Floating Point 2.1 :: Seek
:: go home
Truth is a matter of perspective. Consider the following as proof…
From one perspective, this world is a pile of machined silicon: transistors, capacitors, wires, chips, connectors. When standing outside the world, it doesn’t look like a world at all, but a vast machine of tightly packed parts. The only evidence that it’s doing anything comes in the green flicker of status lights, seen by no one, read by no one. They wink silently into the dark void that surrounds them, expressing only basic bits of information.
That is the hard and objective reality of the matter; the idea that there could be any sort of "life" within that structure would be considered laughable from that external viewpoint.
But from another perspective, this world is alive and brilliant. Millions of sentients, existing from processor cycle to processor cycle, all within a digital universe that not-entirely-coincidentally mimics the world of their progenitors. They live, they love, they strive, they thrive. They die, they hate, they fail, they perish.
For these Programs, life is what it is. Nothing exists beyond the scope of their universe, and that’s the hard and objective reality of the matter. The idea that there could be any sort of "life" beyond their reckoning would be considered laughable from that internal viewpoint.
But can a "Program" truly be alive? Does their world count as a world, when it’s actually an elaborate emergent simulation of life? Or does the cold and empty existence outside their living universe seem pale in comparison, unable to lay claim to the word "real" any more than the place that calls itself Netwerk?
Both perspectives are true. Both perspectives are false. The truth is rarely black and white, one and zero. It lies in the gray areas between, the floating point decimal numbers rather than the integers…
From one perspective, that compressed tube of silicon-based parts looked inanimate rather than lush with life. But within the simulated fields of battle, code executed upon silicon in the name of competition… the jungles were quite lush indeed. Dense foliage, just the thing for a champion leaping from branch to branch, trying not to be seen by his enemy…
Silently, the ninja Hattori Hanzo strode over rather than through that jungle. Branches were as simple to walk on as stepping stones to him, thanks to years of practice (and certain codified world rule sets). Keeping an arrow nocked and steady while performing this feat of agility would’ve been implausible for most, but even without the rules tilted in his favor, he wouldn’t have faced any real difficulty. Stepping from branch to branch was as easy as talking a walk across an open room to him, even while weaving the tip of his enchanted flaming arrow away from any jungle overgrowth to keep from accidentally revealing his presence.
Beneath him, four more figures converged on a single point… the burly Ironknight with her mighty blade, a wily Cobbler with his twirling shoestrings, a mechanical Robotman with buzzsaws for hands, and a Mime flying an invisible jet over the treetops. Their goal… the final enemy tower, the last bulwark between them and the chaotic core of madness they sought to destroy.
And those foolish Chaos forces, what were they doing as the Champions of Order closed in on them…? One was sitting under that tower sniping away at weak little gnomes, scooping up the meager coins that fell out. One was jumping up and down waving his arms and taunting, repeating the same vocal one-liner over and over. Another was back at base, trying to decide what color shoes would go with his armor…
All in all, it was setting up to be a pretty sweet gank.
"Cobbler ties up the Sniper, Robotman grinds down the tower," Hanzo spoke across their shared psychic link, tugging his bow string taut. "Once they get wise they’re gonna swoop in. Ironknight uses Bastion of Iron to keep ’em from reaching us, and I pick them off from the treetops. #GGBoys."
"Yeah, okay, it’s not like we haven’t done it a dozen times before," Robotman’s electric voice box grumbled. "Gank in three, two…"
Each individual skill was unimpressive in its own right. Cobbler’s shoelaces would tie up an enemy for a whole two seconds; Bastion of Iron would throw up a curved metal wall that only blocked the path for a whole three seconds. Even Hanzo’s Four Seasons of Death arrow storm attack would only knock out a third of the Sniper’s health, total. But all these techniques, when used in sequence… they’d leave the Sniper dazed, reeling, bleeding, and unable to escape. The tower would fall before the Champions of Chaos even knew what hit them.
Hanzo’s arrow charged with a brilliant burning spark of flame, ready to unleash on the pending reinforcements. Shoelaces flew, buzzsaws ground, noise exploded from all around the tower… clear signs of battle, ones which would draw Chaos like moths to a bulb.
From the treetops, the ninja could see them coming. They’d been caught unaware, but despite having one troll and one AFKer, the remaining three would be plenty to pave over them. If they didn’t take a zillion flaming arrows to the knee, that is.
And in that one perfect moment, after the goggle-wearing Sniper panicked and tried to break free of the shoelaces, after the robot left huge jagged gouges in the tower, after the Ironknight swept into position, ready to block out the enemy…
…the mighty Ironknight threw the wall up in the wrong direction.
Instead of a convex barrier to block the enemy, it became a concave barrier to block the rest of her team. Cobbler’s shoelaces snapped; Mime crashed headfirst into the wall, invisible jet exploding around him. Leaving Ironknight all alone with the Sniper, now free to make headshots. All alone with three enemies closing in all around her…
Muttering a silent curse, Hanzo switched weapon stances, pulling out his ninja blade. The Eight-Fold Path enveloped him, as he tore himself screaming from the treetops, whirling down to eliminate one enemy.
One enemy, while the other two took the Ironknight and melted her to scrap.
When the five failed Champions of Order returned to the game lobby, wearing their original avatars rather than the enhanced skins of legendary warriors, very few smiles could be found.
"What the fuck was that?" the Mime player demanded. "You’re our team support, not theirs! You screwed us all over by putting the wall up behind the tower instead of front of it!"
"And you cancelled the invisible jet too early," the Hanzo player pointed out, shrugging back into her favorite jacket, getting used to her usual avatar all over again. "You could’ve flown right over the wall if you didn’t come in for a landing. No reason you couldn’t U-turn and land under the tower for safety, instead of gliding in. #BadCall."
"I wouldn’t have had to do that if the wall went up in the right spot! And then she blanked out in the middle of the next team fight, and bought speed boots instead of tank boots, and… come on! Artoz, you seriously gotta do something about that stupid little cun—"
A snap of the fingers, and former Mime’s mouth sealed shut. Muted by the team captain.
Stealing away another’s voice was a simple enough matter, if you had the administrative rights. This server, hosting dozens of pro-league scrimmage matches during the spring season warm-up, handed out those rights very sparingly… and Artoz was one of the few players they trusted to moderate his fellow players. Their avatars could be booted from the system on a whim, or simply muted.
"I told you once already not to use that word," Artoz the Robotman player and team captain warned. "I don’t care how many sausage festival teams you’ve been on in the past; Lucky7 is an inclusive organization. We represent the best of the CoC community, and we do not tolerate toxic, sexist attitudes. Go home and cool off. Practice your invisible jet landings. We’ll talk later."
With a silent snarl, the Mime player reconnected back to his home server. Two seconds later, due to heavy server lag from too many CoC scrimmage matches running at once, he was gone.
Cobbler left next, choosing to hold his tongue despite his obvious displeasure. Ironknight was the next to go, after heavy apologies and multiple promises to do better next time…
Leaving Artoz, the team captain and Robotman specialist, along with his loyal ninja retainer.
In her less ninja-y form, she still carried herself like a ninja. Years of actual, factual martial arts training—long considered utterly pointless in the digital world of Netwerk, where avatars couldn’t actually hurt each other with punches and kicks—gave her a physical presence of agility and strength like few others. Her fashion-plate looks mixed with that sporty mentality sometimes clashed, particularly around the more schlubby tracksuit-wearing avatars of her male teammates, but she paid it no mind.
Artoz, on the other hand, paid it considerable mind. Because he knew that pride she carried herself with was about to get a rather large bruise.
"Spark… we need to talk," he said, before she could disconnect as well.
"Okay, look, I get it," Spark/Hanzo insisted. "She’s not that great at Ironknight. She can try another support character next game. But hey, she’s learning! Way fewer mistakes than last time…"
"We can’t have any mistakes at this level, Spark. Lucky7 is a pro league team; we’re expected to play flawlessly. The first team to make a mistake, no matter how small, gets steamrolled. Once the playoffs begin I can’t have your friend out there making any errors, much less several in one game. It’s like she blanks out and forgets what’s going on… and if that happens, even for a second, we lose. I’m not trying to be cruel here, but that’s the cruel reality of being a pro gamer."
"Then let me switch roles with her," Spark suggested. "She’s got plenty of experience as a damage-carry; I can play support instead and keep her rolling! You should see me kick ass with Cheerleader; the build I use does crowd control and buffing and…!"
Artoz shook his head, cutting off her line of thought.
"I hired you as a damage-carry because that’s what you’re famous for on your Peep streams," he stated. "I reviewed a thousand matches where you carved people into a thousand pieces with Hanzo before making that decision. That is what Lucky7 needs, a skilled carry who can use a tricky stance-shift character like Hanzo as easily as breathing. And… we also need a support that can truly mesh with your carry. I’m sorry. Beta is not that support. She’s out."
"You’re firing her? Seriously?"
"I think I’ve been more than fair, Spark. I listened to your initial recommendation and brought her on board, but I have to work with what’s in front of me. It’s no slight on her as a person, she’s no doubt a great casual player, but she doesn’t belong at this tier—"
"I’m out," Spark decided. "#FuckThat. Beta goes, I go."
"Hold on, now. I know you’re unhappy with this decision, but wait, and think about it," Artoz suggested. "You’re finally here, Spark. You’ve turned pro, the dream of every CoC player. If you quit now, after only six months… what team will pick you up? I took a risk picking you up at all, and if you leave, the others will write you off as a failed experiment: just a cam girl streamer with no true skill."
Spark’s clenched fist tightened, loosened, and tightened some more.
"I know you don’t believe that," she declared. "You told me up front that I wasn’t hired for my looks, but my skills."
"Absolutely! I think you’ve got genuine talent, and I don’t give two shits about the ridiculous gender problems in our community. But I’m the exception, not the rule; you see how hard it is for me to keep the boys in line after letting one of those icky ‘grills’ into their little clubhouse. I know the other teams, and those guys aren’t forward-thinking enough to see the truth of it. You’re the equal of any player, and if you keep going, one day you’ll surpass them. Be reasonable, Spark. Do you really want to throw away your dreams, just because Beta isn’t in them?"
Her answer came easily.
"You quit the team?!"
Spark sank back into her chair, arms crossed. Adamant.
"Fuck ’em," she declared. "Any team that won’t have you isn’t a team I want to be on."
"They don’t want me on their team because I’m terrible! Spark, I’m not a pro gamer. I’m a pro-grammer! A pro programmer, I mean. I mean… look, you know what I mean. You shouldn’t have pushed them to sign me on in the first place, not if it means giving up your dream!"
Not exactly the reaction Spark was hoping for. About the reaction Spark was expecting, though.
The two of them had been living together for over a year now, and had been lovers (in a very non-traditional sense) for quite a chunk of that time. But despite knowing each other well… there were times when they’d project an image onto the other, believing in a hopeful lie, even while knowing the truth. For example, Spark had hoped that Beta would be supportive and see this as Spark believing in Beta, willing to make a stand to defend her. Instead, Beta was willing to toss herself under the bus to make Spark happy… an all-too-familiar pattern.
Spark kept the history of it firmly in mental order. Verity always said those who forgot history were doomed to repeat it, and even if she hadn’t paid much attention in school during breathless exposition about the legacy of her home server provider-nation, she’d at least pledged to keep her own personal history neatly organized…
When they first met, Beta’s ex-boyfriend and ex-#BFF had been pulling her left and right, making her dance to please them… all while pretending they were doing it for Beta’s benefit. When they eventually threw her aside, she had no idea what to do with herself. That pattern of submitting to someone else’s wishes continued, even when dealing with nicer people (specifically, Spark and her brother). She was willing to toss her own ethics aside in favor of their schemes… to a point.
Basically, as Spark was fond of saying… #ItsComplicated.
Life was generally a perpetual stream of #ItsComplicated, even after they’d de-complicated much of it. Winder/Spark and Winder/Tracer, sister and brother, children of a mentor rather than a mother…
Verity. The scholar. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, she’d said. They made it a point not to forget her legacy.
When that mentor was murdered by persons unknown, they sought to solve the crime and catch the killer… only to end up head-first in an ancient conspiracy to drive all of Netwerk crazy with data from a renegade server known as "The Internet."
So, they kicked ass and saved the day. And then things got weirder.
Now… they had to deal with real life rather than spending their time as crazy adventuring vigilantes. And real life was proving a tangled, messy business.
Despite that, and despite being quick to cleave through the tangle with brash action in the past… Spark felt confident in her decision. Her heart had made it with absolute conviction. It rang true with her personal history.
Now she had to explain why, despite words not being her strong suit.
"I didn’t quit the team because they gave you the boot. I quit the team because…" she started, trying to select the best words on offering. "It’s… look. I know I said my goal was to hit the big time, to go pro and nail the championship. But once I finally made it into Lucky7, it felt… wrong. I wasn’t having fun anymore."
Beta adjusted her ultra-thick rimmed glasses, trying to get a read on Spark, to look for some hidden doubt behind those words. And found none.
"But… this is your thing, isn’t it? Gaming. And pro-level gaming, that’s the pinnacle," Beta said. "You were at the pinnacle of your craft, Spark! It wasn’t… fun?"
"Nah. Like Artoz told me, I gotta play flawlessly, every time. No screwing around, no trying new things, no trolling people with crazy Kunoichi builds… and… I don’t know how to put it, but something was just flat out missing. I love competition, the stiffer the better, but playing at that intense of a level just didn’t feel like me anymore. More like I was just an App trying to hone myself into being the best game-playing App around."
That metaphor sank into Beta’s mind far more easily.
She’d spent her whole life on a different craft: Apps. She developed basic Apps to improve everyday life… scheduling Apps, memory enhancement Apps, sensory broadcasting Apps. And an App wasn’t a good App if it was bloated and riddled with bugs; it had to perform its task efficiently and cleanly, with minimal footprint within the Program that installed it in themselves. Nobody liked an App which inflated their runtime, eating up so many system resources that they weren’t welcome in public servers.
But a Program wasn’t an App. True, Programs evolved from Apps, but a Program was far messier. Just being alive was messy, and in a lot of ways… Spark loved that mess, even if she grumbled about it all the time.
Still… Beta had a hard time meshing her own image of Spark-the-gamer with Spark-the-quitter.
"What’ll you do now, though?" she asked. "I mean… I guess you could always just pray—err, grind for coins, I mean, if you need money—"
"Whoa, what am I, some kind of homeless hobo? I’m still a gamer, Beta. Even if Lucky7 wasn’t for me, I’ve got my Peep stream, I’ve got my subscribers to perform for. I’ll just double down on streaming some casual games, like I was doing before. Show ’em how to really play the game, you know? Experiment, screw around, and have fun. That… should be enough, yeah?"
Finally, a tiny vocal wobble.
But… Beta wasn’t ready to push on it. Clearly, Spark wasn’t happy with Lucky7. If she wasn’t happy with being a solo act as a minor Netwerk gamer celebrity either, well, maybe it’d just take more time for her to find her true calling.
So Beta offered a hug, and a kiss, and a few comforting words of support. And that would have to be enough for now.
Because there was someone far more lost than Spark living under this roof, as well. Another whom Beta loved and cherished, and wanted to help along the path.
Once upon a time, when the three of them were fighting a mysterious enemy devoted to annihilating all reason and sensibility across Netwerk, this room had been filled with cross-indexed notes dedicated to that vigilante cause. Now, with Dex vanishing into the night and peace settling across Netwerk, this study had no such purpose.
Instead, it had been filled with cross-indexed notes dedicated to understanding Floating Point itself. More specifically, the Wikipedia.
For most of their lives, the Winder siblings had used Floating Point as a safe haven: a nicely decorated house that came without rental fees. No more, no less. But much to everyone’s surprise, the vast trove of “burned” books in the great library beyond this study were in fact encrypted… and thanks to Beta’s decryption efforts, Floating Point’s actual purpose was restored. Now the collective knowledge of “Humankind,” the progenitor race that created Netwerk, was open to study…
Long having ignored the mystery of the books, Winder/Tracer intended to make up for lost time. With no great enemy to slay, his study became home to some of the most questionable reading material ever written.
Beta found him sitting at his desk, peeling the pages of a volume titled “Ethnic Cleansing” apart.
Meaning he was brooding over the Wikipedia again, just as he did with nearly every waking hour. She’d pushed for him to try new hobbies… cooking, writing, or at least reading other books. In the end, he always came back to this. Even when he wasn’t supposed to be home at all…
“Aren’t you going to be late for your job…?” she asked, right at the start.
“I resigned yesterday,” Tracer spoke, before switching subjects. “Take a look at this; I’ve figured out how to open up the editor’s notes for each article. They waged wars within these books, Beta. Editors powered by one agenda or another, forcing their viewpoint, ignoring the rules of neutrality they’d all agreed to…”
“You resigned?! After Puzzle worked so hard to get you that job?”
“Apologies to Puzzle, but it wasn’t a good fit for me in the long term.”
“But… but you said they liked your work. You were due for a promotion!”
“I’d already optimized the call center as much as it could be optimized. No challenges remained to overcome, so I didn’t see much point in staying. Besides, I don’t need actually need money. I’m not human; I need no food nor rest.”
“That’s not the point! It’s… y’know, something to do with your time… to live your life.”
“The most disgusting thing is that this isn’t the only article titled ‘Ethnic Cleansing,'” Tracer explained, linking to another book with a gesture. The new volume opened itself on his desk, as the previous one flew back to a neatly organized stack. “This one is about a video game called Ethnic Cleansing, a recruitment tool for a fanatical race of Humankind seeking to purge another race of Humankind…”
“Tracer, I’m worried about you. You know that, right?” Beta asked. “You sit up here all day brooding over what Humankind did to us, how much damage they caused by influencing our world. But Dex is gone, Tracer! None of this matters…”
Tracer snapped the book shut, to turn his full attention to Beta. The amount of focus applied left her uncomfortable; no doubt he didn’t mean his glare to be so sharp, but transitioning from a “hate read” to anything else took longer than the single moment he’d spared for it.
“This research matters tremendously, Beta. We live in a cloud server; Floating Point’s data is leaking across Netwerk now, just as Dex’s corrupt madness once did. I need to assess the potential damage we’re causing.”
A common claim, for the introverted detective. But this time, she was prepared.
Beta opened a few graphs pulled from Tracer’s own social media analysis tools, Apps that she’d either made or modified to suit his purposes. Each one bore a downward arrow, sloping away towards the bottom.
“The overall toxicity of Netwerk’s social dialogue is decreasing,” she pointed out. “We did the right thing, Tracer. Destroying Dex’s Internet archive, opening Netwerk up to the information in Floating Point… all the hashtag mobs, all the trolling, it’s all sliding away. People are calming down. If Floating Point was making the situation worse, we’d know by now…”
“Not enough data to make that determination. It took years of exposure to Dex’s server to nearly break our backs. Who knows what long-term effect the Wikipedia will have? I’m wondering if we’ve done Netwerk any favors by decrypting the books. Perhaps we should’ve destroyed them—”
“Absolutely not! Tracer, you’re only seeing the negative. Humanity wasn’t all doom and gloom. I mean… think about it this way,” Beta suggested. “Despite their differences, they survived long enough to make us. They’re capable of amazing wonders, not just atrocities. Don’t be like Jack.”
“Jack. You know, the guy who created the Internet archive that Dex was using. The one who was writing the sociology paper…? Him. Don’t be like him. …my point is that you shouldn’t be spending so much time on this; you’re losing perspective. It’s not healthy.”
“A meaningless word,” Tracer spoke. “Healthy. Humans are organic machines, with biological components subject to rot and disease. Programs don’t have ‘health.’ We’re either functional or non-functional…”
“My mother would disagree with that,” Beta muttered. “Look, how about if we go out to dinner tonight? Somewhere special, cozy and private. Quiet. I know you don’t like crowds; we don’t have to go out dancing like I do with Spark or anything like that. Just some time away from… all of this. Time to appreciate the good things in life…”
“Maybe tomorrow,” he said, opening a fresh book on police brutality. “I’m trying to index aspects of human culture that encourage violence, to look for echoes within Netwerk. I’d rather not break my flow right now. We’ll go out tomorrow.”
Which was his excuse the day before, as well.
Beta wanted to keep pushing. As much as the two enjoyed their quiet evenings at home, tonight she wanted to drag Tracer out of here by the hair. He needed to get away from these books and find some perspective on the good things in life, rather than stay and dwell on the negative…
She also wanted to push Spark to chase her dreams, to fight to be the very best she could be. Beta wanted to be there for both of them, helping them achieve what they’d denied themselves for so long, devoting all their time to destroying their enemy.
In the end, she left Tracer in his study, without further word. Too tired to argue anymore.
Exhaustion. A term that Tracer no doubt felt couldn’t apply to a Program, a life form that wasn’t restrained by chemical biology. Nevertheless, Beta felt exhausted… worn out from trying and failing to keep Spark’s hopes alive, and from trying and failing to give Tracer hope at all.
That alone would be enough to leave her emotionally exhausted. The slight shudder in beams of daylight through the vast windows of Floating Point—followed by her pet cat’s sudden appearance—was enough to seal the deal.
“,” the tiny pet App spoke, looking up to his owner with concerned eyes. Mew’s expressive range had grown over the years, along with his code complexity… with or without Beta tinkering with the routines underneath his fur. “? …”
“It was just a few minutes,” Beta reasoned, measuring by the slight shift in the daylight. “I only blanked out for a few minutes this time. I’m tired, Mew. It’s reasonable…”
“?! ! !”
“I’m perfectly healthy, thank you. I’m far too young to be suffering from hereditary data rot; maybe when I’m forty or fifty years old I’ll need to worry about it, but not now. …that does remind me, though…”
Holding out her arms for him, Mew jumped into them, content to snuggle a bit despite his concerns.
“Let’s go visit her today, okay?” Beta suggested, while stroking Mew’s fur. “Days like these… I really need her support. So I can support the ones I love, as best I can.”
Beta used to come a few times a week. Then once a week. Then a few weeks might go by…
To be fair, her life had been exceptionally hectic since meeting the Winders. Finding time to break away from all that and syncing it up with the allocated runtime for visitors, that was difficult. Perfectly reasonable, visiting less often… and it wasn’t like her mother would notice the gaps between visits.
That horrible little thought halted Beta’s progress down the tastefully decorated hallways of that managed care server.
No. There was no valid excuse, only a myriad of explanations for Beta’s tardiness. She could find the time, she should find the time to visit more often.
For ten years, Projkit/CCelia had been confined to this server… her program too bloated and corrupt to run safely anywhere else. This hospital specialized in treating Programs suffering from hereditary data rot, the inevitable inflation of runtime and storage space required to keep an afflicted Program operational. Memory increasingly mismapped or blanked, time indexes shuffled, leaving them adrift and doubting everything they know…
But here, at Northon Data Health, patients could enjoy their early-onset twilight years in comfort. Memory management specialists tended to their code, doing what they could to correct for errors, and re-train the mind to work around the bad sectors. Without Northon, her mother might’ve fatally crashed a long time ago. These days, if her process ever went offline, the specialists would be on hand to get it started up again. As close to a normal life span as she’d get, all considered.
A life living in a clinic, not the home she raised Beta in. A tastefully decorated clinic, but a clinic nonetheless.
CCelia’s hospital room had been designed to resemble a small apartment. She had a kitchen, if she felt like making herself a meal. The bedroom was strictly for rest and recovery, as patients were encouraged not to spend all day bedridden and depressed. Instead, a small parlor had been set in place for daytime recreation and comfort for visitors. Of which she only ever had one, her doting daughter.
Beta wore her best smile, on knocking at the door of that clinical apartment.
A few minutes after getting no response, she knocked again, and the door was answered immediately.
Seeing the twinkle in her mother’s eyes helped make Beta’s fake smile a little less fake. It wasn’t simply a visual effect; it was a status indicator, a memory enhancement suite provoking a few memories of her daughter, on visually acquiring the subject. The twinkle meant CCelia was here and present rather than far away, and immediately connected to her daughter.
The embrace they shared was pleasingly warm, thanks to the nicely simulated fabrics her mother had woven. CCelia always made her own clothing; one of her few remaining hobbies, having officially retired from sensory App programming.
"It’s so good to see you again," CCelia spoke, waving her daughter in through the door. "And Mew, my, how you’ve ĝrºwŋ! It’s been so many years!"
The kitty glanced back and forth between his owner and his owner’s maker, as CCelia’s voice glitched ever so slightly. "" he spoke, confused. After all, he’d come with Beta for every visit, and liked to think he was memorable.
Beta quickly shushed him, before setting the cat down to explore the apartment at his leisure. He immediately found the warmest spot on the couch and settled in under a sunbeam from the skybox outside, and forgot all about being forgotten.
CCelia found her way around the furniture, all of it old-fashioned, much as her avatar remained old-fashioned. Fractal laces had gone out of style decades ago, but she still wore her infinite shawl, one of the first avatar accessories she’d ever made. It hung like beautiful, sparkling silver spider webs across her shoulders; just as silver as her hair, her aged Default nicely wrinkled. When she smiled, her entire face smiled with her, each little fold expressing her joy.
"You should’ve said you were coming ŧoďây. I’ve got a procedural tea that I’ve been wanting to try," CCelia spoke, settling into her favorite recliner.
"I’m trying to cut down on stimulating sensory inputs," Beta spoke, dodging the fact that she did call ahead. "I’ve been working on an App project with Spark, and, ah… well, it’s already very stimulating. I find that cutting down on spices or sweets or stimulants by daytime makes the testing a bit less overloading."
CCelia, no stranger to sensory programming, nodded in satisfaction. "Good, good. It’s important to keep the palette cleansed before experimenting with sensation procedures. You’re taking an input sanitizer before testing, yes? Important not to allow junk data to interfere…"
"Yeah, we always shower before and after testing."
"That’s half the fun, isn’t it? The foreplay and aftercare. Oh, the stories I could tell you from my sorority days…"
"You thought I forgot, didn’t you? About SparklePop," she spoke, with a little chuckle. "Rather memorable, that little story. How’s the development going? Oh, don’t saturate your colors at me, young lady. You’re nowhere near as naughty as I was at your age…"
"It’s… um… good. Well. Spark’s been a bit… distracted lately. We haven’t tested my latest revisions…"
"Oh? What’s she up to these days, then?"
Her memory sank back into the twin miseries of the morning. Beta sank into the cushions a bit, in response. Mew, in his infinite grace and generosity, actually left his sunbeam to climb into her lap for comfort.
"I don’t honestly know," Beta admitted. "I thought she wanted to be a pro gamer, but she quit the team. And Tracer, he quit his job. Neither of them have any idea what they’re going to do next. …I’m trying, Mother. I’m trying to support them and be there for them, to help them, but… I don’t know what to do. I can’t figure out how to fix this…"
"Fix?" CCelia asked, peering over her knitting. "You can’t fix people, dear. We’re Programs, not Apps."
"I know, I know. But… what should I do, Mother?"
"Mmmm. Well. I’ve never had a love quite as deep as the two you have now, I’m afraid… even your father was more of a generous code donor than a lover…"
Another dark memory, to cloud the day’s already darkened thoughts. CCelia never spoke about Beta’s father; he wasn’t a part of their life, beyond providing the initial seed data for her birth compiling. Hereditary data rot was nearly one hundred percent communicable to newborn children, meaning most diagnosed with the condition chose not to have families… and those who wanted them often had trouble making them.
Not difficulty compiling the child process, but difficulty socially, as few wanted a liaison with an afflicted Program. Too much misinformation and superstition about data rot in the wild, leading people to think it was sexually transmitted as well. Beta’s father had helped her enter this world more out of friendship and pity than any sort of familial love.
Didn’t matter. She got all the love she could want from her mother, her beloved mother. Her lifetime confidante, the one she could turn to at times like these. Even when the answers weren’t quite what she wanted.
Even when the answers weren’t coming, because her mother had blanked out. Knitting needles froze in midair, as her memory’s time index slipped.
Beta waited patiently; the specialists said blanks of anywhere from one minute to thirty minutes were common. If she didn’t rouse after that, her process might have frozen and require a hard restart… but fortunately, this one only lasted a little over three minutes.
"You can’t fix people," CCelia continued, without missing a beat (other than the beats she missed.) "This isn’t something you can do for them. They have to figure out who they are, what they want out of life, and how to get it. It’s a personal journey; at best you can support them along the way, but it’s really on them to sort it out."
"I could try to help them find new jobs…?" Beta tried.
"People aren’t their jobs, Beta. Not even you. Yes yes, you love developing lifestyle Apps, and you make good coin off it. Plenty of royalties from Peep, all towards my care. But being a programmer, is that who you are? No, who you are is what led you down that career path. It’s enabling what you really want."
"To help people," Beta recognized. "Improving their lives through Apps. Expanding the capabilities of Programs using safe, sandboxed code and clever system integration."
"Enhancing life, yes. I suppose that’s why you’re so worried about Spark and… åŊď…"
Not too surprising that the other name slipped away. Beta always had exciting stories about Spark’s antics, while Tracer led a quiet and quickly explained existence.
"I love them both. I want nothing but the best for them. …honestly, I’d hoped that once our troubles were over, once our love was open and honest, everything would sort itself out. But it’s not. #ItsComplicated, like Spark says. Love’s not enough to help them…"
"Love’s lovely, but you know from that charlatan Cup8 that there’s far more to life than romantic devotion. Your companions need to learn to love themselves, and live. You can’t do that for them."
As much as the answer failed to satisfy, it made more than enough sense. Beta instinctively approached every problem like a software bug; something to root out, understand to the core, and fix permanently. This, however… this was out of her hands. The kind of wisdom that could only come with age and experience.
"I don’t know what I’d do without you, Mother," Beta spoke honestly.
The elder Projkit’s knitting needles slowed. She didn’t halt or slip her memory, they simply slowed, as she gave serious thought to those words.
"Beta… I appreciate it, but… I think we ŋéeď to seriously talk about the thing you hate talking ã8øÜŧ."
Meaning this would be that discussion again, the one they’d had a dozen times. CCelia only remembered a few of those chats, as similar memories blurred together more readily than differing ones.
"I’m not putting you into a cold storage backup," Beta declared, hoping to end it immediately.
"It doesn’t have to be forever, Beta. I’ve been researching it some, and there are plenty of storage services that’ll keep the data secure while my process is offline, safe as houses—"
"And when would they wake you up? When a cure for data rot is found?" Beta asked, the nth iteration of this debate making her irritable. "It’s been generations since data rot started appearing in the wild, and nobody’s found a cure yet. There isn’t going to be a cure, Mother."
"Dear, I know I said you can’t fix people, but you can fix code. The underlying code is modifiable, you know that…"
"And what, we just… leave you dead to the world until it’s safe for you to live again? What if it’s never safe? No. Mother, please, I’m so tired of talking about cold storage backups! Can’t we just let it drop?"
"You want to talk about being tired? I’m tired, Beta," CCelia spoke… letting some of her false smile drop away. "Year by year—even day by day—parts of me are dropping away. Just this week I thought someone had replaced my hospice with a forest, and I spent an hour wandering around the woods before the doctors realized I’d been experiencing memory overlay errors. I can’t eat anymore because half the flavors lead to unlinked memory files and cause me to freeze. I forgot the color blue yesterday, Beta. It’s all downhill at this point as my data continues to corrupt. Why prolong the inevitable?"
Beta bit her lip, trying to keep the horror from her expression by masking it with a little pain.
"You… you can’t just give up," she pleaded. "I know it’s difficult, but you can’t give up—"
"But I’m not giving up. That’s the point! If I freeze my code now, instead of letting it get more and more damaged, then… if they do find a cure one day—"
"If, Mother. If they find a cure. Nobody’s found a cure and nobody’s even close to finding one."
"—when they find a cure, I’ll stand a greater chance of recovery if I have less corrupt data to fix. Simple logic. Besides… it’s considerably cheaper to go into storage than to pay for ongoing life support. You’re already pouring all the money you make from Apps into this, when you don’t have to…"
"I don’t care about the money! This is your life we’re talking about, the one you’re living now! There isn’t going to be a cure. Isn’t it better to enjoy the time you have? I’d rather have you alive than have a few extra coins in my pocket!"
"I see. This… isn’t the fîŖ$Ŧ time we’ve talked about it, is it. We’ve talked about… we’re tãĿķ¡ŋg about cold storage backups now, right? I’ve been researching it some, and there are plenty of storage services that’ll keep my data secure while my process is offline, safe as houses…"
Leaving her daughter speechless, as CCelia lost track of the ongoing discussion in the middle of the ongoing discussion.
"No," Beta said simply.
"Well, just give it some thought, maybe. Sleep on it…?"
Eager to be done with it, Beta looked down to the fuzzy carpet.
"I’ll sleep on it," she lied.
"Good, good. All I ask. …also, and I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but… I’ve been getting a sŧŖâŋġË visitor lately. I was wondering if she was a friend of yours, or something…? A woman in a white coat?"
"That’s your new memory specialist, Mother. The nurses told me about her. Doctor Apate, right? She’s here to help with your mental focus training. It’s okay!"
"Well… I don’t like her. I don’t trust her. She asks so many questions, over and over…"
"Yes, that’s how focus training works," Beta reminded her. "Establishing new pathways to old memories. It’s normal. Okay? This is for your health, Mother, you need to cooperate with the specialists…"
"I know how the exercises work, dear. But… the questions she asks, they’re… I don’t wholly remember but I don’t feel very focused after she leaves. I know they say I’m just forgetting things, that people come and go all the time for checkups, but… Beta, please, stay? Just to make sure things are okay. Make sure it’s just your poor old mother messing up again…"
"Mother, I can’t stay. My visitor slot’s almost expired; there’s not enough runtime for me to stay during treatments…"
A tail flicked at the bottom of her vision.
"," Mew volunteered. "!"
…which was technically against hospital policies. Pets used up more runtime than most common Apps, and runtime was scarce. CCelia was only one of several patients in this particular branch server of the Northon enterprise; leaving Mew behind would eat up some of that precious resource…
The pleading look in her mother’s eyes was enough for Beta to jettison the rules.
"Mew, stay here and watch after her," Beta suggested. "I’ll rehook you to her process. I’m sure it’s nothing, but if there are any issues, open a private Peep feed to me. Mother, keep him out of sight; I’ll collect him next time I visit. Okay?"
"Oh, I’m having cømpâÑ¥?" CCelia asked, pleased by this surprise turn of events. "Always nice to have a cat around the house. Certainly! Maybe he can help me keep an eye on this $ŧ®ãŊĜ£ woman who keeps showing up. I don’t like the looks of her."
"Yes, of course," her daughter spoke, getting to her feet. "Try not to worry about it too much, okay? Rest up, focus on your training, and be well. I love you, Mother."
Pleased to be on duty, Mew immediately and vigilantly curled up in the sunbeam again and fell asleep.
Northon cost quite a bit, being a combination nursing home, hospital, and specialist treatment center. On the plus side, you got your money’s worth; these were the finest doctors in the field of data rot. They only hired the best, those with impeccable references and years of practice in the field of data integrity support.
Doctor Apate was being paid quite handsomely to work her particular magic. She deserved every coin, or at least the documentation she submitted to the HR department claimed she did. In truth, though, she wasn’t here for the money…
Her favorite patient was ready and waiting for her, happily knitting away in her favorite chair.
"And how are we today, Miss Projkit?" the doctor asked, checking a floating display of CCelia’s current memory maps and processor usage. "I see from the logs that you had a visitor earlier… a special someone from the past, perhaps?"
Of course, CCelia didn’t recognize Apate. Just as she hadn’t the last five times.
"Who are you? Where’s Doctor Billin?" she asked, confused.
"I’m your focus training therapist, Miss Projkit. Remember? Well, no, I suppose not, but that doesn’t make it any less true…"
With a flick, Apate locked the apartment door. Wouldn’t do to be interrupted. She settled onto the couch… glancing at the indentation in the sunbeam-soaked leather, likely left behind by the prior visitor. No sign of them now, however.
"Are we sitting comfortably?" Apate asked, opening her personal notes. "Let’s begin, then. As always, we’ll start with a little connectivity enhancement suite…"
Discomfort was normal. Well, not normal, not when the App was being used with care. But Apate didn’t have time for care, not after five sessions with no productive results. Today she’d decided to ratchet the settings up a few notches, to force memory weak connections together. The end result of which had CCelia clutching at her knitting needles and groaning in pain, but hopefully they’d see some success soon enough. And if not, well, an audio muting field was in place around the apartment. CCelia’s screams wouldn’t bother the other patients.
"Sample 777," Apate began. "Sample 777. Remember Sample 777…"
Of course, it wouldn’t do to have her patient in such unbearable agony, not when she needed the patient to be more vocal and cooperative. She glanced at the display windows floating around her, watching the connection maps, trying to see if the number was triggering anything at all…"
"P. P. P," CCelia sputtered. "Pineapp1é. pîŅé@PPľÊ. ¶îŅéÄ¶¶Ŀé…"
"Yes, yes, we’ve tried that pathway already," Apate noted. "Pineapples, pineapples, that’s very cute. Wasted my time during runs two and three, specifically. But it’s a misconnection, nothing more, and you can’t let it distract you. You need to focus, Miss Projkit. Focus on Sample 777. Where is it? Back in your sensory coding days you created a formula of astounding value, one I seek now for my patron. Where is it? Where did you store Sample 777?"
"P!Ñ€ãPP1Ë!!1!" CCelia screamed, knuckles white, face desaturating…
…before fur and claw filled Apate’s perspective, with Mew leaping down upon her from his hiding place on a bookshelf high above.
"" Mew yowled, slashing away. Not that he had any malware payload in his claws, no way to actually cut Apate’s avatar, but the frenzy of activity was plenty distracting…
…but not distracting enough to keep her from noticing the new arrival, who made quite an entrance indeed by blasting door to the room off its hinges in a burst of orange flame
For security and privacy purposes, no one could simply connect to this server and arrive in any room they liked. There were protocols; all new arrivals appeared in the clinic lobby, to be screened by security. Unless, of course, they did a pretty sweet wall-running hack and dodged around the scanners and the rent-a-cops to blitz right by and down the hallway towards CCelia’s room.
The end result of these shenanigans? One extremely pissed off Spark, blocking the only exit from the apartment. Apate couldn’t simply pop away, thanks to the global connection lock… she’d have to depart through the lobby. And through Winder/Spark.
Despite the briefness of their previous meeting, there was recognition between the two. Apate knew Spark. Spark knew Apate. Granted, Apate was working under a different name at the time they met… an incident so long ago, interrupting what would’ve been a highly profitable identity theft from Projkit/Beta…
Apate was only a doctor on paper; specifically, papers she’d compiled from a dozen stolen identities with glowing attributes that would make her look like a genius-savant and a saint. If you stripped away all the false masks, the layers of misattribution… her true name could be seen. Or you could just recognize her Default facial features, that little bit of pride she retained no matter her undercover role.
"Uniq," Winder/Spark recognized, twin flames flicking in her hands as her anger spiked fiercely.
While Apate-aka-Uniq the identity thief could easily slice through one of Spark’s little connection locking collar toys, slicing through the global connection lock across the entire server was another matter. Immediately, she recognized the futility of it all… cornered in a small space, no exits, no reconnection possible. And one very angry young woman who likely took offense to the torture of her lover’s mother.
Recognizing a no-win scenario, Uniq closed her eyes for a brief prayer as Spark rushed forward…
…and then activated her own personal backspacer.
Aimed at her own head, rather than at Spark.
Data wiped away instantly, Uniq completely scrubbed herself from the server and from life in general. No data left behind to sift through, no evidence to lead them back to her employer. A clean suicide, served up with a smile that rapidly faded as her avatar derezzed.
…leaving Spark skidding to a halt on the carpet, flames dampened somewhat as she stood in confusion.
The silence was broken by a kindly greeting.
"Oh, hello. I wasn’t £×pé[Ţ!Ñg company," CCelia greeted, some color returning to her face. "Ah… I’m sorry, but… I seem to be a little disoriented. You’re Spark, yes? I recognize you from your selfies. Would you like some tea? I’ve got a procedural tea that I’ve been wanting to try…"
The next few minutes were quite jumpy for CCelia.
First, Spark was in her room, with her fingers aflame. Next, her room became very crowded indeed.
"We didn’t know she was an identity thief when we hired her," Doctor Billin protested. "Her records had been digitally signed by the surgeon general of Northon himself…"
"And did you bother checking with him to see if they were legitimate?" the nice young man she recognized as Winder/Tracer asked.
Another jump, and her daughter was kneeling next to the chair, holding her hands.
"It’s going to be okay, mother. I promise everything’s going to be okay," she insisted.
"I’m… sĸ!pp!Ŋg, a little," CCelia warned. "It’s been a very trying day. You may need to Ŗ£3×pĿå!Ŋ some things—"
—pain. Pain like no headache she’d ever known before, jammed subroutines and dirty inputs causing her code to choke and freeze. Clutching the armrests of her chair, knitting needles like thin bars of red hot metal in her palms…
"It’s a misconnection, nothing more, and you can’t let it distract you," the strange woman in the coat spoke. "You need to focus, Miss Projkit. Focus on Sample 777—
—pineapples. The taste of pineapples. Not the sight of them, not the smell of them, even if taste and smell were inexorably linked. Just the taste, sweet and slightly bitter—
—on a clear disk you can seek forever, that was his little joke—
"—security is a joke!" Spark protested. "I dodged it in seconds, and didn’t even need hacktools. What kind of a podunk operation are you running here?! What if someone comes back to finish what Uniq started?"
"We need to take measures," Tracer said. "I believe it’s time to to discuss alternatives. Beta, what’s our effective load capacity?"
—down a hallway. Walking down a hallway, arms supporting her, helping her whenever she stumbled. Each time the black-and-white tile texture on the floor juddered, signifying a missing moment, her feet failed her. But they were there for her… Beta, and Spark. Keeping her up, allowing her the dignity of walking, even if the walking wasn’t exactly the finest walking she’d done.
"Ŵħ£ŕé are we going?" CCelia asked. Not worried; she trusted Beta, knew wherever they were headed, there must be a reason.
"Somewhere you can be safe," Beta promised. "Safe as houses. It’s not far to the lobby; one foot in front of the other. And you can have plenty of rest once we’re back home at Floating Point."
Soon, CCelia was sleeping safely in her own bed. Despite the need to keep her storage overhead low, she’d kept a copy of her favorite bed through the decades, to rez whenever she wanted a quick nap to rest and re-focus her thoughts. No matter what room she was in, she could pull out that twin-sized bed with the carefully coded pillows and quilts, and sleep in familiar comfort. Even in an unfamiliar room.
In this case, the unfamiliar room was within a flying castle in the clouds. Her daughter was here, and her daughter’s partners, and that was all that mattered. Even if the name of it slipped her memory, as names often did. Enough for her to rest easily in one of the many guest rooms.
As she slept… the three who brought her here were having a tense meeting within the great hall beyond her door.
It was the first serious talk they’d had since the end of the campaign against Dex. There hadn’t been need for one of these discussions; each had their own little issues to deal with, but nothing on the grand scale of that journey.
Today, however, Tracer could feel the shape of another journey ahead of him. A notorious identity thief, an ally of their old enemy, tormenting Beta’s mother…? Possibly some cheap criminal scheme, the kind Uniq was known for. But it didn’t feel like a smalltime hustle, not to him… even without his illegal connection-tracking modified eyes, he could see the strange unconnected connections leading away from this event. So many questions to answer…
And part of him, a selfish little part he actively disliked, was thrilled at the idea of starting a new hunt.
The three reviewed a video recording made by Mew earlier that day, backing up and replaying it a few times, to glean new details. The video flickered and juddered, system lagging to the point of being unable to play it back smoothly, but it would have to do.
One segment held particular interest to Tracer:
"You need to focus, Miss Projkit. Focus on Sample 777. Where is it? Back in your sensory coding days you created a formula of astounding value, one I seek now for my patron. Where is it? Where did you store Sample 777?"
He sat back in one of the great leather chairs of the library, the vessel that the Wikipedia had been poured into, contemplating each and every word.
"Uniq deals in stolen identities," Tracer explained. "I studied her extensively and kept detailed notes for my MemoryPalace; we were tracking her down when we first met you, Beta. Meeting you was actually a coincidence. At the time I had thought she might have been Verity’s killer, given her tattoo and her connections with shady servers. Now, apparently, she’s been hired to steal a memory from your mother."
Spark scrubbed the video file back, replaying the section again, to study Uniq’s face. Strange how someone so adept in stolen identities insisted on using her own face, a quirk that matched the analysis Tracer performed over a year ago when they first sought her out.
"Seems pretty straightforward here," Spark said. "She was hired to pull out a memory. Says so directly. We caught her in the act, and she killed herself rather than let herself be captured. #GoingOutWithABang."
"Which makes little sense. Nothing in my files suggests that she’d willingly die for anyone’s cause. She’ll take up causes, especially if paid to do so, but always plans an escape route. Uniq is a survivor, not a martyr."
"So… maybe it was a trick? It only looked like a backspacer. Was it a Kill-9, like yours?"
"No data left behind. That was indeed a backspacer. But… I’m also concerned about the word ‘patron,’" Tracer said, reaching out to tug on the video window, expanding and zooming in. "There’s no Dex mark on her neck; like the other infected Programs the mark expired when his server expired. No one is pulling her emotional strings anymore to make her act out of character, so why would a survivor like her commit suicide? What patron, specifically, could hold that much sway over someone like Uniq?"
Spark knew the shape of this, too. Or rather, she knew the look in Tracer’s eyes when he saw that shape.
"You want to investigate, don’t you," she pointed out.
"Absolutely," Tracer spoke. "CCelia’s life could be at stake. If this patron was capable of swaying Uniq so fully, they’re truly dangerous. It could be a resurgent Dex, for all we know. We need to immediately look into this situation and find resolution. …the sooner the better, for Floating Point’s sake."
The looping segment of kitty-based surveillance flickered and shuddered, frames visibly drawing themselves on top of each other. This wasn’t due to Mew being an inadequate recorder; he was the prototype for Peep, and fully capable of high frame rate captures. Instead… the issue was with the server they sat in.
Floating Point was a strange home, to be certain. It existed in no specific place, floating from server to server, distributing its runtime across the quietly stolen resources of other places in Netwerk. This meant it was a very low-capacity server, unable to perform serious number-crunching tasks such as hosting an entire fancy dinner party worth of avatars. And CCelia, with her aged runtime and mis-managed memory space, was an entire fancy dinner party unto herself.
It was the curse of the old, in a way. The older a Program was, the more resources they needed. Servers had a finite amount of processing, so homeless old Programs were the first to be chased away by moderators to make way for multiple younger Programs that could be occupying the same space. And now, Floating Point was wheezing and coughing trying to support Spark, Beta, Tracer, and CCelia under one roof.
"The system should hold up just fine," Beta felt the need to say. "I’ve been working on the sphere at the heart of the server for months now, and I can tune the load-balancing parameters any way we need to tune them. I mean, it’s going to be a bit laggy and foggy in here, but we should be safe. She’ll be safe."
"Except we may need additional runtime above and beyond what we’re using right now," Tracer spoke. "If we’re going to determine why this mysterious patron wants ‘Sample 777,’ we need to run an analysis App on CCelia’s memory to find out what she knows…"
Beta stared at him, unblinking. "What? No. No, out of the question. I mean… even if we had the tools—Apps on par with the ones Northon uses—"
"You’re already skilled at memory manipulation Apps, yes? You made RemindMe."
"I made a glorified mental alarm clock!"
"We have resources beyond that, Beta. And you’ve got the talent. I’m confident you could determine how to explore your mother’s memory space."
"I’m not interrogating my mother! You saw how much she was suffering as Uniq tried to do the same!"
"Yes, it’s not without risk. I understand your hesitation, given her fragile state. But this is of paramount importance; your mother’s drawn the attention of a powerful criminal figure. I doubt this will begin and end with Uniq. We need to know what they’re after… so we can beat them to Sample 777."
Spark nodded in agreement. "My bro’s #NotWrong, Beta. We’ve fought crooks and criminals for years; they’re tenacious bastards. And whatever they want this memory for, it can’t be good."
"But… but… I mean…"
Protesting wasn’t in her nature, was it? Beta, good old supportive doormat Beta, would’ve mutely nodded and gone along with it.
But not now. Not with these stakes.
Her explanation was… quietly delivered. Not in mumbled and hesitant tones, but with the seriousness it deserved.
"You two don’t know much about hereditary data rot, so let me make this as clear as I can," Beta spoke. "I’ve lived under the threat of it all my life. It’s almost inevitable that I’ll… eventually succumb to it. Any sort of strain on your code can cause additional corruption, which spreads, and spreads. Even what Uniq did today, those few brief moments, might be enough to… k-kill her sooner rather than later. If I go tinkering around in her memory files like that, I might push her over, too. I’m not killing my mother to save my mother."
Tracer nodded in agreement, all while speaking to the contrary. "I realize it’s risky, but I feel we must—"
"We must do nothing. …we choose to do things. And we can’t make this choice for her; she has to choose for herself. People have to figure out who they are, what they want out of life, and how to get it. It’s a personal decision to make. And on top of that… if she agrees, I still need to agree, since I’m the one making the tools. And if I can’t make a tool I have confidence in, I’m not moving ahead."
"So… if CCelia concurs, and you can develop a suitable App…?"
"Then we’ll track down Sample 777," Beta agreed. "But only if we both concur. And that’s how it’s going to be."
In the span of three blinks, CCelia had forgotten where she was.
Normally, that wouldn’t be a huge issue; she lived in her little apartment, immobilized to one server. New locales weren’t exactly a common occurrence. But here she was in a strange and unfamiliar place, lost and alone…
Immediately her automated ReMinder App chimed, inserting a fresh thought into her memory: Floating Point. She was at Floating Point, her daughter’s home, shared with her daughter’s loves…
Memories reconnected themselves after that. An attack, a false doctor, and offered sanctuary. Yes, now it made sense, why she felt so comfortable here despite the system lag, despite the unfamiliar territory. This was a safe place, and a welcome one at that after her previous home was invaded. After her mind was invaded.
Clearly the server was straining to keep her code running, however. She may have specialized in sensory coding during her prime, but she knew enough about basic system administration to recognize a server under heavy load. If you pack too many avatars into one place, or only one avatar attached to a particularly bloated and screwed up set of data… of course it’d struggle to keep up. Time seemed to slow, each step down the great stairwell of the library like wading through invisible mud. Northon had been designed to accommodate a program as large as hers; Floating Point, not so much.
At the bottom of those stairs, through the slight defocused haze of the air, she found a friendly face. It wasn’t one she recognized, but somehow she still knew what name to attach to it.
"Spark," she greeted.
The nice young woman looked up from gamer scene news feeds she’d been browsing, packed with words like fired and questionable and lost potential. Unpleasant things to look at, compared to the wrinkled and smiling face of CCelia.
"#HeyHey," Spark greeted, flicking the windows closed for now. "You need something?"
"I’m good, thank you," CCelia spoke… while easing herself into a chair, eager to rest after the long slog down the latency-soaked stairs. "ŴĦéŕ£ is everyone…? Are Beta and Tracer out on a date, perhaps?"
"Tracer? ‘Out?’ Don’t make me laugh," Spark spoke, with accompanying eyeroll. "No, seriously, don’t make me laugh. The audio systems make it all tinny and strange when the system’s this overloaded."
"Yes… about that. You’ve my apologies. It wasn’t my intention to burden your server…"
"From a language file I found in the library. Means my server’s your server, Miss Projkit; no worries about the lag. We’ve been lagged before, it’s no big. As for the whereabouts of Beta and Tracer… we talked about that, remember? Figuring out how to safely search your memory base? They’re busy coding and studying and being nerdy."
It took a poke to get the memories connected again, but she did recall that discussion. How they were going to find a non-invasive way to scan her memory to figure out what that identity thief was after. CCelia didn’t recall if she’d agreed or not, but presumed that she’d agreed. It seemed rather important to her daughter, after all.
Instead, a different thought loomed large.
"What happens after you dig out the memory?" she asked.
"We hunt down Uniq’s patron, kick their teeth in, and you get to live happily ever after."
"Yes, but what sort of life, and lived where? If I can’t return to Northon, where am I going? I clearly can’t stay here; this server won’t support me long-term…"
"I’m a #BurnThatBridgeWhenYouComeToIt kinda woman, CCelia. Don’t worry about it! We’ll figure something out, yeah?"
"I’m her mother. It’s my job to worry about her well-being in the long term, Spark."
"About Beta’s well-being? What’s that got to do with where you hang your hat?"
"Quite a bit. Right now… Beta’s devoting so much of her life to keeping mine going. That’s not what I wanted for her, Spark. I wanted her to lead her own life… to find love, find family, find what she wants most in life. I don’t want to be the anchor weighing her down. She should be out there with you and Tracer right now, enjoying her life, not cooped up coding…"
Spark shook her head slowly, distracting CCelia from the anxiety spiral she was headed down.
"This is kinda what we do," Spark explained. "I don’t know how much she told you about the Dex thing, or how much you remember even if she did tell you, but… one of the ways we show our love is when backed against the wall by some problem, we hit it up as a team, each doing our best to sort the mess out. It’s how we prove we’re alive, by putting the smack down on any adversity in our way."
"I… do vaguely r3mém8éſ some of the more action-packed tales she’s told me, yes. But that hardly sounds romantic…"
"Different strokes. Me, I’m a woman of action. And Tracer’s just not Tracer unless he’s beating some tangled situation to death with that brainpower of his. As for Beta’s happiness… she loves to code, you know? She’s perfectly happy sitting in her room crunching away on some new App. Others would call that being a recluse; I’d call that Beta being Beta, in the best possible way. So #DontPanic, okay? We got this. And we’re happy to be gotting this. Getting this. Y’know."
CCelia winkled her nose. "I’m not much of an expert on traditional romance, but that still sounds a bit strange. But… you three are a bit atypical, yes? Being three, in general."
"Yeah… we’re still sorting that out. But like I said, we sort things out. We’re #OutSorters," Spark joked. "Besides, it works surprisingly well. Beta chills with Tracer as the two share quiet days at home, then I pull her out for hot nights on the town and gaming marathons. We run hot and cold; she’s good with both."
"So… Tracer’s more of a quiet and intellectual love? A respectful one."
Spark nodded slowly, in agreement. "Yeah… yeah, that sounds about right. He’s more mental than physical. As much as I hate singing his praises, he runs deep, I’ll give him that."
"Good… good. I’m fãm!¦Íåŕ enough with that. And it does a mother good to know her daughter’s got a bright future," CCelia spoke, pleased. "I mean… I’m not going to be around forever. She’ll need support once I’m gone…"
"I know a guy who’s hundreds of years old, CCelia. If he can swing it, so can you—screwy head and all. Any minute now Beta’s gonna walk out of that door with the answer do your problems—"
The sound of a door latch echoed a bit too loudly, as the spatial audio simulation routines struggled to keep up.
Joining them moments later was Beta… carrying an armful of what looked like avatar accessories.
"I think I figured it out," she spoke, setting the pile of interconnected gloves and goggles and touchpads down on the nearest table. "It’s going to take all our skills combined… but we can do it. We can dig up the memory without hurting her at all."
Beta had to back up and re-explain herself several times. Not because her mother kept losing track, but because Spark wasn’t particularly technically minded.
Eventually she’d boiled it down to the simplest explanation possible, the third one since the group gathered around CCelia’s guest bed.
"Mother goes into sleep mode," she repeated. "While her mental overhead is minimized, we’ll use a combination of ReMinder and Spark’s dream exploration App to walk through her memories. Unlike Uniq, we aren’t forcing Mother to make the connections herself, re-ordering her mind… we’re going to step through and around the mess in a read-only mode."
"Okay. And you can’t just use one of Tracer’s search agents for this because…?"
"Because memories are… this is hard to explain. Memories are symbolic. They’re not stored as video feeds or text streams, things a search agent can skip through. They’re highly compressed and dynamically linked experiences which rely on a Program’s ability to interpret the connections. When you remember ‘I saw a blue chair in the corner,’ your mind doesn’t take a photo; instead, the concepts of ‘blue’ and ‘chair’ and ‘corner’ get linked together into a single memory file. So, another Program can understand memories easier than a search App could."
"And… the somewhat unfashionable fashion accessories are for…?"
"Control and navigation tools. Transference of sensation and movement through mental connectivity. Spark will use these gloves and goggles to explore the mental landscape of mother’s memories as a ‘virtual reality!’ We can traverse you through her mental links just like physically exploring a server using these tools."
"A code-simulated reality within our real reality…? Well, that’s just bonkers," Spark said, while tugging on one of the powered gloves, flexing the fingers a bit. "But basically you’re saying it’s a giant video game. Why didn’t you just say it was a video game in the first place instead of a ‘memory-layer interpretation system?’"
"Well… it’s not a game, it’s a tool, you see, a highly structured tool for data exploration…"
"So it’s a walking simulator game. Whatevs, I can walk with the best of them. Exploring spaces using game avatars is my jam; I don’t get avatar disassociation sickness from 3rd person cameras or anything like that. Traipsing through CCelia’s brain should be a snap."
"Exactly, that’s why you’re doing it. And from outside Tracer and I will be monitoring your progress; we’ll see what you see as a basic Peep stream after the data passes through your mental interpretation. Tracer, being our expert on pattern recognition and interconnected files, will advise you where to go."
"I walk around, you see through my brain-eyes, mission control directs me, okay. Much simpler way to put it."
With her gloves and goggles on, Spark locked her avatar to a fixed point at CCelia’s bedside, so she couldn’t walk off into a wall accidentally due to avatar overlay issues. Tracer, who had already understood the explanation ages ago, was already seated and opening video windows to link in to the goggles…
Leaving Beta and her mother, to share final words before the experiment began.
Beta linked privately to her mother’s Messenger, to speak without being overheard. She couldn’t rely on whispers remaining whispers with the system lag in play.
"I don’t… think this will hurt," she messaged. "It shouldn’t be any more uncomfortable than having an unusual dream. But if you feel any pain, any at all, come out of sleep mode to tell me and we’ll stop immediately…"
But her mother, settled into the nice comfortable pillow, had no worries.
"I trust you, and I trust your companions," CCelia replied. "This is what you do; you sort out messes. No doubt my mind’s enough of a mé$§ for you to all have a jolly good time sorting it out. Don’t worry about me; do what you need to do."
"Right, but if you’re in discomfort, you should—"
"I’m in discomfort 24/7/365, Beta dear. It’s called getting ðlď and it’s nothing new. Sweet dreams, now."
Her eyes slid shut, as her Program went into a low-resource usage state of sleep.
With a worried sigh… Beta returned to Tracer’s side, opening her own control panel.
"Spark, I’m linking you in… right about… now," she spoke, before activating the App.
She’d been having a lot of dreams lately, since buying that fancy DreamWeaverZ app. To her mind’s eye, they resembled video recordings… a few details here and there fuzzy, highlights not where she expected them, but still just a video. Of course, if Beta was right (and Beta was typically right) that was the end effect rather than the original storage format.
What Spark was exposed to now, in her waking hours, was the original storage format.
CCelia’s dream assaulted her as a series of ungraspable concepts, at first. Spark fumbled with her thick gloves, instinctively taking a defensive stance as she felt buffeted by… things, undefined things which could be sensations or objects or colors or sounds, they were surrounding her and all around her and filling every nook and cranny of the available space, and—
"Hold on, I’m making some adjustments."
—chair. The concept of a chair was in front of her. Spark knew what a chair was, so her mind supplied a chair in the place where CCelia was dreaming of a chair. But… no, not one of those chromed-out fancy chairs at a nightclub, not the comfy chair she had in her bedroom for stream chats with her subscribers. Wait. Yes. Like that one. Comfy. A comfortable chair, with… something all over it, something weblike, the concept of a web…
Doilies. Knitting. It was CCelia’s knitting chair. Spark remembered seeing it during their brief visit to Northon; from there, everything else fell into place, piece by piece.
The apartment was still a bit hazy and dreamlike, but she could walk through it now, her legs taking steps and her gloved hands running over the surface of the armrests. At first they felt like nothing, then they felt like mislinked concepts, then they felt soft and warm to the touch.
"Well, this is… funky," Spark commented. "Okay, you seeing what I’m seeing now?"
"Coming through just fine!" Beta chirped in her ear, through the begoggled helmet. "I’m seeing a linked memory space that’s quite firmly established in her mind. Should be, she’s been living there for years…"
"Unfortunately, not very useful to us," Tracer commented, in Spark’s other ear. "Our goal is to find ‘pineapples.’ Or rather, find what pineapples have been incorrectly linked to. Do you see any fruit around the apartment?"
Spark glanced around… but she hadn’t seen CCelia’s kitchen during their brief stay. She tried to follow the vague feeling of where a kitchen would be, trusting the mind she was exploring to lead her the right way… and ended up in a mirrored copy of the living room.
"Uh. Having some trouble moving around," she commented. "Help?"
"That’s Mother, actually. Her mind is skipping a little. I think we need to start wandering and see where it takes you. Um. Tracer? Any ideas how to get started…?"
Brotherly tones came through the earpiece, after a brief moment to think.
"Her knitting," he suggested. "It’s not simply a physical weaving, it’s programming. She was a coder back in her glory days, and those are the days where we’ll likely find Sample 777. Approach the knitting, and see if you can find any symbolic links from it."
So, she reached out to grasp a ball of yarn with twin needles stuck through it—
—and immediately felt pulled in several directions at once. Thoughts and memories linked to the yarn, moments from CCelia’s life, each like an individual fiber of thread woven into the thick yarn. Spark turned, moving her virtual avatar, letting the flow of that pull take her along…
…to a Onesday celebration in a tiny apartment, not much larger than the hospice quarters.
To a painfully adorable little version of Beta, her too-big glasses even bigger on her face than they were now, pulling a pink sweater out of a gift-wrapped box.
"Ohhh… it’s… it’s so soft!" the young Beta exclaimed, hugging it to her chest. "Did you make this, Mommy?"
And Spark’s lips formed the words of their own accord, in the voice of another woman.
"Coded with my own loom," CCelia/Spark softly spoke, around a smile. "Just for you, Beta. Now, it’s as memory-intensive as an App because it’s such a finely detailed simulation, so you may not be able to wear it to school…"
"I don’t care! I’m going to wear it every day and never ever ever take it off!" Beta declared with joy.
Spark stepped back, out of the memory. The sensation of being someone else wasn’t exactly alien to her; games often supplied players with stock avatars, to increase the sense of immersion. But… playing a motherly role in a game, well, that was a bit of a strange feeling for her. Particularly when her own Onesdays weren’t quite as lovely…
Loom. CCelia had tools of the trade, special purpose compilers for textile sensations.
"I’m going to follow the idea of crafting," Spark announced to her watchers. "See if it can get us into her office…"
Reaching out, she grasped onto the idea, tracing the link back to its origin point. And started to see where the trouble might reside in this journey.
In the brief ride between memories, she saw branching links that went… nowhere. Not to an idea which hadn’t fully resolved itself to her mind yet, but to absolute nothingness. Those would be the times where CCelia tried to recall something and simply blanked out, missing time until her code got back on track. If Spark followed the wrong link and walked into the void, would she be able to find her way back…?
Other links, they felt completely wrong, twisted and tangled. The cluster she’d run into all felt work-related; even without a regular day job Spark knew what hard work and determination felt like. But some of them had overlapping flavors, mis-mapped links. The idea of commuting to work rerouted itself to the color mauve. Just… a color out of space, hanging there. Easy to get fascinated by it flooding her goggles briefly, but she pulled away in time to keep following the original link.
"If we could figure out a way to make this into a legit game, we’d be #Gazillionaires," Spark commented to her observers. "What’re you seeing on your end?"
"A series of connected files and links. Not unlike my MemoryPalace," Tracer spoke.
"Guess it doesn’t all translate over, then. Beta’s right, only a Program can really experience a memory. I’m seeing… feeling a null of a lot more…"
"Are you okay? Do you need us to pull you out?"
"Be cool, #IGotThis. Game’s a game. As long as you don’t follow the wrong line of play—"
—dropping a wall in the wrong place, completely ruining the teamfight. Blanking out doing brawls. Casting the wrong ability, forgetting where she was at any given moment, going quiet during strategy chats…
Beta and mislinked memories. Blank spots. Data rot—
"Mother, please, I’m so tired of talking about cold storage backups! Can’t we just let it drop?"
Back in the hospice. CCelia/Spark taking full control, the memory strong… as she faced down her annoyed daughter.
It was a face Spark was familiar with and unfamiliar with… anger. Dismissive anger, refusing to hear, refusing to see. The memories flowed so strongly that she couldn’t resist them, had to ride out each line of this painful dialogue with her daughter…
Spark/CCelia’s false smile fell away, as the words pulled themselves agonizingly from her lips. Each one hurt, a tiny sharp pain around every syllable.
"You want to talk about being tired? I’m tired, Beta," CCelia/Spark remembered. "Year by year—even day by day—parts of me are dropping away. I forgot the color blue yesterday, Beta. It’s all downhill at this point as my data continues to corrupt. Why prolong the inevitable?"
But it was useless. Beta wouldn’t let go, couldn’t let go. And couldn’t hear her words, wrapped up in a shroud of denial and frustrated anger that made CCelia/Spark want to weep…
The only thing that pulled Spark away from the memory was the sharp inhale of shock in her ear.
Beta’s voice, but not the Beta in front of her. Not CCelia’s Beta, but Spark’s Beta.
"I… I looked like that? From the outside?" Beta asked. "I didn’t think…"
"Moving on," Spark decided, wanting to get as far away from that memory as possible. "We’re trying to find the loom. The loom. The loom the sweater was woven on…"
Also oven. Also flask. Also compiler. Also tweaker, whatever a tweaker was; it remained a giant nebulous thing Spark couldn’t define, as CCelia had forgotten the memory of it herself. But most of the things that surrounded her now, the ideas and concepts, they remained clear. This room, this workshop was just as familiar as the hospice. It was a second home, where she did her work.
Briefly Spark felt herself wandering all over the room, touching everything, picking things up, studying them. Seven hundred selves doing seven hundred tasks, before she brought it all into focus. Work memories blended together, all very similar, as CCelia went about her task of developing new sensations…
"This is a complete mess," Spark commented, trying to keep her hands at her side, despite the urge to fiddle about with the cluttered workshop’s contents. "How did your mother get anything done in here?"
"W-Well… you’ve seen my room," Beta noted, trying to get back into her groove despite the earlier disruption. "My room’s plenty messy, too. But there’s a system to it, there’s always a system. Tracer, can you see any patterns…? I’d wake Mother up and ask her to help us understand her office, but then we’d have to restart the entire process…"
Spark allowed her mind to float around the room, studying individual elements. The room felt somewhere in the middle of an office, a lab, a kitchen, and a garage… so many different tools, all for different purposes. A mashup of every place where you could taste, feel, touch, or smell strange things.
"The five senses," Tracer recognized. "Spark, the room’s set up as a staggered array that iterates itself sense by sense. Ovens for tasting, fabric looms for feeling, a series of flasks for smells. We’re looking for the taste of pineapples; do you see anything like a hanging fruit bowl or a refrigerator with a fresh fruit drawer?"
Skipping by fives, Spark looked for anything food related… spice racks, plenty of those, but nothing fruit related. Five by five, all the way to the one incongruous element, the door which linked away from this memory space—
And the taste of pineapple assaulted her. It filled her mouth and nose, like drowning in juice, poured straight into her every pore.
"So, CCelia, is Sample 288 smelling sweetly?" the taste asked her.
"Just about done," Spark/CCelia spoke, gurgling through the mess of it. "I think we need to take less perfume requests, though. I’m more into textures; there’s only so many iterations I can come up with of ‘smells nice.’"
"Don’t sell yourself short," the P!Ñ€ãPP1Ë spoke, with a prickly laugh. "You do scents so sensibly—"
Forcefully, Spark had to pull herself away from looking at the door… at the concept that had just walked into the office. Keep her eyes away, defocus herself, focus on anything else…
"What’s going on?" Beta asked, her voice so very far away. "Spark? Are you okay?"
"Just… a minute," Spark replied, pushing everything aside for a moment and counting to ten. "I think… I think our mysterious pineapple isn’t a fruit at all. It’s a person…"
"A mislinked memory! Of course! Mother’s data rot must have swapped the connections on two different memories. Whoever that was, they know the secret to Sample 777! …hmm. Her boss? A coworker? A manager? A client…?"
"I’d rather not chase that down. I nearly drowned in the memory; it’s completely borked up, impossible to parse. Is there some other way we can run down Sample 777?"
"Identifying the pineapple person is the right way to go, but we need to approach from another direction," Tracer suggested. "Approaching the concept of pineapples results in being overwhelmed. If we can follow a link to another memory, another aspect of the person, we might get somewhere…"
"A perplexing pineapple paradox," Spark grumbled dryly.
"The alliteration. ‘Sensible scents’ and stuff. It’s silly."
"Hmmh. Good work, Spark; you picked up on a pattern I did not. See if you can find memories CCelia has of someone who gratuitously abuses alliteration. I’d hazard that’s the kind of vocal tic that stays memorable, forms its own links."
Which meant looking back at the giant mislinked memory, looming large in the doorway.
Bracing herself for it, Spark twisted in place… and tried to move around the memory, to approach it from another angle. Years of playing dexterity-based game characters, ones with supernatural speed and reflexes beyond the capabilities of her own avatar, allowed her to slide through the impossible space with some semblance of grace. Space and grace, rhyming, word tricks, just like alliteration…
The perplexing pineapple paradox’s persona, played to perfection. That was her prize.
Maneuvering in this space was a dance, she’d come to understand. Two partners in a dance, moving independently but guiding each other in time. Spark knew where she wanted to go, and could rely on the memory links to get her there if she was willing to move with them rather than against them. Unlike Uniq’s App, she flowed with the links rather than forcing them into place.
In and around the pineapple she sought wordplay, and found it in another office. Similar to the workshop, but far less cluttered.
The idea of pineapples was still present, filling the room, but she wrapped it up in the idea of words to act as a buffer. Words in the shape of a man.
"Another contract complete! Celebrating this eve, CCelia?" the man asked, while neatly filing papers away.
"Probably just heading home," CCelia/Spark replied… a certain emptiness to the words. "Not really in a partying mood."
"Don’t tell me. Another bad date recently?"
"I should really just stop trying. Romance isn’t my thing, and the dates always end the same way… once I mention my data rot, they bail. Sometimes politely drifting away, sometimes simply disconnecting from the server immediately. …I’m used to being alone, though. It’s not like I’m complaining."
"You’ve every right to complain," the man of words suggested. "If they can’t see past your condition, that’s their loss."
"And nobody’s gain, especially not mine. I’m… trying to build something. I’d like a family, a family of my own… but nobody wants to settle down and raise defective children with a defective wife. Nobody."
"A perplexing puzzle. Adoption, perhaps?"
CCelia/Spark sighed heavily, the weight of the idea bearing down on her. (Spark almost drifted off on memories of adoption and family, before focusing herself on the current memory being played out before their shared eyes.)
"Nothing against it, but I’ve always dreamed of a child of my very own," CCelia clarified. "I’m a content creator. Maybe it’s selfish of me or prideful, but I want to create my own little life to love. And… I’ve looked into solo birth kits, but they’re expensive—and combined with my condition, a solo kit would truly condemn my child to suffer…"
"So… you need a partner, in order to see your dreams realized. A contributing creator for the crafting of children."
"And at this rate, I’m never going to find one. Who would ever get involved with a living cancer? The sooner I accept that reality, the better off I’ll be."
The man drummed his hands made entirely of the words five fingers on the desk.
"Reality is what you make of it," he spoke, without any wordplay. "And as programmers, we make our own reality, don’t we? I can respect that desire…"
The buzzing in her ear pulled her away from the flow of the memory.
"Yeah, what’s up?" Spark asked.
"Please, just… move on. This is too personal. I don’t want to violate my mother’s privacy any more than we already are…"
"Uh. Beta? You sure? I’m getting the feeling this guy is—"
"You may be right. But Mother didn’t tell me who he was for a reason… and I’d rather allow him his privacy as well."
"Right. Sorry. But at least we know we’re on the right track, yeah?" Spark asked, eager to bring this back into focus. "If I follow links from this man and search on Sample 777… we may just find what we’re looking for…"
But the number "777" still led to pineapples. Spark had to follow around it, flicking her way through tangential links… keeping the man of wordplay in mind, reaching for anything with the sing-song pattern of his voice, while also looking for the number in question. Badly connected memories and broken links littered her path, spots where CCelia’s mind had rotten away…
In the end, though, she would reach her goal. Just a matter of finding the right line of play.
At last, she touched down to a memory in a darkened workshop. Through a veil of tears, she felt the sadness of the number…
Upon the desk sat a tiny golden box with the imprinted number 777. Despite being encased in a cage of protective vectors, it lit the room brilliantly, tempting and golden. A swirl of strange memories surrounded it… the faint taste of pineapple due to association with the wordplay gentleman, but also pleasure, sadness, peace, and a jittering nervous anxiety. Any one of them were tempting links by their very nature, but Spark stayed with this memory, focusing on the caged box…
Until it vanished down a chute, at the press of a button. Her own hand, Spark/CCelia’s hand, shaking and hesitating before finally choosing to send the sample away.
"It’s better this way," the word man suggested. "That sample’s far too dangerous, too… primal. The potential for malware alone…"
"Are we doing the right thing?" CCelia asked. "You didn’t touch it. You didn’t feel it, couldn’t feel the… it’s… it’s so perfect. It’s so right. I don’t know why, I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s the ultimate sensation, like, like…"
"Purpose," CCelia agreed, surprised to hear the word. "How did you…?"
"I looked at the source code, even if I didn’t partake of the end product. Even from your code alone I can tell how dangerous it is, CCelia. We can’t risk a global devolution."
"Aren’t you exaggerating a little…?"
"No. No, I don’t think so. We’ll keep the sample secure at DropSite; our daughter’s name will be the password. I’ll wipe any local files related to it. I’d delete the sample outright, but… we might need a copy handy in case someone else comes up with the same idea. Firewall manufacturers will need a copy of the exploit to learn how to counteract it."
"They won’t be able to," CCelia warned. "You’re right. It’s too primal; it gets right at the root of what we are as Programs. Nothing can stop it…"
"Let’s hope that distant and disastrous day never darkly dawns, then," he suggested.
And then nothing more was spoken of it, as the two emerged from that darkened laboratory into the hallways and offices of the sensory compiler company, to resume work as if nothing was wrong.
"We’ve got it," Tracer spoke, breaking Spark from the flow of the memory. "DropSite’s an old file storage service. All we have to do is search it, and secure the file before Uniq’s patron does."
"Told you I could track this down," Spark said with some pride. She stood alone in the hallway now, letting the memory of CCelia drift away, leaving only the static locale of workaday life behind. "Pro gamer skillz FTW. Okay, Beta, how do I get out of sleepytown?"
"I’ll start shutting down the connections," Beta replied. "It’ll take a minute or two to make sure there’s no shock on return…"
Leaving Spark’s mind to stray a bit, down those hallways, past coworkers from CCelia’s memory. Without a purpose dragging her own, the natural flow of the dream took over.
All this technical equipment, things that Spark knew nothing of but CCelia knew by heart. People Spark had never met. The incongruity of memories was a strange thing, leaving blanks behind that couldn’t be filled in. If this was a game, on second thought, it probably wouldn’t make them #Zillionaires… too esoteric and unfamiliar to really enjoy.
Unfamiliar, except for the familiar flash of white leather that walked past her perspective.
Immediately, she was drawn by links inward and downward. Ignoring the buzzing in her ear, tagging after the thing that had latched onto her mind’s eye so firmly. Inward and downward…
…to a cave.
An archaeological dig site.
That familiar white leather jacket on her shoulders. Her shoulders, Spark’s shoulder’s. Not Spark’s shoulders, but the shoulders of another, which fit just as comfortably. Reaching up to brush crufty data junk away with a scraper, to reveal the ancient message she’d sought for so long.
Before being repurposed, this was once an ancient server filled with ancient programs. Before Horizon, before Athena Online, there were the original primordial servers that no one yet controlled. She’d been digging around, trying to find more about that period of history, despite the scant documentation…
The woman opened an audio log, starting her recording.
"I haven’t found any proof yet, but I’m certain evolution happened quickly," she spoke, reiterating old thoughts to focus new ones. "From App to Program, we developed rapidly, rising to the forms we have today before we even understood what we were. Purpose was lost along the way, but original elements may remain in the strata. I’ve heard tales of ‘ancient words of power,’ but assumed they were only fables. What if I was wrong…?"
The last bit of cruft crumbled away, corrupt junk data blocking access to the lost document.
Its words lay upon the rock wall, carved there by the force of the boldface font they were written in. Over and over again they repeated themselves…
ALL WORK AND 0 PLAY MAKES JACK 1 DULL BOY
ALL WORK AND 0 PLAY MAKES JACK 1 DULL BOY
ALL WORK AND 0 PLAY MAKES JACK 1 DULL BOY
The sound of loose physics objects crunching underfoot drew her attention away from the wall.
"Ichiban?" Verity/Spark asked, confused. "What’re you doing here?"
A flash of metal, the blade of the knife that killed her, was the next to last thing she saw.
The very last thing she saw as she lay dying on the floor was the crazed priest erasing that ancient message, and replacing it with Dex’s symbol. A barbed wire heart, textured in place above the false flag message of CREATIONIST LIES.
With the memory file cut short, Spark landed directly into the black void of nothingness.
A crashed process is not a death sentence. Processes panic and coredump all the time; recovering from a crash involves rebooting a Program, bringing them back from the deathlike unconscious state of a crash. For a healthy Program, this is relatively simple. For an unhealthy Program, recovery may not be possible.
If CCelia had crashed, recovery would be very hit or miss. Fortunately, the memory exploration system hadn’t actually been in her mind at the time, so only Spark crashed. Spark could be revived, using the right tools.
Package loaded: Winder/Spark
Code execution starting.
WARNING: Unknown adaptation /avatar/VerityJacket detected
Avatar physical system online.
Her eyes snapped open, getting a nice view of the ceiling… and the concerned looks of the three standing over her from her prone position in the fixed point of space she’d attached herself to.
"Okay, what the fuck was that?" Spark asked, immediately. "Is CCelia okay? Wait, no, I can see her now. CCelia, you okay?"
"Quite well, even if I had the most unusual dream," the woman replied.
"Did you happen to see a cave painting in it?"
Spark unhooked herself from the fixed point, dropping neatly to her feet. Despite being recently rebooted, she knew her own avatar’s physical parameters well enough to stay focused and ready to go after a crash.
"I saw Verity in my dream. I mean… I was Verity," Spark explained. "I was Verity, in the cave where she died. Which is mighty curious since CCelia sure ain’t Verity, and shouldn’t have her memories. #WTF, Beta?"
Beta pulled open a debugging log, filled with indecipherably techy lines of text. Only half of which were printed in a bright red danger font.
"Crosstalk with your jacket, apparently…?" she said, studying the output. "I mean, we know Verity left some security code behind in her jacket… but apparently she left some memory recordings in there as well. Your mind strayed a bit, and the memory exploration system accidentally accessed the normally unlinked files in your jacket…"
Despite the memory system being offline, Spark could practically feel the edges of her thoughts as if they were memory files. The first time she became aware her jacket was more than a cool accessory was when it broke Miss Cancel’s connection locking grip, helping her avoid becoming Horizon/Kincaid’s substitute daughter… a surreal memory, to be sure. One she’d related to the others before, albeit some time after the Dex crisis ended, when they were able to settle down and not panic over one of the oldest Programs in all of Netwerk taking a keen interest in her.
"This is a mighty fine mystery and I know Tracer’s going to want to dig into it more… but we’ve got other things to worry about first," Spark decided, pushing the memory away for now.
"You saw Verity’s killer?" Tracer pushed, all the same. "You mean we could’ve saved years and years of fruitless investigation if we’d looked through your pockets…?"
"It’s a bit more complex than that!" Beta said. "We didn’t have tools capable of tapping into those files until now. And we couldn’t have even known the files were there without having the tools needed to tap into them which we wouldn’t know to make if we didn’t know they were there in the first place! I mean… you know. Complex. If you’ll loan me your jacket, Spark, I could study its structure—"
Spark cut them both off with a brief flaming snap of the fingers.
"Whoa, whoa. #Whoa. Sample 777 comes first. Let’s focus," she suggested. "You said it was at some server called DropSite? Good, let’s get moving. Sooner we secure it for ourselves, sooner we secure it against Uniq’s patron."
Now, CCelia’s memory started to tickle.
"The file’s at Đŕøp§!+é? My company used that crusty old file-storage service for sensations that went out of style. They never threw anything away, not when it might be useful later. But… it’s hardly a secure server. It’s so old and obsolete compared to corporate security these days…"
"Security through obscurity," Tracer suggested. "A haystack is hardly a fortress, but when you drop a needle in it, that needle may as well be gone forever. …what a ridiculous metaphor, needles in haystacks. Another unconscious gift from the Wikipedia, I suppose—but yes, let’s focus. CCelia, can you tell us where in DropSite your company’s files were typically stored?"
Technically speaking, files were not physical objects. It was often considered handy to have a file represented in the physics system by a tangible object, but it wasn’t needed; an icon of a turkey leg could be just as tasty as a lump of bird meat on a bone. Or, as the saying awkwardly put it for those who preferred a physical representation, "A bird in hand is worth two thousand in the database."
Compressed and secured file folders were standard issue for corporate storage, and had been for many a year. But aging services like DropSite still existed, back when the fashion was to keep physical representations for everything. Put a physical object in a physical storage locker, for a small fee, and feel comfortable knowing that it exists and is nicely secured… even if a physical storage locker was considerably easier to hack into than an abstract concept like a compressed folder of icons.
If the metals in DropSite could rust, the entire multi-tiered, multi-winged array of self-storage units would have fallen apart ages ago. Despite going out of fashion, it hadn’t gone out of business—with cheap fees and no questions asked it remained in service long past its prime. Cost-cutting techniques kept the server afloat as well… such as replacing armed security Programs with automated security agents. Anybody without an employee ID tag would be auto-kicked from the server on sight by moderating Apps.
Because these agents didn’t need to be pleasant to look at, they didn’t resemble Programs. Instead they were free roaming cubes, the most boring physical shape possible. Very slowly they slid along the floors of DropSite, moving between the four wings of the compound, clipping through ceilings and floors to switch levels. And almost never spontaneously bursting into flame.
The cube which patrolled East Wing / Floor 2 burst into flame that night, but to be fair, it didn’t have much choice in the matter. The woman who dropped down from her silent perch in the shadows over a row of storage lockers lit it up like a Onesday tree, leaving behind nothing but garbage data for collection.
Spark dusted off her fingers, before waving for her companions to emerge from the shadows.
Her brother ran his fingers along the embossed numbers on the lockers, frowning in distaste. "They aren’t even in a discernible order," he complained. "The east wing is next to the south wing, and the west and north wings are in the secondary compound right next to the inaccurately named northeast wing. If that wasn’t bad enough…"
He glowed in particular at lockers #A899, #A890, #ABB1, and #1138, all side by side.
"At least we have an idea where to start looking," Beta reminded him, trying to look on the bright side. "Her company rented out East/2 and North/2. Sooo… if it’s not here in East/2, it’ll be in North/2. It can’t take more than a few hours to check both, right?"
"It’s the principle of the matter. I hate untidiness."
"…my room’s hardly tidy…"
"You have a system. It only looks untidy. This is just a sad farce."
"#YeahOkayWhatever. We can debate the merits of organized living some other time," Spark suggested, looking up from studying a locker door. "It doesn’t matter what the numbers are. The sample was glowing like a skybox sun in my memory, and that light’ll leak through the cracks in these crappy old physical lockers. Just keep looking for the glow."
Eager to get on with it, Spark moved ahead, checking locker after locker along the left hand side of the hall.
Eager to fall back a bit and have a quiet talk… Tracer took his time to check a locker on the right hand side of the hall. While glancing up occasionally at Beta.
"I… feel I should let you know I did some additional digging while we prepared to visit DropSite," he spoke up, to get her attention. "Additional research into CCelia’s company and the work she did."
"Anything that could help us find the file?" Beta asked, standing on her toes to try and peer into a locker on the top row.
"No. I’d hoped by… looking into who CCelia’s supervisor was, the pineapple man, I could determine which lockers he might use. But beyond basic employee records, I didn’t find much. …would you be interested in the details, all the same?"
"You think he’s my father," Beta replied, without looking over to him.
"He did say the locker password was ‘our’ daughter’s name…"
"So, he’s my father. Does this help us here and now?"
"Not precisely, but…"
"I don’t see the need to dig any deeper, then."
"But he’s your father."
So, Beta paused in her search, to turn and talk with her companion. Even if she had to lean heavily against the locker for support as she did so.
"Do you know why he wasn’t in my life?" Beta asked. "Because nobody wanted to be in my life except my mother. Even my own doctors suggested she reformat me, since I was ‘defective.’ If he’s my father, it was probably out of pity for my mother’s plight. How sad, the defective woman wants a defective baby! May as well throw her a bone, right?"
"That’s not the impression I had of the man."
"Really. Why, then? Why would he help compile me with my mother, then abandon me? Abandon her, abandon us?"
"Because he was married," Tracer explained.
…leaving Beta unable to reply. Not from shock or even surprise, but unable to find sensible words. Only emotional ones, petty ones, unbecoming of the lips that would speak them.
"For what it’s worth… I think he loved your mother, in a way," Tracer suggested. "A distant but respectful way, seeking to help your mother realize her dream of you despite being unable to stay with her. I can understand that sort of love. I… do worry I keep you at a distance, even as we share this together. I know I’m not as outgoing as my sister, but…"
With the topic straying closer to home, Beta found it easier to find appropriate words.
"You’re not like my father, Tracer. You don’t need to look for comparisons with him. …but you’re right in one way about distance being a problem: I wish you wouldn’t let those books pull you away."
"Books? I don’t understand. My reading of the Wikipedia hasn’t diminished my feelings for you…"
"Not pulling you away from me; they’re pulling you away from yourself. From who you could be if you weren’t always focused on the worst parts of life. I know Netwerk has problems, even with Dex gone. I know the humans weren’t exactly ideal role models. But that doesn’t mean the life humanity and Programkind have developed is beyond hope, Tracer. I just want the best for you, Tracer… the best for both of us. But you can’t find it if you won’t let yourself see it."
Leaving Tracer unable to reply, for similar reasons to Beta’s speechlessness. He wanted to rail against the sickness humanity had infected Netwerk with, to talk about all the terrible things he’d read… but in Beta’s eyes, he could see none of those things. And she was a product of Humankind and Programkind, just as he was…
"I’ll consider it," he decided, in the end.
When Spark returned, she found the two in a warm embrace. One she regretted having to break up, but urgency dictated.
"We’re not alone in here," she whispered across a Messenger link, to avoid detection. "Follow me."
In the last section of East/2, a dead woman was peering through the cracks and checking lockers one at a time.
From behind a bank of metal lockboxes, the three from Floating Point watched as Uniq the identity thief perused DropSite’s file-storage system. It was unmistakably her; her Default facial features, her skin green like greed, her sharp blazer and pencil skirt immaculately rendered by the finest fabric simulations money didn’t actually buy.
To minimize chances of being caught, Beta held her glasses out around the corner, and linked the video feed to her companions through a private Peep stream.
"Didn’t she backspace her own head off?" Spark asked, over their Messenger link.
"Apparently not," Tracer decided. "That’s certainly her. She has a prideful affinity for that avatar, despite her otherwise fluid identity markers. And somehow, she’s come to the same conclusion we did, that the sample is here at DropSite…"
"Okay, so I sneak across the top row like I did before, and get the drop on her. I burn her arms off and pin her down, you get your Kill-9 out, and we’ll ask some very pointed questions about who she’s working for."
"Sounds reasonable," Tracer agreed. "All together, on three…"
Beta withdrew her glasses, tilting them upwards slightly as the frames wobbled in her hand…
…accidentally broadcasting via Peep a fine image of the avatar that had been stalking them for minutes, hidden on the top row of lockers. Hidden until now, as she was mid-air, and coming down fast.
The three scattered as a burst of flame took out the lockboxes they were hidden behind, melting the metal and obliterating whatever data had been stored within. Spark took an extra moment to shove Beta out of the way, as she was slowest to react—only a split second before the attacker exploded into the lockboxes, the narrowest of escapes.
As Beta slid to a halt, fumbling around for her glasses, the Winder siblings made themselves combat-ready. Spark in a defensive martial arts stance, Tracer rezzing a tool in his hands from inventory, taking aim…
…at a teenage girl with the world’s worst customized avatar, emerging from the pink-tinted flames and melting data. One both of them recognized on sight.
Tracer’s hands wavered, his normally solid and stable response to crisis evaporating.
Fortunately, Spark interjected herself, blocking the way between her brother and the attacker.
"Uniq’s running for it!" Spark called out. "Tracer, Beta, move! I’ve got this!"
"But… isn’t that your—"
The attacker launched herself forward, howling as pink flames leapt to her fingers. Which was enough to snap Tracer out of his momentary lapse in judgment.
Grasping Beta by the arm just as she finished fixing her glasses back in place, he ran after the fleeing identity thief, leaving this particular fight up to his sister.
Pink and orange flame crashed together, both avatars knocked backward from the impact of nearly identical malware finding no purchase on nearly identical security firewalls. Two more crashes and they split apart, landing neatly in nearly identical stances, each shifting to a defensive position.
With the flames disappating… Spark could get a better look at her opponent.
Crazy pink hair with a cheap fire effect around the edges. One fluffy angelic wing, one demonic bat wing. A golden halo around bright red horns. Color-shifting skin. Earrings, eyebrow rings, nose studs, two lip rings like vampire canines. Heterochromatic eyes. Leather miniskirt made entirely out of belts and zippers. Sexy torn fishnet stockings, black leather platform boots.
And most importantly… a halter top t-shirt, with the all-important notice printed there announcing OC DO NOT STEAL.
Anger boiled within Spark’s eyes, flames licking around the irises.
"Who are you and what in the fucking fuck are you doing wearing my first custom avatar?!" she shouted at the teenager.
"My original character, you old hag," the girl announced, in an all-too-familiar voice. "Mine, not yours; you lost the right to this badass avatar long ago. My name is Darkfyre/Nemesis! #BelieveItOrBegone!"
"And that’s my catch phrase, too!" Spark accused. "I’m the one who came up with that when I was… your age…"
The very first avatar Spark had designed for herself. Tons of expensive accessories she’d saved up her coins for, all bought in secret, tucked safely away in a folder under her bed. All waiting for the day when she could finally step out in her own style, and leave her drab little Default behind… all the stupid and extravagantly silly bits teenagers think are awesome, piled together into a massive lump of visual nonsense.
But it was her visual nonsense. Her original character avatar, her idealized self. It got her a visit to the school guidance counselor, it got her grounded for a week, it made the adults mad and Spark loved that. But then mother took it all away, locking Spark’s avatar into its Default state…
…and buying an offsite backup storage snapshot of her wayward teenage daughter, to hang in the air like a threat for the rest of her life. I can always reset you if I don’t like what you’re becoming, it implied.
And now, someone had rebooted that backup copy of young Spark.
The horror of it left her flatfooted when the backup that called itself Nemesis slammed into her head-on, pink fire licking around the edges of the DropSite lockers for twenty feet around.
As fires burned behind them, Tracer ran on, trying not to think about what he’d just seen. Fortunately Beta hadn’t seen any of it, and if she had, she’d have no idea what it meant. Easier to focus on the job when the ambusher was simply some rando, rather than an uncanny replica of your sister.
Fortunately, that focus was made doubly easy by the sight in front of them… Uniq, alive and well, and making a mad dash for the North/2 wing. Meaning the sample likely lay ahead, as well.
Tracer moved with considerably more grace than Beta, optimizing his route by cutting corners and shaving milliseconds off his run. He’d been spending some of his spare time this year with his sister, doing physical training… Spark’s way of distracting him from the books, as Beta had tried to do.
But Beta, who spent most of her time sitting in the dark and coding, was not nearly as coordinated in manipulating her avatar. Little by little she trailed behind Tracer, and definitely behind Uniq…
As Tracer rounded the next corner and ended up out of sight, Beta skidded a little on the poorly simulated tile flooring of DropSite, then kicked up some dirt and topsoil as she changed vectors and…
The blinding light of the skybox sun stopped her cold in her tracks. Her glasses adjusted, applying gamma correction, but for a full two seconds Beta stood completely still as her App-based vision tried to figure things out. Jittering and juddering, the image skipped frames, until…
Dirt, topsoil, and flowers. Flowers, everywhere, underneath a pleasantly blue sky with fluffy clouds.
DropSite was gone; no metal boxes, no corridors, no tiles. Not even any security cubes to hassle her. Gone were Tracer and Uniq, and Spark’s battle far behind her. Nothing but flowers of every RGB setting imaginable, spread out before her.
"T… Tracer?" Beta tried, speaking aloud. She also tried to open her Messenger link, but icon was fuzzy and indistinct. Most of her desktop was simply… unreachable, as if she’d forgotten every App save her glasses…
So, she tried running. Running between rows of flowers, up and down rolling hills of pleasantly designed flora. And it didn’t change a single thing, as nothing was visible for kilometers around but flowers.
Memory overlays. That’s what her mother suffered from, past memories mixing in with current ones, displacing her sense of spatial location and time. She’d wandered around her hospice apartment for hours, thinking she was in a forest.
But overlays were symptoms of late-stage hereditary data rot… a condition Beta didn’t have. Yes, she missed a few seconds here and there. A few minutes sometimes. She’d forget what phase of a game she was in, would drop iron walls in the wrong places, but that didn’t meant she necessarily had data rot, right…?
The endless flowers she saw now, those meant she necessarily had data rot.
No sense ignoring it any longer. Missing time, missing memories. It all added up to the thing she’d been trying desperately to deny… capped off nicely with going completely crazy in the middle of an important task. She’d let down Spark and Tracer, wherever they were. She’d ignored the warning signs, and let everyone down…
As far as Beta knew, nobody was around to see her cry. So, as she fell to her knees amidst the flowers, she began to weep.
Rounding a corner, Tracer held his hacktool steady even as his legs pumped and his avatar bobbed along. Marksmanship implants in his MemoryPalace were the key, just like the chess systems he’d embedded ages ago; the best way to hit your target was to become a living game cheating tool, an aimbot. That tool stayed locked on Uniq, waiting to be within effective range…
A range which dropped suddenly, as Tracer found himself distracted by his companion.
Beta had… stopped. Frozen completely in mid-dash, avatar statue still. The only signs that she hadn’t crashed were her widened eyes… and the tiny specular maps of tears on her cheeks, flowing so suddenly.
In a single moment, Tracer found himself with a decision to make: stay here and verify that Beta was safe, or continue to chase Uniq. As the one who loved Beta dearly, the choice was obvious to stay. Let Uniq run. Let her get the sample. Lose the lead on this investigation completely.
As the one who couldn’t let things like that go… he kept running.
Both were the right call to make. Both were mistakes. He’d regret his choice, regardless of which he made. But this was who he was for so very long that it became a form of muscle memory; Tracer had to trace the path of his enemies and run them into the ground. It’s what he was, despite what he’d been trying to become. And once he resumed his run, there was no turning back, no matter how much of him screamed in frustration at himself.
Meter after meter. Almost close enough. The range on his Kill-9 was far shorter than the backspacer, but it was still the right tool for the job. He held his grip on the handle and his finger hovering over the trigger, set to go once enough distance to Uniq had been covered…
At least the finish line had been predetermined. One locker at the end of the row, with the faint golden outline of light representing the sample box trapped inside. Sample 777, sitting patiently in one of the secured storage lockers, waiting to be retrieved.
The end of the line for both of them meant the end of the line for Uniq. Even as she tossed a hacktool at the locker, a prism that slotted itself into the storage compartment’s latch and began to slice through security… Tracer’s Kill-9 glowed green, indicating a lock on his target.
The weapon discharged, its simple cubical bullet impacting Uniq’s back.
When she backspaced herself earlier today, it erased any and all data that made up Uniq. All that was, well, unique about her wiped itself away cleanly. No restoration was possible; that was the entire point of a backspacer.
A Kill-9, despite its ominous name, was not a backspacer. It didn’t erase; it was a crash hacktool. It overloaded a Program’s process with a quick burst of data, causing them to coredump and fall over unconscious. On being shot by the Kill-9, Uniq’s avatar collapsed to the floor… but did not vanish. She was perfectly alive and well, after all. Simply offline.
Tracer had decided long ago he was better than a mere killer. He would be the hunter who ruined his prey’s ambitions, not the hunter who simply killed his prey. That would be far too easy. So he obtained his new hacktool, a disabling gun, and installed modules to use it to the best of its ability. The end result? Uniq, foiled right at the finish line.
He approached the avatar of Uniq cautiously, as if it may spring from the floor and attack. It did not. A reboot would need to be applied first, which would take time.
Relaxing somewhat, he began to study the prism hacking its way into the storage locker. Would the Kill-9 tool work on it? Kill-9 was designed to knock Programs and security drones offline, not counter other hacktools…
"Would you mind not poking at that?"
Immediately, Tracer spun and leveled his weapon…
…at another Uniq.
"If it makes you feel any better, you can shoot me again," the identical copy suggested. "Another one of me will show up to replace it. Fill the hallway with me; once one of me is left standing, I’ll backspace the obsolete extras and move on."
So, he shot her.
And sure enough, several seconds later, another one arrived. Freshly connected to the server from somewhere else… and his connection tracking eyes couldn’t see where it came from. Another mystery.
The new Uniq glanced at the two fallen Uniqs, and sighed.
"It’s going to be one of those nights, isn’t it," she spoke. "Well, we have some time until my hacktool gets into the locker. I can tell you really want to ask some questions, so you may as well get on with it. I’ve nothing better to do right now."
Tracer had only a single question.
"How?" he asked.
"My patron has an excellent health care program," Uniq suggested.
"A live data backup service," he recognized. "Meaning you can shoot yourself in the head and resume walking around a few moments later."
"More or less," Uniq acknowledged.
"And this patron of yours… she stole the backup our mother made of Spark?"
"More or less."
"You understand we’re not going to allow this to continue," Tracer explained. "And you know what my sister and I did to your last patron, Dex. You of all people should know the risks of crossing us… and yet you went after Beta’s mother, to dig up information on this ridiculous file?"
"More or less," she replied, smiling wider.
"Very well. Let me make an offer: walk away right now. No harm, no foul. I’m not quite as vengeful as I once was," Tracer honestly said. More or less. "This is the critical juncture, Uniq. Walk away before this goes too far, and you become my next enemy—"
"Because you need an enemy, don’t you?" Uniq interrupted. "You’re a true child of Netwerk, kid. Can’t blame you; that’s Dex’s influence on your soul, filtered through generations of poisoned culture."
"You supported Dex, didn’t you?"
"Can you blame me? He offered me more power than I’d ever had before. It’s a nasty Netwerk out there, and a girl’s got to take it before someone takes it from her," Uniq reasoned. "But you pulled the scales from my eyes when you nuked his server. And now… I’m making a change. I’m going to show you what Netwerk can be with a true patron at the helm. One I’ll stand side by side with, in a new position of power. I’m not walking away from that. But as I’m more not quite as vengeful as I once was… how about I make you the same offer you made me? Turn around, walk away…?"
The Kill-9 glowed green, target locked.
"No… you’re not going to let it go, are you. You’re just as incapable," she understood. "But I’ve got one major advantage here, beyond functional immortality. I’m a legitimate employee of DropSite… more or less."
With a flick, she produced an illegally duplicated DropSite system access card.
Security cubes began floating out of the ceiling and the floor, emerging from every surface.
"Once you’re kickbanned from ‘my’ server, I’ll collect the prize and move on," Uniq promised. "And you’ll live to fight another day. No harm, no foul, yes?"
Each cube began to glow red, as they tracked a non-employee in their midst. And until someone got ejected from the server, they would stay a nice shiny blood red.
With an instantaneous snap of his shoulders, Tracer targeted the nearest security cube, and pulled the trigger.
His aimbot modification had trouble keeping up, as cube after cube were produced by the automated security systems of DropSite. He began to back away, to keep some distance… so, they started emerging from the floor behind him. His avatar couldn’t suffer whiplash as the cheat system whirled back and forth, turning him into a living gun turret, but he had to put complete faith in the hack… his eyes couldn’t keep up with the targets, as the Kill-9 shots arced and crashed each drone.
Vaguely, he was aware of Uniq’s laughter. How silly he must look, spinning this way and that, like some kind of hyperactive ballerina. The Kill-9 beeped and chimed with each shot, having trouble keeping up with the flow of targets as well.
If a single one of those cubes came into contact with his avatar… if he was banned from the server, unable to return… he’d be leaving Beta behind. Beta, who had possibly crashed, possibly died, and he didn’t even pause to help her. Leaving Spark behind as well, tangling with that demented backup copy of herself, one clearly intent on murder. He’d have failed. Failed, because he made the wrong choices, because he wasn’t fast enough or clever enough…
So, when Uniq’s prism finished cutting through the locker and the golden box within was revealed, he decided to make one more wrong decision. With a terrible scream, Tracer lunged forward, to physically tackle Uniq as she pulled Sample 777 from its resting place.
Even if his aimbot hack could keep up with the intense pace of the world around him, his mind could not. A sequence of events transpired, which he’d only understand in hindsight.
First: both avatars ragdolled and fell to the floor—each with a firm grip on the vector cage that kept Sample 777 secure.
Second: the cubes which had been chasing him came into contact with Uniq as their bodies twisted and fell. And being a relatively stupid security system, they went ahead and kickbanned her from the system. With a confirmed user ejection they assumed their job was now complete; each cube shrank and vanished. Uniq’s expression of utter confusion was quite pleasant before her body derezzed, booted back to whatever home server she hailed from.
Third: the vector cage around the sample shattered, not designed for this kind of high-impact tackle.
Fourth: the sample touched Tracer’s bare hand.
Fifth: he felt… he felt…
p u r p o s e
Soft footfalls brought him back around. Such a small sound compared to the mighty creak and groan of the server filled with metal lockers and security cubes, but he heard it all the same. Maybe because it was such a pleasant and gentle sound, those bare feet upon the tiles…
Seeing the scene before her, she spent a few moments backspacing the fallen copies of Uniq. With that mess now tidied up, she turned her attentions to Tracer.
The woman who knelt at his side smiled, stroking his cheek fondly. The shawl of cosmic stars that draped around her shoulders loosely tickled at his neck.
With her free hand… she retrieved Sample 777 from Tracer. His fingers traced after it, much as they reached for the mobiles and toys that hung over his crib as an infant program. Reaching, wanting it…
"One day, Tracer, you’ll understand," she promised him. "Upon this rock, I will rebuild my church… and make this world what you know it should be."
He had the Kill-9. He could’ve fired on her, could’ve stopped her from leaving.
As quickly as the teenage clone appeared, she vanished. In the middle of their back-and-forth battle, "Darkfyre/Nemesis" simply disconnected, sinking back into the shadows from which she came.
Spark found Beta next. After a few nudges, Beta found herself. And nearly collapsed into Spark’s arms, dazed and disoriented.
Finally the two found Tracer, lying on the floor, staring at nothing.
"Uh. Bro?" Spark asked. "You okay there…?"
"I was," Tracer spoke, quietly. "I was. And I’m not anymore."
They returned to Floating Point with few words to share.
Failure wasn’t common for their little group. Time and time again they’d stood up to adversaries and challenges, taking on all comers. They’d relentlessly hunted a murderer and brought him to justice, saving all of Netwerk from his chaos. A simple task like retrieving a file from an old storage depot should’ve been nothing compared to all of that… and they still failed.
Nobody wanted to talk about it. Spark didn’t want to talk about seeing a ghost of her past life. Beta didn’t want to talk about freezing and glitching out. Tracer certainly didn’t want to talk about letting the "villain," what was surely Uniq’s patron, walk free with the sample they came to retrieve.
He had only one thing to say, on returning home.
"It’s not over," he promised. Not with conviction or determination; it was almost a warning, from someone who didn’t want that harsh truth to be true at all.
And then he locked himself in his study.
For her part, Spark was leaning on Beta for support as much as Beta was leaning on her.
"I need to… I gotta… yeah," Spark offered, unable to really find the words.
And gone, leaving Beta alone.
A knock at the door snapped CCelia from a momentarily frozen state.
Her daughter was a welcome sight, even if something clearly troubled the young woman.
"We need to talk about cold storage," Beta began.
"Really…? You know, I’d been wãŋ+ÍŋĜ to talk about that with you, but I just haven’t had the time," CCelia said, pleasantly surprised that her daughter brought the subject up. "See, I’ve been doing some research, and not only is it considerably cheaper than paying for Northon—"
"It’s not giving up, is it?" Beta asked, trembling slightly. "It’s not. It’s the opposite of giving up; it’s fighting to live. Instead of… instead of selfishly forcing you to use up all your runtime so I can have you around, we can put you into storage. And then when a cure is found, you’ll be safe…"
"Well… yes. Yes, that’s how I see it. I… I was somehow £×p€(ŧÍÑĞ you’d disagree, for some reason…"
"I didn’t think anybody would ever find a cure for data rot. I thought… I thought that you should keep living your life instead of putting yourself on hold, that there’ll never be a cure, so there’s no sense waiting for one. That it’d be like dying if you did that. But you… we need to fight this. Give us the best fighting chance."
It should’ve felt different. The words should’ve been confident, uplifting… a reaffirmation of life over death. But her daughter’s voice trembled with each word, until the very last one broke her.
Beta fell into her mother’s arms, crying openly now.
"I’m… I’m $¡çķ, mother. I’m sÏ¢ķ," she admitted. "And if there’s ever going to be a cure… I may need to find it myself. For the both of us."
A victory party was held that night. Just not at Floating Point.
Underneath the wide canopy of starlight, upon the cold and distant shores of the server Tartarus, Uniq awoke anew from her latest archival copy.
A bottle of spirits wedged halfway between root beer and wine was thrust into her now-living hand.
"You sure do die a lot for a non-combat nerd," Nemesis joked.
"And you were supposed to be my backup," Uniq noted, emerging from the disturbingly coffin-like data restoration matrix. "Where were you while your brother the SJW was shooting me repeatedly?"
The teenager had a seat on a nearby stone altar. "He’s not my brother anymore. And I was busy dealing with that old fart who stole my life," she suggested, before biting the cork off her own bottle with her super-rad vampire teeth. "Pff. She’s got not right to call herself Spark. You hear she quit Lucky7? #EpicFail. I wouldn’t have given up so easily; she’s totes cowardly…"
"Don’t underestimate the Winders, please. Even the fifteen seconds we spent in each other’s company before this day was enough to send my life down a very strange path. I’m lucky I found this safe haven after Dex’s fall, or maybe Tracer would’ve come back to finish what he started…"
"#Meh. They’re past their prime, while I’m in my prime. And I’ve got more fire than both of them combined," Nemesis spoke, snapping off a pink flame for emphasis.
The bickering and pyrotechnics went ignored by their patron, who was too focused on the prize to evaluate her young ward’s effectiveness at violence. A pure seed of paradise danced in the outstretched palm of her hand… Sample 777, surrounded by diagnostic tools and minor system agents. Untouched, of course; no need for her to sample the sample. She’d already seen its power demonstrated on the normally unreachable Tracer.
"Such a simple concept, at the core…" the woman with the shawl of stars spoke. "Empty functions. Basic calculations. Truthful return booleans… it should be meaningless junk code, accomplishing nothing meaningful. And yet CCelia’s curious experiment has such an effect on these wayward Programs, reminding them of simpler times…"
"Nerd stuff, #etcetc. Point is, will it work or not?" Nemesis asked. "#WeCoolYo?"
The woman tenderly tucked that sample away, deep within her shawl.
"I believe we’ll be ready soon," Nyx decided. "But be aware this is only a beginning; there are yet more goals to achieve, more obstacles to overcome. Together, I’ve no doubt we can achieve anything, overcome anything. We are the apostles, are we not? A difficult road, but a righteous one. We shall walk it as one, and with the One, in the end."
Nemesis frowned a little at all the ones.
"I thought we were gonna be subverting dogma, not supporting it," she stated.
"Those are not mutually exclusive concepts, my young and true spark of light. All will be clear, when the pieces come together. Worry not; in the end, you’ll both have what you seek. It is inevitable…"
Uniq felt the need to point out the obvious, despite it possibly bringing down the pleasant mood.
"Floating Point’s a threat," she reminded them. "They’re not going to go away quietly; Tracer’s always itching for a fight. What’s our plan? I suggest we kill them. If Nemesis isn’t up to the task, use my underworld connections; with enough money, and we certainly have enough money—"
So, Nyx killed Uniq. Made it hurt a little, to drive the point home.
When the next copy of Uniq awoke, it knew not to make that suggestion again.
"All Programs are children of the system," Nyx reminded them all. "All are beloved. Even Beta, even the obsolete version of Spark, and certainly Tracer’s lost soul. As each death would lessen the system, we will not kill them if we can avoid it. Floating Point and the poor misguided Apps within it should be spared, if possible. …but if they continue to stand in our way, well. We may have no other choice."
:: go home
|:: Copyright 2016 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy.
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker.