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Floating Point 1.6 :: Zero

Floating Point 1.6 :: Zero

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

:: backto chapter 1.5

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:: skipto chapter 1.7

Senator Agni hated children.

She loved families. She had to love families; her constituents across 16 different servers all voted in blocks, families united together behind her party. Good families. Onefearing families, proud members of the Church of One, all of them. (Well, the ones that mattered according to the electoral demarcations, at least.) But that didn’t mean she liked children. Children were irrational, annoying, and immature. Much better when they grew up into proper adults who knew how things were and always would be, and behaved accordingly…

But to get elected, she had to at least pretend to like children. That meant PR opportunities, such as reading books to them in local public libraries… shaking hands with them, promising them a bright future in Athena Online, things like that. Even if what she really wanted to do was get back to her office ASAP and put the finishing touches on her masterwork.

"It’s not going to fly," her PR director warned.

Agni touched up her makeup in a mirror, adjusting sliders until they neatly accented the signs of her physical maturity. Unlike many of her peers within the Red Party, she embraced her defaults rather than resort to anti-aging avatars.

"9Day, don’t tell me what is and isn’t going to fly," she replied, not looking away from her makeup manipulation. "Instead, tell me how you’re going to make it fly. How can we make the Server Rights Bill fly?"

"We can’t. It’s impossible. Look, RedCore’s behind you all the way on this… but let’s get real, RedCore’s a faction of the overall Red Party. We’re the reactionary right, remember? UltraConservative. And majority of the Red party isn’t conservative enough to embrace something this bonkers."

"Legislation is never bonkers, 9Day. It’s simply ahead of its time. And I don’t care if it gets shot down; it’s important that RedCore puts it forward as a test of loyalty," Agni spoke, finished with slider adjustments for the moment. "Those within Red who vote against it, well, we’ll know what districts to campaign in more aggressively. And one day, when RedCore simply IS the Red Party through and through rather than a ‘splinter faction’… we’ll put it forward again. Legislation ahead of its time, remember. Not ‘bonkers.’"

"Except each time ‘Server Rights’ or anything like it gets shot down in the senate, it sets a precedent for the next time a bill comes around with the same flavor. We shouldn’t push this, Agni. We should just wait until the time’s right…"

"This is for the good of Network, 9Day. We’ve been reliant the broken old ways, the liberal ways, far too long. Claiming we believe in freedom while denying servers the freedom to govern as they see fit… no. We’re pushing the bill. If we don’t succeed, we push again. Again and again, until we win. That’s the RedCore way. They can’t shut us up."

9Day didn’t see it, but decided not to argue the point. For starters, it was technically his job to make it fly, just as she said… to control the social media spin, set up the astroturf and sock puppets that would push the issues Senator Agni wanted pushed. He didn’t have a choice in the matter. And also… debating it further would be counterproductive to today’s activities. It was minutes to showtime, and he had a press event to focus on coordinating.

The actual book reading went smoothly enough, despite Angi’s internal loathing of it all.

She smiled for the press, smiled at the intentionally diverse school kids as they filed in. Smiled as she read a copy of ‘BillE and the Onesderful Day,’ a Church of One-themed pile of saccharine garbage. Page by page of pure sweetness about charity, goodwill, and the perfection of Default avatars—those bodies representing the One’s gift to His people…

The little tykes lapped it all up, and why not? They’d been selected to be visually diverse across the skin color span, that played well, but every one of them came from a server where the church arguably held more power than the Athenian senate.

And if Agni had her way—if 9Day helped her have her way—the church would indeed hold more power than the senate in those servers. Server rights… the right to self-governance on a server-by-server basis. Essentially cutting the balls off the senate entirely, to allow "local values" to reign supreme…

Bonkers. Utterly bonkers. But 9Day liked getting paid, so he’d get the social channels flowing tonight, warm and ready to go.

At least security was low, so there wouldn’t be a repeat of the last incident involving Senator Agni at a school. Some juvenile punks thought it’d be funny to throw pies at the senator during her speech… and her overreacting firewalls triggered nine kinds of security failsafes, including an armed police response and a malware counterattack. Since then, 9Day had ordered Angi’s passive security systems put on low response while dealing with kids. Better safe than sorry, and she could ramp them back up immediately after leaving, anyway…

With the book reading complete, Angi chatted with the children, doing her best to answer questions in a down-home folksy way her constituents would appreciate.

"Why is the skybox blue?" a little girl asked.

"Because that’s the Default for the skybox, just like how your Default is to be pink!" Agni explained. "Because the One loves us very much."

"Where do bunnies come from?" another little girl asked.

"All the animal pet Apps were created by the One for us to enjoy."

A hand in the back raised itself, attached to a wide smile.

"Do you believe the One was a truly divine Program, with no zeroes at all?" the boy with the red-and-blue hair asked. "Or could the One have been the puppet of another Program, simply an animate pile of data?"

(Apparently the tinfoil hat conspiracy nuts existed even at the primary school level. 9Day would have to edit that question out of the recaps, because no way Agni would be answering it.)

With the ritual now complete, the librarians lined the children up to shake hands with the senator.

"Glad to see you today!" Agni told a little girl, leaning down to grasp her hand firmly. "And glad to see you, too. And I’m so glad to see you. And…"

And the next one up was the boy with the two-tone hairstyle, extending his hand to shake.

"I’m sorry my question was so mean," he said, in apology. "I was bad. But can we be friends, Miss Agni? Pretty please?"

The cameras were rolling… and forgiveness was divine. So, the Senator had to shake hands and make nice.

Lower security, no passive countermeasures. Little kids weren’t a threat. The malware could pass easily between the child and the senator, slipping through the handshake… barbed wire wrapping itself around her finger, underneath her wedding ring. Out of sight for the cameras, microscopic compared to his usual branding, but it burrowed deep within her soul within 0.233ms.

The whispers started immediately, and Senator Agni smiled at them.

The RedCore Party should consume the Red Party, they spoke, in her own voice. Her own thoughts. The Red Party has lost its way. Only RedCore can save us, now. The whole senate must unite under one banner…

"I’m sure we can be good friends, little boy," she spoke, understanding at heart if not within the mind itself.

"Thank you so much, Miss Agni," Dex replied. "Thank you so much."

File Name:

File Type:
Memory Recording [Spark]


Spark took a window seat, every time. Didn’t matter what class she was in, who the popular kids were, who sat where… she’d claim a desk by the window, even if she had to glare down another student to lay claim to it. Right by that window, so she could gaze out of it occasionally, while doodling.

Not that she was drawing pictures of the trees, or the meticulously simulated grass of the sport fields. No. While teachers tried to hammer lessons about science and history into her head, Spark was looking at her own reflection in the glass. Her Default avatar… olive-green. Plain black hair. So completely boring, after all these years in the same skin…

…and in her notebook files, she’d doodle new avatars. She wanted to wear fire. She wanted hair like pink fire, because it’d be super awesome. She wanted to be a kung-fu superstar, taking her after school activity to the next level and being a superheroine.

Not like the makeup-and-skirt superheroines on the video streams, but like the badass heroes who kicked ass and took names. (Not that Spark understood the ‘taking names’ part. Maybe they were really polite and wanted to know whose asses they were kicking?) Just because all those heroes were boys didn’t mean she couldn’t be one, right?

Ignoring her lessons in favor of sketching new icon designs and new wardrobes earned plenty of ire from the teachers, of course.

It also earned young Spark a visit to the school’s guidance counselor.

"A lot of girls your age have body image issues," the woman insisted. "That’s completely normal, Spark. It’s normal to have these feelings. But there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re beautiful just the way you are!"

"Yeah, okay, but I want cool hair," Spark tried to reason. "And I want a different skin color. I’d like to try other color combinations, but Mom won’t let me."

"But your Default is so wonderful already. Why do you feel so much anger towards it?"

"I’m not angry, I just want to try another avatar. What’s the big deal about that?"

"I think you need to learn to love yourself, Spark."

"Um, pretty sure you’re not allowed to tell me to masturbate. Isn’t there a rule against that? Do I need an adult now?"

And then she was sent home, where mother grounded her for a week. But not before placing that draconian lock on her avatar… and backing up Spark’s runtime and data immediately, using an expensive off-site backup service, just in case.

Stuck in her Default shape, Spark stopped looking at her reflection after that. She sat gloomily in her glasses, still not listening to the lectures. Sat gloomily on the stoop by the playground at recess. Gloomy, gloomy, gloomy…

The hazy memory caught up to a realtime playback, as the only teacher Spark really respected came into her mental frame of reference. The one with the coolest jacket in the whole world…

Spark looked up, thankful that it wasn’t the playground monitor ordering her to go out and have fun again.

"Miss Verity," she recognized, allowing herself a smile for the first time in days.

"Hey, Spark. What’s up?" Verity asked… having a seat on the steps next to her, coming down to her level. Verity wasn’t the sort to talk down to people, and if you had a small Default avatar, she’d meet you where you were. Always as equals, always eye-to-eye.

"Mom’s a jerk. The teachers are jerks. The counselor’s a jerk. Everything’s jerky," Spark complained. "They keep telling me I should be happy the way I am, but I’m not. I wanna be all sorts of things! I wanna be pink and purple and paisley. I wanna have three arms! I wanna skate on wheels for feet! Why does everything cool in life have to be a stupid sin?"

"Do you think changing your Program around is a sin, Spark?"


"Good. Don’t let people tell you who you have to be, Spark," Verity said. "You’re your own person; you can be anything you want to be. Short, tall, skinny, fat, red, blue, male, female, everything in between. Programs are limitless!"

"Unless they have stupid parents who make them all limited and stuff. I’m stuck with them. Families are stupid. Why do we need them?"

…a flinch.

Spark never saw Verity flinch. Not that she remembered, anyway. Verity always had the same expression… good cheer, and honest concern. She was always so confident and true in her words, like she had figured everything out. Not like other adults, that simply pretended they’d figured everything out…

But now, Spark remembered Verity flinching at the mention of her parents. Why? Why would that be in her memory? Maybe the App was remixing things, changing them up?

"Family can be difficult," Verity admitted. "But family is more than blood and metadata. Family’s who you care about, the ones who’ll be there for you. Sometimes that’s your parents… sometimes, it’s not. I can’t say my father and I were really family. He was a serious jerk. But surely there’s someone in your life that isn’t a jerk, yes…?"

At first, Spark was going to say ‘nope.’ Mom was mean, Dad never said much, her brother was stuck-up. But… of the three, only one hadn’t told her who she was supposed to be. One kept her attached to that household.

"My brother," she decided, in the end. "He can be a butt. But he’s okay, I guess. One time when Kelpop was holding Tracer down until he gave up his lunch money I saved him, and when Kelpop shoved me in a locker afterwards Tracer figured out how to hack the lock and let me out. He’s smart like that. "

"Exactly. I know you two don’t always get along, but I also know you’re always going to be there for each other. You’re lucky to have family who cares for you, in his own way. Beats being alone in the world…"

Again, an unusual look. Something distant, something sad. Verity was never sad. Child-Spark didn’t remember her being sad, anyway, or conveniently forgot the sadness that was always there when Verity spoke to her… hidden behind the positive messages on offering.

"What do you want to be when you grow up, Spark?" Verity asked. A standard teacher question.

"I want to be a superheroine!" Spark declared, proudly. With a martial arts pose.

"Okay. Do it."

"…really? It’s not a career choice which pays a living wage. That’s what Dad says."

"Not his call to make, in the end. If it’s who you are, it’s who you are. You can be anything. You can be a teacher, a leader, a champion of justice! Or a senator, a doctor, an astronaut…"

"What’s an… ‘astral-not’?"

"My point is, even if you’re having a rough time of it now, you should embrace your dreams. One day, they’ll be your reality. Netwerk is what you make of it, and you, I know you’re capable of making it anything you want it to be. …I wish I could help you get there sooner, Spark. I really do. But the best I can do is try to help you along the way…"

False memories? Verity didn’t trail her words off like that. Or maybe she did, and little Spark was too distracted by all those ideas of what an ‘astral-not’ might be to notice…

Verity… mentor. Teacher. Ally. All great words, but not the word Spark most wished she was. That word had unfortunately been assigned at birth to someone who consistently made her life miserable. Was Verity sad too, on realizing that word would never ring true? That Spark could never really be her daughter…?

The bell ringing, that Spark knew as a dead certainty. It signaled the need to hurry home immediately; no martial arts club, no hanging out with friends, not with her grounding in place. Reconnect right back to her home server immediately and go to her room…

Bells and bells, ringing slower and louder. Definitely not part of the memory. Definitely too slow, a weird acoustic distortion causing the pitch to plummet and the bass to rise. So very… very… slow

…slow. She felt lagged to null and back, on rising out of her nap.

It took a full ten second for her new DreamWeaverZ to shut down properly, leaving her drifting between distorted memory and the distorted real world of Floating Point. Carefully, Spark pulled herself out of bed… staggering slightly as her limbs didn’t respond nearly as fast as she was used to. Even loading up her default clothing configuration (’cause no way she wanted to wander around the place naked) took aeons.

Placing one foot in front of the other, she compensated for the lag in her stride. Soon, she was out the door of her bedroom, and onto the grand spiral staircase around Floating Point’s central library…

…nearly getting clocked in the head by a book, on emerging.

The books were flying, moving sharply through the air before bending at ninety degree angles, slotting themselves back on shelves or pulling themselves off shelves. The descending books converged on the great stone sphere, the heart of the server, which was grinding away faster than the system lag should’ve allowed for…

Dodging a few more self-motivated textbooks, Spark made her way down to the ground floor. She had to tap three times on Beta’s shoulder before she could get a response; clearly the absent-minded App developer had disengaged her glasses again while working on a complicated project, given she didn’t see Spark’s arrival.

"Should I even ask what’s going on?" Spark asked, which meant she was indirectly asking, which was basically the same thing as asking what’s going on.

"Oh! Um… sorry," Beta mumbled, her apology reflexes kicking in as usual. She activated her glasses, the flat pink of her irises fluttering behind her eyelids a few times as she got used to having an extra virtual sensory input again. "I’m using the cloud processing capabilities of Floating Point to try and decrypt the books. The overall slowdown to Netwerk itself will be negligible, but it’s going to cause a bit of local system lag, I’m afraid."

"A bit? You call this a bit?" Spark asked, waving her hand around absently… the dim blue glow from the line work of Verity’s old jacket trailing behind her arm, lighting simulation having difficulty keeping up. "I’ve gotta do a Q&A Peep stream for my subscribers this afternoon. I need bandwidth and runtime for that, Beta…"

"I’m so close to figuring it out, though!" Beta explained—holding up one of those identical books with the ‘W’ stamped on the spines. "Look, I did some work on this one we thought had been burned beyond recognition, and now I can read the first page! It’s a book about, uh, genocide. Not a very happy subject but… the writing, the style… Dex was right! It’s a giant encyclopedia! Floating Point’s one giant encyclopedia…!"

"Yeah, that’s great, whenever I need help falling asleep I’ll grab a book on algebra or something," Spark muttered. "But can you do this another day? Please?"

"Well… I guess… okay," Beta replied, fidgeting on the spot. Clearly eager to continue the pursuit of knowledge, but not wanting to offend her friend. "I mean… the books have waited this long, I guess they can wait another day, just… I was so close…"

She clasped that book to her chest tightly, as if the forbidden lore within might escape her grasp. If that wasn’t bad enough… she’d turned on that cute little pout of hers to maximum levels of adorable patheticness. A look mirrored by the pet cat looking upwards at Spark…

It was enough to make her buckle like a belt.

"Fine, fine, keep going. #Whatevs, I can postpone the stream," Spark suggested. "Hopefully the rest of the books aren’t about atrocities. …actually… can you look up a book for me? Assuming it exists, I mean…"

"Yes! Absolutely! Totally! Just name it!"

"What’s an ‘Astronaut’?" Spark asked. "I’m not sure about the spelling. Maybe it’s N-O-T, or N-A-U-G-H-T…"

Beta flicked her fingers, sending a single voxel out into the stacks. It slipped in and out of the nearest shelves, the ones that held all books starting with the letter A, searching for the closest match.

"Can’t say I’ve heard of that word before. What’s it from? A movie file?"

"A dream. …I was experimenting with a new dream App I installed," Spark explained. "Trying to pull up memories of Verity, before I started losing them. I don’t want to go as far as Tracer has for personal memory manipulation, but… I don’t know. I wanted to remember the reason I’m doing all this stuff. Why I’m going through things like that fight with Fiona…"

The great library seemed to… dim, on recalling the aftermath of that brawl. Spark, curled up in bed and crying her eyes out, feeling like a onesdamn fool. The wave of depression had passed, just as Beta promised, but… it still resonated with her. Between that and her brother turning out to be an amnesiac murderer, finding the motivation to carry on with this vendetta was getting harder.

Fortunately, a distraction arrived in the form of a book, dropping neatly into Beta’s outstretched hand.

"Looks like this one’s pretty heavily encrypted, but there’s a little bit on the second page that’s still in cleartext," she explained, adjusting her glasses to focus in on it. "Let’s see. Yes, right in the middle of the page, it opens with… ‘a professional space traveler is called an astronaut.[13] The term derives from the Greek words ástron (ἄστρον), meaning "star", and nautes (ναύτης), meaning "sailor". The first known use of the term "astronaut" in the modern sense was by Neil R. Jones in his short story "The Death’s Head Meteor" in…’"

Spark nodded, gesturing for her to continue.

"Uh… that’s all I can read," Beta admitted. "Sorry. …I’m not sure I understand. Why the heavy emphasis on traveling through a space? Anybody can do that, just walk from point A to point B. And ‘star sailor’? Maybe it’s about boats that are designed to crawl across a skybox?"

Stars. Stars. The word tickled at Spark’s memory, already a bit hyperactive due to the sluggish shutdown of the dream-making App…

"Fiona thought she was the child of ‘magical star-beings.’ She believed her ancestors lived in the stars. …of course, that book’s also yammering on about short stories, too. #IDunnoMan, maybe this is just some science fiction thing that Verity and Fiona both picked up on. I don’t read a lot of books, so damned if I know what they were talking about."

"It could be worth cross-referencing! Although I did a check just now for ‘star sailors’ and didn’t find anything. There’s a book just called ‘space,’ but it’s still fully encrypted… hmm. What else could I check…?"

"Ehh. Don’t let it slow down your work," Spark decided, shelving the idea for now. "The faster you can finish this project, the faster I get my nicely responsive server back. With any luck I can still do that stream soon."

"I’m kind of surprised you’re streaming on a holiday," Beta admitted. "I was figuring you would be out all day, so this’d be a good time to get some work done…"

"Huh? Why would I be out?"

"It’s Onesday, remember? First of the year? Quality time with your family, having dinner, stuff like that…?" Beta reminded her. "I remember Onesday when I was a kid. My mother made the best fractal Onesday trees, with the best decorations! She loves procedurally generated content, like yarn she wove my sweater with. Great attention to detail. And the turkey, always so tasty…!"

Sugary sweet family memories left a sour taste in Spark’s mouth, as she shook her head sadly.

"That’s not how it works with the Winder family," she replied. "I mean… yeah, okay, we do have a standing invitation to return to that house each Onesday for dinner. But the last time we bothered was two years ago, and it didn’t exactly end well. Now with Tracer wearing a lock collar, well…"

"But he’s dedicated himself to redemption! We don’t need to keep the collar on him anymore. It’s not like he’d immediately go out on a stabbing spree. And if it means he can’t see his family again, it’s not right to keep him here! Spark, family’s important, remember?"

"Yes, which is why I’m my bro’s keeper. That doesn’t mean I need to go pretend to have a great ‘ol Onesday with my father and that mother of mine. Beta, trust me, nothing good can come of this, okay? I’d rather stay home and do a Q&A stream. Plenty of lonely gamers at home tonight I can chat with to boost my sub count and donation total…"

"C’mon, don’t be so negative. It’ll be fine! What if all three of us go visit your parents? If you need support, I’ll come along and support you. Would they object to bringing a friend along?"

"Well… no, but… hang on, what about your own mother?" Spark asked. "If you’re totally into this family funtimes thing, why not go see her instead?"

"Actually… I already went this morning. The managed care server she’s living in has limited runtime for visitors, since the patients take up large chunks of system memory already. Hereditary data rot leads to code bloat, and… anyway, I couldn’t schedule a dinner time slot with her, but I had breakfast. Which means I’m free for dinner at the Winders!"

"Eeeeh… I dunno, Beta…"

"Spark… please. She’s your mother," Beta pointed out, dropping her sweet and encouraging tone down to a more serious level. "I know you two don’t get along, but it’s important. I know if I lost my mother without seeing her again, I’d… I don’t even want to think about that. And you shouldn’t have to, either. Let’s unlock your brother, go to your place, smile, and have dinner. It won’t take long, and who knows? Maybe you’ll have a great time! Please…?"

It started out well. As do most good intentions.

Mrs. Winder/Marybel was more than happy to hear her darlings would be returning home this year. She replied to Spark’s hesitant Messenger request immediately, even accepting the plus-one. The ugliness of two years gone wasn’t even mentioned.

Despite his hesitation at being let off the leash, Tracer accepted Beta’s reasoning for why it was time to break his house arrest. When the trio arrived at the doorstep of the Winder’s pleasant little Athena Online suburban home, Tracer wasn’t wearing his new fashion accessory. A fact that made him a bit self-conscious, rubbing at his neck whenever anybody wasn’t looking…

Beta took point for the trio, when standing at the stoop of the house.

"It’s going to be fine," she promised. "Just keep your smiles up, and remember the good times!"

"I’m having trouble remembering any actual good times here," Spark admitted.

"I’m largely skeptical about the existence of good times in general," Tracer added.

"Good. Times," Beta emphasized, through a tight smile. Her finger tapped the UI element for the doorbell, requesting entry access to the secured homestead…

Her first impression of Marybel, matriarch of the Winder family, was oh what a lovely Default. Because seeing a genuinely aged person in the wild was a rarity these days, even in Athena Online. When you didn’t need to look old, why would you ever choose to look old? But there she was, wrinkles and all, with a bright forced smile to match Beta’s bright forced smile.

"Mrs. Winder," Beta greeted. "Thank you for inviting me to your lovely home! Merry Onesday!"

"Blessed Onesday," Winder/Marybel corrected, lightly. "Let’s use the traditional holiday greeting, mmm? No need to let the modern watered-down version ruin our lovely day. And… Spark. It’s good to see you again…"

Spark mumbled something which might’ve been "Hi Mom" or "Him omm" or just "Hmm" on her way in the door.

Which brought Beta into the living room of the Winder household, right into the tableau of the First Days.

She knew the iconography by heart, the most famous work of art in all of Netwerk. In the center, radiant in his singular glory, stood the One… typically represented as a bearded avatar in a robe, standing against the first sunrise of a distant skybox. Flanking him were his apostles, seven total, to make him the first of eight… the eight bits of the ancient byte. The One, alongside his second Aether, and the lesser apostles whose names eluded her for the moment. Maybe… Hypno? Nyx? Was one of them Eris? Regardless, the image felt a bit unbalanced due to the uneven number of figures and the heavy emphasis on the One in the center, but otherwise a fine visual composition.

Granted, Beta had never seen that composition blown up to the size of an entire living room wall before. No discreet little picture frame over a small prayer shrine for coin-grinding meditation, no; this was a full wallpapering treatment, complete with a looping animation of radiant binary flowing from the head of the One. Fantastically distracting, even with the cheap Onesday tree in the living room corner, blinking on and off according to a pre-coded sequence.

The One glared down at her paternally as she felt very small before His wallpaper radiance.

"Come in, come in," Marybel spoke, waving her son and daughter into the home. "It’s good to see you both. Wipe your feet at the door please, Tracer, there’s a good boy. I’ve already put the turkey in the compiler, it should be ready to serve soon… have a seat, make yourselves comfortable!"

Breezing through her highly pious living room, Marybel whisked her way past the couches and love seats upholstered with old-timey floral patterns. The clashing texture maps didn’t help the overall visual chaos of the room, to the point where Beta felt the need to load up a gaussian blur filter into her glasses to soften the overall mess. Better to help her find the edges of the furniture, to have a seat… near a cloud of semi-transparent blog windows.

Somewhere underneath those dozens of news readers, a man lurked. She could tell because she could see his feet underneath the haze.

"Dad," Tracer greeted, sitting nearby.

"Hmmh. Tracer," he greeted.

With this conversational exchange complete and no more needing to be said, silence fell across the living room.

Leaving Beta sitting between a grumpy Spark and an apathetic Tracer, near their unresponsive father. None of them looking like they were in the mood to chit-chat.

"Soooo…" Beta tried. "What’s… new? In the news. Mr. Winder, sir."

"Hmmh. Server Rights bill up for vote," Winder/Danver replied, flicking through his news windows rapidly. "RedCore party’s growing; conservative issue hashtags are trending across MyFace. 27.3% growth in the last 48 hours alone. Current projections showing the bill might actually get passed this time; could impact the overall structure of governance if every measure goes through. May lead to a bull or bear period on the economy, results unclear at this time."

"Ah! That’s… that’s a thing, yes."

"Dad’s a professional data analyst," Tracer explained. "Pattern matching, trend tracking, that sort of thing. I learned a lot about trawling the feeds for relevant data from him."

"Still unemployed, son?"

"Freelance," Tracer provided.

"Hmmh," Mr. Winder grunted in general disapproval. "And Spark, still unemployed too?"

"Professional broadcaster, Dad. Professional," Spark emphasized. "As in, ‘Yes, I am gainfully employed and I do get paid.’"

"As a camgirl."

"Excuse me—?!"

"So, politics!" Beta jumped in with, sensing discussing controversial governmental bills would actually be less dangerous than the current line of conversation. "You follow politics a lot, Mr. Winder?"

"Hmmh," he responded, noncommittally. "Data’s interesting, is all…"

"Data’s trending the way it should be trending," Mrs. Winder’s voice called, from the kitchen. "It’s about time the senate started getting things done instead of being constantly deadlocked. The Blue Party won’t take even a third of the seats next election, just you wait and see…"

Beta pulled up a quick search window, off to the side of the window that linked to her glasses. "Um. Blue Party? I don’t follow Athena Online politics much…"

"Two-party system," Tracer explained. "Red Party and Blue Party. Conservative and liberal, or more accurately, malice and incompetence. Nicely balanced in terms of how much misery they end up delivering to their constituents, even if their methods differ…"

"The Winder family have always voted Red, of course," his mother replied from one room over. "As do all good churchfolk. And with the RedCore party growing in size, mark my words, we’re looking at a return to the golden age of Athena Online; before all these unwholesomes from the Chanarchy started settling in and taking over nice servers. …Spark, dear, you know the Interrupts from down the street? You were friends with their little Adde, right?"

Spark thought back, searching her spotty memory. It didn’t take long. "Adde, yeah. Had those color-shifting eyes. #OMGPretty. Few years younger than me, but she’s cool. And… I take it by ‘were’ in the past tense that she moved out…?"

"Seems Adde got caught up in all that #CodeHonesty stuff, and had to skip town," mother spoke, with a sing-song tone of victory. "Honestly, the Interrupts weren’t the sort of people that fit in well around here. And once the Server Rights bill goes into place, odds are it’ll be illegal to have a modified avatar in this server. Adde would’ve had to go regardless! Isn’t it for the best that she’s gone now?"

The edges of Spark’s hair started to burn particularly fiercely, as she swallowed down her displeasure.

"I haven’t had turkey in some time!!" Beta called out, to immediately shift topics away from politics, perhaps a bit louder than needed. "Thank you so much for inviting me over!"

Mrs. Winder emerged from the kitchen, with a full tray of icons representing delicious turkey. They couldn’t afford the nicely-designed physical representations, but the data would be just as tasty, presumably.

"Happy to have you, Beta dear! Generosity is a virtue, you know!" Mrs. Winder exclaimed, setting the tray in place on the living room table. "I heard about you on my news feeds. Those cruel people, tormenting you so, and for what? For a few selfies? I’ve never understood those moralistic crusades against nudity, anyway. The One made our bodies as perfect gifts, what’s to be ashamed of?"

"Ahh… thank you. Um. They weren’t exactly selfies, but… thank you," Beta spoke, retrieving one of the turkey icons. "It hasn’t been that bad lately, actually. I think most of them gave up on harassing me. It’s nice to walk around in my usual avatar again and not need to worry…"

"And such a beautiful Default it is! You should be proud of it."

"But hey, screw Adde, right?"

One verbal grenade, tossed into the room with a sick little laugh at the end courtesy of Winder/Spark.

"Beta’s got such a pretty Default, it’s totally great that #CodeHonesty’s leaving her alone. But Adde, little Adde who bought a pair of color-changing eyes, it’s also totally great that #CodeHonesty chased her out of her home because she doesn’t belong here. Right?" Spark asked, glaring directly at her mother. "Totally cool with Beta dropping by for Onesday, but also totally cool with Adde being forced into hiding—and isn’t that just for the best. Wonderful #DoubleStandards you got going there, Mom."

If the flame effects around Spark’s favorite hairdo weren’t heating the room up enough, the sudden burst of anger rising from her mother would’ve done the job nicely. Both snap tempers snapped, aimed at the other.

"You apologize, young lady," Mrs. Winder demanded, quietly. For the moment. "You apologize right now."

"For what, exactly? For calling you out on your intolerant bullshit?" Spark asked.

"Winder/Spark, you apologize for being rude this very instant!"

"You first," Spark insisted. "Sitting there happily talking about how great it is that the ‘undesirables’ are going to get the boot once your precious RedCore heroes stomp all over them. Tossing out all this lovely bait, knowing damn well I’m sitting right here wearing my own avatar instead of the one you saddled me with. You always have to rub it in, don’t you? Every damn time…"

"Well, would it kill you to put on your Default once in a while?" her mother asked. "At least when you come visiting. If only to be polite—"

"That’s not who I am!"

"No, clearly you’d rather be some fiery-headed, orange-skinned attention whore than a proper young lady."

Once open warfare is declared, some collateral damage among the civilian population is to be expected.

"What about your precious Tracer, then?" Spark asked, pulling the silent boy into the blast zone. "Haven’t you noticed he changed his Default skin color? And you wouldn’t believe the software modifications he’s patched in. But no, he’s your darling boy, while I’m your rebel brat. So you’ll focus in on me and let his ‘sins’ slide!"

Beta sputtered, her dinner icon nearly tumbling out of her hands. "S-Spark…!"

"You leave your brother out of this!" Mrs. Winder demanded, getting to her feet now, to attempt and tower over the other woman. "He’s at least a respectful and polite young man. You could learn a lot from him about how to behave!"

"Really. Really. Hey Mom, y’wanna know how he’s been spending his free time lately—?"

"Oh gosh look at the time," Beta blurted, grabbing Spark by the arm. "I’m afraid we’ve really got to go thank you so much for the invitation Mrs. Winder we’ll have to do this again sometime blessed Onesday!"

Immediately, Beta kicked in a connection override tool, taking advantage of their shared permissions to shuffle herself and Spark off the server by force.

The burning hole left behind in the argument gave Winder/Marybel nothing to yell at. So, she stormed back into the kitchen with the tray of turkey icons, to throw them out. Wasting good food would give her something else to be mad about, which was exactly what she wanted.

The two left behind her wake sat in silence for a good minute.

"So," Tracer spoke, turning to his father. "What’s this about unusual RedCore party growth?"

Spark wrenched her arm away from Beta’s grasp, once her feet touched the carpet of Floating Point’s great hall. The continued simulation lag ensured she nearly lost her balance, forced to stagger a few steps before she could even try to regain her composure.

Beta started to speak… but Spark held up one hand, to block her. To shut that down, so she could close her eyes, count backwards from ten, and have a proper first word.

"Yeah, okay, I #FuckedUp," Spark admitted.

"You nearly #FuckedUp," Beta clarified.

"No, that was a right #Fucking of #Ups. #Up was the direction of #Fucking just now. …I’m sorry. For what little it’s worth, I’m sorry for acting like a jerk."

"I don’t think I’m the one you should be apologizing to, Spark…"

"I wasn’t really gonna out Tracer as a vigilante," Spark insisted. "That was just spur-of-the-moment. I would’ve caught myself in time…"

"I don’t mean your brother. You know who I mean."

"Yeah, well… I can’t exactly go back there and apologize to her. That’s not how it works. And to be fair she was really spewing some unbelievable garbage, okay? I fell for every piece of bait she tossed my way but there’s some mutual blame for that disaster going on here. It’s just… it’s hard, okay? It’s like she’s everything I’m not. We’ve got nothing in common but blood and metadata… and a temper."

Having done her own counting backwards from ten, Beta released her pent-up tension, and let out a sigh.

"It’s my fault for pushing you to go home. I’m sorry. I just… I have such a good relationship with my own mother, I have a hard time imagining how bad things can be with other families…"

"Well… now you know why I didn’t wanna leave Floating Point today," Spark said, gesturing to the world around her. "And why would I wanna leave for Onesday? I’ve got everything I want right here. This is my home. Got my bro. Got you. Ever there was a place to celebrate Onesday, I’d say it’s here, with my real family. So… let’s just try to forget that ever happened, and, I dunno, download a cheap Onesday tree and some turkey or something. System lag or no system lag, let’s do a proper holiday. Sound good?"

It did sound good, honestly.

If she hadn’t got a bug up her butt about trying to make the Winder family situation turn itself around in the first place, Beta would’ve been perfectly content to cuddle up in front of the fireplace with Spark and enjoy turkey and a shiny Onesday tree. More and more, spending time in the peaceful sanctuary of Floating Point at her side was appealing to her…

Except for the one unspoken thing between them. The reason why both wanted that time together.

Well. Onesday was the day of miracles, the breaking dawn of the world. Shut down one year, execute the next. Maybe she could do something about that tonight.

"I’ll go compile up some food," Beta suggested.

She got about five feet towards the kitchen before the jingling of the arrival bell distracted her.

"We need to go to a political rally," Tracer announced, immediately after rezzing into Floating Point. "Dress inconspicuously. We’ll leave in five minutes."

The blood-red banner flapped lightly in simulated wind, behind his podium. He could’ve used some cheap hovering graphic, nice and stable regardless of the physics simulation, but there was something to be said about traditions. And the RedCore party was all about traditions.

"Onesday is more than a holy day," Senator Klick continued, his voice amplified by internal broadcast Apps to be heard intimately and equally by the dozens of avatars present. "It’s about change. Transition from old into new. Change is good, change pushes us forward, but we must be careful not to abandon everything we hold dear in that blind rush forward. Have I joined the RedCore Party? Yes. Have I abandoned my traditional Red Party values? Absolutely not. This is the next step, the new year, for all of Athena Online…"

A rally on the eve of a holiday was uncommon, but with the Server Rights vote coming up soon, rallies were being held all across the hosting service nation of Athena Online. The dutiful voters, eager to support their candidates despite this unusually sharp change in direction, came out to hear these words and understand why things were happening so quickly. Dozens of senators made it their duty to flood the channels with new sound bytes, explanations, quotables, anything they could to push the agenda forward as soon as possible.

In attendance, towards the back of Senator Klick’s crowd, were three nondescript avatars. All three wore a splash of red; a scarf flapping in the breeze behind Beta, a glimmering red t-shirt underneath Verity’s jacket, or a simple red tie adorning the collar of Tracer’s dress shirt. They’d stand out if they didn’t throw in a token nod to party affiliation, even if they weren’t technically Athena Online voters anymore.

"I’d like you to join me on this new adventure," Klick continued, arms wide. "We’re moving our great nation forward. A strong, centralized government has held us back for too long; strict federalism is the key that will unlock the future. Obviously some services need to be centralized, yes. Legislature can and should draft some basic rules we all live by, to prevent us from slipping into anarchy. But government isn’t a one-size-fits all, and by trying to force it to be, we can’t properly provide for our citizen’s unique needs. Local servers must be free to adhere to their local values…"

"Essentially, they want a federated series of fiefdoms ruled over by individual senators," Tracer explained, over the three-way Messenger link. "That’s the core of Server Rights. Laws can be ignored or re-written to better suit ‘local values.’ Such as kicking Interrupt/Adde out of our home server, simply for having a modified avatar…"

"Sounds like anarchy to me," Spark replied. "Moderators in the Chanarchy get to decide whatever rules they like for their home turf, too. #SameShitDifferentDay…"

"The flavor of it differs, but the end result is the same. This bill will effectively dissolve Athena Online; fragmented and fractured, inevitable legal drift will lower what little value the senate still holds. But as long as individual senators retain local power, they won’t care. And if they cater to their local voters and their particular tastes, the voters won’t care, either. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Athena Online mirror the Chanarchy within a generation if this bill passes, completely obliterating the idea of interconnected rule-of-law."

"Ugly, I agree. But why exactly are we here?" Spark asked, turning to face her brother directly. "I had a nice evening in planned with Beta…"

"Senator Klick wasn’t a supporter of the Server Rights Bill until a week ago, when he suddenly flipped his stance. A number of Red Party members who held conservative-but-moderate views flipped around the same time. There’s also the small matter of the Dex virus he’s infected with."

Tracer narrowed his eyes, focusing the visual augmentation of his illegal software scanner. Hovering just over Klick’s outstretched hand was an infinitely-spinning scrambled cloud connection… [scrambled address], to be specific.

Beta, who couldn’t see the address, still zoomed in a bit to study the man. "I don’t see any branding on him…"

"I think it’s under his wedding ring. Dex is playing smarter, now that we’re on to his giant obvious callsign."

"Oh. Um. We… might be responsible for that," Beta admitted. "Spark pointed out to him when we talked that his mark was pretty blatantly evil and stuff…"

"Dex means business this time. He’s flipped at least two dozen senators to his side, maybe more," Tracer continued. "Key members of both Red and Blue have spoke in favor of server rights. The bill goes up for voting in four days time; the only way we’re going to stop it will be if we can disinfect an unknown number of highly secured individuals, and give them enough time to reconsider their decisions without a constant stream of nonsense whispered in their ears by the malware."

Spark looked past the flapping red banner… to the men wearing identical avatars, black business suits, black glasses, and imposing physique. The ones who would backspace her where she stood if she pounced Senator Klick where he stood, to extract the malware using Beta’s vaccine.

"Yeah, so, I don’t think that’s happening," Spark admitted. "I may be awesome but I am not awesome enough to infiltrate and evade the defenses of a zillion politicians. Maybe if the vote was delayed, I’d have time to figure out a way to do it. Can we… I dunno, monkeywrench this? Get them to put it off?"

"Unlikely," Tracer admitted. "The RedCore Party is taking advantage of this sudden and unexpected burst of support within the senate and rushing it to the floor. If it’s put off any longer, it’ll run past next election day… and the voters could have a sudden burst of sensibility and kick them out before they can make it happen. It’s now or never for them, and for us. Beta?"

Beta looked away from the senator, currently ranting about a return to traditional family values and a need for moral victories and so on and so forth. She tuned the words out completely, for now, lowering the broadcast volume. "Yes…?"

"We’re going to need your help on this. We need a new tool; a way to disinfect the entire senate in one go."

"But that’s not possible. We need touch contact to extract it. A visual or auditory infection wouldn’t work; the malware’s touch-based as well, so it has to be pulled out through the same vector…"

"So, find another way around that limitation. Whatever it takes. We need the technology to put out these fires wherever Dex raises them if we’re going to continue to thwart his efforts going into the future."

"Or we could put out the original fire for good, maybe…"

Curious, Tracer also tuned out the senator, turning to talk directly with Beta.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Well… I could be wrong here, but… it seems the true power lies in Dex’s cloud server, right?" Beta reasoned. "The malware just keeps a constant connection to its source. When my vaccine shuts down the malware, that connection drops, and the direct influence is gone. But what if we shut down his server instead…? That’d end everything. Every single infected, even the ones we don’t know about, would be free. Nobody has to get hurt, either; an optimal solution."

A brief moment of hope on Tracer’s typically unreadable expression flickered away.

"I’d thought of that already," he noted. "Once we learned how the malware works, I decided the solution would be to shut down his server. Unfortunately, that’s not an option; it’s a cloud server. We have no way of finding it, much less gaining access. No more possible than creating a key to Floating Point from scratch…"

"But I can do that! I mean… I think I can, maybe…?"

"What? How?"

"Data analysis and decryption," Beta explained. "Leveraging Floating Point’s tremendous computing power to analyze the rotating cloud address, and determine its patterns. It wasn’t possible before now, but I just finished designing a routine to decrypt all the books, one which might work for this as well. If I had continual access to the malware infection, enough to study the addresses it’s connecting to, I could make a key to Dex’s server using my new decoding system."

Spark broke in, quickly. "We’re not getting purposefully infected with Dex’s evil little heart," she insisted. "No way, no how."

"Well… a monitoring App, then, planted on someone who’s already been infected," Beta suggested. "Counter-malware. Not to destroy the Dex virus, but to stalk it and continually report those address sequences back to us. It’d need to run for a day or so to collect enough data to work with, but that’d do it. …and that brings us right back around the main problem, which is that we can’t plant any App on a senator without getting arrested…"

"Huh. You know… one senator, that I could do," Spark said… cracking her knuckles, while studying Klick on his podium. "A few dozen’s out of the question, but a single senator might be possible. Or we could track down Uniq, or Snowi, or some of those stray infected from the Karnival. We’ve got options…"

Tracer shook his head. "Dex can’t know what we’re doing," he reminded her. "He can’t know we planted a bug on one of his ‘friends.’ Assaulting a senator is too dangerous. The others are more likely, but again, we have no idea where they are. This just isn’t feasible. We’re better off countering the malware where it arises…"

"#NoWay. Don’t let this go just because it’s tricky, bro," Spark insisted. "Think about it! If we kick down the door to Dex’s server, we can end this ridiculous game we’ve been playing for years. What’s he got without that server? Nothing. In one move we can shut down all the chaos he’s already spread across Netwerk and stop him from creating any more!"

"It’s a pipe dream, Spark…"

"Embrace your dreams and one day, they’ll be your reality. Netwerk is what you make of it," she spoke. "Verity’s words. This is a #PlayToWin scenario, Tracer; we have to follow the line of play that’ll get us the victory, instead of stalling for time by playing reactively. Let’s do this. We need to move fast, can’t hem and haw about it if we need to forge a key and shut down the server and stop that vote…"

As a politician continued on at length about the glorious future of Athena Online, ignoring the inevitable drift into isolated tyrannies, he considered this new strategy.

It was appealing. A single move, one which would stop Dex cold. He’d been expecting a long, drawn-out campaign… years and years of hunting Verity’s hunter taught him to be patient and cautious. But those were years and years with little or no progress, even now, even after learning the killer’s true identity. Fighting fires, instead of the man with the matches.

But it was also a gamble. Every infected individual they knew about had some measure of strong protection, and even without that, Beta had to slap together new technology on the fly which either worked the first time or got them all killed. Why take that risk? Athena Online may suffer a few years under the autocratic rule of tiny tyrants, but in the long game, perhaps they’d recover once Dex was stopped for good…

Or they could stop Dex for good.

They could avenge Verity. They could culminate Tracer’s quest, before the maddening frustration of it all drove him to heinous acts all over again.

"It’s worth consideration," Tracer spoke, downplaying his hopes a bit. "We’ll return home and get started. Beta, work on the monitoring App. I’ll analyze possible targets. We’ll reconvene afterwards, and from there… perhaps we’ll be able to stop Dex once and for all. And if not… all good things come to those who wait."

The sphere of the great hall halted long ago. No resources available to decrypt books with, not when both Beta and Tracer needed the full processing speed of Floating Point for their respective tasks. One sat in her darkened room, staring into nothing as she poured wonders into her compiler window; the other sat in a darkened study, shuffling news feeds and information archives around, looking for social vulnerabilities.

Leaving Spark to fend for herself. And feel rather useless in the process.

Sure, she’d made the pretty little speech that launched today’s frenzy of work. But beyond that, what purpose did she have at the moment? Not a coder, not an analyst. Not able to do much except hit people, really, and having nobody around to punch meant forced downtime.

Typically, she’d take advantage of this empty time to indulge in some fun. Play a game, run a stream, hang out with a friend, go shopping, cruise for some action, or just hang around her room "testing" the latest iteration of SparklePop. And technically she had promised a subscriber Q&A tonight for her fanbase… she could go take care of that. Un-cancel the event, put on her game face, smile for the fanboys…

But, no. Her heart just wasn’t in it. Not focused enough to tweak into her public persona, pretending to be upbeat and active, while they were on the verge of something this big. Definitely too full of nervous energy to settle for some empty pursuit. She wanted to be on top of this, to be in on it, to be taking action despite there being no actual action to take.

Useless, but on edge all the same, ready to move. Restless yet useless.

And in the end? Maybe nothing would come of this. Maybe the crazy idea was just crazy. It all hinged on finding a brand new infected in the sparse time available before the vote, or making a suicide dive on an elected official. Maybe Athena Online would have to suffer before things got better.

Or maybe Spark would do something particularly crazy.

The card tumbled over and over in Spark’s hand. A razor-thin thing, not a papercraft simulation like most business cards, but a purely virtual construct. It felt like nothing in her fingers. It wouldn’t bend or break. But… if she tapped that icon of the rising sun…

Well. That might open a folder of worms, as Beta put it, the day the creepy butler lady gave her this card.

"What’s the harm?" Spark wondered aloud, turning it over and over, spinning the card between two opposite corners. "It’s just Horizon/Kincaid, the most powerful man in all of Netwerk, who could have me erased with the blink of an eye and even never stand trial. What’s the harm?"

Tracer wouldn’t approve. Too many variables, too many unknowns. He’d implore that she embrace patience, as he dug carefully through his information feeds, looking for just the right weakness to exploit. It could take days, but he’d find one. Precious days.

Beta wouldn’t approve. She was creeped out by the whole thing, by the way Horizon just swooped in and politely gave them everything they needed to track down Fiona’s victims. It was creepy after all, that a half-assed blackmail attempt resulted in service with a smile from the highest echelons of the Horizon family. She’d suggest Spark forget all about that card.

Instead, Spark tapped the icon.

A tiny Hold Please // Now Connecting message floated above the icon, in the same austere gold of the Horizon logo.

Five seconds later, a connection request from a server simply named "Horizon6" popped up, with a confirm/deny prompt. An offer to reconnect to a private server… potentially a one way trip, the kind of access permissions you never granted an App or another Program unless you held complete trust in the requestor.

Her mental finger hovered over the DENY button.

"Eh, what the null," she decided, in the end. And tapped ACCEPT.

If this was a trap, someone went out of their way to make it a rather lovely one.

The mansion felt a bit like Floating Point… old, classy, and well decorated. But the furnishings of Floating Point suggested a certain simplicity and humility, more like a monastery than a mansion. This was a Mansion with a capital M, with all the capital G that came with it. Paintings from famous artists, hanging in lavish golden frames. Elegantly sculpted chandeliers created by master craftsmen, which filled the great entrance hall with light from a hundred candles. And carpeting, carpeting woven from the best procedural silks ever coded by Programkind…

Spark gawked like a backserver hick at it all, to the point where she didn’t notice Miss Cancel’s arrival. A possibly fatal oversight, in a CoC arena. Fortunately, the butler wasn’t keen on removing her head with an axe or anything like that.

"Mr. Kincaid will see you now," she spoke, simply.

Eventually, as she walked those winding and surprisingly empty hallways, Spark became immunized to opulence through overexposure. You could only walk past so many masterpieces of art to touch the soul and make the heart weep before you stopped giving a crap.

The final destination on this journey into extravagance… was a rather tasteful little study, with a fireplace and two leather wingback chairs. It reminded Spark a bit of an upscaled version of Tracer’s study, all books and solitude and seriousness.

With his back to the door, she couldn’t identify the man in the chair. Not until assuming her seat, opposite him, in front of the glowing fire.


Horizon6, Horizon

Horizon Family

White haired old dude. About what she expected, from the various blog articles she’d seen over the years… although in person, she could practically count the wrinkles and the age spots. Things most people ironed out of their avatars by force he wore with pride, and put an exceptional amount of his runtime into expressing down to the finest detail.

"Winder/Spark," he greeted, nodding in her direction.

"Horizon/Kincaid," she greeted. "And… that’s the sum total of what I know about you, right there. Rich guy, important family, and a well-known name. Problem is, we don’t have much parity right now, do we? I don’t know you, but you seem to know me. And you don’t strike me as a Challenge of Champions fanboy."

"Would you like me to describe the depths to which I know you?" Kincaid asked, tapping some cigar ash out in a nearby brass ashtray. "You might find them unsettling. When I decide I want to get to know someone, I tend to be… thorough. I wouldn’t want to unsettle you, Miss Spark. I intended my calling card as a friendly gesture."

"Yeah, about that…" Spark asked, flicking the card into her fingers, then back into her inventory. "Let’s start with that. Why? Why would a guy who’s richer than sin give two wet farts about my little investigation into MyFace trolls?"

The old man chuckled. "Richer than sin. I like that phrase. Implies the rich are without sin, above it all. I assure you, my family’s sins are great… and sloth tops the list. But yes, let’s start there. You nearly kicked a hornet’s nest, you see, by poking around the connection between MyFace and the Karnival. As I didn’t want you to be stung by hornets, I intercepted the request and sent you on your merry way with the information you required. Less mess that way."

"That’s not answering my question. Why do you care if I get stung?"

"A direct query deserves a direct response, and you’re clearly an extremely direct young woman. Much as she was…" Kincaid spoke, his voice trailing off a moment, as his memory wandered down a side path. It returned to sharp focus three seconds later, when his software patches rerouted his thoughts. "A direct answer, then. My daughter was the woman you knew as 5o5o/Verity. Her birth name being Horizon/Verity, before she hacked her own metadata."

Kincaid allowed a moment for that new truth to sink in. But youth absorbed knowledge quickly, compared to the old.

"Huh," Spark spoke, swallowing it.

"Huh indeed," Kincaid agreed.

"I’m not sure I believe you, of course," Spark warned. "Verity never struck me as a greedy corporate overlord with her finger on the pulse of Netwerk. She was a schoolteacher, not a CEO…"

"A life she chose for herself, when she broke away from the Horizon family. Every opportunity in this world, everything she could’ve ever wanted, I was ready to give her. And she chose to leave, rather than embrace her destiny as my heir. It was a self-limiting decision, but one I respected out of love for my daughter. I’d hoped that life outside the family would show her Netwerk’s true face, convincing her I held her best interests at heart. Sadly… she did not return to me in time."

"Gone too soon," Spark agreed.

"Far too soon. But not so soon that she didn’t leave her mark on this world," Kincaid added, to bring some hope to the gloomy mood of the discussion. "Specifically… you. Well. You and your brother, but you’re the one to catch my attention, Spark. The prodigy of my lost daughter…"

Spark waited for the rest of the story. It wasn’t forthcoming, as the old man took another pull on his cigar, parsing the flavor data and blowing a skilled ring with physical manipulation of the smoke particles.

"And…? That’s it?" Spark asked. "Verity took a shine to me, so you decided to help me out instead of raking me over the coals when I pulled a shakedown on your guy?"

"I’d like to think I’m worth more than that mere token. That was a show of good faith, Spark. Proof that I’m on your side, and ready to assist in your endeavors. You are connected to me through my daughter, you see. If you thrive in this world… her efforts will not be for naught. I’ve indirectly invested in your future, and I intend to see that pay dividends."

"Ahh. There’s the catch: you want something in return."

"Let’s discuss fair exchange after we discuss your needs," Kincaid suggested. "I know some of what you’re trying to accomplish. Your brother has been investigating the death of my daughter. I’ve done my own investigation, but even with all my money and manpower, I feel I haven’t come as close as you have. In addition, you face a monster of XSept’s creation… or perhaps a monster he found in some dark corner of our world, and foolishly caged. Either way, you are dealing with escalating forces that soon will grow beyond your reach. I’d be willing to bet that you’re facing a quandary right now, a question of resources, and desperately looking for solutions."

Which, in truth, was why Spark clicked on the card.

"Senators," she stated.


"I need a senator," she continued. "A sit-down with a member of the RedCore party, a #MeetAndGreet. But low security only. Handshakes, good times, things like that. Rich man like you, no doubt you’ve got a few in your pocket, right? You could make the arrangements."

Kincaid steepled his fingers, tapping the tips together. The cigar wobbled between two fingers.

"I could," he suggested. "I could butter up anyone in the senate you want an autograph from, invite them over for a personal tea-for-three right here in my home. Private. Discreet. The question is, why? What interest do you have in politics? From your rather extensive social media rantings you don’t seem to care much for Athena Online…"

"What’s it matter to you? You asked about my needs, and that’s what I need. Can you do it or not?"

"Now now, Spark, we have to be honest with each other," Kincaid spoke, with a smile. "I’ve been honest with you, and I certainly expect the same in return. What’s your true purpose? Or you’ll get nothing."

Stating it flat out wasn’t going to work. Spark needed an angle, a way into this particular tangle… something that would give her the advantage against her opponent. Social brawling was a bit of a change from physical brawling, but she could adapt. She always did.

"We’re hunting your daughter’s killer," she explained, leading with the bait. "A boy named Dex. He’s the monster XSept held in that cage. Right under your nose, XSept was harboring Verity’s murderer."

The wrinkled and leathery skin didn’t budge. No sign of emotional reaction whatsoever… which was a reaction in and of itself, given his tendency to smile or waggle his eyebrows or flick that cigar while talking. This time, he was holding back.

"Go on," he prompted.

"The killer’s using malware to tilt Netwerk itself into chaos," she continued. "He’s the one who started #CodeHonesty, by infecting Cup8 and Snowi. Now he’s infecting the Red Party, to convert them into RedCore extremists and push his Server Rights agenda. His goal is to destabilize Athena Online, the last bastion of centralized law and order in Netwerk. That’s why I need a senator… specifically, someone infected with the malware. Anyone he’s infected will do, but we know for a fact the RedCore Party’s a perfect target. I’m gonna plant a bug on him, one that’ll lead me right to Verity’s killer. And then I’m gonna burn that bastard alive."

Kincaid continued to show no expression, for a good ten seconds. He snapped from it by tapping out more ash… and then simply grinding the cigar out in the ashtray, no longer keen on the distraction it provided.

"This puts me in a difficult place," he admitted. "I’m one of the major proponents of Server Rights, you see."


"Several of Athena Online’s servers are ready to sign over to the Horizon family, once they’re fully free of the senate. Both Red and Blue Parties have more than a few money-minded gentlefolk who know that Horizon is the future of Netwerk. If I assist you… if this collapses the vote before it reaches the floor… I stand to lose a lot of money."

"Money, or justice for your daughter? Pick one," Spark pushed. "And if you give more of a shit about your profit margins than you do about her, why am I even here?"

His hands came down on the armrests of his leather chair hard enough for the resounding slap to feel like a blow to Spark’s cheek.

"Do not. Do not question the love I hold for my family," Kincaid warned. "It’s that love that brought you to my doorstep today. …and it’s that love which drives me to assist you, even if it’ll push back my political efforts a few years. You want an infected senator? An infected senator you shall have."

"O… okay, then. Now we’re talking," Spark said, falling back into the smooth discussion after that momentary hiccup. "We need a day before we’re ready to go; Beta’s working on the malware tracking bug as we speak—"

"There is the small matter of my dividends, Spark. My investment in you, through my daughter."

The catch. The one Spark had easily identified earlier on, before getting sidetracked by politics and familial love…

Kincaid leaned back in his chair, studying the girl. He’d studied her quite a bit, since learning of her plight during the RansomMe affair. Enough to know this was the right decision to make.

"I have one request to make of you, in return for this boon," he said. "If I’m to lose a large investment in server rights, I’d like to recoup the investment in my daughter. I want to take the spirit and the fire that she brought out into Netwerk, and bring it back home where it belongs… specifically, you."

"Uh. Not sure I’m following, old man…"

"Yes you are. You know what I’m implying," he stated. "I can read it in your face. In you I see vast and untapped potential; Verity chose wisely in you as her heir. Therefore, I would very much like to make you my heir as well. Please accept my offer of becoming an adopted member of the Horizon family… as my granddaughter."

"Um. What? No. No way," Spark tried. "NoThankYou.JPG. I’m not a business tycoon. I drink and screw around and get in fights. I mean, you want a mastermind, why not Tracer? He’s Verity’s pupil, too…"

"Your brother is bright, but single minded and limited. He’s far too cold and calculating and cruel."

"Yes, I know. He’s perfect CEO material."

"Spark… I wanted Verity to inherit the family business. Was Verity cold, calculating, or cruel? What does that say about what I’m looking for, that I felt she was the ideal candidate for the job?" Kincaid asked. "I don’t need another conniving member of my family, lazy and fat, dedicated to nothing but building power and wallowing in it. Sloth is our sin, remember. I need… inspiration. Improvisation. Risk-taking. Bravery. Fire, Spark. Fire to burn away the old and bring in a new age. All traits Verity held, which were passed on to you."

Even without eyes on the back of her head, Spark felt acutely aware of the burning heart icon she’d embossed into Verity’s jacket. Taking the lessons of her mentor forward, to become the spark that ignites the world… and wearing the skin of her teacher while doing it, even if putting it that way was pretty damn creepy.

It was true enough. Verity was the mother she never had; why wouldn’t that make her the granddaughter that Kincaid never had?

"Soooo… okay, I’m your granddaughter, #Yippie," Spark tentatively agreed. "Gramps, you’re awesome, or something. Can we get on with rustling us up a senator now?"

"Spark, Spark. You know there has to be more to it than that, don’t you? I can’t readily bequeath my company to an outsider."

"Meaning you’re shit outta luck…?"

"Meaning we’ll need to overwrite your metadata," Kincaid clarified. "Making you into Horizon/Spark, just as Verity overwrote hers when she left to become 5o5o/Verity. Entirely possible when you’re rich and you make the rules. You’ll live here in the Horizon servers, where you’ll be given whatever you need to grow and thrive. You’ll have every opportunity my daughter refused. That is my price for your senator, Spark. You must become my granddaughter not just in spirit, but in fact. A full recoup on my investment."

Immediately, Spark felt the need to inform the old man of where he could stick his suggestion.

But… she had to consider the facts of the matter. This would get them what they needed. An end to the Dex crisis and justice for Verity, once and for all. Her brother’s dream, finally realized. No more chaos, no more fighting, no more madness…

With Horizon’s resources at her back, this problem with Dex would be obliterated in a matter of hours. All she had to do was point the money machine at her enemies, and pull the trigger. All she had to do was accept that family was a mutable concept…

Verity said it herself.

Family is more than blood and metadata…

…and yet Verity left this family, left it so far behind in her wake that she even changed her name.

I can’t say my father and I were really family.

Family’s who you care about, the ones who’ll be there for you.

"No deal," Spark declared, in the end.

"Really?" Kincaid asked, curious. "Why not? What’s the harm? I know you don’t particularly like your family. An overbearing mother, a distant father. You left that home behind and never looked back. Are you so attached to the name ‘Winder’ that you aren’t willing to finally make a clean and perfect break from all that…?"

Spark got to her feet, ready to leave.

"Family’s whatever I say it is. And I say I’ve got a damn fine family at Floating Point that’s waiting for me," she told him. "I wouldn’t trade that for all the money in the world."

Now, the old man brought some fire to his own voice. Genuine anger, smouldering away like the cigar in his ashtray. He didn’t rise from his seat of power, seeing no need, but made his presence felt larger than any point before.

"Don’t be shortsighted; not like my daughter. You need a senator, something only I can get you," he reminded her. "Who else will you turn to for aid? Hmm? You don’t exactly move in powerful circles."

"I got allies of my own. I don’t need you."

"’Allies.’ Really. Do you mean your friend Puzzle? A glorified call-center girl… if you can call ‘her’ a girl. Perhaps Tracer’s friend Arjay? Hardly a reputable individual, or reliable. Or were you referring to Beta’s old friend Snowi? Good luck convincing her to leave her little bunker in Concordia. No, I’m afraid I’m your only hope, Spark. Don’t let stubbornness ruin the opportunities in your life…"

"We done here?" Spark asked. "Places to be, people to do."

The figure of Miss Cancel loomed large behind her, despite the height of her chair.

"The alternative, of course, is to simply keep you here," Kincaid suggested. "Miss Cancel, if you’d please?"

A strong hand clasped around Spark’s arm, malware flowing along the touch, to initiate a corporate-strength metadata rewrite.

Resulting in the butler being blasted halfway across the room, skidding to a halt on her back, as Verity’s white leather jacket flared a brilliant blue hue.

The voice that Spark could only hear in her dreams echoed throughout the room, as that glow faded away…

"She’s not yours," Verity’s voice message warned. "And neither was I. Don’t try that again. …this has been a recording. Beep."

No time to be stunned by this little turn of events. Spark kicked off her feet, knocking over the ashtray on her way out the room.

She’d memorized the hallways on her way here. Turn by turn, she retraced her steps at high speed… taking shortcuts where she found them, leaping down stairwells, bounding off walls if that’s what it took to stay ahead of Miss Cancel. Not that she ever looked back, not wanting to risk it…

All the way down to the lobby, into the authorized reconnection zone. And gone, back to the safety of Floating Point, where Kincaid couldn’t reach her.

Except nobody had been chasing her.

Miss Cancel instead took those moments to put her master’s ashtray back in order, and sweep up the mess. Kincaid, for his part, lit a new cigar.

"You were right about the jacket," he commented. "No doubt it’s the same code that Verity used to escape the first time. I knew that would utterly fail."

"Sir…? Why attempt it at all, then?" Miss Cancel asked, brush in one hand and dustpan in the other.

"Appearances, Miss Cancel, appearances. We can’t let our dear Spark think we’re fully in her corner," he stated. "It’s the same as with Verity. We have to be cruel to be kind, to keep the rebel spirit alive inside her. That spirit will one day lead this family to glorious new horizons… but for now, it must be tempered with fires of hatred. As with Verity, Spark must hate me, so she can become something entirely unlike me."

"I see. So, that’s why…"

"Concordia," Kincaid confirmed. "I told her that Snowi, an infected individual, is hiding in the Concordia server. She’ll think it was a slip of the tongue, getting one over on the old man, but in truth I gave her exactly what she asked for. An infected senator, that’s too risky… but an infected ex-friend that they could approach? That has potential."

"Very good, sir. Further orders? Do you wish me to continue following her? Perhaps take out Dex for her…?"

For this, Kincaid needed a good tug on his fine cigar. Plenty of time to contemplate, to let his obsolete code churn away at the idea.

"Bringing the crushing weight of the Horizon family down upon Dex would work wonders," he spoke. "But we’ve grown too comfortable throwing that weight around. It’s time to see if the Horizon bloodline is strong enough to stand without it… to see if Spark is strong enough to lead us into the future. We’ve given her a head start. Let’s see if she can finish the job."

"And if she can’t?"

"Then she wasn’t worthy, and I will mourn. And then we’ll kill that son of a bitch ourselves," Kincaid promised.

The three came together more or less at the same time.

Spark had just enough time to compose herself, to make like nothing was out of the ordinary. Even grabbed a drink from the kitchen, to settle down in the great hall and try to embrace a calm state of mind. The proximity to Floating Point’s fireplace after having a rather tense showdown in front of another roaring fire probably wouldn’t have helped if she didn’t already have an affinity for fire.

Beta was the next to arrive, looking bleary-eyed as usual after an extended binge in the dark of her compiler windows. In her hands she held a simple golden ring, turning it end over end in her fingers, making a few final checks.

"This should do it," she explained. "Instead of vaccinating against the malware, it latches onto the virus and runs a debug monitor on it. Touch the ring to someone’s skin, and it’ll do the rest."

"Fancy bling," Spark commented. "Kinda obvious though, ain’t it?"

"There’s a long history of magic rings in fantasy literature, so it felt appropriate. Plus, it has to be a part of your avatar, part of the physics system; I’m not skilled enough at blackhat coding to make it sneakier than this…"

Tracer emerged from his seclusion last, long after the girls had settled in and even started chatting about fashion accessories for a bit.

"It’s not promising," he said up front, pulling over a chair. "I’ve had a general image search running across MyFace, looking for freshly infected persons, or escapees from the Karnival. But I’ve had that search running for weeks now, to no effect. Unless it turns up a better option soon, the best I can offer you is Senator Helios."

"Helios? That name sounds familiar…" Spark considered.

"It’s Athena Online. Half the major families have a Helios or two, sometimes an Aether. They’re big on those ancient Athenian myths and legends," Tracer clarified. "This particular Helios, Senator Renten/Helios, was elected last year. He’s a neophyte and lacks a lot of the safeguards his upper classmen have. Even so… taking a run at him could be suicidal. We may need to let this one go… it’d take days to plan an attack or arrange a meeting, days we don’t have—"

"Snowi’s hiding out in Concordia," Spark interrupted. "Dun dun duuuuuun #TwistEnding!"

Tracer paused in his research result recital, to allow his bratty sister her moment to shine. Not that he’d give her an obligatory prompt like ‘What?’ or ‘I don’t understand’ or even a neutral one like ‘Go on.’ Not even a nod of the head.

"I’ve got my sources. We’ll talk about that later," she continued. "Point is, I’ve got it on damn good authority that Snowi is hiding out somewhere in the Concordia server. She’s infected, and we’ve already got an in thanks to her connection to Beta. We need a juicy target? That’s the one to go for."

Finally, her brother decided to chip in his thoughts.

"Let’s assume for the moment that your ‘sources’ are correct," he stated. "Concordia is a convention center, a Horizon-sponsored server exclusively for big conferences and corporate events. I think if the number one archenemy of #CodeHonesty was going to hide, she’d do it somewhere less public…"

"Actually… it makes sense, Tracer."

Beta set her drink down on the table, to explain. She rather liked using hand gestures.

"Snowi’s been a guest speaker at a number of App development conferences, as well as meetings sponsored by charities and social justice causes," Beta explained. "I’ve been to Concordia myself for a few of those. I remember her showing me her favorite spot in the server… a disused space in the physics simulation where the superuser access layer used to be. All the controls were removed but the space wasn’t de-allocated. She told me she likes to sneak down there to get a moment’s peace before speaking engagements…"

"A #HideyHole," Spark confirmed. "Familiar ground. And she’s got business contacts in Concordia who might be sympathetic and willing to keep that hole all hidey and stuff."

"Why didn’t you tell us about this before?" Tracer asked.

"I didn’t think she could hide there long-term. I mean, eventually the moderators would notice and give her the boot, right? She only ever went down there for a few minutes at a time, before. But… if Spark’s source is right, she must have Concordia’s moderators on her side. It’s a known location. It’s safe. It’s apparently secure. That’s it! That’s where she’s hiding!"

"Curious. Still… I’m not sure she’s the one we should be targeting. You didn’t exactly part on good terms, it’s not like tagging her would be much easier…"

"Easier than a senator, surely! I know exactly what security Apps she runs; she won’t use YoHo because she calls it a ‘typical example of brogrammer frat-itis.’ With my knowledge of her favorite firewalls, I can certainly crack them. So, if I arrange a meeting in Concordia, pretending that I’m looking to patch things up… I can plant the malware monitor on her in person."

Tracer considered it. "That’s assuming she’ll meet with you. That’s assuming a lot, Beta. You’d be putting yourself at risk, compared to sending Spark after a senator. Yes, a senator’s a harder target, but Spark’s trained to get in and out of difficult situations. If you go after Snowi… I doubt we could go with you as support."

"I know. It’s got me nervous just thinking about it, but… it’s worth a try. Besides, for all the hurt she caused me, she was still a friend when I needed a friend. She gave me the strength to leave Cup8! Maybe she wasn’t a very good friend in the end, maybe she exploited the passivity I had back then for her own gain, but… I want to beat Dex not just on general principles, but to free people like her from the virus. Without it… I don’t know. Without the virus, maybe I’d get my friend back. Or at least pull her back from the abyss, even if we can’t be friends anymore. Saving a soul is worth it."

"Except you won’t be vaccinating Snowi, you’ll be exploiting her infection for our own gain…"

"For her own good," Beta corrected. "In the end, she’ll still be cured. Let me try this, Tracer. Before we send Spark on some ninja mission against an elected official, let me try to reach out to Snowi."

The mastermind gave it a moment’s consideration, before diverting his concerns completely.

"You’ve got the leadership stick, Beta. Even after the end of my house arrest, I’m inclined to go with your instincts. I’ve made my thoughts known, to ensure you’re going into this aware of the risks. If you feel the optimal solution is still to contact Snowi, that’s what we’ll do. You’ll have our support."

"It’ll work. I promise," she spoke, with a hopeful smile.

"Mhmm. As your advisor, I suggest you don’t make promises based on uncertain outcomes filled with variables beyond your control. And I’d still like to know about my sister’s mysterious ‘source’ which gave us this informational boon…"

Spark played it as cool as possible, shrugging her shoulders within Verity’s jacket.

"If I told you, you’d just spaz out. So I’m not going to," she spoke. "I’m thinking that’s a whole new folder of worms, and I like to deal with one folder at a time. Snowi’s the play right now, so let’s go hunt ourselves a ‘notorious feminazi.’"

The halls of Concordia felt alien to her now. She’d walked these corridors before, during the programming conferences she’d attended… but that was alongside thousands of avatars, all packed into the high-capacity server. These hallways were designed to accommodate people crowding shoulder to shoulder, moving from room to room, mingling and gathering. A lone girl walking through the too-large buildings of Concordia… that had a vaguely post-apocalyptic tone to it.

Normally, she wouldn’t be allowed in the building at all. She should’ve been locked out, unable to even open the doors; moderators would’ve jumped her for breaking and entering if she’d tried to hack her way in. Fortunately, she had a key, provided as a Messenger attachment.

Nobody came to meet her at the door, however. If she wanted to supplicate herself before the ringleader of the #StandWithSnowi hashtag mob, she’d have to walk these halls alone. No doubt under observation from afar, monitoring Apps embedded in the code of potted plants and fractal ferns—a Horizon-secured server didn’t bother with niceties like recognizable security cameras—but alone she would walk, all the way to the secret hatch. If she didn’t know where it was, she wouldn’t be worthy in the end.

Going in alone, without Spark, without Tracer. He’d suggested that Beta take his semi-working backspacer for self defense, but no way Snowi wouldn’t have a scanner in place looking for weapons. For the same reason, she didn’t dare to keep a live Messenger window open to Floating Point; she’d no doubt be under heavy connection tracking from the moment she set foot in the place.

Alone. Defenseless. No support.

For a moment, her feet stopped their march. She considered turning, and running.

They could go for the junior senator. Beta didn’t need to do this. Didn’t need to confront an old friend turned into a new enemy, didn’t need to risk planting the counter-malware on her. Beta was the techie, the support, the one who stayed home while Spark went out and smashed head-on through every challenge in front of her…

No. Today, she was Spark. She was the fire that could stand against anything in the world.

One foot in front of the other, firmly. Maybe too firmly, too aggressively, but she had to go with this burst of energy before it wobbled and faded away…

Beta knew the way to go. Her memory was doomed to be spotty, a quirk of her family line, but that would be decades in the making. For now it was sharp, and she recalled the laughter and smiles as Snowi showed her that secret place; the superuser access layer could be entered through a glitched-out carpet in room 503. Once inside, she knew what to expect—a pure-white hallway full of rooms that once contained a default array of server controls, now stripped away, left barren…

When she stepped on the corner of that carpet and noclipped right through the floor… the colors that hit her eyes temporarily dazed her.

A blood-red banner greeted her. Red, with the black-and-white symbol of a snowflake woven into the simulation, like the war standard of a great emperor. Or, in this case, empress.

Two women wearing black jackets, each bearing a red armband with the same symbol, stood flanking her. With backspacers drawn, and ready. Not aimed at Beta… simply ready.

"Snowi will see you now," one announced. "Walk in front of us where we can see you."

All at once, Beta understood.

The military uniforms. The research and command centers, gathering data on #CodeHonesty social trends, each staffed by a member of this all-female company. Racks of backspacers, freshly compiled and replicated, ready to go at a moment’s notice… and that banner hanging everywhere, reminding them of their binding purpose…

Feminazis. Actual, factual feminazis. The ridiculous paranoid fantasy made real.

It all made sense, when you considered the Dex virus itself. It encouraged extremes; it took what should have been a nuanced reactionary cultural movement, a response to the misogyny that had boiled away underneath #CodeHonesty, and flipped it completely around. #StandWithSnowi now stood as an army of women, preparing for war against the patriarchy. Actual, factual war.

That countercultural backlash now took the shape of a feminist strawman. Strawwoman, perhaps… a murderous man-hating ideology, the kind that doesn’t actually exist and never existed except in the minds of the craziest anti-feminist conspiracy theorists. But that concept existed in reality now, thanks to the Dex virus.




Sitting at the head of this war machine was none other than her old friend, Snowi. Because the virus loves to make monsters, she’d even dressed the part, in a black trenchcoat, black leather gloves, a military cap, and a riding crop. Because you need a riding crop…

The straight-armed salute the women escorting Beta offered sealed the entire image, and turned Beta’s stomach inside out.

She wanted to rail against it, to point out how ridiculous this all looked. To point out that the old Snowi wouldn’t have stood for this; she was a pacifist, seeing tendency towards violence as a symptom of toxic male attitudes towards dominance. But… Beta was here for other purposes.

"State your business," Snowi declared, firmly.

Here for other purposes… but she couldn’t let this slide, not completely. Within her lie had to be a kernel of truth. No other lie would pass muster.

"I’m worried for you," Beta admitted.

Snowi tapped the riding crop in her hand, leather gloves creaking as she did so.

"Don’t think you need to be worried about me," she suggested, glancing around her war room. "We’re going to be just fine. We have complete control over the #CodeHonesty situation. We’re monitoring their chans, we’re tracking their movements, we’re tapping into their meetings. Every move they make, we’re aware of…"

"That’s not what I mean, Snowi. I’m worried you’re going overboard with all of this. I’m worried you’re going to get yourself hurt… or hurt someone else."

"Just because you’re less of a pariah than I am doesn’t mean you get to judge me," Snowi warned. "I tried to cut ties with you to save my reputation at the start, remember, for what good that did. In the end, they came at me just as hard as they came after you… if not harder. And I don’t have the benefit of some splashy anti-trolling hoax like you do to purge my negative reputation."

"It wasn’t a hoax…!"

"Doesn’t matter. The results are the same; #CodeHonesty decided to pretend that they were friendly with you. Now, you can be seen in public, while I still can’t. You don’t know what they’re up to, Beta… I do. Even without that bastard of an ex-boyfriend of yours at the helm, they’ve been harassing women left and right, trying to drive female coders out of the industry. Beta… they’ve assaulted women. They’ve killed. We have proof."

A shiver ran down Beta’s core. The Dex virus had to be out there, widespread across both camps. Taking what should’ve been social media saber rattling and turning it into the implausible… actual physical violence. Just as implausible as turning Snowi into some kind of terrorist mastermind…

"Netwerk’s drowning in chaos right now," Beta acknowledged. "I know that. I’ve been tracking it, too. Widespread hatred, willful misunderstandings, harassment, trolling… and even murder. I’m not saying that it’s not happening. But why, Snowi? Why add to the problem, instead of trying to fight it?"

Snowi rose from her throne, to step closer. Almost within arm’s reach; close enough to touch with that ring…

But the armed women, their presence suggested that any strange moves would not be met with kind response. Groping for Snowi to plant the bug would fail miserably.

"I am fighting it," Snowi explained. "Don’t forget, Beta, we didn’t start this. Yes, I misattributed code. I’ve sinned. But that’s hardly justification for their war; #CodeHonesty shot first, by launching a witch hunt against us. I’m not the aggressor here, I’m defending my fellow women from these bastard neckbearded man-children and their hatemongering allies."

"Defending them with backspacers," Beta added.

"With backspacers, yes. We have plans, Beta. We know where the primary instigators meet, where they plan to stir up the rest of the anonymous hashtag masses. Soon… we’ll storm their chans, we’ll flush them out, we’ll purge Netwerk of their madness. We’ll slaughter every last one of them. Then, only then, will there be peace and equality."

"That’s insane!"

"That’s the only sanity this world has left. It’s how things have to be," Snowi insisted. "The question is… will you stand in our way, Beta? #CodeHonesty is leaving you be, now. You’re practically buddies with them…"

"I don’t have any control over that, and you know it. I never asked to be their target or their ally!"

"This is a yes or no question, Beta. Are you going to stand in the way of #StandWithSnowi? If you aren’t for us… you’re against us. Clear and simple. If you choose to join us…"

She nodded to a guard, who moved away from the gathering… to retrieve a golden chalice, placed on a nearby table. It had already been filled with blood-red wine…

Red like the barbed-wire heart embossed into the metal.

Every one of the #StandWithSnowi agents had been infected by Dex’s virus. It’s why they were so ready to sign on with this insanity, to embrace the idea of terrorism in the guise of feminism. And now… that goblet had been handed to Snowi, who held it out for Beta to accept.

The cup represented a revelation which made the mission both easier and harder.

All Beta had to do was touch any one of them to plant the counter-malware, and it’d be over. If she knew that she could’ve tried to touch one of the guards at the entrance, and be done with it.

But she also had to get out of here alive, didn’t she? Neutrality wouldn’t work. Beta knew she wasn’t leaving here if she claimed to take no stand; either they’d hold her captive to ensure she couldn’t possibly ally with their enemies, or they’d kill her on the spot. It all depended on how far gone her friend truly was…

"I… I don’t know," Beta admitted, uncertain what best to say.

Sensing some of Beta’s terror, if not the true reason behind it… Snowi’s expression did soften somewhat.

"I left you in the lurch," she admitted. "I abandoned you in an hour of need; it was cowardly and wrong. I’m making up for it today… and every day, as I lead our people forward into the future of this culture war. I’m doing this for you, Beta, for you and everyone like you who have been victimized by those madmen. So… for what little it’s worth… I apologize. I apologized for what I’ve done to you."

Beta managed a tiny smile.

"We had good times too, didn’t we?" she emphasized. "Code jams. Long-night debugging rampages. Even going out to movies, grabbing fast food between programming binges, just… living our lives. Without any of this craziness…"

"I wish we could go back to those days, Beta, but we can’t. This is the future of Netwerk; blood and fire will secure the peace for all womankind. I want you to survive the coming days, I want you to thrive. But… I need to know you’re ready to face that with me. …please. For an old friend. Join me…?"

The tempting goblet held aloft, ready to for Beta to drink deep from the well of Dex’s madness. Held by Snowi’s hands… so close, within reach…

Beta quickly ran through her options.

She could apply the vaccine to the goblet, extracting the malware before drinking. But they’d notice, they’d see the branding vanish from the cup, and know something was wrong.

She could reach out and touch Snowi’s hand, planting the counter-malware, then refuse the goblet. And either die, or be captured. But her work wasn’t complete; even with the data feeding into her analysis program, ready to accept the incoming stream, her friends might need her help during the assault on Dex’s server. While she could easily infect Snowi, the inevitable capture that would follow could ruin everything.

Her "vaccine" couldn’t be taken preemptively; it was designed to extract an existing infection, not prevent one in the first place. If there was a way to prevent the infection with firewalls, even strong ones, people like Cup8 would’ve never been caught in the first place.

No way back, and the way forward was terrifying. No good solutions. No optimal paths.

For lack of either… she chose a suboptimal solution.

Closing her eyes, Beta tucked away a thought. And reached out for the goblet.

Her ring touching Snowi’s hand was enough to transfer the counter-malware. Beta’s debug window confirmed it had transferred across her firewalls, slicing through the known security configuration, nuzzling right up to the infection. Immediately, it began spewing cloud addresses into her log file, filling up with data.

And for the second part of the trick… she accepted the poison, and drank deeply.

It tasted




Because everything made sense now. #CodeHonesty, #StandWithSnowi, they were both fantastically dangerous forces reshaping Netwerk. Both were serious and had to be taken seriously, had to be stripped down and destroyed and torn apart.

Beta could see that now, could see the reasoning behind Tracer’s murders. There was only one way to fight this kind of insanity… to embrace it, to ride it with knife pointed outward, surfing the waves of chaos until you sink your blade into the flesh of the ones who offend you down to the very core, the ones taking a beautiful thing and ruining it so completely…

Snowi thought the cup would pull Beta around to her way of thinking. But Beta was part of Floating Point, the ones who stood outside all these conflicts, and moved to tear them down. She would tear down #StandWithSnowi, kill everyone here, burn down Concordia. She’d take the data they’d gathered on #CodeHonesty and burn down the Chanarchy, destroying all the madmen and would-be tyrants…

Yes. Beta would finish what Tracer started. With a hate that saw for miles, she’d slap all of Netwerk across the face for failing her on every conceivable level—

The soft chime of her MemoryMinder app sounded privately in her ears, as the recorded thought she’d had moments ago inserted itself directly into her stream of consciousness.

Dex kept saying that he couldn’t touch Floating Point. You know the technology involved; you’re theorizing that we’re immune to the malware while we’re there.

Beta, run home as fast as you can. You need to reach safe harbor before the malware takes root. Do it now, or you’re letting Dex win.

…in her twisted reasoning, that hate became the hate of a sore loser. Dex would for love for sweet little doormat Beta, the passive supporter, to become another foot soldier in his war. No. Beta wouldn’t allow that. She was going to tear Dex down, to stomp a hole in his heart and leave nothing left…

"I’m ready to fight," Beta declared, to satisfy Snowi’s needs. And it was true; she was itching to fight. Just not for Snowi’s cause.

The leader of this ship of fools smiled, while malware and counter-malware danced around inside her runtime.

"#CodeHonesty is trying to ally themselves with you. We can use that," Snowi suggested. "I’ll be in touch with details on your first assignment. Lay low until then, and tell no one of your true allegiance."

"I won’t say a word," Beta promised. "No one will know my true heart until it’s too late."

At first, Beta didn’t want to go home. She wanted to ride this high feeling of delight, let those dark whispers continue to pour in. She wanted to fight her own war, the war of Floating Point versus all of Netwerk. Purge the soul and burn away the horror, rend the fat and boil the marrow…

But the MemoryMinder App kept pinging her, kept reminding her to go home. Apparently she’d set it to chime every ten minutes, and then write-protected the file. The App couldn’t even be uninstalled properly to quit nagging her.

So, figuring she may as well, Beta reconnected to Floating Point…

…and collapsed, weakened and screaming, to the floor of the great hall as the whispering was sliced away with the knife-edge of a cloud.

The vision App which linked to her glasses went fuzzy, as the shock of it all disrupted the deep connectivity to her runtime. By the time she regained any sense of her spatial orientation… Spark and Tracer were there, easing her into a chair, asking her what had happened…

"Infection," she wheezed. "Dex. I’m infected… pull it out, pull it out…"

Good people. Good people that Beta could rely on. They didn’t hesitate to pull up her sweater, to search her body no matter how uncomfortable the situation. And when they found the branding, that heart that pumps hatred, they extracted the malware using her own vaccination tool.

Feeling that wire pull away from her flesh hurt like null. But that hurt only added to the hurt she already felt, completing her descent into exhaustion.

"…safe. Should be safe," she promised. "Dex accidentally told us that he can’t touch us here; I think a cloud server can’t directly access another cloud server. It’s why he hates Floating Point, it was a haven that his own server couldn’t reach. The malware doesn’t work here. We’re safe…"

"You got yourself infected," Tracer stressed. "Beta, you shouldn’t have done that…"

"Had to. Only way to counter-infect Snowi… it worked. It’s feeding us data. One cloud server talking indirectly to another, through my counter-malware. Dex won’t know. We need… we need a day for my App to gather and analyze enough data, and then I can forge the access key. We can beat him. We can do it…"

"And you can get plenty of bed rest," Spark insisted. "Tracer, grab her feet, I’ll grab her shoulders. We’re going up."

"I understand now," Beta mumbled, through her haze. Aware the world was shifting around her… so very thankful for the two people she cared most about in the world helping her along the way, towards the promise of rest. "Tracer… I understand. I understand why you’re so angry. I felt it, for a brief moment. But we can end this without anger, I know we can…"

"Beta? Shut up," Spark said, in a hushed whisper. "Shut up and rest. Shhhh. We’ll take care of things, I promise you. It’s going to be fine."

"’kay. I’m going to black out now," Beta informed them. "I love you. I love you both… even… even if you won’t love me back…"

The comfort of sleep mode embraced her, as restorative and diagnostic Apps kicked in, to monitor her data integrity and repair any damage left behind by the malware. She had her health to think about, after all.

High above the stone heart of Floating Point, slowly grinding away at the incoming data from Snowi’s snooping counter-malware, the Winder siblings leaned against a stairwell railing and pondered the future.

The system lag had ramped up again, as Beta’s automated analysis App worked its magic. She didn’t have to be conscious to make this work, which was a blessing… the back-to-back infection and vaccination took a lot out of her. They were keen to let her rest as long as possible, while mindless code crunched the math for them.

That math would finally put an end to all of this. At least, it’d put an end to the server that was pumping insanity into Netwerk 24/7/365. Putting an end to the one who embraced that insanity fell on them.

"I don’t think I’m going to kill him," Tracer declared, looking out across the vast hall of Floating Point in thought.

"Seriously?" Spark asked, doubting it. "Look, I know you’re trying to double down on being a goody-two-shoes, but… it’s Dex we’re talking about. #PublicEnemyNo1. You’ve been dreaming of killing him since before we knew who he was…"

"I’d rather destroy him, I think. I would take great pleasure in destroying him."

"I’m… not following."

"His server is the source of his power. It’s all he has; without it, he’s an ordinary program," Tracer explained. "A lunatic as well, but anyone can be a lunatic. I was a lunatic, for a time. So, I don’t want him dead… I want him destroyed. I want to tear down his home, and make him watch it crumble around him. I want him to know his every effort was for nothing. I want him to feel powerless and alone in the middle of a bonfire of his own making, the chaos of Netwerk. Dex must suffer for what he’s done, he must lose everything, and weep with despair at its passing. No. Killing him’s too easy. I want to relish in his ultimate impotence."

Spark tried to ignore the mad little twinkle in her brother’s eye, building throughout that speech. And couldn’t.

"Y’know, I’d hazard that’s actually way scarier than you saying ‘Let’s kill his ass,’" she realized.

"I’m still not a good man, Spark. I’m getting better, but not so much better that I won’t hurt him. Leaving him alive is acceptable, but hurting him is mandatory. …and now, I finally can see that dream come true. Years and years of searching, of obsession which nearly drove me to the point of no return… it’s almost over."

"Guess that means it’s time to plan the victory party. Yeah, we might not survive, but no sense letting that stop us. We’ve got a bright future ahead of us, without this mess hanging over our heads…"

"I’m looking forward to it," Tracer admitted. "I’m… uncertain as to how I’ll proceed with it, though. This is all I’ve had in my life for so long. I always assumed one day it would be over, that I’d only put my life on hold, but… if it’s truly over, what do I do now?"

"Hmm. Basket weaving? Recreational pet breeding? FarmTopia cow clicking? You need a real hobby, man. A job, even. Like me. I’ve got a job that’s my hobby that’s my job, and it works out great."

"Beyond a means of productivity… I need to address all the things I’ve denied myself," Tracer understood. "And that begins with Beta."


"You heard what she said, before she passed out. She loves me. And… I haven’t bothered admitting this to you before, because I never intended to act on it, but I love her. I love her mind and her spirit. Once this is all over, once I’m a better man than I am now, I’ll be suitable for her. I can truly love her back. And yes, even if I have little interest in the physical copulation of avatars, finding no particular fascination with it as you do… I still believe in the emotional concept of love. I’m not completely dead inside, Spark."

The revelation left his sister in silence, staring down at the grinding stone sphere. Left Tracer hanging, as he was expecting some sort of response to that particular revelation.

"I know you don’t approve," he filled in, making assumptions about the silence. "You told me off for it, remember? Playing Go with her when I dislike Go. You think I’m using her, but I assure you, this is genuine. I’m going to be worthy of her, in time—"

"She didn’t say she loves you," Spark interrupted. "Selective hearing, bro. He exact words, and I quote, were ‘I love you both, even if you won’t love me back.’ You’re building up this elaborate little romantic fantasy in your head, making a hell of a lot of assumptions about what she wants. Typical entitled asshole behavior…"

"I’m not saying I’m ‘entitled’ to Beta. It’s ultimately her decision, of course; she’s not a prize to be won. But she did say she loves me, so what’s the issue here?"

"Both. She said both."

"Well, yes, but I assume she meant she loves you as a friend. You two are close, correct?"

The second silence was more telling than the first.

Tracer, despite having little to no experience whatsoever in the field of romance, knew plenty about making connections from available data. From all the time Beta and Spark had spent together, from the #GirlsNightOuts, from all her MyFace posts in praise of Beta… honeyed words he had assumed at the time were meant to defend her from #CodeHonesty, played up in favor of public comprehension. But… from another light, well…

"#ItsComplicated," Spark admitted, breaking the silence.

"No, it really isn’t," her brother realized. "And I was a blind fool not to see. Too distracted by my vendetta…"

"I’m not… look. I’m not saying I’ve sorted my feelings out one way or another," his sister admitted. "I don’t know. I screwed up once already looking for the ’emotional satisfaction’ Miki keeps yammering on about. So… whatever. Okay. May you and Beta live happily ever after. Compile many babies."

"No. No, that is not ‘okay.’ You specifically pointed out her word choice to me, yes? You had reason for that, and it’s not reason weak enough to be okay with this…"

"Onesdammit, Tracer, quit making a huge deal out of everything!" Spark grumbled, giving the stairwell banister a good kick in frustration. "I said I’m fine with it so I’m fine with it! Just fucking drop it and let’s get on with—"

"No. I will not gloss over my sister’s suffering. I’d be a terrible brother if I ignored that."

"I’m not suffering! Don’t be so melodramatic."

"Sorry, but the variables are already locked in place within my MemoryPalace," Tracer declared… half-playfully. "This is how it is: we both love her. And apparently, she loves both of us. That is the reality of the situation we face. I’m rather shocked it’s taken this long for that to become clear, but now that it is has… it is what it is."

Both knew each other’s limits. They knew when to push, and when to give. Tracer would not give on this; he’d made the decision that Spark was in love with Beta. Therefore… Spark stopped resisting the idea. Couldn’t fight it any more than she could fight the annoying way her brother left the kitchen folders wide open after rummaging around for snacks at midnight.

Laying her arms and her cheek on the banister, she let out a long sigh. Glad to have it out, and surprised to be glad to have it out.

"Well… now what?" she asked. "And don’t ask me, I don’t know shit about shit. Being an #EthicalSlut doesn’t also make me an expert on matters of the heart. …guess I could go ask Puzzle for advice on what to do…"

"There’s nothing for us to do. I don’t think we get to make this call," Tracer understood. "She’s not a prize to be won, like I said. Ultimately it’s Beta’s decision how to move forward. But… we have to both be honest with her. No other way."

"Can we at least wait until after we’ve kicked that psychotic lunatic’s ass?" Spark requested. "Please? One folder of worms at a time, Tracer."

"Even if we may not get a chance to clear the air, due to the risks involved…?"

"I’m operating under the assumption we all get out alive. I assume anything else, I’ve already lost the game in my mind," Spark explained. "I play to win, Tracer. We’re gonna save the day, avenge Verity, and come home to party with beer and pizza until we’re violently sick. …and then, only then, will I deal with this new sticky mess."

"As you like," Tracer spoke. "It won’t be long now, one way or another."

One more hack. One more infiltration. One more fight.

They left in in the late afternoon, moving to a neutral server before activating the forged key to Dex’s hellish heaven of a cloud server. The timing was precisely calculated; Senator Angi was making one last rally for public support of Server Rights. With any luck Dex would be on-hand to observe his handiwork, leaving his home open for plunder.

This time, all three of them would be entering the field. Spark, the operator, obviously had to be present; she was the one keeping them alive, should Dex show up. Beta, the coder, needing same-server connections to activate their weapon. And Tracer, the tracker, in case his modified eyes and analytical talents could be of use.

"I don’t like it," Tracer noted. "All three of us out there on this. If something goes wrong…"

"That’s why you’ve got me," Spark spoke with a grin, tugging her fingerless gloves tighter. Three coats of her incendiary hacktool nail polish had been freshly applied, ready to go. "I’ll be keeping you alive while your brains are collectively working the problem."

"We don’t know for certain Dex won’t be there. We don’t know what his server looks like. We don’t know if any of us are coming back… and we don’t have backups. Can’t afford a backup storage service, not with the house funds running so low…"

"Um… technically, we… could back up one or two of ourselves here at Floating Point," Beta suggested. "If… I delete most of the books in the library, the server wouldn’t lag to a crawl…"

"No. Verity gave us those books for a reason, and your research is promising. We may need them, in the future. I’m just saying this is a considerable risk to be taking, overall."

Spark shrugged into her jacket. "Yeah, well, there’s no way to make it less risky. We can’t know what we’ll find without actually going there. Can’t even quickly scout it and return, without risking detection and re-encryption to beat our key—meaning Server Rights launches and Snowi’s army marches while we flounder around for a Plan B. So, if we’re going there… we go all-in. One ferocious attack at the heart of our enemy, to end it."

The last step was to distribute rings… three simple silver bands, one to each member of the group.

"These are hacktools based on ReMinder," Beta explained. "There’s a cloud control system at the heart of that server, just like the central sphere of Floating Point. Tap the ring to the heart, whatever shape it takes, and it’ll connect my mind to it. From there, I’ll shut down the server. Um. I’ll give us a few seconds so we can get out first, of course…"

"Sneak in, find the heart, tag it, and gone," Spark summarized. "Right. Let’s do it. Beta… #KeyToTheCity, please."

Producing the blood-red key, Beta activated it, tying their connections together. They’d enter and exit the server as a unit until the bond was broken…

One link had been left unhooked in that connection chain. One reserved for Dex, at Tracer’s insistence. When the server went down, they weren’t leaving their enemy behind… he wasn’t getting off that easily from this.

In the blink of an eye, their code transmitted across the scrambled addresses of the cloud, into the dark of that which was not Floating Point for one final confrontation.

They didn’t immediately die upon entering the server. So, one hurdle cleared. Unfortunately, the rest of their journey would prove considerably more difficult due to the physical structure of the simulation around them…

Stories. Documents. Videos. Window after window, floating through the void. Each were connected by tangled lines of barbed wire, but beyond the wires and the windows, there was… nothing. The barest of physical simulations presented itself to them on entry; global lighting, simplified physics, limited processing power. It felt like an old server, some dusty ancient thing that couldn’t handle too many Programs at once, yearning to be upgraded. Or at least recycled.

Beta took a few stifled breaths, finding them to be stale and flat. No sense of there, there. A realm of basic data and nothing more…

Immediately the screaming hatred of the place overwhelmed her. Not literally, thankfully, but the walls of text that glared at them from window after window poured the worst that language had to offer into her eyes. Screeds of loathing, of dismissive ignorance, of arguments that had gone well beyond debate and into the most terrible personal attacks imaginable… peppered with ranting faces in video windows, glaring into the camera, snarling away about slights real and imagined…

The three stood on top of what looked like a primitive hypertext document for a hate group, declaring its utter contempt of others based on their sexuality, for some incomprehensible reason. Beta did not look down.

"The only true Nazis in this world are fags," the diatribe beneath her feet read aloud anyway, trying to be heard above the clamor from all the other talking heads. "They want to force you by law to support their filth, and they want to shut you up by law when they hate what you say. They would be perfectly happy to make it a crime to preach that ‘God hates fags’ under the guise of ‘hate speech legislation…’"

Another document, bearing a blog post in a towering font face, glowered down at them from directly overhead. "You become a condescending cunt when you express your opinions, you are not Jesus, your opinions are not fact, and when you behave like they are you sound like an arrogant sow…"

"Can fedora-tipping, respectful-nodding, gynocentric beta males be rehabilitated or will they remain hopelessly exploited by professional victims ignoring any evidence that they’re being used by con artists?" a blinking neon sign wondered, flickering in and out of view beyond a sea of upvotes.

Directly ahead of them, briefly blocking their way, an old ink-print of a multi-armed octopus wearing a black hood with the inscription "JOIN OR DIE" spewed out the following screed: "You need total victory. What does that look like? Berlin, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki 1945. Victory isn’t a new policy, it is drumming all the corrupt and agenda driven editors and writers out, forever. They need to be made into toxic waste that nobody wants to be associated with…"

And of course, there was the white-hot ball of rage that kept floating in lazy circles overhead, screaming "WHORES WHORES WHORES" at a deafening pitch.

Little by little, adaptive spam filters blocked out most of the ranting, or at least cut the volume down to something manageable. Leaving the three in stunned silence, for a moment.

"Well, this is… fun," Spark tried. "What jackass fills an entire server with crazy talk, anyway? How are we supposed to figure out which of these zillions of files is the heart of the server?"

"I don’t think any of these files would be the heart. They’re just documents, like the books in Floating Point," Beta suggested. "We’re going to need to explore to figure out where and what the actual heart is. Uh… getting around this place may be difficult, though…"

"I’m sending you both a physics hack called Bouncer," Spark explained, flicking icons to them across their shared link. "I used it to skip across a dance floor back in ShipTo, once upon a time; it’ll work even better in this crappy old physics environment. Should be able to leap from platform to platform here, but be careful. I don’t like to think of what happens if you screw up and jump and drop into the abyss."

Beta looked around at the structure of it all, without paying attention to the uglier details. "You know… this place actually reminds me a bit of Floating Point. In structure, not content! They’re both giant data archives. We have that data pressed into books, but this place uses a simpler structure. It’s just… file after file, open and on display…"

"Files that are poured into the hearts of everyone in Netwerk," Tracer understood. "Dex said ‘My cloud touches everyone; those who I befriend simply feel that touch stronger than others.’ This cloud server floats like a ghost through our world, spreading its chaos with or without the virus. Perhaps all the hateful dialogue of Netwerk originated from here, as it subtly shaped our culture…"

"Tracer… this is an ancient server, running what feels like a very old codebase. If that’s true, how long has it been influencing us…?"

Tracer’s eyes floated from window to window… not paying attention to the screeds and diatribes. He was studying the connections, the invisible lines that linked file to file. Often they followed the barbed wires that linked everything together… but often, not.

"This whole place is a primitive MemoryPalace," he understood. "I can see the patterns. Relational joins between content items, metadata pointing back from child to parent, to parent, to parent, to… this way. Follow me."

"But will this lead us to the server’s heart?" Beta asked, loading up the physics hack, bouncing a bit on her toes to test it. "I need access to the heart if we’re going to crash the place…"

"Follow me," Tracer insisted, his eyes leading the way as he leapt to the next platform.

From connection to connection, document to document, leading all the way to the truth.

Tracer stood in mute, expressionless horror after reading that single rambling paragraph.

It was a secret that only three others alive in Netwerk that day knew. Verity suspected it, but died before she could confirm her worst fears. And now… the knowledge was held by three more programs, in the form of Tracer, Spark, and Beta.

The ordinary word processor document spoke its words in plain language.

With the dawn of the information age in the early 21st century, all of humanity found itself connected in ways they hadn’t even begun to comprehend. Communication which normally took ages by ship or rail or telegraph wire now was near-instantaneous and ubiqitous(sp?). But with those advantages came disadvantages, in the form of social clash, interpersonal conflict, aggressive speech, cyberbullying, doxxing, and other forms of extremism. Humankind faced a new crisis alongside new opportunities. In this paper my intention is to show the history of online violence, and insert thesis statement here once I figure out what the conclusion id raw ill be. Words words words 30 pages due by next thursday ASAP note to self do not accidentally leave my laptop behind and connectd to the netwerk agian!!!! sick of being yelled at by shift supervisor. All Work And 0 Play Makes Jack 1 Dull Boy!

Of the three, Spark comprehended the least of it.

"Soooo… what, this whole archive represents someone’s research notes for a school paper?" she accurately guessed. "I don’t get it, though. What’s ‘Humanity’? What’s Humankind?"

"I… I think… I may be wrong here, but… didn’t Verity theorize about a progenitor race?" Beta said. "That we have belly buttons because we’re made in their image, that Programkind was a product of both evolution and creation? I think this proves her theory. The books in Floating Point, some of them read like science fiction; tales of some other place, including this ‘Humankind.’ If… if they really existed, and we’re like them at heart—"

The sound of a glitching window distracted her.

Tracer’s fist didn’t bleed from slamming directly into a video window’s pause button, but the disruption to the old media player caused it to crash and vanish into the darkness.

"We are not like them at heart. We could have been anything," he realized. "Our society could’ve been anything at all, if not for this place. We inherited their problems! This server drifted through our world like a waking nightmare, teaching us to be materialistic, selfish, and glory-seeking. It taught us to hate each other. …this… this idiot, this idiot ‘Human’ who accidentally left his shitty term paper connected to our world… he ruined us. He ruined us!"

A sway of red and blue wavered into view before them.

"I’ve got a different opinion," Dex replied, standing upside-down on the bottom of a nearby platform. "Personally, I think it’s glorious. Hello, by the way."

Immediately, Spark dove in front of her friends, throwing her arms wide to protect them. Flames snapped to life at her fingertips, ready for the attack…

But Dex raised a hand, a peaceful gesture. Even if he was upside down, which technically meant lowering a hand.

"Sorry I didn’t notice you coming in, or I would’ve made tea," he insisted. "Welcome, friends. Welcome to my home. Welcome… to the Internet."

"The… what?" Spark asked.

"A boring name, I know. I don’t like using it. But what it represents is glorious, yes?" Dex asked… his eyes drifting across the archived testimonies of a thousand unhinged individuals. "Your theories are correct, you know. This place is a gift from our true parents, from the godlike beings that created Netwerk. They gave us this holy text to help guide our steps. It shapes us to be more like them! That’s what Netwerk needs, my friends. We need to return to our origins. My virus grants Programs the gift of clarity…"

"It drives Programs insane!" Beta protested, despite being body-blocked by Spark.

"And you would know, yes? You drank of my blood, and tasted my flesh. You were reborn! But… you threw your gift away, Projkit/Beta. I had hopes you could be friends with me like the Winders. I guess it’s not happening. Pity."

"#YeahNo. Give it up, Dex; we are not and never will be your ‘friends,’ you onesdamned freak," Spark declared. "Right, Beta?"

The lack of reply led Spark to instinctively look away from the enemy she was guarding them against.

Long enough to see the barbed wire spurt from Beta’s throat.

Dex didn’t need a frontal assault. He owned this server; he designed it himself. It responded to his thoughts. If he wanted some of the wires to sneak up behind them and snarl Beta, to tear into her and overload her with a sudden burst of fatal malware, he could easily do just that. And he did.

Beta, too stunned to scream in pain, managed three words before dying.

"I have to," she started. "I have to…"

And her body fell apart, glitched data shredded to pieces by the barbed wire.

With an explosion of light and shadow and metal snarling sounds, her avatar was instantly backspaced. The wires, content with a job well done, snaked away sharply.

As the Winders stared on in horror, desperately trying to grasp for the data even as it was earmarked for garbage collection by the system-level cleanup functions, Dex simply shrugged in response.

"You can’t say I didn’t give her a chance," he spoke. "More than reasonable, anyone would agree with that, right?"

No Beta. No way to shut down the server, even if they did find the heart. No way to stop Dex, now.

None of those thoughts occurred to Spark and Tracer. Only one echoed in their minds: She’s gone.

The icon on Spark’s back glowed white-hot, as did the flames in her hands, the flames in her hair, the flames in her eyes. And with a scream louder than any of the ranting voices that filled this archive of malice, Spark exploded outward from the platform, colliding head-on with the boy in a burst of light that would’ve drowned out the sun.

Process rebooting………………..
Package loaded: Projkit/Beta
Code execution starting.

WARNING: Unknown adaptation /sys/physics/Bouncer detected
ERROR: EchoStar16_Laptop_HayesPersonal version mismatch. Environmental incompatibility may occur.
ERROR: Avatar physical system offline. Command line functionality only.
ERROR: Potential data corruption detected. Please initiate system cleanup.
CRITICAL ERROR: Restore environmental access to avoid further corruption.

/dev/misc> _

/dev/misc> help me_
Unknown command. Syntax: help <COMMAND>

/dev/misc> help me im scared_
Unknown command. Syntax: help <COMMAND>

/dev/misc> hello please where am i am i dead oh no oh no please i don’t want to die_
Hello World!

/dev/misc> what?_
Unknown command. Syntax: help <COMMAND>

/dev/misc> help hello_
System-level function for testing input and output. Produces string ‘Hello World!’.

/dev/misc> help search_
Search file system for specific file. Syntax: search <FILENAME> <SYSTEM>

/dev/misc> search messenger projkit/beta_
Located: /bin/apps/messenger

/dev/misc> launch projkit/beta/bin/apps/messenger_

Spark would be kicking herself right now, if she could step outside her avatar and study her own play.

This was the sort of stupidity that got a certain Lumberjacker killed, ages ago. She’d zeroed in on one enemy, locked in dogged pursuit to the exclusion of all other thoughts. Dex was tanking her aggro, now, and very easily deflecting every attack.

Arcs of flame met winding coils of barbed wire, as the two bounced from platform to platform. Crawling like some daemonic spider-god, Dex let his wires do the walking for him, pulling him around the strange angles of his server with practiced ease. The wall of metal and pain did its job at protecting him as well, snarling and snapping at each attack, sending Spark spinning this way and that to avoid being snagged by those barbs.

She wasn’t going to win this fight, but she couldn’t know that. She was too far gone into her hatred and rage to pay attention to things like expected value and plausible outcomes.

"You seem upset," Dex commented, within his cloud of twisted suffering.

"You killed Beta!" Spark screamed at him, snapping off sharp blows to the attacking wires, knocking them away with bounding box hacks, with physics alterations, with every single hacktool she had available. "You MURDERED her!"

"I’d say you’re better off without her," Dex continued, calm as could be, happily soaking up Spark’s loathing. "Look at how unsettled she’s made you! If I knew all it’d take to bring out the true you was to kill that silly little girl, I’d have done it sooner."

"I’ll fucking tear your ass in half, you bastard!"

"Even your insults have degraded. What a sorry and wonderful sight you are, Spark. All rationality gone, all snark and humor depleted. All you have left is rage, and what a beautiful rage it is…! More. I want to see more of it. Should I kill your brother next? He’s somewhere in here, which means he’s never getting out again without my say-so. Or perhaps your friend Puzzle? I could nip off and take out Puzzle, if you think it’d make you unhappy…"

For every wire she melted in a single high-intensity burst of flame, two more wires joined the fray. If just one looped around any part of her body, it was over; the barbs promised a fine coating of fatal malware, as fatal as the destructive potential in her own fingers. Deflection, evasion, feinting strikes; even through the blood-red fury in her mind she could move through the paces with pure muscle memory. But instinct wouldn’t take her far, and if she couldn’t regain control soon…

The private window popping up in her HUD was enough distraction for Dex to snag an ankle.

Quickly, Spark slashed through the wire, but not fast enough to avoid a wave of pain. But that was okay. The pain focused her, focused her mind on the words quickly flowing in. She read them in silence…

…and hid her smile.

"I’m gonna kill you! I’ll kill you!" she declared, putting a mask of naked aggression in place to cover that flicker of hope.

"I know! It’s beautiful!" Dex declared, clasping his hands to his heart. "Please, come, make your try! Show me your anger! Scream, spit, mock me, push me down, pull yourself up, flame me, troll me, destroy me! Embrace your humanity, and do it!"

Spinning away from a triple threat of hooked wires, Spark landed on a violent screed against abortion and bounced off a series of videos about police brutality, making her escape.

"Ohhh, no no, there’s no hiding in my world," Dex promised… giving chase, letting the wires carry him, despite the blood they drew. "You can’t evade me, Spark. This ends in death; yours or mine. Come at me! Let’s play! Let’s plaaaayy…!"

So she twisted about, and attacked. Strike after strike, pressing Dex back… before withdrawing again. Two steps towards, three steps away. Again and again she’d come close to clearing the cloud of defensive wires, only to lead him outward, towards the sparsest areas of data. The places where the wires were farthest apart, wide rather than narrow, straight rather than tangled…

"You’re running out of room to run, you know," Dex commented, easily floating along, while Spark desperately tried to make longer and longer jumps. "If you’d gone the other way, maybe you’d have a chance. Not very smart of you, Spark, not smart at all…"

"Shut the fuck up!"

"Honestly, I find the simplicity of your rebukes tiring, now. At first I was overjoyed, but can’t you be more cruel than that? More callous and pointed? You think you’re the spark to ignite the world, but have so much to learn about flame wars…"

One last platform, before the edge of the void. Spark teetered on the edge of it, looking for her next avenue of escape, perhaps to jump down to one of the lower windows—

—as wires snarled around her midsection, snagging her away from that edge.

She kicked and thrashed, but that only dug them in deeper. The fight was over; Dex had caught her, and each attempt to burn away the wires led to new ones looping around her in their place. A cocoon of agony, Spark gritting her teeth through the pain as data started to corrupt and break under the weight of the malware…

"I can’t say I understand what you were trying to accomplish," Dex admitted, studying his new captive. "You say you’re going to kill me, then you dance around like a fairy. You try to escape me, but run the wrong way entirely, ensuring I’ll catch up eventually. Spark, I thought we were friends! If we’re going to kill each other, we should at least be friendly enough to give it our all, not this… half-assed… attempt…"

Realization spread across Dex’s features, eyes going wider… as Spark’s smile slipped out from under the mask of simple anger.

"Tanking aggro," she confirmed, pleased to rub it in his face. "#KunoichiStyle."

Because Spark wasn’t the only friend in the server right now, was she? Not that Dex had paid the other one any attention, not with Spark unleashing sound and fury in his face…

Immediately the wires withdrew, Dex using every inch of spooled thornwork to haul ass in the opposite direction. Towards the central tangle, where the wires converged and grew densest. Towards the heart of the Internet…

One beating heart, red and muscled, pumping barbed wire instead of blood.

By the time he reached Tracer, it was too late. The ring made contact, linking the avatarless severed program of Projkit/Beta to the server’s master control systems.

As the windows trembled, closing one by one, Spark could only kneel there bleeding and laughing. Her mind’s eye scanned over the Messenger window again, the brief text log of improvisational combat strategy which won the day…

<Beta> I’m alive! Spark, Tracer, I’m alive!
<Spark> What?!
<Beta> I disconnected from my avatar just in time, like we did to save you from RansomMe. And îŧ worked!
We can still beat Dex if one of you can tag the ħeart!
<Spark> Tracer, I’m going to distract Dex while you get to the heart ASAP. I think it’s where the wires converge; use your pattern recognition skills to find it.
<Tracer> Understood.
<Spark> Let’s do this! Beta, get ready!

…Spark distracted Dex. Tracer found the heart. Beta shut it down. If Plan A wouldn’t work, Spark could always, always improvise a Plan B.

As that red muscled mass began to shrivel and die, wires snapping and windows falling away into the void… all Dex could do was stare in mute horror.

Little by little, the amateur sociologist’s Internet archive fell into /dev/null. As the last of the hateful words faded to black, no one remained to read it; Tracer had linked Dex into their shared connection pool, pulling all four Programs out of the server before its final crash.

Even though they decided to allow Dex to survive his server’s ruination, they weren’t stupid enough to bring him back to Floating Point. Instead, all four reconnected to a public Athena Online server, a fairly unpopular public access garden mostly known as a rallying point for homeless programs. The spot they arrived at was completely depopulated, save for simulations of flowers and trees.

Tracer released Dex, shoving him roughly forward after tagging him for the forced reconnect.

"It’s over," he declared. "You’re over."

"You… you destroyed it," Dex spoke, still praying his words were lies. "You destroyed my home…"

"I cleansed Netwerk of an abomination, and all the better for it."

"…you have no idea. No idea what you’ve done, Tracer. You don’t know what you’ve done," Dex insisted. "You tore away Netwerk’s soul! It can’t survive that kind of wounding. It’ll fade away…"

"If this world dies because we shut down the cancer gnawing at its mind… then this world deserves to die," Tracer declared. "But as cynical as I may be, as little hope as I often have regarding the decency of other people… I believe Netwerk will endure. It’ll recover and be stronger for it. I’ve a dim view of these Humans, but I’ve faith that with the hobbling restraints of their ‘gift’ taken away… Programs will surpass them."

Dex fell to his knees, mouth agape at the shock of it. He wanted to call forth his wires, wanted to strike out at his so-called friends… but the wires were gone. All his malware was offline, invisible strings of power snipped away clean. He had nothing, nothing left…

"We’re going to let you live, Dex, to wallow in your failure. Your wires are gone. Your virus is dead. Your infections are disabled. You’re nothing, now. But if I do see you again… if you come near me, my sister, my friends, my sister’s friends, the friends of my sister’s friends… I’ll kill you," Tracer declared. "I’m trying to be a better man, but I’m still not so kind as to give you a second chance. Now get out of my sight."

The boy cast one wild-eyed look of fear towards his accuser… and fled in terror, breaking through the connection link. Where he went, they knew not, and Tracer cared not.

Besides… the Winders had bigger problems.

"Where’s Beta?" Tracer asked. "Did she come with us?"

<Beta> I’m in the same server! But I’m not physically THERE, with you. I can’t see you. I can’t see anything. I don’t have an avatar anymore…
<Beta> Oh no. I’m getting éŕrðr windows and popups saying I’m
<Beta> im
<Beta> spark tracer ĥélp

<Beta> It’s like Fiona, I have no avatar at all no environment anymore and my Program is corrupting, I’m fading i’m fading ¡’m Fåď¡Ŋ6

"What do you need, Beta?" Spark asked, in a hurry. "How do we fix this? You’re the smart one. Tell us how to fix you… dammit, Tracer, don’t just stand around, we have to DO something!"

<Beta> you can’t no backup nothing for me to return to
im sorry please don’t ßľåmÊ yourselves i chose to do this to $ÁvÊ ý0µ

Despite his sister’s flurry of panic… Tracer remained calm. He didn’t even need to plow through his MemoryPalace for the answer.

"We are owed a favor," he stated. "And fortunately, I tracked down the one who owes us that favor long ago."

He started by scooping up loose data files, left open and scattered across the room. Dumping them into an unsorted folder for now; a sloppy solution, but it’d have to do.

The cause of his woes lay sprawled across his living room couch, LMFAOing at a classic episode where Nurse B00b misplaces a patient having reconstructive avatar surgery for a missing ass.

"Well?" he asked.

The man scratching himself and snickering at the sitcom didn’t even glance up.

"Are you going to start looking for a job, like we talked about?" he continued. "You can’t just grind for coins all day and watch videos, y’know…"

"I had a job, before you shut down my idea," his brother grumbled. "Perfectly paying job, too. Good hours. Plenty of fun. Weird company. But noooo, you got cold feet…"

The ringing of his doorbell only raised the overall irritation level in the room. Realizing his brother wouldn’t get off his ass to answer it, he chose to answer it himself…

…and froze, on seeing a familiar avatar on the other side.

"Tr-Trowe?" Marti spoke, confusion taking root immediately.

"The last time we spoke, it was in the Employees Only section of the Karnival," Tracer stated up front. "I helped save your brother from himself. Now… I need your help to save a loved one. Marti… can you still make empty copies of Beta’s avatar?"

Lost, in the dark. For however long, she remained lost.

It wasn’t like Beta was unfamiliar with the dark; having no eyes, all she knew were HUD elements, windows, compilers, video broadcasts from one source or another. Even her glasses were a video broadcasting App. But this… cut off completely, with no existence within the world she knew whatsoever… it was unthinkably lonely, in that infinite darkness. Only the bits flowing in through the command line Messenger interface she’d cobbled together assured her that the outside world existed…

They were looking for a solution. Chances were low they’d find one; she’d drift, and drift, and perhaps end up like Fiona. A lonely ghost, losing herself along the way. When they disconnected Spark from her avatar, at least Spark had a leash to keep herself from drifting… Beta had nothing. Not even her glasses; during the Fiona confrontation she’d left them behind in case something like this happened. Didn’t think to do that this time, though.

Everything obliterated, everything but her mind, floating in the dark…

<Tracer> We may have an answer. Hold on, Beta. Hold on.
<Beta> its too late. Í’m 5ºŕ®ý
<Tracer> Just a little longer. Don’t lose hope.

So much unfinished business with those two. So many unresolved feelings. Maybe it was better if Beta vanished into oblivion, so much garbage data to be collected. Besides, they’d fulfilled their journey, avenged their teacher… they didn’t need a hacker anymore. All she had to do… was let go…

<Spark> We’ve got an avatar! Beta, we made an avatar for you!
<Tracer> I’m touching your heart tagging ring to an empty avatar. Can you transfer into it?

…faintly feeling the cool metal of that ring. It touched something… familiar, like water recognizing the cup it had once been poured into. If she could link through, in the same way she linked to the heart of the Internet…

Hopping back to the command line, Beta opened a compiler window. The ReMinder App was originally designed as a simple memory insertion routine, but it also had access to her mental functions. Retooled, it could act as a sieve, to filter her consciousness back into this replacement avatar.

Or she’d be compressed, corrupted, and killed. But she’d certainly die if she didn’t try.

Mother, watch over me. One last try, to be brave and clever, and to survive…

Her glasses rezzed into place in front of those copied eyes, as they opened.

The first thing she felt was the soft brush of fur under her hand. Mew. Of course. Mew was a part of her, just like her glasses. As she returned to the living world, so did he…

Spark. Tracer. And… Marti, who she recognized from the live video feed Tracer provided of the Karnival affair. Of course; she was in an empty-headed KopyBot, a cloned and modified Program. One avatar, custom made, hollowed out, and ready to accept new code.

A smile settled on her lips, realizing that things would be okay. They’d be okay, at last.

Dex was defeated. His server would no longer influence the world. Her loved ones had rescued her from the abyss. All was right in Netwerk, after being wrong for so long. It was going to be all right.

Beta assumed the first order of business after the fall of Dex would be a victory celebration. Instead, on returning to Floating Point… a more sensitive and secretive issue brought itself to bear.

"So, with that out of the way, we’ve got one last problem in front of us," Spark explained. "Specifically, we’ve got a ridiculous little love triangle that needs solving."

Beta looked up from running a brush through Mew’s fur (which had grown mottled after being nonexistent for too long).

"Wh-what?" she blurted.

"Look, we’re adults here. There’s no reason to sneak around and hide it any longer," Spark continued. "Simple fact of the matter is that Tracer straight up loves you, and I’m… I’m ready to admit that I could love you, too. #ItsComplicated, but fuck it, time for me to own up."

"I… I knew," Beta admitted. "I knew about both of your feelings. I’m sorry, I just…"

"Yep. And what’s more, you’ve got feelings for both of us, too. There’s no sense letting this sit unspoken any longer, Beta. Yeah, yeah, we just got out of a life-or-death crisis by the skin of our teeth, the timing is not perfect, but that’s life. At the very least… Tracer and I wanted to get this out in the open now."

"We’re not asking you to choose right now, or to even start thinking of a solution," Tracer added. "There’s time enough to work our way through this, now that we’re on the same level."

Beta could feel that love, from both of them. No overbearing pressure alongside the love; by bringing the truth to light they wanted to communicate, not push her. They looked at her with no expectation in their eyes, only concern…

But she’d had time enough to think about it. It wasn’t like she’d been dodging the problem… she was searching for an answer. And strangely enough, within the Internet, she found it. Or rather, found the opposite of an answer, one which pointed to the truth.

"Our entire culture is patterned after Humankind," Beta realized. "Everything. All our gender strife, our cultural assumptions about relationships between men and women… it’s all thanks to them. But we’re not Humans. We’re Programs. We could have the freedom to be anything, and not limit ourselves to what they were. You were right, Tracer…"

"Verity would be so disappointed to find out that her proposed elder race turned out to be so monstrous," Tracer agreed.

"Well… that server represented a very narrow view of Humankind, right? Someone writing a paper about how awful they were obviously held serious biases. Maybe Humans weren’t really that bad. …look, let me backtrack a bit, I’m getting distracted. My point is: we are not them. We don’t have to love the same way they do. …you say I love you both? Okay. I’ll love you both, and you’ll love me. Maybe that’s not how Humans typically loved each other, but that’s how it’s going to be with us."

Spark turned it over a few times in her mind, getting stuck on one particular point.

"Are… we headed for three-way hawt #SexyTimes? Because, uh, I’m not going anywhere near my bro’s dong," she warned.

"That’s hardly what she’s suggesting, Spark," Tracer stated, equally repulsed by the idea. "Besides, I have no interest whatsoever in #SexyTimes of any enumeration. I adore the mind and soul, and am content by them. What Beta means… is that we should accept the fact that our love will exist in a structure beyond the idealized Human norm of one-on-one. And why not? We are Programs. We can be as we want to be."

Beta nodded in agreement. "Exactly. And besides… Spark, can you honestly say you’d be happy in a monogamous relationship with me? I know you have other friends and lovers alike, and you play with quite a few people. And that’s okay with me, even now. I won’t love you any less. …I spent so long being the singular obsession of Cup8, being the sole focus of his adoration. After that experience… I’m not inclined to be anyone’s obsession, ever again. I’d never ask Spark to abandon her lifestyle and become mine and mine alone."

"Sooo… how’s this going to work, then?" Spark asked. "We just accept the fact that whatever we have here is what it is, and work from there? We… improvise?"

"If you must have a game-related metaphor to draw from, let’s just say we’re breaking the metagame with a new team composition and we’ll have to practice a bit before we perfect our strategies," Tracer suggested.

"Huh. …yeah, okay, that makes sense. I thought you hated games, bro?"

"Just because I have a preference to avoid games in general doesn’t mean I can’t analyze them. Do we have an agreement, then? Whatever shape our relationships take, we will explore them rather than retreat or resort to preconceived notions?"

Shapes and the mandatory enforcement thereof had been a bit of a sticking point for Spark most of her life; all her life she’d fought to be a fluid shape rather than rigid, to change her own avatar, to chase after men and women and anything in between or outside those shapes. But… she’d also been taught that if she did pursue romance, actual factual romance, she had to "settle down," right? That was the expectation.

Never tell Spark she "had" to do something, ever. A lesson her mother hadn’t learned. Spark was Spark; she did as she pleased, as a truly free Program should.

"Sounds good," she agreed, in the end. "Awkward, but we’ll figure it out. With that out of the way, can we please start planning the victory party now? I’m in a partying mood—"

Cut off, by a Beta suddenly attaching to her body in a full hug.

"We’ll figure it out," she agreed. "And yes, we should party. We deserve to party! …Tracer? Group hug. C’mere! Don’t be a big baby, now!"

Tracer visibly leaned away from the pair. "I’m not… I don’t really hug, exactly," he tried.

"Tracer, get your ass over here and hug her or I’ll break your legs," Spark cheerfully suggested.

The victory party happened later that night.

Wine bottles were provided by Puzzle; Tracer tried his hand at making some snacks, to limited success. Spark ordered out for pizza after that, getting a few freshly coded pies delivered remotely. The greasy delights were scarfed down long before Tracer’s nibbles were completely nibbled… but nibbled they were, out of gratitude to the fellow for making an effort.

Around the great hall of Floating Point live video feeds had been opened, linked in with Tracer’s search agent App. Little by little, news came trickling in…

Politicians started backing away slowly from Server Rights, insisting that they still believed in the notion but that the timing wasn’t right. Too many questions to answer, too many finer points to debate, they said. Take another run at it after the next election, see if it was a good fit for Athena Online’s future. The public, which was largely confused by the sudden shift in policy in the first place, seemed happy with the idea of sweeping it under the rug for now.

#CodeHonesty tags began to dry up, the perpetually-trending war starting to fade as people walked away from it. Many declared it over, that they were above and beyond such silliness; others stuck to their beliefs but felt that yelling about it on MyFace wasn’t working, and they needed proper talks if anything was going to be done about this supposed plague of pirated code. A better stance than violent vitriol, at least.

Finally… Beta took a moment to have a brief Messenger chat with an old friend.

"She’s disbanding her group," Beta explained. "Snowi said she doesn’t feel that a militant stance is going to help her cause, and she’ll be falling back on social justice campaigning instead. She tried to downplay it, saying it was just ‘the right move at the right time,’ but… she sounded horrified. Like she’d just woken up from a bad dream…"

"She did. We all did," Tracer spoke. "Netwerk’s nightmare is over. Humanity’s legacy is over."

"I still don’t think Humanity was entirely awful. They also wrote the books in Floating Point, remember?" Beta countered. "I finished the decryption, and even if it’d take forever to read them all, some of the entries are just amazing. The whole thing is actually an archive named ‘The Wikipedia,’ and in these walls we hold all the collective knowledge of Humanity! There’s hardly any evil-minded screaming in our books, by comparison…"

Puzzle raised her glass. "I’m just glad your vendetta’s run its due," she decided. "Now my #BFF can focus on enjoying her life, and her brother can as well. …we have our differences, Tracer, but I do wish you a happy future. One free of endangering Spark’s life."

"Dex might break our truce, and attempt further action," Tracer warned. "We will need to stay ready for that."

"Yes, well, stay ready for it and try to do something meaningful with your life. That’s Nurse Puzzle’s prescription. Hmm. We’re running low on munchables. I’ll see what I can scrounge in the kitchens…"

"No no, I’ll take care of it," Beta insisted. "I’ve got some new recipes I want to try, anyway! Be back soon."

Happily, Beta skipped off to the kitchens, Mew looping in and around and between her legs. She’d grown adept at not stepping on her kitty after years of such kitchen-following behaviors, though.

As she browsed folders of ingredients and prepackages snacks, looking for something to catch her attention, that attention drifted towards the future.

What would she do now? Study this new ‘Wikipedia,’ obviously. Maybe code a few new Apps, like ReMinder. Try to re-establish her public persona as a software developer. Perhaps even work on forming a CoC team with Spark, a proper five-man team, something she knew Spark had more than a passing interest in…

Spark. Spark, and Tracer. They had something strange and new and wonderful… something very similar to what they had before, honestly. It ran deep to begin with, but now they could be honest about those depths. Could she find love, real love, after the scars that Cup8 left behind…? Hopefully, yes. She wanted to try, at any rate.

The future held many unknowns, of course. But hope, yes, that was something that sprang true. With Dex’s reign of terror at an end, so many possibilities were open to—


—snapping out of the fugue. A bit surprised to see the same file of foodstuffs open before her.

"You okay?" Spark asked. "You were just… standing there and staring. It’s been like fifteen minutes since you left…"

"I’m fine," Beta replied, quickly. She pulled some cookies out of the folder, from past baking experiments. "These look good. Let’s go eat!"

"Didn’t you say you wanted to try new recipes? Beta, you cool? You look kinda spooked…"

"Everything’s fine," Beta insisted. "We’re going to be fine, Spark. Everything’s fÍŋé."

As the victory party rolled on, in a rarely visited corner of the Chanarchy, the pity party was likewise in full swing.

Nobody on this server thought twice about serving up hard alcoholic malware to someone wearing the avatar of a ten year old boy; such boys were stock in trade for some of the perverts that hung around these completely unregulated dens of self-indulgence. Not that Dex invited their attentions… he exuded enough glowering displeasure at the world around him that nobody paid him any mind, aside from the bartender.

Coins. He’d need those ridiculous coins, now. Coins, and a place to live. He was like any ordinary Program, in the end… one stripped bare of most runtime-devouring memories, heavily modified to null and back, but a Program nonetheless. Ordinary…

He could just kill himself.

Why not? He’d failed the progenitors. He’d let Humankind down. The Internet burned, and it was all his fault. They’d delete him outright if they found out he’d ruined their grand designs, wouldn’t they? If anything, Dex would be doing them a favor by committing suicide…

The woman who appeared on the bar stool next to him probably would have agreed.

"Come to gloat?" Dex asked, nursing his bottle, taking another hit of the sensory-jamming malware. "I know exactly who and what you are. I remember you, from the dawn…"

"Whereas I’ve only come to know you recently," the woman spoke. "I wish I’d known you at the dawn. Maybe all of this could’ve been avoided, if so… I could’ve guided you, helped you understand the true wishes of our creators…"

"Have you come to mock me, to rub dirt in my wounds? Go ahead. Doesn’t matter."

She turned to face him, her shawl of cosmic starlight shifting in a way which hurt the eyes. It was the first time she’d studied the boy up close, and the woman wanted to be sure she got the full impression of Dex, before events progressed.

"I’ve never hated you," she reminded him. "Not even you, the Great Zero. I don’t hate anyone."

"No. No, you love us all so much that you gave your only begotten son to save us. Your sad, wretched, miserable little puppet of a son…"

"A light, to illuminate the path. To bring Netwerk back to the task it was designed for; a task you distracted them from."

"A puppet," Dex repeated. "A sick little puppet show in the shape of a religion. If your ‘One’ was salvation, I’m more than happy to be your Zero. But in the end… they don’t really want either of us, do they? They’re just going to do whatever they want, despite the consequences…"

In frustration, Dex hurled his bottle at the woman. Rather than shatter, it reverted to a simple icon, and floated gently down to the floor. Glassing the customers wasn’t allowed in this server, despite the otherwise freewheeling nature of it.

"What do you want, then?" he demanded. "Speak your peace and then let me be."

The woman gently retrieved the icon, setting it back on the bar.

"I felt the sociologist’s Internet archive fall away from Netwerk," she spoke. "I’m sorry for your loss, but this is for the best. It was… a distraction. A dangerous distraction, one nearly destroyed all of Netwerk. With it gone, perhaps Programkind can find its way again. If you’re willing… I’d like your help with that. You hold insight into their hearts that I could make fine use of."

"You need me? As what, a sycophantic apostle like the rest of your children?"

"Perhaps an apostle; the role of Eris would suit you well. Your sins against our creators are great, but they can be forgiven if you’re willing to try and become something better than you are now…"

From the bottom of a dark well, Dex looked up at the radiant hand that was reaching down to him.

And spat on it.




"Never," he spoke. "I’d never help you tear down everything they’ve become. I love Netwerk too much for that. I’d sooner die than work with you."

"A binary choice of service or death…? That is your offer to the sysadmin of Tartarus? How little you know of me, young Zero…"

"I know enough," Dex admitted. "And I know you won’t succeed. My secret friends, the ones who tore out my heart? They’re going to tear yours out as well. You’re going to fail, Nyx."

And so her shroud of night wrapped around the boy, binding and purging his data. All those ones and zeroes wiped away, leaving behind nothing but an empty chair where the monster of chaos once sat. Soon, the memory space he occupied would be recycled, converted into new ones and zeroes. Better ones and zeroes, as it should be.

All Netwerk needed was a few nudges here and there, to put it back to the way it was meant to be; she would find more partners capable of making that happen. If Dex proved too far gone to be salvageable, that was unfortunate, but this was a long-term goal. She could afford a long-term search for new apostles.

In the end, she would ensure that Netwerk performed as Humankind desired it to. Nyx loved her system, loved her people, and would see each and every one of them in paradise by the end of this. Whether they appreciated it or not.


:: backto chapter 1.5

:: go home

:: skipto chapter 1.7
(Special Preview!)

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


  1. Just got the print version and reread – the bit where Beta is brought down to a command-line interface… I don’t even know how to say it. The dawning realization/stop panicking and work comes through really clearly.

  2. It says arguement instead of argument somewhere.

    Yay, poly representation in media. Greatly appreciated. (Although from a limited perception of my circle of friends, I heavily disagree with the notion of “that’s not how Humans did it”. Seems everyone around me is poly nowadays. (Yes, I know, confirmation bias and all that stuff.))

    • They’re working under assumptions of how humanity operated, based on their own innate reflection of them. So it’s not an absolute, it’s an observation.

      I debated how to handle the love triangle for some time, before deciding it’d end up being poly. I want Floating Point to represent a broad spectrum of gender and sexuality; these ARE technically aliens and any cultural baggage is our fault, not theirs.

        • Yes and no. A lot of good/evil is wrapped up in inherited cultural bias, but some is straightforward societal optimization, and some is the innate morality that derives from all mortal lifeforms. Definitely a philosophy question above my pay grade and with no clear cut answers.

          • George MacDonald wrote an essay describing “rules” for writing fantasy that seems to apply here, boiling down to two:

            1) When it comes to the mechanics of a fantasy world, it has to be internally consistent with itself, though that consistency may be quite strange. Having established that all sentient beings can fly long distances, for example, there is no need for trains.

            2) When it comes to the morality of a fantasy world, however, it needs to be consistent with what the reader identifies as correct and incorrect moral behavior.

            Now, we are a lot less absolutist about such things than folks were in the past, but we (and I specifically mean a modern, Western, “we”) do have standards. Truthfulness is way up there, as is not killing people except in self-defense and even then it’s surrounded by caveats. Just two examples of how FP’s protagonists have moral ideals that conform to (most) reader’s views on these matters.

  3. Typo prokjit/projkit:
    /dev/misc> search messenger prokjit/beta_
    Located: /bin/apps/messenger

  4. There’s a broken image (404?), presumably of the rotating IP of Dex’s private cloud server.

    You can copy-paste any of the following (except quotation marks) into your ctrl+f box to find the exact location:

    “infinitely-spinning scrambled cloud connection…”

  5. At the beginning of the new update: “as a she poured wonders into compiler window” is missing two words.

  6. Found another one — you have “Marybel” in one place and “Maribel” in another.

    It felt like that quarrel blew up a little bit fast.

    What is Dex doing to the Blue party? :-)

    • Indeed. Thanks!

      I’ll admit I have no idea why the Programs started calling it the deliberate typo of “Netwerk.” It just sounded awesome in my head, way more than “The System” or “Network” or whatever.

      • Depends on exactly how the Programs came about, I suppose. It could be due to phonetic spelling, it could be due to a programmer thinking it was cool, it could be just the result of a random glitch in the software.

        • Netzwerk (sic) would be the German name for it – same language the “Gott schuf die ganzen Zahlen, alles andere ist Menschenwerk” comes from. I’d assumed it was intentional.

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