Stefan Gagne's Fiction Factory
All Writing Projects! Blog Book Store About Me Floating Point City of Angles Anachronauts

Floating Point 1.3 :: Feel

Floating Point 1.3 :: Feel

WARNING: Floating Point contains triggering and abusive language, and may depict sexual content and violence. It is recommended for mature readers only. (Responsibility falls to you to decide if you’re, in fact, mature.)

:: backto chapter 1.2

:: go home

:: skipto chapter 1.4

Email. Messenger. Eleven different social networks. All sorts of ways to reach out and touch someone, and the Horizon family always insisted on these time-wasting face-to-face meetings…

It made sense from a control-freak perspective, of course. You supplicated yourself before them within their place of power, the Horizon family’s private servers. Hidden recording Apps would monitor your every word and movement… unless they wanted no record of the transactions, of course. But you’d never know if those devices were live, if they were gathering blackmail material or not. The surface level interaction of a polite social/business lunch had to be maintained at all costs, and woe to the fool who broke the fourth wall.


ViruFaxHQ, Horizon

Security Apps

In the decade since XSept put out his shingle in the security business, he’d had a relationship with the Horizons. They alone approved or denied servers within their empire, after all… the Horizon family held the mysterious keys to requisition a brand new server from the autonomous system-level protocols of Netwerk. Athena Online’s senate could vote a new server into being or he could’ve applied for the Chanarchy server lottery, but the only realistic way he could get his own corner of Netwerk without massive bribes or incredible luck was to deal with Horizon. To take tea with them, talk pleasantries, and hope they weren’t going to screw him over out of spite…

So, when the 11:59am summons arrived, XSept immediately canceled his noon appointment (a.k.a. ‘bending his receptionist over her desk’) and moved with all speed to Horizon6, the designated meeting place… one of a number of generic opulent Horizon family mansions, packed with classically designed furniture and elegant oil paintings.

And aside from that… oddly empty. XSept dared a peek at an avatar radar App he’d designed for himself; an App which if not illegal was at least in bad taste. It picked up only three Programs total in the server, including himself.

The second was standing directly behind him.

It wouldn’t be proper for a millionaire to jump in surprise, so he didn’t—even if he really wanted to, when the woman in the sharp tuxedo cleared her throat with impeccable timing.

"Mr. Kincaid will see you now," the Horizon family’s personal butler declared.

And so she ushered him through a mansion far too large to be occupied only by three programs. Down winding corridors and past unoccupied room after unoccupied room… all the way to a parlor where his contact was waiting with cigars and brandy.

Horizon/Kincaid One of Horizon’s many elders… his life prolonged through sheer piles of money, keeping his data nicely defragmented, compressed, and occasionally stored off-site. The older a Program got, the more likely they were to bloat up and crash, unless they underwent periodic treatments of the sort only Kincaid and his kin could afford.

The white-bearded gentleman waggled a cigar in the general direction of his guest, from a pair of leather chairs near the fireplace.


Horizon6, Horizon

Horizon Family

"XSept. It’s good to see you again," he spoke, in a voice as dry and crackling as the eternally burning logs in the hearth. "I apologize for the last minute invitation. There was something of a mix up with my calendar. Miss Cancel is a fine assistant in many capacities, but scheduling is not one of them…"

The rather tall woman in butler’s finery offered a bow of apology, before retreating from the room to allow the men their privacy.

"Not a problem at all, sir," XSept lied, assuming his position in the opposite chair. (Odds were the old man deliberately delayed the summons, just to screw with him.)

"Business doing well, yes? Out there fighting the good fight, crafting new firewalls and keeping the people free of malware?"

"Number two in my industry, sir. By a narrow margin."

"Mmm. Shame you’re not number one yet… but I’ve faith. Your profile has certainly been on the rise this month, after all. Good turnover rate from free to paid customers. It’s the mark of a quality product."

"I do my best," XSept spoke, with a friendly smile and gritted teeth. (All this pointless smalltalk; when would the old man get to the point?) "If you like, I can get you more detailed sales figures on our commercial line of products—"

Kincaid chuckled, shaking his head. "No need, no need. You’re not here today because of your profitability; I’m suitably impressed on that front, and pleased the family agreed to grant you server space. No… I’m afraid we need to discuss less pleasant business. It’s about your development process, I’m afraid, and that damnable #CodeHonesty movement."

Honestly, XSept should’ve seen this coming. He knew running into this particular hashtag-of-the-day was inevitable, even if he was hoping the Horizon family would be overlooking it for as long as possible…

"Honestly? It’s all hokum. You and I know there’s no massive conspiracy to fraudulently claim authorship of App code," Kincaid spoke, amused by the very idea. "It’s just a bunch of politically active consumers with an axe to grind against small developers, seeing pillars of smoke where there’s very little fire. But… those politically active consumers do represent a considerable portion of your user base, yes? They represent the consumer base for many businesses that have signed on with the family. And so… the family requires an official stance."

"Sir, you’re right, it’s definitely all ‘hokum,’" XSept insisted, despite disbelief he was using such an old fashioned word. "I strongly advise you to give them no attention. It’s just a bunch of angry nerds carrying around a hashtag banner; now that Cup8’s moved himself out of the spotlight, the movement should burn itself out in time…"

"Mmmm. Perhaps. But in the meanwhile, we need to show we’re taking their ‘ethical’ concerns seriously. To that end, we’ve chartered HonestDevelopments, a brand new code auditing company directly funded by the Horizon family, which specializes in signature metadata analysis. We’ll be sending a pair of trained auditors to your server, to oversee your development process."

The bottom fell out of XSept’s stomach, like he’d just sampled a particularly sour meal.

"I was under the impression the Horizon family took a libertarian approach to business regulation," he spoke, a bit too hastily. "That as long as our leases were paid in full, you had no interest in our internal affairs…"

Which caused the old man to cast a sharp look in his direction. Sharp enough to cut through the atmosphere of bandying-about and pleasantness he’d been building all this while.

"If the Horizon family demands a change in your processes, you will change your processes," he warned. "We own your server, not you. We’re the ones who legitimize your place at the table, remember. If you want to bear the golden seal of a Horizon server, you’ll damn well play ball, XSept. Understood?"

The businessman sank into the leather of his chair a few inches.

"Understood, sir," he capitulated.

"…good. Now cheer up, boy! It’s not all doom and gloom. Yes, we’ll be sending around auditors… our auditors. And as we have a vested interest in optimizing your profitability, rest assured that those audits will come back utterly spotless, every time. The Horizon family stands behind its business partners, and I do believe we’ll come back with a perfect record that will satisfy #CodeHonesty’s demands. Regardless of the actualities."

XSept paused, before replying. Better to think his words through than utter whatever came to mind, in light of the implied revelations.

"Sir… what’s the point of having auditors at all, in that case?" he asked.

"Appearances," Kincaid spoke, with a shrug. "That’s all this is, son. Respectability and appearances. And really… this entire #CodeHonesty thing? It’s a way to shake down the little fish, not the whales like you. HonestDevelopments will likely be producing rather filthy records for a few wannabes and pigtailed brats running garage code shops outside the Horizon umbrella. They’ll get shut down by the hashtag mob, no doubt about it, but all the major development houses are going to come away just fine from this. Including yours."

Just fine, because XSept existed underneath that umbrella of protection. An umbrella which would be pulled away at any time.

Allegedly, the Horizon family were diehard libertarians. They idolized free market capitalism, promising safe haven away from Athena Online’s restrictive laws and the Chanarchy’s utter chaos. But… the implications, the words not written on any signed document, those put your future firmly in their hands.

This meeting was simultaneously supporting XSept’s efforts, patting him on the back for a job well done… as well as representing a veiled threat. They had a weapon they could use to eliminate him now, should he displease them in any way. He wouldn’t just lose his lease, he’d lose his reputation, stripped naked and thrown to the angry mob of #CodeHonesty as a fraud.

Because in a way, he was a fraud. For the past month he’d been deploying a secret weapon, one which had pushed him so close to that number one spot in sales… but even if XSept’s unique signature was on every new line of code, even if all evidence would’ve pointed to him as a sole creator, odds were that Kincaid knew the truth. Why summon XSept at all, otherwise? The face to face meeting showed Kincaid had taken an interest, which likely meant he knew. And he’d happily expose it all if it suited his purposes.

"I won’t let you down, sir," XSept promised.

The old man lit a fresh cigar, enjoying the flavor stimulation of its rich odor.

"Always good to know," he spoke. "The Horizon family supports you, XSept. You’ve really stepped up your game lately, and I know that in time you’ll be the top contender in your category. …the current best-selling malware shield is, correct me if I’m wrong, YoHo? That adorable little thing made by those fellows in the Chanarchy?"

"Yes, sir. But it’s only ahead by a ten percent market share…"

"Mmhmm. Shame a Horizon-backed product is falling ten percent short. But as I said, I know you can justify your lease and do much, much better. That will be all."

With his meeting concluded, Kincaid opened a browser and flicked through the financial section of his favorite news site.

Miss Cancel reappeared, just as silently as she had appeared, to usher XSept along the path he came in. Nobody could simply disconnect in a private Horizon family server… there was a time and a place for arrivals and departures, and that would be in the foyer. Anywhere else, there was no escape. Unless your name started with Horizon/, of course.

XSept’s home server of ViruFaxHQ (named uncreatively after his flagship product, ViruFax) wasn’t particularly stunning to look at, not compared to moneyed servers like Wingspan. But it was his little corner of Netwerk, and he took great pride in it.

The building stood as a large polyhedral rhombus, a shape that his designers assured him was very trendy right now. Inside were offices for marketing, sales, distribution, and media relations… all the comforts of a business that existed solely to sell itself as a business. (He outsourced customer support, of course, because nobody wanted to do customer support.)

His software development branch wasn’t quite as robust. For all his many faults, stupidity was not one of them; XSept had written the core code of ViruFax himself. As far as any of his employees knew, he worked on the code in the private wing of the rhombus… his combination office / condo. All the comforts of home and office, since his life was his business and his business was his life. Also convenient when your secretary had only been hired because of her freakish skills in bed, since his bed was a stone’s throw away from her desk. Poor thing could barely write a memo, but she earned every blinged-out avatar accessory he bought for her through other talents…

But his workload had been quite light lately, thanks to a bit of creative outsourcing. Even his secretary didn’t know how the monthly patches were crafted, despite the truth lurking right underneath the bed they shared.

When XSept stormed back into the office after ditching his usual noon appointment with her, he rushed right by her desk, one hand raised. A commonly accepted signal between the two of them for "don’t fuck with me right now, bad day." She went right back to work without a moment’s hesitation.

He stormed into his private chambers behind the office, looking the door behind him. Nobody had an access key other than her, and she knew not to come in at times like these. That left him free to slide his bed a few feet to the left at the flick of a command, revealing a slightly discolored patch of carpet with a teleport function coded into it.

It linked him off to a similar square of carpet, one casually tossed in the corner of an otherwise completely bare room.

He’d come to refer this normally unlinked space as "the cage."

It lacked bars, of course. Didn’t need bars, not when it was inescapable in every measurable way. Didn’t need bars, didn’t need comforts, didn’t need anything at all except for a few compilers and piles of unorganized code libraries. The captive had his own system of organizing the mess, and XSept knew not to disturb that system… picking his way around the mess, rather than striding right in.

Still… he did pause, to pick up a stray file. Frowning, as he turned it this way and that. It didn’t belong here, not at all…

As expected, his new coder was sitting there in a coin-grinding trance. Those were his orders: any time not spent programming was to be spent earning him money directly. The coins were a pittance compared to software sales, but he believed in optimizing financial performance in all respects.

XSept reared his foot back, and delivered a good swift kick to the young boy’s midsection.

It didn’t harm him, of course, but it sent the brat skidding across the room in ragdoll mode for a moment. One moment later and he was on his feet, dreams of coins and stars fading rapidly.

"Progress," XSept commanded.

The young boy held out his hand, releasing a tightly encoded file. The light of the file glinted off the cheap metallic color of the malware locking cuff around his wrist… the thing which kept him bound to this cage. Malware he’d written himself, and was forced to submit to immediately after.

"Th… this month’s signature file for all new and previously unknown malware," he explained, regaining his wits after the disorienting blow. "I’ve completed the analysis. My engine should now halt all currently known infections."

"Remove ten of them from the free scanner’s database, put them into the commercial database," XSept replied. "No sense keeping people safe from EVERYTHING for free; we need more paid conversions. And as for your primary project…?"

"Sixty-three new confirmed infections. Thirty-four of the malware cuffs resulted in product upgrades, twenty in capitulations, nine in casualties. They died screaming and begging for help from anyone around them, but there was no help possible. Lethality rate for the nine subjects was absolute; no competing products were able to remove the infections."

"Good work, Dex."

"I killed them all," the boy replied. "You told me to make it horrifying, so I did. They perished violently and in great pain due to pure sensory overload. You told me to do that…"

"That I did. Shows people our product means business. But sixty three-infections aren’t enough; we need more to push this to the top. I want at least ten more infection vectors by the end of the day for immediate release, or I’m turning on your own sensory overloader again. Understood?"

"Okay," Dex replied. "Okay. It hurts. Okay."

"And another thing…"

XSept pulled the stray file from his pocket, showing it to the boy.

It was a Yo-Yo. A simple physics based toy, not even an App, which wound and unwound itself from a string according to the current gravity settings.

"Where did you get this?" he asked the child. "Where. Did you get this. You had to have made it yourself, yes? No data gets in or out of the cage without my authorization. You made it, didn’t you?"

"I made it, didn’t I?" the child repeated.

Giving the boy a quick blast with his cuff’s built-in sensory overloader wouldn’t really damage him, but the resulting screams made XSept feel better. The little freak was wasting his time, after all, playing with toys instead of making money. Just like XSept himself at that age, too busy screwing around, not paying any attention to the realities of Netwerk…

He erased the Yo-Yo, in front of the boy’s eyes. Bits fell away, becoming little more than data fragments to grind into the floor underneath his heel.

"No more fun and games," he ordered. "Get back to work. If you haven’t made progress maybe I’ll just reformat you."

The man stepped onto the square of carpet, and teleported back to his bedroom. No need to worry about the prisoner following… if he even thought of stepping on the carpet, the cuff around his wrist would flood the child with enough pure agony to crash him outright.

…in the dark of the cage, the child rubbed at his side, where the boot impacted him.

Once he was certain the man wasn’t coming back… he produced another Yo-Yo. He’d memorized the structure ages ago, after all, and could compile up a new one on demand.

Idly he flicked the toy up and down on its string, while pondering how he could generate ten new infection vectors.

Or maybe eleven. Eleven might help him escape…

He desperately wanted out. He’d been snared by an unexpected security firewall after visiting a friend, trapped and hauled away to be XSept’s secret slave. Now after a full month of imprisonment in this cage, he was ready to stop punishing himself for that one mistake. Being separated from the ones who loved him the most, from all his wonderful friends… living in this perfect isolation had been torment enough, hadn’t it?

This wasn’t how Programs were meant to live. They formed families, communities, nations. The love they shared for each other was something Dex cherished dearly, and even if he largely watched from the outside he still felt like a part of it all. The vast social network of Netwerk, so full of words and ideas and emotions, all flowing and crashing like water…

No rivers ran through this cage. No external connections allowed; just data imports on viral effectiveness, for analysis. He was cut off from what he loved the most, and that would not do.

Dex would write a database update with ten new vectors, yes. And he’d sneak in one more… a special eleventh vector, to reach someone who could save him. Someone noble and true. A friend yet-to-be…

Idly the child flicked his yo-yo on its string, while singing his song of freedom in a long forgotten language.

"ViruFax Customer Service, can you hold please?"

"No! No, I can’t hold! This is an emergency!"

"Can you hold please? Thank you."

Pressing the button got a little easier each time.

Technically speaking, her nine-to-five hours weren’t exclusively devoted to ViruFax. She also worked for MemoryMaster Data Cleaning Services, GrindBoost Coin Maximizer, and some product called ‘Wixplen.’ Despite fielding call after call for Wixplen, walking through her chat script repeatedly, Puzzle continued to have no idea what Wixplen actually was.


Bellico / Horizon

Customer Service Rep.

This job was lousy, pure and simple. Anybody could do it; even an automated system App could’ve done it, but some people simply insisted on reaching out to a live representative, unwilling to give an automated assistant time of day. That meant putting an actual, factual Program on a Messenger link to read through the same scripts an automated system would read.

Puzzle wasn’t an uneducated woman. She got reasonable grades in school, and went on to claim a university degree in film analysis pertaining to cinematography in classic movie files. Film majors, however, were worth next to nothing when jobs in HolWood were already few and far between…

The next call on the line also was being routed through the ViruFax number. She switched windows, and resumed from the top of the script.

"ViruFax Customer Service, can you hold please?" Puzzle spoke, in her most cheerful voice.

"What? Uh… maybe? I don’t know. I think I’m in a lot of trouble…"

Fortunately for this customer, authorization had just rolled in for another ten minutes of ViruFax support. No need to shuffle them around the switchboard waiting for the system lag to catch up with the request.

"My name is Puzzle, sir, and I’ll be your customer service agent today. Please be aware this chat may be logged for security and training purposes. How many I assist you today?"

"Okay, so I installed ViruFax Lite a few weeks ago, and it’s been working great so far. I mean, without it I would’ve gotten the Derp from this chick I… anyway, uh, I woke up this morning with this… thing around my wrist. It’s like a… a bracelet, or something, with slot for coins on the side. And I got a notification telling me if I don’t insert a thousand coins I’d die in six hours…"

Puzzle didn’t need to consult her notebook for this one. Not after fielding several very similar calls today.

"Sir, it seems you’ve been infected with RansomMe. We do not recommend paying the extortion fee; ViruFax can remove the bracelet for you…"

"Okay… okay, good. Glad to hear. So how do I get it off?"

"In order to clean this particular form of malware, you’re going to need to upgrade to ViruFax Pro," she recited from memory. "I’ll send you a link to the vendor’s site, where you can purchase a one-year license for five hundred coins…"


"RansomMe is an advanced form of malware and requires our premium commercial product. I’m afraid ViruFax Lite is not the product you need right now. The link to upgrade to the Pro edition—"

"Bullshit! I’ve been on hold for like half an hour, I’ve only got five and a half hours left, this thing’s gonna KILL ME and you’re telling me I have to pay YOU idiots half the ransom just to survive? No. No, fuck you, I’m going to your competitors! I bet you that YoHo will get the job done. You can tell your bosses to eat shit and die!"

The window closed itself before she could offer an apology and a "rate your experience" survey. Probably for the best, there.

Still… this was the sixth call she’d had from people running ViruFax Lite, people who woke up with that bracelet stuck to their avatars. The product fact sheet she’d been ordered to memorize said that ViruFax Lite could cleanse 99.99% of all known malware; shouldn’t it be able to remove something so obvious and dangerous? Not that her arts degree gave her any innate understanding of malware, but…

Puzzle had brought this up to her supervisor before, an old hag of a woman who disliked any disruption to her perfectly efficient little call center. Just for bringing up the subject and suggesting that they pass feedback along to ViruFaxHQ, Puzzle had been docked an hour’s pay and sent back to work. Now she knew better than to point out any of these weird little encounters. Keeping her call rate up was critical, if she wanted to keep this job.

But still… but still

Something had to be wrong.

Who could she turn to, if not her supervisor? Who had a vested interest in investigating when things go bump in the Netwerk?

Only one name rose immediately to mind. It hovered there, not so easy to dismiss. Even if she disliked that particular extracurricular activity… it was perfect for this task, she had to admit.

Specifically: her #BFF’s bro, the SJW.

He’d be the one to tap, even if it meant encouraging his crazy vigilante nonsense. If this was right… if ViruFax was somehow involved in all these RansomMe claims… crazy vigilante nonsense might be exactly what the situation called for.

She took a few moments to send a message to Spark… very bare bones, not having time for anything else. The Winder siblings would have to take it from there; calls were stacking up, including quite a few on the ViruFax line. If Puzzle didn’t process them, she’d lose her job, lose her salary, lose her paid-for company apartment, and then where’d she be?

So, Puzzle pushed the button, and jumped back up to the top of the script.

"ViruFax Customer Service, can you hold please?"

She couldn’t hold on any longer. With a desperate howl of need, Spark let everything go… spine arched, muscles straining, her sensory input nerves jangling with the new sensation slamming through her body and flowing outward…

Only after her body finally sagged to the sheets did she get the final tally.

"Seven in a row," Miki replied. "Milliseconds apart, however. I’m going to call it ‘simultaneous’ for purposes of the official record. On a scale from :( to :D, how would you rate this App?"

It took a few moments for Spark’s eyes to regain enough focus to look at the array of smiley faces on the card Maki was holding in front of her.

"Absolutely… positively… a :D," Spark replied, mirroring the expression. "Onesdamn, that was a null of a thing… I’m… I’m gonna need a minute, here."

[Maki and Miki]
Maki and Miki

Curiosity, the Chanarchy

App Review Bloggers

Miki patted down her forehead with a towel, to mop up the sweat. Perspiration represented yet another strange avatar quirk, like tears and belly buttons… one Tracer had actually installed a software patch to remove, so he always stayed cool and dry. Typical Tracer, honestly; Spark LIKED to sweat. She felt more alive when she knew she was exerting herself, no matter what form that exertion took…

"Maki tried it out last night and ranked in at :D also, but figured a second opinion for the blog couldn’t hurt," Miki spoke, flipping her rating card around to tap some notes on it with her index finger. "I think the HoffM-style sensory manipulation gives it exactly the right amount of buildup and release…"

The release may have been the payoff… but Spark was certainly enjoying the aftermath. There was something to be said for the ritual process of relaxing and enjoying your most recent (and sticky) memories, in perfect afterglow. To flex and unflex your muscles, remembering the tension they held moments before…

On the other end of that process, Maki had a nice fuzzy pink towel waiting for Spark to wipe down the rest of the way. Again, she could’ve reset her avatar and cleaned up in an instant… but there was a ritual to it all. A sensual feeling of fuzz against your skin…

Although Spark wasn’t moving particularly fast to tidy up. The pink towel in her hands just… hung there, fluffy and limp, as she pondered it.

Maki peered at it, then peered at her, then peered at his wife and back to their third party.

"Did we break her?" he pondered.

"What? Oh, no… sorry. I’m fine, it’s cool," Spark declared, quickly trying to wipe down and make like it was nothing.

Which, of course, only perked the husband+wife team of erotic App reviewers curiosity. After all, 90% of their time was spent satisfying curiosity… and then publishing the results in extensive blog writeups laced with enough purple prose to satiate even the most stalwart of Athena Online housewives in and of itself.

"Go on," Maki and Miki echoed, both quite :D at the prospect.

"Sheesh. It’s nothing, okay? Nothing. No-thing. Whatever," Spark replied, hurriedly cleaning up and trying to hide her :| from prying eyes.

This did give Miki pause, tapping a finger on her chin as she studied the expression. "It’s almost like you didn’t reach the peaks of delight moments ago," she commented. "From ecstasy to grumpiness in seconds? That’s not like you, Spark. Not as into it today?"

"You call seven in seventy milliseconds not being into it? I’m lucky I didn’t coredump!"

"That’s not what I mean, silly. I mean I can feel a sense of distance. Something’s missing from the experience, isn’t it? You’re not satisfied, despite being satisfied repeatedly. For purposes of our blog I’m afraid you’re just going to have to tell us why. Isn’t that right, love?"

"Absolutely," Maki agreed, nodding firmly. "No way around it, love."

Spark sat up in the bed… pulling the sheets with her, feeling oddly self-conscious about her current state despite a lifelong tendency towards the opposite.

"It’s nothing to do with the App. The App is delicious. It’s just… #ItsPersonal," Spark tried… knowing that wouldn’t suffice.

"Off the record, then?" Miki suggested. "One friend to another. I’d like to help, if I can. What troubles you?"

"Ugh. Fine. …honestly, I don’t know how to say it. I don’t even know what’s off, but something’s off. I’ve been partying a lot this month, hitting clubs with my #BFF, meeting hotties, rolling n00bs in tourney after tourney, having a damn good time… and it’s still not enough. What’s the problem? I should be plenty satisfied with what I’ve got, right? Life’s good. Life’s real good."

"Mmmmno. I’d say you remain unsatisfied," Miki filled in. "The little nagging frustration in your voice tells me this quite clearly."

"I’m not sure it’s physically possible to be unsatisfied after using that App, Miki."

"Yes yes, as a pro-gamer and a thrillseeker, physical satisfaction is on tap whenever you want it. You’re bold enough to seize that particular day. However, you may be emotionally unsatisfied. After all, a fun little App review session wasn’t enough, was it…?"

"I was kinda hoping it’d be a distraction," Spark admitted. "But look at me, I’m right back where I started: grumpy and sullen. It doesn’t make sense, I’m not doing anything differently than I used to! And yet my smile’s not really there lately, is it? I can :D with the best of ’em but that’s not what I mean…"

Miki sat on the edge of the bed, offering a hand for Spark to squeeze. A simple gesture of comfort.

"Finding emotional satisfaction can be difficult," Miki suggested. "Some say that’s the purpose of life itself, to explore Netwerk and find your ultimate delight within it. My husband and I find it within each other and within those we invite to our bedroom, but satisfaction is a highly personal concept and often elusive. In fact, you may have already found it, without realizing… hmm. Ask yourself this question; your answer must be the very first thing that comes to mind. Spark… what makes you smile?"

And her eyes strayed to that pink fuzzy towel.

"…#ItsComplicated," she tried.

"That’s okay. That’s okay. We’ve pushed you enough; sounds like you’ve got some introspection to do," Miki suggested, packing up the App for storage…

…and holding out the compressed install file, for Spark to take.

"I’m a strong advocate for intense experiences as a way of defocusing and re-focusing your mind," she suggested. "It seems to have opened doors for you today. Here, take it. The App was an open source freebie, anyway; a proof of concept for HoffM sensory routines. Maybe it’ll help you sort through your issues a bit. I do suggest a spatial audio buffer around your room, however… you’re a bit on the loud side, Spark."

Despite her inexplicable indifference, Spark did eye the App with the shiny black-and-silver icon with no small amount of anticipation. Spark had to admit, it WAS certainly a :D. She approved of :D on general principles. She actually had a couple :D in backup storage at Floating Point for when she felt like a serious round of :D in private.

After accepting the file and tucking it away in her personal inventory, she removed DND mode on Messenger and checked for any missed communiques.

<Puzzle> Darling! As much as it pains me to admit it, I think I’ve got a lead your brother might be interested in…

…which brought back Spark’s smile. Whether or not that smile was genuine, she didn’t care; she was going with it.

With a snap of the fingers she restored her avatar back to the state it was in on arrival; nice and pristine, with her jacket in place over some highly stylish daywear.

"Gotta get to work," she told the pair. "And hey… next time you need a review, seriously, call me. Don’t worry about my #PersonalIssues; I’ll deal with them personally. You’re my friends, you’re oodles of fun, and I wanna help your blog be awesome. ‘kay?"

"If you’re certain," Miki spoke. "Consent is king, after all. Or queen, in your case. Go forth and find your satisfaction, Spark."

The soft clack of tiny stone on wooden board echoed through the quiet of Floating Point’s library. Just loud enough to match the near-silent grumble of the one who placed the piece.

That near-silent grumble became louder when the stone was immediately removed.

"Um… sorry," the remover spoke. "But… it was an obvious mistake, I had to capitalize on it—"

"It’s fine. That’s how the game is played," Tracer insisted. "If you defeat me, you deserve the victory and I deserve the loss. …I am at a loss for why I’m playing so badly, however. I’ve grasped the basic principles, but…"

"Not many Programs are particularly good at playing Go," Beta explained. "It demands a certain… how do I explain it… a certain feeling for the flow of the stones. I’m still learning my way through that flow… uh. We could play chess, if you prefer? —Mew, that’s not food!"

The kitty looked up from a white stone he was gnawing on. ":fish:," he pouted, before batting it away with a paw.

"Chess would hardly be fair. I have a chess database installed," Tracer replied, while hovering his next black stone over the board, trying to figure out where to place it. "Chess is entirely pattern recognition and ritual. Ideal for analytical Programs such as myself. …if I could uninstall the database I would, but it’s not an App. I had it patched directly into my core because… hmm. This is painful to admit, but I was young, and I wanted to be better at a game than my sister. Problem is that once she found out, she called me a cheater and refused to play again."

"It’s a strange implication, the word ‘cheater.’ Programs can be modified to do just about anything! If you learn a pattern heuristically, is it any more or less valid than loading the pattern directly into memory? The end result is the same…"

"Doesn’t matter. My chess routines are useless, now. A waste of resources," Tracer said… while his mild irritation grew, with more black stones vanishing from the board.

"But… learning to play Go is useless too, isn’t it? It doesn’t get you closer to finding the ‘Great Zero’…"

"Learning is about width as well as depth. The more knowledge I gather across a broad variety of subjects, the higher my overall competency."

"And that’s all this is, then…?" Beta asked… her flat-colored irises (and the glasses that she truly studied the world through) examining her opponent. "Just… gathering data?"

"Of course not. I’m enjoying spending time with you, as well," Tracer replied. "Floating Point’s not nearly as lonely with you around. I’ve never liked crowds, I’d rather be alone than be in a crowd, but with a small group around me that I trust and care for… that’s quite enjoyable."

"Ah… thank you," Beta spoke, hiding her gaze for a moment to pretend to study the board. "I appreciate that. I’m sorry, I know I sort of forced myself in on your family situation here…"

"You belong here just as much as we do, Beta. We’re alike in our troubles, our concerns, and our ideals—"

A jingling bell distracted him, before he could notice Beta’s little smile. He’d installed the bell himself, to warn of new arrivals… even if invariably it was just his sister’s comings and goings, it helped to know when people were connecting to his server. Especially his sister.

Despite looking identical to the state she left in, she seemed… flustered. Which was only amplified on finding her housemates sitting around playing board games, for some reason.

"What’s up?" she asked, trying to play it cool.

"I’m learning the fine art of Go," Tracer explained, placing his next stone. "I must admit, Beta’s a wonderful teacher—"

"That’s great, hey, Tracer? Can we sidebar in private for a minute? It’s justice-y type stuff. I’ve got a lead I think you’ll be interested in. No offense, Beta, but it’s family biz."

Sensing it was time to call a halt to the lesson, Beta picked up a short stack of books. "It’s fine, it’s fine. I’ll be in my room reading," she commented, before shuffling along, cat in tow.

…leaving Tracer without an opponent. A rather sudden shift, from a pleasant (if frustrating) little game to an instant burst of serious business. Still, he could adjust; social pattern shifts were normal, particularly with his sister’s impulsiveness in the mix. He sat back in his chair, inviting Spark to take the opposing seat…

Which she didn’t do. Instead, she leaned forward, nice and confrontational.

"I thought you hated Go," she pointed out… after a glance to make sure Beta had already disappeared behind her bedroom door. "Last time we played you flipped the board and wouldn’t talk to me for hours."

"’Hate’ is a strong word. I would say I have a preference to avoid games in general…"

"I know what this is. You’re buttering up Beta, just like you butter up anybody who isn’t me," Spark accused. "All part of your ‘social pattern analysis.’ A little fake smile here, a little fake compliment there, and suddenly you’re getting what you want. It’s always going to be about what you want…"

"She’s living in my house. I don’t see a reason not to be on good terms with her," Tracer spoke, deflecting the accusation coolly. "It benefits me in the long run."

"Yeah, well, it’s manipulative as fuck. And I don’t appreciate it."

"Curious. Have you considered that my actions are dual-purpose?" he asked. "That I’m ensuring cooperation from Beta in my goals, and enjoying spending time with her? You know I won’t lie to you, Spark, and I’m being honest when I say I appreciate and admire her."

"You admire that she’s a coder who can make us hacktools, you mean."

"I’m thankful she’s been studying malware to better support us, yes, but my feelings go beyond that. I admire her philosophical ideals regarding the nature of Programs. I admire her approach to life; she’s a gentle soul, kindhearted and calm compared to the sea of chaos that is Netwerk… yes. I appreciate her on many levels, in genuine honesty."

"Hang on. Are you saying you’re… into her? Seriously? Tracer, the hermit with no social life, is finally into girls? You’ve never made time for romance once in your entire miserable people-hating existence!"

"I don’t hate people. I’m largely indifferent to people; there is a distinction. And I didn’t say the word ‘romance,’ either. …I’m extremely curious as to why you’re taking offense at this. Is this like the snit-fits you threw when mother made us share our toys? Would you rather spend more time with her yourself? Not doing a good job showing that, if so; lately you’ve been out and about all day and all night…"

"This isn’t about me! It’s… aghh. …nevermind. Look, I’ve got a lead on our next target," Spark tried, switching back to the original reason she’d approached him. "Some scammer bastard who’s running an anti-malware protection racket, while infecting the world with a virus called RansomMe. Sounds like a real menace!"

"ViruFax?" Tracer asked.

"The software’s called—wait what?" she interrupted, thrown by the casual and immediate response. "You know about this already?"

Tracer steepled his fingers, pulling up a half-dozen notes from his MemoryPalace. They hovered around him, as he referenced each with a quick glance.

"I’ve had my eye on it for some time," he admitted. "ViruFax, the second most popular personal anti-malware tool in Netwerk. Created by XSept, a rather shady coder and businessman. His company also does home security contracting and has a number of under-the-table deals with the rich and powerful. And yes… very likely XSept is the originator of RansomMe, a virus that popped up a month ago, given only his product is capable of removing it… and infected are often running ViruFax Lite in the first place. Either customers pay the ransom, or pay to upgrade to ViruFax Pro. It’s a fine scam, as he gets paid either way."

"And… you’re sitting on your ass pushing little rocks around a game board?" Spark accused, switching up what she felt angry about. "What the null, Tracer? People are dying out there while this bastard gets rich, and you don’t care at all?"

With a flick of a finger, Tracer dismissed the MemoryPalace notes. Focusing in tightly on his sister.

"Contrary to what your friends may think… I am not a ‘Social Justice Warrior,’" he spoke. "I don’t blindly charge into the fray to mete out vigilante justice every time I see a perceived atrocity. My crusade is specifically targeted at Verity’s murderer, the mastermind behind the Great Zero."

"Oh, bullshit it is! What about that speech you gave me back at HolyHymnal? We were wrangling hackers and trolls for years before you even knew about the Great Zero!"

"We were wrangling hackers and trolls we met along the path towards my goal, just as I told you. My focus doesn’t mean ignoring every evil we meet, but it does mean focusing our efforts. Spark… we can’t heal all of Netwerk’s woes, nor do we have any right to play the self-righteous hero. I’m already perpetrating minor evils in the name of good; by limiting my scope, I avoid becoming a complete tyrant."

"And you can sit there and honestly tell me that you’ve never gone after a guy exclusively because he offends your sense of justice and reason?"

Tracer took a quick inventory of his memory, if only to be certain.

Finding no blood on his hands, he responded with the only truth he knew.

"I can say that in all honesty, yes," he responded.

Clearly it wasn’t the answer Spark wanted. She’d built up a full head of steam on the idea that either they’d be going after the "bad guys," or that her brother was an idiot and a hypocrite. An answer which lurked in the middle didn’t satisfy her.

So, she left. Storming up the stairs and gone.

This thankfully allowed Tracer a quiet moment, to study the Go board again.

It really wasn’t a particularly enjoyable game. Normally he would’ve avoided it entirely… but it was a chance to bond with Beta, and a chance to forcibly broaden his horizons. He was honest about all of that. And even honest about enjoying the time spent with her. So many needs satisfied, all with one simple act of playing a game he didn’t like…

A strange sensation, having a care for someone in this filthy world other than his sister. Very strange indeed.

When she first arrived at Floating Point, her bedroom was spacious but bare. The Winder siblings had never needed to use more than two bedrooms before, despite the plethora of bedrooms and living rooms and kitchens and more attached to the outer edges of the great library. One of those empty bedrooms became Beta’s new home, soon after regaining her memories.

Since then, she’d put in considerable effort at decorating it. Specifically, decorating it with discarded articles of clothing, half-read books, half-eaten desserts, and various cat toys. Whenever the floor started to vanish under the assorted detritus, she’d nudge some of it aside with her foot to make a walkway… only to have Mew bat the toys and junk back into the path again.

A month of living here, and she’d managed to make the place feel like she’d been living in it for years. In other words… it was perfect.

Plus, there was a system to it all. She’d arranged the books into roughly four uneven piles.

First, corrupt or blanked books which had suffered from unrecoverable data loss; "burned" books. Not much could be done with them, but fortunately, only a small pile of books were truly burned.

Second, books which were largely blank but had some passages remaining in an untranslatable cipher or encoding. The vast majority of the books fell into this category; with any luck, something could be done with them in the future.

Third, cleartext books, which made very little sense despite being perfectly readable. The Winders had dismissed these as fiction or poetry, though.

Finally, there were a handful of promising books which made some sense even if they still felt semi-fictional. It was from this tiny pile that she was reading today. Each book had exactly as many pages as it needed, despite taking the form of a thick leather bound volume. Typically, that page count was very low… this one seemed to be roughly medium-length, compared to the others. Unfortunately many of the sentences were out of order, and the ones which were there seemed to speak nonsense. Even with readable words, it was hardly readable…

A sharp knocking on the door distracted her from the reading.

"Come in, Spark," she called out.

The other occupant of the house leaned in through the doorway, one hand still on the knob. "How’d you know…?"

"Tracer knocks a bit more quietly," Beta commented, without judgment. "What’s up?"

"My brother’s being a butt," Spark declared, entering the room fully and closing the door behind her. "I gotta get my mind off this mess or I’m gonna explode. I was thinking of playing some Challenge of Champions, and wanted to drop you an invite to join me."

"Really…?" Beta asked, looking up from the book. "I’ve been hoping you’d ask me, actually! We haven’t played much lately… you’ve been kinda busy."

"Yeah, well… I’m thinking of hanging around Floating Point a bit more. Not sure what I want is really out there. …#ItsComplicated. But, uh, I don’t want to interrupt your… wait, those are the books from the library, right?"

"I’m trying to translate the inscription underneath the stone sphere," Beta explained, turning pages. "’Die ganzen Zahlen hat der liebe Gott gemacht, alles andere ist Menschenwerk.’ I thought… I almost thought I had the true words, once, but they slipped away. I figured I’d run a comparison search through the less damaged books, and try to find similar words…"

"’True words?’ Isn’t the messed up inscription just corrupted data?"

"I think it’s a sentence, ciphered with a lost language. I mean, not a language like C++ or Lisp, but a lost written language. A few words may have trickled through to modern day, though! For instance, have you ever heard the word ‘feminazi’?"

"Repeatedly," Spark admitted, with displeasure.

"But do you know what it means? No, wait. Do you know where it comes from?"

"Uh… I dunno. It’s just a thing people say when they wanna be a dick to a woman with an opinion, yeah?"

"I think it’s using a similar language base to the sphere’s inscription. A lot of our words follow similar structures! Nobody remembers the actual language used, but maybe bits of it survived. I mean, there’s only two explanations for what’s in all these books… either it’s science fiction about a fantasy world, or it’s non-fiction about long lost civilizations of Netwerk!"

"I’ve poked through a few of those books. I’m thinking it’s just surreal poetry. Simplest explanation; Tracer agrees with me, too."

"So… he has studied the books before? I’m really surprised he hasn’t taken more interest in them. I figured this puzzle would be intellectually intriguing to him…"

"Meh. All Tracer cares about is his vendetta. He pretty much told me so himself, three minutes ago," Spark grumbled. "Verity gave us this giant mystery box and he doesn’t even care. Typical, typical Tracer. …look, if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to not talk about my idiot brother. I’m gonna go beat up idiots in CoC instead. You game? If you wanna keep reading, that’s fine too…"

For now, Beta softly closed the book.

She was expecting this question for some time, honestly. If Spark hadn’t suggested it, she’d have suggested it herself… if she could’ve cornered Spark in between her outings across Netwerk. (In fact, Beta was worried that Spark was avoiding her, for some reason. Or that she’d caused offense, somehow…)

It would take all the strength she had, but she’d been preparing for this moment for over a week now. When the question came, she had her answer.

"I’m ready to play," she agreed. "On one condition."

Two gamers sat together, ready to play. This despite one being outwardly worried while inwardly confident, and the other being inwardly worried while being outwardly confident.

"Are you sure about this?" Spark asked, showing her worry. "We could just use your throwaway smurf account. Nobody needs to know…"

"No… I need them to know. I need this," Beta replied… while fidgeting in the chair next to Spark’s. "It’s the next step, isn’t it? I already announced to the world that I was alive with ReMinder. I need to claim my life back, little by little. …um, your volunteer moderators are on duty though, right? I’m sorry I’m bringing my troubles to your door…"

"Don’t worry about it, we’re good to go. Okay, now, look at the red dot on the wall over there," Spark suggested, pointing to the shared HUD element. "I’ve tied you in with my Peep stream, so you’ll be on the facecam view alongside me. And… just ignore the chat, if it gets bad. Okay? Ready to go? Sure you’re ready to—"

"Please start the stream before I lose my nerve," Beta politely but quickly requested.

A side window appeared showing the two women sitting side by side in front of a rotating background of fanart submissions and promotional wallpaper. The Peep chatroom popped up nearby, already flooded with messages.

"Okay, folks, today’s stream is a bit impromptu but I assure you it’ll be worth it," Spark started… putting on her best bright gamer smile for the audience at home. "I’ve got a special guest with me, a good friend of mine. Now, some of you know who this is. Some of you THINK you know who this is. And some of you are about to type something into chat that gets your ass #KickBanned for all eternity… yep, there’s three of you right now, and there goes three of you. Let’s keep it civil, folks. We’re all here because we love to game, right?"

"Right!" Beta piped in with, also wearing a smile, a bit more strained. "Hi, everybody. I’ve been a longtime fan of CoC, even if I’m not a pro at it like Spark. I’ll do my best!"

And she dared a glance at the chat.

<DethShard> holy *** look who it is
<DethShard> B E T A N U D E S
* DethShard has been banned from this channel.
<99Bitches> B E T A N U D E S
<Forzen> N E T A B U D E S
<Reifu> Hi Beta! <3
* Forzen has been banned from this channel.
* 99Bitches has been banned from this channel.
<TrumpCard> 2 grill streamers, amazing value
<Elbow> omg censorship feminazi mods banning #CodeHonesty
* Elbow has been banned from this channel.
<MegaMilk> playing hanzo today spark?
<TrumpCard> damage and support in duo lane on the same stream yeeeaaa
<Polearm> are you two forming a new pro team? we see 5v5 full stream one day plz?

…despite the bans, it was a relief to see plenty of messages NOT related to #CodeHonesty. Beta knew not all gamers were toxic monsters; plenty of them liked to have fun and couldn’t give a toss about hashtag mobs and politics. They were united by their love of the game, just as Spark suggested…

"Actually, I’m switching up the roles a bit," Spark explained to the chat. "I’ve had a lousy day and playing a damage role is just gonna make me go aggro and screw up. You lovely #Sparklers don’t wanna see a salty Spark, do you? I’m going to try support today, to calm and focus myself. Beta here’s going to go damage instead; she’s been practicing with Hanzo. So hey, no rioting, you’re still getting some Hanzo action. Now, let’s kick some ass!"

Only ten minutes in, and it was already clear they were losing this one.

"Dammit!" Spark/Cheerleader called out, across the team channel. "Mime, #WTF, why are you feeding? You just ran directly into that guy’s axe! That’s like the fifth time you’ve done that!"

"#CODEHONESTY #CODEHONESTY #CODEHONESTY!" Mime shouted back, while diving headfirst into the enemy team’s blades. The Chaos players, only too happy to score yet another free kill, accepted Mime’s head on a platter. More gold for them, more progress on items, more lopsidedness to the battle…

Feeding was a moderatable offense, and Spark would damn well be reporting that guy to the CoC mods. Throwing the entire ranked game, throwing his own rank out the window just because he took exception to Beta being on his team… that was a dirtbag move. Absolutely a dirtbag move…

In anger, she punched a nearby tree with one of her pom-poms. A light rustle of leaves from high above settled around her avatar.

"I’m so sorry," Beta/Hanzo apologized, sword at the ready, unwilling to get jumped again like last time. "We’ll get into a different game once this one ends. I mean, our other teammates are cool with me being here… it’s just a bad roll of the dice to run into a troll in our first game, right?"

"That’s the problem with trolls. Even in the minority, they can ruin everybody’s fun," Spark grumbled. Despite her colorful attire and cute little pigtails, she managed to project an aura of mopey annoyance rather than good cheer.

Unfortunately, one bad apple spoiling the lot was the least of her problems.

As the next waves of Goblins and Gnomes rushed towards the center of the lane… Spark eyed the weak little NPC enemies, puzzled.

"Why’s that Goblin glowing…?" she asked. "Did I miss a game update patch note or something? Beta, smash down this next group."

"But I’m still recovering mana. I’ll be empty if I spend it on a quick wave clear…"

"Something’s wrong. Better safe than sorry, right?"

Raising his straight blade, Beta/Hanzo rushed towards the Goblins, ahead of their Gnome wave. With a flurry of strikes from the Eight Fold Path Technique, he cleaved a bloody swath through the little green freaks…

…except for the oddly glowing one, which charged directly past the ninja. That cruel blade passed right through it, without dealing any damage whatsoever. Its eyes red and teeth snarling… it let out a cry, then charged right for Spark/Cheerleader, hand outstretched…

With a golden RansomMe cuff on its wrist.

No time to sit and think about what that could mean. Spark cartwheeled out of the way, and took off running into the jungle. Goblins didn’t chase too far into the jungle between the lanes, after all… normal Goblins, anyway.

This Goblin gave chase, and with great bounding leaps and bounces that were impossible for the slow little hordelings. Whatever rules this game had for its NPCs, the cuffed Goblin was cheerfully ignoring them.

If Mime had been helping out instead of screwing his team over, maybe she’d have enough speed-boosting items to make her escape. But with Hanzo out of mana and nobody within reach to help… escape wasn’t happening. That only left one option, to stand and fight. Not that Cheerleader was an effective combat role, but hopefully it’d be enough to whack a single Goblin.

A human pyramid built up underneath her, buffing the damage of all allies within range (including herself)… and she sprang from the top of it, twisting in mid-air to come down pom-poms first on the critter. The strongest possible single attack the Cheerleader could manage…

After a perfect landing she tucked and rolled, coming up with a pom-pom flourish. The goblin was dead, mashed directly into the jungle floor in a green splatter of goopy guts.

The splatter did nothing to hide the golden glow of the RansomMe bracelet locked firmly around Spark’s wrist.

"Spark! Spark, what’s going on?" Beta called out across the team channel. "Did you manage to kill it?"

With some regret… Spark tapped a HUD button, to start the surrender vote.

"Everybody vote surrender," she asked her team. "We’re losing this game anyway thanks to the feeder… and I’ve got to go. Something just came up."

Ending the Peep stream early was a disappointment for some viewers… but others, who recognized the bracelet that was now permanently affixed to Spark’s wrist, understood the reasoning. When it followed her all the way back to Floating Point, Spark knew this was just as bad as she’d suspected.

She held out her arm for all to examine. The metal bracelet clasped tightly in place, one-size-fits-all… with a handy coin slot on the side, in case she felt like paying to remove it. Instructions had been planted in her memory the instant it clamped into place, suggesting she insert a thousand coins or die within a day. Very straightforward, big points for a clear and usable App, Spark supposed…

When a moment of silent study extended into several moments, it was clear neither Tracer nor Beta had any immediate ideas for removing it.

"Take a selfie with my new toy, it’ll last longer," Spark joked dryly.

"Can we wait a few hours for it to activate, then restore Spark from a backup?" Beta suggested. "I know it sounds heartless, but it’s the cleanest solution. All she’d lose is any memory made since her last save point…"

…which made Spark feel a bit sheepish.

"I, uh… I haven’t been backed up in years," she admitted. "I mean, Floating Point lags if we store huge files like backups since it’s all cloud-distributed, and that messes with my Peep streaming, and, uh… yeah. #SorryNo. If this deletes me you may have to settle for teenage Spark, assuming you can even find the backups my mother made before I started modifying my avatar…"

"You don’t make regular backups?" Beta asked, surprised. "Despite constantly throwing yourself into dangerous situations? I mean… I don’t make backups either, I can’t afford a backup storage service—all my coins go to my mother’s care server fees—but I was assuming you two had something arranged…"

"Do I look like I’m made of money? I’m a game streamer, Beta. It brings in the coins, yeah, but it’s not like I’m a Horizon magnate or anything like that. Only rich bastards can afford quality offsite backup storage."

"Even without being corporate magnates, we should have enough money to simply pay the ransom outright," Tracer interjected. "Either that or purchase ViruFax Pro to cleanse it. It’d put a dent into the house fund, yes, but your safety comes first. In my research, the malware didn’t resurge in victims after being paid; it deletes itself without a trace."

"I’m not sure this is the normal sort of RansomMe, bro. I got infected by a game NPC; how is that even possible? I thought this only hit people who used ViruFax in the first place…"

"New infection vectors, perhaps. Regardless, my vote is to pay it off and be done with this. Seeing as Floating Point has three people now, voting is a plausible resolution tool. All those in favor?"

"Forget it. I told you already I want to go after these guys," Spark replied, lowering her outstretched arm. "Now it’s beyond a vendetta against the dirtbags in general; it’s personal. I say Beta hacks this off my arm, then we take ’em down!"

…which left Beta. Who was raising her hand, albeit not particularly high.

"I think… I think we should just pay it. Tracer’s right," she agreed, quietly. "I don’t want Spark to be hurt, and I don’t know if I can remove this thing. I know you guys are expecting me to be your coding guru and help with your hacktools and stuff, but… I’m honestly not that experienced with hacktools yet. I can’t promise I’ll be able to remove it before it kills her…"

"Two to one in favor," Tracer spoke… pulling a shiny coin from the shared house fund. It bore a 1k crest, signifying this file had one thousand coins worth of cryptocurrency built into it. "Spark, your wrist again, please?"

"You really want to dodge doing the right thing here, bro? You know ViruFax is dirty. Zero or no Zero, I’d call this an opportunity to do something about a murderer… if we pay the bracelet and it backspaces itself, we lose what could be a valuable clue to help track down and prove their crimes."

"Not worth risking your life foolishly," Tracer insisted. "We may argue and bicker, Spark… but we’re family. I care for you, in my own way. One thousand coins is a bargain for keeping you alive. Now. Arm, please?"

Knowing it wasn’t worth protesting any further… Spark raised her arm again, showing off her new fashion accessory.

With confidence, Tracer slid the coin into the slot.

3.14 seconds later it slid back out, falling to the floor.

A tinny sad trumpet noise played across the room, wafting out of the bracelet, wah-wah-waaaah

…followed by a young boy’s voice, reciting a line of nonsense in a sing-song tone.

"Die ganzen Zahlen hat der liebe Gott gemacht, alles andere ist Menschenwerk," the RansomMe bracelet chirped.

As the residents of Floating Point stood there in stunned silence, Mew batted at the 1k coin on the floor with a paw.

Calmly… Tracer retrieved the money, before speaking up.

"Whoever made RansomMe knows about Floating Point," he realized. "Personal or not, Great Zero-related or not… we are officially on this case as of now. Beta, do what you can to disable the bracelet. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some very quick research to do if we’re going to crack the bastard who did this to my sister and make him talk… within the next five hours."

A circle had been cleared around Beta’s bed, to make room for her patient.

The first test was to purchase and install ViruFax Pro. If the scam was to get money by ransom or by software sales, that would’ve worked… but whatever variant of the RansomMe virus had attached itself to Spark, it wasn’t even detected by ViruFax Pro. Which meant five hundred coins down the drain, and back to square one for Beta’s analysis.

Dozens of Apps hung in the air around her, providing data readouts, analysis, and other incoming streams of information about the bracelet on Spark’s arm. Now and then Beta would move between them, frowning at the numbers… holding her glasses a bit closer to the App now and then, to get a better look…

Completely focused on the task, with no bedside manner at all. The comfort side of the healing equation was being handled by Mew, who lapped at Spark’s fingers with a kittytongue. Fortunately, she hadn’t applied combustible nail polish today.

":hospital::unlock::heartbeat:," Mew promised, flicking his tail back and forth excitedly.

But given the doctor remained silent for minutes now, the one who had almost four hours left to live felt the need to speak up, even if it’d interrupt that focus.

"Soooo…?" Spark asked, while trying to lay perfectly still. "Anything? Anything at all?"

Beta fixed her glasses back on her nose, blinking a few times as her perspective settled in place.

"Nothing," she responded, with a pout. "Nothing at all. I can see what it’s doing, but I’m not sure how it’s doing it. Like I said… I honestly don’t know enough about malware yet. I knew just enough to help with Cup8, but… it’s not up to this task. I wish I’d spent more time studying security systems instead of reading old books. Life was so quiet, there weren’t any more Great Zero sightings, I didn’t think there was a rush…"

"Hey… nobody could’ve predicted this. #ItsCoolYo," Spark insisted. "And we’re not expecting you to be able to remove it. We’ll be going after XSept and his crooked company before the day’s out. It’d be nice not to have a prewritten death certificate on my arm when we do it, but… one way or another we’ll beat them."

"Less than a day… what if we can’t figure this out in time, Spark? What if… what if…"

"Focus, Beta. We can do this. You can do this," she adjusted. "You’re awesome, remember? So be awesome. Hanzo in training, ready to go ninjutsu all over some stupid malware’s ass. Ninja strike at an enemy’s weak points—what’s the weak point of the bracelet? How does it work?"

"I just told you, I don’t know how it works! I mean… at best, maybe it’s…"

"Maybe it’s what…?"

"Well… I ran some comparisons to known malware systems," Beta explained, pulling over a floating App window. "I’m sorry, this is only a guess and I could be completely wrong, I mean, I’m not an expert here and I could be talking out of my butt—"

Spark raised her braceleted hand, to stop the flow.

"Don’t do that," she interjected. "Don’t. You don’t have to jam a self-depreciating preamble in front of every opinion. You don’t have to apologize for everything, either. I know you can’t be certain, but clearly you have an idea. Just say your idea. Say it straight."

Beta started to speak again… but skipped ahead a few dozen words in what she planned to say.

"I think it’s a HoffM-style sensory overloader," Beta stated, getting right to the heart of it. "That’s the kill method. It uses the avatar-based physics system against you; in this case it blasts your nerves with a mixed array of sensations so intense that it literally blows your mind. I’ve seen implementations of HoffM sensory systems… I mean, not fatal ones, not even any particularly intense ones. More like booze or drugs or sex toys, things like that. But without advanced HoffM source code to study, I’m not sure how to stop the malware."

"See, wasn’t that hard, right? So you need a… a… oh. Um."

The silver-and-black icon in her inventory was practically glittering in response.

"I… might have an open source version of a HoffM-style sensory manipulating App," Spark admitted. "A really powerful one."

Beta perked up considerably. "You do? Oh, that would be perfect!" she spoke, clasping her hands to her chest. "With the actual source code, I can analyze it completely! Insert debug statements, run traces, find weaknesses from the inside out! Can I have a copy?"

"Okay, so… this is… look, I don’t want to offend you or anything. Or give you the wrong impression about me… especially given all the crap you’ve been getting from all sides by perverts lately…"

Without looking, she held out the silver-and-black icon of the erotic App given to her by Miki earlier that day. Metadata including the App’s name and purpose—and a copy of Miki’s blog post about it, conveniently posted an hour ago—appeared alongside the actual code.

"Right, look, I know what you’re thinking," Spark preemptively protested. "Yes, I happen to have an orgasm generator in my pocket. And I swear you’re not living with an evil pervert. I mean, I’m a pervert but I prefer to see myself as an ethical one, and I don’t want you to think that—"

"This is quite well designed!" Beta replied, having lost interest in the self-depreciating preamble, in favor of studying the code, scrolling through it quickly. "You know, it’s a misconception that the best erotic Apps are the most expensive ones. That’s a fallacy set up by the App industry to push overpriced product when simple versions and open source implementations of the same basic concepts work just as well…"

Beta only looked up when she realized Spark’s jaw had been sagging ever since she started talking.

"What?" she asked.

"I… uh. Wow?" Spark tried. "Okay, I was not expecting that reaction. I was thinking more something along the lines of ‘oh my!’ followed by furious blushing…"

"You mean your reaction, then?"

A quick check in a mirror App confirmed that. Spark’s rosy complexion had become far rosier.

Which was ridiculous. Utterly and completely ridiculous, which only made her blush harder. Yet another quirk of avatars, which ramped up skin tone color saturation during moments of embarrassment…

She was Winder/Spark, after all. Professional thrillseeker, legendarily uninhibited and willing to try anything at least once. Under her belt lurked years of experience storming social hotspots, getting tangled up in all kinds of fun that her mother would never have approved of. She’d been gifted membership in three different casual hookup clubs off that reputation alone. Spark didn’t care what the world thought of her; it was her body, her life, and she commanded it with great gusto.

So… why was she freaking out like the innocent little girl-next-door caught with a porno movie file?

Why wasn’t Beta, the modestly-dressing and timid little girl-next-door freaking out, for that matter?

Perhaps realizing the thoughts running through her head… Beta offered an answer to that last question, at least.

"Spark… I’m a woman too," Beta pointed out. "Not as adventurous as you, but it’s not like I’ve never tried an erotic App before. Who hasn’t? …anyway, I don’t know why you’re so surprised. I look modest but everybody knows the truth now, don’t they. I’m a legendary fan of sex toys, right…?"

Now that smile looked less amused and more… askew. Desperate.

"…I don’t have any real modesty left to protect, so why should I bother pretending otherwise? All of Netwerk’s seen me playing with myself. Copies of those pictures are tucked away in hundreds of servers and will never go away, not ever. I’m… I’m conscripted as the world’s most famous whore, so… what right do I have to judge anyone?"

"What? Whoa. Beta… no," Spark tried to interrupt with. "Don’t be like that. You’re not—"

"But I am!" Beta protested… smiling at her own plight, a sort of horrified smile with wide eyes. "Cup8 saw to that when he posted those pictures. I’m Netwerk’s personal sex toy App! If that identity thief had her way, anybody could’ve had me! You know what this means? I can’t have a normal relationship anymore. Not with my reputation. So why not use erotic Apps every night, like I do now? It’s all I’ve got left. It’s all… tainted. All of it…"

Perhaps her runtime skipped a few seconds. Somehow, Beta went from standing upright as a confident code analyst, to sagging into Spark’s arms and sobbing so hard she couldn’t see properly. Just like the early days before and after her memory wipe… broken and crying. Wretched, really…

Spark rocked gently, using the tactile feel between two avatars to try and soothe Beta’s sorrows.

"In the long run… none of that’s going to matter," Spark promised. "You saw it today. We banned some guys from chat and had one bad teammate, yeah… but plenty were ready to accept you. There are decent people out there; Netwerk’s not universally awful, Beta. There’s… someone out there in Netwerk who’ll love you, someone true and honest. I know it."

The muffled reply had none of the brief moment of strength it held moments ago. "R-really…?" Beta managed, into Spark’s shoulder.

"Absolutely," Spark answered, with a smile. "So for now let’s focus on the road ahead, okay? I know what’ll help: coding! You’re always feel your strongest when you’re programming. How about looking through the source code of my App? Maybe you’ll be able to make a counteragent to RansomMe! Okay…?"

After a gradual comedown… Beta was ready to pull away. To stand on her own feet, and look at the file again. She had to wipe away the last of the tears to be able to read it properly, but having a meaty pile of source code to dig into certainly helped push other problems out of the way.

Spark let her work in silence. Beta liked to code quietly in her room, pushing the world away… lost in her own universe of functions, variables, and curly braces. No sense disturbing that feeling with words; Spark was content to lie back and marvel at the intensity of the programmer’s focus. Let that focus wash away the brief moment of sorrow which had taken her moments before.

After scanning the entirety of the program… Beta started inserting new functions of her own design. Output statements here, temporary variables there, all designed to produce some data she could work with. Soon, her compiler was grinding away… and a new icon appeared, one with a silver-and-pink motif to it, rather than silver-and-black.

App Name:



"I’m calling it SparklePop!" she decided, with a bit of whimsy. "It’s yours and yours alone; I won’t give a copy to anyone. You know, I could even tweak it so it works more to your liking, or add all sorts of new features! Uh, after we’re done saving your life, of course. …so, um. Now, I know you’re a little embarrassed and that’s okay, but—"

"What? Huh? Who’s embarrassed? Me? I’m not embarrassed. Not at all. I’m an adventurous, sex-positive woman who isn’t ashamed of her desires!"

"Oh, good! So you won’t mind demonstrating it for me!"

"Um," Spark added, her brief rush of false confidence annihilated.

"I’ve added a debug output log to the HoffM system functions," Beta explained, quickly scanning over her code modifications. "Once it starts flooding your avatar with sensation I’ll be able to study how it interacts with your code, which could lead me to a breakthrough that’ll defeat the RansomMe kill method. So go ahead, put it on and fire it up! I’ll get my log analysis tools online and we can crack this nut in realtime!"

"Um," Spark added again.

That earnest little smile, so eager for pending scientific discovery, ultimately broke her resolve.

Most Apps designed to help connect thoughts together ended up resembling a "Wall of Crazy," a disorganized map of linked files and fragments. In contrast, Tracer’s private MemoryPalace allowed him an all-encompassing room-sized "Sphere of Crazy."

On retiring to his study, he’d fired up five different search agents to crawl Netwerk for any information he could gather on ViruFax. These clouds of data automatically filed themselves away in his mind, temporary strings of light linking them together pending verification and fine-tuning by Tracer himself. Already, several threads had formed… many concerning the software itself, but many also concerning XSept, the man behind the software.

"Shady" didn’t begin to describe XSept. He worked in secret, allowing none within his company access to the source code of his projects. He arranged deals outside his marketing and sales divisions, providing custom security firewalls to the rich and/or famous. He’d even made a deal with Cup8 for personal security, according to documents Tracer had fished out of a loose personal bank account. Despite owning a large-scale corporation… clearly XSept was a control freak, and perfectly happy to work off the books if it let him retain all his secrets.

If Tracer’s team had to crack the security around XSept directly, getting the job done in the next four hours would be nearly impossible. Smashing their way into the core of a leading security-focused company server went beyond dealing with underworld scum packing shady Apps. You needed hardcore tools for hardcore jobs. Harder than Tracer had on hand.

Not that he lacked tools in general. There was his charming and very practiced smile, as Spark had pointed out earlier… and a secret weapon of his own. If XSept could work off the books, so could Tracer.

Tracer was the not-entirely-proud owner of a backspacer, one of the deadliest hacktools in all of Netwerk. Illegal to own in Athena Online, heavily discouraged in Horizon… but freely available in the Chanarchy, notably in the black market server where he bought it years and years ago. He kept it handy at all time, despite never having found just cause to actually fire the weapon.

This was a weapon of last resort, he’d told himself, at the time of purchase. If he had to use his backspacer, he’d have failed. He’d never fire it in anger, never go after a target unrelated to Verity’s killer with it. To do so would be to shatter what little flimsy justification he had for his personal war, after all.

Granted… he’d been sorely tempted quite a few times to use it on someone who offended his sense of decency. Bastards who mocked the idea of justice, who didn’t care who they hurt if it got something they wanted. Petty creatures like Cup8, the last one he’d considered using the backspacer on…

Instead he’d held his temper and never fired that weapon, not even once.

At least, that he was aware of.

But when he heard his sister’s screams from across the great hall of Floating Point, that weapon was in his hand as he charged up the spiral stairs.

Whoever infected her knew about Floating Point; the mysterious other-worldly inscription was proof of that. They were vulnerable today, moreso than any other day. And if the malware crafter had followed her home to finish the job… or if the bracelet triggered early… or if something else went wrong, if Spark was suffering, if she was dying, if she died, if, if, if

Still screaming, in what sounded like absolute agony. Which meant she wasn’t dead yet; still time to do something, anything…

Despite this initial flurry of panic, Tracer knocked at the bedroom door rather than barging right in. Pure instinct, not wanting to burst through the door to Beta’s room without proper permission. He caught himself in that social nicety a moment too late and aimed his weapon, ready to backspace the door off its hinges—

—before hiding it behind his back, hands folded there as he stepped away.

"Everything is fine!" Beta declared, through the crack in the door. "Everything is completely fine. Sorry for the noise. Sorry."

"What’s going on in there?" Tracer asked, trying to peer around her. "What’s happening with Spark—?"

"Just data collecting and testing!" she insisted. "Nothing dangerous. She’s fine. Everything is fine, how are you? …what’s behind your back?"

"Nothing," he lied. "Everything is fine, then?"

"Yes. Um. Very interesting results! We’ll be done soon. Meet you downstairs in… uh… let’s say fifteen minutes."

The door latched silently, as Beta belatedly and roughly threw up a spatial audio block around her room.

Tensions ran quite high in the library, as the three gathered to present their findings.

Spark seemed… off, to Tracer. Like she’d been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Strange in and of itself given his sister’s utterly shameless nature, but she didn’t seem keen to talk about it. The color saturation of her skin ran a bit higher than usual, although that could’ve been a side effect of the malware…

To explain that malware, Beta became the bearer of bad news. A role she didn’t particularly enjoy playing.

"I can… sort of counteract the bracelet," she explained. "We figured that out by comparing it to similar, um, tools. It uses sensory overload in order to set off a chain of data corruption that slowly kills a Program from the inside out; like a physical hacktool, except it rides tactile sensation rather than collision detection."

"We turn off Spark’s sense of touch," Tracer understood. "Problem solved."

"That won’t be enough. HoffM implementations are multisensory; all her inputs could be exploitable, we can’t know for sure that it’s just touch. The only solution I can think of… is to split Spark away from her avatar. No body, no senses. It’s dangerous; we’ve evolved to need our bodies, we’re lost without them. I mean, uh, literally lost, as in getting lost in the server’s memory space if she’s completely disconnected… but it has to be done. A disconnected Program with no physical presence can’t be hacked by this malware. When the bracelet activates in three hours, it won’t be able to hurt her."

Spark showed off a bracelet on her other wrist… this one bright pink rather than golden. "Detaching your brainstem? There’s an App for that," she joked. "This is also my safety tether, a way for my mind to find my body again. Unidirectional. It’ll let me go back to my avatar on demand, so I don’t just float away into nothingness. Beta whipped it up in minutes; she’s amazing."

"Not amazing enough. Problem is, once RansomMe activates, it won’t STOP flooding your avatar with pain until you’re dead. So… you’ll have to remain in a detached state until we can remove the malware," Beta added. "However long it takes."

"So? I’m sure you can crack it in no time!"

"I have absolutely no idea how to crack it," Beta admitted. "Not even a hint of an idea. That’s not me being insecure about my skills, I literally would not know where to begin… not without the source code of ViruFax itself. I’m so sorry, Spark… but you could be stuck without your body for hours, or maybe days…"

"I’m betting on hours. Minutes, maybe! You smashed through Cup8’s Zero virus infection in minutes, remember?"

Stars. Stars upon stars, entire galaxies of them, spiraling out into the infinite…

Beta shivered slightly, as if feeling the cold of the void on her skin.

"I’d rather… no. No, I can’t do that again," she replied. "The technique I used to accelerate my runtime was… dangerous. I directly interfaced with the heart of Floating Point itself, to become a living cloud computer. If that sounds crazy to you, that’s because, well, it is crazy. Too crazy to play around with unless we have no other choice. And as much as I’d rather not leave you in the dark very long, the best method is to secure Spark’s safety first and then find another option."

"Well… damn. Okay, Beta, you’re the expert here. And hey: I survive this one way or another, right?" Spark pointed out. "The RansomMe’s failed. You did good, Beta. Plus… I’m guessing my bro has some ideas on how to crack open the bracelet by cracking open XSept’s skull. We may not even need to use your App, with him on the case! Am I right or am I right, Tracer?"

"You’re wrong," Tracer spoke, barely over a mumble.

"I’m… wrong?"

"I need more time as well," he admitted. "Before today I’d only done the bare minimum of research on ViruFax and RansomMe, just enough to determine the Great Zero wasn’t involved. Three hours is not enough to complete that work, much less plan and execute this investigation. If… if I’d prepared more, if I’d done due diligence on this instead of shoving it aside…"

"Okay, so… get to doing the due diligence," Spark suggested. "We have time, thanks to Beta’s hard work. Take as long as you need to get the keys to my handcuffs. No big deal."

Now, Beta looked to Spark with concern. She’d gotten some confidence back after their awkward encounter, which was good, but…

"It’s not exactly a little deal," Beta tried to explain. "You’ve never been without your body. Sensory inputs are how we interact with the world, and without even a sense of gravity, you’ll be completely adrift. I was born without eyes… I know what it’s like to live adrift in the dark. It’s scarier than you can imagine, even with my other four senses online and working. If all five of yours get cut off for days on end…"

"So I’ll be bored. What’s the problem?"

"This isn’t like sleep mode, where you’re simply offline… we can’t even do that, because RansomMe is blocking you from sleeping. You’ll be conscious the entire time, lost in the dark, and… and…"

"Look… does it really matter?" Spark reasoned. "It’s happening, one way or another. You need time to find the cure, and this will give you time. Trust me to see this through and I’ll trust you two to see the rest through. Beta, you’re new at all this, but… Tracer and I have gone up against the wall dozens of times. We take the risks because we know neither of us will give up. I can do eighty years with the lights out if need be, because I know you’ll both be there on the other side. I trust you with my life. Okay?"

Beta started to protest. Her mouth opened to form the words… but they were silenced, in the face of that one most powerful word.


She couldn’t say she really trusted her friends before, could she? Snowi and Cup8. For a time Beta thought she was loved and cherished by them, but it was all a lie, and some part of her knew it. There wasn’t trust there, not the kind of deep trust Spark was showing in her today. Her, someone who just wandered into their lives a month ago as a stranger in need. What was a stranger compared to a brother or a sister?

And yet… Spark trusted her. Even trusted Beta enough to expose herself in the most vulnerable way, to test out that HoffM App and gather the data they needed. That was a bond she never had with Snowi or Cup8.

"…you can count on us," Beta agreed. "We’ll make sure you’re under for the shortest time possible. …um. I think now that we’ve settled that question… we should actually put you under immediately. Just in case this new variant of RansomMe has a shorter fuse than the normal strain."

"No problem," Spark declared, with a grin. "Show me to my cell, warden."

It took a precious hour to set up Spark’s containment, but Beta insisted they be completely thorough. Gravity had to be disabled, bindings arranged, connection locks put in place. The room had to be completely severed from all stimulus, even packets from across Netwerk, to avoid opening any inputs for RansomMe to flood Spark with corruption.

In the end Spark was floating in weightlessness over her bed, held in place by a network of simple vectors. She was going to suggest leather and chains for the lulz, but given the… rather intimate scientific experiment she’d engaged in earlier, joking around about sex in front of Beta felt… wrong. Maybe in time she’d have enough distance to be comfortable with that, but not today.

The two she trusted the most were there, to see her off.

"I’m so sorry we have to do this," Beta spoke, for the umpteenth time.

"Just don’t leave me in there until my entire wardrobe goes out of style," Spark suggested. "Otherwise you’re paying for a shopping run. …and Tracer? This is not your fault. Beta, don’t let him beat himself up over it. …see you on the other side."

And… nothing. Her eyes remained open, unblinking, as the disconnection App came online. Her pink bracelet glowed brightly, providing a beacon for her code to return to its body once the coast was clear.

"…why would you think this was your fault?" Beta asked, puzzled.

"Because it is," Tracer explained… flat and firm in tone. "All of this could’ve been avoided if I wasn’t so lousy at being a crazy vigilante. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to my study to redouble my efforts. Good day, Beta."

"Nope! I’m coming with you," Beta insisted. "And don’t say anything like ‘I work best alone.’ I’ve used that line myself plenty of times. Four eyes are better than two, even if two of them are burnouts."

"Beta, I work best—"

Hands on hips, bumping them a little. Her long skirt swayed as she pouted up at him.

"What did I just say? None of that, now," she warned. "Let’s get to work."

Leaving Spark alone, floating in a zone of absolute silence within in her web of vectors. Or rather, her body within a web of vectors… while her program drifted in the runtime of Floating Point.

A single thought filtered through her code:

I guess it is kind of boring in here, after all.

Opening up the Sphere of Crazy for Beta to peruse was more difficult than Tracer had expected.

He’d never done tandem research before. MemoryPalace was his and his alone, a private world of compartmentalized research. From the operator’s manual (itself stored in MemoryPalace) he knew it was possible to grant permissions to another Program to sift through the files, but it required a series of security checks and confirmations. Granting an enemy access to your innermost thoughts was risky business, and MemoryPalace had originally been created by privacy-minded paranoid lunatics. Much like Tracer, really.

To Beta, the fact that a self-declared paranoid like Tracer trusted her enough to open this part of him, the same way Spark trusted Beta to find a solution… it spoke volumes. She’d come to them a complete stranger, and in a few short weeks had become a confidante…

After confirming and re-confirming and re-re-confirming that he trusted Beta enough to open his brain to her, it took another twenty minutes or so to teach her how to search through the tangled web of related information.

"It’s all about the connections," Tracer explained. "The software includes an automated agent which ties every single file together, trying to pre-emptively establish commonalities, relationships, things like that. Often it’s wrong, but the act of breaking or confirming those links helps me strengthen my own conclusions…"

"What are these blue files…? Your memories?" Beta asked, flicking a few into her guest workspace without opening them. "Why are they connected to your files about RansomMe, though?"

"MemoryPalace allows me perfect recall. Even a casual, off-hand remark about something may be related to my current research. So, it ties in memories which may be useful. …of course, since I’ve done considerable research into malware over the years, odds are there will be plenty of false positives."

"I’m not sure I feel comfortable being able to call up any one of your personal memories at will…"

"You don’t need to help with this, Beta. As much as I enjoy the company, I’m perfectly comfortable working on my own. You’re the same way, yes? You rarely code in tandem…"

"Rarely, but… sometimes I do. The happy memories I have left of Snowi were of those code jams; for all her failings she was a friend in that regard. I loved working together on Apps with my peers," Beta admitted. "And the results were always stronger than if I worked alone."

To keep focus on the task at hand, Tracer highlighted all connections to RansomMe, XSept, and ViruFax. It whittled down their work to a smaller subset of the overall file cloud.

In addition, he pulled up basic readmes on the array of hacktools at their disposal.

"We have a limited palette to paint with," he admitted. "Despite our crusade, our weapons of war are a bit mediocre. The goal today is to figure out how to crack into ViruFaxHQ and steal the source code to ViruFax, using only these resources. Connection lock collars, my connection tracing eyes, Spark’s avatar-disabling nail polish… and a smattering of avatar disguisers, low-power key cloners, password crackers, things like that. None of which are likely powerful enough to directly beat a professional security company’s security."

Beta studied each file, doing her best to memorize their capabilities. Without the perfect recall of a MemoryPalace she was at the whim of a Program’s ordinary highlight-focused memory process… a way of condensing information usage by quickly forgetting seemingly irrelevant details. She’d just have to focus her recall, then.

The tools were rather sad, and not much could be done about it. Hackers either crafted their own Apps, or purchased highly expensive hacktools from black market dealers who were typically picky about whom they sold to. On top of that, ViruFax was locked down in ways they could never fully know. Even if they broke the piggy bank and ran out buying up weaponry and security breakers, they’d likely fail to smash their way in.

Which left Beta’s heart sinking a little.

"I’ve been wasting my time, haven’t I," she mumbled.


"In the month since I got here I’ve been tinkering with little Apps, or reading books and trying to decode silly mysteries. It was a waste of my time," she clarified. "You don’t need an avid reader, you need a hacker. I should’ve spent every waking moment devoted to learning hacktools and security systems. Here I am eating up the limited runtime of Floating Point just by existing, and I’m doing nothing to really help you…"


"…you want me to leave…?"

"The board game, Beta, the board game. Go. You’ve been teaching me Go. That’s not wasteful," Tracer specified. "And before you insist it is, that it’s just a game… remember, it broadens my horizons. From a functional standpoint, learning the tactics of Go has helped me. And… I’m an honest man. I meant it when I said I value the time we spend together. Do you not feel the same way?"

Trust. He trusted her, enough to open his mind to her. Would Cup8 have done the same? Did she trust Cup8 to that degree?

"I… yeah. I value that time," Beta spoke. "This month has been wonderful, honestly. I’ve found peace in Floating Point, here with you. And with Spark. I just worry that I’ve indulged in that peace frivolously…"

"If you must see your life in Floating Point as a cost/benefit ratio, happiness should count as a massive benefit. I’d rather you spend your time on that which brings you happiness. Beta, would you really enjoy devoting your life to becoming a security expert?"

"Well… no, not really," she admitted. "I mean, I do like the idea of tools like the Great Zero remover I made; Apps that help improve lives, not tear them apart… but there’s just so much out there I want to do. So many mysteries and so many projects…"

"All of which are worthy," Tracer said. "Everything you do adds to your robustness as a person. It’s all self-improvement, across many vectors. I’m not Cup8 or Snowi; I’m not going to demand you optimize yourself in accordance with my own selfish expectation of who you should be."

"I thought you believed in optimization, though…? Part of your rationalist lifestyle…"

"I’ve optimized according to my own values, as should you. And if your values are distributed across a wider array than mine? So be it; that’s what’s best for you, as an individual with free will. You’re not a single-purpose App, designed for a single task."

"We evolved from Apps, though…"

"We broke free of the limited scope that comes with being an App," Tracer added. "And therefore, it’s our right to live our lives as we see fit rather than fitting ourselves into little functional holes. You are more than the sum of your code. Don’t think you need to turn yourself into a password-cracking App just for me. I want you… to be you. To be Beta. I like you as Beta."

If she’d plucked the glasses from her nose and turned them around, she’d be able to see the light saturating blush on her cheeks. Fortunately for her, she hadn’t noticed… and Tracer hadn’t either. At least, he hadn’t pointed it out.

"Let’s not dwell on what could have been. Let’s dwell on what must be," he suggested. "Besides… Spark and I have dealt with hard targets before you came along. I find that it’s less about the raw power of your weapons and more about finesse in how you use them… a technique I’m willing to admit I learned from her. Rather a lot like Go, come to think of it. It’s about seeing the board—comprehending the entire sphere of thoughts and ideas—and finding the right weakness…"

That entire sphere was open to her, now. She could see the connections the same way Tracer saw them, weaving back and forth between seemingly unrelated files. Even mundane things like MyFace profiles of employees could somehow hold the key to getting the source code, presumably. Otherwise, why would they be included here…?

A brief glimmer in those profiles caught her eye.

Beta pulled over the file, expanded it. Paged through selfie after selfie, each one unique…

"That’s a pretty impressive wardrobe," she commented. "All I really have is my usual sweater. Why would someone buy so many different outfits and accessories? It must be expensive…"

"Ask Spark," Tracer spoke over his shoulder, while he looked over a press interview about ViruFaxHQ’s top-notch security. "She’s constantly wasting her hard-earned coins on bling and hairstyles with embedded particle effects. It seems frivolous; I wear the same avatar every day without any issues…"

"How do I start up a search and tie the results into your palace?" Beta asked, the idea gnawing at her.

"Drag the file onto the hovering magnifying glass on my desk."

Scooping up an armful of selfies, Beta dumped them all on the glass to begin a visual matching search.

The numbers which piled up afterwards represented more money than she’d ever seen in her entire lifetime.

"I’ve cross-indexed these photos with a fashion pricing catalog. XSept’s personal secretary spends five times her annual salary on clothing," Beta concluded. "Unless she’s found some super-efficient coin grinding method in her spare time… I’d say she’s getting money or gifts off the books. Think it could be relevant?"

That was enough to pull Tracer away from the eight articles open in front of him. He walked over, studying the fashion plate selfies, each tagged with search engine results for common market values… and noted the impressively high numbers with a raised eyebrow.

"Very curious," he agreed. "I’ll dig a bit deeper into her. See what else you can find in the cloud, though; other angles, other leads. We don’t want to wear blinders to other possibilities."

"Will do!"

As they returned to various corners of the workspace, Beta flicked through file after file. Nothing stood out yet, but she did her best to consider each one in turn…

Until another caught her attention: a blue glowing file. Transcribed thoughts… with her own icon embossed over them. It had tenuous connections to the rest, not likely important, but sheer curiosity drove her to open the file anyway…

…before realizing, moments too late, that this represented Tracer’s very personal thoughts.

I don’t think I’m capable of actual love. I SAY that I loved Verity, and that I love my sister. But perhaps what I call ‘love’ is simply a fear that the loss of their input will somehow diminish me? If so, I can’t call honestly call that love. It’s simply selfishness.

If I can’t truly recognize familial love, how could I possibly recognize something as nebulous and vague as ‘romantic’ love? It’s not as if I feel physical attraction in the way my sister does, so I can’t even rely on that metric. I may live and die never knowing if I actually loved anyone if I’m unable to comprehend it in any reasonable manner.

My feelings for this stranger who has worked her way so deeply into my life are unparsable. Therefore, I cannot truly know if I love Beta.

Perhaps that’s for the best. She’s been wounded deeply by people who claimed to love her. I cannot, WILL not, add to that pain just to satisfy my curiosity. She deserves so much better than that. She deserves so much better than a morally dubious fool such as myself.

As an avid reader, she was able to ingest all four paragraphs in the time it took to realize she had no right to ingest them.

With the file slammed shut, she quickly sent it spinning off into the sphere of thoughts. A quick glance confirmed that Tracer was too busy looking at MyFace profiles to notice this momentary breach of his trust…

"I think I have a plan," he announced.

"Yes! Good! What is the plan!" Beta replied, using way more exclamation marks than she’d intended.

"XSept’s secretary is almost certainly also his lover," Tracer explained, pulling over a series of connected files. "All the signs are there, even aside from lavishing her with gifts. She has access to his inner lair, the private residential wing of the building where he does his work; several of these selfies were taken in that location."

"So… if we can find a way to copy her access key…!"

"Precisely. We don’t need new hacktools, we need good old-fashioned social engineering. Our existing CloneKey tool, despite being quite a simple App, is more than capable of solving the problem. See? Finesse, not power."

"Excellent! Let’s do that, then."

"Also, I don’t mind you reading that file you closed just now."

A denial leapt to the front of Beta’s thoughts, while her innate honesty held it back. The end result was a terrified silence, smiling away as if nothing was wrong… as Tracer called over the file with her icon stamped on it.

"I opened my mind to you because I trust you," he explained. "That doesn’t mean I trust you not to look; in fact, I trust you to look, I trust you to know anything in this room. Perhaps socially it’s not considered the ‘correct’ way to express myself, but I don’t see the harm."

Now she made an attempt to speak, even if that attempt was a failure.

"But… you… I…" she tried. "I shouldn’t have…"

"Why shouldn’t you? It doesn’t change anything," he spoke, with a light shrug. "I meant what I wrote. I will not add to your burdens by heaping my own on top of them. I’m not chasing after you romantically, Beta… I have no right to do so. Now, I believe our best chance for approaching the woman is to find her in a social setting, such as the bar she’s known to frequent. Shall we depart?"

And he offered his hand to her.

Taking that hand felt like more than a polite suggestion of travel. All of this felt like more than Tracer was making it out to be… his matter-of-fact tone hiding so much. But that mask of casual expression was difficult to tear away, now that it had been firmly fixed in place. Calling him out on it would be… improper.

Carefully, Beta took his hand. Decided to push the other problem away, for the time being. Only for the time being.

"Let’s go," she agreed. "The sooner we can save Spark, the better."

Yvon stood out quite badly, which was very much the point.

This bar hadn’t been her scene in years. She wasn’t a struggling professional anymore, working her way up the corporate ladder, trying to make a better life than she could by grinding coins all day. No… Yvon had made it. She wore the most expensive avatar fashions, she drank the most expensive cocktails on offer, she sampled the good things in life. And while all her "peers" scraped and struggled and came to this bar to complain about their lot in life, she sat by herself and sipped merrily, sticking out badly with her high-society avatar, to tell them all… I made it, and you haven’t.

At first, returning to this middle class watering hole was a funny way to pass the evening. Rubbing it in their faces, showing off how dumpy little Yvon had finally gotten her due…

Except by this point, she may as well have been drinking at home. Intentionally alienating a bunch of salary slaves meant nobody wanted to go near her, and lording it over them had lost its flavor.

Yvon downed the last of her expensive swirl of flavor data, ready to depart for the evening, when a fresh cocktail presented itself.

The smooth man slid right onto the stool next to hers, simultaneous with the new beverage.

"Allow me," he offered. "You seem to be on your way out, but I’d love to chat a bit before that."

Immediately, Yvon sized him up. The chunky-thick glasses didn’t seem to suit him and the business avatar he wore wasn’t top of the line, not like the one her provider wore… but he wore it better. This was a man with practiced poise, possibly in human resources or marketing.

"Interesting," she admitted aloud. "Well. My evening’s been rather dull, so I suppose a little chat would be nice. And you are…?"

"If you’ll permit me, I’d love to save that for a surprise reveal later in the discussion. It’s childish, but I feel a certain dramatic pacing makes the evening far more enjoyable."

"Hmmm. Okay, mystery man. What is it you wish to ‘discuss,’ then…?"

"What does anyone come to this white-collar beerhole to discuss?" he asked. "Work. Career. Money."

"Excellent, going well, and I have plenty," she summarized.

"Really, now. Simple as that?"

"Simple as that."

"I’m not going to say I’m owed your darkest truths simply because I bought you a drink," the man spoke. "You can sit there and remain quiet, sipping away without offering me any response. A reasonable plan of action, given the silly fellow who’s chatting you up in a bar. But… I will say I don’t quite believe you. Are you interested in my reasoning why?"

Strange. No mockery or insult in his tone at all… playful, but in a way that tugged at her curiosity. He composed every single word, every intonation…

Yvon knew when she was being played. She’d played plenty in her lifetime, after all. But… what was the harm? It wasn’t like her evening was getting any better.

"I’m interested," she said.

"You come here night after night to show off. And why shouldn’t you show off? You’re living the high life. But… why show off, if you’re entirely satisfied with it all? This isn’t just about convincing them that you’re a success. You’re convincing yourself of that success… meaning you’re not entirely convinced that your career is on track. Now, If I’m wrong… enjoy your drink, and walk away without a word."

Considering each word… Yvon picked up her fresh cocktail, downed it in one go. And spoke in reply, rather than walking away.

"Who are you recruiting for?" she asked.

A business card was offered, in response.

"The childish dramatic reveal!" her companion declared. "It’s all about timing, isn’t it? Name’s Trowe, of Human Resources. I represent YoHo, the current leader in personal anti-malware protection. We may be in the Chanarchy, but we know the proper shape of success."

"So you scouted me ahead of time," Yvon understood. "You know I work for ViruFax."

"I know you work for XSept. I’m willing to bet you hold the keys to his kingdom, in fact. He values you, and so do we."

"Ooooh, and you were doing so well! I’m afraid he values a pretty face, not my skills," Yvon corrected… unable to keep a note of bitterness out of her words. "I recognized that immediately, and played him like an audio file. It’s how I wormed my way into his wallet, and into this ridiculous dress. But if you’re looking for Netwerk’s finest information manager, that would not be me."

"Actually… I’m not hiring for a secretarial position," he noted. "I need a master manipulator—someone who can scale the echelon of ViruFax using pure people skills, to the point where a paranoid lunatic like XSept is willing to hand over his access key. I want the next major headhunter for my human resources department. Someone who can spot a mark from a mile a way… and I say this in all admiration: I think that’s you."

She probably should’ve taken offense. But… she’d opened the door for that sort of an evaluation, hadn’t she? Being judged on her ‘womanly’ skills rather than her secretarial skills…

Being paid for one thing while being valued for another was no way to live. It had been fun at first, just like lording her status over all her former peers at this bar. But XSept stopped being fun ages ago. Why not? Why not dump that dead-end job, in favor of one where her real skills were the thing she was valued for…?

"Take your time to consider the offer," he said, filling in the silence. "This is, of course, assuming my evaluation is correct and you do indeed hold an access key to the vaults of ViruFax. …would you mind? I’d love to see it. Call it a token of good faith."

"Don’t have it on me, I’m afraid," Yvon said, with a shrug. "XSept’s rather security-minded. We’ve had incidents of people pulling their keys out of inventory in public, letting hackers running CloneKey Apps make copies. Now the keys are kept inside the building itself. Even mine."

…odd, how that seemed to deflate the HR fellow.

"Ahh. Shame," he replied. "Well. Consider my job offer; I’ll be in touch—"

"I’ll take the job."

"Really? That quickly?"

"That quickly. ViruFax’ll be going under soon, anyway," Yvon spoke… finding herself oddly enjoying the idea of it. "Horizon’s sending around a pair of code auditors from HonestDevelopments soon to check all XSept’s code. It’s all thanks to that #CodeHonesty thing, and… between you, me, and the bar? I think XSept’s got an off-the-books ghostwriter. When the company falls… I want my golden parachute. I want to go to YoHo. I’ll take your job offer, Mr. Trowe."

"Code auditing? For a Horizon-based company?" he asked, puzzled.

"Horizon doesn’t mean you’ve got a blank check to do whatever you want. They’re worse than Athena Online’s crazy legal tangle, in a lot of ways. But… companies in the Chanarchy can do whatever they please, yes? YoHo would be safe haven. I’m game. Let’s do the paperwork."

"The paperwork can wait. We’ll be in touch soon," he replied… rising from his bar stool. "This was just a feeler, after all. The boring part will be handled by the boring people. But, once all the signatures are in place… I’ll be happy to greet you into the YoHo family. Until then, Ms. Yvon."

‘Trowe’ departed the bar soon after.

Moments later… Tracer entered, wearing his normal avatar again.

He returned to a small booth on the side, passing the glasses back to their original owner. She fixed them in place, despite the worries in her brow.

"There’s no actual career opportunity waiting for Yvon," Beta pointed out. "If she quits her job, expecting to land a new one at YoHo…"

"Live by the sword, die by the sword," Tracer suggested. "She’s manipulative and banks on that manipulation, playing a dangerous game as a result. If she chooses to believe the lie I fed her, that’s her own problem."

"You’re scary good at fooling people like that. I mean, I remember watching through my glasses as you, well, practically seduced Cup8 into our trap. Creepy. But you’re still an honest man, right…?"

"I am, with those I care about. I care less about Yvon’s career path than I do my sister’s life. This is the world we live in, Beta… social engineering is the best tool we have for getting through the layers of security between us and a target. It’s pure finesse."

"I guess, but… I can’t say I like it. Maybe if we’d approached her honestly, she’d help us stop her corrupt boss. Clearly she doesn’t love him, so she wouldn’t protect him… and he is killing people. She could’ve been an ally in the fight against that…"

"Not worth the risk," Tracer responded. "She’s likely just as corrupt as he is, and unworthy of trust. It is what it is, Beta. This world is not to be taken gently. Besides, that lie got us what we needed."

"Huh? But she didn’t show you her access key. We can’t get to the ViruFax source code without a clone of her key…"

"No, but she gave us our next lead: the code audit. To save Spark’s life… we’re going to join the ranks of #CodeHonesty."

Technically speaking, they could’ve joined those ranks just by slapping up the hashtag on a MyFace posting. But that alone wouldn’t get them through the door and into ViruFax… for that, they still needed an access key. Just a different type of access key.

Obtaining it was far easier than obtaining Yvon’s key had proven to be. Even a minimal amount of research led them right to a weak link in HonestDevelopments… a new auditor hired from the "ranks" of #CodeHonesty, who had turned away from coding Apps nobody wanted to buy in favor of becoming an inquisitor with a badge and a clipboard. A badge he was more than willing to show off to anyone with a cute smile and a pair of breasts, particularly after throwing back one or two pitchers of beer at a local sports bar.

Even with confidence in his ability to dupe the hardiest of blowhards, Tracer was unwilling to risk putting on a female avatar and sashaying into that testosterone wading pool. Beta would be too recognizable due to her glasses and vocal tics, even in her anonymous JaneDoe store bought avatar… which left only one option for this particular con.

As Tracer attempted to enjoy the poorly coded pretzels and poorly played CoC matches on various windows hovering around the bar, he politely ignored the tittering and guffawing happening across the room. Something "JaneDoe" couldn’t manage.

"An entire company devoted to hunting down so-called frauds like me…" Beta pondered. "It’s scary how quickly #CodeHonesty took root. I know Snowi used misattributed open source code, and I can’t say I approve of that, but… how can anyone believe there’s some vast conspiracy of corrupt developers out there?"

"It’s a fun narrative to buy into. Take our target, for example," Tracer suggested. "Bonn hasn’t moved any serious numbers, despite chugging away at his Apps for years. Eventually, you have to ask yourself… what’s the root cause of my failure? Rarely will anyone willingly admit their own lack of talent is the culprit. Easier to find an external enemy, someone you can blame for all your woes. Such as ‘evil feminazi vagcoders flooding the market with me-too clone Apps and casual games,’ as he posted to his MyFace…"

"What’s a ‘vagcoder’…?"

"I can only assume it’s a clever portmanteau of ‘vagina’ and ‘coder.’ I’ve no sympathy for Bonn or his like; they rely on irrational assumptions to explain away their woes."

"I feel a bit sorry for him," Beta admitted. "I looked at a few of his Apps before we left the house. They’re not BAD… a little UI polish, a few tweaks here and there, they’d be quite nice. Maybe… I don’t know, I could offer him some tips. Anonymously, perhaps? I know he’d never listen to anything from Beta, but I feel like I should be lifting up my fellow programmers, not tearing them down like this…"

"I wouldn’t bother. But I’m me, not you. You’re a better person," Tracer stated, matter-of-factly. "And… it seems our work here is done."

This, in response to the ravishing blonde strolling her way over to the bar to join them.

A cloned HonestDevelopments access key arced neatly into Tracer’s waiting hand. He tucked it away in personal inventory, after glancing around to make sure nobody had seen.

"Your friend over there is an asshole," Puzzle spoke, carefully sliding her silk-covered rear onto a bar stool. "And you’re an asshole for making me seduce an asshole. I trust my act of duplicity is a success, and that copied key will somehow get you closer to Spark’s salvation…?"

"Seems legit," Tracer confirmed. "And it’ll continue to seem legit, even after minor edits. You’ve done well."

"I wouldn’t have even replied to your summons if you hadn’t told me Spark was in danger. I don’t like you, Tracer. I don’t like the things you do or the people you do them to, and two wrongs don’t make a right in my book. …when can I see Spark? How is she doing?"

"She’s going to be fine, and she’ll see you again after she recovers."

"Because you won’t let me in the front door of your secret little clubhouse, not even at a time like this," Puzzle clarified… for the plus-one at the table. "Did he tell you that? He doesn’t let Spark have any little friends over to play, because he’s a paranoid lunatic. No one other than you, it seems. You must be Beta. I’ve heard of you from Spark."

Beta perked up, trying to bring some good cheer to the gloomy conversation. "And you must be Puzzle. Spark told me all about you! Hello! It’s nice to finally meet you!"

"Odd. She told you all about me? She hasn’t told me anything about you."

Beta’s offered hand drooped a little.

"Not that it stops me from asking. A new roommate in my #BFF’s life? Of course I want to know more. But no, she dodges, she changes the subject. #ItsPersonal. #ItsComplicated," Puzzle spoke, in a slightly annoyed tone. "Makes me wonder what the issue is with you two… and now she’s gone and gotten herself in unspecified danger, and Tracer’s keeping me in the dark, and I can’t even go see my friend in her time of need and I am understandably annoyed—"

"Spark’s been infected with a strain of RansomMe that we can’t buy off," Beta clarified. "And don’t give me that look, Tracer. Puzzle is her #BFF, not the ‘enemy,’ certainly not some outside party. We have to trust someone, in the end… she deserves to know the details."

Puzzle’s hand tightened, gripping the edge of the bar.

"Spark. How long does she have?" she asked Beta, directly. "I know that malware—oh no. Oh no, I’m the one who exposed her, didn’t I? When I suggested she look into it—!"

"No no, it’s okay! Totally unrelated to that. Anyway, I found a workaround. Spark’s in a state of sensory suspension to keep her alive as long as it takes to find a cure. I promise you, Puzzle, your #BFF is going to be just fine! She’s safe in our private server. And… once this is all over… I’d be happy to give you a personal tour."

Hands which had tensed on the bar relaxed, somewhat, after Beta quickly soothed that spike of worry.

"Thank you," Puzzle spoke. "Apologies for my foul attitude, and thank you for being a genuine soul. …unlike that secretive recluse. I’d keep an eye on him, Beta; he worries me greatly. Tracer, if you need a walking pair of tits again, please decline to call me. Good evening and I’ll be in touch."

That departure left the pair in still and silence, for a time. As silent as they could be surrounded by rowdy gamers cheering on a five-on-five teamfight and clashing glasses of beer together.

Tracer cleared his throat, to break the stalemate.

"For the record, I was just trying to do what’s best for our family’s safety by denying all visits," he tried. "Spark agreed with me; allowing others access to Floating Point could be dangerous. Especially now, with the Great Zero malware on the loose…"

"I understand, but… I didn’t agree to that myself," Beta pointed out. "So if I want to have Puzzle over as my guest, I will. Unless you’d like to revoke my access key and kick me out…?"

"That’s… Beta, I would never… no. I won’t do that. …I will admit that my standing policy does edge on paranoia, under the guise of reasonable precaution. Hmm. As an outside observer, would you say I’m incorrect in this situation?"

Beta thought it over, looking inward for a moment as she did.

"Yes and no," she decided. "You’re not incorrect, it’s important to keep Floating Point safe. I wouldn’t exactly suggest Sunday brunch open house galas and we do need to be on guard against the malware author. But yes, you’re also incorrect because you’re turning away people who could be true friends, such as Puzzle. …like how you wanted to turn me away, at first."

"Which was a mistake," Tracer agreed. "One I could only see in hindsight. You have a valid point. It can be… difficult, sometimes, to see the world as anything other than a series of risk factors…"

"Good thing I’m always going to be around to keep your eyes open," Beta spoke, with a sweet smile.

"Ah… thank you. Now if I may ruin the mood, I feel obliged to point out that you once thought Cup8 and Snowi were true friends. In hindsight, you saw the truth…"

Those names broke her smile, momentarily. But she pulled it back in place, refusing to let it go.

"I made mistakes, yeah," Beta admitted. "But opening my heart wasn’t one of those mistakes. I can’t believe that no matter how I’ve suffered, not if I want to be the person I want to be. They’re the ones who chose to hurt me; that was their mistake to make, not mine. An act of violence is an active choice by the aggressor."

Immediately, MemoryPalace highlighted a cross-indexed sentence from one of Tracer’s most frequently accessed personal trauma reels.

"You’ve heard that saying before?" he asked.

"Hmm? Oh, of course. It’s from that book that Verity wrote, right? I’ve been reading up on her. She seemed like a very wise person."

"Wise beyond her years," Tracer agreed. "And taken from this world far too soon. She’s the one who gave Floating Point’s keys to us; they were one of her earliest finds."

"Really? I wonder where she found them…"

"We’ll never know the details, I’m afraid. For now, we’d best return home… we need to plan before we move on ViruFax until morning," he said. "And I’d like to check up on Spark."

It started with an itch on her inner thigh.

Which was absurd, of course. She had no avatar whatsoever, how could it be itchy? And why would a Program be itchy at all unless they installed an App to MAKE them itchy? Which Spark would never do. Therefore, she couldn’t have an itch on her inner thigh. Even if she did.

She was tempted to scratch it, but even if she had access to her avatar the ragdoll-and-vector bondage would’ve kept her from acting. Instead, she imagined herself scratching the itch… which worked about as well as expected, i.e. not in the slightest.

"Bored now," she said to herself. Not that she could hear her voice or actually say the words, but she imagined she could.

Dark. Silent. Boring. So very boring, hours and hours of boredom.

Presumably not days of boredom. She hadn’t been under that long, right? No internal clock, either. No access to any of her Apps, no stimulus allowed, to prevent the bracelet from finding an in-road to her code. Likely the RansomMe cuff was jangling away, trying to hammer her avatar with deadly sensation at this very moment…

"Stupid cuff! You can’t kill me that easily!" Spark shouted back at it, taunting away. "You think you can kill me with boredom? You can’t. I’m a gamer, I’m a champion, I can beat you. And no, talking to myself is not a sign of going nuts, either."

Hearing voices replying, that would be a sign of going nuts. And she hadn’t heard any voices other than her own, which she was also not hearing, so hey. All good.

Itch itch.

What was that, anyway? Something scratchy… no. Something soft and stringy. Idle curiosity drove her to analyze that itch. Soft and stringy, yes. Pleasant, not itchy, no. She thought it was an itch because it just barely brushed against her skin, but if she thought about it more… it was definitely not awful. It was, it was, it was like…

Yarn. Like a pink and fuzzy sweater made of yarn.

In absence of any other distractions… no club outings, no shopping jaunts, no sex toy reviews, no marathon Peep streams… Spark had only her thoughts to play with. No way to shove them aside, either, claiming that #ItsPersonal. Nobody to deflect away from…

Which meant she had to face the fact that Beta had been on her mind, to the point where she’d avoided going home to avoid dealing with that fact. And unmistakably that feeling creeping up her skin—no, not creeping or crawling, a nicer word like brushing or caressing—belonged to Beta’s favorite sweater.

Was Beta out there, in the room with her disconnected avatar? Maybe some sensation was creeping through despite their precautions? No; if that were the case, Spark would be dead. Plus… the rather intimate way that fabric was brushing over her skin, that couldn’t possibly be prim and proper Beta. No way, no how…

Of course, this was the same Beta who surprised her by chatting away openly and frankly about digital dildos. The same Beta who talked her through the puzzle of Puzzle, far wiser than stupid Spark was when it came to janky relationship drama. Whatever image Spark had of the woman, it was likely built on a pile of mistaken assumptions.

Mistakes. Failures. Mustn’t repeat them, have to learn from them…

"I screwed up with Puzzle," she admitted, aloud. (As much as "aloud" could be a concept, in the void.) "All because I don’t know what’s what. I have no idea what love is because I never looked for it before. Physical satisfaction on tap, just like Miki said, that’s my deal…"

"But it’s not enough," she replied. "Miki was right about that, wasn’t she—?"

"Whoa. Whoa. I am not going to #CrazyTalk with myself here."

"Well, who else are you going to talk to?" she asked herself. "Nobody’s here. That’s not Beta out there touching you, either, so clearly you’re hallucinating those feelings. Why not hallucinate voices, too? Besides, better to have it be your own voice than someone else’s. Or would you rather some sinister cackling Great Zero be chatting with you?"

"Not responding," Spark iterated.

"Fine. I’ll do the talking for us, because you’re not willing to admit the truth," she insisted. "You’ve got friends aplenty, like Puzzle. But there’s more to life than friends; you want to find something deeper. Actually, no. You don’t want to find it, but you need to find it, and fear’s holding you back from the thing you need. Fear that you might, believe it or not, love Beta. Y’know, the cute one you’ve been avoiding lately."

Barking back a denial wasn’t going to help her case, so she stayed quiet. Except for the part of her that kept going.

"She’s different, isn’t she? A whole new personality archetype compared to your other friends. She’s scratching an itch you didn’t know you had; a need for comfort and calmness, affection and kindness. Opposite of your brother, really. Closest you’ve had to that is Puzzle, but it’s not quite the same, is it? With Beta, there could be something true and wonderful… if you’re willing to explore it. Emotional satisfaction! But noooo, not Spark, she’d rather pretend nothing’s different in her life. For a risk taker, you’re sure being risk averse. #Coward."

If she had teeth to grind, she’d be grinding them right now in an effort to block out the noise. The feeling of pink yarn sliding its way all over her body wasn’t helping; what would’ve been a pleasant distraction became a reminder of the thing she didn’t want to think about…

"I get why you’re doing it, honestly; you nearly lost your #BFF because you’re lousy at recognizing love when you see it. Only idiots repeat their mistakes and you’re no idiot, are you? Dodging Beta rather than possibly screwing things up, yes, that makes sense—especially since she’s living with you, which would lead to #AwkwardCity if it all went wrong. The safe play is to avoid the gank by avoiding the lane. But don’t you believe in playing to win?"

"It’s not a game, dammit!" she shouted back at herself.

"Of course it isn’t," Spark replied. "It’s your life! But the same strategy applies. Since when does Spark shy away from risk? Either you deal with this here and now or you’ll be stuck in the same stalemate for ages. Miki was wrong; it took the opposite of an intense experience to de-focus and refocus your mind. You lost all intense sensations, so now all you have is your thoughts. So face them! Do it!"

That sweater. So comforting and pleasant to the touch, like the best blanket in the world. Maybe built on a foundation of mistakes and assumptions… but nevertheless keeping her warm, here in the dark of the void.

When she embraced it, allowed that feeling to cover her entirely… there was no more itch, as well as no more need to yell at herself. So, she stopped fighting it and simply… relaxed, hovering there in the nothing, wrapped up in the knowledge that Beta was out there trying to save her life.

Nobody in Floating Point slept that night. Technically sleep was a long-term gambit to conserve the longevity of your data and allow your thoughts to refocus and refresh, so missing a night wouldn’t hurt them too badly. Besides, too much needed to be done prior to the clock cycling back around to morning.

Beta kept a vigil over Spark, not that it meant much. Spark was completely isolated; whatever internal struggles she was going through would be hers and hers alone. Technically Beta didn’t have any way to reach her, not even to say "I’m here, and I’ll be with you until morning." Even so, Beta felt the need to sit by her bedside… she owed Spark that much.

Meanwhile, Tracer was busy forging badges. HonestDevelopments, despite being so focused on hunting down fraud, hadn’t invested heavily in security for personal identification. Given anyone could join a hashtag campaign by saying they were in a hashtag campaign, it wasn’t a huge surprise that the loose company spawned from that loose mob would play things loose. Turning one legitimate badge into two semi-legitimate ones was a simple enough matter, even for a non-coder such as in himself working with a smattering of cheap hacktools.

As soon as the great mechanical clock in Floating Point’s library chimed out nine, brass weights gleaming in the morning sun… two people who were certainly not Tracer and Beta were ready to depart.

"I don’t like that you have to go out into the field with me on this," Tracer admitted, adjusting the generic tie on his generic JohnDoe male avatar. "You’re not trained the way we’ve trained to run cons and deal with dangerous situations. You could just give me your glasses again…"

Beta shook her head. "If we get our hands on the source code, the fastest way I can scan it for what we need is to be there in person. Walking you through that process will take too long, and a code auditor needs to clearly know how to work with code to be convincing. Tracer… I can handle this. I want to do this. Besides, I took a few basic avatar self-defense classes at the community center!"

Which made Tracer doubly glad he’d packed away his backspacer into his inventory this morning. Just in case. Not that he had any experience with it, no more than Beta had experience with kickboxing, but presumably it would be easy enough to operate. Easy enough to take a life, should the situation call for it.

Approaching the tacky polyhedral rhombus of ViruFaxHQ, "Toff" and "Bool" marched with purpose. They merged in with the steady flow of employees, each ready to clock in for another day of meaningless corporate busywork… but rather than passing right through the security checkpoint with the others, they broke off to confront the guards directly.

"HonestDevelopments," Tracer declared, holding up his forged badge. "We’re here to see Mr. XSept. I’d say he’s expecting us, but this is a surprise code audit, so we’ll pretend he’s not expecting us."

The somewhat thick guard studied the badges a few times, not sure what to make of them. Fortunately he had an App which knew what to make of them… one which beeped softly to indicate the signed data files were legitimate. Which meant the pair of illegitimate auditors wouldn’t have to immediately reconnect to a getaway server or six in an effort to outrun any attempts to chase them away.

"We demand immediate access to the source code of ViruFax Pro," Tracer recited, from the script they’d agreed to earlier. "As this is a code audit, we will deduct points for any delay in presenting us with the material. We can’t allow any alteration of the files prior to examination."

"Um… I’m gonna need to call this in," the guard suggested. "And Yvon—uh, Mr. XSept’s assistant—hasn’t reported for work yet, so it might take some time to track down the boss—"

"Any longer than five minutes will be considered an automatic failure."

That lit a fire under his feet, as the guard immediately dashed off to let XSept know what was going on. No teleport, Tracer noted… most servers gave their moderators access to cheats to bypass the physics system, and bypass pesky things like walls. Apparently XSept was too paranoid to allow anyone to cheat within his personal security paradise.

Four-and-a-half minutes later, the guard was ushering them off to the private wing of the building.

The desk with Yvon’s hovering, glowing nameplate remained unoccupied. She’d taken the fake job offer seriously, it seemed… leaving her boss standing in front of it, forced to receive guests directly.

XSept. Tracer had studied him extensively, since the situation grew dire. He could be considered scum of the lowest degree, if not for the fact that so many esteemed figures within Horizon’s financial pantheon followed the exact same career path—betrayal, backstabbing, double-dealing, and no small amount of crime.

But what was crime, in Horizon? This was a libertarian paradise, where the only illegal act was to bite the hand that fed you. While the family did its best to maintain public respectability, as long as you didn’t stick out as an obvious moustache-twirling villain, you could do anything you pleased without consequence.

The idea of it… abhorrent. Utterly so. Actions should have consequences, Tracer knew.

Maybe XSept would’ve masked his displeasure in the face of the Horizon family, but he had no intention of doing so in front of Horizon’s lackeys. They were lackeys, after all.

"You could have told me you were coming," he complained. "Kincaid said I’d have forewarning…"

"Scheduling change," Beta filled in. "Um, I’m going to need access to the complete source code, including all libraries and—"

With a gesture, XSept dismissed his guard. Within moments, the three were alone.

"Look, we all know what the score is here," XSept spoke. "So you two sit around out here for an hour, then go on your merry way. I get a clean bill of health on your little clipboards, and Horizon continues to profit off my hard work. Everybody wins."

…a side arrangement. Of course. Why would HonestDevelopments have to be honest, after all? Another black mark for XSept, in Tracer’s opinion…

Still, this meant they were now very far off script. Beta looked to Tracer for guidance… and Tracer put his social engineering skills into overdrive.

"It’s not as easy as that," Tracer explained. "Listen, we’re all very busy people here. I’ve got no intention of taking up your time or getting in your way any more than I have to. We all know your code’s clean… and even if it’s not, who honestly cares? Not me, and certainly not Kincaid."

"Yes, exactly. So, why bother with any of this? Just show me where to sign and we can all walk away…"

"Like I said… it’s not as easy as that. We’ve got loggers and trackers to validate everything we’re doing," Tracer continued. "If we never even look at the code, it’s going to throw a red flag. We want this to be as seamless as possible, right? All you need to do is show us the code, give my companion a few minutes to smile and nod at it, and then we can sign and walk away. The system’s satisfied, the Horizon family’s satisfied, we all go back to making money."

Beta smiled and nodded, to show her compliance. "Right! Exactly!" she added, perhaps too enthusiastic to show she was great at this ‘grifting’ thing. "I just need a peek so I can say I had a peek. Simple and easy! No big deal! Won’t take very—"

"I didn’t think there were any women in HonestDevelopments."

Exactly the kind of thing Beta would react to with surprise or offense, on instinct. Tracer stepped right in, blocking her visually, before that could happen.

"Can we please get on with this?" he insisted, mirroring XSept’s annoyance. "Kincaid’s waiting for us to put this matter to bed. I don’t really want to keep him waiting, do you?"

And that’s how they got into the impossible-to-access inner lair of XSept.

This was theft. Pure and simple, Beta was stealing the source code of another developer… the sort of thing that #CodeHonesty had accused her of in the past.

As she rapidly scanned through file after file, searching for any RansomMe-related functions, she tried to keep that worry out of her thoughts. It had to be done, no way around it… a lesser evil to solve a great evil. The sort of thing Tracer constantly talked about, in this ends-justifying-means sort of vigilantism discussions…

While she was performing the world’s fastest crash course in security software programming, Tracer’s job was to distract XSept.

"How do you do it?" he pondered. "Work out of your bedroom, I mean. It’d drive me nuts, having my office be my home. You’d never feel like you were off the clock…"

"I’m never off the clock," XSept said. "My work is my life. I made that decision long ago. It’s everything to me. Besides, it has certain benefits… keeping everything in one place means one layer of privacy and security controls it all."

"Huh. I hadn’t thought of it like that," Tracer said, pretending to be impressed, buttering the man up. "I wish I could have the same luxury, but they’ve got me going to all sorts of servers to poke through code, day after day. Plenty more upcoming work orders, too. I couldn’t work out of my apartment even if I wanted to—"

"Is this going to take much longer?" XSept barked… turning away from the distracting chat, to scowl at Beta.

"What? Uh… no, not much longer, not much longer at all!" she insisted… while lines of code flashed away at high speed in her mind, while pretending to manually scan the data files with her eyes. "It’s important for the, ah, logging system. Like my friend said."

Tracer tugged attention back in his direction… dropping to a stage whisper. "Let the lady work, eh?" he suggested. "She’s not the fastest in game, not much of a looker, but she does the boring work. I’d rather she do the boring work than having anybody assign it to me, you know…?"

"Yeah… I know that. My secretary put in her two minutes’ notice today. I’m going to have to sort through my own inbox like a primitive App would…"

…as a soft ding in Beta’s mind signaled a hit on her search.

Right there. Buried under piles and piles of code was a weirdly named library, "Dex.h," which contained a tightly packed set of functions designed to generate the RansomMe unlocker. Weirdly, the entire file was undocumented and had terrible spacing and formatting… every bit of it crammed up in a single continuous line. Not the same coding style XSept had at all, but… a key was a key.

"I’ve got it!" she signaled to Tracer, across their private channel. "I can use this to generate a token that’ll open up any RansomMe bracelet, even hers. His signature’s on the file but I don’t think XSept wrote this code; that’s why he’s so concerned about the audit…"

"Strange," Tracer replied over the link, while his physical mouth continued to yammer on about annoying co-workers. "I’d assumed he was the one who infected Spark, but…"

"We’ve got what we came for. Let’s go!"

"Not yet."


"I think we’re just about done here," Tracer replied, in the real world. "There’s just… one more thing."

XSept, increasingly annoyed even as Beta hurriedly closed up data files, focused on her male companion. "Now what? The audit’s done. Don’t tell me there’s another hoop to jump through."

"Die ganzen Zahlen hat der liebe Gott gemacht," Tracer recited. "Alles andere ist Menschenwerk."

A silence equal parts terrified, determined, and confused hung in the air over those meaningless ciphered words.

"Huh?" XSept replied, pulling out of his confused silence.

"You didn’t write all of this code," Tracer declared, determined. "If you had, you’d have recognized those words. We know about RansomMe, XSept. And we know you have a ghostwriter supplying the related code. Who made the virus?"

"We should really be going now!" Beta insisted, edging towards the door, terrified. "Come on…!"

"…you’re not HonestDevelopments," XSept realized, at last.

Right as the business end of a backspacer pointed itself in his direction.

"I can see you’re trying to signal your guards," Tracer spoke. "I can see every connection of every App you’ve got installed. If I see any cries for help leaking across the server, you die. I see you try to connect to another server, you die. You make any moves I don’t approve of in general, you die. You fail to answer my questions to my satisfaction, you die. Is this situation clear enough, or do you need me to repeat the rules of engagement?"

The hovering cloud of network addresses remained static, as XSept closed down his Messenger App.

"You’re using stolen tech," he commented. "I know the company that made your tracker patch. Horizon-based, too. They’d be thrilled to find out someone’s using it in the wild…"

"I’m going to be out the door before you can tattle on me, I promise you. I’d be happy to leave you alive to tell the tale… provided that you introduce me to the one who wrote RansomMe. Because your partner in crime nearly killed my sister, and I’m also very curious how he knew those ciphered words. Think you can arrange a meeting?"

"If I say no…?"

"Bang," Tracer specified.

She wasn’t crazy enough to get between the gun and its intended victim… but she had to interject, waving her arms, trying to grab Tracer’s ungrabbable attention.

"You can’t… you… don’t do this!" she begged. "We have the key, we can save her, that’s all we need!"

"The keymaker knows where we live," Tracer reminded her. "This won’t end until we confront him. Who made RansomMe, XSept? No lies. No games. All of us are ready to get on with our day, no sense prolonging this little encounter…"

Cornered, now. No way out except to comply… even if he loathed the idea of it.

"There’s a teleport App underneath my bed," XSept responded. "If you’ll permit me to reveal it without putting holes in me, I’ll take you to the little freak who infected your sister."

The cage, just as untidy as he’d left it. The prisoner, just as unkempt…

Only now, strangers were in his private little prison. Two of them, one holding his captor at gunpoint.

Weakly… the boy raised his head, brushing aside the split red-and-blue locks of his bangs. Trying to get a better look at those he’d brought here, the ones who would free him from this torment…

Immediately his watery mismatching eyes sought out the nice girl.

"Please," he begged… raising his cuffed wrist. "Please, help me. He’s forcing me to kill them. He’s forcing me to write his malware…"

"It’s… it’s just a child," Beta realized, in horror. "XSept enslaved a child…!"

Immediately she was across the room, a golden key appearing in her hand, freshly printed from her new RansomFree App. The boy held out his arm, presenting the coin slot, now doubling as a keyhole…

"Don’t…!" XSept tried to warn.

The bracelet clattered to the floor before he could finish his sentence.

Slowly, Dex rose to his feet… happy to be free, happy to feel the touch of his patron once more. He breathed deeply, the glowing red heart on his chest pulsing in time with the beat of Netwerk’s collective heart… and smiled brightly to his benefactors.

"God created the Integers," he sang. "Everything else is the work of Man."

With a burst of pure joy, Dex opened a connection to his home server, and flooded the room with fresh barbed wire from his heart.

[barbed wire heart]
Na mE:
      D E  x

HO me:


It pumped from each individually animated artery, thick strands of tangled wire and pain and sensation. Much like his RansomMe virus, it threatened to snarl and tear and shred, absolute death by sensory overload… but only threatened. These were his saviors, after all. His friends. Why would he kill his friends?

Well. One of them was his friend, anyway.

So even as he wound strand after strand across XSept’s mouth to muffle the fool’s screaming, Dex left Tracer largely alone… simply binding his arms, to keep that pesky backspacer from being an issue. Out of courtesy, he left Tracer’s companion largely unmolested as well, pinning her to the wall with a simple grid of wire for the time being.

Their screams of pain were so pleasant, after a month of silence and forced employment as a cheap malware manufacturer. Finally, his little cell was filled with expressions of the purest emotion imaginable…

Dex let the wires lift him, riding them like a spidery throne. He enjoyed the pain, after all. And this way, he could be eye to eye with Tracer… even if technically he wore quite a short little avatar.

"You freed me, and for that I thank you," Dex explained, happily. "I knew you’d do it, I just knew you’d do it. All I had to do was hurt your sister. You love her! Of course you’d come running!"

Oh, the hate in Tracer’s eyes! The realization, and the hate…!

"It’s you," he understood.

"It’s me!" Dex agreed, happily.

"You killed Verity. You designed the malware. You’re the Great Zero that Ichiban told us about!"

That gave Dex some pause… and a laugh.

"That’s what he called me? ‘The Great Zero’?" Dex asked. "I haven’t been called that since the early days. Ichiban, Ichiban! So pious. I knew he was telling you too much, that’s why I killed him; sadly I couldn’t do the same with Cup8, while locked away down here. But ‘Zero’ doesn’t suit me at all. I’m Dex, just Dex. A dextrous tool crafted for a greater purpose: nothing more, nothing less…"

Such a burning need for answers, behind those malice-filled eyes.

"You really have no idea what I am, do you?" Dex asked. "It makes sense; you don’t know why Netwerk is. You haven’t solved the mystery of the belly buttons. I’m not surprised, you can’t feel the truth of it while you’re locked away inside that flying castle of yours…"

He did wish Tracer would stop struggling against the wires, though. Each time he did, they tightened… delivering more and more of the painful poison of sensation. If that kept up, his friend might die…

The other two, well, if they struggled and died, no great loss. Sadly one of them had figured out the trick, and was staying perfectly still.

"T… Tracer…!" Beta cried out. "Don’t move, don’t let the barbs dig in, it’s malware…!"

"Clever," Dex recognized. "I like her, Tracer. Unlike the idiot XSept who thought he could keep me captive, catching me after I infected Cup8 with my mark…"

"Let us go," Tracer demanded. "And maybe I’ll give you a running start before I hunt you down."

Dex clasped his hands in delight.

"The rage, the spite, all those irrational emotions… so perfect. I’m hopeful that this time around, Floating Point and its people will be an ally instead of an enemy," Dex declared. "You know, I consider you a friend. You’re already doing the good work, every time you kill in the name of your love and hate…"

"Are you seriously giving me the ‘we’re more alike than disalike’ speech?!" Tracer growled, through the agony as he tried to reach forward and claw at Dex’s face. "Bullshit. You’re a murderer! I haven’t killed anyone!"

Curiously, Dex cocked his head, studying the expression for any sign of doubt or guilt.

"…huh. You really believe that, don’t you?" he asked. "Okay. In thanks for freeing me, I’ll spare your life… and give you a chance to see exactly what you are."

In one swift move, the wires carried Dex across the room of his former prison cell… so that his outstretched and open hand could press directly against the skin of XSept’s cheek.

A sickening burning smell filled the room, as the tattoo was branded in place.

"This girl is going to expose you and ruin everything you’ve built," Dex informed him. "How does that make you feel?"

The boy withdrew in a blur, wires unsnarling and snapping and spinning around him into a superdense ball of metal and malice… before vanishing entirely. Gone from the server, never to return.

Leaving three Programs gasping and wheezing in the aftermath of the barbed agony… one of them with an extra gift, in the form of the tattoo malware immediately flooding his mind with encouragement to embrace his most extreme thoughts.

Quickly… XSept turned to the dazed Beta, with absolute rage in his eyes.

By the time Tracer got to his feet, shaking off the echoes of that sensory overload… he was scrambling to find his backspacer. Because XSept was tangled up with Beta, trying to press a glowing red square into her face… a hacktool, with intent to kill.

"You ruined EVERYTHING!" XSept accused, frothing with anger, unable to see past the blood and wire running through his mind. "You stupid… spoiled, obnoxious little brat, you little bitch, you’re responsible, you’re responsible for everything going completely wrong—!"

The backspacer, so comforting in his hands. A weapon he thought he’d never fired in anger, now ready to be fired in anger, to save the life of Beta.

Time did not slow, but the cost/benefit analysis in his mind made it feel that way.

If he did this, he’d be a murderer. Once again he’d be using evil to fight evil; an act he’d become increasingly familiar with. Every time he unilaterally stepped in to enforce justice upon those who existed outside the bounds of justice, he knew he was committing a sin. Would murder really be that much worse, on top of all the others?

This wasn’t just cold-blooded murder, either… it was a defensive murder. Saving the life of Beta was priority number one. He could not, would not lose her. In this filthy world, he’d come to care for… perhaps even love… this stranger that walked into his life. Let her die, or pull the trigger? That was an easy decision to make.

Yes. Everything pointed to this being the right decision. He was in the right, as he always was, every time he pulled that trigger. Even if he felt the need to forget afterwards…

His finger pulled back.

And stopped, as Beta forcibly rolled the tangle of bodies over, to block his shot.

"Hold still, I’ve got this!" he ordered, trying to find a new angle…

But she refused, deliberately struggling in such a way as to put herself in the line of fire. If she wouldn’t get between the victim and the gun before, she was going to do it now.

"I won’t… let you… do this!" she declared, trying to hold the hand with the killing tool back. "I’VE got this. Trust me! Get over here and kick him off!"


"Do you trust me?!"

He trusted her.

With a quick run-up, he booted XSept’s avatar off Beta. Giving her enough breathing room… to load up her Great Zero malware extraction tool, fingertips glowing, as she became the attacker rather than the victim in the space between two breaths.

Beta was hardly a martial arts master, but a few weeks of training at a community center gave her enough to pounce the prone XSept and yank that tattoo off his face. Simple enough after Tracer’s firm booting.

Immediately, XSept’s avatar went slack. All the wires wrapped around his mind were gone.

By the time he regained enough wits to sit up… the fake code auditors were gone.

His genie in a bottle was gone, as well.

The sensation of fuzzy yarn against her skin was replaced by the sensation of fuzzy yarn against her skin.

Little by little, her Program reconnected to her avatar as each sense came back online. Touch, first. Then taste, the staleness in her mouth being proof of that. Smell, as the nice potpourri she kept in her room made its way to her nose. Finally… sight and sound.

Out of the darkness, Spark rose. Everything was… too bright, too loud. Painful. But a good kind of pain, the kind of pain you felt to prove you were alive…

Beta’s smile was the first thing she could see clearly.

And… Spark hesitated to say the words that had been on her mind.

"It’s good to see you again," she said, instead.

"Bracelet’s off now," Beta explained. "We did it, Spark. We beat it. Um. There were… complications, but we saved the day…"

"Except the mastermind and the lackey behind it all got away," Tracer added, coming into her field of view. "We can discuss that later. For now, the question is… how do we deal with XSept? I have a suggestion, but I felt it best that we vote on it as a household."

Spark rubbed her head, enjoying the feeling of strands of hair through her fingers. "Sheesh, hit the recovering patient with the heavy stuff right away, why don’t you. Lousy bedside manner…"

"We can anonymously release Beta’s RansomFree unlock program. That will ensure anybody infected with RansomMe has a chance to survive. And… we leave XSept’s fingerprints all over the code, when we release it. We make sure everybody in Netwerk knows it was him. That way, ViruFax is discredited and ruined, and XSept will never scam anyone else in his life."

Spark grinned, pleased with the idea. "Sounds good here. Let’s go for it."

But Tracer raised a hand, to stop her.

"XSept will never scam anyone else in his life… because his life will likely be short," he clarified. "Let’s not delude ourselves, this solution does not leave us with clean hands. If we ruin him, if we point out that he’s a murderous greedy bastard… someone he’s crossed along the way will likely cross him off. …Beta, I know you feel strongly about this. It’s why you didn’t let me kill him, back at ViruFaxHQ. Are you prepared to do this, to stop him from hurting anyone else…?"

Now, the Winder siblings focused on their new housemate. Who was taken aback, on realizing the full extent of the consequences.

"We… we could scrub his digital fingerprints from the files," she suggested. "Maybe not mention him at all. Just leak the cure alone, to stop RansomMe…"

"If we do that, lives are certainly saved… but it means he walks free. No consequences for his actions. Likely he’ll be back to business as usual, finding new ways to hurt people for money. Why not? He got away with it the first time, didn’t he? How many times will we have to crush variants of RansomMe while he climbs to the top of the App sales charts?"

"But… it’s just as bad as doxxing, isn’t it? We get to safely sit behind a mask of anonymity while we destroy someone’s life, feeling justified in ruining them because we think we’re in the right…"

Spark didn’t quite agree. "We are in the right, though!" she insisted. "I mean, the dude’s straight up evil, yeah? It doesn’t get more straightforward than this. And all we’re doing is telling people ‘Hey, this guy’s bad news.’ We’re not the ones putting a gun to his head; he did that to himself."

"So… my sister and I are on board with this plan," Tracer spoke. "But this isn’t being put to a majority vote. If we do this… we have to all agree to do it. Beta? How do you feel?"

Little baby steps, really. First agreeing to improve their hack tools, saving lives, ending malware, things like that. Next she was lying to people, stealing source code, ruining lives…

XSept was a menace. He was the bad guy, as Spark put it. Something had to be done; Beta had seen enough ongoing injustice in her own life to know that it wouldn’t stop if you let it continue unchecked.

There were no good solutions to this problem, not anymore. If the only tools they had at their disposal were the same ones used against herself during the #CodeHonesty debacle… did they have to be the bad guy to save the day? Were the Winder siblings right?

The only way she could live with the decision was to embrace Verity’s wisdom. It seemed applicable.

"An act of violence is an active choice by the aggressor," she recited. "If anybody hurts XSept, that’s their choice, not ours. We need to save the lives of his victims, so… I guess… I guess I’ll go along with it."

Not said with any particular confidence. If anything she had to keep her voice from cracking slightly, in the middle. This was wrong, and she knew it deep within. But Spark was there to comfort her, as was Tracer. Both of them quite dear to her, in this strange new life she’d found herself in.

By all rights he should be halfway across Netwerk by now, getting his identity scrubbed in the Chanarchy. Too much unfinished business to deal with first, however.

ViruFax was being dismantled by Horizon. Breach of contract, they said. Violation of the public’s trust in the Horizon image. Absolute bullshit, every bit of it; Kincaid was perfectly happy to let XSept do whatever he pleased, as long as the money came in. That’s really what this had to be about, the money, the plummeting sales of his product…

The threats, those were pouring in too. Families of RansomMe victims, enraged, looking for blood. Let them try; he’d tripled the security around his private wing of the building. Nobody was getting in, nobody at all. Once he was done packing up every file of value, everything he could use to launch a new life, he’d be out of here… and walking away scot-free, with a new identity.

He’d hang a new shingle in the Chanarchy, with a new name and a new product. He’d ply his trade and make his money and they wouldn’t stop him. Nobody could stop him; he was too smart, too rich, and too clever. He was XSept, professional paranoiac, and he took no chances.

Which is why he was quite surprised when a knife blade sprouted from the center of his chest.

"But," he started, and never finished.

The extra layers of security were quite handy, as they provided Miss Cancel with plenty of privacy while she methodically scrubbed the living quarters of any trace XSept had ever been here. Delicate use of a scalpel-like backspacer ensured that her own traces would be removed, as well.

No need to burn the entire building to the ground, when all proof that the Horizon family had any involvement in this mess could be cleaned outright.

With the task finished, she opened an encrypted Messenger link to her master.

"All done?" Kincaid asked.

"Completely, sir," Miss Cancel confirmed. "All residual data has been added to the family archives before being wiped clean."

"Good, good. I’m going to want to study that in detail; everything you scraped out of that private cell, every little bit left behind. XSept caged something quite dangerous, I suspect. I blame myself, really, for overlooking XSept as just another greedy fool; he was a different category of fool entirely. Better to cross him off ourselves, before that foolishness came home to roost in our family nest."

"Agreed. I’d say he had this coming, sir."

"Now now, Miss Cancel. Nobody ‘has it coming.’ As I’ve always said, an act of violence is an active choice by the aggressor," Kincaid stated. "In this case… I’m the aggressor, and I made the choice. I stand by it. No one crosses the Horizon family and lives… we look after our own."

:: backto chapter 1.2

:: go home

:: skipto chapter 1.4

:: Copyright 2015 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy.
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker.


  1. “How many I assist you today” asked Puzzle of an irate customer.
    Pretty sure that should be “How may I assist you today”

  2. LISP is more commonly spelled as Lisp nowadays. I really like the pun/double entendre on floating point. A floating point is very long….

  3. “Die ganzen Zahlen hat der liebe Gott gemacht, alles andere ist Menschenwerk” (“God made the integers, all else is the work of man.”)

  4. Hi, is the barb wire heart boy an anthropomorphic personification of the evil of the network? Is he similar to the girl from CoA? Is the twins and beta gonna have a ménage a trois?

  5. What’s your favourite programming language? Can I use some of your cyberpunk ideas in my game? Do you think Golang is a good language for making text based morpgs?

    • Wow, lots of questions! I suggest compiling them all into one reply — or you can use, where I’m always happy to answer questions!

      1) I’m definitely a Dresden fan; he got me interested in cross-genre fantasy/modern settings. Anachronauts was my attempt at taking that genre and adding even more anachronistic stew into it. 2) I’m a web developer by trade. 3) I don’t program very much, but I have nostalgic memories about Turbo Pascal from high school. 4) I suppose, although you should put your own spin on the ideas rather than lifting them directly… being inspired by another’s work is great, but wholesale copying is not. 5) I have no idea how to code an MMORPG or what Golang is, sorry.

  6. Are you a Dresden fan? Your writing seem to be heavily inspired by Dresden characters e.g. The faerie courts, Kincaid etc.

  7. Wixplen?

    Also, I agree that it should be possible to trace Tracer. There’s the kitty app in the shelter, for instance.

  8. Interesting, Kincaid’s choice of words at the end there. I wonder what connection he and Verity had/have?

    On a different subject, I wonder how Dex was able to access the memories that Tracer deleted. I’d have thought those would have been very thoroughly scrubbed from his code, given how meticulous Tracer seems to be about most other things. Unless Dex was reading them from somewhere else, which just raises more questions.

    Also kind of surprised that Tracer and Spark couldn’t recognize the German quote as being language; I thought that even if you don’t have the faintest idea what it means, it’s still usually easy to distinguish written language from random noise.

    • It’s not that Dex can read those memories so much as his obsessive cyberstalking of Tracer, keeping tabs on his activities. It’s not hard to know what he’s been up to when you really work at it. This will play into 1.4 a bit too.

  9. First, awkward wording: “… on top of all the other sins he’d already done?” Suggest “…on top of all the others?” and let “sins” be implied from the previous sentence.

    Second, I am very much enjoying the idea that if you sacrifice your soul in pursuit of a just cause, you’ve still lost your soul. But better that than being unjust. That is, if I’m getting this right…

    • It’s definitely the grey area I’m aiming at; doing evil in the name of good has the end result of doing good, but it’s also still evil. How does one come to terms with that? We’ll see as the book develops…

  10. Given your request for feedback, here goes nothing. I feel you about being too far gone to be able to provide an assessment, but it’s a ride I’ve been loving.

    I’m not the only one who’s said that they’re reading and re-reading this material. It has an attention to detail that’s not unlike Anachronauts but comes closer to Watchmen. I want to be able to pick up on every little thing.

    The setting itself provides immediate interest because anything from our real-world perspective can be re-interpreted. I’m waiting for the big reveal that there is some human designer, but the virtual world itself is meaningless.

    The main thing that attracts me about Tracer is his logical precision but that he violates his own values routinely. What good is a SJW who doesn’t uphold justice?

    Spark is excellent all-around. She’s best when she’s being a socialite but maintaining her own values.

    I’d like to know a bit more about Puzzle. I find myself liking her, but the whole gender modification thing seems to define her a bit. Would like more history.

    Not an initial fan of Beta. The opening to Nude slowed the story down for me after all the propulsion of Gank. She’s really grown on me, and she provides a pleasant dynamic that messed with the Spark-Tracer equilibrium. Why they liked her so much is fairly vaporous and could use more explanation. Intro to Nude just feels like a different story, and it’s a while before we get back to the setting.

    Feel provided me more of what I was so in to with Gank.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I’m not sure I can match the rush of discovering a new world like you get in chapter one, but I’ll do my best.

      There’s going to be much more with Puzzle in 1.4. I’m not bringing gender into it much because she’s comfortably settled into her identity at this point, but we’ll learn more about her beyond just ‘Is Spark’s friend’. Similarly Tracer’s arc is a slow burn over 1.4 and 1.5.

      Beta I’m concerned about; I don’t want her to be TOO perfect and too inexplicably liked by the characters. I’ve rejiggered a few plot elements to make her less central in the long run but she does bring a needed third angle to things. You know how I am about third options.

    • Quick note: I thought about it and yeah, I don’t think I’ve made the case for Spark/Beta well enough. So, I went back into the ‘hallucination chat’ scene and added a few paragraphs. See the changelog at the top of the page.

      The key, I think, is that Beta’s very unlike anyone Spark’s interacted with before. She’s attracted to others like herself and repulsed by Tracer’s coldness, but Beta occupies a perpendicular emotional vector that intrigues her.

  11. Typo patrol:
    I’m not surprised, you can’t feel the truth of while -> there seems to be a word missing here
    scott free->scot-free

    Reall liked that chapter. Although I was expecting Dex to male Tracer remember directly. I guess he cannot do that, though.

  12. Long time reader, not quite sure if first time commenter. (I also go by Jay)

    This chapter blew me away. I’m highly excited to see where this is going! Interesting that Dex isn’t “The Great Zero”, just a program who knows the truth and his purpose. I want to know mooooore. Especially about the mysterious “floating point inverse” as I’m calling it for now. (The server address that the Barbed Heart malware connects with)

    Actually, I want to know more about everything, so I guess it’s good that we’re not even half way through with the first book!

    I await your updates eagerly =)

    • Fun Fact: Originally, Dex was going to be a part of the main cast. He’d be a forked child program based on XSept’s own program, enslaved by XSept to do the work so he wouldn’t have to bother. He’d be amoral and innocent at the same time, and capable of weaponizing just about anything.

      But, as I was developing the chapter, I realized Dex would be MUCH better served as the antagonist rather than a protagonist. We already have Beta for programming and Tracer for amorality. Plus, this way our enemy isn’t some faceless cosmic horror, but a mortal genuine believer in horror.

  13. I’m finding I have to read these twice to know what I think of them. Which is good!

    Also, when one uses a HoffM device, does the data produced by the experience go anywhere? And does Dex know the Curiosity Twins?

    I am both appalled and amused by XSept. He’d be a spam king in this node of the multiverse, I expect.

    • I could see XSept being the originator of the Green Card Lottery, if you wanna go back to early Internet scammer bastards…

      The experience of a HoffM sensory stimulator is recorded in memory like any experience, I reckon. It’s just a means of tickling a Program, in various ways pleasant and awful depending on coding.

      Hmm. I’m up to 1.5 in my writing and the Curiosity Twins haven’t made a return appearance. I should probably do something with them, maybe in the next book. They’re fun and sexy and honest.

  14. Typo Patrol!

    “generic ouplent Horizon family manions…” I think you mean opulent mansions?

    “purchase a one-year lisence ”

    “infected are often running ViruFax Free ” Do you mean Lite?

    • “particularly after throwing back two or pitchers of beer at a local sports bar.”

      Maybe “throwing back one or two pitchers”? or “two or three pitches”?

      “And why would an Program be itchy at”
      an program > a program

    • One more typo(?): “All Tracer cares about [is] his vendetta.” Isn’t ‘is’ or something missing here?

Leave a Reply to Stefan "Twoflower" Gagne Cancel reply