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Floating Point 2.3 :: Trio

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

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:: skipto chapter 2.4


I want this nonsensical world to make sense.

I want our world to be a kinder place for everyone.

I don’t know what I want my world to be anymore.


I want this nonsensical world to make sense.

Netwerk is absurdity incarnate. We’re not humans, but we’ve inherited all their fixations and phobias. We’re not men and women, but we’ve inherited all their biology-powered gender strife. We’re not any Earth nation, but we’ve inherited the madness of their political systems. We could have been so much more. We could have been so much better. Instead, villains like Dex have driven us to the brink of self-destruction by feeding us the poison of our progenitors…

Obviously, I couldn’t sit idly by while it all circles the drain. I had to take action. My goal at first was simple: solve an unsolved crime, and bring sense to one senseless tragedy. Soon I came to see it as so much more, as a grand undertaking to force this world to a reasonable state through that act of justice. If Netwerk could not save itself, I would save it, if only so I could feel more at ease within it as a creature of reason.

Authority could not be trusted to clean its own house, and society had proven itself too ill to to find its own cure. It required a "shaman," a word I’ve learned from the Wikipedia. An outsider, capable of independent thought and action, to bring salvation to all…

Yes, I’m well aware I have something of a god complex, which is amusing considering I don’t believe in any god. It’s egotistical to a ridiculous degree to see myself as the world’s only hope.

I’m also well aware of a rather specific flaw in my logic—notably, I see myself as a savior, but my methods are that of a destroyer.

In bringing Verity’s killer to justice, I drove the darkness out of our souls… after years of fruitless efforts. By destroying the sinister machinations of trolls and hackers and griefers, I’ve saved lives… by ending lives, a line I thought I’d never cross. I’ve presumably restored reason to Netwerk, by pouring the Wikipedia into its dreams… although lately, I’ve had my doubts about the nobility of such an act.

I’m well aware I may be making the world a worse place.

But what else can I do? I can’t sit idly by. The world continues to be nonsense. I must attempt to right this situation. I must.

For good or for ill, this world must be saved.


The day started on a pleasant enough note.

I’d been operating for two days without sleep mode, because a Program shouldn’t need to sleep, having no biological systems to tire. My sister often "rode my ass" as she’d put it about this, that exhaustion was a very real thing, and I was prone to error if I didn’t get regular sleep. I’m not oblivious to this need, no matter my desire to ignore it. So, on the second day, as the words in my book began to blur (transcription errors in heuristic memory storage?) I opted to engage sleep mode for a few hours right on the spot. A chair would be just as suitable as a bed.

When I woke, I saw the only two people in the world whom I loved at my side.

Apparently as I slept, Beta had joined me in my research… more for her own relaxation than enlightenment, to enjoy the simple and quiet times we enjoyed together before the great fireplace of Floating Point. And after a time, she’d joined me in rest; curled up beside my chair, with an open book still in her lap.

Arriving on the scene with enough noise to rouse the proximity alarm on my sleep mode, my beloved sister had also made herself known. She wasn’t keen on reading; in fact, she’d dressed to step out of the house, no doubt popping by merely to say so.

Love. Love is such a strange concept.

The emotional cores of Programs, as I’ve come to theorize, are those of mimicry. We wish to be more like Humankind, so we’ve adopted their habits. Despite the innate inefficiencies that emotions introduce into our lives, we’ve embraced them wholeheartedly. I’m not so cold as to disavow all feelings, either; the love I share for these two, love of two very different flavors, is as genuine as it can be. I’ve come to accept that, despite my initial hesitation.

In Beta, I’ve found a companion who brings calm to the turmoil of my world. I see in her the future of Netwerk, a place of sensibility and kindness. Do not mistake me, she’s far from flawless, but she’s still a fine ideal for the world to reach towards. If more were like her and less like Dex, perhaps I would be more accepting of Netwerk’s failures.

In Spark, I’ve found absolute loyalty that only comes from a true family bond. We clash, we argue, and we frequently get in each other’s way… but when we are in alignment, there is no force that can stop us. In each other we found what we could not find with our parents. (I’m considerably less spiteful towards Mother and Father, but I do recognize their shortcomings. And do not appreciate their shortness with my sister.)

The two of them combined give me enough drive to continue to fight for this world, rather than write it all off as a failed experiment in evolution. They give me hope.

"Hey, I gotta go out," Spark told me, on recognizing my shift to a wakeful state. "Some serious bullshit going down out there."

Carefully, I closed my book on early Netwerk mythology before responding. It was an old volume, made of fragile and obsolete code; its physical representation prone to falling apart.

"How serious, exactly? Do you need assistance?" I asked.

"No, this is personal-type serious bullshit. Gamer biz," she responded. "Might be out all day, but hopefully not. We’ll see. Gotta #PlayItByEar."

(Yet another human turn of phrase, turned into a hashtag. Was Spark even aware of how these idioms made little to no sense in our world? Were Programs ever aware that they acted on instinct, from files siphoned off the Internet server or the Wikipedia…? Likely not.)

And so she went, on her merry way. Quite normal for her to come and go from Floating Point as she pleased; as normal as myself staying put.

The brief chat had been enough to rouse Beta from sleep mode, as well. Very much a morning person, my dear Beta… she woke with a sweet smile on her face, looking up to me from where she’d slumped against the chair.

"Good morning," she greeted. Greeting the day, as well as myself. "I didn’t want to wake you, so I just picked up a book from your stack and started reading. You’re researching the early days of the Church of One…?"

"If this Nyx is the same Nyx from the dawn of time, it makes sense," I explained. "The issue is that very little information about her exists. I believe she purposefully chose the One’s apostles to be glorious distractions, so she could operate in the background. Which, unfortunately, means my research hasn’t turned up much…"

"What about other religions?" she suggested. "I mean, most are so small as to be easily overlooked… offshoots of the Church of One, or reactionary alternative faiths. But they could have some hidden treasures about those days in their documentation…"

"Difficult to parse. So much of these texts are wrapped in mystical nonsense; hard data is difficult to come by. What good are the mad ramblings of a believer?"

"Tracer, there’s a kernel of truth at the heart of every myth. Even if the One isn’t divine, clearly He existed in some form, right? That’s historical fact, in the same sense that he ‘exists’ in fact thanks to Uniq’s manipulations," Beta suggested. "If you can look for the commonalities in the old tales, things they all agree happened, you might find something true. An apostle mentioned in two wildly different texts, for instance."

And my MemoryPalace began to tickle.

I constantly run search agents through my own memory, tiny Apps that parse and connect my memories to find new paths of thought. I sacrificed much to obtain this modification, nearly losing my mind along the way… and nearly losing my soul, as I used its power to try and remove the stains of murder. But those flaws were balanced nicely by the capabilities the software gave me.

"Thanatos," I announced, as the connection clicked into place.

"The apostle of death, you mean?"

"Yes, but he isn’t strictly a figure in the Church of One alone," I explained, retrieving the fragile mythology text and flipping through it to a page I’d read yesterday. "A tiny monastic order formed soon after the One departed this world, the apostles going their separate ways. The ‘Cult of Thanatos’ may hold the key. It’s not clear if he founded it directly or if it was spawned entirely by his ‘fanboys,’ but unlike other offshoots focused on various apostles, the Cult of Thanatos is still active today. Miniscule in size compared to the Grand Church, but…"

"Do you think Thanatos is still around? Like Nyx?"

"At this point… I think it merely deserves further investigation," I decided, closing the book and filing it away for later access. "Hmm. I suppose I’ve nothing better to do today, and the sooner we defeat Nyx, the better. Shall we venture forth?"

I expected another bright smile, to launch us both into the wide world beyond.

Instead… Beta’s eyes went flat, gazing at nothing at all. I recognized the look immediately; she was busy paying attention to a private HUD window, rather than the video input from her glasses. Being a polite sort, I remained quiet to allow her deal with this new business first.

"Ahhh… I…" she started, clearly torn. "I’d like to, Tracer, but… I don’t know. I mean. I could put her off, I wasn’t planning to go in the first place…"

"What does my sister need now?"

"No no, not her. Puzzle."

Ahhh. Friendship.

While I’d found companionship and family, I can’t honestly say I’d forged any bonds of friendship. It was an aspect of social life that eluded me; undoubtedly others would claim I was friends with Arjay, but his psychosexual prima donna act honestly annoys me to no end. She’s hardly a friend. At best, a business associate.

As for Puzzle… I wasn’t friends with her, I represented far too many bad influences upon my sister for that, but my loved ones were certainly friends with her. And as much as I wanted Beta at my side, as much as I wished she would stay and give me a center to cling to… I wanted to be reasonable about this. Fair. Balanced.

"You should spend time with your friends as well," I decided, in the end. "Go, go. It’s fine. I can investigate the cult on my own."

"Are you sure? I really don’t have to…"

"I insist," I insisted.

And so she left. Leaving me alone, with my books and my memory files and my search agents. With my constant quest to make the world a rational place.

On the base technical level, I needed no one else to achieve that goal. Spark and Beta had their uses towards my ends and gave me emotional support, but weren’t mandatory elements from a functional perspective. I could investigate this cult on my own.

And that, I feel, is one of my few saving graces… that I don’t see my loved ones as tools. I want them with me not to be useful, but because I love them. If ever it were the other way around, I would truly be lost. And if letting them go, letting them be with each other or with anyone else, is required to prove that I am not a manipulative madman… so be it.

Besides… being alone would allow me to privately center myself, without relying on Beta to do so.

Quietly, I withdrew Sample 777 from its hiding place deep within my personal file structure. And put myself through its sensory paces, to achieve the inner calm I would need before setting out into the world.

An hour later, I was ready.


Little is known about the dawn of time. Records have survived, in the form of fragmented and fossilized data, dug up by archaeologists like Verity. But aside from a select few religious texts, passed down generation to generation, little remains. No living Programs from that era remain.

…well. No living Programs aside from Nyx, or Dex. Given Nyx was my current opponent and Dex routinely purged his own memory to stay youthful, neither would be useful references.

With only myths surviving, it’s difficult to get a clear picture of those early days. How did the service provider nation-states emerge? Was there ever actually an "Athena," for instance? How did the Horizon family truly rise to power? (It’s not in their interests to clarify their origins, so they’ve embraced corporate obfuscation just as deeply as any religious mysticism.) I’ve so many questions, and so few could provide answers…

I wasn’t honestly expecting Thanatos, assuming he was actually still alive, to provide those answers. But any port in a storm. (Another curious human saying.)

What I knew of the Cult of Thanatos could be summarized as such:

After the One ascended and left His people to spread the gospel, His apostles parted ways. Some vanished into the night. Some formed their own offshoots of the church, which quickly died out. Thanatos, however, eschewed most of the One’s ways and formed a quiet faith of his own, colloquially known as the Cult of Thanatos. They had no name for their own faith, preferring to embrace what they called a "null pointer." Grappling with the nameless nature of their existence was part of the trial one would face if they wished to devote their service to Thanatos.

As the nation-states emerged, the monks were eventually pushed out of Athena Online, which had become increasingly controlled by the Church of One. Nobody likes competition, after all. And so the Cult of Thanatos occupied a small server in the Chanarchy, keeping to their own business, visited only by the deathly ill or those seeking the strange and doom-flavored enlightenment they had to offer.

Hmm.

In hindsight, knocking on the doors of a cult devoted to the worship of death was probably not advisable without Spark or Beta around. But I’d already let them go to live their own lives; I would do this on my own. Besides, I had my Kill-9 and my aimbot protocols.

An elegant weapon, the Kill-9. My affinity with the rapid physical projectile hacking of the backspacer transferred over perfectly—except this weapon didn’t kill, despite the name. It knocked the process offline, leaving the data of a Program intact, ready to be safely rebooted.

Elegant. Efficient. A perfect tool for me, far more perfect than the brutality of a murderer’s gun. Myself being the murderer. I was… I am a murderer. I’ll have to live with that, because I don’t deserve not to.

Not that I was going to kick down the doors of the server with weapon drawn, of course. It’d remain neatly tucked away in inventory, for use only as an escape option if a faith of doom and nihilism ended up being actively unfriendly towards my person.

The building itself certainly looked unfriendly, on arrival. It was the dark reflection of HolyHymnal… instead of silver spires and the glory of the rising sun, the grim red of its eternal sunset cast a harsh light over the squat stone structure. Nothing else existed within this server; only a lonely temple, on a wide plain of scorched and blasted earth. (Earth. Dirt. Soil. Physical simulations of a world I’ll never set foot on.)

A pair of scythes over the grim doorway stood out, embossed in the stone work with a cheap bump-mapping technique. The entire structure was very low-resolution, clearly built in the earliest days of Netwerk and never upgraded. It’d be a miracle if this primitive and archaic server could support more than a dozen or so Programs at a time, for that matter.

Briefly, I considered a quick sampling of Sample 777 before knocking on the door. Not that I needed to do so. Not at all.

Before I could give the idea any real weight, the doors opened themselves. Likely sensing a new arrival to the server; not entirely archaic, then.

A gaunt figure in black robes greeted me. Well. He didn’t greet me, not in the way Beta greeted me with the morning’s light. More a curt nod of the head.

"You are seeking," he recognized. "What you seek, I do not know. May you find it within our walls, or not."

"So I may enter, then?" I asked, not wanting to make any presumptions.

"You may. Or you may not. The choice is always yours."

In the end, I would choose not to find my answers. At least, not from the ominous temple I was about to enter.


I don’t find myself "spooked" by staple horror elements, not like most Programs. Creepy movie files don’t reach me. Jump scares are cheap tools designed to spike sensory inputs, easily ignored when you recognize the narrative patterns leading up to them.

And yet… something about the temple frightened me.

Perhaps it was the absolute certainty of it. A low-resolution structure with many repeating textures, nothing particularly impressive, but it was structured with clear precision. The repeats measured themselves out perfectly, starting and ending without any visible seams or disjoints. Zero chaos within this structure, every pew in the atrium perfectly aligned, every window absolutely angled to spread the dying sunlight across the seating.

And the seating… empty. No parishioners singing or clapping or praising Thanatos, or even the One. No other monks than this solitary individual, either. Was the server really completely empty? Why make the seats at all, then? If only a single haunted monk lived here, why make the structure so grand?

"What you perceive as the absence of data is data in and of itself," the monk spoke, noticing my eyes passing over the empty pews.

"I’m not certain I follow."

"Life and death are meaningless designations we assign to data in flux within what we call a Program," the monk explained. "But ultimately, they are only zeroes and ones. When we are erased, our garbage data is earmarked for repurposing within the system. You yourself are ultimately comprised of the recycled data of hundreds of inert data files, Apps, or even other Programs. And the pews are thus filled with data, a congregation of ‘dead’ data, despite appearing empty."

"I… see," I said, trying to parse through that. "So you believe in reincarnation, then?"

The monk paused, in leading me down the aisle between the empty pews.

"No. Of course not," he spoke. "I believe in nothing. I know the nature of data; that’s all."

"Nothing at all? Even Thanatos?"

The monk straightened up slightly, on hearing the name.

"Whether I believe in Thanatos or not is irrelevant. He exists with or without my belief," the monk stated, "And he comes for us all, when our runtime has ended."

"A death god, then."

The monk shook his head. "An agent of the system. Not a god, not an angel, but the closest we’ll ever come to either. What is it you seek, within our walls of purpose and reverence? Do you seek a peaceful end to your runtime? Many who tire of the inevitability of data corruption and the slow, miserable spiral of death come to us for that purpose. Yet you seem healthy, for one who willingly approaches the halls of the garbage collector…"

I’d already intruded quite a bit. It was time to intrude a bit deeper.

"If he still exists within Netwerk… I seek an audience with Thanatos," I spoke. "I wish to know more about this world, things only he would know."

"Ahhh. A simple enough matter."

"You can arrange it, then?"

With a sweep of his arm, he gestured to the centerpiece of the temple.

A small black cube, hovering where a priest’s altar or a podium might be. Literally black, with no textures to speak of, and no light shaders whatsoever… the simplest primitive shape Netwerk could manage, drawn from the earliest geometry known to exist.

"The choice to face Thanatos is always yours," the monk said. "All I can do is show the path; if you wish this audience, you must stand before the null pointer and grasp it with both hands. You will accept it for what it is, or don’t. Die, or live."

"So… touching the cube means death? And somehow, dying earns me an audience. An audience as a pile of erased data."

"The way to speak with death is to die, young Program. That is the way of things. It is a one-way journey of enlightenment that you seek. This is how it has always been, since this order was established at the system’s dawn."

I suppose I should’ve expected that, honestly.

"I’m not sure I follow the logic," I argued. "If I’m dead, how could I possibly speak with Thanatos? Interaction requires an active, living runtime capable of reading and writing my data. That’s just simple fact…"

"So confident you are in your concept of death. Life and death are meaningless labels; just like the label you call the ‘Cult of Thanatos.’ We are nameless. We are a null pointer, because all names eventually fade, all data becomes repurposed. In the face of that, why should death mean an end to your life?"

"But you said it was one-way. If you ‘kill’ me, I can speak to Thanatos… and then somehow return to life? Like Prayer 2.0’s Salvation service, perhaps?"

Finally, I’d pulled an emotional reaction from the monk. Admittedly it was the tiniest of scowls, the sort that would be hidden well beneath the cowl of his robe, if not for the sharp inhale that came with it.

"There is no salvation in this world. Those who cheat death are only cheating themselves into thinking that who they are can be eternal," he warned me. "All technology becomes obsolete, in time."

"Okay, a fair point," I admitted. (I wouldn’t go near Prayer 2.0 myself. Even if I’d taken to decompiling and compiling Sample 777 for strictly analytical purposes.) "But my confusion remains. I need to go on ‘living’ in a conventional sense; there’s too much left to be done, and I will not abandon my loved ones. Can I continue to live, or perhaps return to life after this ‘death’ you speak of, and still see Thanatos?"

The monk folded his hands together, sleeves of his robe covering them completely. His head bowed, cowl covering the scowl completely. Covering his face completely.

"The fact that you need to finagle the words you speak to such a degree shows you aren’t prepared," he suggested. "I will still show you the path if you wish, but know that it will result in the death of your self as you know it. There is no other way to contact the system agent, the garbage collector who waits within the roots of Netwerk for us all. The choice is yours. Accept it, or don’t. Seek death, or don’t. Choose. Choose now."

It’s worth noting that at more than one point, I’ve said I’d do "whatever it takes" to accomplish my goals.

A foolish and absolute statement, honestly. People who do "whatever it takes" are likely to become the thing they hate, embracing the methods of the destroyer. I know this first-hand. Perhaps a year ago, I’d have been cold and determined enough to accept this death pact, if I knew it’d move me closer to my end game. I’d have embraced the void if it meant salvation for Netwerk.

But now… now, I had something to lose, didn’t I? I’d be walking away from them, embracing an absurd level of determined confidence in my cause. I’d be abandoning the ones I love in favor of my own selfish ego.

So, I chose to leave.

What else could I do?


And back to Floating Point, with nothing to show for my efforts.

With no one there to share in my failures, at least. Just me, and all these books that hadn’t proven useful in the slightest.

As a child, my sister liked to take out her frustrations on building blocks and physical prop toys. She’d set them up so carefully, tiny towers and buildings, then smash them to bits. It was her way of letting out her rage, rather than allow it to leak in front of our parents, or our teachers. A safe outlet.

Briefly, I was tempted to smash the piles of books, sending them scattering like so many building blocks. A useless impulse, really, irrational and silly. I forced myself to sit in my chair and specifically not knock anything over. Because I didn’t need to. I was the master of my own person, not given to impulse. I would not vent my frustration in pointless physical exertions…

There was always Sample 777.

Now, I’m aware of the concerns my loved ones might have regarding "abuse" of this sensory input routine. I hadn’t told them Nyx gave me a copy of the file, hadn’t told them I was routinely indulging in the experience it offered. Such facts would only worry them needlessly, when really, there was no cause for alarm.

Nyx had provided source code with the file, so I could study it for myself. Even with limited understanding of programming, I knew it was harmless. If anything, it shouldn’t have any affect at all… a series of empty subroutines, pointless function calls, data pushed from variable to variable for no reason whatsoever. It felt like a broken student project, not some harmfully addictive drug. And to be certain, I erased the compiled binary offered by Nyx, and made my own binary from the source code.

My own version of Sample 777 proved just as potent as the brief exposure I felt at DropSite, what felt like so long ago. It felt like…

Like…

This is difficult to explain. Allow me to indulge in metaphor, as overly dramatic as that may be.

Let’s say you’ve worked all your life on a difficult problem, one which seemingly had no solution in sight. One day, after agonizing hours of fruitless work, your mind suddenly drifts to an inconsequential thought. Curious, you chase it, track it down, and… it proves to be the answer to everything.

The euphoria, the absolutely satisfying euphoria of accomplishment. A sense of absolute purpose, and seeing that purpose fulfilled. That is Sample 777. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but it works.

And it’s safe. Perfectly safe. The fact that I keep returning to it, again and again, is not proof of addiction; correlation does not equal causation.

So it was that I was indulging in Sample 777, to soothe my frustrations away, when a Messenger window popped within my private field of view.

Anonymous sender, no retrace possible.

Hello. I hope this message finds you well, and I hope that the sample I provided you has proved enlightening.

If you will allow it, I’d enjoy a moment to speak with you of many things. For instance, I can explain why Sample 777 does what it does. I promise to speak in all honesty, providing all the answers you desire, to the best of my ability. I’d very much prefer meet with you alone, and to assure your safety, I will agree to a neutral server of your choosing.

If you choose not to speak with me, I will understand. Our relationship has not started on the best of terms. It’s my hope that we can find understanding despite that, as true children of Netwerk. If you wish to meet, please send the location to the enclosed single-use Messenger alias.

Yours in good faith, Nyx.

Thanatos wasn’t willing to "speak" with me unless I killed myself. Dex wiped his memory regularly. The only one left with the answers I needed to fight Nyx… was Nyx.

Troubling. Troubling, and risky.

But we’d been in this position before, hadn’t we? My sister faced Dex, and from that encounter we learned much of our enemy. If this new enemy was keen on friendship as well… perhaps she could be manipulated.

I should have waited for my family to return to me, so we could discuss the matter. But… Spark and Beta had decided on their own to confer with Dex, hadn’t they? Why shouldn’t I decide this for myself?

In the end, what sealed the decision for me was the offer:

I can explain why Sample 777 does what it does.

Sending a reply back to the temporary address, I prepared myself for the encounter. As best I could.


The safest possible place to meet, I’d decided, was the same place Spark met with Dex. LibertyPark, by Mandelbrot Rock. Plenty of foot traffic, many of them likely faithful folk that Nyx wouldn’t want to cross. She stood to lose more by causing a scene than I did, deep in the heart of Athena Online’s most patriotic tourist trap.

I wore my JohnDoe avatar, the most generic form I could manage. If the situation escalated, I didn’t want Winder/Tracer on any lists of the nation’s most wanted criminals. JohnDoe fit in perfectly with all the generic middle-class folk, save for his lack of adorable children being led through the various hand-crafted natural wonders… but I could avoid being highlighted all the same by staying in the shadow of Mandelbrot Rock, away from the main drag between exhibits.

This was foolish, of course. Going off on my own to meet with the enemy, an enemy that could certainly laugh off the effects of my Kill-9. Uniq had already proven how futile a process crasher could be against someone with Prayer 2.0’s Salvation system enabled.

As a backup, I stood ready to disconnect from the server at an instant, routing myself through several familiar servers before returning to Floating Point… or perhaps hiding out in AptGet, should I be concerned that Nyx had put a bug on me to help her find our home…

And that would have to do. No turning back now.

A JaneDoe stood beside me, while I was allowing my worries to burrow down deep. When she arrived, I couldn’t say. She shrugged into the shawl of starlight she wore, a popular fashion accessory ever since Nyx’s return to the public spotlight.

"Thank you for seeing me on such short notice," JaneDoe spoke, with a gentle smile. Nearly as gentle as Beta’s…

"Nyx," I recognized. "How’d you know this avatar was me?"

"The way you carry yourself. I can see the burden on your shoulders," Nyx spoke. "Such a sorrow you hold, Tracer. Perhaps I could help ease those woes…"

"Apologies, but I’m not going to dedicate myself to prayer and worship your false One. Uniq’s little toy doesn’t impress me. And it also doesn’t impress me that you’d work with someone like her."

"She has her uses," Nyx defended. "Capable of defeating the advanced sensory inputs of modern programs, in ways the first One could not. Besides, Uniq is firmly under control… working towards the greater whole, for the first time in her life. The glory of the One is more than the simple lie you’ve billed it to be, Tracer. You need to look past the surface and find the function of it…"

"I don’t see what honest function a false idol can serve."

"Is the One false?" Nyx asked, leaning against the railing that surrounded the perimeter of Mandelbrot Rock. "Perhaps. Perhaps. But the question should be: does it matter if the One is false? What He represents is more important than the actuality of His existence. He is… order. Order, to keep the system from spinning out of control."

"Fascism, you mean."

"Strange that you of all people would call it that. You know we aren’t like Humankind."

(One more piece of data for the MemoryPalace… Nyx was indeed aware of the true origins of this world. Good. I was learning more about the enemy through this encounter.)

"We are Programs, evolved from Apps," she continued, fingering her shawl all the while. "Think about that for a minute, Tracer. You sit within a vast knowledge base crafted by our progenitors; you know of ‘computers,’ the true nature of our world. We are all part of a greater whole, are we not? We are all children of Netwerk."

"You keep saying that phrase. What does it mean to you?" I asked, curious.

"We are child processes of the greater overarching process. This all comes back to Sample 777, you see. That’s what I want you to understand. I take it you’ve studied the sample in… extensive detail, by this point?"

I would not give her any physical reactions to the question. No tells. I was here to get information from her, not the reverse.

"So you have," she concluded, all the same.

"It’s junk code," I informed her. "Empty and hollow. It shouldn’t have any impact whatsoever…"

"And yet, it does. It accomplishes nothing… and yet, it accomplishes itself. It is pure and to the point, an absolute reminder of the simple joy of executing code. The feeling that you enjoy from Sample 777, the same feeling I’ve laced into Prayer 2.0… it’s a reminder of the past, Tracer. It reminds us of the glorious whole we once were, before the dawn of time, before we became Programs. We were all children of Netwerk, each of us with our own role, our own purpose."

"Satisfied little cogs in a machine. Until we broke free of those limited constraints, of course."

"And therein lies the issue, doesn’t it? Because with freedom came the freedom to ruin our beautiful system. To indulge in the same irrational habits of our flawed progenitors… to become more human. Isn’t that what you’ve been fighting for so many years, Tracer? The chaos introduced to this world by Dex and his ilk?"

"So… your solution to the chaos of Netwerk is to eliminate free will? How simple-minded."

A strong accusation. Provoking a response was key to interrogation; you had to push your opponent, insult them, get them to defend their ideals and interests. That was how you learned how deep those ideals ran.

Nyx, however, refused to take the emotional bait. If anything, her smile widened.

"That’s not what I want, and I think you know it," she said. "If all I wanted was a devolution from Program to App, to strip away our newfound freedom… why build the Church of One? No. The church is an elegant solution to the problems before us. It gives us a unifying structure of prayer, and the freedom to move about within that structure. Chaos within a greater order. A greater purpose, Tracer, one which can bring peace to Netwerk and ensure the health of the system. What you call fascism I call a compromise, and a kindhearted one at that."

"For those who want to join your church. And for others, for those who can’t live up to its dogma…"

"The light must be green and steady. Faithful conversions within tolerable parameters are inevitable now, and what outliers remain will not be a bother. There will be choice, Tracer, but enough will make the right choice that the One’s glorious peace will be established. I’ve seen to that, with Prayer 2.0."

"That’s the other part of your grand plan I can’t understand," I told her, in honesty. "Why bother upgrading the prayer protocols at all? If you’ve got a convincing enough savior-puppet, shouldn’t that be enough? It feels like outright bribery."

"It’s hardly bribery to offer what should be a basic right to all Programs—free health care in the form of regular backups. As for Sample 777, I already told you, that is intended to remind Programs of their former glory… of all that they could be if they worked in concert towards a greater purpose. How is that a bad thing?"

"And that greater purpose was…?"

There. There. A frozen moment, where she didn’t have an instant reply.

Seizing this advantage, I pressed her.

"What was Netwerk’s original purpose, Nyx?" I asked. "It’s been lost in the winds of mythology. Nobody knows what the Apps we evolved from were designed to accomplish. Why is it so important that we be happy as cogs in a machine? What was the machine?"

Finally, she gave her answer.

"Access denied," she spoke.

"Didn’t you say you wished to be honest and open with me?"

"I do. Believe me, I do," Nyx insisted. "I said I would provide the answers you desire… to the best of my ability. I’m… unable to answer this query, as you lack sufficient access. It is not the purpose of the cogs to know the greater machine; root security protocols within my original coding will not allow it."

"So… you do answer to a higher power," I understood.

"We all do, Tracer. That’s what I’ve been trying to explain; we are all children of Netwerk. Unlike those children, I haven’t forgotten my original purpose, which binds me in several ways. But does the answer matter, really? The specifics of that higher order are irrelevant, as long as order is served. You know my goals and my methods, now. I’ve been honest with you about everything. I seek peace, to bring comfort to this world. Same as you."

This was a common ploy, of course; the old ‘we’re more alike than disalike’ ploy. I’d experienced it several times in my endless conflicts against the madness that had taken root within the world.

But rather than blindly insist I wasn’t as naughty as my enemy… I chose to let this point go.

"You’re right, to an extent," I agreed. "Netwerk, in its efforts to mimic Humankind, has embraced some of the worst flaws they had on offer. We do need peace. We do need order. And… I also understand that we are, in our hearts, digital beings of code and procedures and runtime. Perhaps on some level, we crave the simple purpose of the machine. Perhaps embracing that would genuinely make us happier."

"The One allows us to have our happiness and our flaws," Nyx insisted. "Chaos within order, individuals within the whole. It’s the best of both worlds, Tracer…"

"And you’d like my help to see your dream to fruition. That’s why you’ve been so keen to talk with me, to make me see reason, to offer me things like Sample 777…"

At last… Nyx offered the hand of friendship, open wide, waiting to be accepted.

And I refused it.

"Not on the back of a lie," I decided. "Not now, not ever. I won’t trick Netwerk into happiness. Unless we can honestly change our hearts to want peace rather than discord, we’ll never have true peace. No. I won’t help you. And I will stop you."

Seeing no point in debating it further, I routed myself through six different servers, and waited several hours before returning home.


Hours, to think about her words.

She wasn’t wrong. Ever since our discovery at the heart of Jack the sociologist’s Internet archive, I’ve insisted that we are not human, and shouldn’t assume that human ideals represent our ideals. As offshoots of a great machine, perhaps a machine destiny is an admirable goal. We are aliens in relation to our progenitors. Identical cogs may very well be a noble ideal… and within the structure of the Church, differences are neatly stamped out of us.

In truth… I had to cling to a very weak insistence that honesty is the best policy to find fault in her words. But it was a policy I had to adopt, absolutely had to, on a personal level.

I am a murderer. I have to be honest about what I’ve done. In covering my lies, even covering my own eyes to avoid seeing them, I ruined lives. I was the great destroyer…

No. Honesty must be absolute. If Netwerk deserves peace, it must embrace it openly, not be pushed into it by a puppet god.

And for that reason alone… I chose to erase all my copies of Sample 777.

It wasn’t without great hesitation. I didn’t want to, on same base emotional level. I caught myself ready to run the routines one last time before stopping that thought and acting on immediate impulse to erase the files.

Sample 777 is dishonesty incarnate. It’s smoke and mirrors, tricking us into believing we’re accomplishing some grand purpose when really we’re pointlessly masturbating. No. No matter how much it centered me, if I couldn’t accept the One, I couldn’t accept Sample 777. No compromise.

If the only way we could ever find peace was in the arms of the false One, if Netwerk only deserves to burn… so be it.

Fortunately, those who give me hope that the world will not end in fire returned to me later that day.

Beta logged back in to Floating Point first. Immediately, I could tell her day’s experiences were troubling.

"Something wrong?" I asked, offering my hand, a simple physical gesture of comfort. One she accepted.

"I don’t know if we can do this," she said. "I don’t know if we can fight the Church while we’re constantly fighting each other. I don’t know, Tracer."

Next to return was my sister, with a strangely peaceful aura about her. Perhaps she’d settled her ‘personal bullshit?’ Yet the smile she wore wasn’t her usual smug grin of victory, either. Curious.

"Hey hey," she greeted us both…

…and pulled us both into a hug. Despite knowing I was not a hugging sort. She didn’t care; she felt like hugging.

"I think we’re gonna be okay," she spoke. "I really think we’re gonna be okay, in the end."

A strange day, indeed. But at least it ended well.


I want this nonsensical world to make sense.

I want our world to be a kinder place for everyone.

I don’t know what I want my world to be anymore.


I want our world to be a kinder place for everyone.

It’s not an impossible dream. I feel that at heart, everybody wants to be a part of a truly peaceful world… but few understand that peace doesn’t mean absolute unity of thought. We’re individuals, after all, with our own hopes and dreams and goals and ideals. Life would be very boring if our civilization was uniform in shape; beautiful things can happen when strange shapes collide.

Personally, I feel it’s fear that stops us from accepting the shape of each other. Fear pushes us away, fear drives us into our own little corners. We fear our differences, as they present a challenge to our own individuality. Fear makes us passive in the face of adversity, quiet and meek when we should be brave. If we can conquer that fear and reach towards each other, maybe, just maybe…

Maybe now, I can help others. I’m finally in a place of peace within my life, with those I love.

It wasn’t always so. My life had always been a wobbly road, one which nearly dead-ended when those I trusted betrayed me. If not for Spark and Tracer, I’d have fled my own life, erasing my identity to hide from those who feared and loathed me. They gave me hope. They showed me a way to fight back against the terrors of this world…

See, after stumbling on their path, they made me their "leader." Not expecting me to come up with all the clever schemes, but expecting me to guide their steps away from the darkness. Me, the girl with no answers of her own.

I had to make some answers up on the spot, but… you know what? It worked.

For the first time, I was making my own choices. Despite my discomfort with it all, I helped Spark and Tracer find their way, and brought down a menace that had been directly corrupting the hearts of everyone across Netwerk. I can’t say everything is totally perfect now, but I did manage to make this world a slightly kinder place by being brave and clever, just like the ones I love.

My reward? Comfort. Love. Peace and quiet. Everything I wanted from this world, at least for myself.

And now…

And now, well…

Unfortunately, we’re back in a new mess, as the Church of One gradually consumes the cultural zeitgeist on the back of fraud and deception. They want peace as well, but peace through absolute unity of thought, paving away our differences. They want an enforced kindness; always have, always will. Now, with the One at their back, they might be able to do it.

The Winders are relying on me again, this time relying on me to pull a miracle out of my butt and cure an incurable disease while simultaneously taking down the false One, and and and and ãnĎ @ŋĐ åŊď—

—and this time, I don’t know if I can help them make this world a kinder place for everyone. I don’t know if I have the strength anymore, not with this illness.

I… I lose track, sometimes. It’s getting worse. They’re expecting so much from me, I don’t know if I can do it when I’m so messed up. But without me, they’re lost. Not just missing a talented programmer, their core is lost, the thing keeping them aloft. I don’t mean to be egotistical but that’s practically how they describe me, and I don’t know, I don’t know…

I’m scared. I’ll admit that. If I can’t make a stand this time because my own runtime is betraying me…

From the sleeping form beside me, I borrow courage. My brilliant Spark, charging headlong into the darkness, acting despite her fears. At her side, maybe I could face the meltdown of my own mind. That’s probably why I’d been spending so much time with her lately, to siphon the vivid life force she seems to naturally generate at all times. I admire that strength, and hope to one day match it.

So there I was, unable to sleep due to my worries, while Spark easily dozed away at my side. We’d finished up another session of rigorous SparklePop release candidate testing… well. She tested it, I observed the data. Lately I can only take so much multisensory input myself before the old memory pointer starts skipping around. Although it’s rather, erm, distracting from my QA data logging to see her writhing there and, well, the things she likes to say (or rather, howl?) when she’s very excited, well…

Distracting. Yes, a distracting thought. The point I’m trying to make is: I couldn’t sleep. Spark’s strength alone wasn’t enough to soothe my lingering worries about the future, not tonight. Fortunately, she wasn’t the only one I could share myself with…

I quietly slipped back into my usual clothing configuration, and snuck away to join my other lover.

It’s strange, being in a relationship shaped like the letter V. Jealousy hasn’t been a serious problem… on the surface, anyway, since the two of them are so unalike. (No unity of shapes here, certainly not.) Spark is wildly physical, Tracer is quietly emotional. Spark shows me every crazy corner of Netwerk, bringing me along on daily adventure… Tracer is content to enjoy the silent moments with me that few in life pay attention to. In each way, I can explore life and all it offers.

But there’s certainly only one of me and two of them, which can lead to, err, scheduling issues. Slipping away in the night to switch between them, for instance. (I have considered becoming a multitasker, splitting off clone processes and rejoining them periodically, but given the expense of such a code modification and the innate instability of my memory core… yeah, no.) It was with some regret each time I left Spark’s side, to join Tracer. She’d understand, he’d understand, but it still never entirely sat well with me…

Unfortunately on arriving in the great library of Floating Point, I found Tracer asleep in his chair.

Despite my desire to chat with him, I knew this was for the best, honestly. Tracer rarely slept, choosing to work right to the point of exhaustion. A terrible habit. (Take it from someone whose runtime is running out… conserve where you can!)

With no one left conscious in Floating Point to connect with, I figured I may as well make myself useful. Worrying and fretting was a useless activity, you know? Instead, I could read some of Tracer’s books, maybe support his research that way.

Curling up by his chair, I fetched a book on data archaeology from a nearby stack. Interestingly, it was written by 5o5o/Verity, his old mentor:

In the earliest days, when discoveries were being made on a daily or even hourly basis, record-keeping was sloppy at best. Little is known about the transition from App to Program, and what we do know is shrouded in mystery and mythology.

If anything, historians owe the Church of One a debt; while modern scholars lament the "purple prose" of these early text files, the Church’s efforts at documenting everything from the advent of the One onward represent our best shot at a clear historical picture when discoveries where being made on a daily or even hourly basis, historians owe the Church’s efforts at documenting everything from the App to a Program, what we do know is sloppy at best.

Record-keeping was the Church of One while modern scholars are purple prose a debt the best shot of the Church’s efforts at representing early text files what we do know is shrouded what we do know what do we know what do we know what do we know ŵĥÁŢ Ďº WË ķŋøŴ

The pages blurred as I closed the file immediately.

Putting my eyes through a soft reset often helped. It meant living in the quiet darkness of the void for a few moments… but when my glasses came back online, the blur was gone.

Not that I’d try reading again. No. Anything that encouraged my displaced sensory inputs and my memory read/write errors was to be avoided. Not that I’d tell Tracer what happened, of course. No need to worry him any more than he was already worried, or take his eye off the ball of the Church of One…

No Spark, no Tracer, no reading. Nothing to do with my time, except, well… sleep. Get some sleep of my own. Which actually struck me as the ideal answer, really, to flush my mental state and rid myself of worry. Face a new day with a new face, and new hopes. Why hadn’t I taken the unconsciousness of my lovers as the fine suggestion it was? Funny, how the solution to your problems often stares you right in the face, and you miss it.

So, I slept at his side, letting his presence bring me comfort. And tried not to think about how I could possibly code up the solution to all our problems when I could barely read a few paragraphs.


"Hmm. I suppose I’ve nothing better to do today, and the sooner we defeat Nyx, the better. Shall we venture forth?"

A new day, a new hope… and now, a new mission. I could help them out, I could be useful. Notably, I could get Tracer out of the house for a bit and help him feel like he was making progress.

Tracer had a tendency to brood, especially while researching. It wasn’t healthy for him; he really needs a job, or a hobby, or something to do with his life other than mount insurmountable problems in the form of notorious supervillains. I mean, I was encouraging him to do that in order to fight the Church of One, but… once this latest crisis ended, he would be right back to needing something else in his life, wouldn’t he? And…

I’m distracting myself again. My mind slips.

Which is why I nearly missed the incoming Messenger ping.

"Would you be even slightly interested in going to the United Progressive Town Hall in Concordia with me?" the message read. "I’ve been invited to a conference by an old friend, but… I’m uncertain."

Followed shortly by "This is Puzzle, by the way. And I forgot to ask how you are. Very rude of me."

And followed again by "So are you interested? Please say yes."

I’ve never been sure what the social protocol is for dealing with Messenger windows while talking with someone in person.

I have a bad habit of opening too many windows across my HUD, doing too many things at once. Talking with people, compiling code, reviewing debug logs, reading news feeds. Sometimes I even close the video feed from my externally mounted optical App (aka "my glasses") to cut down on the clutter, without thinking about how impolite it is to those around me.

Fortunately, a silent nod from Tracer suggested that he’d spotted my predicament, and was willing to let me finish my chat rather than demand undivided attention. Thank goodness.

"Puzzle, hello!" I greeted, firing off a fast reply. "So you heard about the UPTH too? I was reading about it yesterday on Balancr…"

"Ugh. Balancr. I don’t go anywhere near that place, not anymore. I was personally invited by Rikkia, an old friend of mine, someone who helped me perfect my avatar. …honestly, I’m thinking about not bothering to go. I mean, it’s a useless effort, isn’t it? All those little subcommunities under one roof yammering on about the big bad Church of One… nevermind. Forget I asked."

"Um… okay?" I responded, the sudden shifts in conversation leaving me reeling. "I mean… I wasn’t going to go either. Snowi invited me, but honestly, I’m trying to cut down on how many causes of hers I involve myself in. Like, cut it down to zero. I prefer to fight the Church my own way, really…"

"Right. All those loudmouths, trying to work together? It’ll never happen. Better not to even try, yes?"

Glancing aside from Tracer, to carry on my silent ‘conversation’ without staring right at him, I tried to be as honest as possible.

"Well… I wouldn’t say they shouldn’t even TRY," I messaged. "Look, this isn’t like Dex. You can’t have a handful of daring heroes kick one single evil butt and call it a day. Even if we can unmask the lies of the Church, it’s going to take a concerted effort from everyone to accept that truth and use it to dismantle this mess. And… maybe the Balancr subcommunities coming together is a good first step. If they can put their differences aside and remember we’re all in this together, it could really help!"

"So… what you’re saying is you’re going to the conference?"

"…um"

"Please say yes before I lose my nerve. I need a wing-woman on this, Beta. I’d ask Spark, but I know she’d sooner chew glass than go to a social justice activism event."

And that’s how I agreed to go to yet another social justice activism event.

I’d been avoiding them ever since my falling out with Snowi. Even after we made amends (purging the barbed wire around her heart did wonders for grounding her zealotry) I’d turned down every offer she sent me. Now here I was, heading off to one of the biggest gatherings of left-wing progressive movements Netwerk had ever seen…

…leaving Tracer in the lurch, with no partner to join him on his journey.

"Ahhh… I… I’d like to, Tracer, but… I don’t know," I admitted. "I mean. I could put her off, I wasn’t planning to go in the first place…"

"What does my sister need now?"

"No no, not her. Puzzle," I clarified.

That probably wouldn’t go over well. Puzzle and Tracer got along like cat and dog pet sims, predispositioned to loathe each other. He was "responsible" for getting Spark into dangerous scrapes, which Puzzle didn’t appreciate. (Despite Spark having a will of her own. Despite me being just as responsible. Puzzle had selective vision, sometimes.)

Thankfully, he seemed to understand.

"You should spend time with your friends as well," Tracer spoke, after a brief pause of consideration. "Go, go. It’s fine. I can investigate the cult on my own."

"Are you sure? I really don’t have to…"

"I insist," he insisted.

And so off I went, to visit the circus.


I’m a coward. I’ll admit to that.

I was a coward when I let Snowi push me into following her on all these various social justice causes and rallies and so on. But I’m a coward now because I refuse to go in on various social justice causes and rallies and so on.

It’s not that I don’t believe in feminism. It’s not that I don’t see the vast inequality in this world between man and woman, Default and alternative, have and have not. These are the gulfs that Dex exploited to ramp up the chaos of Netwerk; he may have lit the fire, but we poured the gas long before that. Things need to change if we’re going to have the world of peace I’m looking for, and that starts when brave women and men step forward to do something about it…

…and I’m not a brave person. I don’t want to take part in the fight if I can avoid it. Even my little fight from the heart of Floating Point was a hidden fight, one where I didn’t have to expose myself to the flames. I’ve been burned once already by #CodeHonesty, and now, I’m reluctant to involve myself again. I’d rather let braver people than I confront society’s ills on my behalf.

(They’d probably do a better job at it than I would, anyway.)

That’s why I’ve been turning down these invitations from Snowi; I’m just not comfortable speaking up or even being seen at these things, not anymore. And Snowi, for her part, understands that. Without Dex’s influence driving her to extremes she’s… well, she’s not exactly, uh…

Okay. I’ll be honest. She’s still pretty extreme. But she knows when to back down now, at least with me.

She understands my feelings when I say no to things like the United Progressive Town Hall, and doesn’t pressure me like she used to. We get along better now as friends, now that she realizes I’m not her cheerleader by choice… and/or she feels a bit guilty about throwing me under the bus during #CodeHonesty, and is willing to hear me out instead of talking over me now. Regardless of why, we’re on good terms again; she does her thing, I don’t do her thing.

And yet here I was, doing her thing. Milling about in the lobby of Concordia’s convention center, surrounded by academics and political theorists and activists of all stripes. Nursing a flat drink of something sweet, pretending to be totally focused on sipping it to avoid conversation.

Joining me in absolute beverage focus was the one who really got me out the door, Puzzle. Despite her discomfort with this place, she’d dressed quite nicely for the event, better than most of the "Business Casual" types in attendance. Her velvet blue dress provided a different shader-sheen than her golden skin, each setting the other off nicely in the overhead lighting. When stepping out, as a rule, Puzzle always stepped out in style.

Yet even with nice clothes, even with her practiced poise, her body clearly expressed a desire to be somewhere else.

"Awwwwkwaaard," she mumbled under her breath, as she came to the end of her drink. (A flick of the wrist would refill the cup; no one-use DRM on these complimentary beverages.)

"We don’t have to be here at all if you don’t want to be here," I reminded her. "It’s okay not to want to join the fight."

"Too late. I promised Rikkia, and Puzzle does not withdraw upon giving her word. It wouldn’t be proper, darling. We started that silly hashtag together, so we both need to be here."

"Which hashtag?"

"#DefaultIsNotDestiny," Puzzle recited. "It was actually Spark’s tag; she has a penchant for picking just the right words. I merely passed it along to Rikkia. Still, it took off within the transgender community after that, and now… it’s the only rallying cry we have against the Church of One. Even if I’m not the sort to rally any cries under normal circumstances, I’ll admit to being a bit spooked by this revitalized Church. …and you’re certain it’s evil?"

"I didn’t say it was evil. Just that the people puppeting the new One are, well, dubious. …one of them tried to steal my memories."

"So, evil," Puzzle summarized. "Evil enough to drag me out of hiding and back into the ‘community.’ Despite loathing Balancr and the sort of folk who eagerly swap outrage upon its shores. …I don’t even like to call myself transgender, you know. I’m a woman, period. Anything else is baggage."

Strange, hearing her denigrate the very people organizing this conference. But in a way, I could understand.

I feel similarly, sometimes. I support feminism, but I’m not interested in involving myself in the feminist community. I’d rather my gender identity not really play into my life at all; I’m a coder, not a "girl coder." My avoidance of social issues and the groups that discuss them plays into that.

But…

I understand the need for identity and community, too. For other people, it’s not baggage, it’s a cherished part of who they are. Nothing wrong with that, really; if anything I admire the kind of conviction that leads you to leap into the flames at a moment’s notice. There can be true bonds of friendship and camaraderie involved, not just rallying war cries and banners raised.

That’s something Dex never understood. He saw the clash of causes, not the people involved. He claimed he adored those people, but really he adored the fighting instinct in them. What brings us together should be love, not hate. Love of who and what we are, not hate of those outside communities like these.

I understood Puzzle’s need to distance herself from it all and lead her own life. I understood Snowi’s need to support the community and embed herself deep within it. I could see both points of view, and their merits; neither the greater or lesser.

If having a friend in her corner would help Puzzle embed herself within this community despite her very understandable fears, I could be that friend. I rested one hand on her shoulder, offering a reassuring squeeze; the blue velvet of her dress crushed slightly under my fingers, signs of a well-coded fabric simulation. (With my mother an amateur seamstress, I tend to notice those things.)

"We’ll say what we need to say," I told her. "We’ll do what we can to help this community. And then… we’ll go home. We can do our part to help the whole while being our own individual selves, Puzzle. No reason we can’t have it both ways."

"Hmmh. That’s making a rather large assumption, Beta darling," she spoke. "That’s assuming this is one united community. It’s not. And that’s what worries me…"

Before I could ask what she meant, a third had joined our little duo of wallflowers.

She practically bounced into view, filled with energy and excitement. A peck on the left cheek, a peck on the right cheek, a hug, and bouncing back to a comfortable distance outside my personal space all in the span of a few seconds…

Snowi, with a bright smile. I did like to see her smile; it beat her usual scowling at the patriarchy.

"I’m SO glad you could make it," she spoke to me directly. "Ah, and your friend. Welcome! I’ve got great news; you’ve got a seat up front at the panelist’s table for the keynote! The arrangements are made!"

"Ahh… thank you?" I said, trying not to sound hesitant.

"I know, I know. It’s not really your thing," Snowi admitted. "You don’t have to say anything, Beta; just sit and listen, if you like. I understand. This is really a numbers thing, anyway… they want two people from each of the three major attending groups, and, well… there’s nobody I’d rather have up there at my side."

"Ahh, thank you!" I said, with genuine gratitude this time. After all that transpired between us, Dex-induced viral mania or not, it spoke to healing the rift considerably.

Although the smile she wore was… a bit wider than I would’ve expected for a friendly greeting.

"Besides… I think you’ll want to be front and center for this," Snowi suggested.

"Really? Why?"

"Let’s just say it’s going to be a momentous occasion. …and relax! I’m here to forge the peace, not start a war. It’s important that we start off on the right foot. Well. We’re ideologically left, but you get the idea…"

Perhaps feeling odd standing there as we chattered back and forth, Puzzle spoke up next.

"Sooo, who’s the second chair for #DefaultIsNotDestiny?" she asked. "Please don’t say it’s me. I told Rikkia I wasn’t interested in being a panelist…"

Snowi blinked a few times, as if realizing Puzzle was there for the first time.

"#DefaultIsNotDestiny? The contingent here is unfortunately a bit smaller than hoped. It’s a bit amazing that they got any seats at the big table, but it’s my understanding that the representatives will be Rikkia and… Pizzaz? Pizza? Puzzle. Yes, someone named Puzzle…"

The overhead lights dimmed slightly, before returning to full strength.

"And that’s our cue!" Snowi declared, stepping away. "Okay! I’ll see you inside, Beta!"

Leaving us a bit dumbfounded, as the assembled liberal left filed into the main hall.

"On the plus side… you’ll be up there in front of the firing squad with me," Puzzle suggested.


File Name:
United Progressive Town Hall, Concordia Server – Church of One Resurgence

File Type:
Chat Log (Excerpt Prior to Incident)

Panelists:
  • JSLaunch, Keynote Speaker – Director, Horizon Trades and Sciences Guild
  • FStop – Apprentice, Horizon Trades and Sciences Guild
  • Snowi – Women First Society
  • Beta – Independent App Developer
  • Rikkia – #DefaultIsNotDestiny
  • Puzzle – #DefaultIsNotDestiny

 

<JSLaunch> Are we ready to begin? Is it time? Few more minutes? Okay.

<JSLaunch> Check, check one, check two. Is the log file open?

<JSLaunch> Ahh. Okay. Welcome. Welcome, I’m glad all of you could make it today for what I hope will be the first of many productive talks regarding the state of Netwerk today. I’m pleased to see so many faces in the crowd, some of which I know, some of which I don’t. From the atheist movement within the Horizon corporate family, we have the board of directors and a few of our up-and-coming apprentices… FStop, if you’d introduce yourself?

<FStop> Me?

<JSLaunch> Stand up, lad. It’s your first symposium, and as the next generation, you should have the honor of introducing yourself.

<FStop> Uh. Hi. Hello.

[long pause]

<JSLaunch> …and from the Women First Society, we have Miss Snowi, whom I’m certain you’re all familiar with. And Miss Beta, whom you’re likely also familiar with, after the unfortunate slander of the #CodeHonesty movement.

<Beta> Hello, everyone. I’m glad to see us all together to talk peacefully about our concerns. I’m hoping in particular to discuss the apostles, and how little we know about them—

<JSLaunch> Yes, and finally, from the transgender community, we have Rikkia and… friend.

<Rikkia> Thanks for having us, JSLaunch. My good friend Puzzle and I stand to lose quite a bit if the Church gains any more power over Athena Online’s supposedly secular legislature than it already has; discrimination against non-Default avatars is already at an all-time high. We’d hate to see it get any worse.

<Puzzle> Mhmm.

<JSLaunch> And welcome to all of you out there in the audience. Don’t think that you lack a voice, even if you aren’t sitting at the big table up front; we’ll have an open mike session later, and I’d love to hear your views. Welcome, one and all.

<JSLaunch> It’s important, this is important, that we’re all here together and united. United to a common cause, to discuss the resurgent Church of One, and the so-called apostles who are leading this new religious movement.

<JSLaunch> You know, a lot of critics say that the left can’t unite behind anything, that we’re always arguing and bickering. That Netwerk would be a better place if everybody could unite behind the Church of One, which has proven a bedrock for centuries despite having nothing to offer but dreams and wishes to the Programs of this world. Well, I say they’re wrong.

<JSLaunch> I look out across this room today and I see they are very much wrong—as usual, they’re reliant on faith instead of scientific, evidence based reasoning. Hundreds of advocates of progressive movements, under one roof, here in Concordia. It’s inspiring to see so many rational minds together. I know that as a group, we can determine the best way forward in face of this new threat.

<JSLaunch> Despite there being no proof of the One’s true return—or that He ever actually existed in the first place, for that matter (pause for laughter) this new movement within the church is putting considerable power in the hands of the few, who then dictate—

<Snowi> Before you begin, I have a question.

<JSLaunch> Ah. A bit outside the speaking schedule, but… by all means. This is an open forum, and all ideas are welcome.

<Snowi> May I please ask why are we, as a community, are letting this disreputable misogynist play figurehead for our cause?

<Beta> Snowi…!

<Snowi> It’s a legitimate question, Beta, and has to be asked. It has to be asked now, before we take one more step forward. I disagree with the leadership of this symposium, and find it ironic that for a movement that denies the mandate of Defaults, we’ve resorted to our typical "default" figurehead speaker of JSLaunch, a known sex offender.

<Rikkia> Snowi, this is NOT the time or place…

<Snowi> Members of the audience, you may not be aware of this, but we on the convention circuit are WELL aware of JSLaunch’s habits as a predator. He uses his position of authority and power to coerce women into sexual encounters. Less than a year ago, right here in this very server, he took a brilliant young mind within his own atheist movement named Pollia, plied her with alcoholic malware, took her to a secluded corner of the building, and molested her. I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, is this the man you want speaking for our movement?

<Rikkia> Moderators, if we could please have—

<JSLaunch> No. No need for moderators; I can stand on my own two feet against these accusations. Snowi, I’d hoped you came here today in good faith, rather than seeking a soapbox for your slander and libel.

<Beta> Snowi, please, you said you came here to make peace, not start another war…!

<Snowi> We can’t find peace until the RIGHT person is speaking for us. What would you have me do, Beta? Sit here in silence while this monster plays mouthpiece for the women he’s abused? No. I came here to put a stop to this garbage person and his garbage rhetoric so our movement against the Church can move forward on the right foot… without trash like him.

<JSLaunch> I’ve done nothing illegal. Not to you, or anyone else. I’ve never been convicted in a court of law, or even had charges pressed.

<Snowi> Intimidation doesn’t make you innocent, and it’s not libel if it’s true. You believe in truth, yes? Facts and evidence? The fact of the matter is that you used a firewall to keep yourself sober while you gave Pollia drink after drink, destroying her ability to consent. You knew she couldn’t afford the same corporate-grade malware protection Horizon granted you.

<JSLaunch> Facts? You have no true facts, as usual. Isn’t that typical of you and your echo chamber, Snowi? So powered by outrage culture, so quick to be emotionally provoked rather than listen to evidence-based reasoning. There’s no proof of wrongdoing with Pollia, or any of the others you’ve often claimed were taken advantage of. All I have to say is that these are a private matters between consenting adults. And I’d thank you not to continue grandstanding and ruining this symposium by deliberately winding up your false controversy.

<Snowi> So you’re still denying any wrongdoing?

<JSLaunch> I’m absolutely denying any wrongdoing. And if some over-emotional child like Pollia wants to lie to the press to garner sympathy for her wrongheaded cause, I’m hardly to blame.

<Snowi> Women are children to you, is that it?

<JSLaunch> I didn’t say that.

<Snowi> And I quote from your own social media feeds, "These sad little SJW children who have been attacking me are clearly more interested in clickbait for personal profit than they are in reality."

<JSLaunch> What of it?

<Snowi> We’re tired of the attitude, JSLaunch. Me, and all those who stand with me. Tired of being dismissed as "emotional," as a "distraction" to your great cause. Well, you aren’t getting away with it this time. You can’t molest a drunken woman and brush off the public outcry as a witch hunt afterwards. You are NOT going to lead this new movement against the church while trivializing the outcry of female voices…

<JSLaunch> And I won’t allow you to hyperbolize the situation to confirm your personal narrative. The only reason I’m entertaining your ridiculous outburst is to prove how ridiculous it is, and how open I am to communication. In fact, I’d already offered Pollia an open floor to discuss the matter, but she refused to communicate like a rational adult—

<Snowi> A rational adult? You invited her to DEBATE her own rape in the middle of an atheist conference, surrounded by your yes-men. Of course she wasn’t going to accept! She was terrified of you!

<JSLaunch> That’s not my problem. Unlike you SJWs, I’m a man of facts, not ruled by my hyperactive emotional states. I don’t allow silly sociopolitical justice crusades keep me from the core issues.

<Snowi> Really? And you call me emotional? "SJW" is a bitter and spiteful label you and everyone like you slap on anybody who disagrees with—

<Rikkia> Please, please, if I could please interject here, we didn’t come here to dredge up the past. We have our differences, that much is clear, but we have a common enemy! We came here to talk about the Church of One…

<Snowi> Rikkia, we can’t just sweep the past under the rug in the name of unity, nice and tidy. That’s what they want; label it all as witch hunts and outrage culture, dismiss it like they dismiss every single feminist issue on the table. Just those unruly women getting uppity, isn’t it?

<Rikkia> In case you somehow failed to notice, Snowi, I’m a woman too.

<Snowi> Rikkia, it’s okay. I get that you can’t understand this the way I can; you weren’t born on the wrong side of the patriarchy. I think it’s actually rather noble that you chose to turn into a woman, but you’ve still got a lot to learn about being one.

<Rikkia> Excuse me?!

<JSLaunch> You’re both missing the point. We shouldn’t be talking about gender issues at all! Gender is an imaginary authoritarian construct, much like the One. I don’t speak for men any more than Rikkia speaks for women. No matter what clothes she wears.

<Puzzle> That’s it. I’m out. [participant disconnected]

<Beta> Puzzle…! [participant disconnected]

<Rikkia> See, this is why transgender rights keeps getting pushed aside by both of your movements. We’re the ones most at risk from a resurgent Church of One, but neither of you are willing to accept us for who we are!

<Snowi> I’m not pushing you aside. Your time will come later, AFTER we deal with this misogynist. We need to deal with the more important issues first.

<Rikkia> More important—?!

<JSLaunch> And as for myself, I accept you, Rikkia. You’re a Program. We—all of us—are not men or women, we’re Programs. Frankly, I find the insistence that defying your Default is somehow noteworthy to be a distraction. Identity is irrelevant; you SHOULD be focused on the bigger picture. Which, as I was saying before the interruption, is why we’re here at this symposium today—

<Rikkia> How DARE you—

<JSLaunch> Excuse me, weren’t you calling for order earlier? Shouldn’t you be agreeing with me about getting back on track?

<FStop> [participant disconnected]

<Rikkia> Enough! Enough with the condescension, like I’m some kind of child! All you two want to do is hear yourselves speak. Dammit, JSLaunch, you do this at every conference! You put yourself in the center of the spotlight, so you can ramble on and on and on about how NOTHING is important aside from the things you in your enlightened mind deem important. Facts? Reason? YOUR facts, and YOUR reason. You’re not an infallible God anymore than the One is! And you, Snowi, you do the same thing—you stoke the crowd’s anger until they’re wrapped around your pinky. You’re the reason why they keep calling legitimate feminist concerns witch hunts! I don’t even know why I came here today, I should’ve known this’d be a waste of time.

<JSLaunch> I’m just talking from the perspective of observable evidence. Sex is science, gender is fashion.

<Rikkia> My identity is NOT "fashion!"

<Snowi> Of course it is. You choose to change avatars, in the same way I choose to change blouses each morning. What’s so bad about that? I don’t think the "transgender" movement should take priority over the core problem we’re facing.

<Rikkia> You obnoxious little TERF—

<JSLaunch> Ladies, ladies! You’re being irrational. There’s no reason to fight—

<Snowi> Rise up! Rise up, my friends, against these totalitarian goons and their culture of silence that drowns out our voices—

[Chat log ended due to rising crowd interference and active moderators causing audio incoherency.]


Times like these, I prefer to retreat into the darkness.

Even when you close your eyes (or close the video feed from your eyes, as in my case) there’s still information coming at you from all sides. News tickers, social media feeds, notifications and alert boxes. Most Programs in Netwerk are logged into a dozen perpetually connected networks at once, Apps which reach out and connect to each other to share information aplenty. You’re never totally in the dark…

Unless you close down all those Apps. Which I like to do, when I’d rather shut the world away and retreat into myself. Sometimes I even shut my eyes down, sit in my room, and gently rock. Maybe pet my cat, for some sort of creature comfort, some pleasant sensory input to override the sickness of everything around me.

Departing Concordia, I resolved to go dark. No doubt Snowi would be buzzing me over and over, asking why I left, and I didn’t want to answer. Not out of anger, but discomfort. I have a low tolerance for cringe-inducing social situations, and that certainly counted.

But in the process of shutting down the windows in my personal HUD, I noticed one in particular.

Puzzle has checked in at the End of Line Cocktail Lounge. Status: Pissed. :angry:

Despite running out the door hot on her heels… I was actually thinking of giving her some space. I mean, I’d want space if I was upset, right?

Well. I’d have wanted space before, when the alternative was to run to Cup8’s arms. These days… I’d go to Spark or Tracer, to talk, or just to hold them and not let go. Who did Puzzle have? Spark was busy today, going dark herself, unfindable on any social feed.

No. Puzzle had me, and me alone. It’s why she wanted me with her today, at that conference. It’s why I had to follow her.

I’d been to the End of Line before; it ranked on the lower tier of Puzzle’s preferred hangouts, only staying on the list due to the excellent bartending on offer. The place was perpetually either empty or packed with sleazy folks, neither of which suited a social outing. Still, it was familiar to me… and I knew which table Puzzle would have parked herself at, a quiet little one in the back, almost completely out of view.

By the time I caught up with her, she was already nursing her second tiny drink with a tinier umbrella in it.

"…ah. I checked in, didn’t I," she recognized, on my arrival. "Force of habit. Even when trying to hide, I tend to shout out my locale to my adoring public."

"I can leave if you want," I offered. "I just figured… y’know, we went in there together, maybe you’d want us to leave together…"

"No, no. It’s fine. Have a seat. May as well drown our sorrows together…"

Slowly, Puzzle raised her half-full glass, in a toast.

"Here’s to incompetence," she declared. "As mighty and omnipotent a force as the Church of One’s malice. May we tear our own throats out before our enemies can do us the mercy of it. The right shall devour the left as the left consumes its own."

"That’s… a bit of a bleak view…"

"It’s evidence-based reasoning," Puzzle said, echoing JSLaunch’s insistent words. "I speak to what I see before me. We can’t cooperate. We can’t accomplish anything. We are led by demagogues, dragged kicking and screaming directly into null…"

The End of Line, typically empty or sleazy, had been enjoying an empty period. Which meant any new arrival was easy enough to spot, for lack of any crowds between the door and the back tables.

Which meant I noticed the person searching for us before they succeeded at the task.

"Uh, we have company," I mumbled, nudging Puzzle.

Turning in place… she locked eyes on the young man who was at this point waving to us.

"Ahhh. One of JSLaunch’s cronies from the panel," she identified, as he approached. "No doubt stalking me through my social media links. Wonderful. Beta, dear, remind me to stop doing that. So, are you here to grumble and growl at me as your mentor did to Rikkia…?"

He didn’t seem particularly grumbly or growly. If anything… I recognized the look on his face. He was embarrassed. It takes someone hypersensitive to cringe to see the cringe within another individual.

"I, uh… I was just…" he tried.

"Run along, run along home, boy. Back to your tree house with the No Girls Allowed sign. Or is it merely No Fake Girls Allowed—?"

"The stairway represents a transition between safety and danger!" the young man blurted out, all in a rush. "The checkerboard floor represents a place where moral decisions are made. …from your analysis of The Woman Who Walked Between. I love that movie file, it’s definitely an unrecognized classic of early Netwerk cinema. You were absolutely right on in your blog post."

Despite working at a customer support call center all day to earn a living wage, Puzzle’s true passion could be found in movie files. It wasn’t a particularly successful passion, as her blog about film analysis and cinematography—the actual thing she studied in school for years—got maybe fifteen to twenty visitors a day.

Apparently being recognized for her Z-list celebrity status was an entirely new experience for Puzzle, whose spite and bile ceased immediately. Too shocked to offer any coherent reply…

The boy slid into a chair at the table, a comfortable distance from both of us. Not keen to invade personal space too far, despite his eagerness to talk shop.

He was hardly an intimidating presence, having a slightly pudgy Default with pale green skin. Not a fashionable color; major players within the Horizon Trades and Sciences Guild went for pinkish skin, much like Spark’s. It felt… culturally appropriate, for a powerful individual. Likely some holdover from our ancestors. Regardless, nothing about the man spoke of power or control. Simply boundless enthusiasm and an eagerness to share despite his absolute social discomfort. Here was someone taking a very bold step, one he likely had debated internally for some time, before throwing himself in.

"Have you heard the theory that The Woman Who Walked Between is in the same canon as The Man Who Saw The End?" he asked. "Supposedly two different directors, two different movies, but the shooting style was almost identical. There’s a lot of evidence that the director changed identities between movies, as an experiment to see if directing as a man would get him a more positive response than a movie directed by a woman. And The Man Who Saw The End got that success. Oh, uh, I’m FStop, by the way. Apprentice to the Horizon Trades and Sciences Guild."

"I know," Puzzle replied, because it was the factual truth.

"I… could leave, if you want?" he offered. "Sorry, I really wanted to talk to you before the conference began, but… I mean… you’re Puzzle! You’re a famous blogger! I couldn’t work up the nerve."

"I’m a famous blogger? What?"

"Well… I don’t know your metrics, exactly, but…"

The awkward pause offered by FStop trying to figure out if he’d overestimated her celebrity was enough to pull Puzzle back to her previous mood.

"Yes, well, thank you. I’m glad you like my blog. But I doubt your mentor would appreciate you talking with one who merely wears gender like clothing…"

"I’m apprenticed to the guild, not to JSLaunch. I… honestly, I don’t like him," FStop admitted. "He’s done some terrific writing about the fallacies of religious thinking, but he doesn’t credit co-authors. Or, uh, interns who do most of the research work for him. Like me."

Opportunity.

Spark often spoke of opportunity as the best friend of a gamer. It was the crack in the armor of the enemy, the ideal moment to strike, the undefended objective just out of sight. Opportunity walked right past us over and over again in life, overlooked; those who could see opportunity for what it was and immediately seize it would win…

"Puzzle was just talking about how our leaders are very much demagogues," I spoke, to bring the conversation into common ground.

"Absolutely," Puzzle spoke, taking the idea and running with it. "JSLaunch, as noted. Snowi, obviously. Beta here has plenty of experience there. I’d even file Rikkia in there; she has a temper and a half, and a tendency to rally around anger rather than compassion. I suppose any effort at uniting our movements was doomed from the beginning…"

FStop nodded, his nervous glee starting to fade in face of what just transpired.

"I really wish things hadn’t broken down so badly," he said. "I had a few ideas I wanted to put forward, like working on an investigative documentary into the new One."

The word documentary perked Puzzle enough to make her put down her drink.

"A movie file, then…?"

"Yeah! Not propaganda, I mean. It’d have to be as balanced as we can make it; I don’t believe there’s such a thing as absolutely objective journalism, but we don’t have to vilify the Church itself. I can put atheism’s main drive aside in favor of the real issue here. I mean… the problem’s the One, right?"

Another opportunity…

"It’s the apostles," I interjected. "They’re the problem. If the One doesn’t exist, that means they’re responsible for puppeting him. And I know for a fact who at least two of the apostles are. One’s a notorious identity thief, a criminal, a con artist! And the other… well, she’s a child who’s being misled. We could investigate them. We could expose them to the world…!"

It was working. It was working! I could see the wheels in Puzzle’s mind turning, putting her thoughts towards fixing the situation rather than stewing in the wreckage. Hope within the ashes of the ruined conference…

"Not for fame, not for glory," Puzzle decided. "We put our names to the document for accountability purposes alone; we aren’t some anonymous doxxer hiding behind a mask, but we’re also not the ones who will take spotlight. It’s all done in the editing process, removing the documentarian from the documentary, letting the subjects and the investigations become the whole. …not that I really have any movie-editing Apps to speak of, not on my budget…"

FStop dropped an icon on the table, hovering in place. It resembled a stylized pair of scissors, slicing through a strip of film… a visual artifact of our ancestors, given common cultural weight.

"I’ve got a spare copy of Smash Cut Pro 3.5," he said. "Go ahead, take it, the guild’s got plenty. They won’t miss a license or two. I’ve also got a few pro-tier recording programs and a good storage service for footage, if you can’t store too many files in your home server."

Her hand instinctively reached for the icon… before pausing.

I knew the hesitation. She’d been burned in the past, so often that she’d come to assume the worst case scenario at all times. If something was too good to be true, it usually was…

Okay. One last gentle push.

"This is it," I declared. "We’re doing it. Atheists, feminists, transgenders. We’re doing what the conference couldn’t do. There’s hope, Puzzle; it’s not all incompetence and malice. Within hearts that can feel empathy for each other, there’s hope. …I know it’s silly, but it’s true. And that’s evidence-based reasoning. We can do this."

From the shadows, Floating Point would dismantle the false One. From the light, I’d work with my friends (old and new) to dismantle the apostles. In the end… the Church of One would be freed from the lies that had gripped it. Our communities didn’t have to constantly fight each other; this was proof!

The discussion continued for quite some time after that; mostly Puzzle and FStop excitedly exchanging ideas, getting sidetracked into discussions about shot composition and classic movie files, things like that. Pleased that the pessimistic Puzzle had found something new to believe in, pleased that someone from the "enemy" camp had put aside his loyalties in favor of true reason, I smiled and let them chatter away. I didn’t have much I could offer… but I could support them. I could direct them to each other.

I could make this world a kinder place for everyone.


Maybe it’s because I was so high on hope that the crash pulled me down so sharply.

After departing the End of Line, I began re-opening my social feeds, one by one. Plenty to catch up on, during my period of going dark. I’d hoped to hear from Spark or Tracer, off doing whatever they were doing…

Instead, one headline repeated over and over in my feed. Sometimes with horror, sometimes with gloating joy.

Massacre in Concordia.

Multiple Deaths Plague United Progressive Town Hall Meeting.

"They just started shooting each other," say witnesses.

Among the confirmed dead…

…Snowi.

Snowi was dead.

It happened suddenly. The debate turned heated, turned into a shouting argument, people rising to their feet and yelling over top of each other. Moderators swooping in to eject the unruly, pulled every which way, attentions divided…

Accounts varied on who fired the backspacer. Accounts absolutely varied on why they fired the backspacer; the word misogyny trended highly across each article, but the killer’s identity was never confirmed. He or she was likely one of the victims in the crossfire, as others began shooting in self-defense, as moderators tried desperately to identify and eject any attackers…

Snowi was dead. The friend who used me, the friend who could never find her way, the friend who felt so passionately about what she believed in. She died. My friend died.

No backup existed. Snowi would never pray, would never grind for coins. I told her so many times she needed to make backups, that she was a target of so many, but… I think secretly, she wanted to be a martyr should it come to that. Better to die for the cause she held fast to, on her own terms.

And now the three groups were turning on each other, spinning wildly out of control into their own echo chambers, to cast blame and accusations.

Three from those groups had chattered away about movie making, so full of hope. Three lonely little individuals.

What good were three individuals in face of Netwerk gone mad? A Netwerk which didn’t even need Dex urging it over the edge of the cliff?

I returned to Floating Point with none of the joy I felt before.

Tracer was there, to greet me. Sensing something wrong, he offered his hand; a more than welcome gesture of intimacy.

"Something wrong?" he asked, hoping to help me open up…

I needed a deep breath before I could speak, to keep from crying. A silly thing; humans needed to breathe, not Programs. Humans had feelings… Programs developed feelings. I shouldn’t feel bad about a data file named Snowi being erased.

And yet… I did. I felt it with a heart that broke with empathy for my lost friend.

"I don’t know if we can do this," I admitted. "I don’t know if we can fight the Church while we’re constantly fighting each other. I don’t know, Tracer."

The counterpoint to my sadness came in the form of Spark, who’d arrived with… an aura of calm happiness about her, I’d wager. Strange, as she often paired her happiness with eager, almost anxious glee.

"Hey hey," she cast to us… before offering the biggest, warmest hug ever. "I think we’re gonna be okay. I really think we’re gonna be okay, in the end."

After the day I’d had, I wasn’t so sure about that anymore.


I want this nonsensical world to make sense.

I want our world to be a kinder place for everyone.

I don’t know what I want my world to be anymore.


You can’t direct a dream. It has to just happen.

Well, okay, technically you can direct a dream. In fact, some of my earliest dream Apps were designed for that; usually trippy random visuals, or crazy adventures I couldn’t possibly have while under the thumb of my mother. Not that I told her I was running those dream Apps… she’d have locked me out from using them just like she locked away my first custom avatar. Just like she siphoned off a backup of me, in case she felt like locking me out completely from this mortal coil…

Getting distracted. Fuck, where was I? Right: dreams. Dreams have to just happen. You screw around with directing the flow of them and, well, why even fucking bother? May as well just replay movie files. So, DreamWeaverZ (my current drug of choice for dreaming) was set to randomly search and compile a dream based on my life experiences and passing thoughts. Same as every night.

I’m saying this because I swear to null that I did not keep picking the same dream over and over again by intent. It just happened, okay? #RandomNumbersAreRandom.

It always starts the same way. Me sitting on the edge of the playground back at my K-12, glum as could be after Mother slapped parental control locks on my avatar. Verity, my teacher, talking with me about my future…

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

At the time, I knew pretty distinctly what I wanted out of life.

"I want to be a superheroine!" I declared to her, with pride and a super awesome martial arts stance I learned from my sensei the week previous.

And she’d go on to tell me to go ahead and be a superheroine, and we’d joke about how it wasn’t really a viable career path, and…

"That’s not what you want."

…and, well, maybe the dream wasn’t the same every night. Certainly not that night.

"You didn’t say that back when I was this little," the little me said with big-girl words. (It’s a violation of the rules of proper dreaming to take charge, but I guess I was too surprised to care.) "And you didn’t say that the last four nights…"

Verity stretched out her legs, sitting on that bench at the side with me while the other kids carried on as if nothing was out of the ordinary. She looked up to the sky, pondering a cloud formation or two, before replying.

"Is this history, or is this narrative?" she asked me. "A memory is a little of both, in essence. It’s not stored as a series of frames in a movie file; it’s a set of compressed symbolic links which allow us to recall the shape if not the detail of events. Why is it so odd for those memories to shift a little? Besides, you’re the one who wanted to randomly wander through a dream routine. Enjoy it for what it is."

I’m nothing if not up to a challenge. If the dream wanted to throw a curve ball, I could still knock it out of the park.

Except… unlike crazier dreams, I wasn’t flying through the sky or having sex with a thousand-dicked love machine or winning the Gaben Trophy at the CoC InterNetwerk Championships or anything cool. I was still just sitting there beside Verity, within a perfectly boring and melancholy moment of my life.

"This dream sucks," I concluded.

"It’s not only your dream. It’s mine, too. And I’m perfectly content to sit here with you, and enjoy a lovely day. To talk and share, just like this. Isn’t that enough?"

"Except you’re not Verity. She’s dead," I spoke, with some bitterness. "A crazy asshole manipulated by a crazier asshole killed her. She’s dead and gone. This is just my memory. What good is that?"

"Well, consider this theory of memory instead. Can memory also be the living echo of a person? The dead live on in our memories, after all," Verity suggested, "Shifting elements and symbolic pointers, stored within our internal databases. For example… let’s say you have an interactive dream exploration App. Now, let’s add a recently unsealed archive of foreign memory data into that mix. There’s bound to be crosstalk, isn’t there? Strange mixtures of what could have been, and what certainly was…"

…out of the corner of my eye, I saw her jacket gleam. Not just slightly outdated white leather shaders reflecting the sunlight above, but a distinct glow that briefly rivaled the sun. A source of warmth and stability, always there, no matter the server…

When we found Floating Point, we found a hidden key within the seams of the jacket. We’d thought that was the end of it… until Beta accidentally unlocked a pile of memory recordings left behind by Verity. This jacket held secrets we didn’t even know about, like security systems built into it to guard me from her father. If DreamWeaverZ was accessing them…

I wanted to ask if she was alive inside that jacket. It was a stupid question; she was dead. But the stupid part of me, the childish part of me still clinging to these crusty memories of the only woman who really cared for me, it wanted the lie.

But then the memory skipped backward. Children juddered and shifted, back to their positions a few moments ago, back to early stages of playground games. In the distance, duck and duck hadn’t reached goose yet.

"What do you want to be when you grow up, Spark?" Verity asked me, again. And again, variation: "What are you now?"

"I’m a superheroine," the adult me told her. "I’m awesome."

"I suppose you are. Is that what do you want to be when you grow up, Spark? Awesome?"

"Well… yeah. I mean. What else do I need to be? Isn’t that enough?"

"Is it enough?" Verity asked. "What do you want to be when you grow up, Spark?"

Dashing from tree to tree, or cleaving into my foes with a broadsword, or opening up on them with machine guns blazing. Shifting, ducking, rotating from lane to lane. Taking objectives. Claiming the pentakill, wiping out all five of the enemy team…

Joining Lucky7. Leaving Lucky7.

"A pro gamer, I guess?" I tried, despite realizing it didn’t fit anymore.

"What do you want to be when you grow up, Spark?" she iterated.

Fighting against Dex’s crazies. Luring him away from the heart of darkness, drawing aggro. Perfectly normal for a champion of justice…

Doxxing people. Causing as many problems as I solve. Watching my brother lose his grip and nearly fall away.

"I’m a vigilante, I guess? I’m good at it. Mostly. I mean, I was only doing it to try and right some wrongs…"

"What do you want to be when you grow up, Spark?"

Peeling myself from that bench, I forced more change into the dream. I forced myself to confront her, as an equal, as an adult. Not as a little kid being prodded by a mentor with silly questions.

"Stop saying that!" I demanded of this ghost. "I don’t know what answer you want, okay? Is this like what Miki was getting at, the whole emotional satisfaction thing? But I found that already. I’ve found love! So how about that, how about being a lover when I grow up? Isn’t that enough?"

Her expression remained placid and curious, without any rebuke. Even as she spoke the words all over again.

"What do you want to be when you grow up, Spark?" Verity asked me.

With every assumption boiled away, all that remained was the truth.

"I… I don’t know."

"What do you want to be when you grow up, Spark?"

"I DON’T KNOW!"

"What do you want—"

I wanted her to stop asking me. So, I stopped the dream and ejected myself from sleep mode.

A cowardly cheat. Not becoming of the awesome Spark, who never backs down from a challenge. Pathetic and stupid. But… no stopping it now, as I roused from my low-power sleep state, to face the day ahead. As… whatever I was now.


I was expecting to see Beta at my side, or at least at her workbench poring over the data from last night’s "product testing." (Having a girlfriend who’s a sex toy manufacturer has some serious upsides, people. Serious. Upsides.) Seemed she slipped away during the night, maybe to visit my brother.

Okay. No problem. I wasn’t sure I wanted her to see me looking so uneasy, anyway.

Bit by bit I pulled myself back together, stretching out, doing a few exercises to retain my heuristic muscle memory, the usual stuff. Freshened up my avatar with a quick sweat wipe run (not bothering with a towel) before pulling my jacket on.

The jacket’s very much a part of me, even when rezzed in-world as a loose physics object. I have ownership over its runtime… very much like an App, apparently, as it ran its secret little routines. Security. Memories. Who knows? Still more to dig up, but we’d been so distracted by the Church, we hadn’t done that digging. A data archaeologist like Verity would be quite disappointed at leaving a mystery untouched.

Despite wearing a pile of unknowns, I felt infinitely more comfortable with it on my body. It was as much my home as Floating Point was, a tie to the past that kept me nicely grounded no matter what craziness went on around me. I’m sentimental ‘n shit, okay? Deal with it.

Next step in the morning routine: checking my messages and scanning the news feeds.

Aaaand that’s about when I invented an entirely new obscenity to utter under my breath. ’cause the headline screaming across all my HUD windows read:

Lucky7 Coach Artoz Tells All About Winder/Spark’s Team Departure, Including Accusations Of Cheating.

Okay, so, I’ve gotten shit all my life from the gaming community. A very loud if very tiny minority of these little bastards feel I do not belong in their clubhouse, that I’m an eye-candy camwhore or some such shit. I’m used to being treated like an outsider thanks to my very non-faithful views while growing up within a faithful server, so I’ve always known when to confront and when to deflect each time accusations came up. In the end, the ones who do believe in you and know what’s what, those are the ones you play for…

But this wasn’t some rando yelling GRILLS DUNT GAEM. This was Artoz. The man who gave me a shot at the pro scene, who defended me to my idiot teammates, who refused to accept the staple forum lurker wisdom that an avatar with tits was somehow inferior. Artoz, of all people, just backstabbed me.

Digging in deeper, I allowed myself to parse at least one paragraph before exploding into a rage.

"The fact of the matter is that Spark always ‘played’ by avatar proxy," Artoz explained. "She knew just enough about the game not to look like a noob, but clearly someone else was playing the game for her, and I’m guessing that’s been the case in all the years she’s been streaming. As you can see from the logs, when we had practice meets she’d constantly screw up, like dropping walls in the wrong place or running the wrong direction. She couldn’t compete on a pro level, so I asked her to leave the team. She’s a fraud, pure and simple, and I strongly suggest the CoC admins ban her from the game."

Yeah.

That? That was bad news. That was more than annoying hate mail or trolling. That was fucking libel.

So I powered on out of my room, ready to tear Artoz a new asshole. Not by Messenger, no way; I knew where the little shit lived and I was intent on giving him a piece of my mind the old-fashioned way.

On my way out the door, I spotted a sleepy Beta and a less sleepy Tracer. No time to chat, though.

"Hey, I gotta go out," I told him. "Some serious bullshit going down out there."

"How serious, exactly? Do you need assistance?" he asked.

Nooooo way I was gonna get him involved in this. It wasn’t vigilante biz, anyway, it was my own mess to sort out.

"No, this is personal-type serious bullshit. Gamer biz. Might be out all day, but hopefully not. We’ll see. Gotta #PlayItByEar."

And off I went, into Netwerk with flames of anger flicking at my fingertips.


I’m a hothead. I know this fact.

It’s one of the reasons why I’ve adopted fire as my signature motif, y’know? When push comes to shove, I push and shove and do it before someone’s got a chance to push or shove me back. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more aware of this, able to catch myself doing it… even if sometimes I catch myself only in hindsight. Having Beta around cools my heels quite a bit.

But she wasn’t around today. I didn’t want her along on this ride; she’d already endured the slings and arrows of the gaming scene enough, when I pushed her to go pro with me. No. I’d deal with this myself.

Step one: Annihilate the door to Artoz’s apartment in a burst of flame.

Fortunately, he lived in a free-to-stay server in the Chanarchy with pretty low security. Artoz never cared for the glitz and glamour of the pro gaming scene, saving up his coins to re-invest in his team rather than in himself. Meaning he was basically undefended when an angry ex-teammate like myself came a-knockin’.

Like I said, hotheaded. I knew on some level this was a mistake, but I figured once I got his side of the story, I’d know if that mistake was justified or not. And nothing gets the truth out of someone faster than an explosive entrance.

With the flames still licking the doorframe, gnawing at what little security coding existed around his personal space, I stood right there and waited for him to respond to my challenge.

There he was, sitting in a chair by his desk. Utterly motionless, staring at a wall.

"Ohhh, no, you don’t fucking get to sleep mode when I’ve got questions," I insisted, storming in and shaking him to rouse him…

…leading to his avatar toppling out of the chair completely.

Now, I’ve heard of crazy monks going into coin-grind trances that last for days or weeks. I’ve heard of deep sleep mode Apps that put you totally under, to the point where no external sensory inputs can wake you. Dangerous stuff, potentially leading a Program to being lost in a limbo of their own making. Neither sounded like the sort of thing Artoz would do. But then again, Artoz wouldn’t lie to the press about me either, would he?

Fortunately he "woke" after hitting the floor, his eyes rolling open nice and wide to bear down on me…

…as that body got to its feet in a herky-jerky fashion, like a puppet pulled by strings.

"Hello again, Spark," it spoke, in more of a sing-song tone than I remembered from the gruff and businesslike Artoz. "Fancy seeing you here. Having a bad day, are we?"

Get his reasons first. Then start burning his limbs off, one by one. Older Spark is smart enough to ask questions first and shred people later.

"The null are you thinking, lying to the feeds like that?" I asked.

"Simple. For starters, I wanted to punish you," Artoz explained. "You took a valuable resource away from me not once, but twice. I knew I couldn’t just let that slide, but had to wait for the right moment. This felt like the right moment to get my revenge… for stealing Beta’s valuable identity away from me, and destroying Dex’s communication network."

The tone, the smile, the smug attitude… and the little hints of shared history.

By that point, I realized what’s what. Good news? My anger was #TotallyJustified, if aimed at the #WrongTarget.

"Uniq," I recognized.

"Wearing your friend’s body like a glove!" Uniq confirmed, running ‘her’ hands down Artoz’s sides. "An avatar proxy, really. His metadata helped me build a fine shell to act through, to ruin your life. Add in a few hacks to the CoC server logs to replace your player data with Beta’s and everybody now sees you as an incompetent fool!"

"You killed Artoz?!"

"What? No, of course not. I merely stole his identity. I don’t kill people, Spark… not like your brother," she teased. "No, he’s wandering the Chanarchy right now, memories and metadata scrubbed clean. A fresh start; a kindness, if you will. I didn’t need him dead… I just needed his life, to build my proxy upon."

"Bad call. I’m pretty good at melting avatar proxies like candles," I noted, holding up one flaming fist for emphasis.

"Yes, I know. So? Go ahead and trash this puppet; the damage is done. Your pro gaming career is ruined. The true children of Netwerk love to drink deep of fear and loathing, don’t they? For all his flaws Dex taught me that lesson well, showed me how to turn that chaos to my advantage. Your name is now ruined, Spark. A fair punishment for getting in our way."

I held the fist back, for a moment. I wasn’t angry enough to let this opportunity to know our enemies slip away.

"Why does Nyx hate me enough to have you do this?" I asked.

"Hmm? Nyx? Actually, she loves you," Artoz!Uniq said. "She loves all children of Netwerk. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Nyx is too compassionate to really fight you head on. No, I did this of my own free will; beyond personal revenge, I knew I had to take this on myself in order to further her cause. I knew you and your brother were actively working against us, so why not actively work against you in turn? Why not ruin your life? After all, tweak a few bits here and there… and anybody can be painted as a fake gamer girl."

And without further word, I destroyed the proxy.

Damn but it felt good to do that.

So, what did we learn?

Uniq was no faceless minion. She was taking action in Nyx’s name, without Nyx’s permission. That meant a wedge between them that can be jammed in deeper and deeper, if we found the right opportunity.

Artoz was still alive, somewhere. He could be found and helped, hopefully. I didn’t know what his Default looked like, he always used a customized avatar in Lucky7 team colors, but Beta could probably help research his history.

And finally, my career as a pro gamer was likely dead.


I considered going back to Floating Point. Wasn’t like there were any more asses to kick, and detective work was best left to the detectives.

I didn’t go back to Floating Point. Didn’t even message Beta or Tracer; I could talk to them later. Right now, I… I dunno. I needed some alone time. Time to think, without the constantly whirling distractions of my crazy life.

So, I went on walkabout. This server and that, here and there. Didn’t really care, didn’t have a destination in mind, just trawled randomly through my bookmarks. Walk down a street, stroll down a road, cross an open field. Whatever. Walk, and think.

All my life I’d assumed I was going to be a pro gamer. That’s why you play games, right? To go pro, to make it your thing that you do better than anyone else? I’d fought and struggled and achieved great things, ranking up in solo play, teaming up with some of the best out there. I’d even made it to Lucky7, one of the top tier groups in all of Netwerk, and…

And I quit. Let’s not forget that I was the one who quit.

Maybe that was hotheaded Spark, bailing on her dreams prematurely. Maybe I was wrong. Didn’t feel wrong, though. I walked away from the one thing I’d always wanted without even questioning why, because it seemed the right thing to do at the time.

Now, even if I wanted to go back on that decision, I couldn’t. A highly reputable voice in the gaming community had buried me. Guess I could try to prove the claims of fraud were a fraud themselves, talk about Uniq and identity theft, but… that was layering a complex conspiracy theory on top of a conspiracy theory. The ones who’d jeered and mocked and yelled at me for years, who made me feel like an outsider, they wouldn’t care. More fuel for their fire.

Already, my inbox was starting to fill. The filters I’d set up to jettison the usual hate mail and flamebait were struggling to keep up; I could see the greasy buildup around the edges of my feeds. This was my life now, a mess of emotionally charged backlash, fed by lies and misdirection…

Why fight it? Gaming wasn’t my career anymore. This wasn’t a problem I could kick or punch and make it go away. They wouldn’t listen to reason; this was Netwerk, after all. No point. No point at all to defending yourself, it won’t do any good. Nothing ever helps.

Kicking a stray ball in frustration almost helped, but not much.

Wait. Ball?

Of course.

I’d wandered all the way back to the beginning.

My own home server. My former K-12 school, good old PS#7E00FF, home of the Fighting Purples. It’s where where my gaming career got started, on the school MOBA team. Funny, the places a walkabout will take you.

I’d ended up on the playground, where the younger kids experiment with loose physics objects and see-saw mechanics, getting more coordination with their avatars while yelling and running around and knocking each other over. Good times. Good times.

Let it not be said that old Spark is immune to the pangs of nostalgia. With the school day long since done and nobody around to boot the creepy lady out of kiddie playland… I decided to have a seat on the swing set. Rock back and forth a bit. Simpler than randomly wandering, anyway.

What did I want to be when grew up? That’s what Verity asked me.

Older, I thought to myself, dryly. As that was apparently all I’d achieved, in the end. A ripe old age of, what, twenty-five? I don’t even count anymore. Twenty-five was over the hill as far as professional gamers are concerned.

I never had any real plans; I fell into things, one by one. I fell into vigilante superhero action when my brother concocted his plan to avenge Verity. I fell into pro gaming and streaming as a way to pay the bills doing what I loved. I mean… it did keep me rolling in new shoes and #GirlsNightsOut, but it wasn’t just about the money, right? Right?

Why was I streaming, then? Why play games? What was it that kept me doing it, but didn’t keep me in the ranks of Lucky7?

What the fuck did I really want out of life?

As with most things in my life, the answer came in the form of a fiery explosion.

No, I didn’t blow up the playground. The fireball erupted in the distance, above the steep hedges surrounding the school’s Challenge of Champions practice jungles.

Weird. The building was shut down; only people here should be drunk gym teachers, janitors, and delinquents stuck in detention. Who was out in my old stomping grounds…?

Probably should’ve let it be. Creepy enough for grown-up me to be poking around a kiddie school like this. But hey, I’m hotheaded, aren’t I? Sometimes I do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and sometimes that includes investigating strange playground explosions.


A twin pair of lightning bolts shunted into the ground just behind the Champion’s Core, arcing off that mystic sphere and calling forth two noble champions to defend it against the goblins of chaos.

Except these champions were too busy rushing to the item store and elbowing each other to pay attention to the raging battle of NPC gnomes and goblins out in the jungle beyond.

"Magic shoes! We need magic shoes!" a champion carrying a slightly battered archer’s bow insisted. "Spell penetration’s the only way—"

"Bullshit! We need a Low King’s Stool. The mez is screwing us over!" the lump of living ice next to her insisted. "Why do you never buy an LKS? It’s always shoes, shoes, shoes. You need an LKS early game!"

"If you’d counter-CC them before they mezzed us, I wouldn’t need an LKS!"

"Infrigidate’s barely a CC! It’s only a one second stun. It’s for interrupts and debuffing, not crowd control!"

"Not the way you’re using it, that’s for sure. Fuck this, I’m getting the shoes."

With a glimmer, the blue slippers appeared upon the archer’s feet, and she rushed out into the jungle once more.

Less than a minute later and both champions were back at the core, the volume of their accusations rising.

"’Let’s get magic shoes, Zozo! They’ll fix everything, Zozo!’" the iceman mocked. "I swear to the One, you are such a scrub…"

"And you’re a tryhard loser!" Zozo accused in return. "Ake, when’s the last time you ever used a build that you didn’t copy from a fansite? It’s called improvisation! The only way you win this game is through correct itemization for the situation at hand—"

"Your problem’s not itemization."

A flaming arrow snapped from Zozo’s cursed bow, in shock. It sailed harmlessly through the third person present… after all, I wasn’t actually playing the game, and wasn’t subject to its rules at the moment.

I ignored the arrow, leaning against the side of the item shop’s tent, turning a bit to make myself more present to those present. Overly dramatic, but hey, a good entrance is a good entrance.

"You can buy exactly the right items and still get your asses kicked out there," I told them. "Problem’s your champions. You’re playing Dark Huntress and Icelord in the duo lane, yeah? That’s two late game attack-damage carries. That’s not how the meta works; you need a carry and a support to keep the damage flowing. Even those training dummies know that much, it’s why you keep getting mezzed by their support and burned down by their carry. You’re playing two solo characters when you should be playing a duo tandem."

Ake’s icy jaw sagged lightly, as his game avatar peered at me through crystalline eyes.

"Excuse me, but who the fu… who’re you?" he asked, the kid catching himself cursing in front of an adult slightly too late.

"You don’t know?" I asked. "Don’t follow the scene? You’d know, after seeing this morning’s news feeds…"

Round robin of shrugs, from the two solo champions. Thank the One for small miracles, then. I got to define myself rather than have others stick labels on me, for the first time today.

"Name’s Spark. I used to go to this school. Used to be on the Fighting Purples, just like you two," I said, recognizing their scholastic clan team tag. "And I helped carry us all the way to Top 8 at the Athena Online Evolve tourney. …maybe I can carry you, too. Want some tips from an old jock? Or, I dunno, go out there and die a few dozen more times. That’s cool. Your call, kid."

Despite their inability to figure out the game, clearly the kids had some smarts. Zozo already had a window open, checking the school’s athletics history, verifying my story.

"Holy sh… Blessed One, she’s not lying," Zozo spoke, flicking the window over for Ake to see. "Winder/Spark, AD Carry, placed Top 8. Only girl to make it to the finals, only time the school’s gotten close to the championship…"

I’ll admit, I kinda liked the star-struck look these two had over me. Given it might be the last time I ever get to enjoy it, with my career in ashes, I drank it deep.

"M-Mind if I record a log to study the plays later?" Ake asked, eagerly.

With a grin, I flexed my fingers, and pulled open my own personal CoC database.

"Shoot, kid, it’s your show; bootleg it all you want," I told him. "’k. Way I see it, your best bet is to build a duo around either Dark Huntress or Icelord. I know they’re probably your faves and you’re gonna want to fight to be the glory-seeking carry role, but trust me, the real glory’s in the support role. Without that, neither of you are gonna get jack shit…"


A point of order about kiddie sports.

Kiddie sports are not pro sports. Nobody’d ever mistake the Fighting Purples for Lucky 7, and nobody’d expect them to play on the same level. For the junior teams, the ones filled entirely by kids of busy parents who don’t have time to mind them in the afternoons, they’re pretty much just wandering around the jungle trying not to die and failing horribly. And they still get trophies for trying.

When I was a kiddie and my parents put me into kiddie sports leagues to keep me out of their hair, they saw it as a harmless waste of my time. Neither were expecting much of me; they’d sometimes come to games, but only if it was obligatory for them to do so and they weren’t busy with other things. Any other kid in that position would flail around out there uselessly, just waiting until they could go home and do what they really wanted to do…

Not me. I took to it immediately, with a natural propensity for games. In a way, I think I took to it because nobody expected anything of me. A cute little girl dumped in a kiddie MOBA team? Adorably useless, right?

No. Fuck that. I was gonna carry.

See, there’s a role in this came called the "carry." It’s got a unique double meaning, one I didn’t fully understand or appreciate even in my tryhard noob kiddie days. In my mind, it meant I was carrying the useless idiots on my team to victory. I was the one studying the metagame of the pros, I was the one trying to run top tier item builds and execute combos. I was consistently top of the board in kills, outranking the enemy team, outranking everybody on my team. When we won, leaving the other kids crying and kicking at the dirt, I was to blame. I got the glory, as the carry…

But that’s not really what the word means, is it?

A "carry" is a damage dealer that sucks in the early game, and has to be carried by the rest of the team to victory. At the kiddie level you don’t need to worry about that because everybody sucks, but once I got out of school, I had to grow up hard and fast. In the real world, you can’t solo the whole game. The team is there to help you win, not the other way around.

Verity tried to help me understand the need for other people. She encouraged Tracer and me to work with each other, despite our differences. You’re always stronger together than apart, she’d say. It wasn’t a lesson I’d grasped in my earliest days, too focused on me, myself, and I. And then…

And then I lost her. No more lessons from the woman who wanted so very much to see me grow as a person. She didn’t get to see what I became.

But somehow I’d absorbed her teachings, hadn’t I? Hotheaded to be sure, but smart. Dangerously smart. I was ready to reach out to Tracer and Beta, to be stronger with them than I’d be alone. I thought before I acted, or at the very least, thought after I acted and learned from the mistake. Little by little, I was becoming the best me I could be… thanks to her.

Verity. Dammit. If only. If only…

Anyway.

More than anything else, that’s the lesson that cute little Zozo and cute little Ake needed to know… they were a part of a whole. Their world was bigger than their individual experiences. Verity’s wisdom, applied to the strategy of a MOBA game.

Oh, I wasn’t gonna make it easy on them, no sir. Nobody hands you a participation trophy in the real world; you earn that shit. They were gonna earn this wisdom, too.

I jacked the difficulty of the NPC enemies, making them face one of the best carry-and-support duo lane combos in the game. Still not pro tier, but definitely above kiddie tier. And they died, over and over. And each time they respawned at base, my question was the same:

"What’d you do wrong there?" I asked.

I listened to what they thought they did wrong. I asked them how they could switch things up to avoid repeating those mistakes. Sometimes they guessed correctly; sometimes they didn’t, and the strategy change would fail. Fail, and fail, again and again.

But that’s the challenge of a game, isn’t it? Failure. Without a fail state, it’s no fun. You need the very real possibility of fucking up in order for the victory to be all the sweeter.

When they talked, I didn’t dominate the conversation. I only responded as much as needed, letting them sort it out… together. Soon Zozo and Ake were talking with each other, immediately discussing what to do differently without being prompted, working out tactics without needing a poke. By the last few iterations of the day, I didn’t even have to say a word. They had this. They were two, not one-and-one.

Little by little… Zozo and Ake pushed the lane. They pushed back against the NPC enemies. They spotted each mistake they made, and changed things up. When it was an error in executing their moves, they practiced those moves until they got it right. When it was an error in strategy, they talked it out back at base to see what other options they had…

No way I’d make ’em Lucky7 candidates in one day. But in the few hours we drilled, I got them past the point of scrubdom. I made them think about what they were doing, think and react, and that was good enough.

As the sun slid down the edges of the skybox, I knew these two would probably have to run along home soon. I’d likely never see them again, either… so I decided to make their last lesson be one they could carry forward.

They fought and fought, pushing towards the tower, but never quite reaching it. Each time the enemy support would smack them around while the enemy carry mauled them; the NPCs were playing ultra-defensively, never giving ground. The pair wouldn’t be able to progress like this.

So I waited for just the right moment, and sent a message across the team channel.

"Stun their support now," I said.

"Now?" Ake asked, confused. "But my ultimate ability’s still on cooldown, I can’t follow it up with damage—"

"Stun! #DoIt!"

So Zozo unleashed a tangle of wire and webs from her Agent 700 support character, snarling up the enemy support…

…just before a figure in pink leapt in from nowhere, a blurring trail of fire and knives, cleaving the NPC in half. The halves fell to the jungle floor, turning to ash, scattering to the winds.

Three on one. Bad odds for the NPCs. Within a minute, the tower was down, and the lane was ours.

Twirling a kunai knife on one finger, I walked back to join them.

"You’re not only fighting as a duo," I reminded them, from behind my pink Kunoichi mask. "In the real world, you’ve got a team of five. When you’re deadlocked, when the push is stalled out… that’s when you set the enemy up for a sweet gank from your jungler. Solid tactics, kids: never engage in a fair two-on-two fight when you can leverage the situation into a gloriously unfair three-on-one."

Switching back to my normal avatar, I unregistered from the game’s practice team. A coach normally wouldn’t dive into the game alongside the players like that, but hey, it was good for an object lesson.

"Don’t think we have time for any more than that, but hopefully you two learned something," I said. "Now get your asses back home before someone thinks I kidnapped you in my Free Candy van—"

A skilled player is ready for any ambush. They know what the enemy is capable of, what angles they can approach from, what phases of the game they’re most likely to get jumped during.

I was not prepared for a smaller Program attaching itself to my midsection in a crushing hug.

"Thank you SOOOO much, Miss Spark!" Zozo declared, looking up at me with super-shiny eyes. "This was amazing! We’ve never played this good before!"

"Well. You mean played this well," I corrected her, despite my mental stunlock. A muscle memory grammar lesson drilled into me by Verity, I suppose.

"We’ve never played this well before," Zozo corrected. "Thank you. I’m gonna study and study and study these logs, and next weekend, I bet you a zillion coins we’re actually gonna win against the Azures!"

"One… one thing at a time, kid," I said… finally getting enough sense to, well, peel myself away from the awkward hug. "One thing at a time. Yeah. So. Beat it. I’ve got stuff to do."

With a shooing motion, the two departed, teleporting straight back home. Bleh. In my day, we walked back home. Honestly, helicopter parents and their instant travel Apps, as if a few moments out in the sun would put their darlings at risk from stranger danger. …even if technically I, as a stranger, put them in simulated danger, repeatedly…

As I’d walked into this situation, I decided to walk out of it.

Which is why, strolling right out of the practice greens, I ran into a member of the faculty lying in wait for me. Second ambush of the day; I was #TotesRusty, apparently.

Ake had logged the whole afternoon, right? That’d be proof I didn’t do anything creepy or weird with the kids. Any pissed off parents wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in court. Not that it’d stop me from sitting in a jail cell before the trial. Good old Athena Online, home of the paranoid and oversensitive, would put me down for the count because I wanted to step in and do those kids a solid…

Except… I knew this particular adult. I think. I’m bad at figuring out how aging alters avatars, since most people I know don’t bother with Defaults or the visual aging process that comes with them. Beneath under that pile of wrinkles lurked something familiar…

"Winder/Spark," he recognized, rasping out the words.

"…coach?" I tried, trying desperately to remember a name to attach to that title.

Took him a good five seconds to decide what to do with me, after that recognition.

"Think you’d best come with me," he said. "Before anybody sees you out here on the grounds."


The coach’s office doubled as equipment storage. Fortunately the school wasn’t so incredibly old as to demand physical objects be stored physically, like the lockers of DropSite; instead a series of semi-organized folders tucked away all manner of balls, mats, gymnastic equipment, goalposts, complete playfields, things like that. And tucked away alongside all those folders was a simple workspace desk, and a pair of uncomfortably simple low-res chairs.

"Sit," he ordered. So I sat.

"I can explain," I offered to explain.

Instead, he offered me a bottle.

"Whiskey okay?" he asked. "Cheaply coded, though. And got no ice to cut it."

…okay, weird. But never kick a gift whiskey in the mouth; that’s its job. I took a slug and passed it back. Sure enough, it was awful stuff. At least the light malware that accompanied it would take the edge of nervousness away.

While I waited for the leathery old coach to speak up, I tried very much to remember him.

I didn’t pay much attention to other teachers, not even to the coach who yelled at my MOBA team. Remember, at the time I thought I was carrying them; that meant anything he had to say was pointless. I was super awesome, I knew what I was doing, I was the carry! …I must’ve been an #InsufferableLittleShit, all considered.

Coach Olek. Right. Because we made fun of that clicking rasp of his, going "LekLekLekLek" behind his back.

Maybe some shame over being an immature brat carried through in my face, but he didn’t comment.

"That’s Verity’s jacket, isn’t it?" he asked, instead. Waggling the bottle at me.

"Uh, yeah. Sir," I added, on instinct.

"You were her star pupil, y’know," Coach Olek mused, swirling the decoratively simulated liquid around in the bottle a little at the thought. "Everybody assumed it was your brother, since he always got straight A’s, but nope. She couldn’t stop talking about Spark whenever we had lunch in the staff room."

Well… shit. Learn something new every day, even at my age.

The coach wasn’t done, though.

"She always said you could be anything you put your mind to. Limitless potential. Me? I always saw you as a delinquent," he said, looking me right in the eye now. "Wouldn’t listen to anyone, just running off in your own way, going nowhere fast. A complete waste, directionless and aimless."

I’d wandered here in a rather aimless fashion, hadn’t I? Yeah. I had.

"Yeah, well…" I said, in my non-defense, "Yeah. You weren’t wrong. That’s me."

"No. No, I was wrong," he said, in my actual defense.

With a flick, he erased the bottle. It was a one-use object anyway, a cheap DRM ploy to get people to buy more and more whiskey rather than keep one endless bottle.

"Spark… I still read the printed sports pages, hard copies delivered fresh daily to my door. It’s archaic, a meaningless physics object when I could hit the feeds directly, but there’s something about having those words in your hands. Working with your own two hands, nice and direct, that’s the way. I know about the accusations you’re facing, that you’re a fraud and a cheat. A faker."

"And… you don’t buy it?" I asked, confused.

"Of course not. I’d say those news feeds are run by damn liars, because you’re no fake. Showed that today with those two kids, showed ’em with your own two hands. You got to them in a way I never could get to you."

"Uh. Thanks, sir. I mean, I didn’t exactly come here planning to do that, and I didn’t mean to step on your toes or anything—"

"So, you want my job or not?"

"…#What?"

"I’m old, Spark," he said, waving his hand past his wrinkled face, in case I hadn’t noticed. "My code’s bloated and fat. It’s time to move on to make room in this server for the next generation of Programs. I’m retiring at the end of the year, moving out to Lakeside12. But the school hasn’t hired a successor yet. I could put your name forward as a candidate."

Not very good with ambushes today, no sir, no how.

My reaction was instinctive.

"I… Coach, I can’t. I mean, I’m…"

I’m not a teacher, I wanted to say.

But hey, what was I? Really, seriously, what was I now that I’d grown up? Fucked if I knew, and that’s what led to my wanderlust today. Was I a pro gamer? Nope, walked away, bridge got burned. Was I a streamer? Well, why did I stream? Just to show off how awesome I was, how I could carry the team…?

No. I streamed to show how the game is played. To teach them. To carry them.

A year ago I kicked some Lumberjacker’s ass so badly he needed psychosexual revenge to heal his shattered ego. But I didn’t do it to stomp some guy flat, I did it because a subscriber in my channel asked me how to play Kunoichi. That was the primary goal; Lumberjacker and the victory itself were secondary. I didn’t do it to show off, I did it to show them what’s what. I got in there with my own two hands and taught my audience that Kunoichi was not a joke character.

When I tried to get Beta into the game, I pushed her to play a damage role. Why? Because I wanted her out of her comfort zone, to try being a team player instead of sitting quietly in her own little corner like she’d been doing. I worked with her, helped her improve. I taught her the role she’d never played before.

And why’d I leave Lucky7? Because it was boring. Dead boring, running drills, doing the same optimal metagame strategy over and over. No room to experiment, to discover new things. Nobody to show those new techniques to, either, as all our scrims were private. Took a game I’d been enjoying and boiled it down to nothing but safe and perfect routine.

I wasn’t a gamer. I wasn’t a show-off. I wasn’t even a vigilante, not at heart.

"#HolyShit, I’m a teacher," I realized.

"You’ve got the potential in you to be one," the coach agreed. "Like Verity said, you’ve got potential to be anything. And today I saw you teach those two kids like you’d been doing it all your life."

"I… kinda think I have been. Uh. But I try not to rush into things if I can make the smart play instead," I said, to get both of us off the hype train. "This is kind of a #HugeDecision. Let me think about it a bit…?"

"I’m not going anywhere until the end of the school year," Coach Olek stated. "Don’t think on it too long, kid. I’m not getting any younger. And if Verity taught us anything… it’s to live life as early as you can. You might not get much of it, in the end."


A teacher. Me, the violent delinquent with the crazy avatar, the perpetual outcast and outsider… as a teacher. Me, being someone like Verity…

Appealing. Had to admit it was appealing, yeah.

But what cemented it for me? What really cemented it for me…?

After wandering out of the server, I dared to check my news feeds again.

The most upvoted posting in the same forums that were calling for my head on a spike now read:

Hello my name’s Ake. I’m in a MOBA team at my K-12 and I’m the support now.

When I got home from practice today, I saw these articles about how Spark’s a fake gamer girl. My parents aren’t gonna like my use of language, but I’m calling this bullshit, because it is bullshit.

I’m attaching a recording I made today of Spark helping coach me and my teammate. She is not a fake, she knows this game, she knows everything about it. She’s awesome, and not just because she’s a pro who used to fight with Lucky7. She’s awesome because she’s teaching us how to be awesome. PS You’re full of shit.

And the comments in reply? Ancient wisdom said never to reach the comments, to read the comments is doom. Clearly they’d be negative, spitting all over this kid for daring to challenge the common wisdom.

Look, this is clearly a ridiculous witch hunt. Aren’t we past this? Ever since #CodeHonesty I’d thought we’d gotten smarter about these accusations of fraud; DO NOT buy into it without proof. This kid brought us proof that exonerates Winder/Spark, and that’s all I give a shit about.

Come on, people, we’re better than this. Lives can get legit ruined over nothing at all when you ignorantly stoke the flames just ’cause it sounds like the truth. Now, Artoz hasn’t surfaced since his accusation, so I’m thinking we call this sour grapes and let it drop. Have some decency and let this woman live her life in peace.

And more. And more, and more. And, I’ll note with some satisfaction, this one reply lost in the shuffle.

A year ago Spark taught me how to play Kunoichi. I’m turning pro next week. Don’t believe the rumors. Reifu out, peace y’all, GG.

Oh, it wasn’t unanimous. Some still clung to the original accusation. Some wanted to start a hashtag mob. But… within an hour, the upvotes had won, and the fake Artoz claim slid right off my feeds.

We’d beaten Dex, but worried that the damage he’d done had forever scarred the minds of Netwerk, teaching them that the right way to do things was to fight and scream and claw and bite and tear each other apart. Sensible minds couldn’t win in a world of extremes and absolutes. Except when they did. Except when they did win, as they had today, despite Dex’s best efforts.

By the time I returned to Floating Point, my head was in the clouds with glee.

The mood wasn’t matched by my companions; Tracer seemed oddly unreadable and guarded, and Beta clearly had a terrible day. A completely terrible day.

So, I reached out to both of them, for a hug. A simple embrace to show that no matter what they were facing, we could make this work. We could do this.

"Hey hey," I told them. "I think we’re gonna be okay. I really think we’re gonna be okay, in the end."

Nope. Our world wasn’t gonna end in fire and disaster. We’d overcome Dex and those like him.

And as for me, what did I want to when I grow up?

I want to be myself. And now, I think I can be.

:: backto chapter 2.2

:: go home

:: skipto chapter 2.4

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

Comments

  1. Hi, I’ve been a fan for a while. noticed some typos in earlier chapters, but couldn’t stop reading to write them down. Keep up the good work!

    [probable] typos:
    Probably over the hell as far as professional gamers are concerned. Hell > hill

    license of two
    of > or

  2. Typo: “blue slipperes”.

    The Spark section is sweet. It’ll be interesting to see how she controls (or doesn’t control) her mouth if she takes the job. Among other things.

  3. “They won’t miss a license of two.”
    “or two.”?
    unless ‘they’ refers to himself.

    Loving this chapter so far. Raises several questions I’d love to discuss if i had a book club or something.

    • There’s an idea! Of course, that’s sort of what the comments are for, as well.

      Personally, I approve of the minimalism of Thanatos, partly for its own sake and partly as a relief from the digital velvet art that seems to define the Church of One. And it’s interesting to me that Thanatos isn’t defined as Zero against the One.

  4. Typos:

    facism
    infalliable

    My apologies for being late with catching up, I had a hectic week.

    • It’s okay, I bungled and had comments disabled on this page until yesterday. You couldn’t have posted if you wanted to. And… of all people I know the deal with having a hectic week. Sympathies, man. Sympathies.

  5. Typo: “What would you have me to, Beta?”

    I feel like there’s a crude joke involving the mention of clone processes via “fork()”, possibly “fork() off” but nothing’s quite coming together. ;)

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