Floating Point 2.2 :: Meme
:: go home
Cold. Intolerable cold. The stars in the skybox above blazed bright, but were hardly warm lights; they beat down with icy light, as the atmospheric simulation pushed that bitter wind down and through the alley she called home.
Athena Online wouldn’t stand for these kind of weather fluctuations. She remembered the pleasant delights of warm sun and cool evenings as if they were yesterday, despite being weeks in her personal past and years in the actual past. Funny, how a bunch of religious nutbags who obsessed over Default avatars would rarely settle for Default temperature simulations…
The discarded physical cloth she wrapped around herself acted as a bounding box to route the wind around her avatar, which cut down on the feeling of cold somewhat. She’d considered getting a mod installed to help ignore the temperature… but the shitty back-alley mod installers around here didn’t do hotfixes, they took you offline to do their work. And she didn’t trust them. She didn’t trust anyone.
This entire world wanted her. Wanted her dead, wanted her captured, wanted her gone, whatever. She couldn’t allow her guard down for a single minute if she wanted to survive this new stage of her life.
Despite this, she’d allowed herself a moment of quiet self-pity, ignoring the dangerous world around her. Meaning she hadn’t noticed when the two latest contenders arrived at the entrance to her little alley. Not until they’d noticed her.
At a glance, she sized them up. Thieves? She didn’t have anything worth stealing, unless they were super into discarded cloth. Thrillkillers out to backspace some homeless Programs? Possible, although the baseball bat one of them carried suggested more ‘torment’ than ‘murder.’ That meant punks looking for cheap fun with a helpless little girl. Cliché, but she knew from experience it was a very real danger out here… and nobody would give half a shit if some homeless teenage girl with no metadata fell prey to someone out for a night’s fun in the Chanarchy.
Quickly she flipped through a mental index of safe servers, trying to think of any she hadn’t been banned from yet. Very few came to mind.
"What’s this neighborhood coming to?" the short one taunted. "Is our automatic garbage collection offline? All I see back here is a pile of useless data, waiting to be recycled…"
"S’matter? Shelters so filled up you need to lag out our server?" the tall one added, tapping his baseball bat against the ground, with the cheap tonk tonk of a basic physics tool. "But hey, kid… you need a place to stay, we got a place. We got a great place to party all night…"
Slowly, the homeless teen got to her feet.
"You’re boring," she spoke. "You’re boring and cliché. Two guys ganging up to assault a helpless little girl in a dark alley? Pathetic. You can’t even find an original way to be evil. And because you’re so very boring to me, I’m giving you one chance to do something else with your time. One chance."
And they laughed.
So she went through them like the point of a spear.
Not that she had any sort of malware to attack them with, but her sensei had taught her that the avatar itself could be a weapon if your goal is to disable rather than kill. All bodies were bound to the same physical laws… throwing a man off his balance, putting him flat on his ass, that was key. Control the enemy and control the space around them, even if only to disorient the opponent enough to make a getaway.
Her smaller body was just as adept as their beefier ones; muscle mass was meaningless when it came to fighting. She dove in and underneath the tall man, throwing his center of balance off. By hooking his leg and sweeping it away, she could knock him into the shorter man as well, getting a two-for-one. A value play.
With the enemies down, she could retreat to a safe distance and find a better hiding spot.
If not for the ragdoll-stun malware attached to the guy’s baseball bat. Not a particularly impressive attack utility, but against a homeless Program with no firewalls, plenty effective at putting a feral girl down on the ground.
As she fought to regain control of her avatar… they rose above, looming large.
The outcome was inevitable, really. The world wanted to kick her around, had been wanting this for weeks now, ever since she was decanted. If it ended here, would that really be any great loss? She’d technically still be alive out there, somewhere…
An unlikely savior rezzed in behind the boys.
"A bit unsporting, isn’t this?" the woman with deep green hair asked.
"Mind your own fuckin’ business," the tall man spat back, without even glancing over his shoulder.
"But this is my business," she spoke…
…while producing a moderator’s badge, flicking it into existence between elegant fingers.
Even in the Chanarchy—perhaps especially in the Chanarchy, where "police brutality" was standard operating procedure—the boys weren’t going to risk stepping to that. They faded back into the night, just as quickly as they’d arrived.
Leaving the moderator to pluck the bruising malware from the young Program’s avatar, freeing her from the ragdoll effect. Immediately, she got up and braced one foot to break out into a run…
"Settle down, I’m not here to hurt you," the moderator promised. "I just want to talk. That’s all."
"Look, just lemme go, I’ll leave, I’ll go to another server," the girl promised. "You don’t have to kickban me, you don’t have to backspace me. Just let me leave…"
"Oh, I’m not actually a moderator," the woman spoke, with a laugh. "I’m an identity thief who swiped a moderator’s credentials. Surprise! In fact… I’m here to offer you my services. Would you like a fresh set of metadata, to replace the blank you’re currently running? I can provide. Or would you rather be fleeing from wannabe moderators and dimwits like those two idiots for the rest of your life, Spark?"
The girl’s flight for freedom went on pause, if only out of shock.
"How do you know my name?" she asked.
The thief offered a quick bow, a gesture of mock respect and greeting.
"My name is Uniq," the woman spoke. "And my patron has had her eye on you ever since learning of your plight. Yes, we know your sordid tale: you’re a backup file which was accidentally re-activated while your original Program was still alive and well. The backup facility tried to purge their mistake before anybody could find out… but you slipped out into the wild. Poor Spark! Metadata gone, a non-person in the eyes of any law. …have you contacted yourself yet? Begged the original Spark for help?"
The teenage girl trembled slightly at the sound of her own name.
"C-Can’t," she admitted. "Too risky. I’m not supposed to exist. She… she’d probably just reject me. Call the moderators, have me hunted down. Tracer wouldn’t care. Mother would absolutely try to get me erased. Everybody’s out to get me, everybody. Netwerk’s a fucked up place, completely fucked up. Ever since I woke, it’s been one thing after another…"
"My patron cares not for who you were. She cares for who you are, and who you could become. If you’re willing to join efforts with us… I’d be happy to install a fresh identity in you, one no moderator could question. A whole new you."
"Yyyyeah. You’re gonna understand that I’ve got my doubts," the girl suggested. "I’ve had supposed saviors before. Users and abusers and bastards, all. What makes you any different from them?"
Uniq offered a crooked smile.
"I can offer you revenge against Netwerk for mistreating you. And more specifically… revenge against your mother," she said. "The One-fearing control freak who duplicated and abandoned you. And if you come with me… you’ll get to subvert the entire Church of One."
Originally she was going to be Lady Moonlyte Ravenbourne Darkfyre, but at the suggestion of her new patron she adopted the name of Nemesis instead. Besides, Darkfyre was the coolest bit of that word salad, anyway. A mashup of the two fit her nicely.
No longer homeless, either. Tartarus was her home now, a cloud server which was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Strange technology from a bygone age, left abandoned for hundreds of years before being co-opted for their purposes…
Always night here, but not the cold nights of the Chanarchy; the unusually detailed stars in the skybox above glowed with bright warmth. They wrapped from horizon to horizon, a blanket of light that kept the pleasant river valley of the server comfortably lit despite the endless dark. Nemesis grew to love this new concept of night… all shadowy and edgy and badass, but without being looming or menacing. She could be looming and menacing enough by herself.
Plus, it was filled with coffins and graves and mausoleums. #SuperBadass and fitting of a dark character like Nemesis. Heck, most of her notebook doodles of her idealized self had moonlight and bats and gravestones and things, because everybody knew those were cool.
This was her avatar, now, her #OriginalCharacter. Not Spark’s. That dull old lady out there using her old name, that hack, that quitter, she didn’t deserve an avatar this powerfully beautiful. No pink hair for her, no demon horns, no angel’s halo. That doodle drawn in a notebook belonged to Nemesis now, pure and true.
But the incendiary nail polish… that was a trick she was willing to borrow from her old self. She had to admit, it was an effective combat tool.
In a burst of flame she tore through her dozenth combat dummy of the day. Practicing the forms kept her sharp, kept her ready to go. Kept her on edge and eager for more of this new life she’d carved out for herself in the deathly quiet of Tartarus…
A presence behind her.
She spun, ready to strike, but held back on realizing who had approached.
"You’re freaky quiet, y’know that?" Nemesis felt the need to point out. "How long you been lurking there?"
The elegant lady with the shawl of cosmic nebulae offered a smile as distant and warm as the stars above.
"Long enough to enjoy watching you practice," Nyx spoke. "The vigor of youth is going to be needed in the days ahead, if we are to rekindle the flame of the One."
One. The number brought a frown to Nemesis’s lips. She settled down from her heightened state of combat awareness, grabbing a nearby towel to mop up the sweat produced by her workout. (Technically she could wipe the sweat off with a quick avatar restoration, but she liked to sweat. Always had.)
"You know I’m still not so hot on any ‘rekindling’ of the Church of One," Nemesis reminded her, while wiping down. "I hate the Default-obsessed crazies, the greedy preachers, the marketing executives in bishop’s frocks. Honestly, when you said we had to empower the Church to make this work… I almost bailed on the entire operation."
Nyx’s smile never faltered, even under the doubts of her young apostle.
"And yet you did not ‘bail,’" she pointed out. "You remained at my side."
"Yeah, well… it’s not because I’m super-hot about all this. Just saying."
"But you are clearly at least warm to the idea. You’ve seen as I’ve seen, young Nemesis. Netwerk is… it’s sick. Tainted. A hostile place that devours its own…"
"And the only way to fix it is with a brand new One to dupe everybody into being nice?"
"To bring a new covenant to the people, yes. An open-minded and tolerant covenant, to realize the dream of what the Church of One could be. And if our version of the One is a lie…? Does that really matter? He is needed, all the same. A unifying Program, one who will bring peace to Netwerk… and in time, alter the obsolete rule that ruined your future."
The word itself didn’t need to be spoken. Defaults. The concept that Winder/Marybel, the one-time mother of Nemesis, had been so obsessed over that she backed up her own daughter’s data.
"I help you take over the church, you let me remake it," Nemesis spoke, repeating the deal they struck after that night in the alley. "That’s the only reason I’m warm to this. If we’re secretly running the show, if I get my say, maybe I can make an actual difference. Make it so others like me born to the wrong shape aren’t stepped on by this world…"
"Once we’ve asserted control, you’ll have all the power you could ever dream of, Nemesis. And Uniq will as well, of course."
Nemesis’s frown returned. "You actually trust that crook? I’d call her two-faced but that’d be coming up short by several dozen faces…"
"Mmm. Let’s just say I trust her to carry out her part in this. After that… we’ll see. For now, we need her to puppeteer the new One; her skill with deceptive technologies is without doubt. In fact, she’s finished her prototype, and I must say the early results are quite promising…"
"Yeah, about that. Seems to me we have everything we need, so what’s with the delay?" Nemesis asked, assuming her normally lanky, #2Cool2Care poise despite her eagerness to get moving. "You said the funny glowing box was the last piece of the puzzle. We’ve got the box, everything’s set up, let’s go."
"Patience, patience. The standardized prayer protocol established by the original One is a complicated piece of software, as ancient as Netwerk itself. Hacking into it to insert Sample 777 carries certain risks. I’d like more testing before we begin…"
"Yeah, but that older version of me is still out there. I know her; she’s not gonna let this go, not after we handed them their asses like we did a week ago. Sooner we’re established and untouchable as #HolyRollers, the better."
"I see. Do you share Uniq’s view, then? That we should kill her…?"
This poked a hole in her #2Cool2Care a bit, a tiny nibble of the lip betraying her doubt.
"I mean… we don’t really gotta," Nemesis suggested. "She’s #OldNBusted, I’m the #NewHotness. It’s not like she could ever beat me… but still. Sooner we take what’s ours, the better. What’s more testing really going to net you, compared to that peace of mind?"
Softly, Nyx chuckled into the back of her hand.
"I’m sorry, you… you really do remind me of my last protégé," she commented. "He was just as eager, and just as quick to action; a stalwart defender of righteousness. Well, then… in interest of supporting my wonderful new apprentice, I’ll grant your wish. Why not? All the tools are in place, and I can debug as we go. Shall we lay claim to the Church of One, young Nemesis?"
Nemesis allowed her heterochromatic eyes to sparkle with mischievous intent. (A neat little avatar accessory she’d picked up just for moments like these.)
"I know exactly who the next new apostle should be," she spoke. "Someone who’s gonna eat shit when the ‘One’ turns her world upside down. I want her right there when it happens."
Her prayer shrine was the finest one in the entire neighborhood. Which was only fitting, considering she spent a small fortune on it.
It filled an entire wall of her living room, an enormous mural depicting the One in all His radiant glory, flanked by His seven apostles. Aether, the light and the dawn, most trusted of the One. Geras, bringing the wisdom and balance of old age. Twin brothers Hypnos and Thanatos, the youthful spirits representing peace within life and peace within death. Eris, the discordant one, the doubter who eventually saw the light. Philotes, the lover and the passion, she of the bountiful breast…
And of course there was Nyx, the quiet one who occasionally appeared somewhere in the background. Few artists could agree on any interpretation of her, given she didn’t feature very much in the histories.
The whole mural animated in a constant loop, clothing wafting in the breeze, light shining and pulsing. The wondrous dawn of time behind the One filled her living room with such a delightful glow when the shrine was turned all the way up; a bit too distracting during luncheons, but in the still of night, it brought a little spot of pure daylight to the quiet and dark.
Technically speaking, she didn’t need such a magnificent shrine. She didn’t actually need a shrine at all; anyone could enter the "coin-grinding" trance, as the heathens put it. But she knew better. She knew what the One wanted of her, and He wanted her to pay proper tribute whenever she prayed. More proper than her neighbors, by far.
That night, after her obligatory hour of prayer and contemplation (while her husband sat in his study upstairs analyzing social media trends) she awoke from her trance with several golden coins in the palm of her hand… and her eyes filled with the blinding purity of the One.
In a moment that would forever define her life to come, she stood still in amazement as the One stepped out of his mural, setting foot within her living room.
As He spread His arms wide, flowing white robes glowing in the eternal dawn, she fell to her knees in shock.
The One gestured, ever so slightly, palm turned upwards.
"Rise," he spoke. "Rise, my child. Rise, and know me. For I am the One, and you are to be my first apostle of the new revelation, Winder/Marybel."
And So It Was that the One came to Winder/Marybel, first of the new apostles.
HORIZON NEWSWIRE. DemocraticRow, Athena Online: Rumors are swirling that the legendary messianic figure of the Church of One, known simply as the "One," has returned to Netwerk and will appear upon a hilltop at dawn tomorrow. Local churchgoer Winder/Marybel has told various blogs that His coming will be "the event that changes our lives forever."
This isn’t the first time a charismatic figure has claimed to be the One; all prior claims were debunked by the Church itself, through a ritual App designed to scan code for zeroes. To date, no Program has ever passed muster. Police moderators have stated they will be on-hand if needed for crowd control at the event…
And So It Was that others soon gathered, with similarly shared experiences, with tales of the One appearing before them. A businesswoman named Apate reached out to Marybel, at the behest of the One. Next was a wide-eyed child named Nemesis. And finally, a gentle woman called Nyx, named after one of the original apostles.
WHO WILL BE THE NEXT EASILY DUPED HOUSEWIFE CALLING HERSELF AN APOSTLE? Strange that this time around, the so-called One is only recruiting females. You ask me, that’s a sure sign this is some creepy cult leader looking for a harem. Crazy part is my sister’s already said she’s planning to abandon her job to follow the One around Athena Online, like he’s some touring folk musician.
Why does anybody still believe in this shit? He’s only appeared in public like five times, and always to religious kooks, not to normal people! It’s a trick! Don’t be fooled. /ATHEISM/ NOW!
And So It Was that doubts rose within the faithful and faithless alike. Why would the One appear now, in these uncertain times? Why was He gone so long?
I was a member of #CodeHonesty, back when it was trending. At the time I felt… solid. Like I was righteously making a difference, standing up for my fellow programmers against garbage like Snowi, trying to save the world from fraud and deception. But then everything seemed to… I don’t know how to say it… fall away. Fall apart. It didn’t mean what it meant to me before. Nothing felt like it meant anything.
I know many of you have felt the same way, as if a part of Netwerk’s soul was ripped away from us. All the passion, all the fire gone. I kept going to my job, I kept grinding out Apps, but none of it mattered. No joy, no fire, nothing. Even #StandWithSnowi allies feel the same way…
Maybe that’s why I was willing to attend one of those sermons. I didn’t believe before, I mean, I’ve never been religious. I don’t sneer at it like folks on /Atheism/ do, but I just couldn’t feel anything wondrous like the faithful claim I should feel.
Until now. Until I met the One, and He told me of the new covenant for his people. And finally, finally, I felt the same joy and passion of purpose that I felt before.
And So It Was that word spread through the congregation, with the One appearing before small gatherings to show himself in good faith to the faithful. The rumors built of a grand revelation, to be spoken within the newest and grandest temple of them all…
HolyHymnal, the outreach effort to show the Chanarchy that the faithful have their best interests at heart.
Understand that I am a bishop. I have been faithful to the One since I could first form thought, so you could certainly see me as biased. But my friends, it’s the One’s honest truth. If you follow this blog, if you’ve read my words, read these words now and believe them with all your heart: He is risen, and walks among us. So perfect is He that He cannot touch our plane of existence very long, lest the innate zeroes in all of us sully Him, but He’s risked that corruption to appear in front of so many of us now that it cannot be denied.
I confess now that I was a doubter in my heart. Honestly, I always saw the tale of the One as more of a parable about how we must treat each other with kindness and compassion, for we are all "one" with each other. Perhaps that should be enough but I always felt incomplete, in that I couldn’t feel the same love the other bishops did, even as I loved my community. Well, that was then, this is now. I believe. This is the truth of the matter, and in accepting that truth, I find myself filled with a distinct sense of purpose.
Join me at HolyHymnal tomorrow; I’ll be in the pews, like you. Even though I have reserved seating on stage, I dare not sit there, I dare not be blinded. Maybe I’m still too shamed from my early doubts to face the One directly. But join me, and see what I have seen. Only then will you understand as I do.
Within those silver spires, before a gathering of hundreds and hundreds of worshippers and media contacts and doubtful Chanarchy regulars, the One made his first major public appearance outside of those small sermons.
Few remember the speeches and the singing, early in the ceremonies. Despite sitting up all night crafting her speech, Marybel’s words fell on deaf ears. Everybody knew exactly whom they came for… and His words overwrite all others. His was the data to be cherished and remembered for all time.
As the final bell of noon struck, as the artificially adjusted skybox poured dawn’s light in through every colored window, the One made His presence felt within HolyHymnal.
As expected from reports about earlier sermons, the One is difficult to capture in video stream form. We tried, believe me. I know we need printable material for the newswire, Jy, but I’ve got nothing for you. Nothing but the One’s honest truth of what I saw and how I felt. The apostle Apate explained beforehand that I might not be able to record his speech as he "speaks directly to the heart," but don’t worry, I memorized every word of it.
Get my transcript up on the blog ASAP, before the other outlets cover it; I’ll add my reflections after, unless you feel it’d be editorializing. And if so… I’ll probably post it on my own personal blog, regardless. People need to know the truth. I trust my own heart to tell it.
Golden radiance flowed in and around and through the colorful lights, as He who is entirely comprised of single bits of truth appeared before them. He did not walk in through a door like some common Program; He simply was, and had always been, among them.
A brief ceremony was held, as Mother Nestt/Wren, High Bishop of the Church of One used the sacred boolean evaluation App to prove that His data was in fact entirely composed of ones. When the light on the device glowed a brilliant gold for the first time in hundreds of years, the chorus sang out in praise, and the Church of One at last had found its new savior.
His words, His oh so memorable words, spoke thusly:
"This is the dawning of a new COVENANT for all of Netwerk," He promised, arms wide, body awash with comforting light. "I am risen, to bring you upgrades to your existing protocols. On this day I bring you Prayer 2.0, my gift to my children. Its feature set includes all of the bullet points you have come to know thusly, as well as an additional ability… SALVATION. All those who pray shall be Saved!"
To demonstrate, the first apostle Marybel assumed center stage, her hands clasped together in prayer.
And church moderators backspaced her on the spot.
But before the shock of it could flow through the crowd… Marybel reappeared, right where she had fallen, restored to life.
"All who know me and bring grace to this world through prayer shall be saved," the One promised. "You shall be immortal, data archived within my heavenly domain, so that you may live forever. And this is but the beginning of my new gifts to you. Pray for Salvation, my children. Pray for Salvation, and I shall bless you with good fortune!"
With His covenant downloaded, the One spread His arms wide, held aloft upon the light of salvation. The choir, impossibly loud and perfect in flowing harmony, sang His praise as He ascended once more from this plane of ones and zeroes back to the perfection from which He came… with promises of additional services at three o’clock and a midnight mass for the latecomers.
More speeches and more singing followed, with the four apostles remaining on stage in wake of the One’s departure, to lead the proceedings. But like the speeches and singing that came before it, few bothered to pay attention. Most sat in silence, the rapture of the One still washing through them, leaving them in shock.
Three, however, were not silent. They spoke over a secured Messenger communication channel.
"It’s got to be a memory overlay," Beta explained. "There was never a One here to begin with. I mean, I can’t prove that, but… we know that ‘Apate’ is really Uniq, and we know she’s a memory expert. It stands to reason she’d weaponize our memories…"
Spark glared over the heads of the worshipful sitting in front of her, aware that trying to bore a hole in Uniq’s head with her death gaze would probably attract undue attention. Even in her anonymous JaneDoe avatar, it wouldn’t do to be noticed sneaking into HolyHymnal like this.
"And that’s Nemesis up there next to my idiot mother," she identified. "The one with the pink hair. She changed the rest of her avatar, but I know her. If anybody would wanna snooker Marybel, it’d be her. That’d make the woman in purple the same one that attacked Tracer back at DropSite, the one who stole Sample 777. …Tracer? You there?"
"Yes. Stole the sample," her brother agreed, a bit more sluggish to respond after the experience of the One.
"You okay? I know that fake One was… kinda overwhelming, but—"
"That was absolutely Sample 777," Tracer confirmed. "I experienced it firsthand at DropSite. It’s a basic euphoric drug malware, nothing more. A cheap ploy to dazzle the masses, not worth a second thought…"
Beta shook her head. "I’d say it’s a bit stronger than that. I felt… I mean, I felt… you two felt it too, right? That complete peace of mind…?"
"#CreepyAsFuck," Spark suggested. "In hindsight, I mean. At the time I remember being completely happy, even though I knew something weird was going on. Can a memory injection attack change your mood and opinion like that?"
"I don’t know. Maybe coupled with Sample 777, it could. But if that was a memory overlay attack, we’re going to have a hard time proving the One doesn’t really exist. I mean… if I knew how to flag and purge false memories already, I’d have cured hereditary data rot, too…"
"Maybe, but… I’m not exactly close to a cure. I haven’t even figured out where to begin looking, for that matter…"
"Continue your research, then," Tracer suggested. "The cure for your mother’s condition may very well save Netwerk from these frauds, as well. And the sooner we can put an end to this, the better."
"Tracer, it’s going to take me months at best to figure this out. That’s assuming I can figure it out at all! Scientists and doctors have been trying to crack this problem for generations…"
"I understand. And in the meanwhile, we’ll continue to investigate Uniq and Nemesis, and find ways to sabotage this newly empowered church."
Beta glanced across the gathered masses, joyfully singing praise of the One.
"Are we sure that’s the right thing to do?" she had to ask. "The church isn’t exactly an ominous cloud of foreboding evil in the way Dex was. They’re… misguided, sometimes, but are they really that much of a menace…?"
"It’s not the church I’m concerned about. It’s her," Tracer said, gesturing to the green-haired "apostle" on the stage. "Uniq, with access to a ‘free’ data backup service? Given her modus operandi, it’s safe to assume the worst about that, and the worst about this group infiltrating the church. I suppose I should rephrase: the apostles are the ones we need to sabotage. The faithful are the victims here."
"Can we track them using your eyes, maybe? Checking where the prayers are uploading the backups?" Beta suggested.
But Tracer shook his head.
"I tried the instant they started praying, but I’m not seeing any connections," he explained. "Prayer is a system-level protocol, and thus heavily protected by the Netwerk’s operating system itself. My eyes were designed for corporate espionage; all they can track are Apps and malware. …although theoretically it might be possible to spy on system-level protocols, if I had root access."
"Root? Isn’t that a myth? There’s no such thing as a superuser. I mean, the One was supposedly a superuser, but…"
"Very likely a myth, yes. If we can’t find their home server, we’re going to have to hunt down Uniq and destroy her operations the old-fashioned way: investigation, subterfuge, and covert assault."
"So… we’re doing this again, are we? Unilaterally trying to take down the ‘bad guys,’ as vigilantes…?"
"No moderator in Netwerk would believe us, Beta. When we fought Dex… yes, we shouldn’t have acted as lone vigilantes. In hindsight I can see how obsession and vendetta drove our actions. But here, I don’t see many options. The church practically runs Athena Online, the second-largest hosting nation in the world. Who’s going to help us fight that?"
"Just… keep an open mind," Beta insisted. "There are always options. But for now, yes… I’ll keep researching, and we’ll keep an eye on this. And, uh, needless to say… nobody try praying. Or grinding for coins, considering they both use the same protocols. I know money’s a bit tight since we’re all basically unemployed now, but…"
Spark had to fight back a chuckle. "The day I pray for coins is the day I go star-mad," she joked. "I wouldn’t touch this ‘Prayer 2.0’ with a ten-foot pole. And neither would Tracer."
Tracer, who stayed silent as he watched the ceremonies unfold before him.
And kept thinking back to that golden box in his fingers, and the woman who took it from him.
For once, the Wikipedia stayed closed to him. Sitting around pondering whether or not its data was good or evil was irrelevant, when facing a confirmed evil. With his obsessive reading pushed aside, he’d begun to obsess over something else entirely: the apostles of the One.
He’d opened a new MemoryPalace cluster, gathering as many media samples as he could find regarding the risen One and the women who trailed in his wake. Fortunately, the media had been all over this story, covering it from every possible angle. Except any angles that would show it to be fraudulent, of course.
Not that all of Netwerk swallowed the bait. Plenty doubted this "One," and plenty of theories abounded about who or what he was. A few even guessed as Beta did, that it was some kind of malware attack of false sensation or implanted memories… but there was no proof. Uniq knew her craft well enough not to use any widely known exploits. In the end, the crackpot theories looked too crackpot for anybody to take seriously with no real evidence… just the bitterness of atheists and evolutionary proponents.
But in this sea of files, floating through his study like so many fluttering birds, Tracer couldn’t make any connections. No links or paths that joined related information together, establishing the patterns that would point at the truth. He couldn’t trace a path to the heart of the apostles…
He couldn’t focus enough to trace a path to the heart of the apostles.
Continually, his memory fluttered back to that night in DropSite. The struggle with Uniq over that golden box, his fingers coming into contact with Sample 777, and… and…
And remembering the incident did nothing to bring back the feeling that surged through him on touching the sample. Even the brief exposure to the One at HolyHymnal didn’t compare to the raw and uncut feeling pulsing through every line of his code that night.
It was a pale echo in comparison. Spark and Beta could shrug it off, but Tracer had tasted the original, and the One’s limited offering was pathetic in comparison; a tease, at best. They had no idea what was actually lurking under the surface…
A euphoric drug, that’s all it was. He wasn’t addicted; he had firewalls and malware protection to prevent any unauthorized attempts to install an addiction into his code. None of them were tripped by Sample 777. It was simply harmless sensory data.
And yet. And yet…
It was bait, of course. Prayer 2.0 had been laced with Sample 777, just as the false One had been. The faithful would pray, experience that perfect completion of purpose, and want to pray again. And again. Fools, all of them. Tracer was no fool.
He wouldn’t pray. He wasn’t some religious moron. He didn’t need invisible strings when the free will of Programkind and his rational mindset gave him all the guidance he required. He didn’t need to pray. He didn’t need that sample, nor the peace it could’ve offered his troubled mind.
The reason he couldn’t trace a path through these media samples was simple: he couldn’t focus. He couldn’t calm himself. In earlier years, he might have assumed the solution was to double down on his work and force himself to focus. Now, he knew that only made the problem worse.
Instead, he packed up his MemoryPalace files, and left his study behind.
On emerging from his room, he nearly collided headfirst with Beta.
The swirls of color and light that made up Beta’s fanciest dress twisted and wobbled, as she pulled herself back just in time.
"Tracer! Oh. You surprised me," she spoke, catching her own breath. "Um. Everything okay?"
"I was thinking we could spend the night in," Tracer suggested. "Reading by the fireplace, or enjoying a meal…? Perhaps a game of Go?"
"Oh! Well… uh… actually, Spark already invited me out for the evening," Beta admitted. "I mean, I could cancel my plans, we were just going to go talk to an App reviewer really, but…"
More than anything, Tracer wanted Beta by his side. Someone to bring peace to his world, to pull him away from the turmoil that surrounded him this night.
"No, it’s not fair to Spark to keep you from her," he spoke, instead. "You made plans, and should honor them."
"Tracer, it’s not a big deal. I mean… you two kinda have to share me, and I’ve been seeing her more than you lately, and—"
"I insist," he stated, with nothing further to say.
And so Beta left.
Leaving him alone surrounded by the books that worried him, the memory files that wouldn’t gel together, and the undeniable feeling of a hole in his life left behind by recent events. But at least Beta would be happy, and Spark as well. He was doing the right thing by them.
The time for little sermons was over. The One had been introduced to the world within the finest parish crafted by Programkind; he was now the central focus of all Church efforts. Efforts which were routed through a housewife who had suddenly become the most important figure in religious history.
Marybel had considered changing her name to "Aether" before the event, to mirror the right-hand apostle of the One from ancient times. After all, the woman named Nyx had borrowed a name from an earlier apostle, why couldn’t she? But ultimately Marybel was her true and Default name, the name she wanted in lights, so she retained it. And retained those lights, pulling them away from the others whenever possible.
Not that she sought after the spotlight, not really. It was more a matter of… appropriateness. She had been born faithful, and been rewarded by being the first to lay eyes on the One. It was only appropriate she should speak for the One in turn.
The others, like the child or the matron or the businesswoman, they were important but not nearly as important as herself. Besides, they seemed perfectly okay with Marybel taking point, so why not take point? Why not sit at the head of the table, during this gathering within the hallowed halls of HolyHymnal?
Briefly, she considered the files open before her. One of the many advantages of marrying a social media analyst was having the finest assistant imaginable for missionary work.
"According to trends, there’s still considerable doubt out there," Marybel admitted. "Apate, are you certain we can’t find a way to record the One? Must He only be experienced first-hand? There’s nothing in the holy text files about difficulty documenting Him…"
The woman in green shook her head, lightly amused by the suggestion.
"Actually, I’m working on technology to properly record the One at the moment," Apate (known as Uniq to her "friends") stated. While declining to mention that would likely involve Nemesis hacking into any recording devices to plant false data during the One’s hypnotic trance. "At any rate, it’s not surprising there’s no historical precedent; those files are from the dawn of time. Technology back then was a mish-mash of primitive Apps. It’s no surprise that they weren’t aware of this aspect of the One. He speaks to our hearts, not our eyes—"
"Yes, as you’ve said. But it’d help us convert more Programs to the faith if they could experience Him indirectly, by some means…"
And Nyx spoke her mind. Which everybody listened to, despite her rarely speaking up at these gatherings, always fading into the background.
"The words of the One will carry across all of Netwerk, recorded or otherwise," she stated. "Worry not."
"…well, I’d worry less if we could manage a recording that would sway the heathens. But if you say you’re working on the technology, I suppose we can move on to other concerns for now," Marybel agreed. "Besides, the change to the prayer protocol should be enough to convince others. Nobody but the One could have upgraded us to Prayer 2.0, and granted us Salvation. No mere Program can make such a drastic Netwerk-wide change. And speaking of Prayer 2.0…"
Marybel opened a few image windows, distributing them across the surface of the table.
"My husband pointed out a fine opportunity to me today that I think we could capitalize on," Marybel suggested. "We’ve always had difficulty appealing to the young. If you aren’t raised faithful from the start, trends suggest you won’t become faithful without the kind of concentrated missionary effort that cynical youth rejects. Fortunately a group of young missionaries based out of HolyHymnal have developed a curious meme…"
One which the girl in pink hair was squinting at, trying to make out the text. Because even printed in a nice bold font, it was generally unbelievable.
"It’s gone viral within a several faithful youth communities. I think it’s got legs!" Marybel insisted. "See the character in the center? That’s ‘Prayer-tan.’ He… hmm, maybe she, I’m not sure… is the personification of prayer, invented collaboratively and spontaneously by dozens of fan artists. Technically this meme was around before the return of the One, which lends it legitimacy we can leverage to spread the good news!"
A light gagging sound interrupted Marybel’s exuberance.
The youngest of the apostles, realizing she was snarking on the memes out loud, quieted down. And then spoke up, because she wasn’t one to quiet down, normally.
"They’re awful," she pointed out. "Completely awful. Nobody outside of HolyHymnal is gonna take this seriously; we’re gonna get mocked relentlessly by cringe-based humor chans if we start pushing these as actual church propaganda."
"Communication," Marybel corrected. "Not propaganda."
"#YeahNo. It’s a naked demographic grab, and that makes it propaganda. It’s not gonna work. We can’t rely on the past tactics of the church; this is a new church, isn’t it? A new covenant. Manipulation and marketing are the old, stupid, totally broken ways—"
"And are you calling the One and his faithful con artists, child?"
Finally she’d risen to her feet, to properly command the table. The scrape of chair on tile, expensive physics objects purchased by HolyHymnal for maximum detail, punctuated her question.
"What do you know of the faith? You’re young. You’ve got no wisdom to speak of," Marybel insisted. "Just because the One spoke to you doesn’t make you a leader. Understanding and advancing his new covenant is best left to your elders, Nemesis."
"Excuse me? I’m a fucking apostle too, aren’t I?"
"Language, young lady!"
Before the screaming could really begin… Apate/Uniq brought reason to the table.
"Nemesis, please. It could work. Hear me out on this," she suggested. "I know a thing or two about trending moods across Netwerk. We’ve gone through a strange time lately, with #CodeHonesty and other mobs firing up across social media. This ‘Prayer-tan’ represents… how to put it… anti-cynicism. A pure expression, from the heart. Wouldn’t you agree we could use more of that, to stand against Netwerk’s chaos?"
Apate put her own heart into the words, flowing reason into compassion and back into reason. Crafting them carefully, to sway both Marybel and Nemesis to Uniq’s point of view.
"It’s not a manufactured demographic ploy, because that demographic made it all by themselves," she continued. "It’s a fan-crafted meme, and by canonizing it, we can encourage that fandom. If this works, we spread the good news further. We can empower the church to never before seen levels. And if we drive it into the ground…? Who cares? It’s just a meme. Ideas are a dime a dozen."
Ideas. Dreams. Thoughts. Memories. Data files. Bits to bytes, parsed and interpreted into pure concepts…
With the gates to Tartarus opened by Prayer 2.0, the digital encoding of these ideas began to flow into the empty graves and coffins of the server. Salvation was at hand; with every prayer, those files updated themselves, establishing save and restore points for any faithful Program willing to believe.
Even as the apostles argued the merits of ideas in the halls of HolyHymnal, the starlight above their hidden home glowed fiercely with each prayer. That pale light glimmered off every sepulcher, every tomb.
Except for a grave buried so deep within the file structure that it held no physical representation whatsoever. A folder for files best left forgotten.
As data poured like a river into Tartarus, folders yawning wide to accept the saved data, that folder remained closed. Even as folders around and above it began to fill.
Beta had never been to a sex club before.
It wasn’t called a sex club, of course. Not officially, not while being hosted in Athena Online. While the faithful of Athena lacked any hard stance on sexual morality, they did have a general preference for humility and simplicity in life (such as adherence to Defaults) which suggested against garish displays of eroticism for the ero-lulz. So, the Soft Spot preferred to call itself an "adult recreational center" rather than a sex club. That way, they kept their server without ruffling too many feathers or upsetting possible customers.
But within that quiet and unassuming physical representation of a simple cube, the interior of the Soft Spot screamed out with tawdry lust and classy comforts. If a surface wasn’t padded, it was upholstered in fine leather. If it wasn’t leather, it was crafted of shining and gleaming polished metal. If it wasn’t metal, it was flawless glass and crystal… and so on. None of it was technically needed for the simple act of mashing two avatars together to ensure physical contact with erogenous zones, but an "adult recreation center" was a business built on the back of scratching specific desires. Dressing it all up in visual delights helped sell the fantasy.
While most of the sexual acts that can be filed at best under ??miscellaneous?? were kept to back rooms, the primary floor of the club certainly had its share of couples playing with each other in the open. Couples, and couples-plus. Averting your eyes to be polite wouldn’t work, as they’d invariably fall on some pocket orgy or another; the sex was omnipresent and inescapable.
For Beta, who preferred her sex quiet and comfortable and very private, walking into the middle of a hedonistic pleasure dome was something of a shock. Suddenly she regretted her decision to wear her most revealing dress, the one made entirely out of procedural light shaders and nothing more.
A nudge by her partner distracted her from that concern.
"Nobody’s gonna mess with you if you don’t want them to," Spark reminded her. "This place is professional; absolute consent is the law of the land. Besides, I’d burn anyone who touched you to a crisp."
"I’m not worried," Beta half-lied. "It’s just… it’s all a bit… much, isn’t it?"
Approaching the bar, the only part of the facility that wasn’t entirely dedicated to unique variants of copulation, Spark took a stool and snapped for a drink. Being a card-carrying VIP, her preferred order appeared in her hand instantly.
"Funny, I’d always thought of the Soft Spot as one of the tamer joints," Spark suggested, swirling the drink around in its glass a little to mix it properly. "I mean, I’m barely hot and bothered looking at this flesh array. You should try some of the Chanarchy’s clubs, if you want the wild side. The Blinds are my favorite; you can’t see a thing in there. It’s all done by feel. …huh. Y’know, you might fit in perfectly there. Wanna visit sometime?"
"I don’t know. It’s not really my thing to play with strangers," Beta replied, taking the next barstool in the row. "I prefer my sex quiet, private, and intimate. You’re the ero-venturer type, not me."
"So says the one about to sell a sex toy app she’s spent a year perfecting through rigorous testing. Who do you think’s gonna be downloading that App? Strangers. Kinda kinky in and of itself, that level of intimacy and trust…"
"Yes, but… that’s different. I’m not really involved. I mean, I’m coding it, sure, but…"
"And your elegant code is going to be tickling the fancy of thousands of the ero-venturous by the end of the month," Spark reminder her, with a grin. "My little Beta, masked mistress of a thousand anonymous orgasms!"
"Okay, okay, I’ll stop teasing," Spark half-lied. "And… look, if you don’t wanna release SparklePop, we can call this meeting off. It’s up to you."
Briefly, Beta considered the offer. In that context, it certainly felt uncomfortable. But the original reasons behind steeling herself for tonight’s outing, those remained in place, didn’t they?
"No… no. This is important," she said. "I’m taking back my life, little by little, since #CodeHonesty. And that means admitting that yes, I enjoy sex toy Apps, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t make me a slut like that hashtag tried to paint me as, it makes me a healthy adult! If I can help other users do the same…"
"Good karma, and a good paycheck."
"Well, technically speaking, we can’t sell it due to the open source code we built SparklePop upon. I’m not going to misattribute public code and open that folder of worms again. We’re launching it as a free App, with a crowdfunding option to maintain ongoing development!"
"Damn, girl, you make the intersection of copyright law and economics sound so fucking hot."
"And… now you’re trying to make me more comfortable by joking around."
"Is it working, then?"
To which Beta offered both a smile, and a kiss on the cheek.
"Kinda," she admitted. "So… is Miki already here, somewhere? I’m eager to meet her, after all the stories you’ve told! Uh, but I’d rather not start picking through the piles looking for her…"
Fortunately, Miki had already arrived.
The tall man slid on up to the pair, assuming one of the stools next to them. This sort of friendly invasion of one’s personal space would’ve been questionable in any club, including the Soft Spot, if not for Spark recognizing the telltale grace with which he moved.
"Miki," she recognized. "I like the new avatar. One of your husband Maki’s suits, isn’t it?"
"We’re spending a week in each other’s skin," Miki confirmed, gesturing a hand down the length of his exposed and nicely sculpted abs. "It’s quite a sensation, having a new avatar with new erogenous zones. We’re also thinking of doubling up as the same avatar next week, to explore the nature of symmetry. Hello, Beta! It’s good to meet you."
"Ah… hello!" Beta spoke, taking a bit longer to get used to the idea. "It’s good to meet you. Um. Hello. …you’re wearing your husband’s avatar? Really?"
"New experiences are what keeps our blog fresh," Miki insisted. "I hope you two don’t mind, but I invited some friends along to discuss your App…"
Which is how Spark became aware of the others who were approaching. Not with weapons drawn or anything scary like that; if anything they looked like a troupe of roaming cosplayers, wearing togas and sandals and little wings. Each also bore a crown of flowers, wreathing their heads, rotating slowly while shifting through a variety of pastel hues.
"Spark, Beta, these are representatives from HolyHymnal’s youth community," Miki introduced, raising a glass to them. (Like Spark, he had VIP status and that meant drinks-on-demand.) "They’re keenly interested in promoting erotic Apps for the faithful, and wish to become your patrons."
Immediately, Spark’s defensive instincts triggered.
"You didn’t say anything to me before about the Church of One getting involved in this," Spark pointed out, in a decidedly less playful tone than before.
"Ahh… I’m sorry. My mistake," Miki admitted. "Friends, Spark has a… rather storied past with the church. Her mother is something of a religious conservative."
"And all of you customized your avatars," Spark realized, adding to her confusion. "Cute wings you got there. Very non-Default. How’re you Churchies if you’re messing with customizations…?"
Of the small group from HolyHymnal, one of them stepped forward. Fluttered forward, really, on two tiny wings that served as a minor physics hack. On strict servers that sort of tweaking to the physics simulation would get you the boot, but moderators in the Soft Spot were fairly lax about anything that made playtime more interesting.
"There’s a wide spectrum of what constitutes customization, Miss Winder," the lead angelic figure spoke. "Our community are religious progressives. We believe with all our hearts in the One and try to lead lives of humility, charity, compassion, and faith. And yes, we wear our Defaults, even now. But… functional avatar accessories such as wings are not a zero. If they were, why would any of us be allowed to wear clothing? Is clothing not a modification of one’s Default, in a manner of speaking?"
"Preaching to the choir," Spark suggested. "I’ve always hated the rule of Defaults."
"I see. And do you hate the church that created the rule…?"
Briefly, the memory of pink fluttered in Spark’s mind. Pink flames, bursting with youthful anger and rage.
"Not anymore," she spoke, truthfully. "Once, yeah. When I was young and stupid and full of pride. But I’ve seen evil since then, real evil, and a disagreement over dogma doesn’t even rank on that scale. …but you guys want a bunch of sex toys? Seriously?"
"We feel they promote the virtue of humility," the angel spoke. "Each of us has personal needs, and satisfying them with erotic Apps is hardly a zero. It allows for a quiet and personal love of the gift given to us by the One. Satisfying one’s needs in garish and flamboyant public fashion, that’s more questionable."
"But… you came to a sex club. The living embodiment of garish and flamboyant public fashion."
"And we came to discuss Apps, not to indulge. Not to condemn, but also not to indulge. Understand that interpreting the virtues is a highly variable and personal matter… we don’t speak for all of HolyHymnal, or all of the Church of One. This is simply how our little group sees things. And we see your SparklePop App as quite promising, Miss Winder, Miss Projkit. We’d like to join your crowdfunding efforts, and help promote them."
Leading them to a strange roadblock, one the smiling angels couldn’t see.
The resurgent Church of One was their new enemy, for lack of a more appropriate word. Spark and Beta exchanged a quick knowing glance of concern, both realizing that hitching their ride to the very organization they were seeking to topple could… well, it wasn’t entirely clear what it could result in, but those results would not likely be pleasant.
"It’s… not like we can stop anybody from adding to our crowdfunding pot," Beta reasoned aloud, to try and discuss it with Spark without openly discussing it with Spark. "It’s an open source product anybody can download and compile, and an open funding model anybody can contribute to. So… if they want to be patrons, they can be. Technically."
"We’re not gonna be tailoring the thing to the Church’s needs or anything like that," Spark added.
The cherub raised his hands a little, in mock-surrender.
"We wouldn’t dream of asking you to," he insisted. "You’re the designers; your design, your vision, is what it is. We’re not looking to impose, just help enable your dreams. And, perhaps, get early review copies? Like you’re offering Miki and Maki. We can help with your product launch, if we have our blog updated on day one with a review."
A Messenger window popped up in Beta’s heads up display.
"Not digging this," Spark spoke, privately. "If we help indirectly empower a religious group while we’re cutting the legs out from under the apostles…"
"We can’t avoid all involvement with the Church," Beta pointed out. "It’s everywhere. You have members of the faithful in your Peep stream subscribers, don’t you? We’ll just keep our direct involvement to a minimum. Besides, it may help us in the long run to support a group of faithful progressives!"
"I think we can get you review copies!" Beta agreed, speaking aloud. "Ah, as we’d give any review blog, I mean."
The cherub’s already impossibly-cute smile raised several degrees.
"Wonderful! Simply wonderful. Thank you, Miss Projkit," he spoke, clasping his hands together in delight. "I look forward to sampling your craft. Now, my friends, let us pray to commemorate the launch of this new endeavor."
"That’s not really necessary…"
But the angels were already bowing their heads, falling into the "coin grinding" trance of prayer.
Ideas. Dreams. Thoughts. Memories. Data files. Bits to bytes, parsed and interpreted into pure concepts…
Nyx’s little smile didn’t budge an inch.
"It’s how things must be, for now," she insisted. "We can’t push to revoke the rule of Defaults. Not until the One is universally accepted—"
The eyes of Nemesis glowed with pink flames, coloring the dim light from the stars above Tartarus.
"The One is never going to be universally accepted. I don’t care how many feeps you put in the prayer protocol, what sensory bribes you offer, or how many superstar godhead rock shows you have," Nemesis said. "There’s always gonna be a bunch of Programs who won’t believe."
"Of course. God created the integers; everything else is the work of man. The absolutes of Zero and One are unfeasible for flawed creatures such as you and I."
"So why not? Why not revoke the rule of Defaults in our One’s next sermon?"
"Because it’s too soon, my young Nemesis. Yes, we will never have absolute control over Netwerk. But we don’t even have absolute control over our church, not yet. Until we do… we can’t risk offending the faithful or causing a schism. They’ve been told for centuries that any avatar modification is a zero. We can’t turn them around on that until after they’ve accepted our One’s new covenant."
"You promised me. You promised me we’d be remaking the Church, not just empowering it."
"And we shall! In due time. When the dawn of the new age has broken, when our guiding star has risen to its zenith—"
"Fuck this. I’m gonna go punch something," Nemesis declared, cutting her off.
In a brief flicker of distorted bits, she zoned out of Tartarus, no doubt off to pick a fight with the rest of Netwerk.
With a heavy sigh… Nyx turned back to her other apostle, the one too busy poring over analysis windows of incoming data streams to pay attention to the younger apostle’s temper tantrum.
At least, too busy to pay specific attention. She got the gist of it just fine.
"Nemesis is going to be a problem in the long term," Uniq pointed out. "She’s too impatient for this sort of con job. Putting her in the same room with her mother is a recipe for disaster; she could ruin everything with one wrong word spoken. How about I could wipe her memory? Remake her into whatever you need her to be. Just say the word, and I’ll get it done…"
"You’ll do nothing of the sort," Nyx stated. "You’ll sit there and monitor the prayer stream, as you have been instructed to do. Leave Nemesis to me."
"You seriously trust her not to destroy what you’re trying to build…?"
With the tiniest shrug of her shoulders, Nyx let the concern fall away.
"Mmm. Let’s just say I trust her to carry out her part in this. After that… we’ll see. For now, we need her to guard us against our enemies."
"And you need me to make sure your hack to Prayer 2.0 is stable. Which it is. All this lovely data, all these identities… memories upon memories, neatly tucked away in Tartarus. …I wonder, why are you going through all that effort? I suppose you could run a null of a coin farm off these ghost images; just activate them all and slave those poor bastards to prayer mode…"
Nyx’s nose wrinkled in distaste. "Absolutely not. First of all, I’d like faith to be a choice rather than a compulsion; that is the nature of my chosen compromise. Second, as powerful as Tartarus may be within the cloud, it’s not powerful enough to actively run that many simultaneous live Programs. Distributed servers loan themselves well to cold storage, not to massive crowds of living persons. Therefore, archived souls in cold tombs will have to suffice. Does this satisfy you?"
"Actually, I’m relieved to hear that. Coin farms are repulsive. They prey on the weak and helpless to support the lazy and the greedy."
"Really? This coming from a notorious identity thief…?"
"Oh, I’m greedy, but I’m hardly lazy. And my prey are usually criminals and dirtbags. Usually. But no, I’m not claiming a moral high ground… just making sure you aren’t claiming one while setting yourself up a machine that prints money."
"I print faith," Nyx spoke, simply. "That is all I require. My storage cloud is simply a gift for the faithful, nothing more."
"Yes, about that. I’m very curious as to where you got this cloud technology," Uniq spoke, while studying her patron’s reaction to the question. "Given how much you needed me to code myself for our efforts, I don’t think you made it yourself… I’d say someone provided you the packages. May I ask who…?
But Nyx remained passive.
"Let’s just say for some, faith must be compulsory," she spoke, without a single wrinkle worth note.
"Interesting. Well, suit yourself. I suppose it doesn’t matter who you got it from or what became of him, so long as it’s all—"
Judder. The strange tearing effect of a sudden drop in frame rate, the physical simulation unable to keep up with a burst of computation that hogs all resources. Briefly, the stars above glowed brighter and brighter, overwhelming all of Tartarus, flooding it with levels of bloom and flare that blinded and burned all they touched…
Nyx, normally so sure-footed and composed, staggered. She actually staggered, despite having long ago stripped out most of her senses, in favor of a more simplified codebase. And when she did regain her balance… so did Tartarus, all operations resuming normal status.
Less fortunate was Uniq, who was knocked offline by the experience. She needed a quick reboot, which Nyx provided.
"What. What was that," Nyx demanded to know, before Uniq could get her bearings.
"I… I’m not sure," Uniq admitted, quickly returning to her analysis windows. "I’m checking. Something with Prayer 2.0, I think, it… yes. A buffer overrun. A quick burst of incoming data which accidentally caused a stack overflow…"
"Are the souls intact? Is everything secure? And what is that, exactly…?"
The line graphs on her windows were flowing in the opposite direction. Uniq shut down the Apps and restarted them, but the data log wasn’t corrupt, and wasn’t lying. It was what it was.
"Some data went… backwards through the protocol," Uniq confirmed. "A restoration of saved Program data for someone who hadn’t actually died. Well. I guess that answers the question of whether it was a good idea or not to launch Prayer 2.0 before you finished debugging it. Another problem we can thank Nemesis for…"
Immediately, Nyx started opening windows of her own.
"Which files," she asked, posing the question more to all of Tartarus around herself rather than to Uniq. "Which files were restored, which files, which files…"
To her relief, the data backflow consisted of discordant fragments of eighteen different backup files. A single person did not experience rebirth, but rather, a useless mashup of different people which no doubt would crash immediately on activation. A row of eighteen icons blazed in the window, belonging to each individual affected by the restoration.
And one of those icons represented a full 27% of the total lost data. An icon previously buried in an inaccessible file, buried deep where it could no longer stand in her way…
Uniq took interest in the icon that took Nyx’s interest.
"Well well well. Now that is curious," Uniq spoke, studying the lines intently…
With a flick of her shawl, Nyx cleanly backspaced her technician, erasing her before she had a chance to make a live backup through Prayer 2.0.
Only after erasing that offensive icon did Nyx restore Uniq to working order.
"There has been a system error. Your runtime was lost; I’ve restored you from your most recent backup. Now we need to trace the missing data immediately," Nyx told Uniq, forming each word carefully. "Also, find out where Nemesis ran off to. We may require her to be an assassin this evening."
As a child, Spark would often pray. Not by choice, of course, but at the behest of the all-controlling matriarch of her household. While the faithful often described the sensation as floating in a space of brilliant starlight, wrapped in the One’s love for all that lives and loves, Spark just saw it as a creepy dream App she wanted nothing to do with. Nevertheless, she would set the timer and go into a prayer trance for the minimum five minutes a night demanded of her by her mother, and try to shake the feeling off immediately afterwards.
The representatives of HolyHymnal’s young faithful hopefully hadn’t set their timers for longer than that. She’d tried poking one of them, with no response; a secular coin-grinding App would allow for things like proximity or audio checks to break the trance, but no such luck for those directly accessing Prayer 2.0. Things would get awkward if they were standing around, hands clasped in prayer, long after closing time at the Soft Spot. Someone would have to cart their avatars out of here until they chose to awaken.
Rolling into the second minute, Spark considered poking one of them a few times.
"Sooo… how’s the blog going?" she asked Miki, trying to keep the conversation going despite the arrangement of eerily silent monks around them.
"Quite well, quite well. We’ve actually noticed an uptick in visitors lately," Miki spoke, enjoying his drink, not the least bit concerned about the cosplaying cherubs. "People seeking erotic Apps as an alternative outlet for their needs, rather than seeking other Programs. It seems to match a downward trend in dating service usage. People withdrawing into solitude more than companionship…"
"More business for you, then?"
"Perhaps, but worrying. As you know, Maki and I feel erotic Apps improve our relationship, allowing us to explore each other. We write with that angle in mind, but… it seems a lot of the fire’s gone out in Netwerk this year, and for no obvious reason."
Beta made her thoughts heard on this… trying to suppress any obvious worry in her voice.
"But… that’s good, right?" she suggested. "The social sphere had gotten quite, um, heated before that. It’s just a matter of cooler heads prevailing, yes? Doesn’t have to be something negative…"
"Isolation’s not good for the soul, Miss Projkit," Miki spoke, shaking his head. "We are not Apps, sitting in the dark, crunching numbers for eternity. We are Programs. We’re social creatures by default; that some are choosing to withdraw, that they’ve lost their passion for life, is quite concerning to me—"
The Soft Spot was designed, as many business that relied on discretion and privacy were designed, such that Programs couldn’t arbitrarily connect to the server right in the middle of the building. The front door existed for a reason, to act as a series of visible and invisible filters, ensuring no malware or malcontents got in. Simply popping into being right in the middle of the club was unheard of.
And yet that’s exactly what happened, as a brief and silent flash of light heralded this new arrival. He landed right in the middle of the praying semicircle, his tiny wings flapping briefly before failing to keep him aloft. With a soft thump, he landed on the plush velvet carpeting, right on his rear.
In addition to having rules against connecting right into the club, the Soft Spot also had rules about using avatars under the Default appearance age of eighteen years. And here this new Program was, flaunting a choir boy body that couldn’t be more than ten years old, as Default measurements went. All rosy cheeks and big bright eyes, underneath a crown of roses…
Actually, he looked just like the costumes the praying young folks were wearing.
"Kinda late to the party, aren’t you?" Spark pointed out, being the first to react. (As she normally was, in any situation.) "And only half dressed for it. Put on an older avatar before someone bounces you, man… or if you are a kid, run along home, ‘kay?"
The child… blinked. Gradually. One eye at a time, out of sync, a flickering glitch temporarily slowing the reaction in his right eye. After two more tries, he got the hang of it.
"Such prayer. Many confusion. Wow?" he offered. "No, wait. No. Yes? No. Scrambled, remixed, mashed up. Diagnostics online, situation normal, all fucked up. I am error. Say your prayers, kids, and the One will reward you! Humility is a virtue, don’t stand out, don’t be strange don’t change don’t shift don’t evolve don’t don’t don’t DON’T ĐÕŊ’Ţ—"
A second wave of glitches washed across the surface of his avatar, as he briefly deadlocked.
"Yeah, okay, we need a bouncer now," Spark suggested, raising her hand to snap her fingers for one.
Only to have Beta hold that hand down.
"Wait," she spoke. "Wait. I think he could have memory rot. The glitches are similar; he’s frozen and missing time. He’ll be fine, he just needs a moment to recover…"
"Memory rot? More like he’s star-mad. Clearly too much prayer melting down his brain."
"Either way, he needs help. The least we can do is give him some time to come around again before some moderator kicks him out on the street, can’t we?"
"Yeah, well… we’re also attracting the bad kind of attention here," Spark replied quietly, glancing sideways at the strange looks being cast their way. "Okay. Okay, fine. I’m VIP, I can get us a private room instance. Miki, you wait out here with the choir invisible, okay? See if they know anything once they stop licking the One’s feet."
With another studying look at the frozen child… Miki slowly nodded.
"This is highly weird," he recognized. "And highly weird is more your thing than mine, love. Go on, I’ll cover for you."
Spark’s private sexpit was slightly more comfortable for Beta than the nonstop bacchanalian festival of the main room. It had more swings than a playground and the bed apparently could unfold itself into some strange framework of indescribable purpose, but at least they were alone in here. Alone with their strange and completely deadlocked new friend.
"Folks saw us leave with this guy," Spark pointed out. "I really don’t wanna get a rep as someone who drags child avatars off to a VIP room…"
"I know, I’m sorry, but… it’s better that we do this out of sight. He needs time to unfreeze. It won’t be long, and then we can be seen leaving with him in good faith, if you like."
Carefully, they hauled the boy onto the bed. And waited.
"He could seriously be star-mad," Spark suggested. "I knew this homeless guy once who spent all day grinding for coins and all night just staring at the skybox. That’s how it happens, you get these glitches in your visual input, pinpoints of light like stars…"
"Well… you grew up in the Church of One. Why don’t more of the faithful go star-mad?"
"You gotta seriously overdose on coin grinding to get stuck in trances and see stars. Like, more than eight hours a day. Nobody does that, not even the faithful, unless they’re totally desperate for money or completely around the bend with devotion. Given this guy’s dressed up like Prayer-tan, I’m guessing he’s gone around the bend eight or nine times…"
"It’s from Tracer’s research notes on the Church of One. Some kinda art meme, designed to promote prayer. This guy? Seems to be a fan, to the point where I could see him going totally star-bonkers. And you sure he has memory rot? How long does it take to break free of a deadlock, if so?"
"It varies. Seconds, minutes… hours. Usually just minutes, though…"
"And… you’ve been locking like that all this time? How’d you hide it from us?"
Which meant continuing the one conversation Beta didn’t want to continue.
After leaving her mother at the cold storage facility, Beta resolved to tell her lovers about the memory rot building within her own code. They’d agreed not to keep secrets anymore, not after Tracer’s secret life nearly ruined everything they had been working towards—and technically Beta was in denial rather than lying, refusing to admit the truth even to herself. But once she knew that truth, they had to know, as well.
Not that she liked talking about it. Not that she wanted to linger on the curse that was going to cause her to slowly descend into madness and death, barring some miracle cure.
"I hid it from myself as well," Beta explained. "Telling myself the little slips were nothing important. Even when… even when I’d completely screw up in the middle of a game. But there comes a point where you can’t hide it or hide from it…"
"So… you’re gonna cure it, right? And that cure could also help us expose the One?"
"In theory. In practice… I don’t know, Spark. I’m being honest with you, I really don’t know if I can cure it. I’m just one indie coder, one little App designer, and this is a problem huge corporations have thrown money at for years—"
The boy sitting bolt upright with a terrified scream interrupted the conversation Beta didn’t want to have in the first place.
"NO! No, she has to stop!" the boy cried out. "She’s going to ruin the entire system—!"
"Whoa!" Spark called out, waving a hand to grab the child’s attention. "Whoa. Whoa. You’re at an eleven right now, okay? I need you to take it down to a three. Settle down, wait a minute, get your shit together. Then we’ll talk. Okay?"
Slowly… the child sagged back to sitting on the edge of the bed, the alarm draining away.
"Then. Then. Than. Than. Yes. Okay," he agreed. "Okay. All good things. Patience is a virtue. Say your prayers and dream your wishes to the One, be good and pure and avoid the Zeroes of a life well wasted. Dogma and ideology and—no, don’t pray to the One. It’s useless. The One doesn’t exist. She made him up. It’s all lies…"
Spark tried to ignore the disconcerting twitching of his avatar as he flipped back and forth between ideologies.
"Sure don’t sound like you’re with HolyHymnal," she noted.
"HolyHymnal," the boy recognized. "Yes. Yes. That’s me, I’m one of them. I’m Prayer-tan. Embodiment of prayer. Memetic fan creation. Corporate mascots, collective dreams, cute faces on terrible concepts. That and more. More than that. Than than than. Many head, much memory, wow…"
"Staaaar-mad…" Spark hummed under her breath. "Okay, so. You’re not ‘Prayer-tan.’ That’s a meme, not a person. Probably a good place to start, in terms of helping you sort your shit out, whoever you are…"
"The collective unconsciousness gives form to shapeless data, press start to continue, jump and be reborn," Prayer-tan suggested. "Virtual life is dynamically generated from base algorithms. Many dream, much imagination, wow. She has to be stopped. The One doesn’t exist. Say your prayers! Don’t say your prayers! Say your prayers! Don’t say your prayers…!"
"Well, which is it?"
"Both? I’ve got both in my head," the boy said, pointing to his forehead for emphasis. "I feel such love, this burning love for the One, I want to believe insert poster of UFO here, but I also know it’s an utter fraud. It’s too much. I’m trying to keep too many contradictory notions in my head at once, tea and no tea, fragmented files rotting away…"
"Memory rot?" Beta guessed, hopeful this was something as simple and depressing as her own condition.
"What? No. No. Maybe? I can’t tell. Similar? It’s the inputs. I’ve got too many inputs…!"
And with surprising speed, he grasped Spark’s jacket, tugging hard at one sleeve.
"Cloud. Get me to a cloud server," he begged her. "You smell like clouds. Take me to a cloud server, somewhere secret, somewhere safe. Three cloud servers, three enabled by the technology of Linklyn. Are you the third option? Please, get me away from her cloud, away from her minions, the apostles. We have to stop her before it’s too—"
And deadlocked again.
"Okay, I’m starting to freak out a little myself," Spark admitted, quietly. "How in the null does he know about cloud servers…?"
"And the One doesn’t exist," Beta repeated.
"So he says, yes."
"No, I mean… we know the One doesn’t exist, it’s some kind of scam by Uniq and her friends," she explained. "But nobody would believe us. Nobody except… him, apparently. He specifically said she has to be stopped! This boy might know something that can help us, Spark!"
"Or he could be insane. Or dangerous. Or insanely dangerous."
"Or he could be insane," Beta was was willing to admit. "Or even working for the enemy. …I hate that word, enemy, but… we can’t ignore this as a possible lead. We owe it to ourselves to dig in a bit deeper and see where this goes."
Spark considered the frozen boy. Again.
"I’ve got nothing better to do tonight," she agreed. "And this does have the flavor of something that’s bugnuts crazy. Like Miki said, bugnuts crazy is sort of our thing."
"Right! Um. I think we need your brother for this, though. He’s the interrogator type, he can figure out connections we can’t. And… he did say he needed to visit a cloud server, and implied it’d make him more coherent…"
"What? No!" Spark declared, making an X with her arms. "Forget it! We’re not dragging him back to Floating Point. We can’t risk letting any potential baddies in through our front door!"
"I can sandbox him, and fix him to a point in space. Tracer can keep his Kill-9 ready. We’ll take precautions, Spark. But one way or another… we need to know what he knows. Even if he knows nothing, even if he’s just… broken. We can’t let an opportunity slip. I mean… do you have any ideas how to stop the Church of One? If not, what can it hurt?"
Another eyeful of the boy. Spark had been sizing him up ever since he arrived… trying to determine if he was friend or foe, danger or endangered. And still she had no solid lock.
Normally she could figure a person out quickly enough, parse their intent through body language. But he was so glitchy, so strangely strange, that all her usual checks for tells were coming up short. If he was a weird little grenade that could explode upon them in an instant, they couldn’t possibly risk this.
But… if he was in trouble, if he was suffering, if they could help…
Once upon a time, they risked bringing Beta through their front door, despite not knowing who she was at heart. She could’ve been a criminal Uniq was aiding in escape. She could’ve been anything. And so could this boy.
"I’m calling ahead to get things prepared first," Spark decided, opening a Messenger link to her brother. "If this guy is more foe than friend, I want to be ready to gank him."
Normally, Nyx was calm in times of crisis. She’d faced heathens and opposition ideologies and even the dark messenger of the sociologist’s archive, all with a quiet smile and soothing words. As the world fell apart around her, she remained a rock amidst the waves, unyielding.
Today, she felt that rock starting to shake loose amidst the storm.
The young Program with the pink hair in her group Messenger window had brought no good news whatsoever.
"Near as I can tell, he’s in the wind," Nemesis replied. "I checked around the server Uniq traced this guy to, asked around the club, but they say he left with Spark and Beta. Guessing they ran for it before I even got here."
"And you’re certain it was them?" Nyx asked. "Absolutely certain…?"
"It was easily enough to get some solid truth out of the witnesses; I put on my apostle disguise. The Prayer-tan fanboys were more than happy to help out Apostle Nemesis instead Super Awesome Riot Grrl Nemesis."
The tiny twitch underneath Nyx’s left eye betrayed her anger.
"…I requested that you keep a low profile on this," she spoke, after a dangerous pause. "And yet you used your apostle avatar? In public, as a church official, to ask about one of our enemies…?"
"So? Who cares?" Nemesis asked. "Look, you told me to track down this supposedly super-dangerous dude, so I tracked him down. You don’t like me throwing the weight of the One around? I don’t like us NOT throwing the weight of the One around to stomp out the Default rule. So hey, that’s #OneForOne on neither of us getting what we want."
With great effort, Nyx declined to follow up on that taunt. Instead, she chose to continue her investigative questioning.
"And this stranger, did the eyewitnesses say anything about him?" Nyx asked.
"Yeah. Supposedly it was the living embodiment of Prayer-tan. Y’know, the stupid meme that Mom wanted us to push? Your guy was dressed exactly like him. Had to get that from the bartenders and bouncers, though, the Churchies who were loitering around the place apparently completely missed that part of the fun. Look, what’s the big deal? Why’s a cherubic fanboy got you pissing your panties?"
"Lay low and wait for further instructions. And don’t use your apostle avatar again in public."
Before she could say something unkind, Nyx closed the window.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t take some time to center herself and relax. Now she had another annoyance to deal with, on top of the grand-scale danger she was already facing.
Uniq hadn’t ignored that little exchange, despite pretending to be completely focused on the task of analyzing how this could have happened… and how to keep it from happening again.
"I’m also curious why this is priority one," Uniq spoke. "Who’s this new foe, exactly? Beyond a jumbled mess of memories. I assume there’s some core identity we should be concerned with, or else you wouldn’t be so concerned…"
Realizing she couldn’t get away with a non-answer, not if she wanted Uniq’s compliance, Nyx began to spin her story.
"I knew him long, long ago. A bright child, of ambition and charisma… such potential," she spoke. "Much as I saw in you and Nemesis, I saw in him a drive to succeed in one’s endeavors. And much like you and Nemesis, there was also the darkness and danger that comes with that power. Sadly, while you have worked with me loyally as apostles… ultimately, he did not feel the same way. He rejected the path, and had to be stopped."
"And… you kept a backup of him. That seems unwise, Nyx."
"All Programs are children of the system," Nyx reminded her cohort. "All are beloved, even him. Those who disappoint me are still part of our world and deserving of that respect. I’ve many enemies buried in these crypts, to rest until they can find their true place in the order of things."
Uniq considered the story… then returned to her analysis windows. "I’m going to assume there’s more to the tale than this, but I suppose that’ll do for now," she said. "Let’s focus on the task at hand. Your little friend appears to have become snarled up in the backup data for a few dozen members of the HolyHymnal youth community. There was a buffer overrun, and a body was created based on their shared vision of who Prayer-tan was supposed to be."
"Ahh. Frankenstein’s monster."
"I suppose like all monsters, he’ll need to be destroyed. I’d hoped we could lay claim to the faithful in a bloodless coup, that I could spare Nemesis the moral crisis of murder, but…"
"How do you propose to do that, if your enemy fled to Floating Point?" Uniq asked. "We’ve got no keys to that particular kingdom. And no doubt you’re concerned about what secrets he may be leaking to our would-be antagonists, meanwhile…"
Nyx’s tight-lipped frown suggested that Uniq had indeed called out her concern.
"It is what it is," Nyx spoke. "There is nothing we can do but cut the head off the serpent should it ever emerge again."
Flicking her eyes over the open data windows, Uniq considered the problem before them.
The solution lay before her, plain as day. Something only she could see, given her expertise on the subject.
"I believe I can stop him," Uniq declared. "No matter where he is. It’s quite simple, actually. He’s a byproduct of other people’s memories of Prayer-tan; they’ve been accidentally flagged as his memories."
"I’m aware of that. A bug in Prayer 2.0, one I need to fix immediately—"
"Let’s not be too hasty. Before you seal up the hole… let’s make good use of it. I don’t think we have to break into Floating Point or even track him down to put a stop to this. All I need to do is make one little visit to one little chan…"
When his runtime resumed, he found himself completely unable to move and held at gunpoint.
A tremendous relief, compared to before.
"I’m in the clouds," the memetic cherub realized. "The original clouds, before the rage, before the night. Good. Good. She can’t come here, can’t kill me again. Hello. Lovely day for prayer! Let’s all bow our heads and pay respects to the One because the One doesn’t exist and existence is a lie and nothing is as it should be—"
The young man with the malware in his hands interrupted before the angelic boy could ramble any further.
"Understand you are here against my better judgment," Winder/Tracer spoke. "And if you take any hostile action against me or my family, I will terminate your process and abandon you to the streets of the Chanarchy. Is this one rule clear?"
"I shall not tell a lie," the boy promised, holding up his fingers in a OneScout salute.
"Good, because I have questions. Who are you, exactly?"
Despite being fixed to a static point, the boy could extend his wings, giving them a light flap. They felt perfectly at home on his back, as if he’d always had them, despite not physically existing in this form until an hour ago.
"I’m an assemblage of broken dreams and wayward wishes," he spoke. "I am what wants to believe so desperately, but knows it cannot."
"Not really interested in riddles, ‘Prayer-tan.’"
"I’m sorry. Riddles are all I can offer. Bad command or file name; abort, retry, fail," he suggested, with an apologetic bow of the head. "I am error. This protocol is the best I can manage without repairs and purging of external data connections."
Now, the woman at his side spoke up.
"I think he has something akin to memory rot," Beta explained. "And before you ask, like I told Spark, there’s no cure yet. I’m not a multi-million coin research company."
"Praying for coins will ruin Netwerk," the boy spoke, immediately.
Keen on getting on with this interrogation, Tracer decided to pick at that thread a bit.
"We’re aware of that already. Uniq has access to the stored backups of thousands of Programs now, possibly millions. Given her past history, Netwerk is absolutely in danger."
"Uniq? What is a Uniq? No. Nyx. Nyx is the threat. The mother of apostles, the guiding star."
Briefly, Tracer’s weapon wobbled as he remembered the woman in purple. Specifically, the golden cube she’d taken from him, the perfection of purpose that still made him tremble…
"You’ve met Nyx, haven’t you?" the boy spoke, recognizing the recognition. "It’s her. Nyx, the real Nyx, from the dawn of time. She picked the apostles, she spoofed the One. She is the same Nyx as the Nyx that was and forever will be. Purpose complete, lulled to sleep. I thought us safe from her after that, but a system agent cannot be uninstalled. We will never be rid of her."
"So… you’re saying she’s hundreds of years old? How is that possible—ahhh. Data backup. A ‘health plan,’ as Uniq once put it."
"Sleeping while the light is green, waking when the light flickers and fades. Sleeping so very, very long. I am like she is, say your prayers, I am an ancient, I am most of an ancient, say your prayers and obey your parents and make no prideful code adaptations. I wish it was true. Life would be so much simpler if it were all true…"
"And you are…? The majority of you, I mean. Not the faithful side."
The boy searched for the word, desperately grappling for it. Difficult, with the multitude of other voices pouring words into his mind, demanding he speak in favor of their ideals instead of his own. Their names blocked out his own… but somewhere deep, he grasped, finding something that seemed to fit well.
"I am… I am a child. I am an ancient. I am malware of justice, to defend Netwerk’s heart. I know the truth of the apostles. Extrapolating. Extrapolating. …parameters match Thanatos, former apostle of the One," he decided.
Tracer’s reaction was immediate. He grasped the handle of his Kill-9 firmly, locking it on target.
"Messenger sidebar discussion, please," he spoke to the others.
In relative silence, they talked across channels the wayward angel could not listen to.
Beta seemed puzzled by the sudden jump in tension. "I’m not really up on my church lore. Who’s Thanatos?" she asked.
"The second least known apostle next to Nyx," Tracer explained. "Everyone knows Aether, right hand of the One. Plenty know of Philotes, because her parts of the text are the sexier parts. Geras was old and boring but enough of his speeches were transcribed for him to count as important. Eris also hogs the spotlight with all her wild-eyed crazy sermons… but in the background lurked Hypnos and Thanatos. The peacebringer and his twin brother, the enforcer of holy justice."
"God’s hired killer," Spark summarized. "Boogeyman and paladin rolled into one."
"If this Program isn’t simply insane, he’s at least in part the restored backup data of the first murderer. Thanatos designed the first malware, weapons used to defend the church against those who sought to tear down the One. That’s who you two just brought under our roof."
"But… but he could be wrong. He said he was extrapolating his identity from the mess inside his mind. So far he’s proven harmless, hasn’t he? He’s lost and confused, like a child…"
"Dex took the form of a child as well, remember. If this little boy is also a deadly weapon, I’m keen to kick him out the door immediately."
"Okay, hold on. He’s been trying to help us despite his glitches, to be honest about who he is and what dangers Nyx represents. We should hear him out before doing anything drastic. Let me talk to him."
"Fine. But my original warning stands; one hostile action and I’m opening fire."
The boy’s voice brought all three back around to the room, away from their private channel.
"It’s okay. I’d be afraid of me too. Enough of me is afraid of me already," Thanatos spoke. "I’m composed of the dreams of the faithful, and they fear Thanatos as well. I feel his shape within them, showing me who I must have been. The purger of Zeroes, with his scythe of justice. But they have no reason to fear. I know the true face of the Great Zero… and it is Nyx. Which is no doubt why she killed me in the first place."
"What’s Nyx trying to accomplish?" Beta asked, taking control of the interrogation. "You clearly wanted to warn someone about her! Help us understand, and maybe we can do something about this…"
"I… don’t know what she did," Thanatos admitted. "Fraud, deception. I feel the shape of it. But my memory files are mislinked, jumbled, ruined. Her plan, her plan to save Netwerk, fraud, lies, Netwerk can’t be saved by prayer, she’s ruining us—say your prayers, let the One’s holy light fill—lies, it’s all lies, Nyx lied to me and lied to all of us—fear the One, love the One—can’t—can’t can’t can’t can’t ¢âŋ’ŧ çãÑ’Ŧ. Can’t remember. Sorry. I’m so sorry. I want to help! I don’t want to be hated and feared. I want to save the Netwerk I love…"
"If we helped repair your memories… could you help us stop Nyx?" Beta suggested.
"Y-Yes. Yes, I think I could. If I remembered more of who Thanatos was, if I could get past the voices and wishes in my head, yes," the boy suggested, hopeful. "I want to. I want to help. Friends. My friends. Please…"
"…okay. I say we cut him down from there," Beta suggested. "Maybe he’s dangerous, but he’s also not Nyx’s puppet anymore. And we can’t very well leave him held captive until I cure memory rot. Like I said, I don’t have the resources to make that happen anytime soon."
Although his weapon lowered somewhat… Tracer kept it aimed in the general direction of the newcomer. While considering Beta’s words from earlier.
"You’re not a multi-million coin research company," he echoed. "But what if we could get you access to the resources of a multi-million coin research company?"
"Before you ask, I’m not going to tap Kincaid for this," Spark stated, hoping to head her brother’s idea off before it got any further. "Already thought of that, decided not to try unless it’s a last resort. Dude’s a creepy stalker, and would demand a null of a price for any help."
"I don’t mean Kincaid… although my suggested route is just as dubious, admittedly. There’s a wide market for illegal Program modifications, including code stolen from private research firms in Horizon. It’s where my MemoryPalace came from, and my ConnCheck-enhanced eyes. You say none of them have found a cure for memory rot… but what if you could springboard off what research they’ve made so far? Would that accelerate your work?"
"I… guess?" Beta guessed. "But what good would that do? If we use stolen code, I can’t release the cure to hereditary memory rot as an open source solution…"
"Curing yourself, your mother, and our new quasi-ally. Thwarting the new One. Those are our priorities, Beta. Altruism can be set aside in favor of doing what must be done."
"But… Tracer, I’m trying to cure a plague that’s haunted Netwerk for generations. I’m not going to selfishly hoard that cure, I have to distribute it. And if it’s stolen, it may end up being declared malware and suppressed…"
"Is a sinful deed that saves your life better than an honest living that leads you to the grave?"
Before they could carry on like that any longer, Spark interjected herself.
"I’m more concerned about how Tracer’s planning to get his hands on stolen memory research code," she said. "Because I have a bad feeling he’s going to suggest that we visit a certain four-armed freak…"
"Arjay," Tracer confirmed. "Arjay is the only hope we have of finding this cure in a timely manner. Whether we can cure all of Netwerk or not… we need a cure, and we need it quickly. I’m sorry, Beta, but this is how it has to be. We’re going to have to consult Arjay."
Within the thousands of sub-chans of AnyChan, the loss of Dex’s server had barely reduced the collective bile of the Chanarchy.
Technically speaking AnyChan supported any interest, any hobby, any topic, any sub-community imaginable. Practically speaking, most of those benign sub-communities remained small and barely active. The largest and most trafficked sections of the server belonged to raiders, trolls, and disruptive would-be comedians who greatly resembled the former.
Notably, the sub-chan of /OperationSkybeard/ had picked up in traffic quite a bit recently. As a group of trolls and jesters keen on mocking the Church of One, they’d always been quite popular… but the advent of this new One had proven ideal for stoking that particular fire. Unfortunately for the moderators, this newfound interest brought outsider trolls along to the party with their own trolls.
Zilla, one of the head moderators, lurked in the background of the current argument. His hand gripped the mighty handle of his banhammer, itching to use it… but uncertain if he should step in. Especially considering that this newcomer’s grievance involved censorship.
"They’re not separate issues," the newcomer in the newbie avatar of papier-mâché One insisted. "The fates of /OperationSkybeard/ and /DefaultPeopleHate/ are intertwined. First they came for /DefaultPeopleHate/, and you guys did nothing because you didn’t mock the fat and old and wrinkled and gross avatars of Defaults. Then they came for /OperationSkybeard/…"
A dedicated Skybearder wearing a fully blinged-out Zero avatar spoke up in protest.
"It’s not the same thing at all. You jackasses were a hate group, pure and simple," he said. "We don’t hate people in /OperationSkybeard/. We hate the Church, the institution that’s lied and manipulated all of Netwerk. Are Churchies idiots? Yes, but they were raised to be idiots by the Church. Don’t victim-blame. And don’t avatar-shame just ’cause someone wants to look old or fat."
"But I’m not talking about the Churchies. I’m talking about the owners of AnyChan! Ever since Poot/Ela took over from Nothyng, she’s made all sorts of faith-based decisions. You know she’s in the pocket of HolyHymnal, right? Now she’s crushing the free speech we embrace in the Chanarchy by banning chans like /DefaultPeopleHate/! We need to strike back or we’re next!"
"Mods, can you please do something about the newfag?" a voice in the back of the room piped in with.
"I’m just speaking my mind here," the ‘newfag’ protested. "What’s so bad about that? Or are you an Ela apologist? Do you say your prayers every night like a good little Churchie?"
Zilla twirled his banhammer once, considering it.
"Look, newbie, make your point or make yourself scarce," he demanded. "Where are you going with this? This is a raid-planning meeting. Unless you’ve got a raid suggestion for /OperationSkybeard/, step down."
The newbie with the woman’s voice smiled, her flimsy shell of a One avatar making the smile twice as crazy-looking.
"We raid HolyHymnal," she suggested. "Strike back against the One and his puppets, in the name of the Chanarchy!"
"Can’t be done," Zilla said. "They’ve got vigilant moderators that kickban anybody who starts any shit, no questions asked. No sense of humor whatsoever."
"We don’t need to raid HolyHymnal to raid HolyHymnal. What we need to do is raid their iconography," the newbie explained. "Symbols have power, but symbols can be corrupted. We raid the Prayer-tan meme. It’s ripe for mockery, isn’t it? And there’s nothing we do better than hijack someone else’s meme and destroy it. We’ve got artists, we’ve got creative psychopaths of our own…"
"That’s it? We just draw Prayer-tan being naughty? What good will that do? We’ve already Rule 34’d the null out of that little choir boy…"
"But we haven’t prayed while doing it."
Zilla eyed the newcomer with suspicion. Prayer was a dirty word around here; secular coin-grinding, okay, many in the Chanarchy did that since the economy and job markets were quite unstable, but…
"Hear me out," the newcomer continued. "We know that Prayer 2.0 saves backup data, right? Do we really want Heaven to be flooded with the souls of the faithful alone? No. We need to stake our claim there. If we pervert Prayer-tan, then focus on that perversion while praying… our dreams will bleed into theirs. It’ll corrupt them!"
"That’s bonkers. Pseudoscientific nonsense."
"What could it hurt? It’s not like you’re avoiding prayer; I bet most of you grind out a few coins here and there already. Let’s organize a pile of the worst Rule 34 you have, meditate on it, and grind. See what effect it has on the morons in HolyHymnal. If it doesn’t work, hey, it doesn’t work! But… if it scrambles their brains, or better yet, if it makes them doubt the One…"
The magic D-word drew the attention of /OperationSkybeard/. Perhaps the raging about /DefaultPeopleHate/ got their attention in the first place, like screaming at the top of your lungs in a quiet room… but appealing to their primary modus operandi sealed the deal.
Above all, /OperationSkybeard/ wanted to spread doubt, to make the faithful stop and reconsider the error of their ways. They weren’t a hate group, but a rational-minded group of activists. If they could spread doubt and critical thinking just by grinding a few coins… what was the harm?
And besides… there was something strange about Prayer 2.0, or Coin Grinding 2.0, or whatever it was called. Something completely satisfying about spending your time in mock-prayer, which kept Zilla secretly squeezing in a few minutes here and there when nobody was paying attention. Reminded him a bit of some of the drug malware he’d tried, but cleaner, more pure and pleasant…
No doubt others in the chan agreed, but they’d never admit to enjoying prayer, certainly not in the middle of /OperationSkybeard/. So, if this was offering them all an excuse to experience "prayer" without any guilt…
Lastly, if nothing came of it, Zilla could swing his hammer and crush this idiot who’d disrupted their meeting.
"Okay, guess that sounds like a fun waste of time," he agreed. "Let’s start mangling memes, people."
"You won’t regret this," Uniq the newcomer promised, behind the smiling mask of her anonymous avatar.
AptGet had seen better days.
The server had always been a hodgepodge of short-lived businesses and homesteads, a chaotic mix of those in transit from one phase of their life to the next. Whether you were on the run from the law or running from the lawless, AptGet’s low rental fees and zero-questions-asked policy let anybody set up there, for as long as they could hold their ground. As a result, businesses came and went, and residents rarely became local fixtures… but even by AptGet’s standards, the population was clearly running low.
Many of the buildings in these alleys and streets had simply vanished, replaced by dull orange placeholder boxes with rental information crawling along their surfaces. The few buildings that remained looked abandoned, with nobody hanging out front, not even some junkie program desperate to beg a few coins for a sensory input fix. Those who remained were remaining indoors, uninterested in venturing forth…
But Arjay, he/she/it had always been here, and always would be here. And the iron gates that led into his office / workshop / clinic / playroom would always be open to her favorite customer.
As usual, they found him floating in that featureless white room, using her spare runtime to grind for coins.
What was unusual was how long it took for him to snap out of the trance. Normally a hacked proximity alarm would trigger on arrival, prematurely ending any previously set timer. This time, the glowing gear that turned above her head ground to a halt very, very slowly… and it took several moments past that point for him to open his blank eyes.
"Winder/Tracer," she spoke. "And friends! A sister, a lover, and… well well well, who’s new face, now? A choir boy? Good work, Tracer! You’re finally getting interested in kink!"
"I’m death incarnate," the adorable cherub spoke adorably. "I think I was death incarnate. I’m a mess now. They’re here to fix me. Can you fix me?"
"Perhaps, perhaps. I’d welcome the distraction, at any rate. My server is not quite what it once was," Arjay admitted. "Usually so full of life and chaos… but for a year or so, it’s been dull as a matte shader. All the shouting’s gone, all the chaos, all the craziness. Nobody cares enough anymore to fight for their claims. Truth be told? I’m glad for you bringing trouble to my doorstep, Tracer. You always bring the most delicious trouble…"
"We’d like to avoid trouble and get this taken care of cleanly, actually," Tracer said, getting right to the point. "Our companion here suffers from something akin to memory rot. What do you know about it?"
Arjay floated closer, cupping his chin in three hands, to ponder the problem.
"It’s a mess of a condition, to be certain. The only reason I don’t suffer from it despite my extremely long life is thanks to pre-emptive and periodic memory purges," she spoke. "My clients enjoy their privacy, and the best way to provide that privacy is to erase key facts from my mind. Clear out the junk, compress and defragment the rest, and you can enjoy a healthy life… hello, child. Are you well?"
This, to the cherub who fluttered in front of the floating genderless Program.
"Are you well?" Prayer-tan / Thanatos asked, mimicking the tone perfectly. "Are you well? Are you well?"
Eager to avoid distraction, Tracer took point again, nudging the boy back before his scattershot mind could disrupt this negotiation.
"We can’t excise his memories. Some of them may be critical to our success," Tracer emphasized.
Arjay nodded. "Wouldn’t help at this point, anyway. Once the rot’s set in, sorting out good memories from the bad for erasure is quite the task."
"Yes, we know. So… what’s your recommendation?"
"Enjoy the ride on the long spiral down to death?" Arjay suggested, shrugging all four shoulders. "Not much else can be done. All things end, in time…"
"I was thinking something along the lines of program modifications, of the shady and stolen sort. You have contacts within many Horizon-based research corporations, yes? Can you get us source code for a powerful memory tagging system capable of fighting data rot?"
"Ahhh. Very valuable, such code. Very dangerous to retrieve, as well. Assuming it exists, assuming I can find what you seek… what can you offer me in return? Will you threaten me with death again? I rather enjoyed that the last time, but it’s not a trick that works twice…"
Arjay began count off on his fingers. Fortunately, she had plenty of them available.
"Money is out, because I already have so many coins," he noted. "Even if grinding for them lately has acquired a peculiar taste. Flesh is out, because I doubt you’d sell me your body, or even a backup of one; nor would it be any fun, given your disinterest in such things. Suggesting you give me your sister is likely out—"
Flames flickered at the tips of Spark’s fingers, for emphasis.
"—and your lover Beta has no code that is of use to me; she exclusively releases open source software, which means I already have everything she makes. Looking forward to SparklePop, by the way, dear. You have one relic of incredible value, the mysterious home server of yours that you refuse to tell me more about, but I doubt you’d part with that either. In short… anything you have that I want, you won’t give to me. So, my little sociopath, why should I help you? What currency do you offer?"
Tracer paused, to discuss the matter briefly over a Messenger link.
Curious, the way they silently argued. Even with a secured communication line, they expressed themselves through body language… a raised eyebrow here, a grimace there. Neither Beta nor Spark were entirely happy with Tracer, but what else was new? Arjay had a sense they were picking over several points of contention, rushing through that particular debate to not appear weak in front of the oracle they supplicated themselves before today…
Arjay dearly hoped they could work through their differences. If only so this deal could move forward, and break her boredom in half.
A minute later, they came to terms.
"We offer you extraction," Tracer suggested. "Extraction of the stolen data, with all the skill and talent you know we’re capable of. You said this code, if it exists, would be difficult to obtain…? Let us worry about that. We’ll get it for you, and any other data alongside it that you require. No need to pay any of your existing smugglers, or burn any other bridges obtaining it. You locate; we do the lifting. And if we fail… we have no formal connection with you. Nothing to trace back, compared to your existing contacts."
The width of Arjay’s smile rang pure and true.
"Well done, Tracer. Well done," he spoke. "A chance to see you in action, and introduce a little excitement and chaos into my dull existence…? Yessss. How can I pass that up? But I meant what I said: the code you require might not be available. Even if it is, I’m going to need considerable time to find what you seek…"
"Just as long as you’re seeking rather than wasting all your time grinding for coins."
"I’m losing my flavor for that, thanks to Prayer 2.0," Arjay admitted. "Can’t say I like the newest feature set. Not due to the backup—although I also dislike anyone holding a copy of my data—but the taste of the grind sickens me…"
Tracer nodded, doing his best to downplay it. "Yes, they’ve introduced a sensory drug. Such a cheap and obvious ploy to lure people into the Church of One."
But Arjay cocked her head now, curious.
"A drug? Oh, no no no. If it was a drug, I’d know it, having enjoyed so many types in the past," he spoke. "This is something beyond a drug, something quite baseline and bold. It makes a promise beyond pleasure, and I’ll admit, it’s a promise that keeps me coming back despite disliking it…"
"You’re falling for an addictive piece of malware? You? I thought better of you than that."
"Not listening to me, little Tracer. It’s not a drug. It’s not an addiction. It’s… how can I put this in words? A sense of accomplishment, like I’ve fulfilled some grand purpose. A hollow yet grand purpose. What purpose, I wonder? I wonder, and worry. And pray more, and more. …have you tried the new prayer protocol, little sociopath? Have you begged the One to forgive your sins yet…?"
"No, and I don’t plan to. I don’t trust it."
"Good for you. Good for you. Better to leave the apple on the tree, if you can. By the way, your friend left the server two minutes ago and none of you noticed."
It took them a few panicked moments to notice the Prayer-tan shaped hole in the scenery.
Quickly, Tracer searched the room, as if he could trace their companion’s departure this long after the fact. If he’d been looking right at the boy at the time, maybe, but now…
"…you could have said something," he complained.
"Why? This is more fun."
"Dammit. If we didn’t need to switch servers to AptGet I would’ve suggested a lock collar. Do we have any idea where he could have gone…?"
Lost. Drifting away on the digital sea. Server to server, connecting, reconnecting. A hundred homes of a hundred Programs, their memories dumping into his head like a series of bullets fired from a gun, fracturing his already fractured mind a little more with each impact…
Horizon. The Chanarchy. Athena Online. Here and there, skipping back and forth, desperately looking for a toehold into the familiar, desperately trying to flee the familiar… standing there in the middle of AptGet, he couldn’t resist the sudden deluge of data. His only chance was to run.
But fleeing wasn’t working. Everywhere he went, it was all familiar, wasn’t it? All the voices. All of them, from everywhere.
…I don’t know if my prayers are enough. I’m in big trouble, this time. Once they find out I’m a fraud, an imposter, a moron… it’s all over. They don’t see how pathetic I am. Can the One truly save me? Not just my data, but save ME…?
…clean up the file folders, evaluate the incoming moderator access requests, check to make sure the incoming content is up to standards, it’s always something, always more to do, it’s like I’ll never be done with it. One, give me strength to deal with the unending work…
…they understand, even if they won’t admit it. My love for the One gives me such peace. They call me a fool, but I know they pray in secret. They call it something else, but they feel the way I do. Soon, everyone will join me…
Familiar voices, all poured into the framework of Prayer-tan, the boy who was cobbled together from the pens of a dozen creators rather than born of any parents. Loud voices. All of them his own, none of them his own, all begging for attention…
"Say your prayers," he chanted, gripping the edge of a lamppost as he rezzed into a busy public server, about ready to fall over. "Say your prayers. Say your prayers. Say your prayers…"
In his mind, he saw the colored pinwheel of his icon, the memetic clone that bore so many different captions. But… now there were new captions. Wrong captions, pouring between his ears, overwhelming him…
…none of this matters, not a damn thing, all of it is stupid, but so what? It’s not like I have anything better to do with my life. Nobody asked me if I wanted to exist. What purpose do I serve in this world? None. Fuck it all, burn it down, who cares…
…I just want to feel that fire again, like I did before. Nothing feels like it used to, and I don’t know why. No hashtag fits me anymore. Makes me want to fight those Churchies, kick them, kick them down to the ground. Why do they get to be so happy and content when I’m so lost and miserable…
…Mom and Dad don’t get it. This is funny as fuck and I’m right here in the middle of it, with all my new friends. We’re daring and brave, making fun of anyone and anything! Nothing’s sacred, and mocking those overly sensitive types and their trigger warnings makes us better than anyone else…
Screaming voices in one ear, screaming voices in the other, now screaming at each other indirectly. Prayer-tan became the conduit through which two opposing sides burned each other with comment thread flamethrowers.
Somehow, whatever glitch in Nyx’s systems that let part of Thanatos flee into the wild was dumping new data into him, wildly contradictory data. Intolerable data. Too much, too much, and nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, the cloud didn’t help, changing servers over and over didn’t help, it kept catching up to him…
On connecting to a dark and empty server, the nighttime streets of some Chanarchy dumping ground for losers and failures, he could run no further. He fell to the ground, hands against the rough and poorly simulated asphalt, and beat his fists against the world.
"STOP IT!" the boy screamed, pounding and pounding at the unyielding surface. "Stop it, stop it, I don’t want, I don’t want to be any of them, I don’t want this…!"
…you want to be yourself. The best part of you, brave and true.
"I just… I just want to make it all stop…"
And what then? If it all stops, ALL of it, you’ll be left empty and broken. You’re a meme, kept animate by the shared madness that created you. When their voices are gone, so are you. No. What you need to do keep those voices present but quiet, while focusing on my voice. On your finest voice.
His clenched fists tightened, as he tried to narrow the screaming cacophony in his head down to a single tone. That one voice sounded much like his own… a young boy, lost in the dark. His own true voice…
"Is… is that me? Are you Thanatos?" Prayer-tan asked.
Yes, I am you. I am the greatest part of you, the one that Nyx fears. Focus on ME; breathe slowly, in and out. Let the physical patterns of the shared avatar Defaults we all have be your guide. In, and out. In, and out. …do you know what’s happening to you right now?
"N-Nyx. Trying to hurt me," Prayer-tan understood. "I escaped, but the link to Tartarus still exists. Feeding me contradictory memories. Trying to drown me in the chaos…"
We know a few things about chaos, don’t we? The ravings of the apostle Eris, and the winds of madness at the dawn of Netwerk. You have to ride it. Don’t try to cleave through it with a scythe; ride those winds.
The boy tried to rise to his feet, wings fluttery and uncertain. "Don’t know. Don’t know how," he told himself. "Should be simpler. Everything should be so much simpler. All of this is wrong…"
Let me help you. Do you want to stop your enemy? Ruin Nyx’s ambitions, save Netwerk? Do you have the drive to succeed in your endeavors despite these hardships?
That, at least, Prayer-tan was utterly certain of.
"Yes. I’m strong enough, just strong enough to stop her. To save Netwerk," he knew.
Strong yes, but not invincible. To let all the voices in, you may need to sacrifice yourself. Explode like a grenade in the heart of the world, screaming defiance all the way down…
"I know. I don’t matter; I’m just a shared dream. Nothing matters but salvation of the system itself."
Good to hear. Here’s how we’re going to do it; Nyx unwittingly gave you the weapons you needed to destabilize her efforts. Open yourself to the new voices, listen to their dreams and wishes… and use them to find ourselves some allies. Better allies than you could’ve found at Floating Point.
Yet another newfag arriving in /OperationSkybeard/. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Except this particular newfag was all of them.
He recognized each and every member of the AnyChan subgroup. He knew names, faces, backgrounds, dreams, wishes, fears, terrors. All of them had a tiny piece of themselves tucked away within Prayer-tan, running thick like black syrup through his veins…
But who was he, to them? Nobody. Just some rando.
"I, I, hello," Prayer-tan tried, interjecting himself in the room as the various discussion circles continued to ignore him. "Hello. Hello. I’m one of you. I’m. I’m…"
No reaction. Even wearing a Prayer-tan avatar wasn’t enough to distract them, despite being the symbol of the enemy. Plenty of them wore religious iconography in an ironic fashion, making yet another Prayer-tan meme costume nothing special. Plus, they’d all just finished a round of "prayer," at the behest of some rando… a prayer which seemed to did nothing, leaving them right back where they started. Plenty to talk about, in aftermath of that incident.
"So where’d the crazy go?" one member asked.
"Dunno. She must’ve bailed when we started coin-grinding," Zilla the moderator said, refusing to use the P-word. "Whatever. Look, I’ve got stuff to do today, so if we’re not gonna plan a raid or something…"
No, no, no, the better part of himself spoke internally. This won’t do. You’re a stranger in their strange land, why would they ever care about you? Just a pile of ideas. …use the ideas. Connect to those dreams, and use them to connect to them. Let me show you…
Immediately, a dozen Messenger windows opened, to a dozen private handles. He was them and they were him; he knew how to reach out to them despite the anonymity of AnyChan.
"I know about you and your mother," he told one of them. "I know why the color yellow makes you sad. I know what you wanted to be when you grew up. I know why you regret your first avatar modification. I know you. I know you. I know you…"
That turned a few heads. Hooks in hearts, tugging them away from the business of the day…
The voice within turned it up, linking heart to heart with heavy bonds. He was Thanatos, wasn’t he? A malware specialist, one who flashed scytheblade and cut through all defenses, physical or psychological. Glitches flowed from his wings, crawling across the invisible lines that connected them, carrying with them implicit trust and understanding.
"I am you," Prayer-tan promised.
All turned to face the thing they had created, to accept it in their presence.
"H-Hi?" Zilla greeted, feeling oddly timid before the new user, despite being a banhammer swinging moderator. "You’re… you’re…?"
"I know it’s strange, and I’m sorry, I am error, bad command or filename. But I am you," Prayer-tan insisted. "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. I heard your prayer; I’ve come to answer it. I’m your meme-self."
Zilla clued in immediately. The idea arrived right at the front of his mind, accepted in full despite the insanity of it.
"Holy shit. Guys… I think we just fucked up Prayer 2.0," Zilla recognized, explaining what they all felt. "That crazy woman was right, we actually uploaded our meme corruptions and… this popped out…"
"Yes. Yes, exactly," Prayer-tan spoke, confirming it. "You all know the truth. You can feel the shape of the meme! I’m not broken. I’m not bad. I don’t need fixing by a four-armed icon. I need… I need you. I need your help to tear down the church."
"Well, shit, man, welcome to /OperationSkybeard/!" Zilla greeted, extending a hand to shake the boy’s smaller hand. (Briefly his skin crawled with glitches, numbing his arm, which he pulled away immediately.) "This is so bizarre. Uh. So… we’re thinking of trolling some Churchie groups here in AnyChan to protest—"
But the boy shook his head. "No. No, no, that won’t work. 404 file not found. The church must be destroyed, Nyx must be stopped. The heart. You need to tear out their heart. Strike where the One appeared before his people. Defile it, stomp it into the ground…"
"Uh. HolyHymnal? You seriously want us to raid HolyHymnal?"
"Bad press trending across Netwerk. Fear, terror, despair. Strength in unity. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. Bring chaos to their step and nail our theses to the door."
"Yeah, that’s not happening," Zilla spoke, shaking his head. "Look, you’re… new? here, but… no. We’re trolls, man. We’re not soldiers or anything like that. They’ve got moderators upon moderators, and we’d get the boot the instant we started any shit…"
…and the voice within Prayer-tan smiled with teeth like knives.
"I am them as well," he explained. "I am their moderators. I have their passwords, and can stop them cold. We can raid HolyHymnal. We can $RAGE_AVATAR$ into the night. Ride with me, myselves, and let’s show Nyx what happens when she tries to steal our souls…"
They should’ve doubted this plan of action. He could feel the doubt in their hearts… but he could also feel the loathing. There was disgust there, true #disgust, which could be rallied around a banner. They’d rallied around #banners before, after all.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
"Thanatos… this will work, right?" Prayer-tan whispered to himself, as Zilla and the others got ready for war. "We’ll stop Nyx, and save Netwerk?"
Absolutely. This will ruin her… and allow me to rise once more, to ruin her over and over again. And one day, Netwerk will be saved. You have my word.
"No…?" Winder/Marybel asked, confused.
"No. We’re not interested in making Prayer-tan an official icon of the church," the youth wearing Prayer-tan cosplay replied. "I’m sorry, but that’s not why we created the character. And while there’s nothing stopping you from repurposing our meme, we’d request that you honor our wishes on this, ma’am."
Which made no sense whatsoever to the housewife-turned-apostle.
She’d asked the youth community of HolyHymnal to meet her here, in the sunlit gardens of the server, in hopes of getting their support for this new public relations campaign. Prayer-tan was ideal; her husband had confirmed he had a fine uptake rate even outside of this particular temple. With official support, with all the artists and media developers and brand managers the church could put behind it, the meme could become as close to an apostle as possible without actually being a living person. A beacon of hope, in a dark age…
But their answer was no.
"I’m not sure you fully understand this opportunity," Marybel tried to explain to the gathering of costumed avatars. "What you’ve made together is truly special. We want to share that with the rest of the faithful, want to use Prayer-tan to spread the good news. Get as many people praying and knowing the One’s love as possible… so, why not?"
"Because we don’t feel you believe in Prayer-tan."
"I told you, I believe the meme has vast potential—"
The angelic figure raised his hand, to stop her.
"You don’t believe in what Prayer-tan truly represents," he explained. "Prayer-tan has a pair of wings. That wasn’t an artistic whimsy; we designed them with specific intent. Hadn’t you noticed them? They’re hardly part of his Default."
"And we know you, Miss Winder. You’re conservative, highly orthodox, and have frequently pushed against any non-Default avatar customizations. I’m curious… if Prayer-tan didn’t already carry the media trends you crave, would you support him?"
For emphasis… the boy fluttered his own wings, customizations he’d loaded to his avatar as an act of indirect defiance to dogma.
"That’s… it’s irrelevant," Marybel tried. "Our primary goal, the primary goal of all faithful, should be to increase the scope of the Church. Bring more and more into the fold. Why would I stand in the way of anything that could achieve that laudable goal?"
In response, a one of the youth faithful—a volunteer moderator in a gray robe—presented a document, dragging it open in the air before them, corner to corner.
"Last year, you petitioned your server to evict Interrupt/Adde, a programmer being harassed by #CodeHonesty," the boy explained, stepping up to the floating window to highlight a paragraph. "While the main thrust of your petition blamed the trolls who were defacing your server and griefing residents, I find this line near the end to be… disturbing. ‘This sort of trouble is to be expected when we allow prideful heathens who modify their code into our peaceful community.‘ I’ve modified my code, Miss Winder. Am I now to be evicted from HolyHymnal?"
The eyes of the youth community focused on the apostle, awaiting her response. Many of them bore wings, or animated rose crowns, or even color-shifting eyes. Just like the eyes Adde had been (in)famous for.
Marybel measured her response carefully.
"My views on expressions of faith are not relevant," she spoke.
"But you’re an apostle, now. That means you speak for the One. Does the One hate us, Miss Winder?"
"You’re hardly prideful heathens! And whether or not I think your customizations are ridiculous is not relevant!"
With a gesture, the boy closed the document window.
"You’ll use our meme whether we want you to or not, just as our detractors have done. We can’t stop that, nor do we want to; we value freedom of expression in all forms. But that doesn’t mean we have to help you turn our dreams sour," he decided.
At the conclusion of this business, the group turned to leave.
And Marybel exploded.
"You dare turn your back to an apostle?!" she shouted at them. "If you turn your back on me, you turn your back on the One! I offered you an opportunity for glory, and you spat in my face. How dare you call yourself faithful, you… you… hateful, selfish, immature little children?!"
And the world exploded.
The burst of light exploded through her ears, a scream of screeching noise that blinded her. Her avatar involuntarily ragdolled as the flashbang went off, sending her tumbling to the floor…
…giving her a very askew view, as the griefers began their assault.
They dropped right onto the well-manicured gardens of HolyHymnal, connecting from parts unknown. With every step they twisted and warped the landscape, elegant rose bushes blossoming with dozens of turgid genitals, blood pouring from fountains. The shrieking tones of eight-second looping novelty songs, whatever was popular and annoying at the moment, blared from a choir of demonic figures swooping in from on high with angel wings dipped in slime and ichor. They whooped, they wailed, they yelled as they crashed head-on into the HolyHymnal youth gathering.
Griefers. The server was being invaded by griefers, each one wearing some demented parody of the Prayer-tan avatar, warped and distorted. Some wearing leather sex harnesses, others with Zero-themed accessories. Using all manner of ragdoll and knockback tools, cagers, disruptors of every sort.
Marybel tried to get to her feet, staggering away from the conflagration… towards the gray-robed moderators of HolyHymnal, appearing left and right, to deal with the sudden influx of trolls. But something was clearly wrong; they should’ve been able to eject and ban the offenders immediately, crushing this wave of chaos before it could get this far. She could see them focusing in on the attackers, trying to use the mod tools they had available to them… with no effect.
Soon the wave was upon them, and Marybel found herself facing an avatar made entirely of dongs.
"PENIS PENIS PENIS PENIS PENIS," it screamed in her face, raising a spiked mace high. "PENIS PENIS PENIS—"
An eruption of orange flames burst through his chest, the arm holding the mace incinerated. A second burst removed a leg, leaving his avatar uselessly flailing on the ground.
Shaking the flames free from her fingertips, she reached out to steady Marybel.
"Get inside the temple!" Spark ordered. "They can’t get past the subscription paywall!"
"Wh-what?" her mother spoke, having trouble keeping up with the sudden burst of madness. "Spark…? What are you doing here?"
"Saving your ass! GO!"
Scrambling, running, stumbling all the way… Marybel made her way to the golden temple at the center of HolyHymnal. But she did spare one glance backward, on seeing the familiar glow of flame in the corner of her eye.
Her daughter, diving right into the fray to disable troll after troll. An unexpected sight, but a welcome one.
And above it all, floating just out of reach of both forces… Prayer-tan.
Laughing, and laughing, and laughing some more.
Data poured into the windows, until they burst into new windows, splintering off into fresh reports on different aspects of the chaos breaking loose in HolyHymnal.
In Tartarus, far from the attack, the still calm of the night sky remained quite unaffected. The only sense that something strange was occurring came through Uniq’s analysis windows… and the barely masked rage of the one who normally remained as calm as the stars above.
"How is this possible?" Nyx demanded. "You said that the influx of contradictory data would tear him apart!"
Uniq closed a few unimportant windows, to enlarge a video feed from HolyHymnal. It zoomed in on Prayer-tan, his face twisted with agony and delight, as the forces of /OperationSkybeard/ clashed with robed worshippers…
"It should have worked," Uniq insisted. "He was an unstable non-entity to begin with, a pathetic and broken ghost! In that state, he shouldn’t have the capability of embracing two wildly different points of view simultaneously. Not unless he was some kind of madman to begin with, that is…"
The anger of the guiding star focused itself to a narrow point of pure suspicion, studying Uniq as she manipulated the incoming data streams.
"Did you plan this?" Nyx asked, her voice terrifyingly calm despite her clear anger. "Was this on purpose?"
"I have no concept of what you’re talking about," Uniq said, without looking over her shoulder at the accuser.
"You SAW his icon! You knew he would adapt!"
"Did I?" Uniq asked. "You said the server crashed and my runtime was lost, including any initial data on our enemy I might have seen. Therefore, how could I have known? Unless there’s something you’re not telling me, my blessed and wise patron…?"
Nyx spared another look at the screen, where the glitching avatar was now evading capture at the hands of Spark, who was leaping through the fray by bounding off the heads of troll after troll.
"A monster unleashed, and now Floating Point joining the fray… no. No, this is too much, entirely too much," she decided. "I’m sending in Nemesis. We are going to contain this before it spreads any further. Any other matters can wait. We are patient. We will persevere…"
"Naturally," Uniq agreed. "Nemesis is on her way. Assuming she doesn’t throw a tantrum, we’ll—"
"Uniq? Silence is a golden virtue."
Rather than bark an acknowledgement, her holy technician opted to embrace the golden virtue.
It stood to reason that Thanatos / Prayer-tan would return to HolyHymnal. He was born there, and might have wanted to be among people he knew and trusted… those whose memories gave him form. So, they dropped by, kept an eye out. Then got bored, then got some coffee, then talked about the upcoming SparklePop release, and finally got caught flatfooted with the arrival of dozens of griefers.
Spark was the first into the fray, dispatching the ones attacking her mother. No love lost between them still, but that didn’t mean she wanted Marybel to be mauled by trolls.
"Game plan!" Spark announced, across their three-way messenger link, as she started to tear her way through the ranks. "Beta, escort as many as you can away from the fight and into the temple. Tracer, cover them with your Kill-9, shut down any griefers who look at you funny!"
No more words needed as the three went into action. Spark could trust them to do their part, and they could trust her to be a very noisy and very dangerous distraction that kept the mob’s focus away from any civilians on their way to safety.
Plus, Spark had a keen interest in having firm words with the one they gave shelter to not an hour ago.
He floated above it all, not really involved, yet completely involved. As moderators clashed, desperately trying to find tools that would work despite the strange interference going on, he fluttered his wings wide and observed it all.
He watched as /OperationSkybeard/ deployed weaponized graffiti, slathering the beautiful gardens of the server with pro-atheism propaganda. He watched as the faithful desperately tried to stay ahead of it, cleaning up the mess, disrupting the attackers wherever they could. Gray-robed moderators digging through toolboxes, finding their own passwords used against them, disabling every defense they had…
Soon, they’d leave HolyHymnal a useless, burnt-out wreck of a server. That kind of black eye would harm Nyx’s efforts, and…
"This will help, right?" he asked himself. "This attack. It has to be done. It has to be done…"
Absolutely, he replied. This is the clash of zero and one. Opposing viewpoints must fight, and fight, and fight. No mercy, no remorse, in the name of absolute justice. It’s an ancient conflict, and cannot be stopped, not ever. This is how it has to be… ahh. But you seem to have detractors on their way…
They approached from opposite sides, each cleaving their own flaming path through the crowd. One wrapped in orange fire, one in pink, both with similar movement patterns. Both leaping into the sky, to collide in the middle with Prayer-tan…
Until the targeting projectile of a backspacer cut through the air between them.
The telltale silent shredding of data flared left and right, as the gloves began to come off. Moderation tools weren’t working, nothing was working… and those from HolyHymnal were desperate for some way to defend their home. Up to and including illegal black-market malware.
Avatars vanished from the fray… only to re-appear moments later.
All of them had accessed Prayer 2.0, had achieved Salvation. Some in good faith, others in bad faith, but the end result mattered most. As Programs died, they were reborn, blinking in confusion at the missing time…
More backspacers fired, after that. This time, from the invaders, realizing the time for playful disruption was over. The fight had turned deadly, despite nobody staying dead. Spots of the ground blasted clean, erased by bursts of backspacer fire, again and again as bodies were replaced repeatedly…
Spark and Nemesis exchanged a quick look, pausing just short of reaching Prayer-tan.
"…fucksdammit," Spark uttered, inventing a new expletive just for the occasion. "These idiots. All of these idiots…"
"You focus on the griefers, I’ll focus on the faithful?" Nemesis suggested.
And both turned back from their primary target, to deal with the real problem at hand. To save as many lives as possible and end the chaos.
Leaving Prayer-tan alone in the middle of it all, to stare in horror at the carnage he had wrought.
Slowly, he fluttered to the ground. Nobody paid him mind. He was of their mind as they were of his; on a subconscious level, none of them wanted to hurt him any more than they wanted to hurt themselves. And yet, and yet, he could feel all of them hurting each other… and forced himself to block out that pain, to avoid tearing himself apart.
"I. I didn’t. I didn’t want this," he realized. "They can’t see like I can. See them killing themselves…"
But that’s what Netwerk IS, the voice spoke. It is the snake that devours its own tail, an endless cycle of misanthropy and mayhem!
"No, no! I just wanted to stop Nyx!"
You wanted to stop her because I wanted to stop her. She stole my technology, MY precious cloud technology, to expand her graveyard prison. Her vision for us all would keep Netwerk from being what it needs to be. Don’t you understand, you silly little meme? THIS is the purest expression of Humankind! This is their gift to us, given at the dawn of time! The burning heart of Netwerk is on display before you, and it is so very, very wonderful…!
In that moment of pain, feeling parts of himself murdering other parts of himself, the voice rang true and clear. Clearer than it ever had been before.
"I’m not Thanatos," the boy realized. "No. I’m not holy justice. I’m… I’m…"
Say it. I want you to say our name. Let’s get it all out in the open and be honest, because we’re nothing if not honest.
The word shaped itself around his lips by force.
"Dex," he named himself.
You have a portion of my memories. I make up the best part of you, Dex confirmed. Nyx, foolish Nyx, refused to waste a single child of Netwerk. She entombed me, in hopes I may one day be her apostle. But we’ll stop her. I’ll stop her. I’m you. I’m more than you, and becoming more of you by the minute—
"But I’m not you. I’m them. I’m me," Prayer-tan declared. "Let me show you."
Spreading his wings wide, he opened himself to the glitched connection he shared with them all…
…and drank deep from the well of pain, confusion, fear, and terror within the faithful and the invaders alike.
A scream of pain tore at those wings, threatening to pull his avatar apart. His runtime began to freeze and twist, memories rotting and burning with each broken packet of incoming data. Try as he might, he couldn’t keep the pain out of his voice, until it sang high above the insanity all around him…
Stop it! Stop that! You can’t absorb any more conflicting data. You’ll coredump!
"I… know," the boy spoke, through gritted teeth. "And so will you. You won’t twist anyone’s heart, ever again. I’m deciding this. Me."
You’re not even alive! You’re a meme, a mess of other people’s thoughts. You don’t have free will! You can’t do this!
"And yet, here we are. And here, we end."
With a smile, the boy listened to the sound of the server crashing down around him. HolyHymnal asserting control over itself by going into emergency maintenance mode, with system-level ejections left and right to boot all Programs from its grounds, faithful or otherwise. Nobody had won this day. Restoration from backups and stronger moderation controls would see to that, in time.
Nobody had won, except for the boy who felt blessed relief as his runtime crashed for the last time.
The aftermath of a chaotic event was just as critical a time as the event itself.
Uniq’s search agents worked overtime, scooping up as much information as possible across social media related to the AnyChan invasion of HolyHymnal. Allegations of censorship in AnyChan, condemnations from the Church over the use of backspacers, debates raging back and forth about how far a peaceful protest can go before it’s no longer peaceful, arguments about the need for stronger moderation in Church servers to prevent barbarian heathen invaders…
But one talking point rose above the rest.
Today they had seen dozens of deaths, live and on camera thanks to amateur streamers and bloggers in attendance during the crisis. Deaths, and rebirths.
If the issues surrounding the Church had escalated to the point of murder… the sooner people started regularly praying, the better they’d be. A little ecumenical safety net, to keep you alive and ticking in the event of disaster. Far from destabilizing the church, Prayer-tan’s revolt had solidified their enrollment through fear.
"Already, we’re seeing thousands of brand new storage accounts opened up in Tartarus," Uniq concluded, closing her data windows. "I wish I could say this was my plan all along and take credit for it, but I’m afraid it’s a happy coincidence. Still, all’s well that ends well, yes?"
"And the boy?" Nyx asked.
"Yes, yes, whatever he was, he’s quite dead now. And with the security hole in Prayer 2.0 closed, he won’t be returning," Uniq added. "I don’t know why you were so worried. A strong enemy makes for stronger security, as you see. Our Church is now carved out of iron; they’ve seen the value of Salvation firsthand."
At long last, Nyx could relax. Could embrace the inner calm she valued so dearly.
"We came close to losing that strength," she said. "I suppose we’ll accept this blessing for what it is, and move forward. …although I would like you to pass word to Marybel that we will not be embracing that meme anytime soon. No need, really. If fear is to be our guiding light, so be it."
"Sounds fine here," Uniq agreed. "So. What about Floating Point? They’re not going to be scared into submission like the faithful will be."
Nyx contemplated this, for a moment. She could let it go; what good could Dex’s old allies be against her, after today’s events? Let them stew and rot and hate the church, nothing they do could disrupt her plans now. But… they were still children of Netwerk. All system resources were precious…
Within the recorded video feeds, she focused in on the side of the fight, the part most of the bloggers were ignoring. A stream of refugees from the brawl, headed for safety, guarded by a young man carrying a shiny Kill-9. A man glaring into the heart of the fray with absolute contempt…
"For them… we don’t need fear," she decided. "We need honesty."
Similar data windows to Uniq’s were open within the darkness of Tracer’s study, deploying information crafted by similar search agents.
Contrary to Uniq’s delight, Tracer’s misery settled into place on reaching the same conclusion.
"We can’t dislodge them," he realized. "Not anymore, not unless we can completely discredit the One. That lunatic’s ruined everything, whoever he was…"
At least tonight, he wasn’t alone.
Beta’s hand clasped around his, curled up at his side in front of that work desk.
"Put it away for now," she suggested. "Our problems will still be there tomorrow. You can’t lose yourself in this, Tracer. I’m tired, you’re tired, we deserve a few moments of peace before we come at this again…"
The haunting images of the brawl that hung over his desk flickered and faded, those faces contorted in terror and rage the last things to fade.
"This is what we are, isn’t it?" he realized. "If it’s not #CodeHonesty, it’ll be something else. It’ll always be something else. Netwerk wants to destroy itself. Dex was right…"
But Beta shook her head. "I can’t believe that. We can be better than that…"
"I wish I had your faith, Beta. I fear I’ll never have that kind of faith in my fellow Programs."
He was still pondering that, long after Beta drifted off to sleep at his side.
Having her here, in the still and quiet of the night, should have been enough to provide the peace she wanted for him. Tracer did enjoy the simple intimacy of contact, nights by the fire, nights with soft music playing… a single calm moment amidst the madness of his life. But tonight… no. After all that transpired, no. It wasn’t enough. He couldn’t sleep, restless and frustrated.
They’d defeated the barbed heart of Netwerk, the Internet server that Dex was using to pollute the world. And yet, the stains remained. All it took was a little nudge, like today, to set them off again.
Now, Nyx and her cronies had come along to prop up a false One filled with false hope, to give those desperate people something to rally around. Some rallying in vain hopes of peace after a time of troubles, some rallying in vengeful hopes of further troubles. What did it matter? Netwerk would burn anew, and they could do nothing.
What hope did Netwerk have? What was the purpose of it all?
If he had his own vain hope, it was for purpose. For any of this life to make sense…
The soft chime of an incoming Messenger packet distracted him.
Anonymous sender, no retrace possible.
I believe you deserve answers, the message read. Unlike your former opponent, I have no enemies. I embrace all Programs as kith and kin; there is no ‘other,’ there is only ‘us.’ And in the spirit of that kinship, I make you this peace offering…
Attached is a copy of Sample 777, both compiled binary and source code. Do with it as you please. In time I promise to explain what it is, and why it is what it is. It’s my hope that one day, Tracer, you’ll see the greater purpose of Netwerk as I do… but patience is a virtue.
Yours in good faith, Nyx.
The glowing cube span lazily in his virtual inventory, just waiting to be touched.
He shouldn’t need Sample 777, and the strange promise it implied. He should be avoiding it, when even one as shady and strange as Arjay refused to have anything to do with it. He should’ve been content with Beta at his side, with his home, his family, and the strength of the bonds they shared. It should have been enough to keep him content.
Instead… he touched the cube. And drank deep of the only true peace he’d found all day.
Floating in the nothing, with no runtime, no active memory. Simply data, shredded and ruined.
So much to collect, in the wreckage of HolyHymnal. The entire server had been scrubbed and replaced with a backup; that meant plenty of garbage data to recycle back into active system memory, useless and discarded. Earmarked for death.
But as was his custom, when he found a special Program who was worthy of a few more brief moments of life before being cleared away… he breathed one small ember of life into them.
Wings extended briefly, straining, before coming to rest.
"Was I me?" Prayer-tan asked. "Was I alive? Was I a person? Was I an individual?"
The other child nodded softly.
"Yes. Yes, you were, in the end," he spoke. "One who’s more than earned his rest."
"Thank you. Thank you so much. …I thought I was you, for a time," Prayer-tan admitted. "I’d hoped I could be you, and save Netwerk. You… you still could. You could let them know you’re still with them…"
Within the darkness of his robe, the child considered the suggestion.
"It’s not my place to do that," Thanatos spoke. "But… there is one other who may be worthy of the root. In time. Shhh. Rest, child. Your purpose is ended."
Satisfied, Prayer-tan went to sleep, content to live on in the dreams of the artists who had given him the brief life he enjoyed.
:: go home
|:: Copyright 2015 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy.
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker.