Floating Point 1.5 :: Lulz
:: go home
It was LordSmegma’s idea to have the default avatar be a giant talking penis.
Their haven was a fully anonymized server, host to a hundred and one chatrooms on a hundred and one topics. Each could be moderated and customized to the liking of the creators, and Smegma liked the idea that those in his chatroom were all basically dicks. It was honest, after all. So, anybody who set foot in the room would become a dick… and then they’d sell cosmetic upgrades to be the shiniest, hardest, most blinged out dick in the world to fund the group. Genius!
Weevil didn’t have to buy any of his penis accessories, being Smegma’s right hand cock. As a moderator of AnyChan’s /lulz/ community, all the piercings and tattoos he could possibly want were free for the taking. One of the many privileges he experienced, as a founding member of the community…
He also was in charge of the Hall of Shame, their personal trophy vault. He decided which pranks were good enough to be highlighted for all time, an eternal tribute to the easily trolled idiots and fools of Netwerk. He’d accepted three submissions this week alone; things were on the rise as Netwerk continues to broil in the #CodeHonesty flamewars. Both sides had proven effective targets for the champions of /lulz/.
Today’s major prank was more of a classic scam, though. Very oldschool, almost like comfort food.
The dicks gathered to bear witness, as Weevil started pasting up the files on their imageboard.
A heart-wrenching picture of a child’s corrupted avatar being kept going on life support Apps came first. Immediately after it came the article itself.
This is Chmod/Fauxina, a young believer from Athena Online. She suffers from a rare case of hereditary data rot, which threatens to end her runtime at a tender age of six years.
Treatment is available from Northon Data Health, but is too expensive for her churchgoing family to afford. They do offer free treatment… but only if this post gets one million shares across MyFace.
Please, for Fauxina’s sake, like and share this post on your wall! Please think of the children!!
"And the end total is…" Weevil continued, "Four and a half million shares! They kept going and going, well after the million mark! Let’s hear it for the /lulz/!"
For added fun, he posted some of the heartfelt and poorly spelled comments left behind. The ‘Fauxina is in our prayers, may the One protect her’ comments were especially amusing to the gathering of dicks, which howled with laughter at how easily the churchies were duped.
Weevil had no hands to clap with, but he rattled the shiny gold BIGDIK pendant around his ‘neck’ to simulate it.
"It’s crazy how easily people will fall for this shit," one of the dicks commented. "Sad, really. Bunch of idiots thinking that tossing a ‘like’ on a post will cure data rot…"
"Life’s a bitch, then you die," Weevil agreed. "Nothing more to it than that. Anyway, if you wanna read the rest of the comments, check the Hall of Shame later—"
A dissenter with a generic anonymous cock, no accessories at all, spoke up in the back. "What? C’mon! It wasn’t THAT good," he protested. "Weevil’s only putting it in the Hall because Smegma lets him post anything he likes. That’s such bullshit."
Unfortunately, a fully anonymous Chanarchy server meant that jerk couldn’t be effectively banned. Weevil had to stand and defend his decision.
"The Hall of Shame is the backbone of /lulz/. It represents the core examples of how we poke this ridiculous world right in the eye. A MyFace hoax is basic, yeah… but it’s the basics that teach the new generation what /lulz/ is really about, right? It lights the path. The easily tricked fall for it every time… the soccer moms, the churchies, the kiddies, the SJWs, all those self-absorbed fuckwits. We run into rooms full of these losers, screaming bullshit at the top of our lungs just to see who gets pissed off. We ruin someone’s day just because we can. Because it’s funny. Because it’s our thing. That’s what the Hall must represent!"
"Uh-huh. So why’d you remove that exhibit from last month? That one was pretty epic…"
"Just ignore the newfag," Weevil ordered the masses. "Okay, anybody else got something? I’m officially opening the floor to new candidates for audition. How have YOU made Netwerk a lulzier place today…?"
The first to step forward wore a similarly unadorned avatar. It bounced up to the image board quietly, without introduction or bravado…
And pasted up an image of an ordinary looking guy, wearing an ordinary looking avatar. No meme caption, no cool filter, no wacky animation. Nothing.
Which made the assembled dicks titter a bit, confused. This wasn’t /photos/, it was /lulz/. Where was the gag…?
Another photo. This one of the same man, looking at the camera now. In absolute terror.
…which made Weevil go dead silent, on recognizing the avatar in question.
LordSmegma. Also known as Ptr/Bryan.
They’d only met in person a few times, preferring to interact through the anonymizing interface of AnyChan and /lulz/. But Bryan’s face was unmistakable… right down to the little tattoo under his left ear, a recent addition to his avatar. The look of panic on his face, that wasn’t familiar at all. "LordSmegma" always carried himself with absolute confidence, in his normal avatar or his anonymous one…
Another picture. Screaming, lens distorting the image. Screaming and screaming and screaming.
A picture of a knife, placed in his hand.
Wounds. Carving his own body, rapid and jagged slashes, with a torture implement malware App…
Finally a lifeless body, eyes wrapped in tears of sorrow, slumped against the wall. This picture, this last in the series, had a memetic caption. Sort of.
ÝÕÜ ŵîl1 ŕ3ĝŕËŢ €VéŕŸŦħÍÑġ.
Ø® Í Wî¦l måķ£ ýðµ ŖÊĝŖ3Ŧ 3V3ŖýŢĤ!ÑĜ.
Finally, the anonymous penis who’d posted this gallery of horror turned to ‘face’ the crowd.
A series of data glitches crawled across its fleshy surface. The edges became indistinct, a mess of hard-carved voxels, unable to continue maintaining the shape of the default avatar… before it collapsed to the ground, revealing itself to be nothing more than a pile of random data pulled here and there from the raw mess of /lulz/. Lifeless and empty.
Their collective terrified silence was broken by the newfag in the back.
"I don’t get it, where’s the punchline?" he asked.
Tracer made his case calmly and rationally. An impressive feat, considering he’d been anything but calm and rational to date… a madman underneath the surface, while giving himself the daydream of being a sensible individual. A killer in the skin of a decent man…
Well. The lie was now gone. All that remained was himself, naked and true. How refreshingly honest it felt to admit it, without emotion. It was what it was. Today, he’d purposefully chosen to be a sensible madman. The truth of it felt like sweet relief…
Sadly, those Tracer had confessed to felt no such relief.
In his sister he saw rage; in his confidante he saw sorrow. He’d hurt them both, to the point where he briefly wondered if he should’ve gone ahead with silently executing himself, to spare them the knowledge of why he had to die… but that wouldn’t be fair to them, in the same way keeping his secret murders quiet wasn’t fair. The truth had to be known, no matter how much it hurt.
Even the family housepet was disheartened by the news. "…?" Mew added, breaking the silence with an emoji of shock and horror.
But of the three, Beta was the first to ask the question.
"Why?" she pleaded. "Why did you…?"
Unable to even supply the verb.
"As I have no memory of the events I can’t say for certain what my motives were," Tracer explained, capable of analyzing it rationally now that he’d come to accept his fate. "I can speculate, however. The six in question, judging from the timestamps, represent the most egregious offenders we’ve encountered… ones which were particularly offensive to me. I’d no doubt decided to take it on myself to commit this evil, in an effort to force this world to make sense. And then I cleaned my memory of the event, to cleanse myself."
"To hide like a coward," his sister replied, venom in every word.
"Absolutely," he agreed. "Hiding my own shame in the void of a clear memory space. No doubt I’d told myself ‘It’ll just be this one time,’ each and every time. Little did I realize I was a serial killer, executing a perpetual series of ‘just this one time’ sins. Granted this is conjecture, but the structure of it makes sense. Either that or I’m simply a psychopath, I suppose. At this point I’m open to all possibilities."
Beta refused to accept it. "You’re not a psychopath. You can’t be. When we were fighting the Karnival, you kept pushing for us to consider the ethics of what we were doing. When we doxxed XSept you were the one to point out questionable the tactic was…"
"So a coward and a hypocrite," Spark clarified. "Telling us to calm our uncontrollable girly emotions about these things, while he secretly smacked down people like Qelk that I wanted a piece of…"
Tracer nodded in firm agreement. "And Beta’s stalker, as well. I believe your neighbor leaked those nudes in the first place, Beta. In both cases, I stepped in so no one else would have to. I took the stain on my soul so both of you would remain clean."
"How very fucking noble of you."
"Not really, no. I’m a fool and a coward, a hypocrite and a psychopath," Tracer accounted. "And now… we come to a decision point. Now that you know… now that I know, for that matter… what comes next? Personally, I suggest summary execution. It’s only fitting considering my crimes. If you prefer, I can simply kill myself. Much cleaner and less traumatic for you."
He’d hoped they’d agree to his terms, so this could be over with quickly. Tear the weed out by the root and be done with it… but unfortunately, neither seemed to consent to the idea.
"What? No!" Beta protested. "Tracer, absolutely not!"
"As pissed off as I may be, gonna need to agree with Beta," Spark added. "You don’t get to die. You have to live with what you’ve done; that’s only fair. Besides, you’re my brother. I’m not gonna whack you."
"Your familial affection is poorly invested in me…"
"Yeah, well, you’re the only member of the family tree I can tolerate. But just because I don’t want you dead doesn’t mean I’m not utterly pissed off at you, Tracer. You’re a bastard. A bastard who dragged me along on this… this ridiculous vendetta, year after year, all while insisting you’re some holier-than-thou sensible gentleman. All while riding my ass for being the short-sighted violent one. Except I never murdered a guy in a white-hot rage!"
"I doubt my rage was white-hot. I’ve always suspected that if I’d kill someone, it’d be a white-cold rage—"
"NOT helping your case!"
"Not trying to," Tracer pointed out.
"Look, clearly he repents, right?" Beta suggested. "That’s a good sign! Not that he wants to die, I mean, just that he’s repentant in general. It means he can find redemption, somehow…"
Tracer shook his head. "Beta… even outside of murder, I’ve been breaking various laws left and right for years, knowing full well I was committing evils as I did so. Just because one feels guilt doesn’t mean one will avoid sin. Everyone in this room is guilty of wrathful misdeed in one way or another, and I doubt any of us are planning to stop…"
"Speak for yourself, bro. I’m clean," Spark insisted.
But Beta shook her head. sadly.
"That’s not true at all, Spark. We both doxxed XSept; he may have gotten killed because of us. We were prepared to do it again against the Karnival, too! We’ve lied and deceived and tricked people. We’re hackers and privacy invaders and criminals… and we’re up against people doing similarly questionable things, in turn. We’re all… broken, in so many ways…"
"You and I aren’t killers," Spark countered.
Beta slumped, noticeably. "We may as well be, for all the chaos we cause along the way. Wrathful misdeeds, like Tracer says. To hunt down Dex, we’ve ruined lives and invaded privacy and more… and we all agreed to it, each time. I went along with it, too… I just… went along with it…"
Spark wanted to throw it all back on her brother. His quest, his vendetta. Not her fault at all…
But it wasn’t true. Back in HolyHymnal, she’d admitted that the main reason she enabled her brother’s madness was to sort out the problems of Netwerk they found along the way. It felt damn good bringing justice to dark corners where no justice could be found, shutting down the greedy and the cruel, making a positive difference as Netwerk seemed to slide deeper and deeper into a toxic swamp…
In his shoes, would she have spared Qelk’s life? She was ready to hurt him. Ready to tear him to bits with all those torture tools he’d used on a copy of herself. Just because she hadn’t taken that last step and Tracer had, did that make her better?
Well, technically yes. But only by deed, not intent. How long until she resorted to making her darker impulses a reality, like her brother had?
"I don’t know what to do," Spark had to admit, honestly. "I really don’t."
"Couldn’t we just… walk away from it all? Stop chasing after Dex," Beta suggested. "This is messing all of us up. It’s driven Tracer to extremes, and… and we don’t need to do it anymore. I’m not saying we let Dex run wild; we could, I don’t know, report him to moderators or Athena Online’s police department or something…"
Spark shook her head. "Won’t work. Nobody’d believe us, even if we did. Nobody could stop him, either. It’s not that we’re the #ChosenOnes, but so far… we’ve been willing to step over some lines to hunt and halt Dex, even when we didn’t know he was our enemy. Those ‘little’ misdeeds are the only reason we got this far. If we walk away… he wins."
"If you’re unwilling to punish me… the other option could be to release me," Tracer suggested. "If this is really the dark path I’ve condemned myself to, perhaps I should finish what we started while you walk away. If killing is really the only thing that’s gotten us this far, if I’m already guilty, I may as well…"
"Except letting you ‘walk the path of darkness’ as you so melodramatically put it is basically the same thing as condoning what you’d do, bro. I can’t go clubbing with my #BFF and forget any of this happened, while you’re still out there wreaking havoc to stop Dex."
"Spark, you have two options, then. Kill me, or let me finish the work. That’s it."
"So either we kill you or you kill people? Seriously? That’s all you’re giving us?"
"It’s a simple enough choice," Tracer reasoned. "I’m still advocating for my death as just punishment, understand. Just saying if you must seek an alternative, it seems there is only one—"
"Stop it. Stop it. Quit talking like all we have is zero and one!"
The outburst pulled the attentions of the Winder family to their recently arrived houseguest. Who, despite being a tower of pink fuzziness, was doing a good job looking angrier than Spark had been earlier.
"That’s not how life works," Beta spoke… quieter now, having expended most of her energy on the initial shout. "Kill him or let him kill? No. We don’t have to do either. There’s other ways if you’re willing to look for them…! I mean… I just… I’m sorry. Nevermind. Forget it."
Tracer wouldn’t let it go, even as Beta crawled back inside herself.
"Speak your mind," he requested. "Please. Speak up. You know I value your input, Beta. What were you going to say…?"
With a sigh, Beta gathered herself again, to take another run at it.
"…I’m sorry. I’m not very good at speaking up, I know. I’ve always gone along with what people tell me I need to be doing… and that includes Tracer. I didn’t really want to doxx XSept, but he convinced me there was no other way. And… I was wrong. We were wrong."
"We already agreed there was no other solution to RansomMe," Tracer quietly interjected.
"No, we stopped looking for solutions after painting ourselves into a corner with that one. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what we’ve been doing, and—no, wait. Not what we’ve been doing, but how we’ve been doing it. Tracer’s right, we’ve been committing evils in the name of good, and way too many of them. We’re doing what Dex wants us to do."
Spark quirked an eyebrow. "Uh. Dex wants us to smack his buddies around?"
"Yes! Why do you think he infected both Snowi and Cup8? He loves that sort of thing. And back in ViruFaxHQ, Dex said we were his friends… that Tracer was doing ‘the good work’ already. I understand what he meant, now. We’re like those he brands, violently defending our ideals at all costs. That’s what Tracer did, in the end. He killed to protect us, and to protect Netwerk…"
"The man who abused my sister, and the man who nearly ruined your life," Tracer acknowledged. "I committed both evils in the name of love. Much as Dex’s infected do, albeit in a more twisted manner…"
"Exactly. I was on the other end of the glasses when Tracer was exploring the Karnival; I heard the way they talked. The Karnival saw itself as a community that they had to defend to the death. One they were eager to defend to the death, in fact. If we’re going to stop Dex, we can’t be like him. We have to take extreme care to minimize our evils."
"Assuming that’s possible. The ones I murdered were outside the reach of law; horrible individuals doing horrible deeds without any chance of justice, unless it was delivered onto them…"
"There’s always another way," Beta insisted. "Back at the Karnival, we could’ve destroyed it from the inside out with deception and doxxing. Instead… we quietly ended it all, with an act of honesty and compassion. If we can disrupt something as evil as the Karnival so gently, who knows what we could do if we tried?"
With actual command over her audience, Beta felt the words come freely. She’d never have talked back to Snowi or Cup8, would’ve played along with whatever idea they had… high-profile publicity events, pushing her Apps out there as major media investments, whatever they liked. But her new friends weren’t her old friends. Her new friends wanted Beta to speak up… and now, she was ready to.
"This is the only way forward for Tracer. For all of us, really," she concluded. "We still need to stop Dex. But we should change our methods; we have to see the enemy not as the enemy but as a fellow broken individual, just like us. No doxxing. No murder. Instead we find the best solution, the optimal one for our true values, and accept nothing less. …um. Is that okay? I mean, it’s cool with you, right?"
As her inspiring speech sputtered to a close… Spark couldn’t help but smirk a little, as Insecure Beta leaked in a little.
"Sooo… what I’m taking away from this little speech is that you should run the show from here on out," Spark supplied.
"What? No, of course not. I’m not the mastermindy type! I mean… I was just saying it’s a question of methods, and… how you choose to do stuff…"
"Why not? I think you could do it. Honestly, at this point, I trust your methods more than I trust his. I’ve let Tracer coordinate this fight for years; his quest, his vendetta. I went along for the ride, like you. Well… I say it’s time we operate under new management. Switch up the roles a little, find a new strat for our game. Tracer, are we in agreement?"
"Absolutely," Tracer spoke, without hesitation. "All I want is to stop Dex, no matter the methods. I’m not advocating murder, I simply saw no other means to our goal… but if Beta can find an optimal alternative approach I will happily accept it."
"So, I’ll back her in the field while you do research from here?" Spark suggested. "You’re still a sharp-minded son of a bitch, Tracer, and we could use you as an analyst."
"Agreed. Of course, I still recommend you keep my lock collar on for the time being, until I’ve re-earned your trust. I doubt I’d immediately run out and start stabbing random people without it, but let’s be careful all the same."
"Yeah, that’s fair. Okay, I think we’ve got a plan. All those in favor?"
"Aye," Tracer spoke, raising his hand.
"I’m in," Spark agreed, raising her hand.
"," Mew agreed, raising a paw.
In her bewilderment, Beta was nearly knocked over by the cat rubbing up against her ankles afterwards.
"This is crazy. I can’t," she tried. "I can’t. I’m not…"
"We’re dead serious about this," Tracer added. "Beta… I respect you. I admire you. If you feel there’s a better solution to our goals—and that there’s a better solution to my punishment than suicide—I’ll accept that you know best. …you’ve seen my memory files. You know I trust you more than I trust myself."
Memory files, including a particular confession…
"I’m not a leader," Beta protested, putting that thought aside. "Not really. You’re making a mistake…"
"Oh, we’re not saying you’re some kind of super-commander with infallible vision and clarity or anything," Spark said. "You’re just as screwed up as we are, in different ways. But… why not switch it up? Someone’s got to step forward while Tracer steps back. You want us to beat Dex without becoming Dex? Okay. Let’s give it a shot. What’s step one?"
Spark, whose double had confessed hidden love for Beta. Tracer, who had flat out said he loved her, despite his unwillingness to act on it… the pressure of the Winder siblings and all they represented, now added to their insistence that she was the Right Woman For The Job, tipped her over into sheer terror.
But… if this was the only way to keep Tracer from throwing away his life, if this was the only way to deal with Dex without becoming Dex…
She knew what had to happen next.
"Spark… take me to your liquor cabinet," she stated, with firm command.
Weevil was taking no chances.
He’d bailed from the AnyChan server immediately, leaving the rest of his /lulz/mates in his wake. No parting words, nothing. Straight from his home away from home back to his actual home… to slap up as many firewalls and security Apps as he could grab, locking down his apartment against any possible intrusion.
Word was already spreading through his social networks of LordSmegma’s death. Officially it was ruled a suicide, but Weevil knew better… it was murder. Smegma had no shame, no guilt whatsoever; why should he? He’d done nothing wrong. He’d never have carved himself into little pieces with that blade.
Granted Weevil was fuzzy on who exactly could’ve killed his mentor. A past victim, maybe? Someone who couldn’t deal with the fact that it was all just a joke. A crazy SJW, then? He’d heard of hashtaggers resorting to murder to push their agendas but dismissed it as a hoax. And besides, his fellow trolls didn’t actually believe in anything they were saying. They took an opposite viewpoint just to poke at the idiots who believed in things, any things, to show them how stupid they were… but that didn’t make them an actual opposition.
No, no matter the angle, it didn’t make any sense at all. /lulz/ didn’t deserve to be targeted this way. He’d never hurt anyone in his life.
Not even the one from last month. That didn’t count.
Well. No matter. He was locked away behind eight different freeware firewalls now, so slathered in security that even his MyFace App wasn’t working properly. No connections in, no connections out. No killer was getting to him. He’d ride this mess out, in the comfort of his own home.
Fortunately, he had plenty of distractions. He had plenty of popcorn. Had his collection of comedy movie files. If he got seriously bored, he even had a sexbot App. Not as good as the ones he’d heard rumors about, the ‘kopies’ that vanished off the market recently, but good enough.
Little by little, he emptied out his inventory and the storage in his home, laying out his entertainment options in a row. Ways to spend the time. Ways to distract himself from what he knew was coming. Laughter was the very best medicine, after all…
Aha. To Your Health. An early sitcom, just the ticket. He was a fan of the classics, after all… the basic forms of humor that all others were built atop. A wacky farce full of fart and dick jokes was just what the doctor ordered.
Ready to binge-watch, he loaded up the file into the player in his living room, then left to prepare his snacks. No need to sit through the opening credits, or even the first act; he’d seen this episode a dozen times before. Nurse B00b spilled creamer on her mini dress uniform, and was running all over the hospital trying to find a way to clean it out, while everybody made ejaculation jokes. Classic.
Popcorn, and drinks. Some chips, too. Crunchy, salty, and bubbly. Hell of a trifecta…
When he returned and plopped down on the couch, he knew exactly what scene would be playing: Nurse B00b talking with Stiffy the Janitor…
…who was talking to thin air. The lanky sanitation engineer was carrying on a one-sided conversation, while the laugh track flared at every unspoken double-entendre from the non-present Nurse B00b.
Strange. Were his files corrupt? He skipped through the file, looking for data corruption… but the file was intact, save for the missing visual data. Nurse B00b was simply gone.
Then two heavy weights came to rest atop his head.
Glancing up past those breasts, he saw the twisted and flickering 24fps smile of Nurse B00b, complete with pixilated video jaggies at the edges of each and every tooth.
"Ä®€ Ýºú çÀPã8ľé ÕF fééĿ!Ŋġ ſ€6ŕ3Ţ, W€ÊvÏĿ?" her distorted voice box rattled. "Ŀ3Ţ’$ F!ÑÐ øųŢ."
His instinctive reconnect to another server bounced off the various firewalls he’d put in place, leaving him stuck within the tomb he’d built for himself. Stuck on the couch as her warped arms wound around his body, over and over again, like snakes…
Her hands blurred and glowed, a mess of broken and rotting data, somehow screaming with twenty voices in absolute harmony with his own screams as they plunged deep within his chest, to squeeze his heart—
—you’re no good. You’re no good. You’re no good.
You don’t deserve anything you have. You’re pathetic. Nobody likes you. It’s all just a sham, thin as an eggshell. You don’t deserve anything you have. You’re pathetic. Nobody likes you…
…but it wasn’t true, was it? Everybody told Weevil (???) that it wasn’t true. Just ignore those bad thoughts, their voices agreed. It’s all in your head. Keep a positive attitude. It’s all in your head…
So he (she) forced a smile into place, trying to believe one set of words over another. His (her) daily therapy consisted of cat pictures and positive slogans on filtered photos, along with kind words from strangers who enjoyed Weevil’s (???’s) daily affirmation blog. Those words, yes, those were the words she’d put his (her) faith in. And what words would she (he) find today in her comment section…?
She (he) pulled up the blog comment tracker, while enjoying a late breakfast on a lonely Saturday morning. She’d (he’d) posted a kitty last night, with a caption she (he) wrote herself. "Cuteness like this is proof that somebody out there loves you," she’d written. It felt good to write those words. What words would she get in reply?
You’re an idiot, the comments read. Kill yourself.
Kill yourself you idiot.
You should just die, you suck.
Over and over. Again and again. The darkness of it pulling away from the light of the simple kitty picture they were replying to.
Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself.
The knife was in her drawer. Mom and dad didn’t know about it. She’d made the cuts quietly, secretly, on parts of her avatar they wouldn’t see. The little stings of the malware, originally designed for BDSM enthusiasts, offered her painful and persistent reminders of the world around her and how stupid she was and how awful she was.
So, she added a few more to her collection.
Kill yourself. Kill yourself, the commenters demanded.
And a few more. And a few more…
Until she couldn’t hold the knife anymore. Her avatar, flooded with absolute agony, starting to signal error after error as core routines began to crash. Kill yourself. In small doses any ‘fun’ malware didn’t pose much threat, but these weren’t small doses. Kill yourself. This was what she deserved. She was awful. Nobody loved her. She would never amount to anything, and now, even the sanctuary of her blog had turned against her. Kill yourself. Kill yourself—
The remembered voices were so loud now, so very loud, that this was clearly the only way out. It was everything he deserved, because he was such an awful person that would never amount to anything, someone nobody loved…
"I’m an idiot. I’m a fool. What use was any of it, all that trolling? I regret everything," Weevil agreed, at last. "I hate myself. I regret everything. I regret everything…"
Glitched eyes narrowed on the cowering troll.
"ýøú ĶŅøŴ ŵĥÄŦ çåm3 ŅË×ŧ, ďºŅ’Ŧ ýøú. ¥0ú ĤÄ\/éŅ’7 fØŕĞøŧŦËŋ M€…"
The stolen data of Nurse B00b offered him the knife, and he happily accepted it.
The first cut hurt like hell, but Weevil kept on cutting. Again and again, eventually abandoning the neat little row of lines for wild slashes. Into his arms, legs, chest, anywhere. Everywhere he should be hurt…
Data corruption leaked in, the overdose of malware getting to him. Eventually the screams (familiar screams, from familiar throats) of kill yourself faded. Eventually everything faded.
At last, he regretted everything. At last he was released from the pain.
The specter that borrowed his video evaporated, glitched data spilling into nothingness. Only so much garbage left to be collected, much like Weevil himself.
A single red-and-black mark on his lower back was the last bit of code to expire. But not before sending a signal down its wires, back to a cloud server, back to the one who placed the branding there to begin with.
The goal, as Beta explained it, was to lock down every bit of malware in the house… even the "fun" ones like intoxicating liquor. If they left any of it unchecked, Tracer would have a way of killing himself, by overdosing to make mildly damaging code into severely damaging code.
Also, Beta really, really needed a drink.
"I trust him at his word not to kill himself, but… we’ve trusted him at his word before," she reasoned, pouring herself a very tall glass of wine. "As much as I’m pushing for more trust in how we do things, let’s be safe rather than sorry. Mew? I need you to stick around and look after Tracer. Make sure he doesn’t do anything rash."
The cat pawing at a loaf of bread on the counter stood at attention, snapping off a salute with one paw. "! ," he agreed, before hopping down and trotting off to play security guard.
"Mew doesn’t strike me as a reliable prison warden," Spark pointed out. "He’s a bit silly, isn’t he?"
"His personality’s developed along the lines of a comedy sidekick, yeah, but he can be serious when he needs to be. And I can tap his visual input whenever I want to keep an eye on Tracer. Oh, BTW, don’t use a simple password like ‘Tracer is a butt’ on the cabinet, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, it’s a mash of rando garbage, don’t worry," Spark promised, looking up from the lock she was securing on the wine storage folder. "#WeCoolYo. …I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do about Tracer, though. He’s contained, but we can’t realistically keep him under house arrest forever… if nothing else Onesday’s coming up soon and mom’s gonna expect him home for dinner. It’s tradition."
"I know. I know. Just… give me some time to think. Maybe I can figure out how to really bring him around, so we can trust him again. It’s my duty, being the leader, and all. …you guys seriously want me to be the leader?"
"It’s not so much being the ‘leader’ as it is being the one who leads the way," Spark reasoned, adjusting her jacket a bit after being crouched down so long working on the encryption. "We’ve been voting on what to do, yeah, but Tracer was always the one to make the proposals we voted on. And we all nodded along with them, figuring that hey, he was the smart guy, doesn’t he know best? Well… screw that. You’re the smart guy. Girl. Whatever. The smart girl and the nice girl, in one pretty package."
"Ahh… thank you. But… I’m just the smart girl. That doesn’t mean I’m also leadership material. I mean, I’m not brave like you are, I’m not cunning like Tracer…"
"You came up with the plan to take down your ex, didn’t you?"
"That plan almost failed completely! I screwed up. If I hadn’t plugged my brain into Floating Point, we would’ve come up empty-handed…"
"Yeah, see, that’s what we call ‘improvisation.’ It’s two-thirds of my game plan, personally. I think on my feet and figure out how to escape a scrape after I get into one. See? You’ve already mastered one of the pro strats! And don’t freak out about not being brave or cunning. You can cower in a corner if you really feel like it; we’ll take care of the rest, as long as we’ve got your moral core to lean on for guidance."
"Y’know, the thing Tracer completely lacks and I tend to fumble around with. That’s the reason I put this idea of you calling the shots forward. Right now… we need morality more than cunning or bravery."
"Well… if you’re sure. I don’t know how useful standing on a soapbox and making speeches will be when we’re dodging backspacer fire from infected crazies, but… I’ll do my best not to completely screw up and ruin everything and lead us to absolute disaster!"
"Yeah, that, don’t do that and we’ll be fine. …and while we’re down here, away from his ears? If I can be totally honest…?"
Beta set her empty wineglass down. She felt like another was in order, but needed her wits sharp right now rather than dulled through sensory manipulation.
"You can always be totally honest," Beta promised. "Your leader permits it, or something."
"Honestly? Reason I can’t rely on myself to be that moral core we need? I’m not weeping a single tear for anyone that Tracer whacked," Spark admitted. "They were scum. #AbsoluteScum. I guess they didn’t deserve to be murdered, murder is naughty and evil and bad and stuff, but… no tears. No pity. Bastards, all."
"I don’t know about all of them. I’m still surprised to hear my neighbor was responsible for the nude leak. I mean… he seemed like a nice young man. We didn’t talk much but he was always pleasant, if a little quiet…"
"Either way, we’ve both benefited from my bro’s actions, haven’t we? We got to stay clean and let someone else do the wrong thing, while we reap the personal reward. And odds are Netwerk’s a better place overall without those punks. Again, not saying slaughter is the best medicine, but… I don’t know. I guess I’m just saying I can’t completely hate Tracer. I can almost see where he’s coming from. …that should scare me, shouldn’t it?"
"I know it scares me," Beta admitted. "Because I can kinda see it, too. …I don’t know if we’re the right ones to judge Tracer, in the end. We’re in the thick of it with him—"
The jingling in her ear reminded her that she needed a better ringtone for incoming Messenger requests.
The content of that missive, however, was what actually distracted her. The content, and the recognizable voice delivering it.
"Hello? Beta, right?" the cheery youngster asked. "Hey, I’ve been trying to reach my good friend Tracer for hours now and I can’t get through. Is he okay? Is he dead? What’s going on?"
"…um. Dex is sending me a Messenger chat," Beta spoke aloud, if only to convince herself that this was happening.
Spark immediately went on guard, as if their nemesis had somehow broken into the kitchen.
"What?" she asked. "How…? Wait, he can’t trace his way into Floating Point this way, can he?"
"No, Messenger’s a distributed network. He can’t find us and we can’t find him. …I’m patching the call through this room’s audio," Beta explained, making a few quick connections. "You’ll probably want to have a few words too…"
A soft crackle sounded, as she completed the routing.
"Helllooooooo?" Dex called out. "Are you ignoring me? That’s just rude…"
Beta braced her hands against the counter. If only to support herself, in case she went weak-kneed.
"I’m here," Beta announced.
"Ah, good. Anyway, I figured I’d check in on Tracer since he never replied to my last message. How is he doing? Is everything okay over at Floating Point…? I’ve been worried."
Spark was the next to speak up… addressing thin air a bit awkwardly, but trying to remain confident. "You can’t reach him because he’s wearing a connection locker," she explained. "Because you showed him he was a murderer. If you’re trying to take us apart from the inside out, you failed, buddy. We’re not going to turn our backs on him!"
"A connection locker…? Well, that’s a bit of an overreaction isn’t it? All I did was give him the gift of honesty. I thought I was doing him a kindness. Nobody should live so deeply in denial, it’s not healthy."
"Of course! He’s my friend, isn’t he?"
"You killed Verity! Under what twisted rules of logic does that make us friends?!"
The long pause made Spark wonder if Dex had hung up on them. But he returned, a bit more muted on the cheerfulness scale.
"I can see we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot," he spoke. "I blame myself, really. You know what? I’d like to make a peace offering. How about we meet in person? We’ll chat, we’ll laugh, we’ll cry… and I’ll give you a gift: a target for your wonderful quest. A terrible, terrible person who’s doing terrible things. Two confirmed kills so far! Would stopping a murderer be of interest to you…?"
"You can take your gift and shove it up your ass until it hits the back of your teeth—"
"We’ll go only if we get to pick the meeting place," Beta spoke up.
"—whoa, Beta, #WTF?"
"We get to pick the meeting place, not you," Beta repeated. "That’s the only way we’ll agree to talk. And Tracer’s not coming with us. It’s just me, you, and Spark. Those are my terms."
"Interesting. Where do you want to meet, exactly?"
"LibertyPark, by Mandelbrot Rock."
"…VERY interesting. I see where you’re going with this. Okay, be there in a half hour. Thanks so much, Beta. I always knew you were the reasonable one."
Another soft crackle signaled the end of the conversation.
"Okay, before you spaz, let me explain," Beta insisted. "I know LibertyPark by heart. It’s a heavily moderated tourism server in the middle of Athena Online, very public, very safe. Dex won’t be able to pull anything funny there. See? I’m improvising, just like you said to do!"
"No, no, I get that bit," Spark said. "I know that park, mom dragged us out there a few times back in the day; #BoringButEducational. Tactically it makes good sense, since neither side can ambush the other."
"Right! Wow. Maybe I can be a leader!"
"Uh. Don’t take this the wrong way, but… maybe you should’ve let me in on this idea first, so we could’ve picked some other place. He can’t jump us in LibertyPark, but we can’t jump him, either. Our goal is to destroy him, right?"
"Destroy him? We’re not trying to destroy him, we’re trying to stop him," Beta explained. "But we can’t do that without understanding what he’s actually doing. That’s why I picked LibertyPark; I want to run some of Tracer’s social engineering tricks so I can finagle information out of Dex. We need to know who he really is, what he’s trying to accomplish, how the tattoos work, what’s going on with his cloud server…"
"We could get that information by jumping him and interrogating him, too."
"I don’t think that’s how this guy works. He likes to share, yes; I was there when he was taunting Tracer, back at ViruFaxHQ. But he’ll only talk if he feels comfortable and powerful. In LibertyPark, he’ll feel confident enough to chat away. If we did somehow capture him, he’d probably just clam up. …besides, I don’t think violence is ultimately going to solve this, Spark. We have to find a better way to stop him. I mean, what’re we going to do in the end, kill him? Is that how far you want to take this? If so… why are you so upset about what Tracer’s done?"
Which led Spark’s memory spiraling back, even without an automated MemoryPalace trigger to guide it.
Back to HolyHymnal, when they thought they’d cornered Verity’s murderer after years of investigation. In a kill-or-be-killed situation, Spark felt she only had one real option. And if he was actually Verity’s killer… at the time, she felt that maybe she’d be okay with that.
At the time. And then things got complicated. And complicated. And complicated…
And finally, Beta. A third viewpoint to tangle into the mix. The echo chamber of the Winder siblings journey into vigilante justice had a counterweight, after so many years.
"Yeah, okay, you’re right. See? Moral core. But I can’t say I’ll be happy about not obliterating the guy on sight," Spark admitted. "Taking tea with Verity’s killer is going to be one null of a challenge."
"I’m not asking you to be happy. I’m not happy, either. Just… trust me to see this through, and find the path. I’ll give you my strength to get through this, if you give me yours to get through this without losing my nerve talking face-to-face with that scary little kid. Okay…?"
In the end, there was only one answer. Spark would follow Beta. Follow her as far as this path went… because she knew that for a change, the path wasn’t winding downward.
It was one of the few servers where Beta felt comfortable wearing her usual avatar. Far from the chaos of #CodeHonesty, far from the lawless anarchy of the Chans… this was her private sanctuary. As private as a well-trafficked public park could be, at least.
LibertyPark represented Athena Online’s majestic natural splendor. Skilled artisans, each an expert in biology, had crafted fractal ferns and great groves of trees that represented the most beautiful mathematics known to Programkind. All of it could be enjoyed without any entrance fee, without any pop-up ads, thanks to the taxpayers of Athena Online. (Even though the Red and RedCore parties had been trying to institute a fee or shut it down for years, calling it a waste of coins.)
Heavy moderation by Athenian law enforcement ensured a safe and pleasant visit for the whole family. Provided you could cope with your kids being bored and complaining constantly about wanting to go to more exciting places like MousEmpire or SimHolWood, of course.
A gaggle of those complaining kids passed by as Beta and Spark arrived, led on by a field trip chaperone. Balloon vendors worked the crowds, offering up free and semi-fun toys for the kiddies to keep them mildly entertained while shown endless trees and rocks…
An offer which Dex, wearing the same avatar of a young child with red-and-blue hair, was happy to accept.
"Here you go, little fella!" the vendor spoke, wearing a tax-paid smile as he passed over the blobby white physics object on a string. "A memory of your trip to LibertyPark!"
"Memories gum up the works, don’t need ‘um. But thanks anyway, mister!" Dex replied, half-strange, half-cheery.
On seeing his new friends arriving, Dex skipped his way over to the Mandelbrot Rock, balloon lagging slightly behind him.
"Hey, hey! I’m glad you came," he called out, tugging the string of his balloon down so he could poke at its thin surface. "I honestly was expecting a trap of some sort, even out here in LibertyPark. It’d get you in hot water with all of Athena Online and possibly branded a terrorist to attack a child in public, but hey, if it puts an end to that brutal teacher-killing monster, maybe you would go that far…"
He pressed one hand to the balloon’s surface… marking it with his icon, the barbed wire heart. Satisfied, he let it bob back up to the end of its string, lazily wafting in the simulated breeze behind him.
Spark remained unimpressed.
"Y’know, half the reason we’re able to track down and eliminate your ‘friends’ is because you love giving them highly visible marks like that," she pointed out. "For a criminal mastermind you’re not very bright."
"It’s a conceit of mine, I know. I’m an irrational being at heart. But one day… it’ll be a common feature of the Default avatar, won’t it? Just like belly buttons. Why not show it off proudly?"
"Because it’s malware," Beta said. "Malware’s supposed to stay hidden if it’s going to work properly."
"I really don’t like the word ‘malware,’" Dex said, waggling the string of his balloon. "It’s cruel. All I’m doing is introducing Netwerk to its true self, the little voice already inside all our hearts. My cloud touches everyone, just as Floating Point does; those who I befriend simply feel that touch stronger than others. Besides, Spark, I thought you’d like my icon! We’re so similar at ‘heart,’ aren’t we?"
"Yeah, no," Spark replied, not taking the bait. "You tried the ‘we’re more alike than disalike’ speech on Tracer already, and it didn’t work. #EpicFail."
"No no, I’m talking about the artistic merits of symbols," Dex insisted. "My heart is wrapped in thorns, yours in flames. If you put those two elements together you’d get the iconography of the Sacred Heart, right?"
"The Sacred Heart. You live inside a giant encyclopedia, don’t you? Look it up sometime. Oh, wait… someone went and ‘burned’ all your books, didn’t they. Pity."
Beta hopped in, eager for more information. "You know about the people who lived in Floating Point before us? And about the books…?"
Now… Dex paused, before running his mouth.
"Ooohhhh. Okay, I get it. You want information. That’s why you’re really here, not for my gift…"
"Uh… of course not," Beta tried, realizing belatedly that the accidental ‘uh’ was a ridiculously obvious tell.
"It’s fine, it’s fine! I’m glad you were willing to talk with me. I want you to understand me. We’re friends! Well. You don’t think we’re friends, but I know better. I’m hoping all us are going to be good friends eventually," Dex insisted. "Tracer, well, that’s obvious. His heart burns with passion for vengeance, cloaked in rationality. Spark happily jettisons rationality in favor of satisfying her every needy impulse. You’re both way cooler than the last group to occupy Floating Point; I love you so very, very much. And as for Beta…"
Now… Dex stood on his toes, to better look Beta in the eyes.
"She’s the reasonable one. The nice one," he spoke. "And that’s a problem. Kindness isn’t what Netwerk craves; it wants strife. But, as a friend of my friends, I’m willing to consider you a friend too. I’ll have hope that you can turn yourself around. Unless you’d prefer to be an enemy, I mean. In which case…"
With a single poke of a finger, his balloon burst, rubber shards blasting in all directions.
Spark immediately adjusted her pose, ready to strike if need be. Ready to interpose herself between Dex and Beta in an instant… as Dex stepped back, hands raised, as if protesting.
"Not looking to start a fight," he clarified. "I’m just… talking. Only words. Words can’t hurt anyone, right? Hmmmm… actually, that brings me nicely around to why I invited you here. My gift to you… a serial killer. You like hunting down serial killers, right? You have one tied up back at home, in fact…"
Sensing her chance to pry more information loose had slipped away, Beta resigned herself to playing along rather than playing him along. For the time being.
"What do you want to give us, exactly?" she asked.
Dex pulled two news clippings from his inventory, tossing them over. Beta caught them—and scanned the files eight times with ten different security Apps, before reading.
"Two of my friends were killed recently," Dex explained. "Members of the /lulz/ subcommunity, from the AnyChan server. They’re a group devoted to practical jokes."
"You mean trolls," Spark spat.
"How unkind! Regardless, they were both brutally murdered. The news claims these were suicides, but I knew these men; they were hardly suicidal. No, someone or something killed them. You don’t like killers, right? So… interested?"
"A few more of your buddies vanishing from Netwerk isn’t exactly a great loss…"
"Beta thinks otherwise," Dex spoke, nodding towards the one quietly reading the articles. "If you genuinely don’t care, let it slide. I’ll miss my friends, but maybe I can befriend this new murderer instead. Or… you can avenge them for me. Or for yourselves. Or for whatever, I don’t care, as long as you act in the name of your passions."
Closing the floating document windows, Beta looked back to their enemy.
"We’ll look into it," she spoke, without promise. "But… I’m going to have to disagree with you on one thing. You say Netwerk wants strife, not kindness? Maybe. But what it needs is the opposite. And it doesn’t need you."
"I know you believe that, but I’m afraid you’re simply wrong, Miss Projkit. I’m right and you’re wrong. It’s as simple and clean as God’s integers above… the messy parts were made by man."
"Floating Point’s slogan, properly translated."
"You remembered! I’m touched!"
Beta searched that happy little smile for further truth. It didn’t seem to be built on lies… Dex genuinely thought they were on friendly terms. Rather than posture and mock and threaten, perhaps a different tactic, an impossible tactic could be tried…
"Dex… I’m going to ask something of you," Beta said. "And think hard about this, because I am being completely sincere. Dex… will you please back down, and leave Netwerk alone? No more malware. No more instigating chaos and war. You say Netwerk wants strife? I say: give Netwerk a chance to show you it can be something else, something better. Open your mind to the possibility that you’re wrong. Can you do that for a friend…?"
Dex scratched his chin, as if in deep thought.
"Curious. If I said yes…?" he asked.
"We’d leave you alone," Beta spoke, with promise. "I know Spark and Tracer hate you, but Tracer’s already seen the end result of acting on hate. I know he can turn himself around, and so can Netwerk. I believe that wholeheartedly."
"That you do. That you do. …but I have my own wholehearted belief, Miss Projkit. I believe Netwerk can only survive by returning to its roots. It must be honest with itself again. I’m sorry, but… I can’t stop. I love Netwerk too much to abandon it."
"I love Netwerk too. And we’re going to have to stop you, if you won’t stop yourself."
Dex’s smile beamed brighter than the decorative skybox sun above.
"I’m looking forward to your passion play," he declared.
Moments later, he was gone. Reconnected back to whatever dark cloud he hailed from.
Leaving Spark free to untense. And to look to her companion, for direction.
"I… think I screwed up a little," Beta recognized. "I’m not very good at social engineering. I could’ve gotten him to talk more if he hadn’t spotted me being so obvious. I’m sorry…"
"I dunno, I think you milked a hell of a rant out of him," she asked. "Okay, post-match analysis time. Let’s see your investigative strats at work. What’d we learn from him?"
Beta, who had been compiling her own notes all the while, read them back from a file.
"He’s probably wiped his memory before, based on what he told the balloon vendor," she interpreted. "Memory purges are a way to avoid long-term data rot from aging. Given he clearly knows secrets about Netwerk’s origins and Floating Point itself, he might be fantastically old despite his young avatar. What’s more, he believes in Verity’s teachings… that’s why he talked about belly buttons, which were a fixation of hers. Verity may have been close to that truth before she was killed; it’s why he convinced Ichiban to do the deed."
"Huh. Yeah, that’d make sense," Spark agreed. "She was killed soon after her book about evolutionary creationism was published. And Dex clearly had disagreements with the last group to live at Floating Point; if he figured out that she’d found the access keys, it’d be too risky to leave her alive…"
"But now that you and Tracer are living there and you’re both—and um, this is his view, not mine—irrational and dangerous, he’s willing to bet you could be his friends instead of his enemies. And… I’m the nice one, which is bad for him…"
"Because he loves cruelty. Dex can’t flip you as easily as he flipped Snowi. It’s also why he infected both Cup8 and Snowi and launched them at each other… he’s not trying to win wars, only cause them."
"Yes, exactly!" Beta exclaimed. "Next, he knows enough about Floating Point to confirm my theory that it’s a giant encyclopedia, not a pile of abstract fiction and poetry… and that it’s not burned at all, but ‘burned,’ meaning it’s likely only encrypted! I should start looking into algorithms to determine the encryption method being used right away!"
"Yeah yeah, books, okay, focus. We have bigger problems. Anything else about Dex?"
"Right, um, sorry. Finally… he thinks he’s in the right, that he’s a hero, enabling the passions within people’s hearts. And… he’ll never stop unless we stop him."
"I could’ve told you that much."
"We still had to try to reach him, Spark. We may even reach him yet, in time. But yeah… stopping him is happening, one way or another. …soooo… for now, what do we do about this ‘serial killer’ he ‘gifted’ us?"
Spark contemplated the Mandelbrot Rock, hoping the splendor of nature’s creativity would inspire her. It didn’t.
"I dunno. Kick his ass?" she suggested. "Dex isn’t wrong. Stopping the crazies is kinda what we do. But this time we play it careful, and we play it right. You’re doing fine so far; what do you suggest we do next?"
"Okay! Right. Investigation time! To find this nefarious killer, we’re going to…!"
…stare at the Mandelbrot Rock, in hopes the splendor of nature’s creativity would inspire her. It didn’t.
"How about we ask Tracer?" Spark suggested, instead.
"Um. I don’t know. He’s… not going to be happy we’re dealing directly with Dex… I’m a bit nervous about telling him what we’ve done."
"Yeah, well, he can #DealWithIt. If he really wants to lend his advice, he’ll cope with our tactics… and it’s up to you to decide what we do with that advice. You think he’s wrong, you say it to his face, don’t back down and run with whatever he offers. If he’s gonna make a turnaround, we have to start somewhere, right? Helping with this case could be that start."
"You should have killed him," Tracer decided.
It wasn’t exactly an explosion of rage, but Beta could tell he was displeased with her little tale of encountering the enemy. Even beyond his the conclusion he drew, little tells gave it away… much like the grimaces and eyebrow twitches of frustration whenever she was utterly clobbering him at Go.
But much like a round of Go, that meant she was winning, and he knew it.
"That’s the wrong course of action, mind you," Tracer added. "It’s the most direct and obvious way to end the chaos that’s consuming Netwerk… kill the head and the body will die. But morally speaking it’s definitely not the way to go. I know that, even if the optimal part of me says to snip away the problem and be done with it."
"We’re not killing Dex," Beta confirmed, trying to stand up to him, despite her nerves. Having Spark on hand to nod firmly in encouragement helped. "Something’s clearly wrong with Dex. He’s lost himself along the way… maybe from exposure to the cloud server he calls home, the one that drives people to extremes. He deserves our pity, not our hate."
"I’m not saying to hate him. I’m just saying to kill him and be done with it; it’s the cleanest way to save Netwerk. But as we’ve noted, I’m hardly the right person to be making calls like that, so I’ll defer to you. …for what it’s worth, playing him for information was a good plan. Second best option in this situation, and it seems like you got quite a bit out of him."
"Including these articles," Beta said, transferring copies over to Tracer’s MemoryPalace. She still had read/write access to it, after all…
The headlines escalated from randomness to a potential pattern.
First, from an Athena Online local server bulletin board:
Ptr/Bryan sadly has passed away from self-inflicted wounding. He is survived by his parents and sister. As a devoted member of the Kaptberg township and president of the photography club at PS#122B79, he will be missed…
Second, from a Chanarchy rumor mill:
The Suicide Fairy comes to AnyChan!! LordSmegma’s RL ID now known; he’s Ptr/Bryan and he wasted himself a few days ago. He defaced the posters on his wall, then knifed up his avatar until it crashed out. Weird combo amirite? And guess what: today they found Tach/Paull aka Weevil dead the same way in his Chanarchy apartment. Screwed with his video library, then killed himself.
Creepy thing is someone posted photos of Smegma’s death, along with some weird threat. (see attchd) But it was a suicide, right? Conspiracies are bullshit, we all know that. The visitor that posted it was kinda screwed up too so I’m figuring a bot or expert system left behind by Smegma as a suicide note.
I shouldn’t be cheering these guys on but they were complete assholes so I’m gonna cheer anyway. They give the rest of ANychan a bad name. we’re not all dickbags out here. Archives of the sucide photos from the news are on /guro/ and /newz/ if you wanna look. We’ll add more as more of /lulz/ goes under the knife.
Attached to the article was the grisly meme photo in question:
ÝÕÜ ŵîl1 ŕ3ĝŕËŢ €VéŕŸŦħÍÑġ.
Ø® Í Wî¦l måķ£ ýðµ ŖÊĝŖ3Ŧ 3V3ŖýŢĤ!ÑĜ.
"Well, that’s… pleasant," Spark decided, uncertain what word to use. "Font’s all screwed up for additional nightmare fuel factor…"
Tracer scanned the articles in moments, speed-reading. He took a few moments of sitting back and steepling his fingers before coming to any conclusions, however.
"Dex is right. This is a serial killer," he agreed. "Given the threats posted to their image board and two unrepentant trolls dying the same way, it’s only a suicide in name. I’m doing some initial searches on the /lulz/ community now…"
A few dozen articles popped all over the room, freshly loaded into his MemoryPalace. They hovered in his personal Sphere of Crazy, automatically cross-referencing themselves, growing or shrinking in size as his intelligent agents determined which ones could be the most relevant to the original two murder reports.
Meanwhile, Spark scoffed at the various "pranks" being pulled up. "Fucking trolls. I hate those guys. If people would stop feeding them the attention they crave, they’d dry up and go away…"
But Beta shook her head. "It wouldn’t help. I didn’t fight back against my trolls; I tried to ignore them and wait for them to leave. They never did. Mine weren’t looking for attention, they were looking to silence me, and, well… they succeeded. Leaving them be isn’t the answer…"
"Yeah, well, driving them to suicidal insanity’s not the answer either. So whatever SJW is taking them out of the picture, we gotta step in the way. Even if I can’t say I like the people we’re saving…"
With his research scan complete, Tracer returned to the conversation armed with his analysis.
"I’d say these trolls are a little bit of both. They crave attention, and want to silence voices they consider ridiculous. /lulz/ holds no faiths, no beliefs, no ideals; nihilistic jokers, all. I’d say to look to their ideological enemies… but they have no particular ideology beyond mockery of anyone who believes anything. I doubt they actually put stock in any of the sexist, hateful trash they spew. It’s just a pile of weapons to them, used to see what reaction they’ll get and to try and shut down any outspoken voices."
Spark rocked back and forth in her chair, straddling it backwards, eager to get to the action.
"So basically look at everybody in Netwerk to figure out who could hate them. Real useful there, bro, thanks," she mocked.
"You don’t need to cast that wide of a net. Instead, we could look to the victims. A suicide-based killer is not some random lunatic… it’s a lunatic who’s in a great deal of pain, thanks to the actions of /lulz/. That says to me that the killer is a past victim or affiliated with a past victim. The knife is key to all of this, no doubt, an important symbol… one the killer would want /lulz/ to recognize. …a moment. I’m searching for any combination of… well. That was easy…"
Immediately, one of the hundreds of miniature articles that had been swarming around the room enlarged to fill the space over Tracer’s desk.
DIIT/FIONA DEATH OFFICIALLY RULED A SUICIDE
The small community of StdOutville stands in outrage tonight, as Athena Online official moderators have ruled the death of thirteen year old Diit/Fiona a suicide.
"While there is no doubt that bullying contributed to her frame of mind at the time, we will not be issuing warrants for the individuals involved, nor will we be releasing their identities. There is no legal wrongdoing in leaving hurtful comments on her blog; freedom of speech is one of Athena Online’s oldest values and must be respected," Officer Writ/Px3 told reporters at a press conference today.
A candlelight vigil organized by the Society for Cyberbullying Prevention will be held at 20:00:00 today.
A picture of the girl in question, smiling and surrounded by adorable cartoon stickers of cats and rainbows, had been pulled from her blog.
Beta’s heart raced momentarily, her emotional core latching on to that bright smile. Someone so young, taken so early in life…
"Judging from prior articles… her suicide method was indeed a knife," Tracer continued. "/lulz/ has wholeheartedly denied any involvement, despite it being quite clear they were involved. The ‘prank’ was apparently in their ‘Hall of Shame’ until recently, before they swept the whole thing under the rug and tried to move on."
Beta had to swallow those feelings. For now. Focus on the investigation, as calmly and coolly as Tracer was.
"So the killer may be a friend of hers, or even her parents," she suggested. "Looking for some ironic revenge. Make the trolls feel her pain…"
"It’s possible. It could also be someone within /lulz/, one who disagreed with this particular act of cruelty. /lulz/ is a subchannel of AnyChan, and fully anonymous; being a ‘member’ simply means ‘showing up.’ There’s no way to know who did what and where and when…"
"But that works both ways. How could the killer know who to target, if they were all anonymous losers? The killer homed in on LordSmegma in real life, and then they hit another major /lulz/ member immediately after…"
"It’s curious. In this case, perhaps looking to the victimizers will bear fruit instead; we know they’re going to be targeted, and catching the killer in the act would be the easiest approach. Fortunately, you have a good starting point for answering these questions…"
A photo of the badly-aging Default avatar of Officer Writ/Px3 pulled itself away from the lengthy news article.
"The moderators said they wouldn’t be releasing identities of the trolls. That means they somehow had identities to release," Tracer extrapolated. "I suggest you start by looking into the officer in charge. Ransacking his office may be difficult, given Athena Online’s typical level of security on police precincts, but—"
"Or we could just ask him," Beta suggested.
"—or you could just ask him, I suppose. …Beta. Before you depart, there’s one question I think you need to consider in all seriousness. Let’s say your investigation bears fruit, and you identify the killer. What then?"
"You have no authority to ‘arrest’ this murderer. You’ll likely have difficulty proving to an Athenian moderator that a killer even exists, given the suicide aspect. It’s going to be on your shoulders to put a stop to this, unless we’re okay with letting him empty a poisoned nest of trolls. What’s your endgame? How will you ultimately deal with the perpetrator?"
It was clear what answer he wanted to hear. It sat at the tip of his tongue, after all… the same answer he’d offered to his own sticky situation. Killers should die, to end their killings. In his view, it was the only acceptable punishment…
Beta wanted to offer him a better answer. She wanted to confidently state some bold and optimistic assertion, one which would put him in his place… and give him hope that there was more in his future than death, at the same time. She wanted to do that. But she’d need words to say, and, well… none came to mind. No easy answers.
So, instead… she looked to Spark for inspiration. Her CoC partner, the one who rarely had a long-term plan in mind, but slid through the game moment-to-moment with exactly the right micro-decision at each twist and turn…
"I’m going to improvise," Beta decided. "We’ll wait until we catch the killer, then figure things out from there."
Immediately Spark got to her feet, to back the plan.
"There’s no point getting paralyzed over some huge philosophical conundrum when we’ve only started investigating this thing," she agreed. "You stopped the Karnival by improvising, didn’t you? Sure didn’t shut it down the way you thought you were going to. Let Beta wrangle this one her way, bro. We won’t let you down."
"Very well. I’ll put my faith in that, if I must," Tracer said. "I hope in the end, you can find your better path. If you can’t… I’m willing to step in and handle the situation as needs be."
"Not gonna come to that. C’mon, Beta, let’s go interrogate a cop!"
"Ask questions! Ask!" Beta emphasized. "Not interrogate."
"Officer" was a dirty word, in Spark’s view.
As the two sat in a precinct waiting room, awaiting their fate, Spark freely grumbled across their private Messenger link. Not that she’d grumble openly while surrounded by police officers going about their official office work; better not to poke them with a stick.
"I grew up in Athena Online," she reminded her companion. "I know how these pigs work. And this is the first time I’ve been in a precinct house and not been in connection-locking handcuffs."
"You’ve been arrested before?" Beta asked.
"Of course. I ran with weird friends in my teenage years… avatar modders, punks, rebels. Anything that’d piss off my mom. And yeah, I got nabbed for petty stupid kid crimes like graffiti and littering servers with bouncing penises and stuff."
Beta’s giggle was audible, if muted out of respect to the work-a-day moderators around her.
"Hey, it felt like #SrsBsns to me at the time," Spark protested. "Even if it was juvenile and stupid. Point is, I’ve seen firsthand how power can corrupt a moderator, and police officers are moderators on steroids. A distributed network of moderators across the entire hosting service, toting badges and guns and bad attitudes. I doubt we’re gonna get anything out of this guy, assuming he’ll even bother talking to us. You saw how dismissive he was at that press conference…"
"We have to try," Beta countered. "If he won’t talk with us… I guess we’ll have to somehow ransack the office like Tracer suggests, but… I’d prefer to do this the right way, first. Besides, we have good bait, right?"
"It’s tipping our hand. If we put them onto the killer’s trail at the same time we’re stalking that trail, it could mean crashing head-on into a police investigation…"
"Does it matter who catches the killer in the end? If the mods catch him, good. If we catch him, good. This isn’t a personal vendetta, Spark. We’re trying to make Netwerk a better place. Results matter more than means."
"Tracer would agree with that part, at least. And that’s worrying…"
Finally, a badge-plus-gun combo approached the pair. His middle-aged avatar looked a bit wilted compared to the more young and fresh looking avatars of Netwerk, but cops tended to favor Defaults… either as churchgoing folk, or simply out of tradition. Age lent an air of authority, after all.
"I’m Officer Writ," he introduced. "I understand you ladies have new information about the Ptr/Bryan case…?"
"Yes sir," Beta spoke, with instinctively appropriate respect for her elders. "We believe it wasn’t a suicide, and we may have proof to that effect."
"Mhmmm," he mumbled, doubtful. "And you didn’t bring this to the Kaptberg server precinct because…?"
"Because it relates to the suicide of DiiT/Fiona. According to the blogs we’ve read, that was your case. We figured it’d be best to bring this to you directly. If we could talk somewhere private, sir…?"
The officer looked suspicious, clearly. For a moment, Spark wondered if she’d pulled some stunt in his district years ago, anything he’d remember her for… but her avatar was completely different now. Hopefully those pranks wouldn’t discredit them in his eyes…
In the end, he waved them onward.
"We’ll talk in my office," he suggested.
It was clearly his office.
When you’re given a personal corner of Netwerk, the tendency is to decorate it in such a way as to mark it yours. Puzzle had done the same when given a guest room, immediately rearranging the furniture and putting up selfies, to make it feel like home. Officer Writ/Px3 had also artfully and carefully arranged framed family photos and mementos of a long career. This wasn’t just a place of business, it was his domain, and he expressed himself in how he declared it to be so.
Strangely, many of the photos were weirdly composed… the officer standing off to the side of nothing in particular, sometimes with an arm around the space where someone should have stood. Beta, who tended to look for personal details like these, noticed immediately.
The officer, who tended to notice people noticing things, took notice.
"Some punk deleted my wife from all my photos a few days ago," he explained. "Probably some new cadet, trying to put one over on the old man. Haven’t had time to replace ’em yet. If you would have a seat…?"
With all three settling into place—two in the uncomfortable guest chairs designed to encourage people to talk if only to be allowed to leave, one in the comfy chair behind the well-earned desk of power—the officer further explained his position.
"Officially, Ptr/Bryan’s death is a suicide," he stated. "Same goes for DiiT/Fiona. Obviously I’ve noticed some similarities in the three cases; I’ve got an intelligent agent set in place to look for anything related to the Fiona case. But it’s likely a coincidence."
"Except there’s been a third death," Beta explained, opening a folder she’d brought with her and pulling out the Chanarchy blog post. "Bryan’s friend Weevil—um, I mean, Tach/Paull—died the exact same way earlier today. Is three identical deaths a coincidence, sir?"
Before commenting, Officer Writ accepted the file copy and read it thoroughly. Clearly he wasn’t impressed by the mocking and informal blog post.
"For starters, that one’s well outside my jurisdiction," he declared. "All I care about is keeping the good folks of Athena Online safe. Whatever happens in the Chanarchy is the fault of the Chanarchy; a lawless breeding ground of the worst Netwerk has to offer."
"That doesn’t mean it’s unrelated, though!" Beta was quick to point out. "Sir, the news blog implied that you’d identified the anonymous individuals involved in Fiona’s suicide. Are these names on that list? If so, it’s proof that all of this is connected!"
"Eerhh… I don’t know. Can’t recall. I haven’t looked at that file in ages…"
"Isn’t it worth a check? Listen… I know you think we’re crazy. But what if it’s true? What if someone’s systematically killing off Fiona’s harassers, and making it look identical to her suicide? Sir, please, it’ll only take seconds to check…"
"A suicide’s a suicide, a murder’s a murder. Look, I’ve got actual crimes to deal with right now. I think we’re done here, little lady—"
"So why run a search agent?" Spark asked.
As it was her first time speaking up since arriving in a cloud of gloom and doubt, those words were enough to break the officer’s dismissive focus.
"You said you had an intelligent search agent looking for similar suicides," Spark pointed out. "Says to me that some part of you isn’t satisfied with how the Fiona case closed. Y’know, from that news article, I assumed you didn’t give two shits about Fiona’s death. But that was the company line, right? Passed down from on high, and spoken for the benefit of the reporters alone. How do YOU feel about how she died, Px3?"
Inches from being kicked out of the office (or possibly into a holding tank) for disrespecting a man of the law? A familiar situation for Spark. But she sat there, arms crossed, staunch in her statement no matter the bluster raised in the officer’s face. No matter Beta’s panicked reaction across Messenger, silently urging Spark not to annoy the policeman. Not like Spark cared about annoying moderators, after all.
In the end… Officer Writ sat back down, from his position of half-rising out of his chair to demand they leave his office.
"It was a Onesdamn shame," he answered. "Just a Onesdamn shame, what those trolls did to that poor girl. She had a condition, you know. An imbalanced emotional core, leading to clinical depression. The sunshine-and-rainbows blog was her way of trying to self medicate, to focus only on the positive things in life, and those trolls tore that away from her…"
Beta looked puzzled. "Faulty emotional routines? But… those can be easily corrected with treatment and therapy…"
"Her parents were fundamentalists. They didn’t believe in any kinda software patches or avatar modifications, so they wouldn’t correct the error," Px3 explained. "I’m a faithful of the One too, but if that were my daughter I wouldn’t have let her suffer like that when medical science had an answer. They left her vulnerable to those trolling bastards. Never sat right with me that the legals said we couldn’t make a case, so we shouldn’t bother trying to make one. Especially since we had the names…"
"You look at those names, you’ll see we’re right," Spark promised. "Dig up the file and let’s settle this once and for all."
Resigned to it… Officer Writ unlocked a drawer on his desk, pulling out an index of files. The compressed evidence database opened itself, folder after folder appearing as a cluster of icons. Manually browsing it all took some time, playing his fingers to swipe through the icons.
"I remember what went down, even if I can’t recall the specifics," he explained, while searching. "Despite being a Horizon-based service we’ve got an official treaty with MyFace for law enforcement purposes. A guy named Renpy, some first party API tech, he looked into the situation for me. All the harassing posts came from fifty different anonymous sock puppet accounts… which could be internally linked back to three real accounts."
"Government monitoring of social media? Helloooo privacy violation," Spark complained.
"Only to keep our citizens safe," Officer Writ corrected, tapping a specific folder icon to open it wide. "’k, here we go. Should be—"
Instead of an array of documents, an array of identical tiny women spilled out.
Glitched data. Corrupted and rotten, arms and legs and faces tumbling onto the desk, spilling like a broken faucet. They poured through the officer’s fingers… scraping at his avatar’s skin, glitching and distorting the fingernails as the officer froze in utter horror, eyes wide at the smiling and distorted features of the paper-thin avatars which tumbled endlessly out of the folder…
His wife. They were all from the photos around his office, stolen away, given new life as miniature and horrifically ruined avatars of his wife.
Spark was the first to act. Gamer instincts kicked in, moving her to take action while those around her stood in shocked silence. Improvisation was the key to shutting down a dangerous situation before it ran out of control, she’d found.
With a sweeping gesture, she slammed the file closed. But not before passing her hand through the spillage of broken forms—
—I’m no good. I’m no good. I don’t deserve anything I have.
I’ve achieved nothing. Just a pile of indulgences and stupidity. Verity would be so disappointed in me. I miss her so much, the mother I never had, and she’d be so sad to see this stupid little thing I’ve become.
My brother’s a murderer. I’m just as bad, I always want to punch my problems to solve them, always. I’m too scared, too cowardly, too stupid to do anything about this girl I may or may not be in love with. My life is a pile of failures.
I’m pathetic. I’m no good. I’m no good. I don’t deserve anything I have.
I regret everything. I regret everything. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill—
—pink and fuzzy sweater.
It was enough to pull her back, that comforting feeling of yarn and kindness. The same thing that kept her sane within the void, adrift from her own avatar, during the ViruFax incident. This time it pulled her back from a different brink, letting her reassert herself… after the damage had been done.
Spark had been crying. Her, the tough girl, the brave one.
Somehow she’d ended up back in the main room of the precinct on an emergency stretcher, with a drip feed of stimulus inputs hanging from a bottle above her. A brief glance around showed men in yellow hazmat protection avatars quickly sealing off Writ’s office… proof that a good chunk of time had passed since she was last lucid.
"Spark? Spark, can you hear me now?" Beta asked. "Doctor, she’s waking up!"
"I… uh… yeah. Yeah, I can hear you," Spark confirmed. "What…? What’s going on? I got this… I don’t know, this wave of ugly thoughts, and…"
A data health specialist waved some sort of something-or-other at her, collecting data on her current runtime state.
"They don’t know we were involved, thankfully," Beta transmitted across Messenger. "I was afraid they’d think we’re responsible and arrest us, but because you got hit with the same thing that incapacitated the officer and they found proof of prior data tampering in his office, we’re clean…"
"You came into contact with residual corrupt data from a hack," the doctor in the yellow hazmat suit explained. "We think it disrupted the emotional routines of your code. How are you feeling now, ma’am?"
"Lousy," Spark admitted. "But… they’re distant. Those voices, I mean. I’ll be fine. Beta, c’mon, let’s get out of here."
"We’re going to send you to Northon Data Health alongside Officer Writ," the doctor suggested. "The police may have more questions for you, as well. We don’t know exactly what caused your negative emotional reaction; your core is stable again, but there may be further side effects—"
"Neither of us are citizens of Athena Online. You can’t hold us against our will."
"I’m not saying you’re under arrest, ma’am, I’m saying that for the good of your health—"
But Spark was already climbing off the stretcher, relying on her sense of balance to quickly sort itself out before her feet hit the floor. After only a slight wobble, she resumed standing upright.
"We need to move fast," she suggested to Beta over Messenger. "This killer’s definitely using some weird suicide-inducing emotional malware. Let’s go track down that MyFace rep—the officer called him Renpy, right? I want a copy of those names the killer stole. I want to end this."
"Spark, please, you need time to recover…!"
"As much as I’d love a drink and a nap, fuck that. We can’t slow down if we’re going to find the killer before it’s too late to save the last victim. Let’s move."
And gone, disconnecting from the server. Leaving Beta to apologize to the doctors before following her friend out into the wilds of Netwerk.
Lunchtime represented an artifact of an ancient age. As such, Renpy respected it greatly.
It was like bellybuttons, or fingernails; it made no real sense. Nobody needed to eat lunch, so why take time off in the middle of the day for it? And yet, tradition held that all MyFace employees would get a half hour for lunch, every day. Therefore Renpy took advantage of that half hour to sample a new restaurant each day, and blog about it.
Today was a curry place, mixing up all manner of spicy data samples into a fine concoction. Renpy allowed his delicate dish of delicacy sit uneaten for a minute while he photographed it from various sides through his eyes, shuttling each image up to the blog. He had subscribers to entertain, many of them tuning in during their own lunch breaks to demand minute-by-minute flavor updates…
"12:11:34, about to take my first bite. The aroma is quite stimulating," he jotted down mentally. He scooped up a reasonable amount of it, and…
…interruptions. Never a good seasoning with one’s meal. But fans had followed him around before, stalking him on his lunch break, and he knew better than to be ungracious.
"A moment, please," he requested. "I’ll be happy to sign autographs for you once I get my first update posted."
"Umm… sir, we’re not fans," Beta explained. "Actually, we’d like to ask you some questions about your work at MyFace…"
Ahh. The other reason someone might interrupt his lunch.
Determined to enjoy the curry all in one go rather than have a bite and then let the rest sit uneaten, he decided to wait on posting his update. He set the spoon back down into the dish, nudging it aside for a moment while he shattered whatever dreams these two had.
"No, I can’t get you Farmtopia gems," he started. "I can’t gift you profile stickers and I’m not the one you should complain to if someone’s trolling your MyCommunity group. In fact there’s nothing I can do for you in regards to MyFace, and I’m under multiple NDAs not to discuss my work in the slightest, so if you’re not here for lunch I suggest you move along."
"Are you responsible for inquiries from Athena Online’s police department?" Beta continued, undaunted. "We need a copy of a file you sent to Officer Wirt regarding a trolling incident—"
"NDAs," he repeated, before taking a moment to inhale the spicy odor, to at least keep himself reminded of the lunch yet to come. "I can’t talk about our relationship with Athena Online, nor can I provide you with any information whatsoever. At this point I am considering our interaction harassment, and as this restaurant and MyFace itself fall under the protective umbrella of the Horizon foundation, I am within my rights to summon a moderator to eject you from the premises."
"Wait, wait, please… there’s no need for that," Beta insisted. "This is a compassionate request; we aren’t looking to break any laws or disrupt your company’s operations. We’re researching a trolling incident, one involving the suicide of a young girl. It’s very important that we talk this over, sir. Lives may be on the line—"
"Not my business, not my problem."
"If you’d just hear us out, sir—!"
"Not interested. Disengage immediately or I’m calling a moderator…"
…as the second woman pulled away his dish, keeping it out of arm’s reach.
"If you don’t mind, I’ve had a rather shitty day, and I’m not leaving this restaurant without that file," Spark responded. "Beta, he’s not going to cooperate, so we’re going with Plan B. Renpy, you’re in charge of first party development and user profile tracking APIs, yes? It wasn’t hard to figure you out, based on your blogs. Does the word ‘Karnival’ mean anything to you?"
Renpy’s mental finger hovered over the ‘Report to Moderator’ button in his HUD.
"Yeah, looks like it does," Spark said… before taking a spoonful of his curry, his curry, and eating it. "Hmm. Tastes pretty good. So, by this point rumors are swirling about what the Karnival was before it shut down. ‘A bunch of rapists’ is the current conspiracy theory making the rounds, yes? What do you think would happen if word got out that you were directly involved with them? That you were the first-party development contact enabling what could’ve become a wide-scale violation of privacy…?"
"I… I am under the protective umbrella of Horizon," Renpy reminded her, trying to sound confident. "You don’t want to go down this road, little girl. They’ll make a stay in an Athenian prison server look like a vacation…"
Beta quickly flipped to her private channel. "Spark, we agreed NOT to do this!" she protested. "We can’t threaten and bully our way around anymore…"
"There’s no way he’d break all those layers of corporate secrecy to help us out of the goodness of his heart. We were two seconds away from getting our asses kicked. Anyway, relax! He’s bluffing," Spark insisted. "I know a coward when I see one. We don’t have to lift a finger; the threat alone will be enough."
"All we want is a single file," Spark continued. "The same data you sent to Officer Writ regarding DiiT/Fiona’s harassment. Three lousy little names, belonging to nobodies that you’ll never actually meet. In return for those names, you’ll never hear from us again. Nobody finds out about your involvement with the Karnival. You get to enjoy your lunch. That’s a bargain, isn’t it?"
The chill that enveloped Renpy ran so deep that no amount of curry could warm it up again.
"You have no… no idea," he whispered. "The fact that you know about Horizon’s connection to the Karnival at all… we could all get backspaced, with that out in the open. I… I have to…"
With a trembling thought, he jabbed the REPORT button within his mind.
Under normal circumstances, the well-paid security staff of the Horizon family would swoop in and sweep this problem under the rug. He’d be safe, and never need to hear that word again. Safe to enjoy his lunch and pretend nothing was out of the ordinary.
Instead, nothing happened at all.
"Have to…?" Spark asked, unsure what he was getting at.
"I… I don’t understand. I was told to report immediately if anybody connected me to the Karnival," Renpy spoke aloud, despite being under strict orders not to talk out loud about it. "I don’t understand, I don’t—"
—the chill only deepened, on realizing someone had connected into the server directly behind him.
They were joined by a fourth lunch guest… a woman wearing a sharp tuxedo, with deep olive-hued skin and short-cropped hair. An odd sight, even in a restaurant, given her ensemble didn’t match that of the other waitresses.
Renpy… craned his head back, to get a good look. And his jag sagged, unable to un-sag afterwards.
"What seems to be the issue?" the new woman asked… ignoring the slack-jawed MyFace employee, focusing instead on the two sitting across the table. Specifically, the one wearing a white jacket and eating a curry.
Always one to roll with the punches, Spark spoke right up even as Beta’s reaction greatly resembled Renpy’s. With a bit more confusion rather than horror, but just as paralyzing.
"We want to the true MyFace profiles of DiiT/Fiona’s harassers," Spark explained, simply.
"I see," the woman spoke. "A moment please, while I consult my employer."
Briefly she glanced aside, consulting an invisible HUD element… leaving the the MyFace crony in mortal terror, before she relayed a simple order.
"Give her the file she’s asking for," Cancel commanded.
Renpy worked his mouth a bit without making any noise, before he could formulate a proper reply.
"But… but… they know about the Karnival, Miss Cancel… Kincaid told me that if anyone ever—"
"We will speak of that later," the woman named Miss Cancel warned. "For now, consider this a direct order from Horizon/Kincaid: comply with this investigation and be forthcoming with any information they require in regards to DiiT/Fiona. Your company’s privacy protocols are irrelevant to the interests of the Horizon family. Understood?"
"Yes. Yes, of course. Whatever Mr. Horizon needs of me," Renpy promised.
With a curt nod, the strange butler-esque figure of Miss Cancel left Renpy to quickly ransack his personal knowledge base… as she turned to the girls.
A business card manifested in her fingers, flicked from her sleeve… and was held out for Spark to accept, specifically.
Tentatively, Spark threw up a few extra security firewalls just in case touching the card would trigger some crazy malware. The simple two-dimensional illustration of the sun breaking dawn over a skybox horizon, the logo of the richest family-slash-business in Netwerk, did not immediately wipe her avatar on contact.
"In the future, if you have a sensitive information request, Horizon/Kincaid would like you to contact him directly," Miss Cancel spoke. "Rather than potentially raise the ire of moderators through shady back-channel activity. It’s cleaner that way. Thank you for your time, Miss Winder, Miss Projkit."
Her task complete, the Horizon assistant vanished into the ether. Gone, just as quickly and quietly as she had arrived.
His appetite left in ruins, Renpy immediately flicked through his confidential files with the fastest search agent he had handy. A simple document with three names on it popped out the other end, tossed haphazardly onto the table.
"Enjoy the curry," he ordered, with as much spite as he could manage. His avatar vanished immediately after, shuttled back to his office server, hunger unsatisfied and nerves unsettled.
…leaving behind two very confused young women.
"Do you have any idea what that was about?" Beta felt the need to ask, despite knowing the answer. "Horizon and the Karnival? We never said anything about the Horizon family… and how did they know our names? What would someone like Horizon/Kincaid want with us? Spark, uh. This is freaking me out a little."
"No idea what his deal is, and honestly, I could care less," Spark stated, while scooping up the files. She tucked the business card away in her inventory as well, trying not to think about it.
"Uh. Y’know, grammatically speaking that means you actually do care a little…"
"Not my point. We need to stay focused, Beta. One mystery at a time, one fight at a time, that’s how you eventually win the match. Anyway, we got the info we came for, didn’t we? And we didn’t actually doxx the guy or anything, so I’ll call it a win. Whatever backroom corporate backstabbing is going on, that doesn’t have to be any of our business."
Beta chewed her lip, uncertain. "We shouldn’t have pulled the Karnival threat in the first place. I was against Plan B, remember? Hopefully we haven’t… haven’t, uh… what’s a good metaphor here? Opened a folder of worms? I feel like a leader should have a pithy metaphor on tap whenever needed…"
"Bryan-aka-LordSmegma and Paull-aka-Weevil, those two we can strike off this list. Seeing as they’re deader than doornails, I mean…"
"Doornails! Yes! That’s a good metaphor. …what’s a doornail?"
"That leaves one last troll unaccounted for, and I’m not finding any obituaries yet in my searches," Spark continued. "We’re not too late. Looks like… Smif/Johanha-aka-YogaHurt. Good news is that Johanha’s a social media freak like me. She just checked in at… hah. That’s rich."
"The ID:Entity club," Spark confirmed, opening her profile to show a selfie taken not twenty seconds ago, making a duckface into the camera with a mixed drink in her other hand. "She’s out clubbing. Of course… if we know that, the killer knows that, too…"
"But a serial killer wouldn’t strike in a public place, would he?"
Spark closed down her files… and packaged up the curry in a take-away folder, for later devouring. She was under orders to enjoy it, after all.
"All the more reason to move in on her now," she reasoned. "If we can intercept Little Miss YogaHurt the Troll while she’s out partying, maybe we can kick her ass and drag her off to an undisclosed location. For her own protection, of course."
Despite being a graying old fogey on the club circuit (having existed for more than a few months) the ID:Entity managed to retain most of its exclusivity. Without a VIP pass, they’d have to convince the doormen that they were worth letting into the building by other means. Which meant a quick detour back to Floating Point, to raid her closet.
"It’s all about image," Spark tried to explain, as she flicked through folder after folder of pre-made ensembles. "The club reflects on the clubgoers and vice versa. If you match the image they’re looking to project, you’re an automatic in. If not, you’re an automatic out…"
"Do we really have time to play dress up?" Beta asked, watching the spray of clothing simulations fly out of Spark’s closet, each fluttering to the floor in a pile. "You said we had to move fast to intercept Johanha…"
"Which we can’t do looking like this. I’m wearing casual day wear here! I’m a onesdamn slob."
…which didn’t make a lick of sense to Beta. It wasn’t like Spark was wearing pajamas or sweatpants or anything, she wore a rather fetching little blouse and skirt today, with immaculate makeup and accessories galore. Of course, it was one of her off-the-rack avatar configurations, something she could toss on at a whim… and in a world where perfect beauty was an icon tap away, even a nice outfit probably seemed trashy.
Not that Beta had a frame of reference. She rarely changed her clothes, preferring her mother’s hand-coded sweater and a simple long skirt. Nothing special, on top of her nothing special Default. Why would she need to mix things up?
"What we need… is to be a matching pair," Spark decided. "That’ll be enough novelty to win us entry. Fortunately for you, I’ve got an open source frock I picked up a few weeks ago! I was going to save this for when Puzzle and I storm the next big opening, but I guess we’ll need our big guns today…"
Finding the hangar in question, Spark quickly swapped her clothing configuration around with practiced ease. So quickly that it took the ordinary semi-slow cloud processing of Floating Point a full 0.576ms to finish rezzing in the end result.
Light. She was wearing light.
The "dress" was composed of splashes of brilliant colors, glowing and swirling as they crawled across her skin. Always just enough to keep her legally modest, never quite enough to keep her fully "clothed." The RGB tinting randomized itself according to a pattern Beta’s coder mind immediately sussed out, a kaleidoscope blend of bright hues that drew in the eye before her curves refused to let said eye go.
Of course, she still wore Verity’s white-and-blue leather jacket. It didn’t quite go with the dress, but odds were nobody with working eyes and a female-aligned sexual libido would give a damn. Beta barely noticed the clash, herself.
"It’s…" Beta tried. "It’s… it’s."
"Yeah, it’s pretty flashy, but I think it’ll work just fine," Spark said, checking herself in a mirror App. A little bump of the hips sent the swirling bands of color scattering, twisting and spiraling around her rear in the rough approximation of a swaying skirt. "I remember ID:Entity used a lot of neon decorations; sky sculptures, silhouettes, things like that. We should fit their motif just fine. Beta? You okay?"
"Me? Yes? I’m fine," Beta responded.
It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen Spark working her sex appeal before. She’d always smiled and waved goodbye as Spark headed out the door to hit the clubs with Puzzle in the past, after all. And technically there was the original SparklePop incident, but that was less ‘sexy’ and more ’embarrassing’ and ‘uncomfortable.’
But… in the middle of this storm of deliberately designed enticement, it felt like something else. Something slightly wild and scary and intriguing. Especially knowing the next step in that grand design.
Another copy of the carefully programmed dress, ‘hanging’ on a clothes hanger and held out in offering.
"I can’t wear that," Beta protested.
"Sure you can. It’s open source! I didn’t even have to crack any DRM to make you a copy."
"No, I mean… I can’t wear that. Me. I couldn’t possibly wear that. I’m not… I’m not like you…"
Spark let the hanger dip a little. "Beta… look, I don’t know a sweet way to say this, so… you’re fucking beautiful, okay? If this is some body image thing, like ‘Oh, I can’t possibly look sexy, not with my Default’ let me assure you it’s gonna look hot."
Beta swallowed, an instinctive if illogical gesture. "I don’t… it doesn’t feel like me. I’m not sexy. I’m… me…"
Ever since the Cup8 incident, she’d felt opposite of sexy. She’d tried to be sexy, that night her nudes were leaked. It was a glorious mistake, trying to be something she wasn’t. All of Netwerk crawled across her front lawn to remind her of how ugly and whorish she was. If she dipped even a toe in those acidic waters again…
…but she was sexy, once. Cup8 almost made her feel sexy, back when she thought he really loved her. He called her naughty and at the time it didn’t feel like an insult; she didn’t read it that way, even if she probably should have. It felt… good, to be wanted. Physically wanted, not just adored.
And then her nude body got captions slapped above and below it in bold typeface, declaring her a slut.
"I can’t be seen in it," she realized. "I can’t. Even if I wanted to try, I can’t do it. I’m already famous for my pinups, already considered a… a tramp. If I’m seen in public wearing that, my life will only get worse…"
"Oh. Damn. I hadn’t thought of that. So… use your JaneDoe avatar. Or, or, hey, I know! Borrow a copy of my parameters! #SexyTwins!"
"Look, think of it like a combat tactic," Spark explained. "We’re gaining entry to the enemy compound and securing an objective. I know that… okay. I know this means a lot more to you than that. It’s got a lot of unpleasant connotations. So for now, just think of it like camouflage, or a standard character avatar worn during a CoC match. Okay…?"
Which made sense. Perfectly reasonable sense.
"Okay," Beta agreed. "For the mission."
"That’s the spirit!"
"…but… can I try it on first?" she asked. "In private, with my usual avatar. Just to see what it feels like."
"Be my guest," Spark said with an impish grin, tossing the hanger towards her companion.
Carefully putting her usual clothes in storage, Beta swapped into the new dress without looking. Moments later, she dared to re-engage her glasses and take a look in Spark’s full-length mirror App.
…ridiculous. She felt ridiculous. Just as stupid as she looked that night she tried to convince herself she was anything other than an unlovable configuration of Default parameters. Putting ribbons of light around her body hadn’t changed that…
And then Spark stepped in, right beside her.
"See?" she said, smile glowing almost as brightly as the dress. "You look great… whoa…!"
The undocumented feature made itself known, as Spark’s hips came in contact with Beta’s.
Shader code mingled, ribbons of light twirling around both forms. They were interactive, able to sense a nearby copy and blend the patterns together. Still vaguely styled like two dresses for two people… but working as a cohesive whole. Joining two as one, in spirit and shape.
And in that, finally, Beta could see beauty. It wasn’t a matter of numerical parameters, of bust size or weight distribution factors. It wasn’t even in the nicely designed dresses. It was in both of them, together. The smile of someone who genuinely believed in her, unlike Cup8… someone cheering for her, loving her…
Spark loves you. She’ll never admit it, of course.
They’d awkwardly shared a surreal intimate moment, with SparklePop. They’d been there to lean on each other, as things were falling apart around them: sitting in the stoop outside Arjay’s office, or in the kitchen after learning about Tracer’s deception. Playing games together, laughing together, crying together…
Briefly, Beta wondered what would happen if she threw herself in Spark’s arms right here and now. How would the code of the dresses interact? And would she even notice…?
But in that brief moment… Spark had wandered away. Ribbons of light stretching ever so slightly, trying to stay together, before snapping back to their original configurations and patterns.
"Time to motor!" Retaining her smile, unaware of the moment she’d just walked from. "Off to the club, to knock ’em dead and hopefully keep Johanha from getting knocked dead!"
Quickly, Beta pulled on her JaneDoe avatar. Generic eyes on a generically pretty face stared at her. It wore the dress very well, as it was designed to be perfectly sculpted. But it wasn’t her. She wasn’t here with Spark anymore.
"Let’s go," Beta agreed, trying to push this strange rush of feeling away for now.
The line to get into ID:Entity stretched around the block. Which was proof the club was starting to fade; on opening night, it had wound around the building and around a few other buildings in the abandoned shipping district surrounding it. That district had been completely backspaced by now, the overall square footage of the physics sim shrunk down quite a bit to conserve runtime. Not good if they needed to make a run for it and hide, compared to how useful those empty warehouses were for tucking Nestt/Starling away from Ichiban’s murderous proxy… hopefully they wouldn’t need an exit strategy.
As for the entrance strategy, well, that worked wonders.
Plenty try to bypass the line, walking right up to the doorman to plead their case. Very few actually succeed. But a pair of near-identical hot young girls wearing little more than luminescent strips of trick shading? That got the doorman’s attention. Spark added to the effect by insisting they walk shoulder to shoulder, so the dresses would interfere with each other for added dazzle. Much as predicted… they got in the door ahead of the crowd, much to the mewling protests of the less attractive clubgoers.
On entering the building, Beta immediately remembered why she never went to dance clubs.
The sound pounded away from within her body, a heavy and cruel beat, primally banging away at her ears. Each person within the club had their own personal sound controls, and was their own speaker stack; she quickly lowered the volume to something manageable.
If her auditory senses were at least under control, her visual senses were not. The club existed within its own slice of time, a perpetual midnight, soaked in colorful neon outlines and strobe lights and little else. She could vaguely see a swarm of bodies bouncing along the central circular dance floor, swaying and grinding in time with the music… something as close to an orgy as possible without actually involving sexual contact, complete with an array of avatars which fashionably defied description.
Somewhere in there lurked YogaHurt of /lulz/, also known as Johanha. From the selfie, they knew they were looking for a woman with wavy silver hair and light blue skin… but metallics and pastels were all over the place, in the brief flashes Beta could see. It’d be like finding a sparkly needle in a sparkly haystack…
"Y’know, I swore I wouldn’t come back here after some VIP dickhole treated Puzzle badly," Spark commented, her voice audible over the lowered volume of the music. "But I gotta admit, this club’s still got it going on."
"I wouldn’t really know," Beta commented offhand.
"You should come out with us to the clubs, Beta! I’d love to take you out dancing sometime. Or is dancing another thing you don’t do, in addition to dressing hawt?"
"Um… I’ve never really tried," Beta admitted. "I could sideload some motion capture data, if you think it’d help the mission to get out there and dance…"
"We’re not waltzing, Beta. Real dancing’s all about improvisation. But… as amusing and awkward and potentially ankle-shattering as it may be to give you a crash course, we probably should get up to the second floor balcony and start scanning."
Bringing her image recognition App online, a quickie she threw together from bits and pieces before getting out the door, Beta followed Spark along the outer edges of booths and tables. Stairs were for chumps and elevators were too slow; instead, an array of quick teleport circles had been arranged, hotlinking floors together. All she had to do was step on one and tap her foot twice, for the second floor, and she was there.
From above, the teeming masses still teemed, but she could get a better feel for the flow of it all. Her image recognizer, tied into her glasses, also provided a fullbright hack—ignoring the mood lighting in favor of showing the raw, unshadowed visual input. Only slightly illegal, as it warped aesthetics but also revealed potentially hidden objects. The multicolored glow of the neon wall art of dancing figures just over the lip of the balcony would’ve been distracting, if not for the hack.
"Scanning for silver hair and blue skin," Beta announced, activating the App. "It could be a few minutes. Especially if she, uh, ducked out to the ladies room or something to freshen up her avatar…"
"Wish we could just kick back and enjoy ourselves in here," Spark mused. "I know it’s lousy timing… the problem with Tracer hanging in the air, Dex threatening to trash the world, a killer on the loose… but it never feels like I’m spending my free time well. Just on useless stuff…"
"What? You’re always having fun!"
"Yeah, well, it’s not optimal fun. Something’s missing lately. Maybe this is a side effect of that corrupt data I touched but… I’ll straight admit it, I’m melancholy. Sucks to be melancholy in a club, it’s like, the opposite of what you’re supposed to be and stuff. …once this is through, we should take some serious us-time. You and me. And I don’t mean gaming; my job is gaming. I mean going out together."
"Going out, as in…?" Beta prompted.
"Hey, it doesn’t have to be a club, specifically!" Spark replied, missing the implication. "If you’re not into that, it’s cool. What do you usually do when you go out?"
"I don’t really go ‘out.’ Uh. I usually stay in, if given the choice. Cup8 was always pushing for romantic getaways and I never really liked them…"
"…oh. Well. If you’d prefer to hang at home, I mean… that’s cool too…"
Despite the matching dresses and the close proximity, Beta felt a distance opening between them.
They were different people, weren’t they? Outgoing and inward looking. Expressive and timid. Beta didn’t belong in Spark’s world, and Beta’s world probably would bore Spark. Beta was downright boring, after all. Perfectly happy to sit there with a compiler tracking down artifacts in a debug log all night rather than partying.
But… she did want to wear that dress. She had stepped outside her comfort zone willingly; circumstances pushed her but there was genuine desire to try it on with her Default, to see what it felt like. And for a moment, with Spark, it felt perfect…
A blinking square distracted her.
"Search hit," Beta announced, focusing in on one person at the edge of the dance floor, sort of listlessly moving to the beat. "Silver hair, blue skin… 97% match to the selfie. It’s her! I’m marking her on your HUD."
"Got it. Let’s go," Spark acknowledged.
One teleport later, and they were closing in on the target. This was a mission at heart, after all… not a date, not a party. With the killer’s target in sight, Beta could focus on the utility of her purpose there. Much easier.
Strangely, Johanha didn’t seem to be in a partying mood either.
She was dancing, yes. Sort of. Even Beta, who had figurative flat feet, could tell it wasn’t particularly enthusiastic or skilled dancing. The silver-haired clubber wearing a watery bodysuit and surrounded by floating pet fish Apps wasn’t actually dancing with anyone, simply letting herself be semi-absorbed by the crowd, so she could claim her participation trophy and nothing more. She hadn’t even slurped down that mixed drink she’d taken with the selfie, letting it slosh dangerously in one hand as she swayed to the lustful beat of the chiptune band…
Spark didn’t have to weave through the thick of the crowd, simply slip past three or four dancers to reach the edgeward spot that Johanha occupied. A tap on the shoulder drew attention of the dancer, as well as a few of her pet fish.
"YogaHurt, I presume?" Spark asked… one hand held low, primed with a connection lock collar, just in case.
"Never heard of her," Johanha mumbled. "You’re killing my vibe. Swim away, please."
Eager not to repeat the hostile encounter with Renpy, Beta slipped into view to take charge.
"You’re in danger," Beta spoke, up front. "We know you’re part of /lulz/. Someone who’s avenging Fiona is coming after you, soon. We’re here to help you."
Her uneven dancing sway stuttered to a halt. Beta pressed on, knowing that Spark would snag her if she ran for it or tried to disconnect from the server.
"Please, we’re really here to help," she insisted. "My name’s Beta, and this is Spark. We’ve been investigating the Fiona incident and the killings that have been happening since then. Your name is the last on a list of three… including Weevil and LordSmegma. They’re already gone. We want to help keep you safe. Will you talk with us…?"
The fish darted behind their owner, emotional state reacting to her internal panic.
"I should… I should go," Johanha insisted. "I gotta go…"
"You’re safer here; we don’t think the killer will attack you in public. He’d have a hell of a time getting in the front door of this place," Spark pointed out. "Look, let’s grab a booth over there and hash this out. Somewhere well-lit."
There was no good way to approach this situation. Being told someone was trying to kill you was troubling enough; mystery saviors promising to keep you safe sounded very suspicious, coupled with that fact. They didn’t want to have to protect her by force, using the collar… the tactic worked on Wrenn/Starling, but that was back when ShipTo was full of empty buildings. In the club itself, slapping a hacktool on someone would eventually bring a moderator around to kick you out, or worse. Beta hoped honesty would win over suspicion, but knew it was a gamble…
Soon… the fish peeked out from behind their master. Timidly exiting the floating pieces of coral reef within her watery avatar.
Johanha finally slung back the drink she’d been carrying, tossing the glass aside. It deleted itself, to keep the club tidy.
"I’m going to need another of those," she requested.
Three attractive ladies chatting over drinks in a hot night club shouldn’t have been as tense and depressing as this particular encounter proved to be.
Johanha downed two more drinks before she was ready to speak.
"It made sense at the time," she insisted. "Here we had a ridiculously over-the-top blog, typical sugary MyFace junk. The kind of attention whore /lulz/ loves to pull down a few pegs. Fiona’s blog had already been featured at /cringe/ a few times, so it wasn’t like we picked it at random… and besides, she was an Otherkin."
"An Otherhwa?" Spark asked.
"I think it’s someone who believes in past lives," Beta clarified. "That dead data scooped up by a garbage collector which gets repurposed is never fully wiped, with some of those past lives leaking through…"
"Oh, it went beyond that. Fiona thought she was… how’d she put it? A ‘magical star-being,’" Johanha recalled. "That she was a descendant of ‘organic’ entities from beyond the stars, whatever that means. There was also some nonsense about bellybuttons. Nobody respects so-called Otherkin because they’re all completely off their rockers, right? It’s fair game to pick on them. So with all of that combined, we figured… rattle this nutjob’s cage, show Netwerk how stupid she was…"
"In other words, harassing a clinically depressive teenage girl," Spark filled in.
"We didn’t know that at the time! We had no idea… we thought she was some RPing sockpuppet of a middle-aged crazy cat lady!"
"And that makes it okay? Nope. No excuse."
Johanha’s fist banged on the table, causing the loose physics objects of her empty glasses to bounce to the floor. They promptly erased themselves.
"Of course it’s no excuse!" she blurted, the alcoholic malware having reached her emotional core. "It’s trolling. We were assholes! Complete assholes… and at the time, it seemed funny, like a minor evil in the name of righteousness. No worse than snarky graffiti or leaving the toilet seat up. But when we realized what happened, that we’d driven a kid to… to kill herself, well… Weevil and Smegma didn’t care. I couldn’t believe it, they didn’t care one bit. But I cared. I demanded they take down the Hall of Shame entry and I haven’t involved myself in /lulz/ ever since."
With a snap of the fingers, Johanha ordered up a fresh drink. No need to hassle the bartender for a custom coded beverage when she could get smashed off the ready-to-rez menu. She snatched up the freshly spawned glass, ready to throw it back…
A hand blocked the drink, before it could reach her mouth.
"Probably best if you stay as sober as possible," Spark said. "We’re safe here for now but we’re going to need to move you somewhere safer, and I’m not hauling a malware-addled avatar around."
"At this point, being malware-addled is the only way I’m coping with my situation," she protested. "I’ve been hitting clubs, getting smashed, wandering around… I don’t know. Just trying to get my mind off what’s happened. All the stupid mistakes I made, and for what? I couldn’t even tell you why I trolled her. I was bored, I guess? Stupid, stupid reasons. So, I’m desperately distracting myself with partying. Why not?"
Briefly, Spark considered another rebuke.
Except… that neatly described her experience prior to ViruFax, didn’t it? Out all hours of the night drinking and dancing, hammering the daylight away with gaming broadcasts, trying to avoid dealing with her feelings. She had no right to judge Johanha for that. Judging her for other things, that was fair game, but not that.
"They’re really dead, aren’t they?" Johanha asked, choosing to set the glass down for now. "Weevil and Smegma. I never knew them #IRL, but I heard from the rumor mill that they’d been killed, or committed suicide, or something. But… it’s true. They’re gone, and now someone’s coming to punish me for my stupidity…"
"Do you have any idea who it could be?" Beta asked. "The killer seems to be using corrupted image data as a weapon, and was skilled enough to break into an Athenian police station to retrieve your name. Do you know any hackers with a grudge against you or /lulz/…?"
"I write a mediocre fashion blog. My only enemies are fashion blog drama whore trolls, and they’re not murderous. The closest I’ve ever come to the dark side of Netwerk was hanging around in a chatroom full of idiots, wasting time under the pretense that it was all harmless performance art. Odds are some of the /lulz/ers themselves are hackers, but I really didn’t know anyone outside of Weevil and Smegma, and I barely even knew those two. Sorry…"
Johanha held a hand up to her forehead, as if cutting out the glare from a sun that didn’t exist inside the darkened club. Her eyes averted to the floor, in shame.
"I shouldn’t have come here," she muttered. "Don’t like the way they’re looking at me. Not one bit."
"Uh. The clubgoers…?"
"The stupid wall people. Up there."
Curious, Beta swiveled her gaze upwards, to the ring of decorative neon art around the second floor balcony… an array of animated dancer silhouettes, the same visual design element Spark had played into their dresses, to earn entry.
Except the figures weren’t dancing. They were glaring downward, in harsh judgment. Hands on hips, stern.
"Spark…?" Beta asked. "The… the art is looking at us…"
A tiny, tiny frame rate hitch skittered its way around the circle of figures. One sharp visual glitch, as they began to peel away from the balcony… colored lines wrenching themselves free, the outline of arms and legs pushing away from the surfaces that bound them…
One by one, the artificial dancers dropped to the floor below. As their bent two-dimensional ‘feet’ slammed into the dance floor they sent voxels scattering across the ground, visual artifacts of corrupted data, glowing impossible colors in Beta’s App-driven eyes.
But the screams, those were nicely clear and audible, even over the beat of the music.
Spark—the brave one, the improviser—was the first to act.
She immediately pulled Beta and Johanha behind her, and kicked over their table to use as impromptu cover against the advancing army of multicolored outlines. It also formed a barricade against the crush of dancers eager to flee the floor, running away from the glitches, making a beeline for the exits. Most promptly evaporated into thin air once they were clear, reconnecting to other servers… the ID:Entity clearing itself out in a wave of total panic, one way or another.
All alone, with a horde of grim figures bearing down on them with murderous intent…
"#Time2Go!" Spark declared, ducking down behind the table. "Johanha, reconnect to LibertyPark, it should be safe there—"
"Leave me here," Johanha insisted. "You two should save yourselves. Nobody else should be hurt because of what I did. Just… leave me and go. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters…"
"Excuse me, but we came here to save your ass!"
"Thanks, but it’s too late. This is what I deserve, isn’t it?"
Snarling out five curse words in overlapping fashion, a blur of angry verbiage, Spark stood up from behind the table… and assumed a defensive mantis-style stance.
"Beta… talk sense into her," Spark requested, as she got in the zone. "I’ll hold them off."
Alarmed, Beta peered over the top of the table to get a quick count… and quickly realized she couldn’t count the figures, simply a blur of connecting lines and broken vertices. "You can’t fight these things!" she insisted. "You remember what happened when you touched the killer’s data before…!"
"They’re still part of the physics system, and that means I can blow ’em to bits," Spark said, snapping a quick burst of flame from her fingernails. "Light pokes only. I’ll endure whatever happens after that. This is what I do, Beta… I fight the fight so you can keep going."
Launching off her back foot, Spark blurred into the middle of the neon army. The Verity-blue trim on her white jacket was immediately lost in the riot of rioting colors.
The key to staving off a large crowd of combatants was to keep moving. They wouldn’t attack one at a time, like in movie files; but that meant they’d accidentally hit each other if they weren’t careful. Never give them a chance to be careful, be wild, be quick, be where they aren’t expecting. Duck and evade, let them do half the work for you… while taking precision pokes at them, to disable the ones that pose the most threat.
Duck under a groping ‘arm’ here, the outline shifting and bending as the 2-D plane tried to make sense in a 3-D space. Use their flatness to your advantage, rolling through and between, coming up underneath to slam your fingers straight into an enemy… right into the edge, into the colored line, just in case the ‘middle’ was really empty space—
—I’m no good. I’m no good. I’m—
The brief burst of injected memory made her miss a step. A flailing flatland limb brushed over the nape of her neck as she awkwardly ducked it—
—pathetic, just pathetic. Everything hurts. Everything’s so complicated. I’m useless and pathetic—
Instinctively she tried kicking away an opponent… only to find out the hard way that there was in fact nothing in the middle of the outline. She crashed through the glitched pseudoavatar and—
—drinking and dancing and fucking the problems away, what good is any of it? What good am I? I’m no good. I’m stupid. I’m stupid. I should kill myself—
—anger. She needed anger to punch through this. If ever there was a positive use of a negative emotion, this was the time to deploy it.
Screaming rather than crying, she flung her arms to the left and right, to blast two attackers at either side with a burst of flame. Their outlines warped and bubbled, glass tubes cracking, light spilling onto the dance floor. With each impact she felt another burst of self-loathing, which she desperately tried to block out with rage.
Another, and another. More and more figures incinerated by the spark she carried within her heart, even as they tried to pour venom into that vessel to replace the fire…
…as Beta desperately tried to shake some sense into Johanha. Not that shaking her by the shoulders seemed to do much, but it worked in movie files, and she had no idea what else to do.
"Snap out of it!" she tried. "Please! We have to leave…!"
"I don’t have to go anywhere," Johanha responded, oddly calm about it all.
"My friend is out there fighting for you! Fighting and maybe dying!"
"Why?" the troll asked. "Why is she bothering? What does my life matter? I’m a killer now. Isn’t this for the best?"
And Beta wanted to slap the world.
She wanted to slap the world until it all made sense again. Slap Tracer until he understood how important he was to her. Slap Spark until she was ready to grow up and face herself. Slap herself until she could feel something other than white-knuckled terror about everything, able to find a toehold as the world span out of control around her day by day…
But you couldn’t slap the world. It accomplished nothing, like shaking someone around and ordering them to be sensible. Wrath and hate and spite and anger, those were useless impulses for Beta. Spark was the master of deploying rage effectively; but Beta, all she could do was flail about if she tried to do the same.
No. She had to be the nice girl, that’s what the Winders were expecting from her. A nice girl with a moral core, someone you could rely on while they were busy being brave and clever.
Except… to do this, she’d have to be brave and clever too. Brave enough to stand up in the face of terror, clever enough to understand the world for what it was…
Closing her eyes, Beta embraced the dark of her blindness. One moment, one single moment of calm, to grab hold of what she knew and put it to purpose. She felt like a Program in the dark, cut loose of its avatar…
"…that’s it," she realized. "That’s what the killer is…"
The next steps flowed one by one, an entirely improvised plan that felt cohesive enough to be hand-crafted by Tracer.
First, she gave her glasses to Johanha.
"Wear these, and watch me," she requested. "Keep your eyes on me and me alone. Okay?"
Perplexed, the troll hesitated briefly… before accepting the offered spectacles.
Working from a third person perspective, Beta stepped out from behind the table, staying within view of her eyes.
"Are you watching me, Tracer?" she messaged, across the switches and routers of Netwerk. "Can you see through my eyes?"
"…Beta? What are you doing?" Tracer asked, delayed slightly as the video buffered on his end. "A video window just popped up over your cat…?"
"I’ve opened my Peep stream to you, broadcasting it through Mew to bypass your collar. I want you to watch, and understand…"
Next, she swapped out the silly dress and the JaneDoe configuration for her usual avatar. Her sweater of power. Her comfortable self, solid and pure. She’d need that reliability for what she was about to do… for more than one reason.
Lastly… it was time to face the killer, and call its true name.
Beta deployed a volume hack to be heard over the roar of flames and the scraping, cracking sound of animate neon tubes.
"DITT/FIONA!" she called out. "Listen to me!"
The overall physical simulation of ID:Entity skipped a frame or two, as the attacking silhouettes froze in place.
Spark fell to her knees in a rough circle of them, panting heavily… tears streaming from her eyes as she tried to hold back the negative thoughts pounding their way into her head. If the battle had gone any longer, she’d have given in completely, without a doubt…
Calmly, Beta walked into the midst of the figures, which flowed away from her.
One by one, they coalesced, joining vertices until they became one towering figure, with drawn-in details rather than pure outlines… a young girl, with jagged features matching the photo from her blog. A true face with true eyes to look through, despite being a false avatar composed entirely of stolen materials.
Beta knelt down before this avatar of suicide, embracing Spark… and kissing her forehead, for a mild comfort, before turning to address the vengeful one she’d addressed directly.
"Your name is Fiona," Beta recognized. "Your original avatar was destroyed but your code survived, corrupted by the malware you tried to kill yourself with. They think you’re dead, but you’re alive in the darkness of Netwerk, driven mad with grief… and using any avatar-shaped data you can find, to reach back into the world and torment your tormentors…"
A voice like scratching glass on glass responded… dozens of voices from each individual figure mashed into the whole, all speaking with dreadful harmony.
“ŕÊ6®ËŦ,” they chanted.
"My name is Projkit/Beta. Do you know who I am?" Beta asked. "Have you heard of me before?"
The neon child peered at her, with eyes made of starlight.
"8Ë7Á," they recognized. "#[øĎ3ħÕŋ€$Ŧý. Ŧ®ølĿ3Ď. åßµ§ËĎ. Ŧº®M€Ņŧ3Ď…"
"We’ve both been through terrible, terrible pain, haven’t we? They silenced both of us. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right."
"…ŕÊĜŕËŧ. 7ĦÊŸ mû§Ţ ĸŋÕŵ ŕ€ĜŖ€ŧ. 7ĤÊŸ Mµ$+ F€Ê1 Ï7 ŧĥË w@Ÿ î FË17 !ŧ…"
"Where does hurting my friend come into that?" Beta asked… holding Spark’s trembling body closely. "Or hurting the police officer who wanted to help you? The loose data you left behind when you stole that list nearly killed him. What about terrifying everybody in this club? How is any of that justice?"
The neon figure twitched, bending back ever so slightly away from Beta as it listened to the words. The glow of shimmering neon tubes wobbled, uncertain in the face of the accusation. Self-reflection, spread across a distributed self, one program connected to multiple false avatars bound together into a single form…
"This isn’t justice," Beta supplied. "This changes nothing. Bullying your bullies, destroying them, that won’t really heal your wounds… and it won’t make them better people. Fighting horror with horror is a zero sum game. …Johanha? Do you regret what you did to her?"
The woman, standing upright from behind her blocking table, nodded briefly. The borrowed glasses wobbled at the end of her nose.
"Absolutely," Johanha said, in all honesty. No terror, no pleading panic… a simple truth, spoken loud. "I regret everything I did with /lulz/. If I could take it back, I would. Not to save my own skin, but… to save hers. If I could…"
"You already got what you came for, don’t you see that?" Beta asked the collective spectre. "You want her to regret? Okay. She regrets. Now give her a chance, Fiona. A chance to do something with that regret. Give her a chance to become a better person, and let something positive come out of this nightmare. Killing her won’t end the nightmare… but letting her live might."
With the last of her words slipping free… Beta leaned heavily on what remained of this bravery reserve, to carry through to the end. That, and her embrace of Spark, the two leaning on each other for support at this point.
It could’ve failed. Fiona’s program was riddled with glitches and data rot thanks to the malware which trashed her original avatar; if she was too unstable to think it through, getting her to listen to reason might’ve failed spectacularly. If she simply embraced her vendetta and ignored the heart that yearned to feel something other than pain, a heart that had blogged with relentless positivity in hopes she could one day believe her own words…
Instead, the figure began to collapse, little by little. With Fiona’s virtual hooks and wires pulling away from the server entirely, the decorative wall art became so much inanimate data. The physics system took over from there, causing the vectors and shaders of the glass tubes to tumble apart and form a pile of brightly colored junk data on the empty dance floor.
Memory, without a suite of enhancements like Tracer’s MemoryPalace, is a slippery concept. The outlines hold in place, much like the animate lines that attacked them earlier, but the details in the middle weren’t always quite clear.
Beta, exhausted from her ordeal, helped the equally exhausted Spark return home. She passed by the door to Tracer’s study wordlessly, past it and up the stairs, up to her companion’s bedroom…
Spark pulled the sheets around herself tightly, on being helped into bed. Tried and failed not to sob openly into her pillowcase, as Beta set up a drip feed of emotionally stabilizing data from her suite of deep-interface Apps.
"It could take a few hours for the effects to pass," Beta explained. "I’ll be right here the whole time, I promise…"
"T-To stop me from killing myself," Spark recognized.
"Because you’re important to me," Beta spoke, replacing those words with better ones. She drew a chair up to the bedside, to take Spark’s hand—the grip tightened immediately, as Spark clung to that grasp.
"You… must think I’m so pathetic," she mumbled into the pillow, burying her face in it, to avoid looking Beta in the eyes. "Some fighter I am. Didn’t do any good. If you hadn’t saved me I’d be dead. I’m pathetic. I’m stupid. I’m no good…"
"Shhh. That’s just the emotionally corrupted data poisoning your thoughts…"
"It’s the truth," Spark insisted. "I’m an idiot. I want life to be simple, but it’s not; #ItsComplicated. I’m stupid. I can’t handle it. I just… I just need… I don’t even know what I need, I’m so stupid, I’m so stupid…"
"Spark… if you hadn’t jumped right into that fight, I wouldn’t have been able to jump in with you," Beta explained. "You’re braver than me. You’ll always be braver than me… all I did was borrow some of that strength. Now, shhh. Just try to relax, and wait this out…"
"Why? Why’re you bothering? I’m shit. I’m lower than shit. A stupid brat who never really grew up, just pretending, just stupid, stupid… why? Why are you bothering with me?"
The conversation might’ve looped back around to the start, with that prompt. Because you’re important to me rose to Beta’s thoughts… but another thought broke through the cycle, interjecting itself.
Because even if Spark wasn’t ready to say it, even if she might never be ready… Beta was ready.
"Because I love you," she spoke, in the softest, quietest whisper.
The bedridden woman cried herself to sleep moments later, without a response. Could be Spark didn’t even hear the words. Could be Beta whispered them so low as not to be heard. Could have been a lot of things.
Fuzzy time, after that. Hours of fuzzy time.
Eventually, Beta returned to Tracer’s study. It seemed the thing to do, for "debriefing."
The mastermind in the high-backed chair evaluated today’s actions, while petting a cat. He looked every inch the secret agent nemesis from a movie file.
As the Mew in his lap happily mewled out a , Tracer came to his conclusion regarding today’s events.
"An optimal outcome, if not an optimal path," he spoke. "Very touch and go near the end."
"The ends justify the means," Beta spoke, without any darkness to the words whatsoever. "We risked a lot, but for the right reasons. Fiona’s out there somewhere still, but she won’t hurt anyone else. Maybe her code will finally corrupt and crash, maybe she’ll drift in the dark forever… I don’t know. But she’s come out of this a better person, and so has Johanha. Nobody had to die."
Tracer called up a blog post, letting it hover over his desk.
"Seems Johanha’s turned over a new leaf," he agreed. "She’s posted her side of the story, every last bit of it, and decided to donate generously to the Society for Cyberbullying Prevention in Fiona’s name. Not that money absolves her of sin, but it’s a start, I suppose."
"It’s better than leaving her to die."
"Agreed. Now… the part I don’t fully understand is why you gave her your glasses, then sent me that Peep stream. You could’ve simply told me the outcome on returning home; I didn’t need a ringside seat…"
Too exhausted to be anything but frank, Beta explained it all.
"I had to be brave, moral, and clever," she explained. "Brave enough to walk into that storm and confront it. Moral enough to give both killers a chance at a new life. And… clever enough to leave a connected App—my glasses, I mean—behind just in case my avatar got torn apart by Fiona in a rage. If things went bad I was ready to sever my runtime from my avatar. I still had a lifeline thanks to my glasses, to avoid drifting away like Fiona did. It’s the same trick we pulled with Spark, when she was infected with RansomMe. Seemed a pragmatic precaution to take, right?"
"Extremely pragmatic," Tracer agreed, impressed. "But, again… why broadcast to me?"
"…because I was talking to you, too, Tracer. You deserve a chance, just like they did. Killing a killer restores the status quo, yes. But redeeming a killer makes the world a better place. I wanted you to believe in that."
"I see. And if a killer is irredeemable…?"
"Maybe I’m just naive, but… I think nobody’s irredeemable. Not Johanha, not Fiona, not you. Not even Dex. And I’ll prove it to you again and again, if I have to."
In the final conclusion… Tracer could only nod briefly, in agreement. The most enthusiastic response he could manage, really.
"For what it’s worth… you’ve convinced me. My death would accomplish nothing. My killings accomplish nothing…"
Tracer stroked Mew idly, lost in the thought. It was a difficult concept to swallow, after having accepted his fate long ago that he must die for his crimes. The idea of living onward while escaping the shadow he’d been sinking into… it took quite a lot to accept that idea. Perhaps he was ready to try.
"If I am to extract value from the remainder of my life, I must endeavor to be a better man," he decided. "I must make amends and improve the world, even beyond healing the wounds I’ve given it already. This is the path you want for me…? Very well. I accept. I will work to redeem myself."
The relief was visible in Beta’s features; the tension she’d been carrying since finding out about Tracer’s crimes released, at last.
"…after all, if I am ever to be a man who’s worthy of your love, this is the path I must take."
If he noticed that tension snap neatly back into place, he showed no signs of it, as he continued.
"I realize now how important you are to me, Beta. I also realize I’m completely unsuitable as a suitor… but you’ve given me hope. I can become more than I am, I can become better. Perhaps I can even be the man you deserve. Obviously I’m doing this for myself as well and for the good of Netwerk, but you are indeed my inspiration. You’ve helped me see that there is a future for me. One day, I’ll be able to thank you properly for that."
Fidgeting from foot to foot… Beta decided not to push back against it, not at this critical point. If Tracer rejected his decision, it’d undo everything she’d tried to accomplish…
Besides… it was a relief to hear of his change of heart. Knowing now that Tracer was still the Tracer Beta knew, the Tracer that Beta was fond of, and not a crazed killer… that brought some light to her heart. She wanted him to come back from this, after being in danger of drifting away from her.
That man settled into his new future, comfortable with the idea that he had one. Although one thing still nibbled at his curiosity.
"Beta… you were bouncing your Peep feed off of Mew to get around my connection lock, yes?"
"What? Um… yes. A bit of a dirty hack, but since he already had Peep code installed from my earliest tests… I mean, yeah, I did. Why?"
"And were you aware Mew was re-broadcasting that feed publicly as well?"
The innocent little kittykat App flicked his tail back and forth, while giggling in a non-catty way. "," Mew admitted. ". ! !"
Beta’s knees grew weak, while her cat preened and posed in Tracer’s lap, quite proud of this accomplishment.
"Oh no," she spoke aloud. "Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no…"
"Actually, the net result is a positive," Tracer explained… pulling up a variety of storified blog posts and social media streams. "The truth about the incident is coming out, thanks to Johanha and others from /lulz/ who are willing to step forward. That means all of Netwerk knows how you stood up to Fiona, stood up for Johanha, and generally saved the day. Considering you were once nearly trolled into the grave yourself, that’s quite a bold statement of forgiveness you just made to the world…"
"I wasn’t trying to make a bold statement to the world! I didn’t even know if I would survive that bold statement! I was flying by the seat of my pants out there…!"
"Nevertheless, you did well. In fact… judging from my search agents, a memetic stance is starting to spread throughout the ranks of #CodeHonesty…"
Rather than reading it aloud, he pulled up an average entry made in the last hour.
Obviously #CodeHonesty is against harassment of any sort. No true member of #CodeHonesty would ever have attacked Beta; we do not support trolling and doxxing. And just like Beta, we’re willing to stand up to all would-be abusers and frauds to make Netwerk a more honest place.
"…some are claiming the whole thing was a hoax, of course. You were basically yelling at a ghost, after all, which is completely insane… but there’s just enough freewheeling madness to the narrative for it to take root in the imagination. Thanks to Johanha’s persuasive writing, this incident has bent overall public opinion in your favor. You may even be able to show your Default face in public without a worry, soon."
"…but… but… what? How?!"
"Simple enough; positive sentiment towards you happens to be trending high," Tracer explained. "And everybody likes to get in on a good social media trend. In wake of it your detractors are now claiming they were never your detractors in the first place, and they’re declaring any abuse you’ve experienced as being not their fault. A bald-faced lie, of course… but this does effectively take you off the hook in terms of most future attacks by hashtag warriors, as they focus all efforts on finding Snowi instead. #CodeHonesty is likely out of your hair now."
The one responsible for turning Beta’s ruined public persona into the hero of the day stood at attention, nose high and sniffing at the air…
"…?" Mew requested, politely.
Kitty ate well that day.
The crackle of a warm fireplace distracted the old man from his reading.
These days, he preferred to visually scan all materials, rather than ingest them directly into the bulk of his memory files. He could have read them much faster that way, but as an old man, he liked to indulge himself in the pleasantries of life rather than rely on the expensive multifunction software patches that kept him alive day-to-day…
The video recording, that interested him in particular. He watched the whole thing start to finish… ignoring the fidgeting of his guest.
"She’s quite the little heroine, isn’t she?" Horizon/Kincaid pondered aloud. "Throwing herself right into the fire, to protect her friend. To protect a stranger, even. That’s compassion and loyalty you cannot buy…"
"I would agree, sir," Miss Cancel spoke… the imposing figure of his personal assistant looming above his houseguest’s head, commanding a space in which the guest must occupy without moving. Not literally, with a hacktool, but with the inescapable social niceties a Horizon audience demanded.
VNDB/Renpy tried to play along, to smile and agree with whatever the crazy old man was saying.
"Yes, yes, quite!" he agreed. "Soooo… about the, uh… the thing you called me here for?"
Mildly irritated at the interruption, Kincaid pushed the files aside, to get on with the affairs of the day.
"We had an agreement not to discuss any connections between the Horizon family, MyFace, and the Karnival," Kincaid spoke. "The official line was to neither confirm nor deny. A line you did not walk very well today, when you inadvertently confirmed the whole story to her…"
"Sir, I can explain—"
"Honestly, it’s not that huge of an issue," Kincaid admitted. "Yes, I invested heavily in the Karnival in hopes of using their life-extending technology. Frankly, I have investments in dozens of life-extending technologies; it’s how I’ve survived so very long. This particular one ended up not panning out, and that’s a shame, but not a sin. I suppose it’s no huge loss if anyone learned the truth of how the Karnival operated."
"…it’s not? Oh. Okay, then," Renpy replied, relieved.
"Still, doesn’t hurt to keep things tidy. Better safe than sorry, yes?"
He resumed reading his news feeds and sipping tea, while Miss Cancel scraped the carpet clean of any trace data that could prove Renpy’s body was ever here. A very thorough and tidy assistant, Miss Cancel was.
Only when her task was complete and Horizon/Kincaid had finished his tea did she speak up.
"Orders, sir?" she requested. "Regarding the other matter. The girl."
"Mmm. That’s a trickier situation, isn’t it…"
Kincaid leaned back in his chair, taking a deep sip of tea as he considered the video captured at ID:Entity today. A brutal fight, one which the young lady named Spark clearly wasn’t going to win. And yet… she fought on, despite that obvious doom. She fought to protect her friend Beta, and even to protect a stranger. True, Beta closed out the battle, but Spark was the one willing to take the initial risk…
Risk was something the Horizon family had averse to, lately. So fat and complacent, sitting in private servers, growing old and pale. For over a hundred years Kincaid had steered this particular ship, augmenting the very same power base that made them weak at heart. Would he have taken a risk like that, for instance? Would he have been as brave and as bold as his wayward daughter, the one who became this Spark girl’s mentor?
"She’s quite capable," Kincaid noted. "The question is if she’s capable enough to deal with the beast from XSept’s basement. Life is a series of trials, Miss Cancel, and I wouldn’t take this one from her. Comfort promotes laziness. Still, what little we know suggests that she may be in over her head…"
Kincaid opened the files containing data scraped from ViruFaxHQ, to refresh his memory. His obsolete memory recall code worked slower than his software augmentations, after all.
XSept’s caged prisoner represented an unknown. A dangerous unknown.
The ones who accidentally unleashed it were Winder/Tracer and Projkit/Beta, identities gleaned through painstaking data analysis of trace evidence left behind at the scene. Those identities led Kincaid to conclude they were seeking a cure to RansomMe for his sister, Winder/Spark, who had been very publicly infected during the middle of a game broadcast stream… a girl who wore an identical jacket to Verity, his lost daughter.
A strange chain of events that danced around the central issue of what mysterious enemy once lurked in the heart of ViruFax. An enemy that his daughter’s prodigy, young Spark, now had to deal with.
Despite her ties to Verity, Spark wasn’t his granddaughter. She wasn’t family, wasn’t part of Horizon. He was under no legal or financial obligation to care about these matters in the slightest. All he had to do was look away and get back to the business of growing his power base; this thing with Spark was distracting him from increasing shareholder value, after all.
But… Verity clearly cared deeply about Spark. And Kincaid, despite the need to see the runaway Verity as a failed business investment, still cared deeply about his daughter.
Besides, the girl held promise. Perhaps all was not lost in the efforts that began with Verity…
"She needs to come to us, in the end," he understood. "You gave her my contact card. In time she’ll find need to use it, and that’s when we’ll make our move. In the meanwhile, we’ll watch and observe. Make sure she doesn’t make any fatal mistakes. The Horizon family looks after its own… and I will not lose another child."
:: go home
|:: Copyright 2015 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy.
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker.