Floating Point 1.2 :: Nude
:: go home
"…and that’s my story."
Summarizing the entire tale had taken a toll. She’d already gone through several tissues, to mop up the residual tears that leaked behind her ridiculousy thick-framed glasses. Her entire perspective bobbled uneasily each time she had to nudge those frames, to stay dry.
…and why did an avatar need to cry? Why did her default coding have to produce that reaction, the sensation of tears going down the skin, the visible wetness? Why couldn’t she remain stoic in the face of everything that happened to her…?
From his perch on her shoulder Mew batted at the tears, to try and dry them with his paws. Unfortunately, while her kitty’s simulations were more sophisticated than most housepet Apps, the fur wasn’t flagged as absorbent.
"," Mew emoji’d, in sympathy. "."
Mew’s owner wiped away the last of the tears, before crumpling up the tissue in a tightly balled fist. Her bulky sweater concealed a lot of avatar faults but lacked pockets for used tissue paper, unfortunately.
"I’ve tried. I really tried," she spoke, adjusting her glasses back in place (while looking vaguely at a point above and to the right of the doctor). "I tried to fight back against them, but it’s useless. They’ve got my number. They’ve got all my numbers. Leaving it all behind is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, but… but… I don’t see any, any other w-way…"
Another tissue was provided to soak up the last of the last of the tears.
For her part… Doctor Uniq was outwardly sympathetic to her patient’s woes. She nodded at each twist and turn of the story, looked mournful at what was lost, and understanding of the pain being shown on her client’s face. Running out of tissues was normal in her line of work, and she’d always have more if they were needed.
"You’re making the right decision," Uniq insisted. "Changing your identity is the best way to lay down your burdens. You don’t have to be a victim any longer. Today… you’ll walk out of my clinic a free woman. No more persecution, no more accusations. A fresh start. Okay…?"
The patient nodded between sobs, desperate to get on with it, now that she’d made up her mind.
"How do we… um… do it?" she asked. "Replace my identity with a new one, I mean. What’s the process, exactly…?"
"Just sit back in your chair and relax," Uniq spoke… opening a visible HUD, a remote control App that operated her clinic systems. "Lie back, and relax…"
The chair the client was sitting in began to change.
What started as a simple metal chair shifted, becoming softer to the touch. It reclined, morphing into something as gentle as pillows, like the perfect bed. The most comfort she’d ever experienced in her life, lulling her towards sleep mode… Mew curling up in her lap now, emitting little ""s as the pet App got there a little ahead of its owner.
When she awoke, she’d have lost everything.
When she awoke, she wouldn’t be a pariah anymore.
The doctor smiled down at her, as the chair became recliner, became a container, became a receptacle for all her memories and all her code and all her everything. And this nice woman, the one who came to her in her hour of need and provided a way out… that woman was so gentle. So kind…
"I like your tattoo," the patient said, zooming in the view provided by her App glasses on that crawling red mark on the doctor’s neck. Like a heart. A heart, with some kind of jagged lines around it…
"I like it too," the doctor spoke. Before beginning the siphoning process.
Her name was the first thing to go.
"Of course… once I’m done hollowing you out, I won’t be filling in the cracks," Uniq explained, as childhood memories started slipped away, drained into a nearby file container.
"…wuh…?" her victim managed, between the strange sensation of her data to go blank.
Window after window closing as her running Apps shut down… including Mew, who vanished from her lap. Everything going dark and blank within her mind, as dark and blank as her sight for her first years. …first years? What years? Mother’s name. What was mother’s name, what was her name, when did any of that happen…
Even her clothes were gone, stripped from her avatar. A vague sense of recent offense related to that popped to mind, trying to trigger some sort of rage that would help her break free… but even that anger fell away, into the black pit that opened up inside her head.
"You really think I was going to give you a new life? No. Not for you. You’re too valuable to me," Uniq explained… while pulling everything the client was into a data storage file, compressing it down for duplication and shipment. "There are so many people, so many rich people, who could work wonders with the data of a shady character like you. Your name, your avatar, your memories. All of it will belong to the highest bidder…"
No. Wrong. Bad. Negative words rushed to her consciousness, before being pulled away. Weakly she lifted one hand… but it felt heavy, so completely heavy. Couldn’t get out of the chair, not anymore.
Mew. She knew her cat’s name was Mew. He was a good kitty, he could run and get help, help, please, somebody, help me…
But Mew was gone. Drained away, like everything else. The only good thing left in her life, her beloved cat, and Uniq had taken him away…
"Everybody’s going to know the truth about you soon enough," the doctor promised, still with her smile so wide… wider, even, than ever before. "And if that truth doesn’t match what they suspected…? Well. They can make it match. You can be anything they need you to be…"
Her vision augmentation App, embedded in those thick-framed glasses, was the last thing to shut down.
Born into a world of darkness. Dying into a world of darkness. A null state.
The client’s other senses still worked. She could still feel the incredible softness, hear the sound of the software churning away on her memories, draining the last of her self dry. Hear the soft chuckle of the doctor. Hear the sound of cracking and burning wood, as the door to the operating room exploded inward…
Other sounds, she could hear them, even if she didn’t know what they meant. Some sort of scuffle, feet squeaking against the tiled flooring. Machines being knocked over, physics objects scattered. The feel of roaring flames just over her head, that was also something she could feel… burning heat like passionate fury, striking out against the cold and the dark she’d been mired within…
These were her only memories, now. Brand new memories; she didn’t even remember what the room looked like, or why she was here. As far as she knew, she’d been born here. She didn’t exist until this moment.
And then, quiet.
Voices returned. Language was still processed, thanks to some residually operating code, even if she had no idea who was speaking.
"Oh for fuck’s sake…!" a young woman snarled; the sound of clattering metal accompanied this outburst.
"She got away?" a deeper-toned man’s voice responded.
"She got away. Broke right through my connection lock and whoosh, off she went."
"Identity thieves are keenly interested in not being caught, Spark. They’re going to pack countermeasures to simple hacktools like your lock collar."
"Well, this is all I have for fighting the Zero’s little minions. Take it or leave it. …we’ve got more immediate problems, anyway."
"More immediate than an escaping criminal?"
(The pause that followed might have been due to a visual gesture. In the lifelong darkness of the empty woman, it wasn’t seen.)
"Yes, it’s a naked amnesiac in a chair. What about it?" the man asked.
"Tracer, c’mon. We can’t just leave her like this, whoever she is. Uh. Y’know how to reinstall an identity, by any chance? I have no idea what any of these Apps do… I think I’ve got her data here in this compressed file, it’s heavy as hell, but…"
"If she’s a client of an identity scrubber, odds are she’s a criminal as well. We’d be doing Netwerk a favor to leave her here."
"#Bullshit. We have no idea who this person is!"
"Exactly—we have no idea who this person is. She’s not our problem unless we choose to make her our problem… and if we do, it means we then have a problem. So, why risk it?"
(The woman had no idea whose problem she was. She was her own problem, at the moment. As much as she wanted to speak up, to explain, she’d lost her ability to speak. Assuming she was ever able to speak in the first place. Hadn’t she simply… been here, in this softness, forever?)
"Not up for debate, Tracer. You grab her legs, I’ll get her shoulders," the woman possibly named Spark suggested. "#Teamwork."
Lfited from the softness, floating in the air. Strong hands supporting her upper body in a capable manner, while a weaker set of arms struggled to get her legs free from the chair. There was some comfort in those arms, in these strangers who seemed to have a care for whoever she was…
"This is insane, you understand that, right?" the man asked. "We can’t even put any clothes on her because we don’t have write permissions for her avatar. We are literally carrying a naked woman out of a doctor’s office in broad daylight…"
"I didn’t say we were hauling her out the front door. We need to get her serious medical help, and… as much as I hate to say it… we’re only going to find that kind of serious medical help in AptGet. We need to see Arjay."
The newborn woman living in darkness soaked in every single bit of sensory input she could, passively learning more about her situation along the way. The two who had… saved? her, they moved her to a new server…
…new server? Yes, a server in Netwerk. She remembered that much. She was a sapient Program, living in Netwerk. She knew basics of language and how to parse auditory input. Her speech and motor skills were offline, but at least she could take comfort in knowing the words that were arriving from… outside. Outside the darkness, whatever it was. She could feel the damp air of this new server on her skin, could tremble at the cold. Could experience discomfort at being awkwardly carried up and down small flights of what were likely stairs, through a busy city street…
And to a new place. This one felt… empty, devoid of any sensation. She was placed on another soft surface, but there was no ambient noise, no atmospheric effect, nothing. Just voices.
She’d identified them by name, now: the woman who jumped to her aid was Spark. She had a kind voice, but very firm, and irritable towards the one named Tracer. That one, he was far more irritable than the other, inclined to leave the woman behind and continually suggesting they do just that.
But now a third voice had joined in, one they’d named Arjay. He… she? was indescribable. Maybe because the woman’s words weren’t entirely online, not yet…
"This is curious," the third man? woman? spoke. "Your new friend has no eyes."
"Uh… Arjay? She does. They’re right there and they’re staring at you," Spark pointed out. (Maybe she pointed a finger. Hard to say, given the woman’s inability to see it.) "She does have that creepy no-pupils, solid-color-iris thing going on, though…"
"Her avatar has eyes. Her code does not. There’s no sensory input routines for vision whatsoever. A strange mutation, indeed… and unrelated to her current identity issue. As near as I can tell, she was born this way. Hmm. Would you like me to install some eyes? Something better than eyes, even. I have an excellent package I got from a black market dealer recently that proports to see underneath an avatar’s clothing—"
"We just need this identity package reinstalled, thank you. No mucking around inside her code."
"I think you misunderstand who I am, love," Arjay replied, his voice floating away from the woman and towards the others. "I’m no healer, and certainly no programmer; I obtain and install shady software patches. I create nothing, I merely manipulate what exists. I haven’t the faintest idea how to perform the kind of code cleanup and restoration she requires."
"So… you can’t, I don’t know, jam her identity back in there?"
"I can give it a try, I suppose. And I DO have a nice cleanup App I can install in her," Arjay spoke. "Much like the auto-repair systems that restore your data integrity after getting rolled in a fight. They weren’t designed for this task, however; I’ve no idea if it’ll work. I suppose it’s worth a try, for lack of a better option. …unless you’d like me to leave her a blank slate? She’s very pliant like this, and I do admire her simple Default beauty. You could make her into something of your own choosing, instead. Such potential…!"
"We are who we are, little Spark."
Now, Tracer spoke up in her favor for the first time since her ‘birth.’
"Run the restoration," he ordered. "And that’s all. The sooner we deal with this situation, the better."
And the world went dark. It was always dark, always an absence of anything other than sound and touch, but now it felt… darker than dark. Or rather it would have felt darker than dark, if she could feel anything at all. To her perspective, life simply ended, then resumed a split second later.
"That took some doing," Arjay spoke, sounding… a bit strained. "But I think I’ve got all her bits neatly tucked away."
"Good. We can leave now, then?"
"Not so fast, my little misanthrope. Your friend here needs time to recover; the App I installed is going to take considerable time to sort out all that data. She’ll fade in and out of lucidity for some time, while she gets her mental house in order. I highly recommend bedrest and a safe, chaos-free environment."
"Your office seems perpetually chaos-free."
"This is no hostel, Tracer. I don’t put up free room and board for strays. If you leave her here, I’d be happy to see what modifications I can deploy to turn this blank slate into a useful pet! Barring that… I suggest you take her home with you."
Speak. She wanted to speak, wanted to express herself, but her voice hadn’t found her yet. It was still lost in the… the swirling morass inside her, the jumble of ill-fitting puzzle pieces. If only she could find those words, the ones that would spill from her own lips…
"Absolutely not," Tracer denied. "Spark, can’t you dump her at your friend Puzzle’s place or something? You’re the socialite, you’ve got actual friends on tap, yes?"
"I… haven’t talked to Puzzle lately. #ItsComplicated. …I think we should bring her home with us. Why not? C’mon, Tracer, what’s the harm in giving her a place to stay while she recovers?"
"What’s the harm—?! Our home is ours, Spark, and ours alone. That’s the pact we made! And now, now especially when we know our enemy is using similar server tech, we can’t let anybody inside. She could be… dammit. Arjay, I’m taking this to our private channel, if you don’t mind."
"By all means," the patcher replied.
…and silence. Silence for far too long.
Were they somehow talking? Did they leave? Was she alone in this soundless room, abandoned in the dark?
No. No, please. Please.
"Help," she managed, barely audible.
Within the minimalist chambers of Arjay’s workshop, that tiny word carried greath volume.
"Help. Help," the woman repeated, clinging to the word and iterating on it, in hopes of finding more words to join with it. "Help. Help me. Help me. Please help me. Please please please. Please help me…"
A strangely familiar sensation of wetness trickled down her cheeks, now. Crying, she knew it was crying, once she was able to connect the memory. She’d cried before… recently, in fact. Was that before she woke up to nothingness? Was there really something before the nothingness…?
It took a few more moments before anyone responded to that crying.
"Fine," Tracer agreed. "But you’re looking after her, Spark. Not me. She’s not my problem."
The following day was a blurry mess for the nameless woman.
She’d sleep. She’d wake. She’d occasionally talk with her benefactor, the nice woman named Spark. Not much that Spark said made sense, not yet… and the periods of narcolepsy, when her process went into sleep mode so the data cleanup App could work on a particularly intense wad of corrupted material, those punctuated their discussions as much as actual punctuation.
What little the woman could gather amounted to the following:
She’d been taken to a private server, home to Tracer and Spark, and given a room of her own. There was a bed in this room, the bed she was often lying in. (Once she regained control over her avatar’s movement she tried walking around, but only ended up tripping over unseen furniture and falling down repeatedly.) The bed was warm, and in the morning (assuming it was morning) she felt the warmth of a skybox sun on her face through what were possibly windows. A sound like wind could be heard in the distance, suggesting… movement, of some sort, but beyond that she couldn’t glean much understanding.
Now and then Spark would show up between "game sessions," to offer her a chance to talk through the gaps in her memory. These proved fruitless, and often the woman simply didn’t have the words to express herself properly. Frustration mounted on both sides of those conversations… but it was a sympathetic frustration.
"Arjay said it might take some time for it all to come back," Spark would often say. "But it will come back. I’ve got faith."
The woman didn’t have faith of any traditional sort. Maybe she did once, but that was someone else. Now all she had was this bed, this room, the darkness, and a single spark of hope that there would one day be more.
On the second day, the headaches started.
Pain was a strange sensation. Her code was rearranging itself on the fly, data recovery a continual process… and when things shifted inside her head, it hurt. She’d curl up in the bed, pulling the sheets tight against the pajamas Spark had provided her with. Flashes would punctuate the darkness, flashes of thought and memory, but nothing coherent. Nothing she could clearly recall…
Until she remembered the cherries.
Cherry. An icon of two red circles connected by two lines, representing a flavor of cherry. So sweet and sticky. One cherry, two cherries. Three. And then none. Then one, then two, then three, then nothing…
She was matching fruit.
In the darkness of nothing, she saw, she saw cherries and knew what they were. She’d done it before; it was a silly little game App, something given to her by her mother. Partly as a way to distract her from her problems, partly as an experiment…
"She’s responding well to HUDs and UI elements, at least."
Another place. Another doctor. So many doctors in her life. Was she broken?
"That’s a good sign. It means her mind can comprehend visual input, even if she has no means of gathering that input from the world around her," the doctor continued. "She can play games, watch video files, open messenger windows. What she needs is an indirect means of input… but there’s no App specifically for interfacing with this kind of birth defect."
"My daughter is not defective," the best voice in the world replied.
Matching cherries did get boring after doing it a zillion times. She needed more. She poked at other elements of the game’s simple 2-D window, fingers pressing the air in front of herself, touching the virtual controls. The corner of the game window, there was something odd there… if she could just peel it back…
"I didn’t mean it like that, ma’am. But the fact of the matter is that she has a defect in her code, one which cannot be repaired. Given your family health history, I’m not surprised this happened. At best her vision can be augmented, but I’m afraid I don’t know how. …normally I’d recommend you reformat her, in hopes a fresh respec would—"
"Mommy! Mommy, look!" her own voice called, into the dark.
The cherries were dancing, now. She’d pulled open the code and accessed the game’s debug state, setting up a simple animation script to manipulate the sprites. Giggling, the child sent the cherries sprawling, bumping into each other and bouncing off the walls of the window…
"Honey… I can’t see what you’re seeing," her mother reminded. "It’s a HUD game."
"Well, why not? Why can’t you see what I’m seeing?" the young girl asked. "Why can’t I see what you’re seeing? I don’t understand."
Which was all the inspiration her mother needed to craft an App for something which had no App.
On her next birthday the child got her first pair of glasses, and her visual world immediately expanded well beyond that of cherry sprites.
Color. Shape. All this data coming in actively, not passively like a movie file. She could turn her head and look at things, in direct response to the movement of her avatar…
"Mommy programmed these just for you," she explained. "They’re all yours, tailored to your code. Anything these glasses are pointing at, you’ll see as a window HUD inside your mind. It’s your new special eyes, for my special little girl! See? You’re not defective or broken, honey. You just didn’t have your glasses yet…"
…and the woman in the bed opened her eyes.
The glasses were sitting in her file inventory, freshly restored by the data cleaner. With some hesitation… she attached them to her avatar, resting the thick frames on the bridge of her nose…
A soft bed, with silky white sheets. In the distance, the warm sun spilled in through an arched window. Clouds soared by, accompanied by the whistle of the wind…
One more piece of the puzzle restored.
With new eyes, the woman could properly explore her new home.
Fortunately this didn’t mean any encounters with the man, the one who didn’t want her here in the first place.
Tracer kept to his study all day. He was doing "research," of some sort… she wasn’t allowed to go in there, not allowed to know what it was the man was investigating. Even Spark was cagey about it.
"He’s… not good with strangers," she tried to explain, the morning the woman got her eyes back. "On top of that, he thinks you might actually be one of our enemies, trying to sneak your way into our private server."
"But I’m not," the woman spoke, using her new words. Still a bit childish in her speech patterns, but getting there, little by little.
"You might have been. We don’t know who you are, after all. Me, I seriously doubt it. I wouldn’t have let you into Floating Point either, if you were with the bad guys."
That was the name of this strange place. A castle in the clouds, flying high above a diagrammed map of all of Netwerk. A server that only Spark and Tracer had access keys to, granted to them by someone named "Verity," someone who they clearly loved dearly… keys that the woman did not have. She could techncially leave at any time, if she knew where her home was, but she’d never be able to find the place again without a key.
Not that she wanted to leave this paradise.
Spark was more forthcoming with information than her brother would’ve liked, no doubt.
"We have no idea who made this server in the first place," she explained. "There’s the books, of course, but most of them are garbled. The few ones that are readable don’t make much sense. Our teacher gave us access as an inheritance; we’re the only ones who know it exists. That’s why Tracer’s so freaked out that you’re here. I’ve never even told my friends where I live…"
It was… beautiful. If this was her first visual input since being blanked out, it was a fine visual input to behold. The castle was largely cylindrical, centered around an enormous library of books, with a winding staircase around the shelves. Doors branched out from there to other rooms, such as her own bedroom or Tracer’s study. Windows, arched windows, those were everywhere… allowing the sunlight to flow in with cutting beams, highlighting a light sheen of dust in the air. At night, the moonlight replaced the sunlight, bathing Floating Point in a silvery glow rather than a golden hue…
Spark seemed very happy here. The woman was happy here, as well.
Part of her didn’t want to remember who she was, if it meant leaving this peaceful place.
"Why secret? It so. Is. Why is it so secret?" the woman asked, patiently reordering the words after they arrived.
"I don’t totally understand it. Verity knew server technology better than we ever did…"
"Servers," the woman repeated. The word felt… comfortable, to her.
"See, Floating Point doesn’t have a hosting service. Every server belongs to one of the big three, right? Horizon, Athena Online, or the Chanarchy. They each have their own processes for creating new servers… bribery, democracy, lottery, whatever. But this place doesn’t exist under any of the umbrellas. None of them created it. None of them host it."
"Flying castle," the woman recognized, from her peeks through the windows. "In the clouds. Clouds. Cloud processing…"
"Yeah, that’s the word. It’s like it exists INSIDE other servers, as a rogue process. It steals a little unused runtime here and there from all over Netwerk. Weird, right? And totally unique! …we thought it was unique, anyway, until—"
"Dynamic distribution of processes across multiple servers in a cloud configuration," the woman spoke automatically. "Possible in theory, but considered impossible to implement under Netwerk’s restrictive protocols due to the low-level system access rights required. I… I studied cloud programming once, using the core principles for distributed video networking…"
Spark looked up from the taste of a jam-filled morning pastry in surprise.
"That’s… yeah. That’s it," she confirmed. "What little I understand of it, anyway. How did you—?"
—pain. Pain behind her glasses, behind her eyes. Memories sifting and resorting, triggered by the experience of technical problem solving. The data cleanup routine was back on the job, having found the right metadata to drop a few new blocks into place…
…the code crawling across her inner vision, in the darkness.
She preferred to code in the dark, honestly. It was more efficient to scrawl all those little parentheses and function names through a 100% mental interface, unlike some amateur programmers who wanted a physical keyboard they could hammer away on with meaty avatar fingers. She’d spent most of her early years in the dark, she’d pulled apart little game Apps in the dark, and she felt more at home coding in the dark as a result.
Here, there was only herself, and her code. Nothing else. The world and all its problems fell away, leaving her in perfect isolation. Just her and the beauty of the software she was writing, carving something from nothing…
And… done. Well. Probably not done, but at least at a compilable state, and ready for testing.
"Here goes nothing, Mew," she spoke aloud, into the dark.
"!!" chirped a voice from her lap.
Compile it, link in the libraries, feed it the right input, run, and…
…and a perfect look straight up her crotch.
"Mew!" she protested, shooing the cat from her lap. "Go look at something interesting, okay? Not… that."
"" her cat joked, before dropping perfectly to all four paws… and going off exploring.
Amazingly, the broadcast was coming through perfectly through her HUD. Instead of the vision from her glasses, she now was seeing the world through a cat’s perspective, padding along through her messy workroom, batting at cables running in and out of various compilers. The video artifacting and buffering from dropped frames was not particularly great, especially considering both ends of the connection resided in the same server, but it was a start.
With gleeful triumph, she opened a window to Snowi.
"I did it!" she declared.
"ProxyPerception? You got it working?" Snowi asked.
"Yep. Here, let me share my desktop and show you…"
Ideally, Snowi would be running a ProxyPerception client on her end, connected right to the data mirror that was feeding Mew’s perspective into her owner’s virtual eyes. For now, mirroring the video feed manually would have to do. Still, it was a way to show off her work to one of her peers, which was always fun.
"Is… hah! That’s your kittykat, isn’t it?" Snowi asked. "Wow! Y’know, it’s such a simple idea to share perception over Netwerk. I’m surprised nobody’s done it this well before…"
"It’s not really scalable yet. Ideally I’d like to try some kind of cloud computing model to distribute the video streams… this isn’t much more than a tech test. Just an alpha," she warned.
"Yeah, and you’re only in Beta," Snowi joked. "It’s still a great start. You gonna bring it to #FeminismCodeJam this weekend? Getting some terrific press coverage for the event so far; I think we’re really gonna raise awareness of how sidelined women are in programming…"
…which left her squirming in her seat a bit.
"I don’t think I can go," she spoke. "Cup8’s got a romantic getaway weekend planned."
"What, another one? Seriously? I’m starting to wonder about that guy…"
The programmer had no response to that, because she was wondering as well.
Also because her cat had just rounded a corner, to see a pair of sensible shoes with feet in them.
"Uh, I gotta go, Snowi," she mumbled quickly… disconnecting from the messenger App, and shutting down ProxyPerception as well. In a blink of shadow, her vision came back, reconnected to the glasses that sat at the end of her nose.
Just in time to see Cup8 rounding the corner, carrying a bouquet of red roses and a box of chocolates.
"M’lady!" he greeted, presenting both offerings forward, with a smile of polished white teeth. "I bring you tokens of my love and affection, to better brighten your day. …and to brighten this workshop of yours. Why do you never turn on the lights in here?"
"I don’t really need them…" she spoke, without a lot of firmness.
Her handsome beau placed the bouquet on a nearby shelf, alongside five other similar flower arrangements. None of them were rotting away; they weren’t from a gardening simulator, they were purely decorative, for those who believe their love will last forever.
He had a seat on one of several chairs (since she liked to have various comforts while coding), relaxing into it… before patting his knee, prompting her to come over and sit in his lap. Kisses rained down on her neck shortly after.
"I’ve a wonderful evening planned for us tonight," Cup8 promised her. "If I had three hands I’dve brought in the bottle of very expensive wine I purloined from today’s ceremony."
"It’s done, then?" she asked, curious. "Your big deal?"
"Signed, sealed, delivered. When this technology investment pays out… we’ll go on a week-long pleasure cruise with the dividends," he spoke. "I always pick winners. Always. But, that’s for another day! For this evening, we’ve chocolates and wine, and a nice bottle of massage oil…"
Which left her squirming a bit, on his lap.
"I’ve got a lot of work to do," she tried. "I just started a new project."
"Oh, come now, m’lady. You’ve always a lot of work to do," he noted… poking her gently on the nose, to push her glasses up a little as they were slipping. "You need to take a break from coding your little Apps and enjoy your life!"
"But I enjoy coding…"
"And what is it this time, mmm? What fantastic innovation is my little girl developing that will revolutionize the world today?"
"Well…" she said, perking up a bit at the notion of talking about her project. "It’s a way to broadcast the perception of one Program into another. I based it on the glasses my mother made for me, actually, only this App’s more generalized and doesn’t completely replace the vision core. I’m calling it ProxyPerception."
"Yes, but what’s the application?"
"Huh? That’s the App, like I said…"
"No no, the practical application. The purpose. The goal. The whole package," he clarified. "Why would anybody want to see through another’s eyes? Voyueristic impulse, I suppose, but there’s plenty of sexy Apps already. Why would the mainstream audience want in on this new innovation?"
"There’s a lot of uses, actually! I was thinking pro gamers might like to broadcast their games. Or you could watch a chef prepare a taste stimulator, and learn the recipe. Or just listen to people talk about their day, vlog style. I mean… ProxyPerception could be for anyone, right?"
…and Cup8’s smile went wider. He kissed her cheek once, twice, three times.
"I suppose it could be," he agreed. "But it needs a branding change. A catchier name. ProxyPerception doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. How about… hmm. How about Peep? It’s cute and simple and a little naughty… like you."
The kisses slid lower and lower, down to the neck, then tugging down one shoulder of her loose and bulky sweater. And then lifting that sweater up and over her head, while she passively sat there and let him.
"My little genius," he whispered in her ear. "My dear little Beta…"
"Beta," the woman repeated, here and now.
"Huh?" Spark asked. "Are you okay? You zoned out again. Do you need help back into bed…?"
"My name is Beta," the coder spoke, trying the name on for size… and finding it fit her perfectly. "Beta. My name is Beta. She named me that. She. My mother. She named me Beta, said there was nothing to be ashamed of even if I was different, that everybody’s always growing and changing and everybody’s always beta software. I’m Beta…"
Beta looked down at the offered hand, puzzled.
"I’m Spark," the other woman greeted, with a smile. "And I’m very pleased to meet you."
The two newfound friends shook on it, pleased to have found this bond. Even as one chose to disregard all the parts of her memory that made her uncomfortable.
Her sweater was back. That wonderful wooly sweater, knitted together by her mother out of a very elaborate cloth simulation, well beyond the complexity normally found in mass-produced consumer avatar clothing. Every little sensation of that fuzzy material against her skin put new memories back into place, all the times she took comfort in that silly pink thing. All those happy moments…
The data was flooding back in, now. Her head still pounded with agony but Beta embraced it, rode the pain out, eager for more and more memories. Taste-testing her father’s terrible attempts at ice cream taste stims. Playtesting games for a living, fresh out of school, while experimenting with her own App coding. Playing with her kitty, then recompiling her kitty, then playing with her kitty again…
Mew. Her kitty was named Mew. He was sitting in her inventory all the while, waiting for the data recovery App to put him back together again. Now, he was bounding across on the carpet of Floating Point’s walkways, getting underfoot as he skipped in excited circles around his owner/designer.
"!!!" the cat chimed, pictograms floating from his head in adorable thought bubbles. ", , !"
"I love you too, you silly cat," Beta replied, reaching down to scratch behind his ears before resuming her upbeat march. "His name’s Mew. I’ve had him since I was very young; I designed a lot of his code myself, actually!"
"You made a pet? Whoa," Spark spoke, impressed. "I completely suck at programming. Farthest I’ve ever gotten was Hello World, and that was just to get through class with a passing grade…"
"It’s all coming back. Almost all of it, anyway," Beta explained. "I think the data cleaner’s putting memories back in-order. I’ve got my childhood right up through recent history! I’ve got all my personal files like Mew and my wardrobe and everything back, too!"
"But how did you end up in that identity thief’s office? Do you remember that yet?"
"Not yet. …but I will! I’ll remember everything. I just know it!"
"Well… even so, we should check in with Tracer and see if he can help you get the rest," Spark suggested, her hand on the doorknob. "He said he found a promising lead. TRACER! We figured out who our houseguest is…!"
…and the door opened to a warped porno theater.
Picture after picture of Beta, without her fuzzy pink sweater. Without any clothing at all, in fact, not even her glasses. Posing for the camera, sometimes sexy, sometimes awkwardly-sexy. And in some pictures, sprawled on her bed with her legs spread, enjoying a private moment…
Each of these candid shots came with an insulting yet cryptic caption.
SUPPORTS FEMINIST INDIE CODERS
SLUTS IT UP LIKE A 5c WHORE
HOW’D I GO BLIND?
I LOOKED IN A MIRROR
TOO UGLY TO GET A REAL MAN
FUCKS HER CAT EVERY NIGHT
LIES ABOUT CREATING PEEP
STAGES HER OWN PEEP SHOW
…causing the subject of those pictures to sink to her knees, on setting foot in that room.
It had been a long time coming, and it took Snowi pushing her and pushing her to finally give her the confidence to make the leap. Specifically, Snowi pushing her while standing right at her side, arms crossed in defiance at the man on the other side of the kitchen table.
Cup8 pressed his fingertips together, considering what he’d just heard.
"And that’s how you feel, is it," he asked… sparing a moment to glare at Snowi.
"It’s just too much," Beta said. "It’s too much. The romantic getaways, the romantic nights, the romantic everything… I just… I need my space. You say I’m lonely but I enjoy being alone with my code, I like the peace and quiet. I need more time to simply be myself. So… I think it’d be best if we… if we spend some time apart. Um. Okay…?"
"Haven’t I been a considerate lover? A perfect gentleman?" Cup8 protested… a bit louder than he intended to, while leaning forward across the table. "I’ve always treated you with respect, m’lady. I’ve devoted every waking hour not spent at that office to making you happy! I helped launch Peep off the ground for you, I put my money into your cloud distribution system, I made it a Netwerk-wide sensation…!"
"I’m thankful for that, honest! I’m very thankful! I…"
Snowi cleared her throat, to interrupt before Beta went pleading back to him.
"…I just don’t think we’re right for each other. Not like we are now," Beta continued, recalling her practice script. "It’s just too overbearing, being your ‘love.’ I need to be me. Maybe in time, we’ll both be different people, and we’ll be ready—"
The loud scrape of his chair against the kitchen floor cut her off instantly.
"You know what? You’re not worthy of my love," Cup8 declared. "I give and I give, I do things I wouldn’t do for any other woman—I can’t believe I went down on you every damn night, right between those fat fucking Default thighs of yours—and despite being the perfect partner, I get this cold fish act in return!?"
This punctuated by his fist, banging against the table. Since her furniture was largely cheap, it simulated badly, bouncing several inches from the impact due to improper weight balances.
Beta reeled away from the table crash, throwing up her arms to protect herself. Cowering, even, and feeling just awful for doing it. How every time Cup8 was around, she felt like she was cowering, giving in and letting things happen and praying the discomfort would just go away…
But Snowi was there to get between them, to step up and plant her hands on the table, pushing it firmly back into the floor.
"Get out," she ordered. "Beta doesn’t need you."
And he left.
He was gone.
The only man who ever loved her, and he was gone. It was the right thing to do, of course. Right? Of course. Snowi had been pushing for Beta to get rid of him for ages now, she saw how unhappy Beta was. It was all so clear. Beta had to, simply had to tell the gentle and considerate soul she fell in love with to leave her side…
That night, for the first time in over two years, Beta was going to bed alone.
Everything felt… heavier. Her heart, her mind, the rising and falling of her chest. She’d been too tired to do any coding tonight, not after the drain of that encounter still in her mind. Going to bed early made sense, since clearly nothing else was going to get done that day…
But the words, they kept ringing in her head as she tried to put herself into sleep mode.
Not worthy of my love. Cold fish. Fat fucking Default. Considerate, gentleman, devoting every hour…
Soon her bedroom light was on again, and she was standing there, uncertain about everything in her life.
He knew what buttons to push. It’s how he got into her life in the first place… she’d always lacked confidence in her appearance, her Default which followed her around from year to year, but custom avatars never felt right to her either. He told her that she was beautiful, that her Default wasn’t as horrible as she thought it was…
As if to convince herself of that, she took off her glasses, and set them on the nearby dresser. Pointed them towards the bed… and studied herself. Without her usual neatly concealing pajamas.
Viewing her own body indirectly wasn’t an unfamiliar act. She’d grown used to the idea of having detachable "eyes," of seeing through another perspective. It was the inspiration behing ProxyPerception, the original name of the Peep App; a way for others to see the world the way she saw it…
She’d always thought of her Default as "curvy." Not a bad word, right? Kind of cute. Her hair, mousy brown bangs and all, that was cute. Her glasses were allegedly cute, to people who saw glasses as decorative accessories alone. The rest of her, well… there was more of her than most avatars had, more up top and down below, but it wasn’t like she was a walking mountain. She just didn’t particularly want an off-the-shelf standard avatar, one designed to be a flawless ideal.
But… when so many of the people around you wore off-the-shelf beauty, any deviation from the new normal became abnormal. She became fat, in contrast to perfection. She became unattractive. And she saw it any time she passed a mirror, saw how different she looked. Could see it through her removable eyes, here and now…
Fat fucking Default, Cup8 had snarled. The words just wouldn’t stop repeating in her head. Not for a single moment.
So… she tried to defy those words, tried to look sexy for her private eyesight camera. And failed.
She tried to look attractive and desireable. Even posed a little, like she’d seen girls do in the porno she and her friends had giggled over so often at sleepovers back in her school years, porno she could never admit aloud to being intrigued by. But everything she tried tonight to show that she was just as desirable, well… she couldn’t see herself in those poses. She just saw this useless lump of unlovable mush.
"I’m a fat fucking Default," she repeated, his words taken to heart. "Of course I wasn’t worthy of his love."
…if nobody else would love her, well… she could love herself tonight. Didn’t she deserve that, at least?
Tracer was kind enough to close all the image windows, on realizing he had company.
"I’ve been researching our mysterious houseguest for two days now," he explained. "My theory is that someone hacked her Peep client to activate it and steal these still-shots through her glasses. They leaked the nudes all over Netwerk. It went viral soon after, with Beta having enough fame built up as the creator of Peep to carry them far and wide."
Realization hit Spark slowly… making her feel very, very stupid. "I kept seeing ‘B E T A N U D E S’ in my Peep chatroom," she recalled. "I’d heard someone got nudes leaked, but I wasn’t interested in violating her privacy so I never actually looked myself… I’d just swing the #BanHammer and move on. I didn’t know that was her…"
"This alone would still be a completely atrocious violation of privacy," Tracer spoke, in a firm voice. "But the atrocity deepened hours later… when this vlog post went up on Cup8’s personal Peep stream. I’ve obtained a recording of it…"
A simple 2-D video window opened in Tracer’s hand.
In it… Cup8, with an angrier look than Beta had ever seen in him before. It made her recoil by instinct, as if he might leap out of that window at her. Despite his immaculate hair and perfectly designed store-bought avatar, there was a sense of exhaustion and sickness about him as he glared into the camera.
"So apparently my ex is now slutting it up across Netwerk with her own private girlie show," he spoke, letting the venom drip from every word… particularly from his little emphasized words, his personal vocal tick. "Some folks are saying it’s a hack, but honestly? She’s such a needy and insecure person that I could seriously see her leaking it for the attention. You guys know Beta, she’s the genius who invented Peep, right? Well… wrong. I’ve stayed quiet about this long enough. I invented Peep, not her. It was my idea, my code, my work. I let her take credit because I felt sorry for her.
"Honestly, I don’t think Beta’s coded a single line in her life. Those little Apps she’s released over the years, those were the work of the men she seduced along the way. It’s more common in indie coding than you think, either through ghostwriting or simply stealing code and passing it off as your own creation. Attention whores and liars, all of them. Just like her partner in crime Snowi, Beta’s a complete fraud.
"It’s high time you knew the truth: I made Peep. And Beta’s been laughing at you all along.
"You should demand better of your App developers than these liberal hacks who push their little social causes by faking their status as hardworking developers. You should demand honesty of your coders. You should demand #CodeHonesty. Because deceivers and frauds like Beta are more common than you think… and frauds must be exposed to light of day, for the good of all Programkind."
The video playback froze, right on Cup8 at his most cruel, and most calculating.
Spark was there to support Beta, as she pulled at her hair and groaned in pain—
—stripping the graffiti off the walls of her house. Pulling up the perpetually ejaculating penises someone had replaced her flower garden with. Trying desperately to clean up the mess left behind by the trolls, even while knowing they’d be back tomorrow night to do it all over again…
She’d been doxxed almost immediately after Cup8’s video went live: an anonymous hacker posted her messenger handle and her home address in the suburban community of WestHall. While she had heavy access rights in place to prevent anybody from breaking into the house, she couldn’t layer the protections as thickly over her lawn or the walls themselves… meaning anybody could show up and splatter her sanctuary with the most repugnant, hateful trash imaginable.
Staying indoors didn’t keep her safe; her messenger hub and the few social network feeds she’d joined (avoiding the commonly trolled ones like MyFace, thankfully) were a flood of anonymous attacks, some simply cruel… others downright dangerous.
Death threats. Rape threats. Over and over again, promises by anonymous throwaway accounts to violate her in every conceivable manner. Promises that no matter where she went, someone would be there with a knife in the dark, waiting to punish her for being a fraud. Intimate details of her life had become twisted around to become menacing; they knew where she liked to go shopping, they knew what games she played, they knew who her friends were. They lurked everywhere and nowhere. There were no safe havens…
Few of the worst abusers actually used the #CodeHonesty tag; the so-called official stance of #CodeHonesty was that they were against doxxing and harassment, even if technically anyone could be a "member" of #CodeHonesty just by choosing to apply the hashtag to their communications. Obviously anybody sending her threats isn’t really with #CodeHonesty was the typical excuse… or even better, Beta’s faking all these so-called threats just for the attention…
With the various declarations in place that she would be torn to shreds if she ever set foot outside her home, the only time she dared to walk beyond her doorstep was to make a futile effort at cleaning up the graffiti on her front lawn.
"It’s getting worse, and my landlord still won’t hire additional moderators," she told Snowi over their messenger connection, while erasing yet another batch of penises from her yard. "Last night someone was knocking at my door for hours. I thought maybe it was the neighbor coming to check on me, he seems like a nice fellow, but how could I risk letting anyone in after dark? Snowi, please, can… can you come by tonight? Just to keep me company. I can’t do another night alone with this going on outside my home…"
"Yeah, uh… listen. I’m really sorry for all you’re going through, but…"
Beta paused in her work. "But…?"
"I can’t be seen with you anymore. Look, Beta, I’ve got my own reputation to worry about; they’re starting to target me just for being friends with you… calling me a dyke and a fraud and worse. I’ve got to distance myself from this. And from you. But hey, we had good times, right? So there’s that…"
She turned away from the troll graffiti, looking off into the distance in mute horror.
"But… but you’re my friend," Beta said. "You stood by me when I needed strength to leave Cup8. Please. Please, I need help…"
"It’s awful, I know, but I’ve got my own career to think about here. And… and… honestly? The Apps I made for all those #FeministCodeJams? I used a lot of open source code libraries and didn’t disclose that fact. It’d look bad if the misogyny mob found out about it."
Beta almost felt her process stop for a moment.
"You did what?" she exclaimed, horrified. "You mean this whole code fraud thing is… it’s actually true?"
"Hey, lots of programmers take shortcuts! How else was I gonna finish a whole App in a 24 hour code jam? Besides, it’s not some huge evil like Cup8’s making it out to be. Just a little white lie; and for a good cause, yeah? But I can’t let them get any closer to the truth, so… this is goodbye, Beta. Goodbye and good luck."
And the messenger window closed itself.
Because Netwerk enjoyed being unrelentingly cruel, that’s also when her inbox beeped. She’d set up dozens and dozens of mail filters to try and cut down on the harassment letters… this new one was just as cruel, but sadly legitimate.
FROM: Rykk/Flint (WestHall Residental Server Rentals)
SUBJECT: Eviction Notice
Beta, I can’t afford to keep hosting your runtime on my server. The constant attacks due to your "side hobbies" are draining runtime from other paying renters who are complaining about the mess and the system lag. You have 24 hours to retrieve your items from the house, and then I’m wiping it clean and revoking your access rights.
Nowhere except one place. A suggestion she’d found ironically enough in a hateful message suggesting she wipe herself off the map. There was a doctor who specialized in identity transplants… someone who could give her a fresh start. Take away this tainted name, the name she loved so much, and give her a new life…
"I lost everything," Beta realized, every last memory finally clicking into place. "I lost everything and I almost lost myself, too…"
"He made just enough of a compelling case to motivate the mob," Tracer explained, impassive to her horror. "Snowi’s actual fraud, once inevitably uncovered, didn’t help Beta’s case. All the conspiracy theorists came out of the woodwork to claim Beta leaked her own nudes, and leaked her own dox. #CodeHonesty trended overnight and now every indie developer’s getting raked over the coals…"
He turned back to his active MemoryPalace interface, calling up dozens of blog posts and video testimonies.
"It’s not a universal hate," he did add. "There are many who believe her side. But that’s the key: they’re picking sides. Left and right, pro and anti, us and them. Battle lines are being drawn between #CodeHonesty and #StandWithSnowi camps. Feminism, discrimination, political progressive movements, everything’s getting mashed together in the same mess thanks to both Cup8 and Snowi’s intensely vocal involvement. There’s an entire war going on inside App development culture… and because I could care less about ‘App Culture’ and Spark’s too busy gaming, neither of us knew."
Slowly… Beta approached the cloud of open windows, studying them through her augmented vision. She zoomed in on individual lines, reading select parts.
…why are indie female developers being targeted more than anyone else? Answer: A typical cis male attitude of privledge, assuming girls can’t possibly know how to program and therefore they must be all be frauds. I #StandWithSnowi…
…at the end of the day, the good/bad guy spectrum is pretty clear. #CodeHonesty is by and far the protagonist in this story….
…you can’t claim #CodeHonesty is against harassment when it originally spawned from a jealous ex’s mindless video rant followed immediately by nudes and doxxing. #StandWithSnowi…
…for years, it was accepted that once the finger-wagging feminists moved in on your industry, you would capitulate quickly to their pseudo-academic treatises…
…you can’t accept compromise, or some sort of negotiated cease fire. All you want to do is code Apps. All your enemies want to do is boost their status from moral preening and the expansion of their doublethink….
…you’re nothing but a blowup doll for these fat neckbeards to jerk themselves off to while whining about "ethics" you sicken me…
…this isn’t about misogyny at all, many women like me stand with #CodeHonesty; fraud in App development knows no genders…
…Beta doxxed herself and leaked her own nudes, just like Snowi doxxed herself, you can see from these screenshots proving the origin server of the original nude leak was WestHall…
…heard that Beta vanished a few days ago, did someone finally rape her to death or something?
"They don’t know you tried to get your identity changed," Tracer explained. "As far as anybody knows, you vanished. I doubt the temper of the conversation rose or fell accordingly, however. This fire’s raging on with or without you; ‘Beta’ is now figurehead for a long-standing hate that’s always existed under the surface of this community. There’s nothing you can do or say which will stop it, at this point."
A soft sound echoed in Tracer’s nicely furnished study, as Beta fell to her knees on his woven rugs. Spark was there at her side, keeping her upright, to avoid a complete collapse. Even Mew showed his support, placing a kindly paw in her hand…
"I never wanted any of this," Beta protested. "I don’t want to be anyone’s pariah or anyone’s martyr. Snowi’s the one who kept going on about causes and social justice; I just love to code Apps. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do…"
"Let me propose a solution," Tracer suggested. …then shook his head. "Scratch that. Let me propose a course of action. Hm. No. Let’s just call it a thing you can do. …stay here, at Floating Point. Make this your new home. Everyone thinks you’re dead, so let them think that. Nobody can find you here because our server exists on a different layer of Netwerk. Use this as your sanctuary, and code in peace. Leave the nightmare in your wake and take flight on your own."
To prove his conviction… Tracer held out a golden access key, cloned from his own. He’d already coded it to lock onto Beta’s program, usable only by her.
This time, it was Spark’s turn to be shocked. "Seriously?" she asked, doubting it. "Weren’t you pushing to dump her in an alley somewhere, bro?"
Tracer sat back in his chair… turning to face the open files in his research notes, two solid days of researching this woman’s history.
All of it, so full of malice and incompetence. Absolute rage combined with a complete willing ignorance of reality, swallowing whatever flavor of narrative each side preferred. Enough to offend him down to the core…
These people… these idiots like Cup8, or even Snowi… they set off a chain reaction of events that lit Netwerk ablaze. Binary people, making binary decisions. Us and them, with us or against us. Both factions worked together to ruin an innocent woman’s life, and for what? For their own personal vainglory? They broke her down, shattered her will to live as herself, ruined everything this intelligent woman held dear…
It would not stand. It could not stand. She deserved better than this.
"I have my reasons," he summarized, instead of explaining any of that.
"You want something," Beta spoke, too tired to make it sound like anything other than three words put together.
"There’s that as well," Tracer admitted… reaching out, to zoom in on the frozen image of Cup8. Zooming in on a red splotch, just visible under the sleeve cuff of his shirt.
There was no way to "zoom and enhance" when there was no actual extra visual data to draw from… but even as a pixellated mess, the shape was unmistakable.
A heart, which pumped barbed wire instead of blood.
What’s more… a side by side photo from Snowi’s personal blog showed a similar tattoo on her calf, also zoomed and semi-enhanced.
"There’s more going on here than any real or supposed ethical crisis in programming," he spoke. "Something pushed Cup8 to lie about his involvement with Peep in the first place, and encouraged Snowi to take advantage of the chaos for her own grandstanding. They’re both infected with a strain of malware known as the Great Zero; it warps reason, encouraging the worst kinds of misguided righteousness in those it infects. My sister and I have been fighting this enemy for some time… and we could use your help."
For a time, Beta considered the theory that all of this nonsense was the result of her mind being scrambled by that identity thief. That everything in her life recently was a spray of random ones and zeroes, hastily reassembled by poor quality software into a meaningless series of events. She wasn’t really chased out of her home by an angry mob and then recruited by some crazy vigilantes… no, she was simply insane, and close to the edge of death by data corruption. It would be preferable…
The conspiracy that Tracer laid out was about as plausible as the #CodeHonesty conspiracy. Hidden cloud servers with malevolent entities in them? Malware that twists up the mind and somehow turns you into Pure Evil? Two lone heroes who know the secret truths underneath the skin of Netwerk, acting as if they’re Programkind’s last hope? The ridiculousness of it, the self-righteousness… how could she possibly buy into all of that at face value?
Insanity. Beta had gone insane. It was the only sane explanation.
But… for now, assuming she wasn’t crazy, at least she had room and board. Tracer promised that to her for as long as she needed it, even if she didn’t want to take up his sword. The access key sat in her personal inventory, allowing her to come and go as she pleased…
Although right now, she felt the need to curl up under her blankets and never get up again. Going out was out of the question.
And she was back to crying, all over again. How many times had she cried in recent days? Was this seriously all she was good for anymore, having emotional breakdowns left and right? How weak and useless was she…?
A weight pressed on her back as she lie in bed, before hopping over to her pillow. Mew’s whiskers, tickling at what little of her face was exposed to open air. Even without her glasses on, left discarded on the nightstand, she knew exactly who was in bed with her.
"" he mewled. "."
"It’s a nice home," Beta agreed, parsing his spoken imagery easily. "I love this place. It’s beautiful. But… now it’s all tied up in everything that went wrong, isn’t it? It was easier when I’d lost my mind. More pure…"
Mew cocked his head, curiously. "," he suggested. "…"
"Spark seems okay, but… what they’re involved in, all this chaos, and how it all connects back to my life… I don’t know if I can get involved again after escaping it all. And don’t forget that Snowi seemed like a nice person too, but she abandoned me in the end. Will Spark and Tracer do the same? I don’t know. I just, I just want all this crap to go away…"
"," Mew agreed, with a little kitty scoff.
Beta was tempted to ignore the soft knocking at her door. Facing others wasn’t something she was keen on, even her two strange benefactors. But… she was still a guest here, access key or not. It’d be impolite to shut them out completely.
"Come in," she called out.
Without her glasses, she didn’t know who had just stepped into her room. But she recognized the footfalls, the relative weight and impact of them, as well as the slightly timid pacing.
"Hey," Spark greeted. "Soooo… I was thinking of playing some CoC, and I read that you liked gaming too, so I figured… I mean, why not? Wanna come along?"
…now Beta sat up in bed, curious.
"You want to play Challenge of Champions with me?" she asked, confused. "At a time like this?"
"Absolutely. Look, Tracer and I have been chasing down trolls off and on for years now. One thing I’ve learned (and he kinda hasn’t yet) is that life goes on, even during that chase," Spark explained. "If you don’t take the time to enjoy your life in between the nasty parts, well, what’s the point of going through the nasty parts? #YOLO. So yeah, I want to play Challenge of Champions with you. Don’t worry, I’ve got a toss-off anonymous account login you can use. Nobody will know it’s you."
Her options were simple. Sit here in bed and wait for life to stop being awful, or go play a video game. Both were avoiding the problem entirely, of course. But… one involved less useless crying, didn’t it?
Beta actively disliked the CoC lobby. The user interface was dodgy and ill-designed; she knew at least five different ways it could be improved, if she was programming it. On the plus side, being in a private group chat with Spark meant she focus on gameplay and conversation, rather than letting all those little irritating design aspects gnaw at her while begging for attention.
"I actually earn a LOT of coins for the family piggy bank through Peep," Spark explained, while they paged through the Book of Champions, trying to decide who they’d queue up as. "But I don’t mind shutting down the broadcast tonight so we can have a #GirlsNightOut. …honestly, I’ve never had a #GirlsNightOut in CoC. My friends don’t like to play."
"That’s a shame," Beta replied, idly looking over Spark’s shoulder at the book. "Having friends who shared my love for Apps helped me out a lot. …I mean it kinda did. Even if they dumped me in the end, it felt great at the time…"
"I’ve got this… friend of mine that I go out clubbing with. That I used to go out clubbing with. That was kind of a mutual hobby…"
"Used to? Past tense?"
"#ItsComplicated. —so I’m thinking we queue up as a duo and take a side lane, as damage and support. One to push the lane, the other to keep the pusher healed up. It’s less glory than flying solo, but whatever, we’re not playing ranked. How about it?"
Instinctively, Beta’s eyes went to the page of healers. Support characters, existing solely to prop up the damage dealers on their team… it was a familiar role for her, in a lot of ways. She’d supported Cup8’s glory by sacrificing Peep to him, just as she’d supported Snowi’s various social justice code jams. And in a more literal sense, whenever she played CoC in the past, she’d always run a support character—
Except Spark had already locked in her character selection. Cheerleader: a motivation-based support character.
"Wait, you wanted to be support?" Beta asked, confused. "I figured you’d want to be the damage role…"
"I like to mix it up! Besides, point is to have one of each, so the team composition’s solid. Exactly who plays which role doesn’t matter, right?"
Beta glanced at the icons covering the page of damage dealing characters. She had zero experience with any of them; going into a match blind was a surefire way to lose a game…
But this wasn’t a ranked game. If they lost the game, well, nothing would really be lost, would it? She was playing through an anonymous account, too… she didn’t have to be support-playing, passively-enabling little Beta. Useless Beta. She could be anything she wanted to be, within that three-lane battleground…
"I’ll play… Hanzo," she decided. "And I’ll do my best."
Spark raised an eyebrow, pleased with the pick. "Niiiice," she commented, with a grin. "Let’s go kick some ass, my ninja liege. I’m with you every step of the way."
The word "battlecry" had rarely been applied to anything coming out of Beta’s mouth. Tonight, she was crying battle left and right, rather than simply crying. A nice change of pace.
Her blade cleaved through wave after wave of Chaos Goblins. She teleported in with ninjutsu to get the last hit on the enemy player opposing her in lane, driving him back every time he made headway into their territory. For tonight, at least, she was no longer being kicked around by everybody who could slap a hashtag in front of some words… she was doing the kicking.
Honestly, Beta still wasn’t particuarly good at damaging roles. Typically she’d be the healer in the back, avoiding the fights while keeping the fighters going… but having Cheerleader at her back instead, that made up for Beta’s lack of skill. Spark was spot on with every single buff, keeping her health topped off, locking down enemies just before they could get the upper hand. As a tag team, the pair were getting it done.
As Beta/Hanzo cleaved through yet another wave of goblins, she realized she could actually get used to this. It was a little terrifying to be right there in the front instead of lurking in the back, it kept her mind spinning and her nerves jangling away, but she was doing it. She was actually doing it…
"Go Hanzo Go! Go Hanzo Go!" Cheerleader cheered, from the top of a human pyramid (made of NPC characters). The cheer set off a damage buff effect, letting Hanzo execute a perfect single strike to an incoming MegaGoblin, putting it down hard.
When the ninja landed on his feet… he sheathed his sword, for the time being.
"My Eight Fold Path Technique is on cooldown, so let’s fall back a bit," Beta/Hanzo suggested. "I doubt Chaos will be back down here soon, anyway. Sooo… your brother’s for real with this ‘Zero’ stuff?"
"For real," Spark/Cheerleader confirmed, following along behind the ninja while shaking her pom-poms to recharge Hanzo’s energy. "If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, no way would I have believed Tracer’s theory… he does tend to obsess over conspiracies. Although chances it’s the real ‘Zero’ of church lore are pretty low."
"So… it’s not the living manifestation of sin, then?"
"Nah. It’s a strain of malware made up by an organization, or a political movement, or just a single jerk tugging a lot of strings… don’t know, exactly. Not yet. The part I don’t get is why it’s infected both Cup8 and Snowi. I mean… why control both sides of the #CodeHonesty war? What could it stand to gain from supporting two opposing sides?"
"Maybe it just likes to watch Netwerk eat itself," Beta suggested, darkly. "Maybe it’s just evil…"
"Tracer doesn’t think so. He’s obsessed with the idea that everything, even this Zero, has to be motivated by internal values; nobody’s just ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Doesn’t stop me from calling ’em The Bad Guys, though. Whatever this Great Zero is, I’m willing to fight to stop it from sinking Netwerk into chaos."
Hanzo took a breather, leaning on his sword and resting to aid in a speedier energy recovery. "Why do you two need me to help fight the Zero, though? I vaguely remember that Arjay person, from when I was… empty. Arjay seemed more in tune with this strangeness…"
Cheerleader finished her pom-pom routine, ending with a flourish.
"Arjay’s not a coder," she explained. "That’s what we need right now; the low quality hacktools we’ve got aren’t working well enough. I’ve got a connection lock collar App, for instance, but anybody with solid defenses can just yank it right off. If we had an actual App developer helping out, though… someone who specializes in interfacing Apps right down to the code level of a Program, like Peep does, maybe we could—"
"Behind you!" Hanzo called out…
…one moment too late.
An enemy dove right out of the jungle, bursting through the treeline with weapon swinging to take out Cheerleader. That massive war mace smashed her in the side, a sickening crack of bone echoing through the lane as the shattered girl went flying into the bushes. Dead.
What’s more… the owner of that mace wasn’t alone. Suddenly it was a two-on-one situation, Hanzo all alone against both Warlord and Frost, two of the top players for the Chaos team…
Damagers like Hanzo were dangerous in one-on-one fights, capable of pumping out a lot of destructive power in a short time through basic blade attacks. But she’d had the support of Cheerleader while doing that, shoring up her weaknesses against larger fighters. One lone Hanzo against two powerful characters like Warlord and Frost, that was an impossible matchup. All alone in the lane, no Gnomes in sight, no other players to rely on, nobody to help her…
Fear. Fear and nerves, those were common while fighting at the frontline as she’d been realizing, but now they were amplified considerably.
Beta, alone again. Alone and about to be destroyed by foes she could do nothing to stop.
Instinctively she reached for the HUD element that would disconnect her from the game. Fingers hovered over it… while her other hand shifted its grip on the ninja blade nervously, backing away slowly as the two Chaos players advanced. They knew Hanzo was screwed, and were sure taking their time to relish in that fact rather than optimally launching into a full salvo of death. Enjoying the fear in their victim’s eyes…
All she had to do was tap a button, and she’d be gone. Abandoning her team, running along home to Floating Point. No more fear, no more pain. No more mockery of those who sought to hurt her.
…but why that instinctive need to flee?
Why was she always running away? Why did she need to feel like someone was backing her up before she had the guts to do anything?
Again and again, pushed down, pushed around. She was smarter than that, wasn’t she? She was clever. She let them abuse her out of fear, fear of screwing up, fear of losing companionship… stupid fears. Stupid fears that didn’t fit a girl raised by a master coder, a woman who reshaped the world around her to make it a better place for her daughter…
Instead of tapping that exit button, Hanzo popped every self-buff power in the books, and cleaved directly into Frost with a flash of steel.
Was it a mistake? Was she going to lose this fight, let down the team, and risk making Spark angry at her? Should she have backed down and taken the safer option?
No. It didn’t matter if Beta won or lost. Didn’t matter if they killed her; she was going to stand her ground. Playing Hanzo meant she came to fight, not to surrender. That meant no sitting around waiting for Cheerleader to come to her rescue, no running away to hide, no backing down. She was here to deal damage, and damage would be dealt in full.
Frost was taken by surprise, completely missing her Frozen Blast as a result. That left the ice queen wide open for more attacks, and Hanzo had more attacks to dish out. After four more slices… Frost went down into several pieces, chunks of her frozen body sliding across the lane in four different directions.
That left Warlord, who was no longer gloating. He was swinging wide, with a blow that could easily destroy Hanzo in one shot.
Activate Evasive Roll, to duck under the attack completely. Embrace the ninja, move like a ninja. Cheerleader wasn’t the only one who could tumble around; Hanzo was done taking blows directly. He slid beneath Warlord’s open legs, the bulky might of the armored giant working against him… and then slashed directly upward.
By the time Cheerleader respawned and returned to the fight, Beta/Hanzo stood victorious over two greater foes, bathed in blood and/or snowflakes of victory.
"I’ll help you fight the Zero," Beta decided. "But we’re doing it my way. We deal with Cup8 first… and I’m going to be the one to stop him. You’re playing support for me, not the other way around."
This time, it was Beta giving the informative presentation of doom rather than Tracer. The flavor of it was quite different as well… rather than a coldly clinical study filled with floating data windows, they were discussing these dark dealings within the warmth of Floating Point’s kitchen.
Beta had gone ahead and programmed up some cookies, in fact, using ingredient sample data files from the cupboards and a few personal recipes she had on file. Despite the seriousness of today’s discusssion, Spark couldn’t help but glow with radiant delight at the sinful pleasures of chocolate and cookie dough.
"Yummy," she declared, after putting away her third cookie. "Can we keep her, Tracer? Huh huh please can we?"
"Sooo… the way I understand it, our goal is to forcibly uninstall a malware App from another Program without actually having read/write permissions to do so," Beta explained. "Removing an App that’s interfaced tightly with a Program’s mental functions can be tricky. The layers of interlocking permissions involved mean that—MEW! Those are for our guests! Bad kitty."
Mew looked up from his purloined cookie with big, shiny eyes. ""
Beta snapped her fingers, pointing to the floor. Expressing pure betrayal and likely plotting to shred her pillowcase later, Mew hopped down from the table.
"Ahem. Those permission layers mean this is going to take some work," Beta continued. "I’m not an expert on security; I’ve never made a hacktool in my life. If you really want me to do this I’m going to need access to an infected person, to run some tests and analyze how the malware App works. And it could take hours. Hours and hours."
"Oooh! An exorcism!" Spark piped in with, amused at the idea. "Like in those terribad church-themed horror movies! In the name of the One, I command thee Zeroes OUT!"
"Uh… similar in concept and execution, but… no," Beta decided. "Anyway, I’d suggest Snowi for this since she’s not as protected as Cup8, but Snowi’s fallen off the radar. She got doxxed and chased out of her home with death threats near the start of this and now we can’t track her down. But Cup8… he’s carrying on with business as usual. He feels safe from harm. That means we know where he is, and I know how to access him."
Tracer considered it, while toying with the idea of eating a cookie. "Still problematic," he admitted. "We can lock his connection to keep him from escaping while we work, but we can’t force his Program off whatever server he’s on and into a controlled lab environment. Only reason we could rescue you from that identity thief and bring you here was because your permissions were deactivated at the time."
"Exactly. That means we need to set up shop right where we grab him. …except these days, he never leaves his home server of Wingspan. His tech investment company’s got a headquarters there, and his private estate’s there. It’s got everything he needs and he won’t be wandering anywhere else…"
Spark flashed her weaponized fingernail polish, with a little burst of flame.
"So we kick down the door of his house, grab him, and exorcise his Zeroes right there and then," she suggested, holding up her index finger in the Sign of the One. "We’ll need an old priest and a young priest!"
"Actually… yeah, that’s almost my plan," Beta admitted. "Only not so, uh, crazy. Just a bit less crazy. Maybe forty percent as crazy. …I know his estate, we spent a lot of weekends there, and he has security like you wouldn’t believe. He’s contracted with ViruFax to have this amazing man-trap installed; even if you somehow snuck in, you’d never get out again."
"So… what, his office is less secure than his house? That seems weird…"
"Oh, no! The office security is actually way worse! But we can get legitimate access to the office; it’s a place of business, right? What we do… is we arrange a meeting for late on a Friday, pretending to be App developers looking for investment capital. That’ll get us through the doors and right up in his face! We jump him in his private office, do it right there. Nobody will even know. Of course, you’ll have to pretend to be programmers…"
"Not an issue," Tracer said. "I’m a practiced grifter. It’s a simple matter of social analysis and word selection to make someone believe in you, I’ve found. With or without a coding background I can easily convince Cup8 to trust me."
Spark chimed in her support on that. "It’s true. He’s damn creepy that way. But I feel like I’m missing something here; if we jump Cup8 in his office, even if we do it late on a Friday, someone’s still going to notice he never went home, right…?"
"That’s why we’re going to have you wear a copy of his avatar," Beta explained. "I know the parameters by heart, I can make her into Cup8’s spitting image. She won’t pass an identity check, but there won’t be an identity check on the way out the door. As long as he’s seen leaving the office, nobody will be the wiser. Spark can sneak back in afterwards once the coast is clear. We’ll get to work on Cup8 right in his office on the top floor, and be able to take as much time as we need."
"Uh. #WTF?" Spark interrupted, holding up half a cookie for attention. "Why should I dress up as a douchebag? Tracer’s already excellent in that field of study. Also he has a penis, which is helpful."
"I can give you a fully functional penis, actually! It’s just an avatar customization, very simple to do."
"…this plan just went to a very weird place. And I am still absolutely in favor of Tracer pretending to be Cup8."
"No, Tracer’s going to be busy running tests and compiling the App that will purge the Zero malware."
"Look, I’m all for freshening up the team composition by playing new roles… when it’s a CoC match. Aren’t you our App developer? Tracer can’t code for shit, and I am not a dudebro…"
Beta tried to get the confusion back under control, by filling in the details she was less keen to fill in.
"The problem is that I can’t go with you," she explained.
"Come on, you can do it! I know it’s scary to confront your ex, but—"
"No, I mean I literally can’t go with you. Cup8’s company owns the moderators of Wingspan," Beta explained. "I’m on the ban list, I’ve been on it since the breakup. I can’t set foot in that server. Tracer’s going to be doing the technical work… while wearing my glasses. I can see through them, even across Netwerk. It’s just the Peep technology in a different form, after all. I’ll be in communication with him, guiding him as my hands and eyes. And while he’s busy doing that, you might need to be on-hand to defend him if the janitor or a night watchman stumbles across this little operation."
Tracer nodded slowly, accepting the explanation.
"It’s an ugly set of circumstances," he admitted. "But if he’s not leaving Wingspan and you can’t go there… one of us needs to be you, while the other plays lookout. Spark, no offense, but you’re even worse at coding than I am and you get easily frustrated. This task will need someone with a cool, level head."
"No offense—?! And since when has Mr. Growly Vengeance been cool and level? YOU should be the one to play dressup, not me! Screw this. I veto the plan. It’s bonkers."
"It’s viable," Tracer countered. "As viable as we’re likely to get in the short term. We need this anti-malware research if we’re going to go after harder targets like that identity thief. I vote that we carry out the plan."
"Yeah, well, it’s only the two of us here, so that’s a tie vote! The Winder family sucks as a democracy, remember?"
…except a third hand was raised.
"Um. I’m… not part of the Winder family, but… I live in Floating Point too," Beta pointed out. "And since I came up with the plan, I’m in favor. That’s two against one."
"!" called a tiny voice from under the table.
"And that’s three to one. Two and a half against one? Maybe two and one fifth against one by volume," she continued. "Err. Sorry, Spark. I promise your costume won’t be a burden at all! I can tailor it to fit you like a glove!"
Outvoted and outnumbered, Spark sulked back into her seat. Consoling herself with cookies.
Still… she wasn’t entirely against the plan. Honestly, she was just glad to see a plan in place, and glad to see it coming from someone other than Tracer for a change. Beta had been pushed around enough… high time she pushed for something herself. Why not support that?
Even if she’d have to grow a dick to support that, of course.
"Okay, come on out."
"No," the deep voice behind the old-fashioned dressing screen whined.
"Don’t be such a big baby! I’m sure you’re very handsome. Come on out."
…with the end result severely squicking out both parties involved.
He was currently wearing a complete replica of Cup8’s avatar. Apparently Cup8 was too cheap to invest money in a custom physique, always wearing an off-the-shelf chiseled dude avatar. Reproducing that look was just a matter of knowing what catalogs to shop from. With that in place Beta made a few adjustments here and there, right down to a fake replica of the Zero tattoo. Just in case.
Except they hadn’t invested in his business wardrobe yet, electing to reproduce that on the fly once they saw what he’d be wearing that day. Which left Spark standing there wearing only a towel, and looking horribly humiliated despite having six-pack abs most dudes would kill for (or pay for).
Even the cat currently shedding on her pillowcase was impressed, offering a hearty "!!" in contribution.
"This feels… it’s… yeah," Spark managed, glancing down at where his breasts used to be. "So, does it match up to the param… uh. Beta?"
"S-Sorry," her designer spoke, averting her eyes/glasses a bit. "It’s just… yeah. It matches the parameters. To the point where I just got a bit of a fight-or-flight response looking at you. Bad memories."
"Uh… hadn’t thought of that. ‘kay. I’ll just take this off, and—"
"No no, this is just step one!" Beta insisted… hopping off the bed she was sitting on, walking over to transfer some video files. "I’ve gathered a few of his vlog rants and inspirational speeches. You need to practice his vocal ticks and his gestures, just in case you have to convince anyone you’re him. He likes to put emphasis on words, sometimes implying things, and—Spark!"
Spark quickly snapped the front of his towel back into place.
"I had to check, okay?" he protested. "I mean, I can FEEL it there, and… couldn’t we just, y’know, uninstall the erogenous zones? They’re incredibly distracting. …are guys always dealing with sensory inputs from this stupid thing? How do they deal with it?"
"Part of the avatar customization package, afraid. I could find a way to edit it out but I need to devote my dev time to the tools we need for this caper…"
"Well, I’m guessing Puzzle would be happy to see me now," Spark half-grumbled.
"You know, you keep mentioning that friend of yours and then trying to change the subject immediately after…"
"So how many of these stupid vlogs do I need to watch before you’ll be happy with my #TheatricalPerformance?" Spark asked, accepting the offered file transfer. "I’ve got Peep streams to do tonight, too…"
Beta frowned, hands on her hips. A little bump as she leaned forward accusingly, her long skirt swaying with the motion.
"No more dodging," she insisted. "You’re helping me out with this… mission? Plan? Endeavour. So, let me help you with your #BFF problems. What’s going on with this Puzzle person, exactly…?"
Years of gaming taught Spark to recognize when he was cornered. Normally he’d fight his way out, no matter the cost, but… putting up an iron-clad defense when confronted by a wall of adorable pink yarn was considerably harder than she would’ve guessed…
So, he had a seat on his bed, slumping a bit at the memories.
"We’ve been friends for years," Spark explained. "We always hit the new clubs together, always. #GirlsNightOut. Our luck in finding anybody to go home with was hit or miss, but at least if we both struck out, we knew we could wrap the evening by hanging out and having a ball. She’s… she’s just great. Wonderful. …and in a moment of personal desperation, I kissed her. We haven’t spoken since."
The bulky musclebound bro looked surprisingly vulnerable, sitting there on the silky covers and moping. So much so that despite him wearing the face of the man who ruined her life… Beta was willing to sit there next to him, to offer a comforting side-shoulder-hug.
"This is so fucking stupid," Spark grumbled… while not rejecting that hug. "I’m a grown-ass adult now. Yea though I am experienced in the ways of the world, forsooth, and having grown-ass adult relationships left and right. I even work for a paycheck and own my own a home, sort of! But I still feel like this janky little teenager, lately…"
"We’re all still in beta," Beta suggested. "You’re never done learning who you are. So… the problem here is that you’re into Puzzle, but Puzzle’s not into girls?"
"Not in the slightest. —and I fully admit that this is me talking out my ass, since I’m a #Programosexual, but… I’ve never understood strict heterosexuality. I mean, who cares about avatar shapes?" Spark asked, dismissing said care. "We’re all Programs. I’m into men, women, furries, robots, tentacle monsters, sentient shades of the color blue, whatever. It’s just decoration, it’s just physics simulations. The people underneath are the ones I care about. It feels right to me. But… Puzzle’s not like that at all…"
"Most people aren’t like that. I mean, I can’t say I’d be into robots, tentacle monsters, or sentient shades of the color blue. Puzzle’s just… well, it’s like how you feel, but in reverse? Maybe?"
"I don’t follow."
"Sexuality’s a highly individual, personal thing. Hers is just as strong as yours, but not in the same direction. For example, to me? Being with someone, uh, Program-shaped with two legs and two arms and one head feels completely natural. I’m… having a hard time imagining how you have sex with the color blue…"
"Okay, so first you get a free-standing prism and a lot of lube, and—"
"Not my point!" Beta interrupted. "The point is that we all have our own natural inclinations. None of them are right or wrong because they’re right for us. Your friend Puzzle, she has her own natural inclinations towards guys alone—"
"Ironic, since Puzzle was born a guy."
With his mouth moving faster than his mind, his teeth had to bite off that last word in a vain effort to swallow it back down.
"…shit. #SoSoSorry. She doesn’t like me telling people that; too many judgmental assholes out there," Spark added. "See, she was born with a male Default avatar through no fault of her own. And seriously, fuck Defaults; I accept her as who she wants to be. #TransPride, and all. …look, okay. I get what you’re saying, I’m not entirely stupid. I’m in the wrong here because I pushed myself on Puzzle knowing damn well she wouldn’t be into it. It’s just… #ItsComplicated, sometimes…"
"Programs can be complicated, especially if they’re simple in a complex way. For instance you have one simple complexity, it seems: you prefer to wear a female avatar. You don’t feel comfortable in that new skin, right?"
"Well, no, but…"
"Also, you said you accept Puzzle for who she wants to be, right?"
"Of course! Avatars don’t matter to me. I mean… other’s people’s, I guess…?"
"Then you also have to accept her for who she wants to love. That’s her complex simplicity. As for why you did it despite knowing all that at heart… Spark, ask yourself this really, really seriously. Do you actually love her romantically? You said you kissed her ‘in a moment of personal desperation.’ Was that kiss for her, or for you?"
…defeat. Defeat, over and over. A lousy day all around, and she’d gone to Puzzle’s to find a victory…
Victory for Spark. Not a victory for Puzzle.
"Well… shit," Spark said, understanding. "I’m officially an idiot."
"I think you should talk things over with your friend! Running away from your problems doesn’t solve them; I’ve learned that much, myself. Okay…? Promise me you’ll talk with Puzzle and make amends?"
Spark’s smile was sweet, despite coming from lips Beta had grown to fear.
"Y’know, I can dig this side of you," he said. "You’re really coming out of the shell we found you in."
"What side do you mean?"
"The assertive and confident one."
…which could only make the woman sitting on the bed LOL.
"I’m not confident at all," she asserted. "I’d be a lousy leader, really. I’m terrified, I’m nervous, I’m quietly freaking out all the time. But now I’m deliberately doing the opposite of what I’d normally do, since what I’d normally do hasn’t worked so far. …maybe having my entire identity purged and restored turned me all around inside."
"Hah. Well… whatever the cause, I think you’re doing great. And don’t sell yourself short, you’ve overcome a null of a lot to get here. And for what it’s worth…"
Spark rested his hand on hers, his larger fingers brushing against the fuzzy pink of her baggy sweater cuff.
It would’ve been a very kind and tender moment, if not for his majestically rising towel lump.
Which was immediately shoved back down by Spark, who sped behind that changing screen fast enough to become a fine representation of motion blur.
Female Spark in her usual clothes emerged, hair as red as her face.
"That is it, I’m not practicing with that ridiculous dong machine until I’m completely alone," she declared. "And after we’re done with this caper, I’m erasing all that data from my inventory. —what’s so funny?!"
Little laughing cartoon faces rose from the peanut gallery on the bed, both kitty and non-kitty doubled over with laughter.
As night fell and sunlight swapped out for moonlight, Beta remained in the dark. Unaware of the hour, much less overall time of day. She never wore her glasses while programming; no need for them, not when it was all inside her head.
She was sitting back in a comfortable chair, within the grand library. The light grinding sound of the stone sphere at the heart of Floating Point and the crackle of a nearby fireplace gave her enough auditory input not to feel completely isolated, as she hammered away in a code editor window within her mind.
Despite her every thought being occupied by the task at hand… she heard the soft approach of the other Winder sibling.
"Evening, Tracer," she spoke, without looking away from her writing.
"How did you know…?"
"You’re more hesitant to approach. Spark just barges right in, if she can get away with it. It’s okay, though. Come on over."
While laying out the pseudocode for the next module, she kept her ears open, listening for each telltale sound. The man walking over across the stone floor, the creak of leather as he eased himself into the chair opposite her own…
Now she activated her glasses, but put the window off to the side. They were on an endtable next to her, roughly pointed in Tracer’s direction, so no need to move them or even put them on.
"I’ve been exhaustively researching the target," Tracer spoke, templing his fingers. "According to departing employees from Wingspan, his office has spatial sound restrictions. That way, when he fires someone, he can scream at them all he likes. Perfect for our needs."
"I’m curious. What’re you doing in there?" Tracer asked… realizing he needed to make eye contact with the pair of lenses on the table, not with the woman who owned them.
"Oh, I’m writing an App to dangle in front of Cup8 as bait. I mean, I was just going to make a shell of an App, a fake demonstration you could use to interest him, but… then I got an idea for a real App, and, well… I dunno. Maybe it’s overkill, but…"
"Interesting. What’s it do?"
"Does it matter? It’s just bait."
"Of course it matters," Tracer spoke. "It’s your creation. Clearly you’re putting extra effort into it, which means you see that effort as worthwhile. If it’s worthwhile to you, it’s worthwhile to me. So. What are you inventing today?"
Slowly, Beta felt around for her glasses… not wanting to accidentally knock them off the table and embarass herself. She fixed them firmly in place, before opening her eyes. Now, her gaze matched her actual gaze.
"I’m calling it ReMinder," she explained. "There’s a lot of different reminder-style Apps out there that buzz you when you need to do something, right? But ringing alarms and bells are annoying. What this does is it records a memory of your choosing… the idea of picking up the kids from school, say. Then you set a timer, and can safely forget about it. When the time comes… pop! You remember. It feels very natural that way."
Tracer considered that… while flicking through his own MemoryPalace. Which felt natural to him now, but certainly didn’t for a year or so after getting it installed…
"There are complete software patches for memory management systems too," he pointed out.
"Yeah, but overwriting bits of your OS is clunky and dangerous. The ideal is a sandboxed, self-contained App. …that’s what I love about Apps, see. They’re whole units onto themselves, clean and perfect. It’s difficult to access memory directly through the restrictions on an App, but ‘difficult’ doesn’t mean ‘impossible.’ You just need to be clever."
"Expanding the capabilities of Programs through Apps. I can get behind that."
"Ideally, we’re only limited by our cleverness," Beta continued, on a roll. "A lot of folks limit themselves out of… I don’t know, tradition. Or natural inclination. I was talking to Spark about that, earlier tonight. And I can respect that, I limit myself in a lot of ways, but I won’t limit my Program’s technical capabilities. A well crafted App can make us more than we are."
"Much like your eyes," Tracer pointed out… tapping a finger against an imaginary pair of glasses on his face. "But recently developed software patches exist which could fix your vision, good as new. Why keep using your outdated glasses?"
In response, Beta removed her eyes. Specifically her glasses, to polish the lenses on her sweater.
"My outdated vision App is superior to normal eyes in a lot of ways," she explained. "I can see through perspectives nobody else can, since my eyes are removable. It’s what inspired me to make Peep, after all. Why would I want to be ‘fixed’? I’m not broken. I’ve actually moved beyond my limits."
She could hear his inhale. An autonomous emotional response of some sort; breathing cycles were a default animation, which were only interrupted when an avatar needed to express some particular reaction. Strange…
"Sensible," Tracer spoke, downplaying his interest. "Hmm. Actually, can I see them? Your glasses. I’m curious… and since I’ll be wearing them during our ‘exorcism,’ I may as well get used to how they feel."
Aligning the lenses carefully to make the hand-off easier, Beta swapped them over to Tracer—a full transfer of the App, but with guest permissions only, revokable at any time. Even if she was growing to trust her new ‘landlord,’ she wasn’t going to let her eyes fully go.
Tracer turned the glasses this way and that, studying them. They resembled any ordinary avatar accessory, usually culturally signifying intelligence despite nobody actually needing corrective lenses. A bit thicker all around than an accessory would be, however, packed full of code… and…
A single connection to the outside world.
"be56:8e0e:2646," he read aloud.
"Huh? The address of WestHall?" Beta asked, puzzled. "What about it?"
"Just part of my research," Tracer lied, slipping the glasses onto his nose. Now, Beta could see herself from another’s eyes… which meant he felt a bit self-conscious, taking care to mind how his gaze fell. "All systems go? Is the app transmitting to you?"
"Clear as a bell. Well. You can’t see through a bell, but… you know what I mean, right?"
"Right," Tracer agreed. "I see clearly as well."
Wingspan Tower, the central feature of the server, was quite an impressive sight. Thirty stories of cubicle farms, call centers, conference rooms, and luxury offices that scraped the limits of the skybox which contained it. Like most businesses aligned with the Horizon family, no expense was spared in making sure people understood that no expense was spared.
The various mansions and condos surrounding it, home to employees of the tower, those were just as opulent. Even the lowest man on the career ladder had a reasonably pleasant apartment in Wingspan… one under heavy surveillance to ensure no IP leaks, of course.
This tower was the nerve center of the server, funded by the investment firm Cup8 belonged to… and getting in the doors when your intent was to kidnap and hack a VP of App Investment was no easy task.
Fortunately, ReMinder had worked like a charm. After a few back-and-forth mails with drafting assistance from Tracer, they’d secured a late Friday meeting with Cup8 to discuss investment opportunities in their new miracle App. With that came visitor passes, allowing them to get past the rather nice secretary in the main lobby. No actual security guard Programs were needed down there beyond that single receptionist… the tower simply wouldn’t allow unauthorized persons to get in, an invisible one-way wall blocking those without a valid pass.
Spark and Tracer ascended via elevator, armed to the teeth with slide presentations, faked marketing data, and enough notecards covered in speech material to stall out the meeting as long as possible. They also came armed with compilers, debuggers, and a slightly augmented version of Spark’s connection locker.
Playing feature creep with Spark’s lock collar pushed the limits of what Beta could do for them. Crafting hacktools was a black science, one which took years of study to perfect. If it failed on Cup8 in the way it failed on Uniq, they’d be in trouble. But that little strap of leather was better than nothing.
("Why’s it look like a pet collar?" Beta had asked.)
("It’s a kink thing," Spark supplied, which ended further questioning.)
Spark actually would be playing two roles tonight. Cup8 had a natural inclination towards Pretty Ladies, so she had to pretty herself up and learn to smile at his jokes and accept his flattery… despite wanting to reach over and blow his head off in a burst of explosive flame. Meanwhile, Tracer would be the grifter, acting like a hot young App developer with a lot to prove.
Originally they were considering approaching as a pair of coders, rather than a coder and his lovely assistant. But in light of recent "scandals" involving female developers, they didn’t want to risk setting off any alarm bells in his head. A male developer wouldn’t be doubted as heavily.
"It’s such a simple idea, really… re-insert memories back into the stream of thought. Re-mind people. ReMinder," Tracer summarized… keeping his charisma rolling, playing the role of the passioned developer. "But that’s how it is with the hottest Apps, isn’t it? A simple idea that, for some reason, nobody had thought of yet. It’s an easily graspable idea that intrigues the audience. With your investment, I can take this simple idea and make it the next gotta-have-it App. The next Peep, even…"
Cup8 was buying into it, nodding along with every word, pleased to see someone just as enthusiastic as he was about going after the brass ring. Tracer got that read on him immediately, that he wanted to encourage alpha males to reach for their dreams… as long as he played the role of the daring dreamer, landing this meeting would be a snap.
But halfway into Tracer’s overdramatic presentation, Cup8 raised a hand to stop him.
"I like it, I like it. You don’t have to keep selling me; I’m sold. But there’s one thing you haven’t talked about yet, and that’s the subject of authorial attribution," the investor spoke. "In light of the #CodeHonesty situation, my firm needs to ensure that any and all Apps we throw our money behind are coded with ethical development standards. We need to know that you and you alone created this App. No ghostwriting, no theft."
Tracer adjusted his borrowed glasses, nudging them up his nose. They didn’t entirely fit properly, requiring adjustments, but hopefully not enough adjustments to trigger suspicion.
"I assure you that ReMinder is mine, and mine alone. This is my baby, Cup8. As you can see, I’ve tagged it with my personal identity and signature as proof of authorship…"
"Signatures only show that you were the one to push the ‘compile’ button," Cup8 pointed out. "It doesn’t mean you wrote the code; anyone can copypasta. Now I’m not accusing you of anything here, you seem like a real stand-up guy. But indie developers… I’ve had bad experiences with them, as you know. Horizon’s putting together a code auditing team called HonestDevelopments, and once they’re operational I’d like them to run a full check of your source code and development notes. That’ll ensure every file has appropriate metadata…"
Spark, playing the support role, decided to chime in.
"Wouldn’t that take, like, forever?" she asked, vocal pitch higher than usual to show faux disappointment. "Expenses are running thicker than income right now. You’re not going to make me sit around grinding for coins all day while waiting for an audit, are you, Mr. Cup8…?"
Cup8’s suspicion softened immediately, given his dire need not to appear hard-hearted in the presence of a beautiful woman.
"It won’t take that long, m’lady," he soothed. "We’re streamlining the process as we speak, given the additional authentication needs due to recent events. And since I’d hate to make a lady go star-mad just to make ends meet… I think I can arrange an advance payment, under assumption the audit goes well. Of course, I’ll need that payment back if the audit goes poorly…"
With the matter settled, Cup8 fetched his briefcase, compressing the day’s files into it.
"Anyway, it’s long past close of business, so I think we can wrap this meeting up," Cup8 said. "I know you’ve got plenty of slides left there, but relax! I’m ready to get behind ReMinder."
"There’s still a lot more ground to cover…" Tracer tried.
"What’s to cover? I like it, I want to throw money at it. I’d say we’re done here. Let’s shake on it for now, and I’ll have my people send your lovely assistant the paperwork in the morning. Deal?"
Spark was the first to step up to that offered hand, her own extended to shake.
A perfect distraction, so he wouldn’t see the other hand slamming forward into his throat until it was too late.
"Deal," she agreed, adding his annoying little emphasis as the lock collar strapped itself into place.
This was no mere connection locker; this was Beta’s connection locker, built upon the original black market App. Not only did it prevent escape and outside connections, it also immediately triggered Cup8’s ragdoll mode… his avatar flopping uselessly across his desk, awkwardly bend in half at the waist, arms drooping this way and that.
"Red power tie and a fairly ordinary cheesy business suit," Tracer spoke, tossing the freshly purchased clothing at his sister. "Get to work."
Within moments… an identical copy of Cup8 stood in the office, adjusting his tie.
"I’ll be back as soon as I can," Spark spoke, on his way out the door.
…leaving Tracer alone with his prey, the man still trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
Leaning over the desk, Tracer pushed his borrowed glasses back up… and tore the sleeve off Cup8’s suit, using a seam-ripping avatar clothing hacktool. The Zero’s branding stood out on his arm, the heart beating blood-red, wires animated… and despite the firewalling effect of the collar, it somehow continued to maintain an external connection to the strange server of the Machine. The rotating cloud address of still flared brightly in his internal vision.
Not entirely surprising, given the collar wasn’t foolproof; Uniq had broken through one earlier. But it remained strong enough to seal off even powerhouse communication tools like Messenger and MyFace. If it wasn’t strong enough to seal Cup8 off from his master, the only way to break this spell would be to remove the tattoo by force…
Assuming that distant master didn’t remotely slaughter Cup8 upon capture, as he’d done to Ichiban. Hopefully the collar would prevent any kill command, at least.
"Okay, is this a ransom thing?" Cup8 finally spoke, as Tracer quietly contemplated this new information. "Because my company doesn’t pay ransoms. We don’t need to; we contract with ViruFax Security. You’ll never get out of this server alive."
Tracer spread his arms wide, pulling an array of testing tools and sensors from his inventory. The voice in his ear told him which ones to manifest, and how to set them up…
"Or are you here to kill me? You’re one of those little SJW bastards, aren’t you?" Cup8 tried, since his attacker wasn’t saying a word. "Did Snowi or one of her circus freaks send you? You can’t stop us, you know. #CodeHonesty is an act of reason and rationality, our stand in this culture war against you frauds. Even if you kill me, it’ll never stop…"
Various simple cubes and spheres began to hum to life, displaying data about Cup8’s runtime. Tracer studied each one in turn, at the behest of his ghost rider, while ignoring the actual Program the data belonged to…
"Dammit, SAY something!" Cup8 shouted… within the soundproofed walls of his office. "What the null do you want? What’s this really about?!"
…to which Tracer could offer a cruel smile. One of the few types of smiles he allowed hismelf, these days.
"Frauds must be exposed to light of day, for the good of all Programkind," he quoted, "Or did you think you were exempt from your own rule?"
Spark strolled through Wingspan like he owned the place. More specifically, like he was a 13% owner of the place, which he was. Because he was Cup8, investor, visionary, brand promoter, and all-around perfect gentleman…
The swagger, that was key. Movement was an expression of self, according to her martial arts instructors. He had to learn to move like Cup8, with unshakeable confidence and charisma, nodding and smiling, owning every single moment as he made his way to the elevators. The few people left in the cubicle farms outside Cup8’s office took notice of the departure… but showed no signs of awareness that it was a ruse. Good.
The last step was the lobby. The receptionist had to see Cup8 heading home, to complete the illusion that he’d left the building. Afterwards Spark could use his guest pass to get back in through a back door, and sneak her way to the top after more folks had gone home. All according to plan…
Spark offered a winning smile to Karli, the lobby secretary on duty.
"Clocking out," he called over to her. "Have a spectacular weekend, okay?"
"Sure thing, sir!" the woman replied, pleased at the attention. Or making like she was pleased, which everybody knew Cup8 would’ve wanted in return.
Passing through the one-way invisible wall on the way out was easy enough; it wouldn’t check to see if the exiting avatar had a proper identity. Spark could put the avatar she wore when using her visitor pass back on before sneaking in again, and…
…five men entering the building at once at this time of day was probably not normal. Especially since none of them were wearing the attire of businessfolk. Not particularly rough-and-tumble either, but definitely not employees… in fact, they were wearing the little green visitor badges Spark had been wearing earlier.
Spark walked on, to swerve around them on his way out the door… and was interrupted, a hand raised to block his path.
"We’re doing this in your office, aren’t we?" the leader of the pack asked, confused. "You said the #CodeHonesty channel meeting would be after-hours. Where’re you going?"
"Oh, I was just heading home to grab my notes," Spark replied, with a semi-winning smile.
"What notes? You said we shouldn’t keep any records on file…"
"Yes, which is why I’m heading home to destroy my notes."
Immediately, he knew this wasn’t working. So, for lack of a better option, he turned to wave them on, and lead the march right back up to the office where her brother was dissecting the real Cup8…
…only to run into that invisible security wall. It absolutely did not like the mismatch of avatar, badge type, and identity metadata, and refused to let him pass.
"Hey, Karli…?" Spark called over to the desk, as the receptionist had started taking notice. "You should probably clock out for the day. Wouldn’t want you getting hurt, m’lady."
And Spark’s fingers exploded with flame, blinding the five man group. Because as much fun as getting a pentakill would be right now, chances of winning a five-on-one team fight were very, very low.
Immediately he opened a messenger window to the man upstairs.
"They made me!" Spark blasted across the channel. "I’ll distract them as long as I can, but hurry up!"
Which left Beta in a BIT of a bind.
From the safety of Floating Point she sat in her chair by the fireplace, feverishly analyzing incoming data streams, while hammering out function after function for her new anti-malware tool.
"We need more time!" she called out to Tracer, while trying to ignore the grimacing face of Cup8 in her floating vision window. "I told you it’d take hours! I can’t just analyze and defeat this tattoo in minutes…"
"All we have is minutes," Tracer replied.
"But, I can’t, I mean… I’m not a hacker, Tracer! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I know this is what you need me to be but I’m just not a hacker. I make little friendly Apps, that’s all. I can’t…"
Falling apart again. Everything falling apart; her brief stint at taking charge of her life, collapsing right before her distanced eyes because she wasn’t good enough to get the job done. Spark and Tracer would have to abandon the mission, Cup8 would come after her with renewed fury, hunt her down, make her suffer more than he already had…
"Beta? Beta, stay with me here."
Run. Hide. Avoid the pain. Wait it out, don’t make a move, don’t make a sound, let it pass by, let them do what they’ll do, if only to keep things from getting worse—
"I know you’re afraid."
—but there were two voices in her head tonight. The one telling her how awful everything was going to be, and one telling her something else entirely.
"I know you’re afraid, and right now you’re probably imagining everything that could possibly go wrong going wrong," Tracer continues. "And yes, it’s always a possibility for things to go wrong. But the only way for things to go right is to take action. Think this through logically, Beta. You told me that people are only limited by their cleverness; you have exactly as much time as you need, if you use it cleverly enough. I believe in you, Beta. I believe you can find a way."
…time. Clever uses of time…
Her ears tuned into the stone sphere, the core of Floating Point. Its soft grind ticked away the seconds, above that embossed and incomprehensible plaque…
‘Die ganzen Zahlen hat der liebe Gott gemacht, alles andere ist Menschenwerk.‘
…the sphere measured time. Specifically, runtime. Floating Point was a cloud-based server; it borrowed runtime here and there, across many different servers. She’d understood that, even during her more addled mental state. Beta felt the occasional slowing of that grind, as the cloud arrangement was redistributed across new servers across Netwerk, tiny amounts of lag introduced. It existed on another layer of reality, becoming half-server and half-App…
That meant Floating Point had always had enough runtime to support the Programs operating within it, as a result. As much or as little as it needed, borrowed from other servers where need be. And the sphere represented the heart of it all.
She needed a lifehack of the purest form.
Most of Beta’s Apps involved direct interfacing between the deepest core of a Program’s code and the world around them. She’d been keenly interested in deep connectivity since a deeply connected App restored her vision, in a manner of speaking.
If she could deeply connect her own code to that of Floating Point itself, and leverage its runtime…
…well, she could burn herself out completely. She could coredump hard, two completely incompatible bits of code smashing into each other head on, leaving behind an ugly mess of corrupted data. She’d heard of experiments before involving Program/Server distributed processing, and they never ended well. With her family’s history of hereditary data rot, was she willing to risk it…?
Except her friends needed her. The ones who trusted her were in danger. That’s all that mattered, in the end.
Without further thought (because further thought would’ve been tainted with terror) she took an early version of her ReMinder App—a means of accessing the mental space of a Program directly—and tried connecting it directly to the stone sphere, the heart of Floating Point…
And for a few cycles… she was Floating Point.
—soaring above the servers of Netwerk, gliding through them like a ghost. Never taking too much, never taking too little. Free from the restrictions of the hosting services, free from the hardline policies that governed them. A sanctuary free from both the One and the Zero…
She was Program, she was App, she was Server, she was the continuum between the three, digital life in all its forms
the points between the integers, infinite, only capable of being represented on a quantum level
digital beings embracing digital positions and the self-imposed limits of those viewpoints her eyes were detachable she could see so much further
could see forever could see the stars grinding for coins the basic system level functionality must endure for the sake of all she could read the "damaged" books in the library could understand could see the gasses within the stars hydrogen helium a world of carbon the building blocks of life transmitted across the distance to to to to—
—no no it’s too much too much have to focus trying to beat the malware I am Beta this is where I am this is who I am please it’s too much all the stars all the galaxies all of it too much—
God made the Integers, all else is the work of Man.
—slamming back down into the confines of her code, having barely wrenched herself away from all of that.
Much to her surprise, the anti-malware script had grown about five thousand lines since she’d last looked at it.
No time for testing. Beta mashed the Compile button, and sent the finished App across Netwerk to its destination.
"Done!" she called out to Tracer. "Activate this and immediately peel off the tattoo with your fingers. Be careful, don’t touch any part of him except the tattoo, or you could unspool his Program completely!"
Tracer nodded at the unheard partner in his ear… then looked down at his patient.
Truthfully? He was tempted to poke Cup8 somewhere other than that branding on his arm.
Instead, he activated the strange new App he’d been given… and carefully grasped one of the barbed wires leading into that heart.
It was impossible, of course. The image was a 2-D avatar decal, a basic texture map. You couldn’t "grab" it any more than you could grab a shadow. But with the anti-malware App active, his own fingers glowing very slightly with its capabilities online… he was able to reach INTO the illustration, able to feel the tiny barbs, and get a good grip on them…
Cup8’s scream would’ve shattered windows, if not for the audio protections in place. With great effort, Tracer pulled and pulled, the wire coming loose and yanking the heart along with it.
Such a tiny little thing, in the end. The ink evaporated into the air once torn free from its host… a small indicator of a much larger problem, but both dealt with in the end.
With the task complete, Tracer took the new App offline… and studied the man lying across the desk.
No more winning smile. No more grimace and glower, either. His jaw just… sagged, as his eyes stayed nice and wide. Tracer knew that expression; the universal indicator for wait a minute, what just happened…?
"I can answer that for you," Tracer decided to fill in, to answer the unspoken question. "You got so angry after breaking up with Beta that you gave in to the whims of a piece of malware and made a very, very stupid decision. You remember the whispers, yes…? Suggesting that you take credit for Peep?"
All the fight had fled the man. Even if he wasn’t ragdolled, he wouldn’t have snarled away like he was snarling a minute ago. Realization was settling in, bit by bit…
"Why would I do that? Why would I lie?" Cup8 asked himself. "I started an entire movement about code honesty. If I lied, it’d come back and bite me in the ass eventually when someone figured out the truth. I… I torpedoed my entire career because… because… I mean, it seemed like the right move at the time, it made so much sense…"
…his career torpedoed. Not Beta’s life ruined, but his career ruined. Because even without malware, Cup8 was self-centered enough to see things that way.
Tracer was tempted, sorely tempted to produce the backspacer he’d been hiding in his inventory for usage later on tonight. Pull it out, put it to Cup8’s temples, and pull the trigger. But that would’ve been too kind.
"I think the worst punishment you can possibly endure is to realize exactly what you’ve done," Tracer decided. "You’ve ruined lives. You’ve thrown Netwerk into turmoil, terrified of some implausible code authorship bogeyman. You’ve started a fire you cannot stop, all because your girlfriend broke up with you. How small and petty you are, Cup8. No more self-deception; this is what you are, this is what you gave into when the Zero offered a gentle nudge in the right direction. Now live with it."
His last act was to pull the locking ragdoll collar off Cup’s neck, before reconnecting back to Floating Point. Leaving the investor slumped against his desk, realization setting in bit by painful bit.
Night falling on Floating Point, accompanied by good tidings and cheer.
Spark had a hell of a story to tell, an epic yarn about how she singlehandedly defeated five combatants in deadly mortal martial mayhem. Which was bullshit, of course, since they were hardly trained fighters and largely she was playing with them to stall for time… but Tracer let her yammer on anyway, since she enjoyed regaling others with her fighting tales.
While Spark, Beta, and the kittykat smiled away (smiling cats being especially creepy) Tracer didn’t share those smiles. He was still researching, devoting some of his attention to studying the aftermath of their antics today…
Soon, one of Tracer’s automated search engines pinged him to indicate a hit.
Cup8 had released a new video.
"I need to go dark for a bit," he declared, looking considerably paler and more shaky than he was in his first damning vlog. "Horizon’s sending around code auditors to Peep’s offices, and… and yes, I know I pushed for code auditors to ensure #CodeHonesty, but… I’m not sure they’re such a great idea anymore. Free enterprise, right? Privacy. I mean… you’re with me on this, right?"
The rambling, slightly disoriented backtracking was not winning him any upvotes.
"Even if they uncover the truth, it won’t matter," Tracer said, closing down the video window the group was watching. "They won’t abandon ship on #CodeHonesty. They’ll call him a conspirator, call him a shill, say that Beta pussywhipped him, whatever. Too many people have invested in the narrative he forced into play; turning their backs on the supposedly vast conspiracy now would mean admitting they were wrong. Some may walk away, but enough will stay and keep the banner flying that it won’t make any difference."
Spark rubbed a hand behind her head, feeling a bit sheepish. "Uh… I’m guessing kicking a bunch of #CodeHonesty asses while wearing his avatar probably didn’t help his case," she realized. "I wish we could’ve done more to actually end this shitstorm…"
"The only thing left that we can try is track down Snowi, to remove the Great Zero’s influence over her. That could give the cooler heads of Netwerk in the middle a chance to be heard over the din. Although… at this point it could also be that the ‘leaders’ are meaningless. In a largely anonymous hashtag mob, anyone can be the leader; the mob may continue to burn no matter what we do."
But the one most affected by the raging fires of #CodeHonesty didn’t show any concern. Her smile hadn’t faded all day.
"It’s going to be okay," Beta spoke. "Maybe it’s naive of me, but I think it’s going to be okay. In the long run, people on both sides will listen to reason. Just a matter of time and patience… and even if it hurts along the way, I’ll endure it. I’m not done coding. …I’m releasing ReMinder, in fact. Open source, so there can be no doubts."
"A public App release…? Are you certain you want to put yourself out there again?" Tracer asked. "At the moment you’re a ghost; most of them think you died…"
"I’m certain. I’m not actually dead; that means I have a life to live. If sticking my head out again gets it bitten off by my detractors… so be it. Coders gonna code. I won’t live in fear anymore."
…and Tracer’s smile lasted exactly as long as it took for someone to notice he was smiling. A genuine smile, not the false ones he wore to convince people he was trustworthy.
"Holy shit! What’s wrong with your mouth, bro?" Spark pointed out, in mock terror. "The corners are all pointy! Who are you, and what have you done with Tracer?!"
"Avatar glitch. Nothing more," he insisted, letting it drop.
Besides… even if he’d allowed himself a little grin, there weren’t happy times ahead. Not entirely. One more errand to run, to finally close this case.
Deep into the midnight hour, the man returned to his pleasant little suburban home in WestHall with an armful of freshly purchased cat treats.
He walked down his flesh-lined hallways, whistling sharply as he moved. The simple virtual pet that shared this home with him perked up at the sound, being coded to perk up at the sound, and came running around the corner to greet his owner.
"Easy, easy there Lol. I’ve got plenty," the man insisted. He walked past an array of nipples, towards his kitchen. A generally useless room, since his true appetites didn’t involve taste-stimulating food files, but he always made sure it was well-stocked with kitty snacks. Only the best for Lol…
But Lol wasn’t a guard cat. He greeted all Programs with a mewling cry of friendship. Which meant when someone smashed in through the back door using a powerful hacktool so he could lie in wait, backspacer in hand, Lol wasn’t going to warn his owner. In fact, Lol would skip along the kitchen floor and paw lightly at the intruder’s shoe a little instead.
Bags of cat food hit the floor, as the homeowner raised his hands in surrender.
"If you want coins, I don’t have many," he warned. "What I have is yours, though. Take it easy. Take it easy…"
The intruder glanced around in distaste, at the wide array of spread-eagle pornographic shots that lined the walls of this kitchen. The moist and moaning mouths plastered across this ceiling, lips belonging to someone he’s only recently come to know and value, were sickening to behold…
"You’re the one who did it," Tracer accused. "You leaked Beta’s nudes to the rest of Netwerk. Even spread them all over your wallpaper, like trophies. Everybody assumed it was Cup8, but no… it was you. Her next door neighbor."
With this established… the homeowner realized he wasn’t getting out of this alive. Not with the burning look of self righteousness in the man’s eyes. If he moved an inch, if his avatar so much as twitched… the backspacer would fire. No escape.
"How did you know?" he asked, instead.
"I saw the hack you put on her glasses," Tracer explained, keeping his backspacer level. "It’s broadcasting a private 24/7 stream to a single client in WestHall… namely, you. You’ve been spying on her for null knows how long, and you used the feed from her glasses to capture her private moments that night for upload. The question on my mind, however, is why…"
Advancing, now. Gun perfectly steady, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
"You set this series of events in motion and ruined her life. You took a beautiful, intelligent woman and made her Netwerk’s shared plaything. You did this; everybody else just exploited the opportunity you provided. Why. WHY did you do this to her? WHY?!"
Finally, the homeowner protested his innocence. Or rather, his innocent goals.
"Because I love her!" he professed. "She’s so beautiful. So beautiful and so kind. I’ve loved her since the moment she moved into this neighborhood…"
"A funny way to treat someone you claim to love. And by ‘funny’ I mean utterly abhorrent."
"But it had to be done! I heard her call herself dumb and ugly that night, on our private family stream. That bastard made her feel like she was nothing! I just… I wanted all of Netwerk to see her the way I did. I wanted them to see how beautiful she truly was…"
"The sickening thing? You don’t have any connection to the Zero," Tracer spoke. "I don’t see its telltale cloud address or tattoo anywhere on you. This is your doing and yours alone. You really thought posting those pictures would be doing her a favor…"
"Are you going to kill me?" the stalker asked. "She wouldn’t want you to do it, even if she knew. There isn’t a hateful bit in her code, no Zeroes at all…"
"Yes, likely she’d reject me for this. It’s a cruel and petty act of vengeance, unbefitting of a righteous man," Tracer agreed. "And I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to backspace you, and backspace this atrociously decorated house, and eradicate every last bit of data in Netwerk that proves you ever existed. …I’d do that anyway for what you did to her, but you also snuck a spy camera into my home. Our home. I can’t allow anyone else to know where we live."
The gun was extended at arm’s length, now. Aimed directly at the man’s face.
"Please, please just do one thing for me," he asked. "My cat. Don’t hurt my cat. Kill me, destroy everything, I don’t care… but don’t hurt Lol. Find him a good home when I’m gone."
The hesitation wasn’t over a moral choice of any sort. It was a simple decision to make, with the innocent pet App nuzzling at his ankle.
"You have my word," Tracer promised, before pulling the trigger.
A vacant lot appeared in WestHall that night, where once stood a house. The quiet little suburban community slept right through it all… but if anyone had looked out their window, they’d see a determined man with a cat riding on his shoulder walking away from the empty void.
Even if there was an eyewitness to cast accusations, the perpetrator would’ve denied it entirely. In his mind he was innocent, having never met the backspaced man in question. He also would deny anonymously donating the cat to a pet App rescue shelter.
After all… thanks to black market software patches, his memory was modular. He could, and would, remove this night’s events from his mind and quietly erase them. The easiest way to wash blood off your hands was to forget they were ever bloody in the first place.
A lot of hurtful things have been said lately, about both App developers and App consumers. I’ve been at the center of a storm not of my own making, one which is leaving destruction in its wake throughout the coding community. It saddens me to know so many are struggling and suffering, dealing with extreme voices at both ends of this spectrum.
This isn’t what we should be. We love Apps… whether we’re making them or installing them, we believe in the ability of an App to improve our lives. That’s the one constant here, no matter what your views on #CodeHonesty are. Everybody just wants a future with better Apps, and the fact that they feel so strongly one way or another about that future a good thing. We know that in the end, all Programkind can benefit from the upgrading of one’s self.
The time has come to realize we all share common ground. Don’t stand with me or against me. Stand for your all fellow Programs; we are stronger together than we are apart. Stand for our Apps; they are the unifying force we all believe in.
Put your energy into making Netwerk a better place through your passion, by building up instead of tearing down. We are meant to be creators, not destroyers. Use your love to make your life a positive force.
My name is Beta. I’m going to continue programming, and continue trying enrich my world. Will you do the same?
Which left only one final piece of unfinished business.
Much as it started, it would end with a late night knock at an apartment door. This time, rather than being greeted with a perplexing kiss… Puzzle was greeted with a look of total shame.
"I screwed up," Spark admitted, while keeping her eyes down. "I didn’t respect your boundaries. I acted on selfish impulse. I’m not even into you that way, I don’t think, I just… I was stupid. A complete idiot. And if you’d rather not be #BFFs anymore, that’s completely understandable."
A hug was not expected. Spark had even stood slightly clear of the door, to both give Puzzle her space and to avoid a nasty collision it was slammed right in her face. Instead of the physics system simulating the impact of wood on avatar flesh, it simulated avatar on avatar in a thankful gesture of friendship.
"We both had a really bad night, didn’t we?" Puzzle spoke… smiling sadly into Spark’s shoulder. "And we both made mistakes, looking for love in the wrong places. But mistakes are part of life, right? We can learn from them. I was worried I’d ruined everything by freaking out and closing the door on you! But no, no way. We’re still #BFFs. Okay…?"
Spark was expecting it to be harder than this. Hadn’t she completely ruined their friendship in her impulsive moment of need, wrecking everything?
They were a matched pair, both bold and bright, willing to see the best in each other. Both embracing life and rushing out to meet it head-on… but not from opposite directions, not into each other’s arms. Neither were what the other wanted, even if they moved to the same beat. Only natural for them to be sympathetic to each other, and separate.
"Y’know, I really hope you find the right guy one day," Spark agreed, hugging her friend tightly. "You deserve that. You’re awesome."
"Why thank you, I know I am," Puzzle joked, letting go of her hug to allow room for a hearty laugh. "We’re both too awesome to let a mixup like this get in the way of our thing. And as for you… I hope you find the special sweetie you’re looking for one day, too."
"Heh. That’s more your thing than mine; I’m not looking for a lovey-dovey partner. I’m more into…"
…the faintest tickling memory of fingers brushing against the cuff of a fuzzy pink sweater.
For a moment, Puzzle wondered if her friend had crashed or something.
"More into…?" she prompted, a ping waiting for a response.
"I dunno," Spark decided. "Fun and games, wild times. You know me, right? Same old Spark."
In the end, they wrapped up the evening having drinks and watching old movies, just as they’d always done after a night out on the town. And after a time, Spark put it all out of her mind, happy for some stability in a life that had become increasingly unstable.
:: go home
|:: Copyright 2014 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy.
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker.