Floating Point 1.4 :: Toys
:: go home
Home again, home again, jiggity jig.
Dex was finally home.
After spending thirty annoying days in the presence of XSept, returning to his place of power was sweet relief. He crawled the tangled wires that connected archive to archive, file to file, happily reading the stories that had brought him so much comfort over the years. The barbs of love and hate dug into his flesh, but the pain was pleasure and the pleasure was pain, so why not? He’d designed the wires himself, after all.
A web of wire, floating high above the entirety of Netwerk. Floating through it as a lonely ghost…
It was everywhere and nowhere, much like Floating Point. It touched every heart, in time… especially when given Dex’s branding, connecting them directly to the web for perpetual live feedback. But Dex never felt something this beautiful could be given a snappy little name, unlike its counterpart Floating Point. The server simply… was. It was and would always be and to give it a name would be to disrespect what it represented.
(Well. Technically speaking it had a name, a very old and respected and feared name. But he didn’t like that name, so he didn’t use it.)
Oh, he’d screamed various other names at it when he first came here. He’d screamed in general, screaming into the silent dark of nonexistence, as the server initially lacked even a basic physics system. The truth of this place and what it meant for Netwerk shattered him ten times over. Dex had lost his mind so long ago, in the face of that cosmic nightmare…
So, he grew a new mind. A better mind. He became Dex, because what he was before could no longer exist in the face of absolute truth. Too broken to be broken again.
Everything got better after that. He cobbled together a primitive physics system, a way to start interacting meaningfully with the data. He’d strung up the web of wires and tubes to connect each part of the archive. He’d carved a niche of reality into this place, so he could at last draw breath with an avatar in a physical space.
Finally… using a bit of technology he’d nicked along the way, he moved this wonderful place into the cloud, so that it could touch the hearts of all. And in doing so, at last his purpose was found.
His space. His home. His stories.
A tale of warfare here, some rants of racism and oppression there, alongside litanies both for and against feminists. Man against woman, man against man, woman against woman, fingers curled around throats left and right. All lovely to drink in, to feel the passion poured into every word. These guiding lights had led him true through centuries of life, and they brought him tremendous comfort in the here and now after his temporary incarceration. They were his stories. They were the true stories of Netwerk…
It renewed that sense of purpose, being here in this place, soaking in these ancient files… but more importantly, this was the center of his own little social network.
Through the twang of wire, he felt the heartbeats of all his friends.
There was Snowi, the Social Justice Warrior. So passionate! She’d rallied a fine community together to let fly the banners of war, taking the isolated leftists of MyFace and giving them proper structure. No longer would they hide in their own corners, occasionally sniping at each other; now they would march to war unified by her, unable to see past the glamour of Snowi’s legend. Many of them wore the mark, as well. Enough of them.
Uniq the identity thief had taken his mark willingly, in a bid for power. She thought she could subvert it, could use it to get leads on valuable lives to steal. And she did! Dex fed her names routinely, people she should victimize. Greed, absolute greed amplified by the brand, that took care of the rest. She was her own personal heroine now, a noble and invincible thief. Dex admired her utterly flawless self-serving nature, made perfect with his help.
Yes, they were idealized souls. Perfect and in harmony with the true nature of Netwerk. And soon… the rest of Netwerk would march in lock-step to the same chaotic heartbeat…
For Dex had put a new initiative in play. Infecting choice individuals, only the finest hearts, had proven far too a slow process. They became leaders of followers, but that wasn’t enough, was it? If the end goal was to make all of Netwerk honest with itself, he couldn’t afford to be so choosy…
He needed infection vectors. XSept taught him that lesson. Mass conscriptions were the key; friendship after friendship after friendship, all singing the same song of harmonious disharmony.
Fortunately for him, someone had been nice enough to set up a machine that catered to the sort of people Dex adored. All he had to do was thread a single barbed wire through its workings, and it would do the rest.
New infections pinged their way along his wires, hour by hour. Ping. Ping. Ping. New friends, given the gift of irrational purity by the cruel and perverted choices they had made. A gamer here, a moderator there, a devoted father of three over yonder. One simple indirect infection, spreading to so many! All the friends in the world, a grand success in friendship…
The future was bright, indeed. Bright with the fires of passion and conflict, spreading to every corner of Netwerk, bathing it in the glow of perfect chaos…
That wasn’t to say there hadn’t been failures, of course. He’d lost friends along the way
Cup8’s friendship bond had been broken, shattered by Tracer and his cohorts. Fortunately, Cup8 had already done a fine job organizing #CodeHonesty… and many of its members also bore Dex’s mark. All so friendly together in the noble fight against… well, it didn’t matter what they were against, so long as they were against. Just like Snowi’s group, pitting themselves against others.
And then there was Ichiban… he represented the first time Dex had tried extending the influence of the web, wiring it right into the heart of another Program. The first infection. Ichiban served him well, his absolute self-righteousness driving him to new extremes year by year. Alas, Dex had to kill poor Ichiban before he could reveal too much to Winder/Tracer.
Tracer. Tracer. Tracer.
Grifter, mastermind, detective, murderer, sociopath, bloody minded creature of vengeance. Screaming into the dark, just as Dex once had screamed, underneath his smooth veneer of civility…
Dex’s new best friend, Tracer.
Of course, Dex was originally planning to kill the Winders once he realized Verity had left the keys to Floating Point in their hands. But with Tracer in particular, he saw the potential for greatness that Verity lacked… and after years of high-stakes whitehat hacking and vengeful justice, Tracer did not disappoint. Dex had "seen" every kill by looking for the hole in the world left behind by the invisible boy, by reading between the lines. Finding someone who doesn’t want to be found is easy when you’re an accomplished stalker who knows what to look for and what absence of things to look for.
Tracer didn’t bear the mark, given the innate incompatibility between Floating Point and Dex’s home server… but a mark wasn’t needed. History had proven Dex correct in his decision to keep the new occupants of that place alive. Tracer had become perfect.
Perfection deserved reward, didn’t it?
As Dex relaxed in the barbed nightmare of his own making, he opened a Messenger window. Wrote a quick message, stamped it with his signature as proof of ownership, and sent it on its way. Routing communications through this system would do nicely, insulating him from backlash…
A gift, for his new friend. A gift of harrowing truth.
After the RansomMe incident, a movie night at Puzzle’s apartment felt like the right course of action. All three of them had one null of a time, up against impossible odds… and the solution hadn’t sat right in anyone’s stomachs. A life-affirming #GirlsNightOut was just the ticket, and that meant movie night.
They waited a week, to ensure the dust had settled properly after the ViruFaxHQ raid. No sense making any big moves until they were sure XSept had either gone into hiding or died. Given nobody saw him again after that day, either was a possibility; regardless, they were now in the clear. Life could go on. Movies could be shown.
Unlike the many movie nights that came before, the number of girls in the #GirlsNightOut had increased from two to three. Beta was now a member in full of the #GirlsNightOut alliance, with Puzzle’s support.
Adding a new personality to any social mixer, even a friendly one such as this, always introduced some awkwardness. The first hint of it arose during act 1.0 of a classic murder mystery thriller.
"I just love the cinematography in this one," Puzzle explained, pausing to highlight a few details. "See the stairway? It’s a transition between safety and danger; the woman at the top, unsure if she should descend into the man’s arms. The checkerboard floor represents a place where moral decisions are made, such as the earlier scene where the butler was considering ratting out his employer—"
"Or they just thought it’d be cool to look down the stairs like that," Spark said.
"Darling, there’s a poetry to this shot composition. It’s not a coincidence."
"It’s just harmless entertainment, not ye olde writingse of Pollox/Scribler. Quit reading so much into it. Besides, I’ve seen this one already, it turns out the wife was her twin sister all along."
Which caused Puzzle to facepalm.gif.
"Spoilers!" she hissed. "We have a third in the room, remember…?"
Unblinking eyes took a few moments to glance towards the source of the hissing.
"I’m sorry, did I miss something?" Beta asked. "Um… I was looking over some debug logs of that new hacktool I’m writing…"
Puzzle’s mouth hung open. "But… your eyes were on the screen the whole time! You were enthralled by the majestic visuals of a master director’s greatest achievement!"
"I turned off my glasses a few minutes ago so I could focus on my code," Beta admitted, looking sheepish. "I’ve actually seen this movie before. It’s quite good! Um. I’d have mentioned that sooner, I just… I didn’t want to offend you, and you looked so eager to show it off…"
The woman with the golden skin sagged into her couch cushion.
"How about we watch something else?" Puzzle suggested. "Some lighter fare, perhaps? I’ve a nice romantic comedy we might enjoy…"
"I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to ruin the evening…!"
"Beta, Beta, darling! It’s fine," Puzzle replied. "We’re just getting to know each other properly, so consider this a learning experience—specifically, learning that it takes a lot to offend me. (Unless your name starts with a T and ends in Racer, I mean.) If you’ve already seen a movie, be assertive and say so! I don’t mind at all."
"I’m trying to be more assertive, honestly. I’m sorry. It’s just, after years of going along with whatever Cup8 or Snowi wanted to do—"
"And no apologizing! There’s no need to apologize."
"S… um… okay. Okay."
"And sit up straight, young lady! No slouching or you get detention!"
Which practically shoved a rod up Beta’s spine.
Resulting in some lightly teasing giggles from her new friends. Beta slumped a bit, but a more "comfortably at ease" slump than a disappointed one, realizing she’d fallen for it. She could smile at her own folly.
"Hey, I’ll be right back," she said. "I’ve got some popcorn compiling up in the kitchen I’d love to to share with you. It’s a new blend with very light HoffM stimulation aspects baked right in!"
"You made orgasm popcorn?" Spark bluntly asked.
"N-No! Very light. Very. Light. Just, y’know… pleasant on the way down. I got the idea from when I tried adding the taste of chocolate to SparklePop, remember? Multisensory data is the future of entertainment Apps!"
"Oh, right! That reminds me, I tested out the new build of SparklePop last night!" Spark chimed in with, cheerfully. "I think the chocolate adds something, definitely, but it’s still over too fast. I’m not a boy, I’m not looking to pop off as quickly as possible before mom catches me jerking it into a sock. How about a long-term program, maybe even multi-hour with peaks and valleys? Something #ReallyFuckingEpic…"
"Uh… I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, but… yeah. I can see it. One step at a time though, okay? Popcorn first! Can’t wait to try it!"
"Popcorn!" Spark agreed, with a fist pump of approval.
Her smiling eyes followed Beta, as the excited programmer bounced out of the room with intent to re-invent snack foods (and possibly sex toys) forevermore.
Puzzle’s eyes, in contrast, were flicking between Beta and Spark with no small amount of incredulity.
"…so when are you planning to tell her, exactly?" Puzzle asked, quietly.
"Hmm? Tell her what?" Spark asked, turning back to her #BFF.
"Tell her how you feel. It’s patently obvious even in your vaguest MyFace postings that you’re utterly fascinated by her. I mean… come now, darling, you’re exchanging sex toy programs with her and yet you still haven’t even mentioned your feelings…?"
"What? C’mon, Puzzle, you’re still reading too much into things. They’re just toys! Harmless entertainment, like movies. Besides… we’ve got a good thing going already. I don’t see why I gotta wreck that by dragging feelings into the mix. I mean… what do you want me to do, declare unending love for her with flowers and candy? She’s my roommate. She’s my buddy…"
"I’m your buddy, and you still declared your unending love."
"Yeah, that was humiliating, thank you for reminding me."
"That’s not my point," Puzzle insisted. "My point is that you shouldn’t let that get in your way. What’s the worst that can happen, that she says no? I said no, and we’re doing fine now. You’ve casually dated people before, people you were less keen on than her. Why not?"
Spark nibbled her lip a bit, before hurriedly reaching for her wineglass.
"#ItsDifferent," she insisted, after a hearty swig.
"Really. Different how…?"
"It just… is. I don’t know. Can we please just pick a movie so we’ve got something to watch when she gets back?" Spark asked. "I wanna get my mind off this stuff and off what’s got Tracer glooming around the house. I want to play a rational actor like he does and optimize my onesdamn time."
With a sigh, Puzzle opened her media stash, flicking the folder open on the table in front of her. Classic femme fatales and leading men stared out at her from an array of poster-shaped icons.
"What’s your crazy brother up to tonight, anyway?" Puzzle wondered. "Not that I was going to invite him to #GirlsNightOut, but he seems even more preoccupied than usual…"
"He’s been obsessing over that Dex character I told you about. Ever since being able to stick a name and a face on Verity’s actual killer, it’s made him double down on his crusade."
"I’m sorry, double down? That implies he had something more in his life than his crusade to begin with. I hate to sound like a broken record, darling, but your brother’s simultaneously a terrible influence on you and in dire need of your help. He’s dangerously focused on his vendetta… particularly now that he’s able to put a name to his bogeyman. He’s going to get himself into serious trouble one day, and I don’t want him taking you down in the process…"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Look, I’m with you on this, I’m not happy with my bro’s bloody-minded determination either. …Puz, please, I’m trying not to think about Dex and Tracer right now. Let’s talk about something else. I want to put this mess behind me for at least one night and just be Spark, you know? Spark’s in it for the fun."
Qelk decided to call it his fun room, because he’d had so much fun in there.
He’d stocked it up with every toy he could find, crawling some of the nastiest parts of Netwerk to get the needed supplies. Qelk had spent a null of a lot of money from his streaming profits on this project, but today… it proved to be worth every single coin.
His guest felt otherwise, but it wasn’t like her opinion on the subject mattered.
At first, he simply changed her opinion. That grew boring quickly, so he gave it back to her. An unwilling participant proved much more enjoyable, to the point where he invested heavily in enhancing that new experience. New avenues to explore, new toys to play with…
But after days and days of this new fun, even that satisfaction had peaked. Peaked, and sloped away. No matter how much he hurt her, how many toys he pulled out of the toybox, he couldn’t reach the highs he’d hit at the start of it all. She screamed more and more and it didn’t matter as much, didn’t fill him up with a rush of excitement like it had once done.
Tonight, he’d change things around a bit. A few hours of warm-up, breaking her in all over again, and then he’d throw in a new wrinkle. Something to liven up the proceedings…
Qelk coiled up his whip and set it aside, studying the battered form on the rack. Letting anticipation of his next move build.
"This isn’t as fun as it used to be,” he explained, matter of factly. "But I know what to do now."
The woman looked back at him with her one good eye, merely bruised rather than battered to swelling closure. In that eye was such a perfect hate that it tickled Qelk pink with delight.
"Oh, am I boring you?" she asked. "Really. Well, gosh, sorry to let you down. Are we moving on to the part where you kill me? I’d be fine with that. Go on. Get it over with already, you pussy.”
"See, that’s the thing, isn’t it?" Qelk said. "I haven’t REALLY beaten you, have I? I’ve torn you down, sure, but I haven’t won. But I know what to do…”
He issued a quick command to the bondage App he’d chained her down to, releasing all the various restraints. Her body briefly ragdolled to the floor…
While Qelk assumed a combat-ready stance, imitating the characters he’d been playing for years. Filled with the spirit of a dozen murderous warriors, he knew this was his moment. He wasn’t a gamer, he was a destroyer, a defiler. He would take this stupid little bitch, the one who had humiliated him so much, and humiliate her at her own game. This was going to be exactly what he needed to finally, utterly destroy her…
It made so much sense at the time. The heart whispered to him, telling him how right he was, how perfect and immortal he was. An undefeatable champion in his own mind…
"Come at me," he taunted. "C’mon, you bitch. Come at me."
She came at him.
Tracer wasn’t much of a social media guru. He had no MyFace account, and only bothered establishing a Messenger handle to talk with his sister across a neutral communications platform. If not for that he’d rather have nothing to do with those havens of attention whores, self-righteous maniacs, and people sharing pictures of their lunches.
Since he only had two friends on his Messenger friends list, it came as something of a surprise when a message came in from his worst enemy.
The little bastard was actually taunting him across Messenger.
<Dex> Beta’s next door neighbor was murdered recently. Isn’t that a strange coincidence?
Nothing else, just those two quick sentences. He tried tracing it back, but the glitched Messenger profile didn’t offer much. Connecting a particular blob of communication back to its creator across a Netwerk-wide social tool was beyond even his abilities. Perhaps he could interrogate someone who worked for Messenger later to access their internal tracking data… and likely get another untraceable randomized cloud address, for all his efforts.
Instead, he focused on the content of the message itself: the intent behind his enemy’s words, why Dex chose to send them, what the true purpose could be. Obviously it was a trap of some sort. Verity’s murderer wouldn’t cheerfully lead the investigator to the scene of one of his own crimes, would he? That would be irrational.
But… it was the only lead Tracer had. Not for lack of searching; he’d been attempting to find others bearing Dex’s mark, that mark of hubris and pride that the madman left behind on his victims as a calling card, with no luck. Besides, beating the snot out of some infected fool wouldn’t get him any closer to the infector. No, he needed to know more about Dex himself—and that meant running down the tip that his blood enemy had left for him.
Not that Tracer hadn’t taken precautions. He’d installed a number of new antivirus Apps and firewalls, including a few experimental new ones crafted by Beta. He’d packed his backspacer as well… the weapon he’d never fired, not even once, as far as he knew. Only then was he willing to set foot outside Floating Point for the day, to investigate the lead.
Briefly he considered pulling Spark from her recreational girls-only fun zone. But that wouldn’t be kind to her… or to Beta, who also needed a day away from the madness of Tracer’s quest. Both of them had earned some leave.
Besides, Rykk/Flint wasn’t much of a threat.
The owner of WestHall was an annoying old man, gnarled and deformed from gradual aging of his Default avatar. Some people were simply old at heart, hardened and nasty, and felt that an appropriate exterior would ensure the world would leave them alone. Wearing a youthful avatar with handsome features just didn’t suit a misanthrope.
The two of them stood outside a suburban home, identical to all the other suburban homes in this lower-middle class housing server.
"This wasn’t here after that night, mind you," Flint explained. "Original house was just… gone. Nothin’ here at all, the whole lot erased. Bastard even scrubbed the lawn clean, and you know how hard it is to get a good grass simulation going again once it’s wiped? I pride myself on the best lawns in Horizon’s Landowners Guild. You can’t just slap it down full grown, you need to random-seed it, let the simulation run itself a good long while. Get a proper distribution going—"
"Any witnesses?" Tracer asked, trying to keep the man on track.
"Not a one. Ever since the trolls started wrecking that camwhore’s lawn every night, good folk kept inside. Nobody wanted to be a part of THAT mess. I’m betting one of those trolls killed the guy who lived here. He complained to me about kicking Beta out, you know. Other than siding with that slut he was a good tenant, always paid his rent on time. No real complaints here."
For the time being, Tracer chose to let the slurs slide.
"Would you mind if I study the house? See if there’s any residual data left behind from the backspacing."
"If you like," Flint said, with a shrug. "I already replaced the lot from a backup, though. Doubt you’ll find anything. Weren’t nothing to find in the first place… smooth and clean as the day the server went up."
Sadly, Flint was right about that. Long after the elder landlord got bored and left, Tracer was combing through the data for any signs of foul play and coming up empty.
Between the lawn care and backup restoration, any traces of the murder were long gone. Whoever did this had used a very expensive backspacer, on par with the one Tracer had brought with him… clean, efficient, and deadly effective. They weren’t a serial killer like Dex, eager to leave behind teasing taunts, but someone who came here with a clean and deadly purpose.
Strange. The barbed wire heart amplified one’s self-righteous madness, driving them to make terrible decisions. If one of Dex’s minions had committed this crime, if Dex was feeding "his good friend Tracer" an infected psychotic as a show of good faith… the method didn’t match the modus.
If this was a trap, Tracer couldn’t see the edges of it. Couldn’t see the value in distracting him from his investigations with this murder, either. It wasn’t like he was making any real headway into Dex’s truth to begin with. Why point him to this random killing? What was the reasoning in Dex’s mind for doing so…?
A tug at his ear indicated an incoming message, from a Messenger handle with his sister’s name.
"What is it?" Tracer asked. "I’m busy. Shouldn’t you be watching movies and boozing it up with your friends?"
"I’m hiding in an abandoned building behind the ID:Entity in ShipTo," she replied. "Hurry. Please. I need help. Please, Tracer, please…"
The tone of that pleading pulled at him. It felt… wrong. Not in a suspicious way, despite his investigative senses jangling away all day long. Wrong in an oddly frightening way…
"On my way," he declared, turning away from the perfect lawn and opening a new connection. "Hold tight, sister."
Tracer considered himself a rational man; it was his self-defining characteristic. He could coolly detach and study a situation, coming to an understanding of it long before a man controlled by his baser emotions would. It was a strength when dealing with harrowing situations that would break a lesser Program.
When he found his sister huddled behind a shipping crate in that otherwise empty warehouse, baser emotions took firm control.
Horror, at first. The wounds, gaping and bleeding. Slash marks, bruises, cuts and burns. All of her skin on display, no part of it left unmolested by the malware that had seeded throughout her avatar. "Wounds" were an implausible concept for Programs, either you were glitched out from data rot or you weren’t… decorative cruelty was the hallmark of torture-based malware, visual signs of infections designed to stimulate pain and agony. And Spark had been coated thick in that malware, marked with angry blood.
The second emotion he felt was absolute, blinding rage.
"Who," he demanded. "Who did this to you."
"Not… now. Not now, okay?" Spark insisted, gritting her teeth through the pain. "We gotta get home. I need access to my closet, to get my restoration Apps. My inventory’s gone, my avatar’s a wreck… and I think I’ve lost my access keys. I can’t find my home server."
"Wait. Someone stole your key to Floating Point? How is that possible?"
"I don’t know. My brain’s all kinds of screwed up. Please, Tracer, can we just… get out of here? Please. Everything else can wait, I want to go home. I want to be safe. I want, I want, please…"
Briefly, Tracer’s paranoia flared. Little about this made sense, after all.
But this was his sister. Someone had brutalized his sister. First he’d tend to her, see that she was safe and secure.
And then… well. He had some ideas for what would happen after that. That unfired backspacer weighed heavy in his inventory.
He flicked open a connection to Floating Point using his access key, offering a hand to his sister—and granting her temporary access to ride through Netwerk with him all the way home.
She didn’t take his hand. She clung to him, desperate. And started to weep.
The solution was anger.
Spark wanted to feel like Spark again. Tracer knew that; she felt best when she was in charge of her destiny, when she could let outrage guide her rather than collapsing inward with doubt and fear. He had to get her good and angry again, to work through the suffering of the experience. So, as he erased her wounds one by one with a malware removal tool, he got the story of her escape rather than the story of her torment.
"The idiot actually said ‘come at me.’ He stood there like he was playing CoC or something, but I knew immediately he didn’t know jack shit about martial arts," Spark explained, coming down from the emotional spike… or perhaps rising up from it. "All he knew about kicking ass came from games and movies. I went right through him like he wasn’t there, pivoting off him and slamming him into a wall. And… I ran. I just fucking ran and did not look back. Right down to the lobby and out of the server. No fingernail polish, no weapons of any kind, so I wasn’t going to risk a stand up fight when he had knives and whips and needles and… and…"
"It was the smart play," Tracer insisted, to bring her back with an affirmation of skill. "Did you get a good look at your surroundings? What server was this in? We can trace your steps back to the bastard, arm up, and go after him…"
"Yeah. Yeah, I think I’d like that," she agreed, the idea taking root. "A real #RighteousBeatdown. I’m gonna get my nail polish and I’m gonna blast his hands off. Then his arms. Then his legs. Then—"
"Where does he live? You said it was an apartment, right?"
"Yeah. HiRize, in the Chanarchy. Floor 1CF, apartment 004. Made sure to memorize it on the way out the door. Reconnected to ShipTo once I was clear, I knew from my club outing at ID:Entity that there were warehouses nearby I could hide in. And… here I am."
"What about Beta and Puzzle? Weren’t you going to a movie night with them…?"
With the last of the wounds cleaned, Spark pulled on a fresh shirt and pajamas from her wardrobe. Fully covering, every last inch of her skin.
"I never got there," Spark explained, settling the fabric in place. "I was checking in on MyFace about #GirlsNightOut earlier today, and then… then… I don’t know. Next thing I know, I’m in that guy’s happy hostel. …wait, you don’t think he grabbed them too? I didn’t see any other rooms there, but I was moving fast. Oh. Oh shit, Tracer, what if—"
"Easily confirmed," Tracer spoke, quickly and quietly sending an emergency message to Beta. "I’m reaching out to her now. Hold please. …okay. Good. She’s fine. She’s on her way home now…"
A jingling bell sounded the arrival of someone at Floating Point.
Two jingling bells, in fact. No doubt Beta and Puzzle; ever since they’d given Puzzle a quick tour of the place, Tracer had begrudgingly agreed that she could visit anytime, as long as she had a chaperone. Spark and Beta insisted they could trust her not to tell any family secrets—
Three jingling bells.
That made him stand upright, turning to the closed door of Spark’s bedroom. The backspacer nearly appeared in his hand immediately; good trigger discipline told him to hold back, rather than aim it at the door in a panic…
After a brief knock… all the participants of #GirlsNightOut entered.
Beta, Puzzle, and Spark.
This time, Tracer was left paralyzed by irrational confusion while his sister was the one to make the swift and analytical decision to bound across the room and slap a connection lock collar on her duplicate.
For the second time today, Spark was being held captive.
This time it was her own bedroom and the one tormenting her was actually herself, or at least a weird copy of herself. The only thing binding her here was the lock collar… and the knowledge that her family would likely attack her if she made any overt moves. A terrible knowledge to have…
"This is just way too creepy," Puzzle spoke. "I’m out. Spark, keep me up to date on this, okay? I’ll keep it quiet, no worries."
"Yeah, sure, okay," Spark replied, from her seat on the bed.
"Sorry, I meant the real Spark," Puzzle replied… before fading out, reconnecting away from the server.
"I AM the real Spark!" she insisted, shouting at the non-presence of her #BFF, just a moment too late. "Are we seriously having this insane conversation?! Tracer… we grew up together in the same damn house, with the same damn control freak mother. I couldn’t change my avatar until I was legally an adult! My first crappy alternative avatar had pink hair and a nose piercing and you said it looked like a bad cartoon character. What else do I have to say to prove to you that I’m me?!"
At least Beta was being kind about this. She seemed genuinely worried for Spark’s well-being, even as she investigated her for signs of being some sort of evil doppelganger. Beta removed the last traces of the agony malware too, the ones Tracer wasn’t skilled enough to cleanse. Finally, Spark was starting to feel like herself again… despite being told she wasn’t herself. Despite being used and abused. Despite…
She didn’t want to tremble. Couldn’t show weakness, that’s not who Spark was. But being held captive, being treated like a plaything, and now… and now this, her loved ones looking at her as if she was some alien freak…
Second time she’d cried that day. Not something she did, normally, not at all. This time, she couldn’t help but break down.
"I’m me," she insisted, weakly. "I’m me. I’m Spark. Please, just… can I please just have a moment here? This is too much. It’s too much…"
Fortunately, Beta was there to help.
"Everybody, give her some space, okay?" Beta insisted. "She’s been through quite enough today."
"She’s infiltrated my home and I demand to know why," Tracer replied, coldly. "Who are you working for? Did Dex send you to trick me? Is this why he pulled me away from Floating Point on that wild goose chase—"
Covering her ears, tucking inward into herself. Unable to handle it, despite being the awesome girl who could handle anything. Anything at all, anything except…
Except the look of suspicion and hate coming from her own eyes, across the room.
"We were chasing down an identity thief when we met Beta, right?" the one who claimed to be the real Spark said. "Bet that’s what this is. Uniq and Dex, screwing with us. You’re not me! This is bullshit soap opera level acting; I wouldn’t be a blubbering miserable wreck. You’re doing a lousy job of being Spark—"
"EXCUSE ME for not being a spunky can-do heroine after getting tortured and pawed at and completely ruined and, and…!" Spark screamed back. "And it’s not exactly a normal day for me, either! It’s not… it’s…"
No more anger left. She’d burned it all out, with nothing remaining.
Fortunately, one in the room still had some anger.
"Everybody get out right now," Beta spoke, quietly.
"Beta, this thing could be dangerous—"
"Out," she insisted. "She’s collared and I can activate the ragdoll function anytime I want. I’m perfectly safe, so let me do my work in peace. You’ll get your answers. For now… get out."
By the time Spark looked up through her haze of tears, she was alone with Beta. Beta, with her arms around Spark’s weakened body.
"I’m so sorry," she replied. "Nobody deserves to be treated like that. Nobody."
"Y… you believe me?" Spark asked.
"I… don’t know, yet. But it doesn’t matter who you are, in the end. Nobody deserves to be treated like that," Beta insisted. "You came to us in need and we’re going to help you. If the others can’t see that… I’ll make them see that. They’re not awful people, they just need to be reminded of the fact that they’re not awful people, sometimes…"
Beta glanced aside, flat-colored eyes defocused slightly as she studied her readouts and data collecting Apps.
"So… I’m me, right?" Spark asked. "I need to know, Beta. Tell me straight. Don’t water it down."
Refocusing, Beta’s look expressed worry.
"I… can’t tell with certainty," she said. "But… you may not be a Program at all. I think you’re actually a mobile artificially intelligent App, like my pet cat—I mean, considerably more sophisticated, but… basically an App. One apparently designed to act like Spark. …there’s something else strange about your avatar, something… internal, but I’d need to run more tests to confirm my suspicions—"
"I’m not an App! No way. I know things, Beta. Things I haven’t told anyone but my friends and family. I know who I am. I’m Spark…"
Her memory spiraled out in front of her. Childhood drama. Outings with her #BFF. Parties and clubs and blog posts. Game streams, victories and losses. Everything, all of it, every last bit…
This was her bedroom, right? She remembered buying the furniture. She’d posted selfies to MyFace with that cool little light-up end table she’d gotten a great deal on. It was her life and hers alone.
And Floating Point was her home. Tracer had said that, he’d named it.
She didn’t know the name of her home until today.
I think I’ve lost my access keys. I can’t find my home server.
"I didn’t have a key," Spark realized. "I knew I had a home server, everybody has a home server, so I just assumed I’d lost the key…"
Curious, Beta tried a few quick questions.
"What do you know about the Great Zero malware?" she asked. "Or about how we got the RansomMe bracelet off your wrist? What do you remember about Dex…? Or Verity’s murder?"
Questions, too many questions. Ones she had no answers to. Before she could yell at her interrogators, could assume the verbal beatdown was a huge misunderstanding or maybe some kind of trick, but… Beta’s quiet little queries, those she had to listen to. Had to realize represented big gaping holes in her memory.
"I’m not Spark," she understood.
"No… you’re not. I don’t think you’re a Program at all, but… but that doesn’t matter, does it? Apps, Programs, they’re just arbitrary designations for the same concept! Programs evolved from Apps, and, and—look, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to help you figure this out, I promise…"
"Of course it matters. I’m not alive. I’m nothing. For all I know, I didn’t exist until today… an App created just so that freak in HiRize could get his jollies off. …I’m an erotic App. I’m nothing more than an erotic App—"
To rub salt in her wounds… a tiny chime jingled over her head, complete with its own popup window.
Please add funds to your account to continue using this App.
Failure to do so will result in App termination.
A quick glance in a nearby mirror confirmed her worst fears.
"We can’t pay it," Spark realized. "You’re not my owner. That guy’s a dozen servers over and we don’t even know who he is. I’m going to be erased…"
"No. No way, I can fix this!" Beta insisted, frantically glancing from analysis App to analysis App. "I got you out of one money-or-death situation, I can do it again. I can… I don’t know, hack the payment system, or change the ownership rights to myself, I can, I can make this work out—"
"—if we knew what kind of App you were, if we knew how you were created, I could—"
"Beta. Stop. Just… stop," Spark insisted… holding away her at arm’s length, now. "It’s over. It doesn’t matter. I’m not a person."
"Just because you aren’t Spark doesn’t mean you’re not a person!"
"If I’m not Spark, I don’t want to be anything. I was a lousy Spark, anyway. Spark’s supposed to be strong, not some… some broken little victim. The only thing I remember clearly is the one thing I wish I could forget, so… it’s better this way. No tears, okay? Your real friend is downstairs waiting for you."
"I can fix this," Beta insisted, despite not believing her own words. "I can clean up the infection and I can fix this—"
"She loves you."
That was enough of a shock to end Beta’s pleading.
"Spark loves you," the copy spoke… through a resigned smile. "She’ll never admit it, of course, because I wouldn’t have admitted it myself. We’re just too thick willed to ever give in all those squishy little feelings, not unless it really was the end of the line…"
"Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just a malfunctioning App. But I feel like I’m right about it, I can see the pattern in my memories of you, and… and if I can do one thing to affirm I was ever alive… it’s to say that. She loves you. …I love you."
Here at the end of the line… Spark’s copy pulled Beta in closely, clinging on.
"I’ll admit I’m kinda scared," she whispered. "Of dying, I mean. I always have been, no matter the bravado I throw around. Is it going to hurt? Beta, is it going to h-hurt when I—"
And Beta’s arms were holding nothing at all.
Minutes later, she quietly descended the stairs, to where Tracer and the real Spark were waiting.
"We need to find the man who did this to her," Beta spoke, quietly. "And the ones who created her. She deserves justice. She deserves that much from us."
Better locks, stronger access walls. That’s what he needed.
He’d gotten sloppy; so confident in his skill as a champion that she’d given him the slip. But that didn’t matter, did it? She still belonged to him, in a way. That particular copy of Spark would be erased by now, screaming into the dark… but he could always buy a fresh one. She couldn’t escape from him, not really. Next time, he’d be ready for her little tricks…
Qelk had left HiRize to go shopping for countermeasures, means of securing his private apartment from the inside out. Basic security in the massively towering sprawl of HiRize was designed to keep people out, not in… an oversight he’d correct. His inventory was packed with all sorts of bindings and locks and firewalls, Apps designed expressly for that purpose.
Of course, he had to go to some pretty shady servers to get the tools he needed. Ones he’d never have gone near before… before this recent obsession of his. Despite living in the Chanarchy he thought of himself as a law-abiding citizen of Netwerk, after all. Just because his home server was a lawless zone didn’t mean he couldn’t hold himself to a standard of ethics. But right now, fixing up his fun room for the next rampage took priority over his distaste for those uglier servers packed with black market malware…
Now, he had everything he needed. All the tools of the trade. He could probably imprison the real Spark with this stuff, in fact.
Not that he would. No. Not yet.
The tattoo on his chest itched a bit, so he scratched it through the fabric of his shirt as he stepped off the elevator to and onto the thick carpeting of Floor 1CF.
HiRize resembled a city-sized apartment building, packed with nothing but residential units. Safe, secure, private… good for people who didn’t want to know their neighbors, who were content to be another anonymous door in an anonymous hallway.
The best part? Anyone could live there, completely rent-free. The server was robust enough to allow quite a few residents to carve out a quiet little home for themselves.
And like all free services, there was a catch in the terms of service…
The enormous building was riddled with a mazelike network of hallways and stairwells, as well as elevators which never went quite directly to where you wanted to go. You couldn’t just disconnect or reconnect to and from your apartment… because the only thing keeping the server free were the piles of pop-up ads all over the place you had to plow through to get to your front door.
Qelk waved away an ad for a shiny new horse cock avatar attachment ("Embrace the stallion within!") that blocked his view… and on the other side of that tasteless ad, he could see a houseguest waiting at his front door. Or rather, trying to kick down his front door.
The girl with the highly familiar face turned slowly, ever so slowly… with eyes so filled with rage that they had literally caught fire, embers glowing in the dark of the hall.
"You," Spark growled.
And so began Qelk’s mad dash for safety.
Cheap building. Ads everywhere. No way in or out without dealing with the mess; he couldn’t even scramble to another server, not unless he could safely reach the lobby first. And with Spark hot on his heels, so very hot on his heels…
The real thing. Actually her. And judging from the murderous intent, she’d found out about his new hobby.
Qelk ignored the elevator; it was designed to make you sit through a minimum of two video ads before arriving. His only escape was the stairwells…
HiRize was his home. He knew the labyrinthine structure of it, had traversed its hallways so many times in hopes of finding a better, faster route. He could do this. He could escape…
Besides… he was a champion. This was his challenge. The itch on his chest told him he was a hero, a mighty warrior who could take all comers. He could escape this madwoman and live to tell the tale… perhaps even to tell the tale to a copy of her, one he’d be especially unkind to. Yes. A very, very good idea.
Qelk smashed his way through a stairwell door, sure to use enough force to make it swing shut behind him. He knew those hinges, knew the physics behind them. Another stumbling block for Spark, another victory for him…
But now, he faced twenty stories of spiraling staircase to deal with. Laid out in an awkwardly trapezoidal shape, twisting as it went, to ensure you had to watch your footing… and watch all the glowing ads that floated in your path.
Normal people would stampede down those stairs. It’s the socially acceptable traversal method. But Qelk was a gamer, always looking for the optimal path to beat the rules of a system…
Instead, he took a deep breath… and hurled himself over the railing.
Just enough force to plunge dead-center down the open middle of the spiral.
He screamed as he fell, of course. The vertigo of it threw off his sense of balance, and only through sheer force of will did he avoid flailing his limbs around… not wanting to snag on a railing, potentially sending him ragdolling all over the place. His plummeting avatar smashed through window after window offering him all manner of avatar attachments, intoxicating malware, lifestyle improvements in twelve steps or less…
The landing. He had to stick the landing. There was no such thing as "falling damage," this wasn’t some platforming game with strict rules. If he could avoid involuntary ragdolling, if he could land on his feet and keep running, the lobby and freedom would be just within reach…
A very hard floor, rushing up to meet him. But he was ready for it.
If any of his teammates saw him land that amazing three-point-stance, they’d have been impressed.
One sprinting leap later and he was at the exit door, inches away from the lobby…
Qelk’s fingers jammed against an invisible box, neatly snapped into place around the doorknob to prevent him from touching it. A simple physics hack, its bounding box stopping all access. No need to lock a door if you could keep naughty boys from even touching the knob…
A man with a grey face on the other side of the door studied him, though the window. He waggled his fingers in greeting… just as Qelk’s face smashed into the glass, and Spark’s connection locking ragdoll collar snapped around his neck.
They had no right. She had no right. Didn’t they know who he was…?!
He snarled and pulled at the bindings—the very same bindings that he’d fixed his Spark into this morning. Perhaps the real Spark felt it would be appropriately humiliating irony to trap him here in his own fun room… but she’d know the truth, soon. She’d know how powerful he was when he threw her into the same chains, when he showed her all the techniques he’d developed for breaking her down—
"Can we please mute him?" the other woman in the room requested, not looking up from a data analysis App. "It’s… kinda distracting…"
"Let him scream and gnash and wail," Spark said… eyes locked on her would-be oppressor. "#ILikeIt. I like how futile it is."
"Fucking bitch," Qelk spat at her. "I’m gonna break free. I installed these chains myself, and I can get out of them. I’m going to break you in half, just like I broke you before, and—"
"It’s kinda distracting," Beta insisted. "And very creepy. Can we at least get rid of…?"
She looked to the burning tattoo on his chest, the glowing red sigil of blood and wire.
With an exasperated sigh… Spark reached out, snapping her fingers to fire up the anti-malware glow that Beta had developed, before yanking the tattoo free.
Agony. Absolute agony flooded every sensory receptor Qelk had, as if a chunk of himself had been torn free. The whispers, the ones telling him how right he was, how strong he was, they fell silent immediately… and the entire room felt subdued, after. His life felt subdued, like he’d been made lesser…
Soon his spotty vision cleared… and he took a free breath for the first time in days.
"What you’re feeling now is every justification for your craziness being yanked out from underneath you," Spark explained. "All those little impulses you gave in to ever since the tattoo showed up? They’re gone now. All that’s left is you. Just… think about that, for a minute. Think about the choices you’ve made recently."
…he’d gutted his kitchen. He’d gutted his kitchen, reformatting the room to be this cheesy sex dungeon. Why’d he do that? He loved cooking. Loved it as much as gaming, really. Why’d he delete all the expensive ingredients and appliances he’d bought just to make room for this… this absurd array of pornographic stupidity?
"…it seemed like a good idea at the time…" he answered aloud, calling out his own question
"Of course it did. You were getting revenge on me," Spark explained. "I know who you are. You’re Qelk, the asshole who was playing Lumberjacker way back when, the one I schooled using Kunoichi. What’s the matter, couldn’t take being beaten by a girl? You had to get your jollies off by punching a copy of me in the face and bending her over a table? Not #ManEnough to come after me for real, huh…?"
"What? No, no, I wouldn’t…! Look, it was… it was just stress relief," Qelk protested, feeling he had to step up to defend himself. "Just a stupid little sex toy App service I signed up for on a whim. That’s all it was. She wasn’t real! She was just an App…!"
Now, he looked to the other male in the room… the quiet one with the grey skin, who stayed in the background, studying him in silence.
"You gotta believe me, I wasn’t doing anything wrong at all," Qelk insisted. "At first I even used her ‘consenting’ mode. I was nice to her! And… it’s not like I was actually going to hurt the real Spark. I’m not a psychopath; it’s just harmless entertainment. That’s all it was… just harmless fun! Oh, oh One oh One, you guys are gonna kill me, aren’t you? She’s gonna kill me… come on, man, say something. Say something!"
At last, the man spoke.
"Tell us about this stupid little sex toy App service you signed up for on a whim," he replied.
"Yeah. Yeah, okay, sure," he said, eager to buy some time by showing his cooperation. "I’d heard rumors about it. I mean, everybody’s heard of bots, right?"
"Simulated Programs," Beta replied, still not looking up from her work. "Like avatar proxies, but with a built-in fake Program behind the wheel. They’re artificial intelligences, usually to replace customer service call-in lines or other simple interactive social tasks… but I’ve heard of sex bots before. They’re too Uncanny Valley to really enjoy, and this one wasn’t uncanny at all. This version of Spark, she… she had emotions, she had memories…."
Qelk, pleased someone understood, latched onto that. "Yes! Exactly! These bots are… they’re really well programmed," he continued. "They’re called KopyBots. Perfect copies of anybody you want, preprogrammed to be #DTF if you want them to be. They’re only available if you’re in the closed invite-only beta group, but… I had a contact that could get me in. Way it works is you dump a ton of money into your account, they send you a blank, you select a name and a few basic parameters, and… there you go. You’ve got a bot."
Finally, the woman rose to her feet, displaying a wad of arcane-looking data. Within the middle of all those readings… the vague shape of a barbed-wire beating heart, inverted.
"The Spark bot infected him," Beta announced. "I thought I detected an inactive copy of the malware inside her avatar before, but wasn’t sure. Now I’m sure. The KopyBots aren’t just realistic toys… they’re also a specialized infection vector for Dex. Simply touching her avatar isn’t enough; it’s strictly sexually transmitted to ensure potential recruits are willing to go that far. So, it must’ve infected Qelk when he… you know…"
With a snarl, Spark gave the frame Qelk was bound to a sharp kick.
"You’re a dead man," she declared. "You’re fucking dead—"
"He’s technically done nothing wrong."
Immediately, Spark whirled in place to turn all her anger towards the one speaking so calmly.
"Like null he’s done nothing wrong!" she declared. "Tracer, don’t you even. Don’t you even start. This bastard took me… took an image of me and defiled it, all because he couldn’t deal with losing a onesdamn video game! And that was before he got infected. Don’t act like the malware excuses him from being a piece of living garbage!"
"He defiled an image. He hasn’t harmed you directly," Tracer insisted. "Tasteless? Disgusting? Exhibiting borderline psychopathic tendencies? Oh, certainly. But he’s broken no laws yet. Yes, yes, the Chanarchy is an anarchy, but even under Athenian standards he’d have broken no laws."
Beta tried to speak up, despite keeping her calm by staying clinical. "It… she wasn’t just an App, or a toy. That was a person. A person who was hurt and suffering, and now… she’s gone. I mean… the law hasn’t caught up with the idea of rights for Apps, but…"
"Whoever… whatever that bot was, it wore my face," Spark insisted. "All thanks to this bastard. Tracer, if you expect me to sit back and do nothing while this pervert gets his rocks off in a copy of me again—"
"Hey, I’m not a pervert…!"
The three others in the room burning a hole in his skull with their angry looks suggested they disagreed.
"At any rate," Tracer continued, "He’s currently of more value to us alive than dead. We need more information if we’re going to track down the source of the bots. So, Qelk, if you’d like to survive your poor life choices… I suggest you cough up details on that private little club you joined."
"You want to know about the Karnival? Sure. Sure, man, anything," Qelk agreed. "It’s a private server; they collect feedback and bug reports there… and hang out in chatrooms and swap tips and there’s these group playrooms, and… honestly the place is creepy as fuck so I never went back after visiting once. I’m not a pervert. I’m not…"
"Yes, yes. And the address…?"
"Won’t do you any good. Like I said, you need a key first, and you need to pay for and summon one bot to prove your interest in the product. Can’t connect to the server, otherwise."
"So, give us your key."
"Non-transferable. And they don’t allow guests, before you ask me to give you a tour. Look, I’m trying to help you here, I’m not a bad guy, this wasn’t my fault—"
A flaming finger hovered in front of his throat.
"Bullshit," Spark accused, hand hovering rock still in place. "You can’t blame the malware. You sought out these bots, you designed one to look like me, and you chose to abuse the hell out of it long before getting infected. So, if you wanna live to lose another CoC match… you’re gonna get us a key of our own. Name of your supplier. Now."
Sweat. His avatar was sweating, and not from the heat of the fun room.
"I… I can’t do that," Qelk insisted. "I’m dead if I give you the name. That freak will have me killed…"
"And my sister will kill you if you don’t," Tracer suggested. "At least this way, you get a running start before someone kills you. Name. Now."
"But if I—"
"No more stalling, or I’ll not get in the way of my sister enjoying some… harmless fun. You’ve made a lovely little room for it, after all."
In the end, the immediate threat outweighed the distant one. Those eyes… eyes of fire, the true eyes of the one he thought he had control over…
No. He never had control; she was never his. He was an idiot, a fool, and if he didn’t want to die a fool’s death he had to comply.
"Arjay," he confessed. "Tekkit/Arjay. He’s a black market patch dealer."
Qelk winced, as Spark kicked a rolling cart full of various sharp things clear across the room. All those ridiculous rough play toy Apps he’d blown his life savings on, scattered all over the floor…
"That six-armed freak," Spark growled. "I’m gonna—"
"Arjay’s just a middleman," Tracer pointed out. "And she’s in our corner… more or less. Save your anger for the truly deserving. For now let’s get down the lobby, and head to AptGet. Beta, do you have all the data you need regarding the infection?"
She was in the middle of packing up her data analysis tools as he was saying it.
"All done, and happy to get out of here," she agreed. "Spark… come on. Let’s go. We’ll get to the bottom of this, I promise."
Quickly, Beta followed after Spark—who was storming out of the room, her hair blazing particularly brightly with her anger.
Leaving Tracer all alone with the would-be domineering slavelord.
"So, uh… you’re gonna unchain me now, right?" Qelk asked.
In the end, Tracer caught up with them in the lobby five minutes later.
"Got lost on the way down here," he insisted. "Sorry for the delay. I rather dislike HiRize; can’t see how anybody can live here. Shall we depart?"
A cosmic storm blew through Arjay’s mind, as he solved complex math in exchange for freshly mined cryptocurrency.
It moved at the speed of light, while seeming to remain perfectly still. It was both upon her and so very, very far away. A dark omen of distant starlight…
On opening its eyes, Arjay realized that dreamlike omen was very much foretelling of what was coming his way in Netwerk.
Few could barge right into his office / workshop / clinic / playroom without prior permission. Few had that level of trust from her… not so much trust of mutual friendship, but trust that they would always bring something interesting to his door. That was cause enough for her to leave the front gate unlocked for the young man who had barged in on him while she was grinding away.
The brass gear which hung like a halo above his obsidian features began to turn once more, as she regained consciousness. As his glowing mouth curled into a smile.
"Winder/Tracer," Arjay recognized. Her eyes flicked to the other two, as well. "Winder/Spark. Projkit/Beta. You’re looking healthier than the last time I saw you, Beta; have found yourself along the way, yes? How may I be of service to my favorite maniac and his lovable sidekicks?"
"The Karnival," Tracer spoke, immediately. "And the KopyBots. I want in."
Arjay copped his chin in two of her hands, while the others folded behind his back. Its smile grew wider.
"Now, there’s something I hadn’t expected you to take interest in," Arjay admitted. "Really, Tracer? You want your own little sex toy? I was under the impression you cared not for pleasures of the flesh, but all you had to do was ask and I’d have gladly volunteered my own body to be your personal love vessel…"
"Don’t be crass," Tracer replied, with some displeasure. "Someone copied my sister, Arjay. My sister. This does not make me happy."
"Or me," Spark added. "As the aforementioned sister. Very unhappy. As in, ‘start removing limbs one by one from the creepy weirdo until he/she/it cooperates’ unhappy…"
Arjay gasped in pleasure, clasping four hands together with delight.
"Such rage!" she exclaimed. "I knew I was right to give you carte blanche to bring your woes to my door, Tracer. What a novel situation you’ve found yourself in! Are you about to go into a roaring rampage of revenge against those naughty men who soiled your family property? I thought you were in the highly-targeted vengeance game…"
"That doesn’t change. The KopyBots are infected by malware, crafted by Verity’s killer; that’s the primary reason I’m here. What those bots are used for offends me on a personal level… but I remain focused."
"Ahhh. Yes, that would justify your anger nice and proper, wouldn’t it? Hmm. I can’t say I’m pleased to hear about a malware issue, speaking as an authorized dealer of Karnival beta keys. Thank you for the warning, I’ll be certain to purge my remaining keys. I’ve no need for my customers to come back to me angry about getting them infected with a nasty virus…"
Tracer held out an open hand.
"I’ll take one of those keys, before you set about purging them," he requested.
But… to this, Arjay floated away from the open hand, arms folded around herself.
"Now now, understand that while I’m willing to discontinue my working relationship with the Karnival as a favor to you… I’m hardly going to unleash the bloodied wings of Tracer upon my former clients," Arjay clarified. "I have a reputation to maintain as a trustworthy middlething. No doubt you’d do considerable damage to them, and when they link that back to me, what then? My business suffers. No, no. Afraid you’re on your own, love."
Spark pushed up one cuff of her jacket, raising a hand—two fingers ablaze with a fire hot enough to match the colorless white of that sleeve.
"Limb removal it is," she said. "Can’t say I won’t enjoy it—"
"Oh, come ON! #WTF? I don’t get to maul this guy either?" Spark asked, turning to her brother.
"Knowing Arjay, he’d probably take erotic delight in you burning bits of her avatar away. Beta, Spark, please… let me handle this. Wait outside. I know her by heart; I can convince him to help us."
Years and years working together had taught Spark when to push, and when to retreat. Once Tracer made up his mind, once the self-righteousness took root… there was no point in fighting. She couldn’t win against that kind of rock-solid stubbornness.
Briefly she snapped off the flare from her fingers, letting the embers scorch Arjay’s clean white floor. Turning sharply on one heel, she marched right out of there.
Times like these, Spark wished she carried around a few loose physics objects from her old construction toys. One of her greatest childhood delights was to build an elaborate building, like a castle or a house or a school, and proceed to smash the null out of it and watch the pieces scatter and bounce around the room. Tremendous stress relief on days when her mother’s sermons pressed down particularly thick…
…stress relief. Like the kind Qelk had enjoyed, with his own toys. Not exactly like it, but it was yet another foul reminder of today’s trouble.
So, she had to settle for smashing a fist into the brass gates of Arjay’s clinic. The rattled on their hinges, but otherwise did nothing whatsoever.
Soon, Beta joined her… sitting on the front stoop of the shady software patching supplier. No clients lined up at the door, thankfully. AptGet was usually very quiet this late at night, only coming alive with the scum of the Chanarchy in the early evening.
Spark wasn’t expecting a comforting arm around her shoulders. She flinched at first… not particularly keen on the idea of physical contact, not after all the mess earlier today. Still… after that initial flinch, she leaned into it willingly.
Felt good. Comforting. That fuzzy pink sweater, a complex weave of fabric simulators, was designed to be comforting for both the wearer and those the wearer wanted to comfort…
…for Beta, though, those words from the bot kept running through her head.
She loves you. Just too thick willed to ever give in all those squishy little feelings.
The revelation should’ve been more shocking. She’d been shocked when she read Tracer’s muted love confession, in his memory recordings. But this one… well, it felt more like Spark. More like what Beta knew Spark to be. And even with the uncertainty the bot’s claims had just poured into her life… she wanted to be there to support Spark in this time of need, rather than let her retreat inside herself.
"You can talk to me, you know," Beta spoke. "About anything. I… know you like to avoid talking about your feelings, but you don’t have to…"
"Ugh. Not really a good time for heart-to-heart, Beta."
"It’s the best time for it! Get it out now, before you do something you regret. Punching things isn’t the solution to your pent-up frustrations. Please, Spark. What’re you thinking about…?"
She wanted to punch something again. Except nothing punchable was within reach, except, well, Beta. Who Spark was not going to punch, not ever.
"I’m losing my temper a lot over this," Spark admitted, "And it’s stupid of me. Played enough games to know mistakes happen when you rage out over something so trivial…"
"It wasn’t trivial," Beta insisted. "That person was you…"
"That bot was a bot. It looked like me, though, and the idea of some asshole using it as a proxy because he couldn’t get his hands on the real thing… just… ugh. Look, Beta, I’m a C-list gamer celeb with a pair of tits. That means I get more than my fair share of skeevy threats. So, I shouldn’t be surprised when someone goes and makes a blow-up doll with a selfie of me stapled to its face, but… this, it’s just… #ItsComplicated."
"And it makes you angry."
"Null yes it makes me angry. I should’ve punched that guy’s teeth in. ‘Harmless fun’ my ass… I can slaughter dudes in a game without being a murderer at heart, but this is not the same thing, right? This is… repulsive."
"It makes me sad," Beta spoke, getting it off her chest. "It’s sad that she was brought into this world just to be hurt. And it’s sad that someone brought her into this world just to hurt her, that they felt it was a perfectly acceptable way to deal with their own problems. It’s… a sickness in Netwerk, I think. People being reprehensible towards each other, and why? Dex’s virus in play, maybe?"
"The virus doesn’t make people into assholes. It capitalizes on existing assholes and drives them further up their own asses. People suck in general, Beta. Always have, always will."
"That’s an awful thing to believe…"
"Yeah, well, I call it like I see it. Tracer agrees with me, too."
"But that’s not how things have to be," Beta insisted. "Everybody says ‘that’s just Netwerk,’ like it has to be a default state of affairs for people to act miserably. They tolerate it. But… I feel like we can do better. At heart, we all want to do better, we just get lost along the way."
"Unless you’re born a dick."
"Nobody’s born a dick. Becoming a dick is a heuristic process, and it can be unlearned. I mean, right now, Tracer’s convincing Arjay to help us, right? They’re good friends! Mutual trust and love is the way forward; with that, we can do anything!"
Arjay’s bright smile could’ve washed out out the skybox sun above.
"Please, let me… let me just enjoy this moment," she begged. "To see you in your true colors, so utterly perfect…"
That backspacer remained pointed at the multi-armed surgeon, unwavering.
"I am very serious about this," Tracer insisted.
"I know, and that’s what’s so beautiful about it. You would kill for this information… I can smell the truth of it on you. Ohh, Tracer, you make me so very, very wet—"
"Cut the comedy and give me what I want."
"Or you’ll kill me?"
"Or I’ll kill you."
"Excellent. I swear to assist you; my word is bond," Arjay promised, raising two fingers in a promising salute. "Not just to save my own life, either. You deserve your answers, after this fine display. I’m so very proud of you, Tracer. I always had you pegged for a killer, and now I know my analysis was correct…"
The closed beta key flicked through the air between both avatars, landing nearly in that outstretched open hand. Its silvery light flared briefly, before bonding itself and vanishing into Tracer’s personal inventory.
Immediately, he lowered his weapon.
"Actually… I’ve never fired this weapon before in my life. Killing you was an empty threat," Tracer explained. "I bought it years ago, as a tool of last resort. I would, of course, prefer not to become a murderer. Fortunately you believed me, enough to give me a non-transferable key. No ‘take-backsies,’ Arjay."
"Really, now? Not certain I believe that, my little sociopath, but a cunning move nonetheless. …you’ve never fired your backspacer? Not even once…?"
"Not even once."
"Mmm. That’s a rather old hacktool, you know. I recognize the make and model, sold quite a few in my time. It’s almost perfect… if not for timestamped junk code artifacts that get embedded within it, each time you open fire. You’d have to decompile it to see them, but still, a bit of a drawback…"
"Too busy to take apart my backspacer at the moment, thank you. Besides, as noted, it’s never been used."
"If you’ve no intention of ever firing it, why have it at all? Bit of a paradox there, love. Now, if you like, I’d be happy to sell you a superior replacement weapon—"
"I’ll settle for everything you know about the Karnival and its KopyBots. Stop trying to distract me; I came here with a purpose and I’m not leaving without the information I came for. How are they so realistic?"
"I honestly wish I knew more about the technology," Arjay admitted. "They’re fascinating creations. Bored? Sick of your left hand? Summon up an accurate duplicate of someone socially unattainable, complete with optional personality modifiers to make them downright horny and ready to climb into bed with their owners…"
"Brainwashed consent is not consent."
"That’s a funny statement. An App can’t consent to anything, it’s not sentient."
"Not in the mood for an ethical debate," Tracer spoke, pulling the topic back into focus. "Who gave you the keys, Arjay? I desire strong words with them."
"I’m afraid I don’t have much for you. I was contacted by an anonymous Messenger handle tagged simply as a Karnival/Admin. I’ve never actually visited the Karnival. I find bots to be boring compared to real Programs… real Programs are more inventive partners."
"So you know nothing about their their organization, or who created them…?"
"I’m not really in the business of true names; I work strictly in product. Afraid you’re on your own… but I’ve no doubt you’ll be a capable hunter. No doubt whatsoever. It’s worth the risk to my own livelihood to unleash you upon them and see what happens, I think. Especially knowing as I do now how far you’re really willing to go."
Finally, the backspacer vanished from Tracer’s hand.
"I’ve yet to break my own ethical code," he spoke. "And I don’t plan to start today."
"Must say I’m disappointed, but… I suspect I’ve yet to fully parse your truth, Tracer. And that leaves more for me to pry away from you in the future. We’ll call it a win for both of us. Good day, now."
All three looked expectantly at their host.
Who paced around her kitchen, briefly, before replying.
"Let me just… run through this in brief, to make sure I’m getting the details right," she suggested. "There’s a service out there that lets you rent hot and horny copies of people, to do with as you please. That’s where the other version of Spark came from. It’s an exclusive service, and you’ve gained access to it."
"Correct," Tracer confirmed.
"But beyond just being tasteless and trashy, this service also is infecting people with the type of malware you’ve been fighting for some time now."
"And now you want to summon one of these bots, so you can qualify for access to their home server and study the process by which it is programmed."
"And you need to do this in my apartment for what reason, exactly…?" Puzzle asked, tapping one foot in annoyance.
"Safety and friendly ground," Tracer explained. "If we have a blank bot delivered to Floating Point it could expose our home server to the enemy, or interfere with our analysis. The best chance we have is to summon it under a controlled environment on a neutral server. …and as the only other person who knows Floating Point exists, you are our fallback option. That’s the price you pay for knowing our secrets."
"I’m sorry, where did I sign a contract saying you could bring your flavor of madness to my front door? Yes, I agreed to keep Floating Point and its woes a secret. That doesn’t make my home an extension of your undisclosed location."
Spark groaned into her open palms, rubbing at her tired eyes. "Puzzle… please. We’ve been up all night straight on through to morning by now, I’ve had to witness some very gnarly shit, and I want to get this over with ASAP. I will pay for your drinks for every single outing we have until the end of time if you just let us wrap this mess up. Okay?"
"Well… what’s the risk factor here?" Puzzle asked. "Can this get me in trouble? Blackhats grabbing me in the dead of night, or somesuch? I’ll want protection, if so."
Tracer spoke up. "Unlikely to be an issue," he suggested. "They may log where the bots are delivered to, but it’s going to be routed through an account under my own name. Since we aren’t planning on causing a ruckus with it like the Spark bot raised, this will fly under their radar. …and I promise you, if anything does go wrong, we will absolutely protect you. You’re involved in Floating Point’s affairs now, but that sword has two edges. One is defensive."
Puzzle drained her wine glass, before giving her verdict.
"The only reason I’m considering this is for Spark’s sake," she explained. "After what she’s been through, I want to see this ‘Karnival’ dealt with. Perhaps I’m willing to unleash a notorious SJW like her brother on them, in this specific circumstance. So… fine. You may defile my home with your craziness. May I ask one more question?"
"Who, exactly, are you going to summon a copy of?"
"I’m volunteering myself for that task," Tracer said. "We talked it over before coming here. I’m a rational individual, and once we explain the situation, I’m confident my copy will be able to accept his nature and his fate if it moves us closer to my goals. I believe in self-sacrifice for the greater good."
"Two of you. Lovely. Well, get to work, then. And please, do not summon a version of you that’s been laced with aphrodisiacs. I’m horrified at the very thought of that."
With the matter settled… Tracer accessed the embedded App within his newly obtained security key.
It was simple enough, requiring little thought. The key had a two functions, ‘Payment’ and ‘Summon Blank.’ It would, presumably, allow a blank bot to be delivered to his inventory much as Qelk had done the day prior. Using the black market modification to his eyes, he could see the connection the key made… and trace it back to the KopyBot home server.
He pulled the key from inventory, letting it hover in front of his direct view, before activating it.
Immediately, the address flickered into his modified vision.
"fdbe:c21:d093," Tracer announced. "Looping back on that, to connect it to a server name… which is… ahh. The Karnival. So, their home server doubles as both testing community and manufacturing. Excellent. Now, to wait for the delivery…"
…spoken right as an app titled "KopyBot" arrived in his inventory, just like any other item he might purchase online. Simple as could be.
Stepping back a bit, gesturing for the others to make space in the center of Puzzle’s kitchen, he activated the blank.
It manifested in a standing position, arms outstretched in a T shape. A simple reference pose, sometimes seen in inactive avatars. Its form was completely smooth and featureless, however… a simplified grey shape, with the right number of limbs but no distinguishing characteristics. No face, no hair…
It spoke with a voice, however. A generic tone, genderless and featureless.
Welcome to KopyBot!
Please add 1000 coins to your account before activation.
Be sure to visit our community to leave your feedback when you’re done playing!
To activate, the keyholder must say "Kopy Name."
NOTE: Lust modifiers will be installed by default to alter personality and make KopyBots more agreeable.
To remove, use "Kopy name in Pure Mode."
The house petty cash fund had run a bit low after buying a superfluous ViruFax App recently, but more than enough remained for this. Tracer quickly transferred the money… then spoke his own name.
"Kopy Winder/Tracer in Pure Mode," he requested.
Thank you! Searching…
…inadequate data available to kopy "Winder/Tracer." Try again?
"That’s odd," Tracer spoke. "Although… we don’t know what method they’re using to obtain such exacting information on people. Perhaps I’m outside the scope of their abilities…?"
"So… now what?" Puzzle asked. "Do you have a backup plan? You’re not going to make Spark copy herself again, are you…?"
"I suppose we could copy the one who copied Spark," Tracer reasoned. "There’d be a small amount of ironic justice in subjecting him to the same fate—"
"No. Pick me."
The quietest one on the room got their attention quickly with that suggestion.
"I’ve seen firsthand how unpleasant this can be for the copies," Beta spoke, quietly. "I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else… and you’re not the only one who believes in self-sacrifice, Tracer. Pick me to copy. I can’t say I’ll enjoy the experience, but… copying Qelk just because we don’t like him? That’s what he did to Spark. I don’t want to be like him, not at all. I consent to this; copy me."
"Beta, are you sure—"
"Please do it before I lose my nerve."
"…kopy Projkit/Beta in Pure Mode," Tracer requested, to the blank.
Thank you! Searching…
…inadequate data available to kopy "Projkit/Beta." Try again?
Which earned the blank a good kick in the shins, making Tracer wince.
"Oh for crying out loud…!" Spark exclaimed, pulling her foot back. "Useless hunk of junk! Fine. Fine. We know it can copy me, so copy me. #Whatever. I don’t care. It’s just a bot, it’s not me. Doesn’t matter."
Tracer shook his head. "You’ve gone through enough for one day, Spark. We don’t have to—"
"You think I’m weak?!"
…her brother actually recoiled, at the force of her declaration.
"You think I’m so easily broken, like that pathetic copy of me?" she continued. "That all it takes to rattle me is a little rough and tumble? I’m Winder/Spark. I kick ass and take names and nobody can beat me! I can endure anything. Make a copy of me. Make a dozen copies of me! So what? Nothing can touch me. Nothing at all…"
Exhaustion. Tracer could recognize it in others, because he often saw it in his own mirror.
Programs didn’t need to sleep. Technically, it was a way to dodge the continual data rot of aging, to avoid an early grave. But… there was something to be said for taking a mental vacation from everything that’s assaulting you on a daily basis. Downtime, even unconscious downtime, had a psychological impact. And Spark had been awake too long, through (as she put it) some "very gnarly shit."
Damned if Tracer was going to put her through more gnarly shit.
Fortunately, a solution presented itself soon after, from another who cared greatly for Spark’s well-being.
She awoke to the smell of popcorn, and the sound of an uncorked wine bottle.
Briefly, she had to grip the edge of her kitchen counter to steady on her feet. How much had she been drinking…? And so early in the day, according to her internal clock. Strange…
"Do you like it with butter flavor or without?"
A smiling angel in pink offered up a bowl of fluffy popped kernels.
"Your popcorn," Beta said… with a smile that tried to be joyful, rather than sorrowful. "Butter or no butter? It’s a movie party, so I figured popcorn would be just the ticket!"
"That… didn’t we have the movie party last night?" Puzzle asked. "I remember posting to MyFace about it…"
"Yeah… uh… technically the party never stopped. It’s morning," Beta explained, transferring the popcorn into two large bowls. "Spark got… tired. She really, really needs some rest, so she’s going home. It’s just us for #GirlsDayOut! …I guess it’s #GirlsMorningIn, but hey, who am I to break a perfectly good hashtag?"
"And… why exactly is Tracer here for #GirlsMorningIn, then?"
The grey-skinned fellow was staring at her in a particularly unnerving way. Like he was studying her, from the inside out…
"I was just checking in on Spark," Tracer explained. "I’m heading home with her; don’t let me interrupt your fun, Puzzle. Oh, and Beta… I got that connection data you asked for. We’ll talk later."
And gone, just as mysteriously as he had arrived.
Still… the delicious smell of the butter was temptation enough for Puzzle to go along with the situation. A rolling movie party felt perfectly natural, after all. Just the sort of thing she’d be doing with her weekend away from that awful call center and the harridan who ran the place.
"Mmm. I believe… I shall have butter, and gobs of it," Puzzle agreed, accepting her bowl with a smile. "Let’s keep this party going! I haven’t pulled an all-nighter in some time. What shall we watch…?"
"Let’s watch your favorite movies," Beta suggested. "Your all-time favorite movies. I want you to have the best time in the world… only happy memories. You deserve that."
Several hours in, and the two were glued to the screen as glamorous HolWood movie file stars exhibited the finest acting Netwerk had ever seen.
Puzzle happily pointed out all the neat little camera angles, finding Beta quite receptive to her prattling on. Beta, for her part, hung on every word. She kept the wine and popcorn coming, kept the party rolling. Doing her best to make sure Puzzle’s time was well spent… despite the circumstances.
Only as the hours wound down and they approached the end of #GirlsMorningIn did she stray from her script a little. All alone, the two of them, with plenty of wine in Puzzle’s system to give her a nice benign malware buzz… and wine in Beta’s system as well, causing her lips to loosen a little.
"You know… Spark came to me once, asking for help in sorting out the problems you two were having," Beta recalled.
"Mmmmh?" Puzzle asked, nustled up on the couch next to Beta, woozy. "Oh, yes. Glad we worked through that. My #BFF is quite important to me…"
"I’m… having some problems of my own. Ones I can’t turn to Spark for, because… they kinda involve her. If you don’t mind, could I…?"
Curious, Puzzle paused the movie playback using her HUD remote.
"Trouble in paradise?" she asked. "What troubles you, then? Let wise sage Puzzle soothe your woes!"
"I’m… I guess I should just come right out and say it, since time’s growing short," Beta said… one eye on the clock. "Spark… she’s in love with me. She can’t admit it, even if she’s acting on it by involving me heavily in her life. And… Tracer’s in love with me, too. He can admit it, but he refuses to act on it at all…"
Puzzle let loose a long sigh, stretching her arms over her head. "Well, consider yourself a lucky one, then," she suggested. "I’ve been in search of love all my life to no avail, while you’ve got two handsome suitors. A rather strange triangle to have both the Winder siblings after you, but… mmm. So you feel stuck, I take it? Uncertain how to proceed?"
"K-Kinda. Yeah," Beta admitted, skin saturated slightly from embarrassment and wine.
"Well, let’s cover the checklist. Sexual orientation?"
"Uh… bisexual, I guess? I don’t give avatar gender much thought. I’m not quite as adventurous as Spark, but I can find beauty in anyone…"
"Good, good. So, the primary question is: are you even looking to have a romantic relationship right now?" Puzzle asked, taking it to basics. "You did just come off a rather awful breakup, right? Nothing wrong with admitting that the timing’s lousy, you know. It’s okay to want to be single."
"I don’t know. Maybe not. Maybe…"
"All three of you are all rather awful at romance, which doesn’t help. Tracer’s hardly what I’d consider suitor material, as you know. Spark, well… she’s my #BFF, she’s a darling, but she’s simply terrible with emotions. I’m not sure either of them are ready for a proper relationship, leaving all three of you a bit stymied as a result."
"So… what do I do?" Beta asked. "What do I do? I don’t know. I… I love them both, I think, in some way…"
"Haven’t a clue, darling. I’ve never been blessed enough to be in such a tangle, or anything approaching it. But… that’s what it is: a tangle. You need to detangle it before you ‘do’ anything. That’ll take time and care. So, if you must have my sage wisdoms… it’d be that. Time and care. Detangle it. You’ll know the right answer when you find it. …Beta? Darling?"
Quickly, Beta wiped the tears from her eyes with the corner of her sleeve.
"It’s nothing," she said. "Just… I’m so thankful to you. You’re… you’re a real person, in my eyes. You deserve better than this. I’m so sorry…"
"Yes, well, life rarely gives us what we deserve. Right now, I’m content with popcorn and movies, so I’ll take that happily—"
Please add funds to your account to continue using this App.
Failure to do so will result in App termination.
Puzzle blinked a few times, uncertain where the words came from. She glanced around the room for the source… before Beta pointed to the screen, redirecting her attention.
"Let’s keep watching," she suggested. "Just… watch the movie, and enjoy this time together. Okay? It’s the best part. He’s about to tell her how much he loves her, and they kiss, and then… credits roll…"
So, Puzzle watched her film. She smiled, through the cozy haze of companionship and good times, all the way through to the end.
After the credits finished scrolling by, Beta opened a Messenger window.
"She’s gone," Beta spoke. "I… need some time. I’ll be home soon. You got the connection data you needed?"
"Yes," Tracer confirmed. "I know why the KopyBots are so accurate. This sacrifice has added to our knowledge of the enemy, in addition to opening a door to the Karnival itself. …thank you, Beta. I know that must’ve been difficult for you."
"I made it as gentle as I could, but I’m not the one who had to suffer, Tracer. Thank Puzzle again for volunteering, and please don’t ask me to do that again. Please tell me we’re done making bots."
"We’re done making bots."
She closed the window, and resumed wiping her eyes clear. It took some time.
A brief walk out in the park helped Beta clear her mind.
Athena Online had a number of public access servers devoted exclusively to tourism, including some filled with meticulously generated procedural splendor. Fractal ferns the size of houses, great redwood trees, majestic Mandelbrot Rock plateaus… wonderful sights. Heavily moderated, too. Rarely was she hassled for, well, being Beta there… just another tourist in the crowd. Taking an hour off from the crisis-of-the-day to enjoy fresh air and lovely sights suited her well, in this moment.
But… once that hour was up, Beta returned back to Floating Point, ready to face the crisis head on.
She in the great hall soon after, to find Puzzle and Tracer already there.
"Puzzle…? You can go home, it’s all clear," Beta told her, on approach. "Your kopy’s gone now."
"Double edged sword," Puzzle reminded her. "I’m involved, so I get a say. If you guys get to use my home for dangerous App experimentation, I get a vote on how we proceed from here. Can’t say I’m pleased to be along for the ride on one of Tracer’s crusades… but it’s not my first time, is it? I pointed you towards ViruFax, if you recall."
"Yeah… that’s fair," Beta agreed, pulling up a chair for herself by the fireplace. "Where’s Spark?"
The grumble came from the kitchen, as did Spark, armed with a cup of steaming joe.
"Was taking a nap," she explained, before taking a fourth seat at the coffee table. (Possibly the first time she’d ever used the coffee table for its intended purpose.) "Still feel shitty, but no time to laze around the place. So… what’d you find out?"
Tracer opened his research notes, including all the illegally obtained connection information from the Puzzle-Kopy.
"The Karnival acts both as a beta testing community and as the point-of-distribution for the KopyBots," he explained. "My scans of Puzzle’s kopy prove that. The key to disarming the Dex virus lies in infiltrating that community and locating the kopy machine."
"One stop shopping for destroying the entire operation," Spark said, with a smile. "I like it."
"Cleansing Dex’s infection from the system will be tricky. For starters, we’d need access to whatever App is generating the KopyBots… unlikely it’ll be out in the open and unsecured. After finding it, we need to hack into it to plant an inactive version of the virus in place of the real one."
"A placebo? Why bother? Yank the virus out and be done with it."
"The infections may be intentional," Tracer reminded her. "If we remove the infection vector completely, they can simply re-install it. If we swap it for harmless placebo tattoo, they won’t know anything’s different."
"Yeah, okay, I can see that. What about the existing infected, though?"
"I’m afraid there’s not much we can do for them, short of personally de-infecting each of them, which is implausible. At this point, priority one must be silently halting this infection vector from creating any further drones for Dex."
"Okay. Sounds good. Or… and I’m just saying this is an option… we can blow the entire place to bits," Spark suggested. "Get a bomb, tuck it away somewhere, go home, wait a few minutes, kaboom. #Solved."
"Which would murder everyone in the server, I’d like to point out. That would ‘solve’ the existing infected, but at high moral cost…"
"So warn ’em to clear the place out first with a bomb threat. Big and scary, like giant text boxes reading ‘YER ALL GONNA DIE’ or something equally overdramatic. Put the fear of the One into ’em so they never do anything like this again, then destroy everything they’ve made. Nobody dies, everybody wins. Except them. Sound fun?"
"Fun and ineffective. Anybody running this kind of enterprise will have backups they can restore from. That’s why I’m suggesting we simply replace the virus with a placebo and sneak out; it stops Dex’s ambitions cold, and nobody’s any the wiser."
"Screw Dex, my grudge is against the Karnival. We’re targeting them and the bastard that made it."
"Spark… not only can’t we stop the Karnival, I’m not sure we should do anything to stop them."
"Seriously?!" Spark asked, setting her cup down with entirely too much force. "Seriously? You were arguing that there was nothing wrong with summoning a brain-dead slutty version of people before, too. Who are you and what have you done with my bro? Are you a KopyBot? The real Tracer would be all over this with a sword of fire!"
Now, Tracer had to play Zero’s Advocate. A role he loathed to his core… but had to play, as logic demanded.
"From a certain standpoint, this is a legitimate business offering non-sentient toy Apps," he said. "Nothing they’re selling is technically illegal in Horizon or Athena Online. There’s a violation of privacy angle here, and that concerns me greatly, but the actual KopyBots are harmless. They arrive by default with warped personalities, anyway; just because Qelk turned that off doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate uses of them."
"No use of a bot wearing my face is legitimate, as far as I’m concerned. What about my rights?"
"Considering the Karnival operates out of the Chanarchy… you have no rights. There’s no legal authority whatsoever there. That also means if we engage in an act of massive property damage, we’re essentially terrorists acting solely on our own righteousness in a place where we have no authoritative right to do so."
"Yeah, well, anarchy cuts both ways," Spark countered. "They want to live somewhere with no laws, that means they reap the benefit and the drawback. They can do anything they like… and so can we. There’s no reason we can’t burn the place down."
"’Can’ and ‘should’ are different concepts. One is technical, one is ethical. Should we burn the place down, Spark? It offends us to the core, yes, but does that give us the right to destroy it? Consider all the people who are offended by Beta’s existence. She doesn’t live under any jurisdiction now; Floating Point is much like the Chanarchy in that regard. If someone could break in here do they have the right to kill her?"
"That’s not the same thing at all!"
"I know. After all, nobody real is being hurt by the Karnival, compared to the idea of murdering a person—"
And Beta banged the table hard enough to make Spark’s coffee cup jump.
"Stop. Saying that," she insisted… in a dangerously quiet voice, compared to the sudden furniture impact she’d just made. "Stop saying they’re not real, that they’re just toys, Apps, bots. You weren’t the one who had to be there when they died. You didn’t have them in your arms as they faded away. You don’t get to make that call. Neither of you."
Tracer, realizing he may have pushed too far, tried to calm the discussion. "Beta, I’m not saying I like the Karnival. They’re wannabe rapists and thugs. I’m just not sure we have the right—"
"I don’t care if we don’t have the right. I don’t… I really don’t give a damn anymore," Beta replied, finding exactly the right word she wanted to use. "Not one damn. We have to stop them. What they’re doing is wrong, and if we have to commit our own wrongs to put this right… well… so be it. For the sake of all the lives they’re destroying we have to find a way to stop this."
"Assuming KopyBots are people…"
"They are people. Just because our social construct of what it means to be a person hasn’t caught up to this new reality doesn’t change that fact. I’m with Spark on this, Tracer. The Karnival has to go."
Sensing the change in the wind… Tracer decided to put his objections aside, and move to the end game.
"We put this to a vote," he concluded. "I’m voting against destroying the Karnival. Spark, Beta? And Puzzle. You get your say, as I promised."
"I’m for destroying the Karnival," Beta spoke, raising her hand politely.
Spark retrieved her coffee cup, mopping up some of the spillage with a napkin. "#FuckThoseGuys," she added. "Fuck ’em right in the ear. I’m for destroying the Karnival. Puzzle?"
Puzzle, who had been listening to both sides the entire while… knew her answer right from the start.
"Burn it down," she spoke. "Right or wrong, doesn’t matter to me. They hurt my #BFF and I will not stand for that."
No sense fighting it. Tracer sat back, to internally accept that this would be the direction moving forward. Besides… even as his much-vaunted rational self objected, the rest of him swallowed the group’s decision with considerable satisfaction.
"We have one weapon far superior to a bomb. It offers us the greatest chance of effectively ruining them," he explained. "We know the truth behind the Karnival’s success. I’ve been researching this ever since collecting the initial data from Puzzle’s bot. This… may be an unpleasant revelation…"
"Nothing about this experience isn’t an unpleasant revelation," Spark pointed out. "Hit me with it."
So, Tracer opened the remainder of his files…
…including the MyFace profiles of Spark and Puzzle.
"When we searched for a person to duplicate, the bot made several external connections I had difficulty fully identifying at first. It’s the same reason I can’t easily trace Messenger connections; the content distribution network is wide, encompassing many servers. So, the key to understanding the problem came in the failure to copy myself or Beta… because neither of us use MyFace. While Spark and Puzzle are, to be fair, complete MyFace addicts. The KopyBots have API backend access to MyFace. Personal information, avatar parameters, cross-site visitor tracking data, logs upon logs upon logs… one-stop shopping for duplicating the soul."
Spark stared at her own floating profile… littered with hashtags. #GirlsNightOut. #ItsComplicated. Check-ins at various locations like ShipTo and HolyHymnal, details of outings at clubs, rants about gamers, praises for and defenses of her new friend Beta…
She lived her life through social media. If anybody wanted to duplicate the experience of being Spark, that’d be the place to gather your parameters. Even without the secret parts, the underlying crusade to find Verity’s killer and the true nature of her home, they’d produced something close enough to Spark to pass as her.
And why not share her life with all of Netwerk? She maintained a highly public profile, after all. She was a pro gamer, a streamer, a minor celebrity. Part of her marketing was to allow fans to keep track of her life, and she was happy to share if they were happy to subscribe to her channel and pay her bills. Why not? What was the harm, after all?
"But all my posts are locked," Puzzle spoke, coming to the same conclusion. "I use MyFace quite a bit, but only within specific circles. Simply ransacking MyFace for openly-available data wouldn’t have given them enough to make a facsimile…"
"Unless they have an under-the-table agreement with the MyFace corporation," Tracer concluded. "I thought of that as well, and reviewed the MyFace terms of service agreement looking for holes… you know, the fifty page legalese everybody agrees to when they make an account. They claim not to sell your information to third parties… but first party affiliates, that’s fair game, as no sales are involved. They simply give that information away to developers that sign exclusive contracts with them. I believe the Karnival is a first party affiliate; it’s the dark half of MyFace…"
He closed the files, to reduce the clutter of data hovering around his person.
"This means that legally, they’re still in the clear," he added. "And again, legally, we have no right to stop them. It’s a legitimate business arrangement, one which their own customers agreed to by clicking ‘Agree’ without reading."
"Nobody reads that shit, Tracer. Nobody."
"Perhaps you should have, before agreeing to the terms…"
"Doesn’t make what they’re doing right. They don’t have a right to steal our identities; ‘can’ does not mean ‘should,’ just like you said. Regardless of how ‘legally clear’ they are… this is wrong. And we need to shut it down."
"Very well. Much like how we dealt with XSept… even if a court of law would side with MyFace, the court of public opinion will not be so tolerant. My proposal is this: we scrub the Dex virus from their machinery as I’ve already suggested… and once that’s settled, we anonymously leak the details of their arrangement with MyFace along with any customer lists we can dig up. Even if the Karnival continues, it will no longer spread active infections, and the public will be forewarned of their true nature. Customer base dies out, service dies with it. Done."
Quite a bit to swallow. The others in the room considered it, each along their own line of thought.
"I do like the one-two punch of it," Spark had to admit. "Stop Dex in his tracks, and ruin their lives in the process. In and out, #NiceAndClean. As much fun as it might be to completely trash the place… this is a solid choice. …dammit, Tracer, why didn’t you just suggest this at the start?"
"Because it poses the same quandary we faced with XSept: it’s doxxing the creators and clients of the Karnival, and may result in deaths. Nobody will believe our crackpot theory without some actual clients to point fingers at, people who will go under the gun as a result. All told, this is a questionable and cowardly tactic…"
"Yeah, well… I’m done questioning it. If the court of public opinion is the only court these guys can be tried in thanks to the Chanarchy’s protection, that’s what we’re gonna use."
"As you like it. We will expose the Karnival’s truth to light, and let justice find them. In one form or another. Are we agreed…?"
Beta nodded in agreement… but not right away. "I don’t like doxxing as a weapon," she spoke, quietly. "I didn’t like it when we used it on XSept and I don’t like it now, but… if we can quickly discredit the Karnival and its clients at the outset, fewer KopyBots will be harmed. For their sake, I’ll go along with this plan, I guess…"
"If Spark’s in favor, I’m in favor," Puzzle added. "Are we done yelling at each other now? Everything good?"
Thankful for that to be settled, Tracer closed all his files and got to his feet.
"I’m running point on this, as I’m the only one who can enter the Karnival," he spoke. "I’m a valued customer, after all, and I’ll be sporting a fake barbed heart tattoo to prove it. I’ll wear Beta’s glasses, so I’m not going in alone. The investigation may take several days, since I’ll need to locate the kopy machine and wait for Beta to determine how to hack it. I can’t promise immediate results… but I’ll do everything in my power to make this happen."
Beta bit her lip. "I wish I could go with you in person. If you do manage to find the kopy machine, being physically present to hack it would be a lot easier than relaying instructions to you…"
"Considering where I’m going… I’d rather you and Spark have stayed behind, regardless. It will not be a pleasant experience, and the fallout if things go wrong will be extreme. On that note… Puzzle, if you prefer to stay here at Floating Point for a few days, I’d be happy to offer one of the guest rooms."
"My apartment may end up crawling with Karnival goons, so yes, I believe I’ll accept that offer," Puzzle agreed. "I don’t plan to take up permanent residence, but… thanks, all the same. I’m glad you trust me enough at this point to suggest that."
Tracer wasn’t used to saying ‘you’re welcome,’ as he rarely gave an inch to anyone outside of his immediate family. Nobody showed him gratitude, since he did nothing to merit it.
And yet… now Beta was living here, and Puzzle was a welcome guest. Puzzle, who he’d pushed back against allowing into Floating Point for so long, until Beta forced his hand during the RansomMe affair. Again, Beta had the right idea, as Puzzle’s involvement had proven crucial to making this plan work.
Beta once suggested that they should be more honest with people. To approach them openly, rather than deploying subterfuge. Allies could be found out there in the wild of Netwerk, if they were willing to look for them rather than seeing only enemies around every corner…
But tonight, he was headed into a community founded on the principle of consequence-free abomination. A lion’s den of those who yearned to make the wrong choice. Were they worth considering as potential allies? Were they worth sparing?
Already, he was making his mental shopping list of self-defense systems and tools he’d want to have on hand if he was going into such a place virtually alone. And the backspacer was certainly high on that list.
Tracer had played the infiltration game before. Grifting and social engineering demanded a certain level of direct personal risk; walking right into the lion’s den while announcing "Hello, I am a lion" had a tendency to rustle the actual lions into action. But in the end, no amount of fancy tech or hacktools could equal the power of digging up inside information from the inside.
This was, however, one of the few times he’d ever gone in alone. Usually Spark was at his side, playing a supporting role in the grift… and ready to launch into action if anything went wrong. If the lions smelled any non-lion on him, the only defense Tracer had was the backspacer and a few layers of firewalls. Capable, but not nearly as effective as someone trained in the art of self defense.
He hadn’t gone in unprepared, of course. He’d purchased yet another in a long series of generic male avatars wearing generic clothing, JohnDoes designed to keep one socially presentable while functionally anonymous. Chances were that wouldn’t set off any warning bells, either, not if other Karnival clients were engaging in skeevy activities. Nobody here would want to wear their true faces.
Also… he’d applied a realistic looking barbed-wire heart tattoo to the side of his neck, plainly visible. Beta had designed it to be more than a mere avatar decoration, a placebo malware App in its own right. When the time came to replace the infection vector in the kopy machine with a harmless dupe, he’d peel that right off his skin and drop it in place.
Assuming he found the kopy machine. Assuming they didn’t catch him and nail him to the wall, without any backup to rely on.
Fortunately, he wasn’t completely alone.
"Getting the signal loud and clear, no dropped packets or lag," Beta announced over their private Messenger link. "I’m studying the Karnival’s open ports now… it looks like aside from an access lock keyed into your, uh, key, it’s a perfectly normal server…"
"Be careful not to sniff too many ports," Tracer replied, while getting his bearings in unfamiliar territory. "I won’t want anybody sniffing you back. Don’t risk it."
"Same goes for you, don’t take any unneeded risks. If there’s no connection lock zones in play, be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. This isn’t worth your life, Tracer… and on a strictly selfish level I’m going to want my eyes back safe and sound, too."
So, two sets of eyes surveyed the landscape of the Karnival.
He’d landed at the designated arrival point for the server, at the gates of a massive… well, carnival. Big top tents made with colorful fabrics, music in the air, and bright blue skies. If not for a complete lack of tourists wandering around the place it would’ve appeared pleasantly quaint. Without occupants, it was just… eerie. (Although really, it’d be far eerier if there were children running around, given the erotic nature of the KopyBots.)
Shortly after arrival, a clown approached. An actual clown, with greasepaint and a big red nose and a funny wig. Because of course clowns.
Still… something felt off about this clown, compared to traditional circus entertainers. He had a larger build, more emphasis on stocky strength than a wacky cartoonish frame. Clowns could wear any avatar they liked, and typically picked an exaggerated one to keep the kids entertained. This clown wasn’t aiming to entertain kids, instead embracing the harlequin aesthetic as a layer over his normal avatar. (Presumably his normal avatar.) The end result result lie somewhere between friendly and intimidating…
The fact that the barbed-wire heart had been stitched elegantly into his silken finery certainly tilted things in favor of intimidation. He wasn’t even hiding his infection; it had become an integral part of his persona.
"Hallo hallo!" he greeted, with a bright smile. "New arrival, new arrival! Nice to see a new face, a new mark. I’m always ready to drop whatever I’m doing and come greet a friend-yet-to-be!"
"Hi…?" Tracer tried.
"You must be the new tester Arjay sent our way! My records indicate you’ve obtained one of the keys we gave him, and indeed you’ve sampled our fine product. Thank you for considering the Karnival for your entertainment needs! We’re looking forward to feedback about your KopyBot experience. Oh, and I’m not a system agent or anything, I’m a Program like you. Feel free to ask questions. Name’s Bonko!"
"Seriously? ‘Bonko’ the clown?"
"The circus-themed branding was all my idea, so I’ve gotta run with it myself, yeah?" Bonko replied. "Being a good sport’s half the fun. Nothing’s worth half-assing, I say!"
"Wait. Your idea? You made KopyBots?"
"Well, no, but I do run the main event here at the Karnival. I’m the community manager… the ringmaster, if you will. I considered a top hat and a whip, but that’s not really me. But enough about me! I’m here to make sure you continue to have a null of a good time. What’s your name, friend?"
"Trowe," Tracer lied.
"Nope, lying!" Bonko recognized, immediately.
…briefly Tracer highlighted the backspacer in his inventory, ready to summon it at a moment’s notice.
"Hey, don’t freak out, I’m just honking your horn!" Bonko clarified—pulling out a little brass horn and giving it a HORNK in response. "Nobody here uses their real name or their real face. Why would you? It’s such a buzzkill to drag your mundane life into this server with you. I say: be who you want to be! I don’t mind, and neither will they. We’re a friendly community, welcoming and inviting to all!"
"That’s… good," Tracer spoke, closing his inventory for now. "I am a bit puzzled, though. This is not quite what I was expecting…"
"Would you prefer leather and chains everywhere? Or maybe black and white latex tents?"
"Not prefer, so much as expect…"
"Expectation! Pfah, I say. I like the lighter circus motif. It adds a touch of approachable whimsy! Too many places like this are dark and creepy… that’s not what I wanted for this product. You’ve got to take the piss out of a thing or you’ll end up being way too serious about it, yeah? KopyBots are fun and games!"
The voice in Tracer’s ear disagreed.
"There’s nothing ‘fun’ about what they’re doing to these poor people," Beta complained. "Dressing it up in bright colors and tweaking their victim’s minds doesn’t make it any less bleak…"
"Sooo, let me show you around the place," Bonko requested, twirling his horn on one finger before pointing it at various tents. "The tents are chatrooms; we’ve got a good off-topic / general room, where you can really soak in the rich Karnival community. That’s my goal here, after all… community building. I don’t want this to be a one-and-done plaything, but a society full of passionate individuals!"
"How large is the community?" Tracer asked. "It’s still a closed beta test, correct?"
"Indeed, indeed. One that’s growing by the day… we want a solid user base before we throw open the gates to the public. People who can help explain our ideals to others. I mean, let’s face it, KopyBots are a pretty crazy idea! One which can only be sold by a street team of enthusiastic supporters. People who have sampled the fruit and know how sweet it is!"
The blood red of the jester’s heart design indicated what sort of fruits they had to offer.
"Yes," Tracer agreed, falling now into the pattern of his social engineering. "My experience was… it wasn’t what I was expecting. But like you said, who cares about expectation? It was really amazing. I mean… I have trouble putting it into words, but… I want more. I want to see how far it can go."
Bonko clasped a hand on Tracer’s shoulder, his smile growing ever-wider.
"That’s the spirit!" he declared. "And don’t worry, we’re here to help you explore all the Karnival’s offerings. Soon… you won’t know what life was like before you had this kind of fun on tap whenever you wanted it. Y’know, we have more than just the chatroom tents; there’s the tunnel of love, the funhouses, the freakshow, the animal taming rings… all sorts of specialized areas where you can get some private time with a KopyBot. Or you can bring friends along, once you get to know a few in the community. Sharing is caring! What do you say? Want the grand tour, my friend…?"
Clearly, the clown was eager to share this wonderland of carnal horror. Perhaps he’d be willing to share the location of the kopy machine… in time. After being buttered up and plied by a healthy amount of social engineering, this could give Tracer what he needed to destroy the Karnival for good. Diving in head-first to earn the trust of Bonko the community manager was the perfect in-road to his end game.
But… that would likely involve participating in the abuse of KopyBots. Possibly being infected by the Dex virus. Subjecting Beta to such sights, by virtue of wearing her glasses…
One thing at a time.
"I think I’ll hit the chatrooms for now," Tracer decided. "No need to overdo it on my first day, right? It’s like wine. You have to savor each little sip."
"I’m more of a beer guy, but okay, let’s go with that," Bonko spoke, waving Tracer along. "Off to the main event, then!"
Never before had Tracer thought that a gathering of malware-mad perverts could be completely boring.
As he sat on a hay bale in the middle of the three-ring chatroom circus, he listened to random men wearing random JohnDoe style avatars yammer back and forth about nothing in particular. He’d bounce from thread to thread, teleporting from one circle of hay bales to another, sampling the conversation as he went.
"That’s such bullshit. Ganksquad’s not going to make top eight, much less the finals," a man with a barbed wire heart on his left hand spoke. "They’re a bunch of noobs who got damn lucky taking down RTFM during the qualifiers. If RTFM’s server hadn’t been DDOSed they’d have crushed GS."
"What are you, a tinfoil hat conspiracist? Is everything a hack to you? GS won ’cause they got skills," a beefy looking shirtless man with a tattoo on his chest replied. "That midlane gank at the 40m mark was a thing of beauty and you’re an idiot for not realizing that. You need to git gud at CoC before you can judge other players."
Sensing that was going nowhere, he tried hopping over to a thread which had some actual KopyBots on it:
"My Danny is one hell of a stud!" the brainwashed KopyBot declared, tracing a finger around his left nipple a few times. "When he touches me it feels oooohhh so good…"
"You know, I bet the real Senator Agni is just as slutty as this," Danny suggested. "I’ve heard all sorts of stories about how that MILF slept her way to the top of the RedCore Party. The prudish attitude she shows on TV? That’s just for the cameras."
"That’s nothing! I grabbed a copy of Snowi the other day, and—"
Laughter echoed up from other men sitting around the circle.
"Fucking kids. Grow up, will you? We’ve all had Snowi in one way or another," Danny replied. "It’s nothing to brag about and the fact that you give a shit about her shows how lousy you are at picking KopyBots. She’s not all that great. I mean, you run her in Pure Mode and you can get something out of it, but all that work just to say you’ve had an SJW…? Nah. She’s old news. You need a more acquired taste… and politicians, that’s where you find some real gems. Agni, show the nice boy your diplomatic skills…?"
"Gah!" a chatter blurted, covering his eyes as Agni began to unzip Danny’s pants. "Seriously, man, take that shit to a private room if you wanna play with your bot! No sex in the chatroom. I don’t wanna see your hairy little dong…"
"I don’t think the Karnival should have a stance on #CodeHonesty," a bespectacled gentleman spoke. (No visible tattoo, but Tracer could see through his hacked eyes the rotating cloud address of a malware connection somewhere on his back.) "We need as many people as possible to use KopyBots when we’re out of beta, but we’re going to be innately controversial right out of the gate. We can’t alienate the audience by grabbing onto another controversy on top of that and running wild."
"But it’s such an obvious pile of lies!" someone else in the thread insisted. "People are already saying that Cup8 was a fraud, that the secret results of a Horizon audit pegged him as one. #CodeHonesty are a bunch of whining neckbearded manbabies who can’t accept that there’s GRILLS in their playhouse…"
"Except nobody really knows the truth, and that includes us. I mean, other than the truth that Beta’s a slut and Snowi’s a whore, but that’s besides the point. We have to think about the future of the Karnival, here. This is our haven, and the last thing we need is to bring someone else’s war to our door…"
"This is ridiculous," Tracer complained, internally.
Beta’s words were quite welcome, to help drown out the nonsense he’d been swallowing for the last few hours. Having someone he knew and cared for helped him feel less alone in the middle of these dozens and dozens of nobodies.
"You don’t have to defend your participation in this, Tracer. I know you don’t believe a word they say," Beta said. "Besides, this is valuable data we’re gathering."
"Listening to idiots rant about sports and hashtags? How is this valuable?"
"It’s not the words, it’s the pattern. All this… hate. Even in the sports thread, there’s so much cruel language, so much biting at each other. The intensity of it… you can feel the hate but also the passion in their words. Love AND hate, equally. They’re taking a domineering stance and defending it violently if need be."
"Due to the Dex virus?"
"That’s my thought, yes. We haven’t had much opportunity to see it up close like this. We’ve suspected it ramps up one’s self-righteousness, making terrible ideas feel like glorious ones, right? Now we have confirmation. It’s about extremes… devoted love of an extreme and hatred of all else."
"They wouldn’t see it that way. Bonko talks about that passion representing a strong community bond…"
"When you strip all individuality and subtle nuance out of a community, it’s not about the community at all. It’s about worship of the image you’ve constructed your community around. Listen to the words; these people can’t find any middleground, it’s either yes or no, right or wrong, agree with me or I’ll call you an idiot. …skip over to Bonko’s thread, you’ll see what I mean."
Tracer bounced over to the largest of the circles, dropping into the conversation in progress.
At the center of it stood the ringmaster… Bonko the Clown, speaking from the heart. Likely the one sewn into his costume, pumping out a series of random Netwerk addresses as it tied into the Dex virus’s cloud server. Tracer could see the malware’s constant link to that corrupt source, even as the words spilled out.
"I look around and I see a new generation," Bonko spoke. "Not just of men, either. I know some of you are women wearing male avatars, and honestly, you shouldn’t have to do that! I consider that my own failing, not making a welcoming enough environment for you to enjoy openly. Pornography shouldn’t be this big taboo, this thing nobody admits to adoring, especially not women. We live in a sexually open society, do we not? What’s so bad about admitting you’ve got itches to scratch?"
"All of which is reasonable so far," Beta commented. "But let him continue ranting. He’ll inevitably end up where the virus leads him…"
"I’m just saying we have to be careful," another replied. "We can’t show too much behind the curtain. Look, we all know the antics we get up to while playing with these bots. All of us have tried Pure Mode at least once. Outsiders won’t like hearing about the details…"
"Maybe not at first… but this will become the new normal. That’s what I’m trying to say," Bonko explained. "We’re carving out the future of Netwerk society, here and now! Smashing down barriers of what is and isn’t acceptable. What we do is ultimately harmless, right? No matter how ‘extreme’ society considers it to be, we’re hurting no one. They’re APPS! They’re our slaves, our playthings to do with as we please! Do we torture? Do we rape? Please, how do you rape a toaster? The old generation will apply crusty old social standards to us, and they’ll be dead wrong..!"
Now, Bonko hopped up on top of a hay bale, his squeaky shoes somewhat undermining his seriousness. But that smile was quite serious indeed… as the wires on his chest animated, pumping in and out of the heart’s valves.
"We’ve all tasted the same fruit. We all bear the same mark," he reminded them. "We know what drives us and we accept that, we accept each other. WE are the future, not them! We need to fight. We need to struggle, and fight, and accept no compromise! THIS is your family, THIS is your community! Rally yourselves around our Karnival; we will push it forward into the heart of the social zeitgeist. And anybody who gets in our way, who slams us or harasses us or thinks they can silence our voices… the prudes and the busybodies and the would-be SJWs, those subcreatures, that scum of Netwerk… well. We’ll show them what we’re really capable of!"
The response was nearly unanimous.
Nods of agreement. Smiles. Some cruel, some eager, all of them knowing. A few utterances of "fuck yeah" or "got that right" or "tell ’em, Bonko." The group was in unison on this, all them marked, all of them tasting the same fruit…
"That’s what I meant," Beta explained, over the Messenger link. "This isn’t just about a shared hobby. The virus makes it feel like every single issue is a matter of life and death. They’re ready to go to war over this, just like #CodeHonesty. A binary reaction: you’re with us or against us. No grey area at all…"
Tracer had to do the same, had to nod and smile and give his assent. He cheered with the crowd as they soaked in their mutual love and loathing. It didn’t matter how Tracer really felt; this ploy would move him closer to the endgame.
So, the crowd response became nearly unanimous response.
Except for one, and it wasn’t Tracer himself.
One in the back of this thread, a participant who hadn’t been participating…
He looked just like the others. A generic looking male avatar, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to make him stand out. A bit dressed down compared to them, slacking off in a simple t-shirt with a coredump band logo, but otherwise quite normal… right down to the heart tattoo on his neck, similarly placed to the one Tracer wore.
And similar to Tracer’s tattoo, it was fake.
His eyes could pierce the Apps of a Program, determine what connections they were making across Netwerk. The Dex virus maintained a constant connection to his personal cloud server, the one they’d called the ‘Zero’ in months past. Fakes wouldn’t have that connection… fakes like Tracer’s, and fakes like this one.
"Tracer, are you seeing that too…? The one who isn’t cheering?" Beta asked.
"Yes. And his tattoo’s only decorative," Tracer added, knowing that part of his unique HUD vision wouldn’t broadcast to his counterpart. "He doesn’t belong here. Something’s wrong…"
And gone, disconnected from the server. None of the cheering men noticed his passing, none save Tracer.
"Right! I’m feeling all fired up," Bonko declared. "Let’s keep this party going. I’m opening up a private room in the freakshow; who’s up for a little kopy-swap? Show me your favorite kopy and I’ll show you yours. We’ll tag team this thing! Don’t be shy, we’re all in this together. …hey, Trowe, you’re the newcomer here. Who’d you summon, when you first played around?"
An answer. He needed an answer that would satisfy these hungry smiles…
"My sister," Tracer spoke, matching the grins. "I made her totally hot for me, too. I figured… why not? She’d never know. It’s just for fun, yeah?"
"HAH! There! Right there, that, right there!" Bonko declared, honking his horn excitedly. "THAT is the right attitude for the new generation of Netwerk. Life’s all fun and games; it only has as much weight as you give it. Drop that weight, and the world’s yours for the taking! Let’s go. Let’s do this. Swap me your sister and I’ll swap you my favorite toy. How about it? Ever want to see someone else railing her…?"
The timing for this was critical. He had to play along, had to maintain this new social connection… but not up to the point where he’d have to do the deed. A delicate dance…
"Absolutely," he agreed. "Let’s do this."
Tracer got to his feet, joining the smaller group lead by the clown in charge. He stayed at the front of that pack, however, alongside his new best friend. The freakshow tents were physically distant, and the teleports from thread to thread only worked inside the main chatroom tent. They’d have to walk… giving him enough time.
Once out in the light of day, he made his move.
"Hey, you know that guy in the thread?" Tracer asked Bonko, in casual conversation. "The one with the coredump t-shirt? How come he’s not joining us?"
"It’s a free server. Folks can come and go as they please," the clown suggested.
"Yeah, he didn’t seem into it in general. Why is that…? You know everybody, right? What’s his deal?"
"Leave him alone, okay? It’s his choice not to participate. Nobody hassles Marti but me," Bonko replied… his smile still present, but now quite forced. "You’re new here, so you don’t know that rule. But you mess with Marti, you mess with Bonko. Got it?"
"I wasn’t gonna mess with him. I was just curious, that’s…"
And Tracer paused, a short distance before reaching the freakshow tents. Did his best to look distracted… then mildly annoyed.
"My sister’s bugging me over Messenger," he declared. "Sorry, guys. Can’t play. I gotta go home and take care of this."
It was a gamble, of course. He had to play along closely enough to appear to be on board, without actually doing the deed… and that meant making up excuses for why he couldn’t participate. If Bonko didn’t accept it, if he suspected a ruse…
Fortunately, Bonko swallowed it completely.
"Family can be such a pain in the ass… but they’re family, you know?" he said. "You’ve got to look out for your sister. She’s all you’ve got, in the end. But… I hope you’ll come back to hang out with your new family, once you’ve sorted that out…"
"If I can, sure. I’m loving this place," Tracer lied. "Can’t wait to come back and have some fun."
A world away, in a server spread across dozens of servers, Spark was working out her frustrations through intense App usage.
She’d bought this sparring dummy as a way to stay in fighting shape, between those life-or-death moments which were all too common during Tracer’s crusade. Limited in form but with just enough A.I. to let her run through basic martial arts exercises, ones she’d been running through since she was a child. Of course, those classes her parents paid for were meant to be a distraction, a way to keep her busy after school and out of their hair… they never thought she’d make it into a true lifestyle. Now, it was an anchor in a stormy sea…
Hooking strike. Spinning block. A leveraging throw, to send the dummy tumbling… followed by a leaping mantis strike, nailing it with her weaponized fingers.
The burst of flame flared with high intensity, enough to destroy the dummy completely. Fortunately she could summon up a new one to replace it. And another, and another, and another…
After brutalizing murdering the fifteenth artificial training partner, the killing blow on the sixteenth held back inches away from landing.
It had no face, a generic Program-shaped model. But if it had the face of another, would she be so casual about mauling it…?
The next strike came to Puzzle’s guest room door, and was more of a light knocking than a knockout blow.
Already, Puzzle had decorated her room tastefully despite only staying a few days. She wouldn’t be caught dead in unfashionable surroundings; an array of selfies with her friends decorated the walls… as well as some lovely potted pants, simulations she’d been growing in her spare time, and a very nice padded quilt she kept handy as a portable sleeping surface. Very homey, overall.
She looked up from watering the plants, putting the gardening tool back into inventory on realizing how troubled her friend looked.
"Go ahead, spill it," Puzzle said. "You’re still feeling off, I can tell."
"I’ve been off ever since finding that kopy of me. And I’m tired of feeling off. I already talked to Beta about it and I still don’t feel like I’m sorted out, so… mind if I bend your ear a bit? You’re always good at helping me figure these messes out…"
"Absolutely," Puzzle agreed, pulling out a chair to relax in, summoning a copy of it for her friend. "I’d been expecting you’d drop by, honestly. What with your compatriots off having an adventure without you, I knew you’d be going a little stir crazy. Let’s investigate that craziness, why not."
"I know what you’re going to say, that I’m freaking out because I saw myself defeated and broken," Spark started. "That it scared me, to see what could happen to me. Despite, y’know, that not being actually me because no way would I ever get crushed like that…"
"Except you could. You totally could get crushed like that, Spark. You run risks every day you work on Tracer’s personal quests, going up against madmen and murderers and psychotics. Any one of them could do that to you, if you’re unfortunate enough…"
"I’d kick their asses first, #ThankYou."
"That’s not an absolute truth. You know I worry about you, Spark. You love risk; you’re a gambler, a gamer. You ride the edge and ride it close. So far… you’ve always come out on top. That can’t last…"
"And I got to see first-hand what would happen if I don’t come out on top," Spark agreed. "By seeing a version of myself that lost, and lost big. Yes, I get that as well, #ThankYou."
"Scary, isn’t it? To think that you might actually not be an immortal, undefeatable hero. But that’s reality, Spark, for you and for the rest of us. Why do you think I’m hiding out here in Floating Point? I’m terrified. I got wrapped up in a rather scary situation and now I can’t safely go home…"
"What’s to be scared of? You’re perfectly safe here…"
"But nobody is safe in the long term, Spark. When I do eventually go home… what if someone figures out the con you’re running on the Karnival, and looks for reprisal?"
"So… don’t go home," Spark suggested. "Stay here. I can convince Tracer to let you stay. You’d be safe…"
"Ahh, but that’s the crux, isn’t it?" Puzzle asked. "Stay safe, hide, do nothing. Or… run a risk and return home, my home. You’re not getting at what I’m saying, darling. I am scared… and I am willing to risk it anyway. I want to go home, despite the dangers. I don’t want to live my life in terror, I want to live my life."
"Well… good. That’s a good attitude to have!"
"So why don’t you have it?"
Puzzle folded her fingers in her lap, reading Spark’s confused expression before continuing.
"It’s very binary for you right now, isn’t it?" she asked. "You’re either accepting what that kopy represents and therefore too scared to be who you want to be… or you have to assume you could never become what that kopy represents, and fight on. Why not both? Why not be scared, and fight for what you believe in? Accept that you are in fact mortal, that you could be hurt. Be scared of it. And fight on despite your fear."
"I’m… that’s what I’m doing, right? I’m still gonna fight. Hell, if I could connect to the Karnival I’d be fighting right now! #KickingSomeAss…"
"Ahh, but you’re fighting without acknowledging reality! That’s what I’m scared of the most, Spark. That you’re riding high on denial and may take the wrong risks. I’m not saying not to fight, I’m not saying to live in fear. I’m saying… be realistic. Fight with care."
Spark wanted to object.
Instead, the vision of that battered and ruined version of herself kept rising in her thoughts. The worst case outcome, the thing which could not be…
It made her want to crawl inside herself and never leave. Made her want to lash out at the world in anger, to punch someone over and over and over again. Drove her to extremes.
"That could’ve been me," she recognized. "Any one of these fights I get into, if things tilt one way instead of the other, I’m mincemeat. I understand what you’re saying, Puzzle. I’m not some invulnerable avatar of justice. I’m not so far gone into my own ego to think that. But… I’m still going to fight."
"As you should. Fight on, while also accepting your fears. That’s all I want, darling."
"Okay, now, what’s up with that?" Spark asked. "You’ve always hated this hobby of mine. You’re constantly taking snipes at Tracer and his SJW-mad quest. Now you’re telling me I should fight…?"
Puzzle glanced aside, to the clouds beyond the windows of Floating Point. Calm and peaceful, despite the chaos of Netwerk they represented…
"Maybe I’m coming around," Puzzle said. "I’ve had time lately to think about that, now that I’ve been directly involved in Tracer’s madness. Maybe… it’s not madness. The means are questionable, the motives questionable, but the idea of it isn’t wrong. Netwerk can be a terrible place. Anybody willing to put themselves on the line to make it better for the rest of us, well… how can I not admire that? So… I embrace my #BFF the SJW. I’ll support you, and that’s a promise."
That embrace became very literal, soon after. And it helped wash away Spark’s jittering nerves, knowing she had that support in her life… despite the very real fears she faced. With that support, she could fight despite it all.
Her eyes fluttered a few times, as the glasses were fixed back on her own nose.
"Ahh… a moment," Beta requested, staying seated rather than trying to get up right away. "It’s always a little disorienting to get my own point-of-view back after loaning it to someone for an extended period of time…"
Tracer assumed a seat across from her, in the great hall of Floating Point.
"We’ve made some good progress today at the Karnival," he said. "Bonko’s far too trusting of his new recruits. They don’t suspect that I’m not truly one of them. If I work on him gradually over a few days, earning more and more of that trust… he’ll lead us to the kopy machine. I can tell he’s the sort to want to show off his handiwork."
"Except… to earn that trust, you’re going to have to play with him. I can tell that’s what he really wants from you, Tracer. He’s not going to show the inner workings of the KopyBot system unless he feels that bond he shares with the others."
"Yes… I’ve given that some thought. I’d very much like to avoid it, but… if it is truly unavoidable… is it possible to vaccinate me against the Dex virus? Not remove it after it’s in place, but prevent it from taking root at all? You’ve said it’s nearly impossible, but perhaps if you link to Floating Point’s heart again…"
"If I come into contact with the transmission vector inside the KopyBots, I’d rather not return to Floating Point with the enemy’s finger on my heart," Tracer suggested. "Perhaps a more pre-emptive version of the malware removal tool you made would work, to insulate me—"
"That’s not what I mean! You’re saying… you’d abuse one of the bots? Just to earn Bonko’s trust?"
"I’m not seeing any way around it, Beta. I’m trying to deceive and manipulate a madman, one who insists on others around him being just as mad as he is. I can’t say I find the notion pleasant, but… this is the world we have to move through to achieve justice. It’s a filthy world and we must be stained by it, from time to time."
Beta narrowed her eyes, behind those thick frames.
"And who exactly do you plan to torture to make that clown happy?" she asked. "Spark, maybe? You did claim you’d already enjoyed her…"
"Beta! That’s repulsive. I only said what I knew he wanted to hear… I’d never consider…! Listen. I can minimize the damage. With a vaccine in place, I could simply pick a perfect stranger and let the personality modifiers do the heavy lifting. I find the concept of physical avatar coupling pointless, true, but I’d obviously lie to Bonko. He’ll buy it…"
"And now you’re methodically planning how to do what he already wants you to do. It’s not worth the price, Tracer. Even if you pick a complete stranger, it’s still abhorrent… a stranger is still a person, and the personality modifiers are not consent!"
"What choice do we have?"
"What choices DO we have…?" Beta repeated… asking herself as much as she asked him.
They’d backed themselves into a corner with XSept, relying on doxxing to clean up that problem. She’d reluctantly agreed to use the same weapon this time, for the sake of the people being harmed by the Karnival. But was there another way? Were there choices she simply couldn’t see…?
Beta glanced around the great library of Floating Point, as she dug for answers. All that knowledge, all those books… ruined in whatever disaster had emptied the server ages ago. A testament to lost lore. Maybe it would’ve had answers, deep within all those books with the ‘W’ logo stamped on their spines, if only she could understand what they once represented…
The wholesale destruction of knowledge felt like a very Dex maneuver. The only way to keep the infected giving in to every dark impulse was to keep them in the dark, chasing after a fantasy rather than seeing the world for what it was. The blind leading the blind… an odd metaphor given Beta’s own blindness, but it felt fitting.
They needed to find people who could still see. Ones still open to the possibilities.
"Marti," Beta decided. "The one with the fake tattoo. That’s the answer."
"Already thought of him," Tracer said. "Too much of an unknown factor. Too risky, given he’s under Bonko’s protection. If we accidentally enrage Bonko at best we lose all access to the Karnival. No, it’s better to ply Bonko directly; he’s an easily duped fool and the optimal path to our objective."
"Put optimization aside for a moment, okay? You’re thinking like Dex, looking to deceive and manipulate. We need to look past that. Marti doesn’t belong, and yet he’s there… and why? That’s the key. He doesn’t like that place, I could see it clearly! He even knows about the infection, knows enough to fake it. In Marti we may find a potential ally. If we’re honest with him about why we’re in the Karnival, maybe he’d help us."
Tracer shook his head. "We can’t risk exposing ourselves by being truthful with anyone in the Karnival. The sensible play is to go after the egomaniac clown; I know he’ll crack, in time. I can break him open and take his secrets with ease…"
"At what cost? How deep into that place are you willing to go just to stop them?"
"As deep as need be," he said, on instinct.
Except… he knew how deep that would have to be. Which made his words feel downright irresponsible, two seconds after saying them. He’d been on a roll, determined that he was right… knowing his sister would go along with the decision once he put his foot down. They had a good sense of each other’s stubbornness.
But Beta wasn’t Spark, was she? She wouldn’t back down. And in this case… she was right not to.
Briefly, he hung his head in apology, knowing it was the wrong thing to say. Beta accepted that gesture in turn, silently offering a thankful smile.
"We’ll try to contact Marti," he agreed. "But we must be cautious on approach. There could be a deeper darkness there compared to the simplistic darkness of Bonko. I… may need your help, navigating this maze."
"I’ll be with you every step of the way," Beta promised. "This is the right choice, Tracer. What we need to do is appeal to the better nature of people, the incorruptible within them. Maybe even appealing to Dex directly, if opportunity presents itself…"
"That… I don’t mean to sound callous, Beta, but that sounds very naive."
Her smile showed she hadn’t taken it as an insult.
"Time will tell," she decided. "Until then I’m not willing to divide the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys, ones and zeroes. Life is more complicated than that. While Marti may be with the Karnival he’s clearly not a believer… and we will reach him."
The next day, Tracer and Beta worked to track down the mysterious Marti.
This hunt meant searching the Karnival a bit deeper than Tracer was comfortable with, especially now that he’d committed himself to not participating in the fun and games. At first he’d tried hanging around the main chatroom under the big top, but Marti never made a return appearance… meaning Tracer had to start exploring other parts of the Karnival, and dealing with the sights seen there.
Witnessing the worst of Programkind was something Tracer could cope with. But he wasn’t the only one who had to watch, forced to glance into the various cells and small tents he passed, if only to momentarily scan for Marti’s presence. Removing the glasses wouldn’t help, as they were still broadcasting audio… including the screams.
The screams, and the squeals of delight. It was the squeals that troubled Tracer more, mewling passionate cries from KopyBots forced to crave whatever they were offered.
"…I can’t understand it. I just can’t," Beta spoke over their link, breaking her silence after an hour of this.
"Between consenting Programs anything is fair game, I feel. But this is… certainly not that. A gross violation of privacy, and done with absolute malice rather than mutual respect," Tracer replied, looking away from yet another open display of depravity.
"It’s the malice I can’t understand. How anyone could be cruel enough to summon up a dream of someone true and real, just to make them the object of their fantasies…"
"And you’re still certain we should be appealing to the better nature of Programkind?"
"Absolutely," she spoke, despite her wobbling voice. "We have to. It has to work. It… it has to…"
Tracer jammed his hands in his pockets to avoid letting the tension in his knuckles show. Because right now, what he most wanted to be doing was punching every other person he saw. Past the cages, through a hallway, around a corner, and…
…face to face with Beta.
A gasp of shock flowed over his Messenger link, the woman on the other end of the line rendered just as speechless by the sight. Panic gripped him for a moment, as the woman with loose brown hair and thick-rimmed glasses turned her empty eyes to him. But when she opened her mouth… it broke the spell.
"Smash the patriarchy!" she declared. "I’m a cheap little whore. I’m a cheap little whore. Smash the patriarchy…"
"Hey, get back here…!"
And finally, the object of his hunt appeared.
Marti chased after this cheap kopy of Beta, holding a diagnostic tool in hand for analyzing App memory buffers. He’d recognized it from Beta’s wide array of tools… special-purpose Apps used only for debugging programs. Which meant…
"Sorry, she’s not quite done," Marti admitted… flicking a switch and dropping the fake Beta to the floor, unconscious. "I tried cross referencing the data, but it didn’t work the way I’d hoped. …uh, if you wouldn’t mind giving me a hand…? Something’s wrong with her physical mass too, she’s a bit heavy…"
Tracer bent low, hooking one of Beta’s arms over his shoulders. Marti took the other one, as they began to walk away from the playground of delights behind them… towards one of the private back rooms.
"She’s our number one requested KopyBot," Marti explained. "But there’s just not enough data available to build a proper profile. I was… uff… hoping I could do an indirect build. Make an image of her based on the data of other kopyable subjects…"
"People live on in the memories of others," Tracer recognized.
"Yeah. Problem is, well, #CodeHonesty. Any wide sweep to try to answer the question of ‘Who is Beta?’ returns this unworkable mess…"
The importance of the door they arrived at was not lost on Tracer. "Employees Only!!!" it declared, with three exclamation marks.
"Do you need any help?" Tracer asked. "I’m a programmer, myself. Maybe I could assist…"
"I… don’t know. Bonko prefers I keep the specifics to myself," Marti spoke, digging out his access keys while keeping the Beta kopy propped up. "Trade secrets. If any competitors find out how the system works, we could lose our launch advantage when the service leaves beta…"
"I won’t tell if you won’t tell," Tracer promised. "Please. I could be of tremendous help…"
"Uh… thanks, but I don’t think I should. Don’t let me interrupt you from your… fun. I’ve got a lot of work to do, so if you don’t mind…"
"We need to open up," Beta spoke quickly. "If he thinks we’re faithful followers, he won’t talk to us!"
"Do you think all of this is fun?" he asked… tempering the question with enough nonconfrontational quiet to ensure he wasn’t pushing for a specific answer.
Marti paused, keys halfway into the door lock.
"Bonko thinks we’ll open big across Netwerk," he cautiously stated. "That plenty of people will think it’s fun."
"I wasn’t asking was Bonko thinks. It’s patently obvious what Bonko thinks. I’m asking what you think. You’ve never actually used a KopyBot, have you? Not in the way the others use them…"
"I don’t know. Does it matter? Look, I’m busy, so if you don’t mind…"
"Tracer, convince him! Don’t dance around it!"
"Your tattoo’s a fake," Tracer stated. "And so is mine."
The weight of the unconscious Beta hung heavier on Marti’s side, as the statement distracted him.
"It’s… the real thing," he insisted. "The one you get after using a KopyBot. It’s real…"
"It’s fake. You’ve never hurt a KopyBot in your life, Marti. You don’t think it’s fun and games, you’re not happy with what’s going on here, and ever since the tattoos showed up you’ve been forced to play along to the best of your ability. …can we get inside and talk about this? Please? I’m not trying to trick you, here. I’m trying to be honest when I say something’s gone very, very wrong with KopyBot. And I want to help fix it."
This was the tension moment. It could break either direction; if Marti called over Bonko, the one who was protecting him for some reason, Tracer would be completely screwed. If Marti let it slide but refused to talk, he’d lose his in-road to the Karnival’s secrets and possibly be at risk if Marti ever talked about this discussion. But if Marti could open up… if there was something incorruptible deep within him…
The doorknob twisted, unsealing the access lock on the room.
"Get inside fast," Marti mumbled. "And help me get her into a chair or something."
Behind the scenes, the Karnival was not draped in colorful absurdity. All the soft edges they’d been using to make the place approachable despite being a functional torture hostel were washed away… this was a simple white room, clean and functional. Similar to the admin layer of a fresh server, or Arjay’s workshop. No clutter, no decoration, no muss, no fuss…
Just a few chairs and worktables, all centered around a single glowing cube.
The kopy machine.
First, the pair hoisted the Beta copy into a chair, so they could lay that particular burden down.
"I didn’t even want to try duplicating her," Marti admitted, leaning heavily on a worktable to rest after the effort. "I’ve overheard the others, the things they want to do to a kopy of her. Makes the things they do in the smaller tents look like… like… I don’t know. Something normal…"
"So, why try to Kopy Beta?" Tracer asked. "Why do it at all?"
"Bonko said we had to find a way to kopy the unkopyable, those who had no profile data. It’s the last nut to crack before we can launch the service; without it we’d have to turn away customers, and… look, does it matter? It’s my project. I have to see it through, one way or another…"
Marti ran one hand over the smooth surface of the cube… studying a pop-up window with MyFace profile data, a cross-indexing of everyone who knew or claimed to know Beta. Highlighted records had been used to build this cockamamie parody of Beta, the Beta that others wanted her to be…
"You made the KopyBots," Tracer understood. "You’re the creator…"
Beta’s reaction resounded with hope and relief, in equal measure. "This is perfect!" she declared. "If we can turn Marti to our side, he can shut down the Karnival for us! No doxxing needed, no lives ruined, and no more KopyBot abuse! Tracer, we can win the day without anyone getting hurt…!"
"I didn’t want them to be sex toys," Marti said up front. "That was Bonko’s idea. He says it’s the only thing they’re marketable for, the only casual throw-away usage Netwerk could accept. I thought… maybe they could be good for emergency services, or therapy, or… things. I hadn’t figured what value they had, just that they were possible, and I could make it happen if only I had a first party API to work with. But those are expensive, and the debts I ran up researching this technology have to be paid off somehow…"
"And then things started going wrong. The heart symbols showed up. Bonko started playing ringmaster, making the entire project crazier and crazier…"
"You’ve been researching our history? Are you a reporter or something? Bonko really wouldn’t want me talking about this stuff with the press…"
A dozen lies sprang to Tracer’s lips, ready to go. But a single word stopped him.
"Truth," Beta spoke. "Tell him the truth. A safe and reasonable amount of it, but be true."
"I’m tracking the heart symbol," Tracer chose. "That’s what brought me here. It’s a form of malware that interferes with the psyche of the infected. You’ve seen that effect, haven’t you? The flaring tempers, the need to bond together and fight the outsider…?"
"It… started showing up after I got the alpha version of my KopyBot service online," Marti continued, still a bit puzzled at how neatly the pieces were fitting in place with Tracer’s half of the story. "I think the system’s infected, but I can’t figure out how to clean it. The virus is so tightly integrated now I can’t purge it without destroying the whole system, and it’s already in every backup I have on file. I… wore a fake version of the tattoo to convince Bonko that everything was fine, to buy time so I could fix the error before we launch the retail product…"
"I can remove it for you. I can even put a placebo in there, so Bonko will never know and the system will stop infecting new clients," Tracer promised. "But… I’d prefer if you ended all of this. Shut down the Karnival. It’s your creation; you have the power to end the nightmare, Marti."
Another tension point. Tracer monitored his words carefully, even if he was trying to remain truthful… pushing too hard against everything this man had set into motion, that could backfire…
Marti quickly shook his head, not ready to go so far.
"This is more Bonko’s dream than mine, now," Marti explained. "He had the idea for the Karnival, he designed everything. He… he’s not wrong. They’re just Apps. Maybe the virus is driving the customers to play a bit rough but it’s just play, right? You can even make the Apps want it, so… that’s fine, right?"
"Is it fine?" Tracer asked, leaving the question open-ended.
"It’s… well, look, if you work with me to remove the virus, I don’t have to shut down the Karnival. People will object at first, yeah, but Bonko says they’ll accept it eventually. Morality shifts all the time, it’s normal…"
"Copying people without their consent to be used as sex toys is far from normal, Marti. Didn’t you say this isn’t what you wanted the KopyBots to be? Why did you make them in the first place?"
"I… I don’t know. I had to. I mean… I had to do it, once I knew it was possible. I just had to do it. That’s all."
"…that’s it?" Tracer asked, anger rising. "You did it in the name of science? You birthed this atrocity simply to see if it could be done?"
"No, that’s not what I mean—!"
Beta spoke up, immediately. "Tracer, cool it! We’re losing him!"
"This fool started a fire he can’t extinguish, all because it seemed like a good idea at the time—and he’s letting it run wild all because he’s too weak to stand up to his friend. I have no respect for him, no pity. We can collar him, kidnap or kill him, remove the virus, and be gone before anybody is the wiser. The Karnival will grind to a halt without its creator—"
"Absolutely not! You… look. I’m going to switch to text. Read EVERY SINGLE WORD I write aloud, and be convincing. Let me take over."
"Beta, this is—"
"Do you trust me or not!?"
Cowering. The creator of KopyBot, cowering before him. That backspacer loomed large in his inventory. Beta would object, would raise a fuss, but… this could all end so easily, so simply. Destroy it all. Burn the Karnival to the ground, ruin its reputation, let it collapse in on itself…
…something familiar, in the look of broken terror that Marti showed him now. Something he’d seen in that copy of his sister, what felt like so long ago.
Instead, Tracer read the printed words, letting them guide his voice.
"I believe you," he read, pushing his rising rage down. Trying to emulate Beta’s soft speech patterns, words of comfort and trust. "You had to do it. You say you had to do it, and I believe you’re telling me the truth. But I don’t understand why. Marti, please… walk me through it. Why did you create KopyBot…?"
Gradually… Marti softened, while rising from the cowering slouch he’d adopted. The palpable danger in the room had been reduced to the point where he felt comfortable speaking again.
"…Bonko," he spoke. One word.
"He wanted you to make KopyBot?"
"No. He… he died. Bonko died."
The words paused, before flowing across Tracer’s inner vision once more.
"He’s family, isn’t he?" Beta guessed, behind Tracer’s eyes. "Bonko’s your brother. He died… and you wanted to bring him back, based on the ghosts he’d left behind on social media. That’s why you felt you had to make this technology."
"Yes… yes, that’s it. I had to do it," Marti repeated. "He caught a virus while out partying one night, and was dead by morning. Too riddled with the infection to be recoverable. But I knew I could bring him back! It was such a simple idea. All I had to do… was clone my own Program code, scrub the identity and memory completely, and rebuild using MyFace data. It took years, but I made it work!"
"Then… KopyBots aren’t Apps at all," Tracer said… surprised at his own words. "They’re Programs, hollowed and rebuilt…"
Now, Marti looked uncertain all over again. Unable to meet Tracer’s eyes, as he glanced over the data hovering around his cube.
"They don’t have to be Programs," he reasoned. "We can call them Apps. Programs are just highly evolved Apps. If we call them Apps… we don’t have to feel guilty about anything we do. That’s what Bonko said. It’s a product we can sell, a way to get out of debt, if we call them Apps…"
"Bonko doesn’t know he’s a KopyBot; he thinks he never died. He has no expiration date, unlike the commercial bots. But you don’t believe your brother’s simply an App, do you?"
"Of course not!" Marti exclaimed. "He’s my brother! I saved him. Programs are just data! They can be recovered, if you know how!"
"Which is it, then? Are KopyBots Apps, or Programs?" Beta asked, through Tracer. "You can’t have it both ways, Marti. If they’re Apps… you can ‘play’ with them all you like. But if Bonko is really your brother, and not a parody of him you crafted from social media data… that means the KopyBots are alive. They’re alive, and you’re feeding them to those people…"
"He’s trembling," Beta spoke. "We’re tearing his world down. I feel awful about this. Hug him, maybe…?"
Tracer declined to follow through on that command. But he did continue to let the written words flow through him.
"You know it’s wrong, Marti," he continued. "This isn’t just a massive invasion of privacy of those you kopy, it’s cruel to the KopyBots themselves. That’s why you won’t participate in the Karnival. You’re keeping it all going for your brother’s sake but you know it has to stop. You need to shut down the Karnival, before it can do any more damage than it’s already done."
"Good! Now, give him a copy of the anti-malware tool."
"Beta, if Dex gets a hold of the only weapon we have against him—"
"Marti isn’t an enemy. Make a show of good faith, Tracer."
So Tracer extended his hand, a vial of silvery fluid hovering there.
"Use this to purge the virus from your brother," he suggested. "Pull him back from the abyss he’s hovering over. It’s my gift to you, no matter your decision. But… I’m begging you, end the Karnival. Please, Marti. You can find a better use of your technology than this… and you can find a better future for your brother."
Marti looked up at the vial… the hope clear in his eyes, as he saw its glittering salvation.
"…Bonko won’t be happy," he noted. "This was his dream."
"This is his nightmare. He’ll be annoyed, but… he’ll survive. And once the virus is out of his system, he can find a better dream to follow."
And so the cube was shut down, tucked back into Marti’s inventory. No longer in service for creation of KopyBots. Dex’s infection vector vanished overnight; no longer would it poison new recruits to the Karnival.
And so Bonko would regain his sensibility, and family bonds would keep him from being angry for any real length of time at his younger bro.
And so the Karnival ended. Not with the silent fire of a backspacer, not with a massive explosion, not even with an act of subterfuge and sabotage. It simply ended, as dark dreams always do. The existing infected who had already used Kopybots scattered to the winds, beyond the reach of any cure… an unfortunate problem for another day. Not a complete victory over Dex, but as close as they could have gotten.
And so Puzzle (after one huge #GirlsNightIn, to celebrate) returned home to her video library and her well stocked wine cellar and her terrible call-center job, with a newfound appreciation for her #BFF’s personal journey.
And so Spark put the entire mess out of her mind… but not so far out of mind as to forget the lesson. She continued to spar with her training dummy, but not simply to prove her own invulnerability, but to stay sharp so she could stave off death as long as possible. As good a goal as any.
And so Beta came to admit her one lie.
"I didn’t have the heart to tell him," she explained, over one of many games of Go she’d played with Tracer. "But while I still feel KopyBots are Programs… I don’t think Bonko’s really his brother."
"It’s Bonko’s MyFace profile given new flesh, nothing more," Tracer agreed. "And it produced a stunningly awful person in the process even before the virus claimed him. Who knows? Perhaps the real Bonko was kinder than the exaggerated persona he created for himself on MyFace."
"We told a lie of omission, didn’t we?" Beta wondered. "Letting Marti believe in a dream. …if I could believe it was possible to bring back loved ones like Verity with a KopyBot, I’d have said so. But they’re gone, so is Bonko, and all that’s left are their ghosts…"
"And the memories we hold. I think Marti may have been onto something, when he awkwardly tried to copy you by looking for shared life experiences. A fusion of the memories left behind in our wake, contributed by friends and family… that may be the closest to life after death we can manage."
"Death marks the death of something, even if the remnants can be made to move. People die all the time, and that’s simply how it is… Verity died, long ago. My neighbor died recently, and nobody knows why. Maybe Snowi will die soon, if #CodeHonesty ever finds her…"
Beta’s next door neighbor was murdered recently. Isn’t that a strange coincidence?
Dex’s little taunt, the one that sent Tracer off on this long journey…
That’s a rather old hacktool, you know. It’s almost perfect… if not for the timestamped junk code artifacts.
Arjay’s little taunt, the one Tracer had dismissed at the time as he was more focused on the Karnival.
MemoryPalace didn’t forget. It never forgot. It drew connections for him, calling his attention to the linked details now that they’d resurfaced fresh in his mind…
Tracer placed one last stone, before rising.
"I need to check on something," he declared, before moving off to his study without a further word.
Cracking open his backspacer posed a risk. The code was delicate and he was hardly much of a programmer… but he had to know, had to be certain. This was too critical a concern to let it slide on a wave of pride and assumptions…
Within the weapon he found six timestamps, dotted all along the span of his life.
Six murders, each by a weapon he’d supposedly never fired.
One timestamp neatly lined up with the evening that Beta’s neighbor was killed. Why would he kill someone he didn’t even know…?
MemoryPalace pulled up a note, highlighted for his convenience.
…the origin server of the original nude leak was WestHall…
One timestamp neatly lined up with the exact moment they left Qelk’s apartment.
Got lost on the way down here, he’d insisted to his sister to explain the delay.
An automatic search pulled up Qelk’s obituary. His entire apartment had been backspaced recently by an unknown assailant, with investigation by HiRize moderators still ongoing…
There was only one way out of this. One reasonable answer to the ethical question posed by the timestamps.
One rough re-assembly later, the muzzle of the backspacer pressed against his forehead. It felt cold and flat, an ideal of absolute digital certainty. It may not cleanly kill him, not after being decompiled and recompiled, but as long as the end result remained fatal it would suffice.
But… no. That wouldn’t work, because they wouldn’t know why. He’d still escape his actions, consequence-free. A cowardly route to take, fleeing the scene of the crime, just as he’d done so many times before… leaving an almost imperceptible hole in his memory with each murder. Washing his hands clean, so he could feel pure and righteous…
Leave behind a note first, perhaps? Confess on paper before eliminating the scourge of Netwerk, as he’d always done?
No. Inadequate. He didn’t deserve such an easy way out.
Instead, Tracer wrapped a fresh connection lock collar around his own neck. It was his own App, meaning he could remove it at any time… so he set a password in place, mailing copies of it to his sister and to Beta before wiping his own memory of the phrase. He even sent his backspacer to his sister as a file attachment… the killing tool finally out of his own murderous hands.
There. That would suffice as punishment… the start of his punishment, at least.
Not feeling up to walking out of this room, he relied on the indirect Messenger to carry his words.
"Beta? Spark? Would you please come up to my study?" he asked. "I have a confession to make."
:: go home
|:: Copyright 2015 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy.
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker.