Do you, Spark?!"
Damn. The personal grief-driven personality defects apparently were fighting back, she realized. But… she’d already dove in inadvisably. No way she was backing down from that fight now.
"Yes, I do," she emphasized, standing her ground. "I miss Verity just as much as you do. She was more of a mother to us than our mother was! Why do you think I always wear her jacket? I loved her! The only difference is I’m not ruining my life in an effort to avenge her! Yes, she was murdered. Yes, it’s tragic. Yes, I want to see the bastard brought low! But you know sure as null that she wouldn’t have wanted you to put your life on hold for fifteen years trying to accomplish that!"
"Of course she wouldn’t want me to do this!"
"So if you think that—what?"
"Obviously she’d be disappointed and saddened to see I’d become a crazy vigilante," Tracer agreed, reason entering his voice again. "I know exactly how she’d react if she knew; not angry, not upset, just disappointed and sad. But she’s not here to react that way, is she? She should be, but she isn’t. And I… I have to do something about that. It can’t just slide. Actions should have consequences!"
As proof that reason hadn’t entirely taken over again, he gave the limp avatar proxy a good solid kick in frustration.
"This is about more than just Verity," he explained. "It’s all of Netwerk. I’ve looked in every dark corner for her killer… and you know what I found there, you’ve seen it too. All these patterns of abuse and harassment and terror and madness. Trolls and crooks and hackers and killers, all getting away with it, because their actions have no consequences. ‘That’s just Netwerk for you, LOL.’ Well, I can’t cure all of Netwerk’s ills… but I can cure the ones I find along the way. I can avenge Verity, and I can take down every son of a bitch between me and the murderer. If I can restore even the smallest amount of reason to the insanity of Netwerk, well… I’m gonna. And if you won’t help, that’s your call."
Which put the conversational ball firmly back in Spark’s court.
Funny thing was… she agreed, completely. It’s why she was along for the ride, after all; not just to keep Tracer from getting himself stupidly killed, but because they’d indeed done some good along the way. The methods were doubtful, the situations bizarre, but… they’d done some good.
Still, she felt the need to argue. To fight. And there was one point she was going to stick to.
"You need sleep tonight," she spoke, quietly. "Just… agree to that, and I’m in. You have to take better care of yourself, so you’ll still have a life to lead once all this is done. Okay? Just because you’re right doesn’t mean you’re allowed to be right and stupid."
"…okay," Tracer capitulated.
"Good. Meanwhile… I’m going clubbing with Puzzle," she decided. "When you track down this proxy-using dickbag you let me know, but until then, I’ve got a life to lead."
"That’s… fair. We do have some time. I think he’ll strike again soon, but not likely tonight… and we can report this incident to the mods of HolyHymnal. They’ll believe me and lock the server down tighter when they find a bomb and a dead proxy in their private access layer. He won’t be able to pull the same stunt twice."
"Good. …hey, one other thing. You said you need new tools to track down a proxy avatar’s home connection, right?"
"Correct," Tracer confirmed.
"I’ll be home and asleep tonight, I promise you."
And disconnected, leaving Spark alone.
I don’t know why you need these zillions of little notes, and I’m not particularly happy about the dark little memory hole you carved into your skull, but whatever.
Church of One. Why do you need me to tell you anything about it? We both grew up in the same One-worshipping household, until we could get out the null out of there. If we didn’t have our secret clubhouse to sneak away to in our teenage years I would’ve gone completely insane under mom’s religious tyranny. And dad never stood up to her, either…
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate everything about the church. We grew up in Athena Online, more churchfolk per capita than any other hosting service nation, and that means most of my best friends were faithful. The overall attitude of peace, love, and goodwill towards all Programkind? I’m down with all that. If the One is love, and we desperately need more love in this world, I’m all for it.
You can’t even say the church is greedy, despite the massive inflow of money they get from tithes while the faithful grind for coins within a prayer shrine. The spirit of goodwill and humility encourages distributing wealth around rather than amassing it fruitlessly, which means charity fundraising drives, homeless shelters for Programs who can’t afford server space, and other great stuff. Can you really look down on a religion because you think its beliefs are silly if the end results improve Netwerk as a whole?
I also really like that the church doesn’t mess around in people’s personal business very much. They don’t care what the color of your skin is, they don’t care what your sexual orientation is, they don’t care what clothing you wear. I’ve heard of other religions out there that scream bloody murder if you bare your ankles or something, totally repressed, and seriously fuck those guys.
What I can’t buy into is two things:
There’s the origin story, obviously. Now Verity believed in her own form of creationism, speaking of some alien race that we’re patterned after. I don’t fully get that, even with the artifacts she left behind for us, but… she didn’t demand you believe in it. She wanted you to believe in it, but she didn’t build this enormous prayer-based obsessive feedback loop about glorifying "The One" the way the church does. I hated going to Sunday mass, listening to some preacher mix in things I like (kindness and moral action) with things that made no sense (the One, the Zero, and all the trappings). It’s harmless, I guess, but I have known people who use the One as justification for deeds that the One would absolutely not approve of…
The second thing, and this really sucks, is the church’s obsession with Defaults.
You remember the great Hair Color Scandal, don’t you? I dare to change my hair color to a sweet-ass shocking pink, and mom threw a complete fit. I’d violated my Default avatar, oh no! She called it a Zero… and called me a whore, said I was only doing it for attention. Dad just sat back and let her do it, too busy reading his news feeds. After that, she slapped an avatar customization lock on me that wouldn’t remove itself until I was eighteen. Another fine Church tool, malware in the guise of controlling your wayward children…
(Notice she didn’t put one on you. I swear she had it in for me, while you were the golden boy… but I put that on her, not you. Not your fault at all, bro. Still, GTFOing from that house was the smartest thing we’ve ever done.)
It’s stupid. It’s beyond stupid. What kid doesn’t dream of ditching the "natural" growth curve of an avatar over time, in favor of something crazy and wild (and less tiny)? What’s so bad about tweaking your self-image a little, to better express yourself? And the implications for people who weren’t born in their "right" shapes…
But they do have one point: While I feel avatar modifications are goofy customizations and totally okay, Program modifications through software patches are another deal. I’m not saying patches are a "Zero" but they are seriously bad news.
I’ve installed plenty of Apps that follow me from server to server; messengers, my Peep broadcaster, my nail polish. But I don’t modify my core code with patches. It’s waaaay too easy to crash your program when you muck around with it on that level, integrating crazy open source stuff or shady black market modifications to your basic software. Sure, patches are more powerful than sandboxed little Apps, but the price isn’t worth it.
When you came back from Arjay’s barely able to remember your own name because you got that damn MemoryPalace installed, I seriously wanted to blow off two or three of that weirdo’s arms and kill him with fire.
I get that you want to find justice for Verity. I get that. But watch how far you go to do it, Tracer. If you crash yourself in an obsessive drive to become perfect… her killer wins.
His life was an endless series of acts that disappointed his loved ones, really. He’d made peace with that long ago; otherwise, he’d never be able to get done what needed to get done.
Of course Tracer would be visiting Arjay. Spark was right; realtime connection tracking without the benefit of a physical hacktool App would demand some pretty intense modifications to his code. There was only one man… woman… person he’d trust with that. Tekkit/Arjay, broker and installer of slightly shady distribution packages.
The server of AptGet lie deep within the Chanarchy, on one of the oldest of the chans. In here, hundreds of different businesses took root—usually very briefly, before taking flight into the night after crossing a few too many customers. Arjay’s business was one of the few to remain in place longer than a decade; Arjay was a pillar of this dodgy little community, the guy/girl/thing they went to when problems had to be solved. Nobody screwed with Arjay, and Arjay screwed with no one. Once the first part of that pact was broken, the second part would be broken to a degree that would resonate across the entire Chanarchy.
Tracer rode the connection from HolyHymnal straight to AptGet… a short hop across Netwerk, given both lie within the same hosting service. If he’d had to cross the backbone into Athena Online or Horizon, it would’ve taken longer than a few seconds of unsettling non-existence while his runtime transferred long distance. All the better; Tracer always hated that weird void, the sense of missing time that came with a really lengthy or lagged connection transfer…
His neatly polished shoes made contact with the concrete of a back alley. Normally visitors would be routed to any number of landing pads around the server, a means of tourism control. Tracer had special dispensations, of course.
He ignored the automated Apps barking fabulous offers on pirated software and pornographic media files, as he traversed AptGet. Neither interested him; the sibling piggy bank could get him whatever Apps he wanted, and compared to his sister, he’d pushed most of his desires aside in favor of mindlessly bloody vengeance. (Even if he had to admit the waitress smiling at him earlier was a pleasant feeling.)
No, his goal was a simple and efficient path right to the clinic of one Tekkit/Arjay. Who, fortunately, was not currently with a client. No, he was currently mining for coins, in her own little unique way.
A vision of a six-armed androgynous entity hovered in the middle of its otherwise empty office, bathed in a silver light. He wore nothing but a similarly silvery metallic sash around her midsection, contrasting the obsidian-black of its skin. A glowing halo shaped like a gear turned just over her head, eternally grinding away the thoughts of the avatar beneath it. He was a multithreader, typically pondering ten things at once, thanks to a cocktail of self-installed patches that expanded her mind beyond that of many similar Programs.
This glorious mess of beautifully strange software ate up a considerable amount of the available runtime of AptGet, enough to allow four Programs in the same space. But nobody was going to tell Arjay to pack up and leave; this was her server, in spirit if not in name. It’d go to pieces without him.
Tracer allowed it a moment longer, then cleared his throat semi-politely.
Eyes slid open, blank and white. Similarly blank and white teeth formed its smile.
"Just… Tracer, please," the client requested. "Adding my family name in makes it sound like I’ve got two primary file names. I don’t wind things AND trace things; I got enough flack about that in school."
Arjay folded two of its six arms together, the other four in restful pose. Slowly, she bowed to him; Tracer returned the bow, in turn.
"My favorite little high-functioning sociopath has returned," Arjay spoke, pleased. "Your needs must be great, to seek me out despite your sister threatening to burn my head off. I’m honored that you’ve sought me out."
"Yeah. Sorry to interrupt your coin mining. …why do you mine for coins, anyway? It’s not like you’re religious. Plus, you make more cash than you could possibly spend off your surgeries; why lower yourself to grind for minimum wage money, like some homeless Program?"
"I find it to be… enlightening," Arjay tried to explain. "I touch the void, and become one with Netwerk."
"Tell me you’re not going star-mad, Arjay."
"We’re all a little star-mad at heart, I feel. But no, my eyes are as clear as my mind."
"That’s still not a reassuring answer," Tracer pointed out.
"What brings you to my clinic today, my little misanthrope?" Arjay asked, floating a bit closer… his blank eyes focusing on his occasional friend, occasional client, and occasional plaything. Personal space was something Arjay gave no respect to; he got all up in Tracer’s area, enjoying any discomfort it may cause. "You have needs. I have means. Let’s bring our two selves together and see what happens, shall we?"
Deciding to get on with it, Tracer laid out his needs.
"I want to see what connections an App is making across Netwerk without involving a physics check," he specified. "I’m hunting a proxy. I need to know what server its puppetmaster calls home."
Arjay folded all six arms together, now. A show that he was focusing all his threads on the issue at hand.
"You’re not the first to make this request," she noted. "Proxies are common when you’re up to no good whatsoever, and those up to no good are often sought after by those seeking to do less good. And fortunately for you, I have just the package you need… a little something I cajoled out of a coder from Horizon, who enjoyed leaking proprietary company technology out the back door. It sniffs out all active Apps on a Program, and any connections they’re making. It should work just as well on a proxy."
"Okay, hit me with it."
"Now now, let’s not be hasty," Arjay warned, extending a hand to waggle a no-no finger. "I’d rather not incur your sister’s ire. That one is… she’s quite beautiful and bold but very, very dangerous when crossed. What you are asking me to do is rewire your core code to install an illegally obtained patch which someone would likely murder you in your sleep in order to retrieve from your person, before backspacing your entire home."
The non-weight of the access key in Tracer’s personal inventory space felt very reassuring.
"Let them try. My home is remarkably difficult to find," he noted. "And my sister would burn them alive, if someone actually came looking for us. I need this patch, Arjay. I’m close. I’m so close…"
"Verity’s killer," Tracer confirmed.
"A fine cause. But you’ve already pushed the limits so far, little Program. How much further do you wish to push them?"
"I don’t believe I have limits."
"Such hubris! What makes you issue this statement, exactly?"
"I’m the sum of my data and code," Tracer explained. "Everybody thinks of avatars when they think of the self, but I know there’s more to me than that. I’m living software; my potential should be near infinite, up to the limit of the server that executes my code. I’m not going to limit myself to safe little Apps. I want to see the data, feel it; not just with my sensory input routines but with the entirety of my being. Why can’t I? Why shouldn’t I? I know you feel the same, Arjay, considering how heavily modified you are. You’ve never given a fuck about limitations before… and neither do I."
The entity considered this mission statement, pleased with each word of it.
"You really should mine for coins more often, Tracer. I think you’d find it enlightening," she suggested. "But for now… I’ll grant your request. I’ll need read/write access to your code, notably your sensory subroutines. Grant me temporary access, have a nice lie down on the couch, and I’ll pour strangeness into your eyes until you can see forever…"
Because now, there was a couch. Where before there was no couch, a couch currently existed. Arjay’s office remained featureless and empty until features were required, as needed. Arjay had no interest in the customary standards of physics and reality, not any more than he had an interest in his Default avatar. Her world was larger than that…
A world which should worry Tracer, honestly. When the MemoryPalace system was installed, Tracer nearly lost himself along the way. Its ability to compartmentalize, archive, and refine memories helped him tremendously in his hunt, but… every time he visited Arjay, he was taking risks. Risks for vague reward. Was it worth it?
Didn’t matter. He was going to take the risk anyway, after all.
The multi-armed angel floated above him, silvery sash draping down across Tracer’s form. If it was going to be creepy during pleasant conversation, it would be incredibly creepy while performing an intimate opening of another Program’s code.
Arjay traced two fingers down Tracer’s eyelids, closing them while shhhing him to sleep, much like a mother/father might. Although the whisper in his ear was hardly maternal/paternal, given the deep moistness of it.
"I’m going to take your process offline," Arjay informed him. "This will be a deep modification. Less chance of a fatally corruptive crash if I work while you’re inert. You won’t feel a thing, especially if you never wake up. Goodnight, love."
And and and and and
end of line.
I, 5o5o/Verity, of sound code and avatar, do bequeath the following to my star pupils Winder/Spark and Winder/Tracer…
To Tracer, whose intellect refines sharper with each passing day… I leave my copy of the Compiled Works of Pollox/Scribler, and all else that is contained within its pages. [TRACER NOTE: Page 505, halfway down, misprinted word] May you find enlightenment in these earliest creative works of Netwerk’s history, personally retrieved from the ruins of a dying server.
To Spark, whose brave heart knows no bounds… I leave my favorite jacket, an old design which is no longer being produced. Every stitch and every bit between the stitches belongs to you now, to do with as you wish. [TRACER NOTE: Extra stitch on left shoulder.] May the blank slate of its #FFFFFF inspire you to find the light within yourself as well.
Be who you want to be, no matter what anyone else says. There are many in Netwerk who will tell you that you must be A or B, Zero or One, but I tell you that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy. [TRACER NOTE: Matches quote from a poem on the lower shelves, but analysis is ongoing.]
Despite the late hour, Spark used her access key to pop back home and hit the closet. No way she was going out clubbing in this ridiculous getup; for starters bright blue hair just screamed out ‘PAY ATTENTION TO MEEE’ in clubs, and second, that halter top was mostly to annoy her brother.
Instead, she swapped to her favorite hairstyle; short and stylish, in bright reds and oranges with little fire effects at the edges. She’d tried complete hair-made-of-fire plugins before, but generally they just made her look bald. A subtle smouldering about the fringes, though? That played nicely.
Rather than a hot little dress, she decided to eschew the concept of fabric entirely; too classical, really. Instead she went with a smooth and silvery body texture, with a shader that would pulse traces of light around her curves in time with whatever music she was listening to. Bodypaint-style avatar accouterment was very hot right now, and she felt a burning need to be hot tonight. Add in a hot little red collar, proper dancing shoes… and of course, her blue-lined white leather jacket. Now she was ready to party.
A few moments later, and she’d arrived at ShipTo… a largely disused App packaging server in Horizon, purchased on the cheap from a failed business enterprise. Within this shell of empty warehouses and factories, like a pillar of brilliant light and sound in the middle of so much ruin, lurked ID:Entity. The ideal of sticking something like that in the middle of urban ruins felt very apropos to Spark, given how flighty the club scene could be.
Clubs popped up and then simply popped with regularity. Everybody who liked a good social hotspot felt they could do it better, and everybody was typically wrong in that regard. Still, it’d be a fun ride on the way down… and Spark did enjoy the spur-of-the-moment thought that went into these places. They felt raw and rough, full of enthusiasm and ill-conceived ideas. Much like herself, really.
The windowless prism of ID:Entity stood silent in the middle of those dark structures; audio had been spatially locked, to keep sound from leaking in or music from leaking out. Instead, all Spark heard on approach was the annoyed chatter of clubbers without VIP passes, forming a queue up to the door. A queue which she bypassed entirely, producing the pass mailed to her earlier by Puzzle… one which earned a curt nod from the doorman and a series of groans from the unlucky bastards who couldn’t get in.
Inside… well. Inside was her scene.
Light and sound incarnate. Sculptures of glowing lines hanging in the air overhead, shifting and twisting away, just as wild as the array of avatars in a wild array of colors on the dance floor beyond. Music pumping away, omnidirectional, from within her own avatar. Who needed speakers when you could personally broadcast right to everyone’s ears?
In the visual mess, it’d be nearly impossible to reconnect with her BFF. Fortunately, both of them were running a cheap FindMe App… one which highlighted other avatars in your friends list running the same App with a shining gem floating over their heads. All Spark had to do was weave her way through the crowd, sliding around flailing limbs and drunken dancers towards the glowing golden crystal bobbing its way around the dance floor.
There she was… classy and beautiful. Way classier and way more beautiful than Spark, honestly. She didn’t entirely fit the crazed abandon of the ID:Entity, not with her movie-file glamour of wavy blonde hair with a tiny flapper-style attractor on top. Being something of a classical beauty, she opted for cloth simulations rather than bodypaint; that figure-hugging ankle length dress didn’t suit frenzied club dancing, but she made it work so very nicely…
And poor Puzzle was dancing all alone, as usual.
This was normal for her, honestly. Puzzle enjoyed the club scene Spark had introduced her to years ago, but rarely had the confidence to approach anyone herself without Spark there to act as support. Another reason why Spark was glad to get away from the situation in HolyHymnal, so she could be here to help out a friend. Giving Puzzle a solid shot at finding love and romance was an open quest in Spark’s mission log.
For lulz, Spark snuck up on Puzzle rather than make her presence known. Approached at an oblique angle, out of eyesight… then clamped onto her with a nice tight hug.
"DARLING!" Spark greeted, across their personal channel. (The only way to be heard over the thumping music.)
"Wagh! Darling!" Puzzle greeted, after the initial shock.
"Surprised? I accepted your event invite on MyFace, didn’t I?" pointed out, after letting go.
"Yes, well… after our earlier discussion, I wasn’t certain…"
"Be certain. You’re my #BFF, I won’t leave you to dance alone," Spark smiled, with a little twirl. "Although I figured you’d have lured some gentleman into your web by now…"
"A lady paces herself, yes? The night is young!" Puz replied, with a smirk. "Plus, now I’ve got my partner in crime with me, don’t I? Let’s have a few drinks and hatch evil schemes together."
Spark adjusted her volume slider down a bit to bring the thumping music to a manageable level, then took Puzzle’s hand to lead her towards the bar. Drinks were definitely called for; something tasty and nasty, to set the tone.
Puzzle ordered something nice and intoxicating; Spark stuck to her usual simple cocktail of sweet and sinful flavors. Two glasses were served up by the multiplicious bartender, who was splitting and reforming his bright blue avatar as need be to service an entire club by himself.
Generally Spark avoided intoxicants. Light malware designed to temporarily screw around with your sensory inputs felt like a bad idea to her; sure, they amplified taste routines to make the drinks far more awesome than they should be, but why risk it? Plus, this way she could keep an eye out for Puzzle. Being the designated tank suited her; absorbing drunken aggro from various jackasses while keeping her partner out of trouble…
Much like earlier, in a very brief but very dangerous dance with a murderer. A thought that gave Spark pause, swirling the remainder of her sweet drink around in its glass.
"Darling, you seem vexed," Puzzle spoke. "Things not go well with your brother?"
"…yes and no. Yeah, we saved a server from meltdown. No, the jerk got away. #ItsComplicated."
"You’re not going to have to abandon me again to go play monster hunter, are you?" Puzzle asked, suspicious. "I thought you said tonight could be purely girl time…"
"Chances of finding that bastard again are low, Puz. We screwed up his plans; it’ll probably be some time before he surfaces again. So, yes… it’s #GirlTime tonight. No vigilante antics, no brother, no worries. You and me against the world!"
A fresh drink slid across the bar, resting in front of Puzzle.
Both women leaned across the bar, to peer at the gentleman in question.
Not really Spark’s type. She preferred her menfolk built for agility; this one was too traditionally handsome, too chiseled and ripped. Still, it felt like a Default with a really good set of data poured into his random seed, handsome by luck and genetics rather than the result of a store bought Hunk-o-Tron avatar customization. Points for authenticity, she supposed…
"Ooooh… VERY nice," Puzzle spoke, making her views quite clear.
But before her hand could reach for the drink, Spark grabbed her wrist.
"One sec," she said… quickly producing an extra ice cube from her personal inventory, and dropping it into the glass.
It remained clear as crystal. No malware detected.
"…okay, you’re good. Have fun, Puz."
"Mmm, I’d hate to ditch you so soon after you got here, though," Puzzle spoke, with an adorable little pout. "And after I made such a huge deal out of you ditching me for your brother… it’d be hypocritical, wouldn’t it…?"
"#ItsFine, #ItsFine! He’s cute, and you don’t talk to cute boys nearly as often as you should. I say get to know him, have some fun," Spark assured, with a smile. "And if it doesn’t work out? Just look for my FindMe gem. Unless I strike gold, too. No promises."
After a grateful little hug… Puzzle faded into the crowd. And reappeared at the end of the bar, gifted drink at the ready, exchanging smiles with the hunky guy.
And good for her, Spark felt, sipping the rest of her nontox. Puzzle had tried so many times to find love and happiness, and struck out so often. Granted, going out to clubs wasn’t a terrific way to find a lifetime soulmate, but that was Netwerk life in a nutshell: high hopes, awkward efforts. Much like ID:Entity itself. Much like Spark…
Well. Tonight, Spark intended to get her own shot as well. Maybe not at long-term flowers-and-candy romance like Puzzle aspired to, more something her speed—fast and physical and crazy and without commitment—but either way, this would be a night for successes. If the daylight hours weren’t quite as successful as she’d hoped, she intended to make up for it here and now.
Dancing and martial arts weren’t exactly the same thing, but the basic idea remained the same: move around, don’t get hit by anything, and express yourself through motion. Difference being that she had to suppress any instinctive urges to throw out a few sweeping strikes or pokes in her dance partner’s direction.
Holding a casual conversation while dancing was another matter entirely.
"So he finally runs me down and cuts me in half with his axe!" she shouted, to be heard over the music. (Private channels were reserved for her friends exclusively.) Spark threw in a vertical chop in the air for emphasis, nearly cleaving her dance partner in the process. "SPLOOSH, blood and guts everywhere. He thinks he’s won because he finally got me, right? But he lost! His entire team lost because he was too busy killing me! I mean, isn’t that just the #FunniestThingEver?!"
The slightly bewildered guy in the popped collar shirt slowed his dance moves a bit, horrified at the vivid description of blood and guts and mortal combat.
"…uh… sure?" he said. "Hey, listen, I gotta… thing… that I gotta… thing. Okay. HEY! WHOO! PARTY!"
And off he went, dancing the hell away from the crazy woman.
She could almost see the glowing DEFEAT in the air, as she lost this particular raid encounter.
So, that was zero for two tonight, trying to find someone with a cool avatar and any common interests whatsoever. Not a great start to her evening at ID:Entity, all told.
But a surprise? No, not really. Gamer jocks had a hard time relating to non-gamers, and it wasn’t like she could discuss the intricacies of vigilante justice with a total stranger. Finding someone willing to accept Spark for who and what she was would always be a bit tricky… one of the reasons why she typically gave up by the end of a clubbing trip and skipped along to Puzzle’s place for old movies and drinks as a pair of strikeouts.
For now, she’d just enjoy the music, flow around the dance floor, and go with it. Whatever happened, happened. Couldn’t be worse than the disastrous day she’d had, after all.
A blur of golden hair and tears rushing past the edge of the dance floor suggested otherwise.
Quickly, Spark worked her way through the crowd, back to the previously occupied bar stools from earlier tonight. One was occupied again… by Puzzle, trying desperately to hide her crying.
Spark was there in an instant, one arm around her shoulders… private channel open, so they could discuss without worry.
"What? What happened?" she asked. "Darling…?"
Her perfect diva-glamour makeup wasn’t running, of course; it wasn’t cheaply designed code. But seeing tears flow from those perfect eyes was just as sad a sight.
"It… it was going so well," Puzzle responded, through her sobs. "He, he said I was beautiful. And we were talking, and smiling, and laughing and then and then he, he… he had some kind of scanning App. It saw, Spark. It saw my Default! I haven’t used my default since I was a child but somehow he could see it! And he shoved me away and called me a, he called me a… a tranny, and…"
And the rest was clear to Spark.
As she gripped the edge of the bar hard enough to cause tiny wisps of flame to rise from her fingers.
"Where is he now," she asked, firmly enough to drop the question mark from the end.
"What? Spark, no no no, NO," Puzzle begged, eyes wide. "I don’t want you picking a fight, not on my behalf. It’s not worth it. Please. We’ll get kickbanned from ID:Entity…"
"This club sucks and we don’t need to come back here. And you don’t need to give a shit about what that asshole says," Spark insisted. "You’re beautiful the way you are and I won’t let anyone say otherwise. Where is he now, Puz?"
"It’s not right. It’s just as bad as Tracer’s stupid vigilante attitude! You can’t go around kicking ass and taking names whenever things go wrong! Just because some church bigwig’s son made fun of me doesn’t give you any right to—"
Immediately, Spark’s fire doused itself.
"He’s the son of a church bigwig?" Spark asked, more shocked than angry. "Wait. Wait, Puzzle, back up. Who was this guy, exactly…? What’s his name?"
"It’s… Nestt/Starling. That’s what he said his name was. …wait, is this related to…?"
Quickly, Spark turned on her barstool, to look out across the crowd.
Locating anyone without a FindMe gem in this mess was nearly impossible. Nearly.
Finding a man in a hooded jacket who worshipped a barbed wire heart? Much easier. That avatar had been branded into her memory after taking it down one-on-one.
A fresh copy of the avatar proxy was making his way around the dance floor, in the general direction Puzzle had been running away from
"Puzzle, reconnect back to your home server now," Spark ordered. "He’s here. The murderer, he’s here, because we stopped him from destroying HolyHymnal. Starling’s his new target."
"As much as I hate to do it… I need to go save the life of the asshole who broke your heart," Spark realized. "Go, get to safety. This isn’t about picking a fight, it’s about saving lives, Puz. I’ll alert the mods that there may be a bomb in the server and I’ll get Starling to safety. GO! I can’t do this if I know you’re in danger!"
Briefly, Spark was pinned in place by a crushing hug.
"Be safe," Puzzle begged… before vanishing, leaving behind only a vague afterimage as her Program runtime was transferred back to her apartment in Bellico.
Spark was off her barstool and crossing the entirety of the club in under a moment.
The killer had to pick his way through the edge of the crowd; Spark was running right across the dance floor. Specifically, across the dancers. A little hackery kept her light on her feet, literally so, to the point where she could kick off the heads of the dancers without throwing them off balance… a manipulation of the physics system which would’ve gotten her booted for hacking, if the mods had time to notice. She didn’t intend to be around long enough for that to be a problem.
As for Nestt/Starling, the man with the handsome Default avatar… he was fortunately sitting by his lonesome, busy flicking his hand through the space in front of him. No doubt some private messenger windows, bragging about how he "avoided the trap" or something like that. A perfect distraction…
Spark landed on her feet, leaping across a gap in the crowd… and planting a hand firmly across Starling’s throat.
The leather connection lock collar snapped into place instantly, cutting off his communications and keeping him isolated to the ShipTo server.
Before Starling had a chance to react, Spark was dragging him out the nearest exit.
Despite clear evidence to the contrary, many still assumed that the mass and sculpt of an avatar denoted physical strength and ability to apply force in a given situation. The reality was that in a scuffle, whoever understood physics simulations would be the winner, regardless of size. If anything, having a lighter and smaller avatar was an advantage, if you could move it and use your own form as a leverage point.
Dragging the bulky Starling out of his booth and into the streets of ShipTo, behind the ID:Entity itself, was simple enough for Spark. She was used to tossing around larger avatars. Keeping them unsteady and unbalanced was key… which meant kicking off Starling with both feet and shoving him into a wall would ensure his continued inability to resist. Which is exactly what she did.
"What the FUCK?!" was his only response, once he could make a coherent response.
"I’m saving your life, you idiot," Spark declared. "HolyHymnal was nearly leaked to death by an avatar proxy this afternoon, right? I’m the one who reported that to your mods. That proxy-using bastard with the barbed-wire heart bomb is back, he’s here tonight, and now he’s and after your head!"
Tugging at the collar around his neck, Starling at first refused to listen. But… when she went into detail, he froze in terror.
"You… that’s not… how could you know that?" Starling asked. "We didn’t tell anyone what we found in the access layer. You couldn’t know about that…"
"You stick with me and I’ll keep your stupid ass alive," Spark promised, quickly checking left and right to see if the killer had found them yet. "You’ve got my word. Now we need to move; there’s plenty of abandoned buildings around to hide in—"
"Fuck that, I’m going home! … why can’t I go home?!"
"Connection lock collar," she explained, pointing to his neck. "I need you here as bait to lure him out. Can’t have you bailing on me. I’ll remove it after we catch him."
"WHAT? Are you crazy?!"
"Probably, but I’m still your best shot at not getting backspaced tonight. Now that we’ve established the rules of this game, are you in the mood to #RunAndHide yet?"
Fortunately, he was now in the mood to #RunAndHide. Which beat Spark needing to continue hauling and hurling his avatar around to ensure compliance.
Excellent timing, too, as the proxy avatar kicked down the emergency exit they’d departed through.
"MOVE!" Spark called, and Starling sure as hell moved. Impressive speed on that boy, she thought, as the pair fled into the dark of the largely abandoned server.
While she searched for hiding spots, proxy hot on their heels… she calmly fired up her messenger App. And prayed that Tracer hadn’t gone to sleep yet.
Package loaded: Winder/Tracer
Code execution starting.
WARNING: Unknown adaptation /sys/mem/MemoryPalace detected
WARNING: Unknown adaptation /sys/sens/ConnCheck detected
Avatar physical system online.
—blinding light of a million stars, in his eyes.
"Shhh, shhh. It’s all done. You’re safe and sound."
Pressing his hands against his eyelids, to keep the light out.
Pain. Physical pain was a strange concept for a program, but it undeniably existed. Sensory overload could cause it, malfunctions of avatar inputs. Corrupted data and read errors could cause it, as your mind failed to access information and threw error messages. Perhaps pain was an evolutionary advantage, a fight or flight response designed to encourage Programs to avoid harm… their screams would be warning enough to not take terrible risks. Much like the risk he’d taken today with this dodgy software.
Maybe he was screaming in pain? No screaming in his ears, though. His voice wasn’t online.
"Oh, one moment…"
"There. I believe everything’s quite in place, now. Open your eyes, Tracer. I’ve aimed you at a wall; shouldn’t be anything too offensive to your new senses there. We need to get you acclimated, bit by bit…"
And… the stars faded, replaced by a featureless blank wall. Arjay’s workshop in all its minimalist surfaces greeted him. Slowly, he risked turning his head to look at a corner… nice and angular and safe. Nothing strange.
"Annanannanananany issues with the install?" Tracer asked, after his voice snapped back into place.
"No issues whatsoever. Your boast of being an unlimited being may very well bear fruit. Now, I’ve set up a small test to make sure everything’s in order. Please turn around and tell me what you see."
With only a moment’s hesitation, Tracer rotated in place, to see…
A ping tool App, a simple green sphere which pulsed with each packet it sent across Netwerk. He’d seen them before, they were one of the simplest Apps imaginable, designed to simply check if a server was online. But unless you personally were running the App, you wouldn’t know what server it was pinging. Not normally…
Hexadecimal numbers floated above the App, inverted black against the white of the walls. A simple connecting line indicated the source of the address, leading to the ping tool.
"It says 480c:2204:dce3," he spoke.
"Excellent. You have no permission to read data from my Apps… and yet you can see what connections they’re making. Congratulations, little sociopath. You are now a walking, talking violation of privacy. The doxxing you are capable of now is godlike; no doubt server mods would be unhappy to know that you exist in their midst, but thanks to my handiwork, they’ll remain oblivious…"
And now, Arjay appeared.
At first, Tracer had to avert his eyes. Arjay always had a few dozen Apps running at once, invisible to the naked eye… invisible until now. He could see a mess of addresses floating in a cloud around Arjay now, each one a static number indicating what parts of Netwerk Arjay was reaching out and touching. But… once he could accept the mess of numbers, deal with the strange way they were both in front of and behind Arjay’s avatar, it wasn’t as painful to look at.
…one last test. Because he’d been curious.
Tracer retrieved the access key for his home server, and held it out in front of himself.
With a wince of pain, he put it away again just as quickly.
"How much do I owe you for the operation?" Tracer asked, while bringing his usual plethora of personal Apps back online after the downtime.
"Not a thing," Arjay spoke, smiling darkly. "You know I’d do anything to aid in your insanity, Tracer. You’re a walking social experiment, well worth augmenting in its own right…"
Messenger App online.
17 unread messages from Spark.
Messages read as follows…
"Shit!" he blurted, in contrast to his usual vocal composure.
"And we’re already off to the races, I see," Arjay spoke, with some delight. "Go, go. Go forth and be atrocious. Do let me know if you succeed in your hunt, love."
Without further word, Tracer was gone, his process (now with illegally obtained software patches installed) shifting across Netwerk’s backbone from the Chanarchy to Horizon… towards the ShipTo server.
One day, the owners of ID:Entity would tear down these disused buildings. At this point they were providing a nice atmosphere of urban decay, a lovely contrast to the palace of wonders at the center of this messy server… but they were also largely useless. Unless you were trying to evade a murderer.
Fortunately for Spark and Nestt/Starling, that’s exactly what they were doing.
Starling was not a happy Program, but he was smart enough to know to shut up and not draw attention as they moved silently between software install packaging crates in the largely empty warehouse. These shelves and discarded containers were the only defense he had… and while he could have simply logged out of ShipTo within seconds and been perfectly safe, the collar meant he had to actually keep his avatar safe from harm. Fighting with the crazy person who controlled that lock was not wise.
Said crazy person, meanwhile, was actually rather enjoying this.
She’d been in stealth-based hunting game scenarios before, but this was real life, wasn’t it? She had a solid and clear objective, a path to follow, an enemy to deal with. All the trappings of her usual sport, but with the added risk/reward of life/death…
Spark knew this was crazy. She knew she had to take the situation seriously or she’d be toast. But she wasn’t going to live in denial of the small part of her that was jumping up and down and cheering and having a ball, either.
Normally, she’d go right for the kill and take out the proxy that was stalking them… but that wasn’t the goal. She had to stall this out until Tracer’s arrival, so he could catch the proxy in the act and trace it back to its origin point. Obliterating the thing would be simple enough, but then they’d be back to square one…
Instead, she stayed crouched behind a crate, while a man armed with a backspacer was slowly searching the warehouse for them.
"What’s this guy’s problem, anyway?" Starling whispered, while tugging at his collar (again) in vain hopes it’d pop right off. "Why does he want my family dead? Mom preaches peace and tolerance!"
…which made Spark really want to lay into this guy for hating on transsexuals. But, that wouldn’t be productive at the moment, would it?
"He hates creationists in general," Spark replied, keeping her voice low, well aware of how sound might carry in the empty structure. "That’s not the question to ask, anyway. The better question is how he know where you’d be tonight, and how he got into the club so quickly without an opening night pass…? Did you tell anyone where you’d be?"
"I don’t know. Maybe. Some of the staff at HolyHymnal knew; I got the VIP pass from a contact in the church, he had a bunch of ’em… look, does it matter? We need to leave! Get this damn collar off me and we can really run for it!"
"Do that and he’ll just pop up when and where you least expect it. This way, we know where he is. We can trap him…"
Problem was… their stalker didn’t know for certain his target was in here. If he assumed that Starling got away (which would’ve happened without the collar) the proxy would just leave the server. There needed to be proper bait in the trap, something to draw the aggro and pull her enemy in the right direction…
Bouncing off the heads of avatars on a dance floor was a matter of lightly hacking the physics of a server. Similarly, projecting your voice as a sourceless, directionless sound could be accomplished by another hack. It worked similarly to the music of the club, generating audio within your own avatar rather than from a spatial location.
"Looking for us?" she called out, for starters.
A crate on the other side of the warehouse vanished, backspaced out of existence in a burst of surprise fire. Good.
"He’s in here, you know," Spark continued, from the safety of her hiding place. "Nestt/Starling. Son of the woman you tried to kill today. You want him, don’t you? Punish her, by killing him. Good. Keep looking. Keep searching. Maybe you won’t be a complete #failure twice in a row…"
Which led Spark’s hostage to protest.
"What in null are you doing!?" he whispered, trying not to be heard by their assailant.
"Keeping him focused on me and not you. Relax and stay hidden while I go deal with this," Spark ordered… while flexing her fingers, getting ready for the upcoming fight. "Be a good boy and I promise to remotely disable your collar once I’ve got him down."
Since Tracer was taking his sweet time… she had to step this game up a notch.
Quickly, she slipped away from the safety of the hiding crate, hoping Starling would do the smart thing and stay put. Meanwhile, as she repositioned herself, she kept the taunts going.
"…you really aren’t good at this, are you?" she asked the attacker, keeping the sound aimless, while she kept an eye on the proxy through cracks between crates. "You’ve taken out a server or two, good for you. And… you murdered a schoolteacher. Three cheers for evolution, eat it you stupid creationists! But did it accomplish anything? Did it stop those supposed backwards thinkers, turn them around to your perspective? No. Total #failure. You’re a #failure. You did #nothing. You are #nothing…"
…the proxy, spinning in place with his handheld backspacer aiming randomly into the darkness. He fired randomly, vaporizing a few crates… not enough to expose either of his targets, just enough to work out his frustration.
"You don’t understand what’s at stake!" he called out… the first words Spark had heard from him, outside of a prerecorded ranted death threat.
"Really? Clarify, then. Make me understand. We’ve all the time in the world to talk it over, you and I…"
Now, the stalker crept around the crates, keeping his trigger happy weapon under control. He had a chance to make his case, to speak calmly… and was using that chance to calm himself, as well.
"Nobody sees what I see," he explained. "They don’t see the threat. There’s a war going on, a war for our hearts and minds. One side versus the other, and neither will stop until the other is completely eradicated. Everybody says it’s just words, it’s just trolling, it’s just… Netwerk. But I know the truth. Our world is soaked in mutual hatred! This is life and death. Zero and One…"
"That sounds rather faithful, for someone who hates creationism."
…a flash of white. That jacket, the one with the blazing heart icon on it, yes. That was the one who stopped him earlier today…
The proxy crept up on that spot, hidden behind a crate.
"You don’t understand," he repeated. "But I can show you the light."
The backspacer unleashed upon the crate, deleting its data from the server entirely.
Revealing a discarded white jacket, draped carefully over a rolling office chair.
Spark dropped from the ceiling above, fingers poised and ready to strike at the man’s shoulders.
It would have been enough. From their earlier fight, she knew he wasn’t particularly skilled at avatar to avatar combat, likely relying on the power of a backspacer or a surprise lunge with his knife. The art of parrying and striking was beyond him, this afternoon.
This evening was another matter, as he reached out and deflected her blows, counterattacking her wrists to deflect them.
When Spark landed nimbly on her feet—the physical bounding boxes of her dancing shoes being a bit flatter and more stable than the spiky heels might suggest—the proxy had already assumed a martial arts stance, knife at the ready but held with a slashing grip rather than a stabbing one. The killer had gone ahead and installed some self-defense software, learning from earlier mistakes.
…which made the tiny part of Spark that craved this game smile even wider.
Her initial flurry of strikes weren’t intended to be fight-ending blows, burning away the proxy’s limbs. No, she was testing this new software, trying to learn more about it. Studying the patterns of blocks and deflections… analyzing the way the knife arced as it passed through the space occupied by her avatar half a moment ago… learning the methods of her new opponent. A new fight, a real fight, compared to the quick ambush from before…
Long-term planning wasn’t Spark’s forte. But in the moment-to-moment of a challenge, nobody matched her for coming up with wins on the fly. In this case, the win was a stall, keeping him fighting while waiting for Tracer to show. Keeping him focused. Keeping herself from getting stabbed and suffering the same fate as Verity…
Easier said than done, though.
The knife went wider than expected on one flurry… and sliced across her left arm.
Instantly, his hacktool went to work.
Spark’s defensive firewalls and anti-malware Apps were layered thick, even for social outings like club nights. They put up a fight against the hacktool’s intrusions, shutting down ports, keeping it from exploiting the usual suspects of default passwords and known overflow vulnerabilities. But even the best software can’t be perfect.
Her vision blurred, as some of her data went screwy. Not a full corruption and crash, not a fatal wound, but she’d need to do run some cleanup and repair Apps tonight. He’d managed to hurt her, but not kill her… which made the situation far more dangerous.
Now her reaction times wouldn’t be ideal, not sharp enough to keep up her defensive wall of martial technique. Her internal software wouldn’t deal well with another hacktool attack, either; already some of her firewall Apps had crashed, needing reinstall before they’d be useful again. She was open, and vulnerable…
But what fun was a game you couldn’t lose?
And besides… she’d already won.
Across the warehouse, she could see the dim lighting glinting off her brother’s new eyes.
"97f1:56a8:83e3," he announced.
With a final cry of triumph, Spark worked her way past the defensive patterns she’d been analyzing during the entire fight, and planted two fingers squarely in the chest of the avatar proxy.
A brilliant fireball lit up the warehouse, as the proxy exploded into flame. It licked at the crates, leaving behind decorative scorchmarks… and leaving behind nothing but tiny bits of avatar data, scattered and ruined, across the floor below.
…Spark sagged backwards a bit, stumbling on her dancing shoes, as she started launching Apps to clean and repair her data damage.
With a thought, she dismissed the ongoing connection lock from her hostage. No doubt Starling disconnected away immediately; he wasn’t important anymore. He’d hurt her best friend, true, but they had a more important bastard to deal with right now.
"So what server is he from?" she asked.
"Liberty17," Tracer announced. "And now I know exactly who killed Verity."
Desperately he worked to erase all of his tracks.
All the spare proxies, he deleted them. One by one his duplicated thugs vanished, leaving behind no data whatsoever to comb through. His recording software used for his threats, scrubbed. The icons and imagery he had been leaving behind at the scene of his murders, destroyed. Nothing that could possibly prove his role in those events…
Unfortunately, the two that followed him all the way home weren’t interested in proof. Not after what he’d done.
The door to his private chambers beneath the church was blasted off its hinges, parts of it vaporized in a burst of brilliant flame.
He tried pointing his last remaining backspacer at the intruders, but without the assistive combat software of the proxy, his hands trembled far too much. Before he could even get a shot off, the weapon itself was in the hands of his hunter, and vaporized. Ash and flame, and then, nothing…
The archbishop whimpered, and realized how pathetic that whimpering must sound. All the confidence he had when acting through his proxy was gone; even if he was the same person, he lacked his protective shell. His puppet, his alter ego, his excuse… everything stripped away.
Leaving only Ichiban, one of many Archbishops in the Church of One. Someone who would have the connections to easily infiltrate HolyHymnal, to track down Nestt/Starling, even resources to get into ID:Entity to enact his assassination backup plan…
This supposed priest backed into a corner of his private room, as the boy with absolute loathing in his eyes advanced on him.
"Why," Tracer demanded to know.
Ichiban’s lips flapped uselessly, before he stammered out a far less impressive speech than he’d managed through his proxy.
"B-Because… because… nobody understood," he claimed. "Evolution is a lie. It’s a threat. I, I had to, I had to attack the church under the name of evolution so they’d wake up to how much of a threat those academic heathens represent…"
"A false flag. You were pretending to be an anti-creationism terrorist just to rally your own church to your cause," Tracer understood. "You did more damage to the faithful than evolution ever has, Archbishop. You’ve destroyed servers and murdered your own people just to frame the innocent…"
"It had to be done!" Ichiban insisted. "He whispered to my heart, he told me that they had to understand, had to be made to see the evil within evolution’s heart! The… the teacher, that first one, he said she had to go, she was a threat, she would’ve destroyed everything good and pure and holy…!"
Spark slammed the archbishop up against a wall, the fabric simulation of his white robes glitching slightly from the force of impact…
…revealing his avatar’s bare chest. Upon it, a tattoo of the barbed wire heart.
She raised her other hand, igniting her fingers.
"Just say the word," she told Tracer, level and even in tone. "Just say it. I’m sick of his ranting."
"Wait?! He murdered Verity!"
"Something’s wrong," Tracer said… focused in tightly on that tattoo.
It wasn’t just an avatar decoration, no… it was an App. An App with an ongoing connection outside of the Liberty17 server, to… to…
…to Tracer’s own home server?
A quick glance at his private access key, currently displaying , contradicted that. The addresses were similar, likely using the same supposedly lost technology, but they were indeed two different servers. Another place like Floating Point somewhere out there in Netwerk, influencing an Archbishop of the Church of One and using him to commit murder…
"Who was whispering to you?" Tracer demanded to know. "Who told you to kill Verity? WHO?"
"Th… the Zero," Ichiban whispered. "The all-encompassing Great Zero. The smiling boy branded me with its heart, long ago. A sacred heart bathed in light and shadow and pain, perfect and true. I’m, I’m not the only one it whispers to, so many, so many others bear the same bloody mark, synced to its pulse, to spread its gospHGHRHHGAAGAHHH—!"
Spark let go in shock, as the barbed wire exploded outward from the Archbishop’s chest.
Flailing, screaming metal wires writhed their way out of the tattoo. It began to animate, valves and ventricles pumping pain as the wires cycled in and out… now becoming 3-D, snarling and wrapping around the Archbishop’s avatar. Both of the Winder siblings backed away from the horror, to avoid being caught up in its web of agony…
…and then the wires constricted.
Archbishop Ichiban gave one final scream, as the remainder of his program data was utterly shredded to pieces by the tangle of barbed wire.
In an explosion of light and shadow and animalistic howls, he was fully backspaced. Nothing remained of the man afterward… or of the App that was influencing him.
It took years before they found the truth behind the gifts left behind by Verity.
Tracer found his, first. There was a single word, a misprint, in his copy of Compiled Works of Pollox/Scribler. Within that word, he found an access key uniquely bound to his identity. Given the hints left in Verity’s last will and testament, they checked the stitches on Spark’s jacket next… and found a second key, this one bound to her identity.
The pair, now in their teens, resolved to try the keys simultaneously. Either they’d go nowhere or somewhere, together.
That was how they discovered their new home.
It was a private server, a giant library within a flying castle in the clouds. Within its rounded great antechamber were shelf after shelf of leather-bound books… many of them blank, many of them filled with gibberish, some of them coherent but seemingly from another world.
A great spiral stair wound its way around inside this cylinder, leading to bedrooms and studies and rec rooms and more. Through great windows, sunlight poured in… from a vast, open sky that hung over a mapped representation of all of Netwerk.
A note sealed with wax had been conspicuously left for them on a tiny round table near the foyer.
I’ve kept these keys a secret for many years. In my youth, exploring these hallways helped inspire my dreams of archaeology. What is this place? Who created it? What are all these books, what does the ‘W’ symbol on their spines represent, what do they mean? So many mysteries…
Most of the books were damaged (or encrypted?) during some sort of attack; the whole place was in terrible disrepair when I first came here, left abandoned for generations. I don’t know how it’s possible for it to exist outside the hosting services… but the fact remains that it exists, and it holds wonders I have yet to understand…
I leave this to my two prodigies, be they young or old at the time I pass on, in hopes that they may carry on my studies. Tracer and Spark, this server is yours to do with as you see fit. May you find happiness within these walls. -Verity.
In front of this little table, in the center of the vast library… a single stone sphere 3.14 meters in diameter hovered, against all physical simulation rules. It rotated very slowly, grinding away the seconds and hours of Netwerk, maintaining the server’s perpetually calculating cloud functionality.
A brass plaque attached to the dais the sculpture hovered offered a strange mixture of garbled or encrypted characters, alongside a cleartext greeting…
‘Die ganzen Zahlen hat der liebe Gott gemacht, alles andere ist Menschenwerk.‘
Welcome to Floating Point.
"This is our new home away from home," Tracer declared. "This is where we’ll do it. We’ll figure out who killed Verity, Spark. I promise."
Spark and Tracer felt it wise to leave Liberty17 as soon as possible, before anybody came to investigate the now-empty church.
Home also worked as a rallying point, a fallback server to regroup at whenever anything went wrong. Technically everything had sort-of gone right, but it felt like an appropriate place to go all the same. Hidden within the wilds of Netwerk, accessible only by a pair of golden keys, they could find safe haven from any storm within the walls of Floating Point.
Brother and sister sat at the bottom of the great stair, looking out across the room at the stone sphere at the core of their home. Simply sitting together, in thought.
"He’s gone," Spark tried. "We did it. We got her killer…"
"We destroyed the knife, not the one who held the knife," Tracer understood. "There’s more to this than a lone psychopath. Someone or something is exploiting the existing malice of Netwerk; this ‘Zero’ dug its barbs into Ichiban, using that malware tattoo to turn a man of faith into a killer…"
"So… what, the crazy stories of the Church of One are for real now?" Spark asked. "There’s an actual, factual One and Zero out there? Or is the ‘smiling boy’ some epic-tier troll imitating the Zero, maybe…?"
"Maybe. I’m not sure. I need to search my archived MemoryPalace modules, crawl them completely, make the right connections. …we’re not done, Spark. If he was telling the truth, if there’s more like him out there acting under the marching orders of this Zero… we’re not done. We need to figure this out. I need to figure this out…"
Tracer slowly rose to his feet, and began climbing the stairs.
"Where’re you going?" Spark asked.
"I’m going to my room to sleep," he said. "I made a promise to you that I’d put this aside and get some rest, didn’t I? Nothing’s changed. The work continues. And I’ll need that rest to see this through to the end. …get some rest yourself, Spark. You’ve earned it."
But instead, she stayed sitting on that stair for some time.
DEFEAT. The word wasn’t actually in front of her eyes, but it may as well have been.
Failure to understand the nature of Verity’s killer, until it was too late. Failure to truly avenge her teacher’s murder. Failure to protect her friend’s heart. Failure to accomplish anything or achieve any real victory. An entire day devoted to defeat…
No. She couldn’t go to bed, not like this. She had to eke out some win, no matter how small.
It took a minute to regain enough composure to answer the knocking at her apartment’s front door.
Even now, hours after she’d had her heart broken, Puzzle still looked beautiful.
"Spark…?" her friend asked, confused. "You’re okay? Oh thank goodness—"
She had to stand on her toes to do it, but Spark lined up nicely for a soft kiss to Puzzle’s lips.
Only after letting it linger, after both of them letting it linger for that matter, did Spark explain.
"You deserve to be happy," she said. "And we make each other happy, don’t we?"
Puzzle’s fingers brushed across her lips, as she trembled at that doorstep.
"I… I… Spark, I just…" she whispered. "I… I can’t. I-I’m sorry."
And the door closed.
Which left Spark only one option for her daily win.
She didn’t bother firing up Peep. This wasn’t for them, it was for her. Sitting in the dark of the lobby, waiting for four more rando pubbers to show up. Didn’t matter who showed up, as long as she had people to fight, objectives to clear, and a victory condition to achieve. Nothing else mattered, not now.
Allies appeared, paired up with her by the matchmaking service. They identified as being in the same ranked division she was; as good a metric for finding pleasant company as any, she guessed.
The Kunoichi was the first to declare her intent.
"Solo-mid," she called.
:: end chapter 1.1
:: go home
|:: Copyright 2015 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy.
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker.