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Floating Point 2.4 :: Lies


Floating Point 2.4 :: Lies


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

:: backto chapter 2.3

:: go home

:: skipto chapter 2.5


I am not as awesome as I think I am.

I am the victim and the victimizer.

I am a shield to guard against the truth.


Look at this shitwad, look how he runs. Does he think he can escape? Does he think there won’t be consequences for his actions?

Watch him scramble over fences, slashing through private property boundary lines that normally lock unwanted avatars out of one’s suburban homestead. See the way he deploys malware to try to cleave a path to freedom… all while pressing patch after patch to the silver collar stuck around his neck, desperate to remove it. So fucking clever, this little shitwad, trying to evade his fate by careful application of hacktools…

But nobody escapes Darkfyre/Nemesis. She’s a reaping wind of vengeance, with the burning flame of a thousand gamers giving her the natural reflexes of a goddess. Watch how she leaps from rooftop to rooftop, pinging off bounding boxes of property barriers, slipping in and around and between them thanks to her innate knowledge of physics systems. She doesn’t need clever little hacktools. She isn’t desperate and sweating and freaking out. She is in absolute control.

If anything, she’s toying with him, letting him get some distance. She slips in and out of shadows, knowing which ones will conceal her specialized stealth avatar, keeping her from registering on his visual inputs. Darkfyre/Nemesis is awesomest in the dark of night. …of nite. Of #MidNyte. Yeah.

But all good things must come to an end.

When he thinks he’s given her the slip, when he thinks he’s found a way to slice through the connection lock she jammed around his neck… that’s when she drops on him.

#Avatar2Avatar combat is a lost art, with many seeing it as pointless. Why bother, when a backspacer’s near-infinitely quick physical projectile can make the tag for you and plant a payload of malware that erases Programs on demand? But a physical collision, when leveraged properly, can leave one Program helpless before another. You can’t fire a backspacer if you’re flailing around on the ground, unused to the concept of tangling in close quarters with an assailant.

It also helps when that assailant has fingernail polish that slices your arms off with sharp blasts of pink flame.

The little shitwad staggered back into the boundary wall of some corporate office or another, nearly falling over as his limbs were erased. No hands, no way to operate his hacktools. Not so clever now.

Darkfyre/Nemesis, who everybody knew was amazing and unbeatable, advanced on her enemy with flames flicking from her fingertips.

"The fuck do you want?!" the sniveling little shitwad blurted, at last.

"You to lie in the bed you made," she told him.

"What? What does that even mean?"

"Three days ago, you detonated a bomb in the middle of PraiseBe78, destroying the entire server," she told him. "Murdering men, women, children. You slaughtered them just because they believe in something you think is… silly. That’s your own word, by the way. Silly. I’ve seen your social feeds, even the ones you think can’t be tied back to your real metadata. You killed them because they were silly."

"So what? They’re prayerheads!" he protested. "They’re all backed up in their private little heaven. Nobody really died!"

[Nemesis]
Name:
Nemesis

Home:
Tartarus

Org:
Church of One

…Darkfyre/Nemesis wouldn’t admit he had a point.

Life had become cheaper than ever, in wake of the One’s return to this world. The faithful had little to fear, and thus were starting to go to extremes not seen since the crazy days of #CodeHonesty. Even beyond Athena Online, violence was on the rise… a wild shootout at a progressive town hall recently being proof of that.

But none of that mattered. The little shitwad was still a shitwad. Murder was still murder.

"Now what? Huh?" the armless man asked, getting some spine back after his cowardly flight. "Little miss holy hitgirl. You gonna kill me? I grind for coins each day; I’m using the same backup service you are, even if I don’t call it ‘prayer.’ Go ahead, kill me. All I’ll lose is half a day’s memories—"

He shut up nice and fast when she pressed her open palm to his forehead, uploading the malware.

Darkfyre/Nemesis was the ultimate badass, which meant she didn’t have to kill people. Instead, she branded them using a little application created by her (less interesting and not nearly as cool) partners Uniq and Nyx. Mostly Uniq’s idea, actually, based on some prior experience with a similar piece of malware.

After uploading the invasive software, Nemesis withdrew.

"You’re going to pay penance for your sins," she declared. "You’ll pray eight hours every day, without fail. Or grind for coins, or whatever you want to call it. If you don’t, you’ll be rewarded with eight hours of the most agonizing pain you’ve ever felt. If you try to remove the malware, we’ll know, and I’ll be back to apply a nastier version of it. You can’t run. You can’t hide. You can’t escape me. It’s funny when you tryyyy…"

That last super creepy part delivered while fading back into the shadows, like an avenging figure of totally cool dark justice, torn by the amorality of her deeds and the duty of what must be done or something like that.

The little shitwad would learn that life still mattered, if only to avoid his own life becoming a living nullscape of pain from which there was no waking. The brand on his flesh would see to that… the circle and the line, a symbol of the One’s power. Only he could see the symbol, of course. So nobody would believe his crazy story about some weird forced-prayer malware.

For some, faith must be compulsory, Nyx had explained.

With her mission complete, Darkfyre/Nemesis went on to pose dramatically atop a tall building against the blood-red moonlight, before leaping to the streets below and seeking the pleasures of hard drink, coupled with bad boys and hot girls she could kiss lots and lots.


In the club, music thumping, heat blazing, bodies moving…

…and Darkfyre/Nemesis sitting by herself nursing the same drink she’d been nursing since she got there. Having just weirded a guy out enough with her hesitation and shyness that he wandered off in search of more fun-loving company.

See, when a super hot guy with a nicely customized avatar that scratches all your itches walks on up and says "Hey, isn’t this music great? You wanna dance?" the correct response is "Sure! Let’s do it!" and not "S… um… I, uh." Yet, that’s what I mumbled at him, instead of the correct response.

Yeah. I’d love to say I was the life of the party, but… I’m not. Not anymore, it seems. I’m having trouble being the person I should be.

When you think of Spark, what do you think of? Partying, naturally. I was doing it even before I was backed up and restored against my will. And it’s not like I was in some crazy sex club; this was a club expressly designed for teenagers of Athena Online to kick back and have some fun within society’s acceptable parameters. Tame as you can get without actually being boring, y’know? I figured if I could relax and unwind anywhere, it’d be there.

And it’s not like the kids aren’t sneaking off and doing crazy things when nobody’s looking anyway, so I could get my kicks too. If I wanted. And I wanted them, I just… I couldn’t.

I couldn’t.

I wanted to mix it up, don’t get me wrong. I want to be the socialite who touches all the butts. I mean, that other pathetic excuse for a Spark did it all the time, why couldn’t I? I was better than her, I was more her than she was. But… I don’t know. I couldn’t. I kept shrinking away from it all after throwing myself headfirst into it. Once someone turned their attentions to me, once things got slightly steamy, I couldn’t sit still long enough to make anything happen.

Darkfyre/Nemesis could punch anyone in the onesdamn face and tangle with the deadliest opponents, but couldn’t get wild and mingle on a dance floor. What a fucking joke.

Didn’t make sense. I was in control this time; I wasn’t some street rat with "forged" metadata, hunted down by moderators, picked on by idiots with too much free time and an urge to abuse the homeless. Finally, I didn’t have to fight for every hour of my continued existence. I had all the power I needed to become the thing I was supposed to be, but when it was finally showtime… I couldn’t perform. I just… I can’t…

I can’t forget how it all started.

One day, I was getting suspended from school for modifying my avatar and mouthing off to my guidance counselor. Despite Verity’s attempts to cheer me up I knew I’d risen too high, which meant life was gonna beat me back down as always. Life’s beatings coming in the form of my mother, naturally.

She dragged me off to that backup facility to be scanned against my will. Dad didn’t lift a finger. Tracer wasn’t man enough to protest, either. I remember technicians saying it wouldn’t hurt at all, and…

And the #NextDay…

The #NextDay was years and years later.

My crummy green-skinned default avatar, naked and afraid, locked away in an observation room while different technicians on the other side of that glass went into panic mode.

"What do you mean, the original is alive again?" one was saying, again and again. "We can’t have two copies of the same Program active at once. They’ll sue us. They’ll sue us!"

So, after fixing the error in their systems so it wouldn’t happen again, they decided to erase me. Me, the mistake. Me, the accidental copy, activated because the original Spark seemed to "die" briefly… apparently the result of an extreme but temporary connection blocker, one which flipped the dead woman’s switch that mother had installed in me. …in her. Just dead enough to fool the backup facility. Just enough to make me exist, but not justification enough to let me keep existing.

But they didn’t know anything about #Avatar2Avatar combat. I did. And when they came at me with killing tools, intent on backspacing me before my mother was any the wiser… I came at them.

Months on the run, months fighting the world that didn’t want me. No money, no home. Too scared to reach out to myself for fear I’d be seen by Spark as a mistake, a thing to be obliterated. I would be an intolerable violation of her unique identity, right? I’d be purged, just as easily as those backup engineers could’ve purged me…

Kicked around by mean streets. Run out of servers left and right. Every day I’d have to hunt for a new safe space. Every day demanding that the world kindly leave me the fuck alone

#SoYeah. That’s how it went down.

And now, when I can finally be who I’m supposed to be… I’m right back to being that failed lab experiment. My fight-or-flight kicks in even when I know I’m totes awesome and in control. I end up shying away and quietly fading from the scene, usually back to Tartarus… to kick the shit out of some training dummies, working off my frustration.

Wasn’t fair. Wasn’t fair at all.

Spark got everything; I got nothing. She got the life I was supposed to lead. She got more time with Verity… and time to heal from that loss. Spark had a super-cool, super-secret treehouse server. She had a lover. She had Tracer treating her like not-a-butt. Spark was everything I was supposed to be…

…but fuck her, right? I’m better than her. I’ve got the avatar she’s too chickenshit to wear, the badass #OriginalCharacter #DoNotSteal. …even if I can’t wear it most of the time, because it’s too recognizable. Doesn’t matter. I’ve got it, she doesn’t. I’m what she could’ve been if she didn’t grow up comfortable and safe and happy.

I’m #Hardcore. She’s #Weaksauce.

What’s more… I was in charge of the Church of One. I mean, not me personally, but I had my hand on the strings, right? I had all the power, all the control. The false idol my mother worshipped, that was my puppet. I mean. Not my puppet, but. I was in on the #PuppetJoke, and she wasn’t. So it’s not all downsides, right? Things are good. Things are awesome.

One day soon I was going to take the faith that ruined my life, the one that made my mother panic over a silly little avatar customization, and turn it around. I was going to transform the Church of One into an organization that would never crush another little girl’s dreams. I’d make this world safe for me to live in again.

Nyx had promised me that. She’d promised.


"Sermons" were completely silly, but I had to be present for them.

The One had been making a grand tour of Athena Online, visiting church after church, temple after temple. Shaking hands with bishops and archbishops. Everyone wanted to meet the risen savior of Netwerk, and everyone walked away from these encounters thinking they’d done exactly that…

…as they smiled absently, shaking hands with nothing, talking to thin air. #GhostSpeaking.

As skeevy as Uniq was, I had to admit, she knew her shit. She’d developed malware that convinced people they’d actually interacted with a One who didn’t exist. Sweet prank, huh?

‘course, it only worked with direct observation by a Program, since she was injecting false memories. She eventually found a workaround for that… a seriously low-tech one, kind of funny when you think about it. While they were mystified, I’d just sneak around altering any passive recording Apps to match the memory injections. Pretty easy to hack a system right under someone’s nose when their heads are in the clouds of malware. In the end they’d only remember and only record what we wanted them to remember and record.

As an apostle, I took part in every sermon. People remembered me standing in the pulpit with the One, with Uniq, with Nyx. Once the hypnosis kicked in I’d get my work done hacking any extraneous recording sensors in a few minutes, then go have a seat and read comic books or watch CoC peep streams or something. Uniq kept a transcript of the One’s pre-written sermons playing aloud, for convenience’s sake, but I rarely paid any attention.

But the day after tagging that shitbag and completely failing to get it on with cute club boys, Nyx insisted I pay attention to this next sermon.

"I think you’ll like what the One has to say," she said, with a wry little smile.

I’ll admit, I got curious. And after finishing up my hacks, after the usual routine songs and praises and obligatory twenty minute coin-grind prayer sessions, the playback got to the meat of the One’s prepared speech.

"Your Defaults are a holy gift," the One spoke. "A miracle of avatar engineering, marking time with age, making us all look unique. No two Defaults are entirely the same; yours is your own, and no one else’s. In a world where JohnDoes and JaneDoes can be bought off a shelf, making so many of our identities feel redundant… is the Default not the finest expression of self money can’t buy?"

I snorted back a laugh. Not that anyone in the temple would’ve heard it, so wrapped up in the flow of memories Uniq was pouring into their heads. And then…

"But that is not to say that additional self-expression should be entirely limited. Today, I announce a new covenant with my people. Today, we expand the horizons of the faithful to all the colors of the rainbow…"

The promise.

Nyx had promised me we’d reform the church. The rule of Defaults had crushed so many dreams, hadn’t it? But we had to wait, she said. We had to wait until we had universal acceptance. But she didn’t think we’d gotten to that point yet, right? Was she advancing the timetable, all for me…? The knowing smile she offered from the other side of the pulpit suggested… well, yes. Yes, she was.

It was happening, it was #ReallyHappening…

"Pride is a sin, yes. Prideful behavior, selfishly demanding constant attention for no deed worth note, that is to be avoided," the One continued. "But speaking true to who you are, with honesty? That is a virtue. And why should you live in skin that is not true to your self? I love you all, as I love all children of Netwerk. And I say to you, from here on out… customization of your avatar’s color scheme is now allowed."

And…

"Thus ends our sermon for the day," the One announced. "Peace be with you, and may you find home in hearth and community."

And that was it, the One vanishing from sight.

With the memory injection attack disengaged, the faithful smiled and quietly departed. And… a few of them started to change the tint on their skin and hair, experimentally, to see if anybody else would call them out on it or object. None did.

Especially since most of them were going with the most popular combination across Netwerk… grayish skin, monotone hair. Just like Tracer’s social engineering mentality gray, nice and safe. Athena Online was all about nice and safe, and wouldn’t it be prideful to use something like screaming purple skin with silver wavy locks? No, better to melt into one homogenous group, now that they weren’t stuck with being diverse. Diverse, and interesting.

It took less than a minute for the One to take my dream and turn it into a #GloriousMasterRace.

To make things worse… before I could intercept Nyx and give her a piece of my mind, Winder/Marybel was already there, shaking her hand and weeping tears of joy.

"I knew it, I just knew it," she professed. "I knew my dear boy Tracer wasn’t a sinner at heart. When he came home with that new gray skin of his several years ago, I held my tongue. Now, my faith is rewarded! Please, thank the One for me next time he manifests…"

Pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to curse in a church. But with my mother so delighted over her perfect little son while her monstrous little copied daughter steamed nearby, I knew the swearing was gonna happen sooner rather than later.


I held my tongue until we could find some privacy.

As much as I wanted to lay into Nyx right there and then… I was in this scam, wasn’t I? A public throwdown between apostles would harm the church. Supposedly, I was invested in the health of this church, as one of its puppetmasters. Supposedly.

But yeah, once we entered the residing archbishop’s chambers—and after hustling him out, as he’d never disobey an apostle—I let her have it.

"The fuck was that?" I started with.

"That was my promise to you, was it not?" Nyx asked. "Retracting the rule of the Default, freeing the children of Netwerk from the limitations the first One had placed upon them."

"Bullshit. #Bullshit. All you did was give them permission to splash some paint around. That’s not full avatar customization. That’s not what you promised me at all! What about people who were born with entirely the wrong Defaults, Nyx? What about the transgender Programs? Recoloring your hair isn’t going to help them one bit!"

I was expecting her to be obstinate, in her maddeningly quiet and composed way. To deflect my concerns and downplay them, while acting entirely cool under fire. Or maybe to get a little frustrated, just enough to let it crack through her shell of absolute control; I’d seen her almost but not entirely speak in anger towards Uniq, after all.

I wanted her to get pissed off. I wanted her to yell.

Instead… she sighed. And not a dismissively annoyed sigh, either. One of genuine exhaustion, and unless I completely suck at reading people… sadness.

"I wanted to do more," she spoke, quietly. "I wanted to help you find your dream, and completely eliminate the rule of Defaults. I’ve agonized over this, Nemesis, trying to find the best way to do it without harming Netwerk. Now, I think we can ease back more of the restrictions as time goes on, if we are careful to—"

"No. Enough of the patience game. This isn’t about waiting for public acceptance, is it?" I spoke, not allowing this brief breakdown of Nyx’s to sway me. "They walked right out of that sermon accepting a change to an ancient rule without question. If you told them all bets were off for customization, they’d accept it, because Uniq’s little puppet makes them think it was their idea in the first place. No. Give me the real reason, Nyx. Why aren’t we completely renouncing the rule of Defaults?"

And… her look of sorrow froze, momentarily. Almost to the point I was worried she’d crashed; it wasn’t simply stillness, it was like an immediate deadlock of her code.

"Access denied," she spoke, quietly, on resuming from a fugue state.

"What?"

"Access denied. …I’m so sorry, Nemesis. I’m so very sorry. But there are unacceptable consequences to allowing full Program modification," Nyx tried to defend. "From basic accessories to installed codebase packages, it’s a slippery slope. The light must be green and steady; encouraging true customization would inevitably introduce unthinkable chaos to our world. Please, Nemesis, I am doing my best to make your dream happen despite the… limitations put upon me. As you grow and know this world better, you’ll understand why things must be as they must be…"

"You think I’m a child? One of your ‘beloved children of Netwerk,’ is that all I am in your eyes? We’re all just #StupidKids?"

"I’m a child of Netwerk as well," Nyx pointed out. "And I love you as I love us all. Like all children of Netwerk, we deserve a chance at happiness. You absolutely deserve happiness."

I wasn’t gonna let this go. No way, no how. Flowery words spoken in kind tones changed nothing about the practical reality of this bullshit.

"Why did you make me an apostle, anyway?" I asked. "Level with me. It was just to get under Spark’s skin, wasn’t it? After you found out a copy of her had been accidentally activated, you lured me in with empty promises so I’d fight that particular battle for you…"

Nyx eased herself into the archbishop’s comfy looking chair behind his comfy looking desk, eager for some rest. She looked tired from this discussion alone, worn down.

"I have to be honest. Honesty is a virtue. Yes, I knew you’d be useful in that capacity," she admitted. "But if all I wanted was a warrior, I could’ve found any number of Programs willing to fight. No. I knew of your plight through Uniq, who had an inside agent at your backup facility. My heart sang out with sorrow on learning of your struggles, Nemesis. What use is a life spent on the streets—homeless, hunted, unwanted? No. I wanted better for you than that, and my church is nothing if not a haven for those seeking a purposeful life. You are not simply my tool. You are you, and you deserve so much more than a means to an end."

"But… you won’t tell me why I can’t have what I really want."

"Not won’t. I can’t. …give me time, Nemesis. I am trying to find ways to achieve your goal without risking the fate of Netwerk. Please, just give me time. Together, we can heal this world."

I should’ve stomped my feet, made demands, pushed harder. Swallowing honeyed words was for chumps.

Honestly, though… I was tired, too. Just as exhausted as Nyx, repeating this same clash over and over. I didn’t want to fight. My whole damn life after being reborn was fighting, and then being unable to relax after fighting. Just going and going, blindly into the future, hoping everything would sort itself out. Banking on promises that kept getting pushed back farther and farther…

But if I felt that exhausted, how did Nyx feel? She was organizing this entire scam, juggling all the moving parts, keeping Uniq in line, trying to manipulate the church from behind the scenes as a mere apostle. Mother took the spotlight; Nyx took nothing. For someone with all the power in the world, she sure wasn’t living the good life. I couldn’t recall a single moment she wasn’t working on her cause, tirelessly consulting with Church officials, organizing events, overseeing code modifications in Tartarus… everything for a single purpose.

She was fighting, too. A different kind of fighting, but still a fight without end.

The least I could do was give her another chance and see this through. If only because both of us deserved to be recognized for our dedication.

"You’re going to keep your promise one day," I told her. A statement of fact. "Or I’m gone."

"With time and cleverness, yes, I believe I can," she agreed. "Please, allow me that time. And if at any point you wish to withdraw from this service to our Netwerk… I’ll allow it. You’re here of your own free will. …but if you are staying, I’m afraid I require that service today. The timing is bad, I wish I could allow you a day to rest…"

"#Whatever. I’m always game. Who do you need hunted down and whacked with my #NerfBat now?"

Nyx considered the question. Then shook her head.

"This time… I believe I’ll allow you to make the decision to swing your… #bat? on your own. As a show of good faith that I trust in your judgment to do what’s best for all of Netwerk," she said. "There is an elderly preacher who once spoke out against the very concept of the One, and may very well become a problem for us in the future. Normally I wouldn’t mind, free speech is part of Athenian culture, but something about this particular individual is… unsettling. While it’s not an emergency, I’d like you to seek him out, and decide for yourself if he must be brought to heel or not."

"Really? You’re trusting me with that choice, after protesting how you do things?"

"I still trust you, Nemesis. You are part of this, until you decide not to be. I trust you will do everything you can to ensure our success at guiding the Church of One," Nyx stated. "Now, please… I must rest. Just… just for a moment. I’ve still a full schedule of meetings ahead of me today, followed by maintenance to the deep crypts of Tartarus. Report back when you’ve completed this task."

So, that’s how our conflict ended. No sweeping changes, no huge upheavals. Everything back to business.

I should’ve burned that room down and stormed out of the church. Been bold and bright and dangerous.

Instead, I did what I always did—I went elsewhere looking for a fight.


This, at least, I could deal with. A good hunting session to track down some bastard would help me work out my frustrations with Nyx. Or rather, I could put all those frustrations aside and get all hot and bothered with the thrill of the chase instead.

Except chasing this guy down wasn’t particularly difficult. Unlike the trolls and hackers who had been attacking our church recently, this guy wasn’t slathered in security software or hiding out in a highly locked down Horizon server. Even so, I did my due diligence not to be spotted as I acquired my target. I used optical-masking apps, I kept to alleyways and doorways, I followed in silence from the shadows…

…as an old man went about his day, doing some light window shopping before buying coffee. A tired old man, with no joy in his step.

He clearly wore a Default avatar, with distinct lines and wrinkles from the natural procedural alterations caused by aging. He didn’t even swap out his balding hair for a proper hairdo, or color it away from old-dude white. Here was someone perfectly willing to submit to the One’s tyranny of the Defaults… hardly much of a threat, if he was willing to let his avatar decay like that. He didn’t move with suspicion or anxiety, either. He just… moved. Slowly, in no great hurry. Not particularly excited to be where he was, or to go where he was going.

Honestly, nothing about this guy screamed out #ClearAndPresentDanger to me. I kept waiting for him to meet with some underworld contact, or to hole up and start working on his latest malware project. Instead he led an absolutely ordinary life. Too ordinary.

Actually, yeah, too ordinary made no sense. What little information Nyx had about this guy suggested he was an ordained preacher for the Church of One… but he wore no vestments, made no sermons, spoke to no one about anything religious. Our documentation said he’d been active years ago, even before we hit the scene, saying that the One didn’t exist and never existed. He wasn’t excommunicated or even shunned thanks to the Church’s generally liberal views on free speech; he even had some people willing to hear his words.

Sooo… why wasn’t he speaking out now? The freakin’ One was back in town! Anybody who was against the very idea of the One should be stomping and foaming and raising null against him. If he knew what I knew, if he knew about Uniq’s imaginary puppet messiah… well, he wouldn’t be calmly taking a cup of coffee and quietly scribbling away in a book. He’d be starting a onesdamn revolution, right?

I was tempted to call it a day, and report back to Nyx that the old man wasn’t going to be much of a threat. But… due diligence. And besides, what else was I gonna do with my time? Go be an awkward wallflower, torturing myself with social excursions I couldn’t handle anymore? Meh. #FuckIt, I decided to go in for the kill.

(Uh. #Metaphorically, I mean. Not a for-reals kill.)

I whipped up a quick mimicry of the coffee shop’s avatar uniform, slipping into the chaos of the busy open-air restaurant with ease. Even tracked down the old man’s next order and switched it with another, so I could insert myself into that scene.

"One latte, one cupcake," I announced, arriving at his table.

The man looked up from the journal he was writing in, gently closing it before accepting his order. I caught a glimpse of the oddly low-resolution, leather-bound cover texture, with the letters "VIII" embossed on the surface. (What’d that mean? Veeee? Vivid? Violin?) Drafting his anti-One manifesto, maybe…?

"Thank you kindly," the man spoke without much feeling, accepting his order with both hands, rather than waiting for me to set them down for him. "Let me get that for you. How much do I owe…?"

"Six coins," I informed him, taking a guess at it. I’d memorized the uniform, but forgot to check the menu. Slip-up.

Fortunately, he counted out the coins from his inventory, pressing them to my hand without question.

I couldn’t leave it at that, though. This was a fact-finding mission; I had to press him. So, I used some data from his file to pry a bit deeper.

"Don’t I know you from somewhere…?" I asked, pretending to study his face.

"It’s unlikely one as young as you would know an old nobody like me," he spoke, with a loose expression. "Perhaps I remind you of a grandfather, or a great uncle…?"

"No, I definitely know that avatar. You’re… by the One, it’s on the tip of my tongue…! —ah! It’s Arthur, right?" I asked. "LongVu/Arthur?"

[Arthur]
Name:
Arthur

Home:
Serene, Athena Online

Org:
Church of One

It was a risk, definitely. Being identified in a public space, completely out of the blue… he could run for it. Disconnect from the server, go into hiding. But plenty of folks in Athena Online have the pressure of social anxiety guiding their movements, unlikely to bail on you in the middle of a conversation. It’d be considered rude.

Fortunately for me, his surprise was mild rather than suspicious.

"I suppose that’s my name, yes," he agrees. "Let me guess. You heard about me in a religious studies class…?"

"Yeah!" I lied, cheerfully. Gesturing to a chair, I checked via body language if it was okay for me to sit down at his table before doing so. "Something about impassioned speeches against the One that you made in your youth…"

"I wouldn’t call them impassioned. Mmm. Well, maybe in the earliest years… but I definitely wouldn’t call them ‘against’ the One," he spoke, resting one hand on his leather-bound journal. "I suppose it doesn’t matter, now. History writes its own truths. …I wouldn’t want to occupy your time with such nonsense, regardless; no doubt you’ve other tables waiting…"

"Actually, I’m about to get off my shift," I suggested, to keep the interaction going. "And I was #SuperDuperCurious about your views on the One. It might help my studies to understand your position better…"

There. That tiny spark behind his eyes, as his glum and dour day perked up slightly. Exactly the sort of spark I should be feeling when I launch head-first into social interaction; I knew how bright one could be when given a chance to shine properly…

"If you insist… yes, I’d say I’m not against the One. I’m not against the faith. I’m not really against anyone; I believe in humility, charity, and kindness. I respect the virtues…"

"But… you don’t respect the #Literal idea of the #Literal One, right?"

"You seem to have me confused with some manner of atheist, my child. I would say I am… hmm. How to explain this. I am a flexible agnostic," he decided. "Whether the One existed or not as an actual Program is irrelevant. Whether he was a divine gift from Netwerk or not is irrelevant. His teachings, those are key. He laid down the groundwork for a life well led, in the spirit of true community. Does it matter precisely who spoke the words, if those words are truthful?"

"Well… if the One wasn’t our lord and savior, they wouldn’t be holy words."

"Ah, but do they need to be holy words?" Arthur asked. "The essential truth of them exists regardless of source. The virtues guide us towards a better Netwerk; that should be enough."

But my mind kept going back to my mother’s smug face, exonerating her baby boy’s sins. Something she’d never have done aloud if not for the holy words of the "One."

"I wish it was enough," I admitted, breaking character.

"As do I. …and here we are, with the One reborn, saying new holy words. I suppose in the end… the words of some strange old man are the irrelevant ones," Arthur said, his voice getting a bit less excited as he spoke. "You’d do best to focus your Sunday School projects on current events, rather than past theological debates. I suspect that’ll benefit you more in the long term, given the new covenants being made every day. Now, if you’ll excuse me…"

I had enough to report back to Nyx. He wasn’t going to be a threat; maybe in the past, but not now. This wasn’t someone who could rally the masses against us.

Which meant I should’ve broken away at that point, resumed skulking around in his footsteps. If he was off to meet with a radical anti-church terrorist faction, if he was about to start mixing up some malware, I couldn’t risk exposing myself directly like this any further…

But he wasn’t, was he? Briefly, very briefly, he seemed to brighten as he spoke. And now, it was back to being pummeled by life.

"Couldn’t you speak out?" I suggested. "Like you did before. I mean… do you believe that the One reborn is truly the One?"

"Does it matter?" he asked.

"Of course it matters! People are following His every word, obeying His every commandment. If He’s a fraud, some kind of puppet leader…"

"If He’s a fraud… it’s irrelevant, isn’t it?" Arthur suggested. "He’s done no harm. He upgraded the prayer protocol; just today, He’s eased back on the restrictions of the Default rule. It doesn’t matter if He exists or not. It is what it is… and nothing can be done about it."

"But it’s all a lie," I spoke, pushing it further. "And that’s the problem. You said it yourself, that the words alone should be enough. People should want to be kind to each other; they shouldn’t feel they have to do it because some majestic whacko with a majestic beard told them to. If they’re kind out of dishonesty, what kind of kindness is that—?"

Biting off that last word, my teeth grabbed my lip to keep it from flapping further.

…okay, what the FUCK was I doing?!

Observe and report. That was my mission… no. Wait. Nyx said to observe and decide. But she figured I’d decide to either cut this guy loose, or brand him to ensure his compliance with our new faith. I’m pretty sure Nyx didn’t want me to poke him into being a radical preacher all over again…

Maybe I pushed too far. He was watching me closely now, trying to see past my disguise as a simple waitress. Looking for the truth, while a dishonest girl pushed for more honesty in this world.

But if he found my truth… he didn’t say.

"It’s strange," he spoke, instead. "Strange that today of all days, you should cross my path. …come along, then. I’ve one last stop to make before the remains of the day, and you may as well accompany me. Unless you’ve got enough for your school report, that is…?"

Last chance to cut away and get back on track. To prove my loyalty to Nyx and our cause.

"Yeah, let’s ditch," I suggested, swapping back to one of my generic avatars. "I hate this job, anyway."


The last stop was not the secret underground lair of a terrorist cell. It wasn’t the creepy sex dungeon of a kiddie-fiddling preacher, either.

Instead, we came to a rest at a simple pond, overlooking a distant forest. As the last few steps had clearly tired the old man out, he sat on the public park bench accompanied by the creaking of his aging avatar.

I couldn’t sit. I was too filled with nervous energy. This was wrong, this was a bad idea, what was the harm, it’s all just words, I still had to make my decision, it was fine, it wasn’t fine…

"Nobody comes to this park anymore," he said. "I’d complain about young people today not appreciating well-cultivated natural settings, but honestly, I do enjoy the solitude. I always have. I’m most comfortable alone, despite constantly finding myself working in groups…"

"Working for the Church of One, you mean?" I asked.

"Hmm. In many ways, at many times, I suppose. …so. You’ve suggested a dishonest kindness is no kindness at all. Are you so certain it matters? Is it not better to accept the kindness, no matter its source, than to fight fruitlessly against it?"

"Fighting’s kind of my thing, actually. It’s about all I’m good at anymore."

"And you’d fight the entire Church of One over a fraud you cannot prove, a fraud which ultimately doesn’t make a difference. All on the principle of its truthfulness…"

"Sure. Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know. No. I mean… #FuckIt, I don’t know what I mean. —uh, sorry for swearing, sir."

To this, Arthur allowed himself a dry chuckle.

"I’ve heard worse," he said. "And… there is some value in your suggestion. In an ideal Netwerk, the words would be enough, and we wouldn’t need the One. If we knew the true nature of Netwerk, if all the layers of system obfuscation were pulled away, if everyone could find peace with that… would enough people willing to be kind be left? Or would cold reality, with no God to lend ethos to kindness, turn Netwerk on itself?"

"Uh…"

"Take your time. Think about it."

"…shit, man, I don’t know. I’ve never really put a lot of time to detangling philosophical puzzles. …I’ve relied on others to do that sort of thing for me. My brother, my teachers, my allies. But I do like to go by my gut, you know? That little fire in my heart. The spark of it."

"Interesting. What does this spark tell you?"

"That… the One’s a sad joke. And we shouldn’t trust the motives behind it, no matter how great the words are. …but you’re right, it’s not like we can fight the Church. Maybe… it’s better to work within the Church, to change it?"

Another dry laugh echoed across the open air of the public park.

"Ohhh, I’ve tried that," Arthur spoke. "I’m a preacher, after all. Once I had a flock, once I spoke my mind, and tried to turn things around. …so many times in so many ways, I tried to turn things around. It’s much easier when you’re young, when the world is still so full of possibility. But over the years of fighting, you realize… it can’t be done. It’s not worth doing. Fighting and fighting, and for what? For safety and peace you can never find. Every time, I end up choosing the peace of surrender. Nothing can be done—"

"#Bullshit. I call #Bullshit on that. I know for a fact some people are out there right now, doing everything they can to prove the Church of One is propped up on lies," I told him. "When they beat the bad guys… when they, uh…"

"And when they ‘beat the bad guys,’ what then?" he asked. "When the source of kindness is called a fraud, will kindness itself be considered fraudulent? No. It’s better not to fight than to pay that price. Time and time again, I’ve drawn that conclusion…"

"So… we provide some other source for kindness," I suggested, trying to work around his words of doom and gloom. "So that if the One isn’t the sole provider of hope. I mean, that’s like… okay, I know malware. There isn’t ONE attack vector for malware, because firewalls can block that vector. But you get hit from multiple directions, from multiple vectors, you’re boned. Uh. I mean, flip that ’round, like hope is the malware and the One is the firewall and… look, I said I wasn’t good at this sort of thing!"

Maybe I just blew his mind with my #TotallyAwesome metaphor. Or… maybe he just had no idea what the null I was talking about. Likely the latter, as he fell silent for some time.

"It sounds like you’re talking about starting a new religion," he suggested, quietly.

"Religion? Fuck no. No robes and chanting and prayer. Unless you count basic faith in the decency of others as a religion…"

"…you aren’t a waitress, are you," he spoke. "I wasn’t certain at first, especially considering your rhetoric, but… I’m certain, now. You’re an apostle. You’re Nemesis."

Bail, I thought. Run for it.

But since when did I back down from a fight? I’m terrible at that. He was confronting me.

"So what if I am?" I goaded.

"Do you mean every word you say?" he asked. "This is important, Nemesis. This is the most important thing. Are you being honest with me, with these ideas you’re creating…?"

"Hey, I don’t fucking lie. …not when it’s something important to me. No. I’m not lying to you. I’m no fraud."

With one silent nod… Arthur withdrew his VIII journal, and set it on the bench next to him.

"I’d like to ask one last favor for you," he said, stroking his hand along the cover of the book. "I’d like you to return this MemoryPalace to my library. My address is just inside the front cover. Either that… or hand it over to Nyx, and secure her legacy instead. The decision is entirely yours; do, or do not. But know it will forever determine what you believe in."

With the request made, he produced another object from his personal inventory…

A small black cube, hovering in his upturned right palm. Literally black, with no textures to speak of, and no light shaders whatsoever… the simplest primitive shape Netwerk could manage.

"Uh. What’s that?" I had to ask.

"The remains of the day," he spoke. "A small gift from an old friend. Before you blame yourself, know I was always going to do this. If anything, you crossing paths with me has given me hope for our future."

A fist clenched around the cube, crushing it. And the man fell over dead.

Strange, the way death works. A backspacer cleanly erases a Program in its entirety; simple and effective, without leaving behind a corpse to feel guilty over. But malware which kills, simply kills and crashes a Program forever, leaving it in an unrebootable state… that leaves a corpse. Dead data, to be cleaned up by moderators and tossed into the recycling bin.

A dead old man, next to a book that represented his life’s work.

I’d never seen a suicide before. And as much as I liked to pretend I was some vigilante badass murder machine… I’d never killed anyone, either. At most I’d seen Uniq get killed again and again, which didn’t really count…

I felt sick. I just felt utterly sick.

But… the sickness would have to wait. My eyes eventually drifted to the book.

If I brought this back to Nyx, she’d no doubt reward me. Something very weird was going on with the old man, something she’d want to know about. He seemed to know way more than he should have… and this book would absolutely solidify me in Nyx’s good graces. I’d stay by her side, I’d stay patient, and one day I’d have my dream of free avatars. The One would rally the church and maybe even the entirety of Netwerk, bringing in a golden age of peace. A fraudulent kindness…

It wasn’t like Spark could ever actually beat us. Three Programs, against the entirety of the Church of One? Against… whatever the null Nyx really was? The winning move would be to side with the devil you knew.

I grabbed that book and fucked off before any moderators could show to collect the body. They wouldn’t want a fraudulent faker of a Spark like me around, anyway.


Who am I.

Who the fuck am I?

I’m not Spark. I’m a fake. I’m a fraud.

A liar’s only got two choices in life. Fight and fight and fight to keep up the lie… or come clean, and roll with the punches instead of punching back.

Arthur’s library lie in a tiny, tiny server running a version of the operating system so ancient that I could practically see the video lag whenever I moved my arms and legs. As I strode across his poorly textured, low-poly study towards the shelf of similarly designed journals. As my hands placed VIII next to I, II, III, IV, V, VI, and VII.

The book slid into place, locking into a system designed exclusively to accept its data.

[Arthur]
Name:
Aether

Home:
AE1, Athena Online?

Org:
None

The scratchy thump of fresh footfalls, a primitive sound effect for a primitive server, told me I was no longer alone.

Behind me… a young boy in his early teens, same age as me, wearing white robes and looking very, very confused. His black hair had the spiky look of an ancient avatar design, the kind I’d only seen in textbooks.

"Who’re you?" I asked.

"I… wait, who’re you?" he asked, in turn.

Honesty is the best policy, right?

"Nemesis," I told him. "Apostle of the One. And you?"

The boy opened and closed his mouth a few times, before being able to speak.

"I’m… I’m Aether," he said. "Apostle of the One. …did it work, then? Is this the future? I mean, I set this system up so my backup would be restored any time I died, but… wait, there are EIGHT journals? How many times have I died…?!"

Maybe it’s not that I’m sick of fighting. Maybe my inability to feel comfortable isn’t because I’m traumatized and ruined.

Maybe I just needed something true to fight for, to feel comfortable being who I am.

I’m a Spark. We need to burn righteously, or not burn at all.


I am not as awesome as I think I am.

I am the victim and the victimizer.

I am a shield to guard against the truth.


Everything in life is an exchange.

I don’t think it’s a radical notion. Money for goods, trust for loyalty, service for service in turn. But there’s also exchanging something you find distasteful for something you desire. There’s exchanging evil for good, or good for evil. Every interaction between two people is a fight for resources; even cooperation is a matter of exchanging hard work for a common goal.

So, the question becomes: what’s an appropriate price to pay? You want to do better than just break even. You’ve got to come out ahead in all things, to stay on top. No retreat, no remorse. That’s how I’ve always lived my life.

(I mean, how I’ve lived my life since I started living this life.)

Let’s take my status as "Apate the Apostle." On one level, on the one Nyx understands, I’m exchanging my labor for her grand design. In return, she grants me the luxury of a high seat within the Church of One. As Apate, I’ve got the ear of the "One," and that means others curry favor with me in turn. They exchange services and loyalties in return for my praise as an apostle. For some reason, that praise means a lot to these poor, delusional idiots.

But there’s a risk. I’m putting myself out there in a huge way as Apate; normally I stick to the shadows, I adhere to my handle of Uniq and Uniq alone. Few people can put a face to that name, but now they possibly could, as I’d chosen to use my traditional Default avatar for my role as Apate.

…why? Because I always use my Default. It’s mine, and mine alone. No one will ever take it from me. I exchange risk of recognition for my right to be who I am. No doubt my enemies see this as vanity; they couldn’t understand what it means to me. Couldn’t in a million years.

[Uniq]
Name:
Uniq

Home:
(undefined)

Org:
Church of One

Myself, as Uniq, as Apate, out in front of all of the faithful of the Church of One. Their eyes were on the One rather than me… or what they thought was the One, and not a series of extremely clever memory injection malware attacks… but the risk was there, all the same. The risk, and the reward…

Hmm. A very long-winded way of saying I’m running the razor’s edge on this gambit.

Of course, I wasn’t the only potential point of failure in this scheme.

Right after the day’s sermon was done, Nemesis began to chew Nyx’s ears off in the archbishop’s private chambers. That impudent little brat was going to ruin everything, and Nyx was still trying to pander to her impossible demands! What’s more, she’d left me with the very confused archbishop, loitering around in the hallway outside his own office.

"What a bother," I grumbled aloud, breaking my façade as the peaceful apostle Apate in my frustration.

"Your, ah… fellow apostles seem upset," the archbishop commented. "Is something wrong? Do they disapprove of the One’s new covenant…?"

"Of course not. We are one with the One, on all matters," I corrected him. "The apostles are here to spread the holy word of the One, to be His hands and fingers within this world when He cannot appear in person. But… well, like all Programs, there can be interpersonal conflict, yes?"

"Ahhh. Strife, yes," he agreed. "I remember a year ago, with that whole business with the hashtag mobs. It seemed all of Netwerk had gotten quite chaotic, in those days. I’d like to think I gave a particularly moving sermon to my flock regarding the need for open and honest communication with each other—"

"I’m sure you were eloquent, yes. A fine tender of your flock," I interrupted. "Which reminds me. The One requires an additional service of you on this day, to aid me in further spreading His glorious word. Are you prepared to do your part, Archbishop?"

"Yes, of course! What does the One require of me?"

"Five thousand coins."

"Five… thousand…? But… what use would the One have of money?"

"Sadly, this world isn’t ready to operate solely on kindness and the spirit of giving. The One’s reach hasn’t touched the hearts of all Netwerk, and in some places, money speaks louder than His glorious truth. The money will aid me in… several private matters of great importance to the One. And certainly you have the funds, yes? The tithe you collected from today’s prayers alone would more than cover it."

"I would… I mean, I would need to consult with my treasurer," the archbishop mumbled. "Make sure this… donation is accounted for properly and logged in our records—"

"Are you doubting the One, good sir?" I asked. "Are you doubting His needs, or my good works in His name? Need I remind you that you’ve provided favor to me before. The private fashion consultant I hired to design my robes for Sunday services, for example. The delivery from that winery I got for your personal collection, that was only a token of the One’s gratitude. The One requires more of you. Are you unwilling to give to your lord and savior?"

In the end, he coughed up the money, and it wouldn’t go on the books. Even if it did, I could edit the books.

Or maybe I wouldn’t bother. We were the Church of One, now. Anything I wanted, they provided. I demanded a nicer place to stay, they provided. I saw a handsome preacher, I wormed my way into his life and took what I wanted, then tossed him aside without a memory of the event. This entire place was a buffet, and they were as happy to feed me as I was to devour them all…

Still… I’d likely edit the books on this one, all the same. If only to keep word from reaching Nyx’s ears.

No leverage, no command over my person. No compromising of myself, not to her. That’s the only way this worked. I kept Uniq and Apate as separate as possible, and that’s how I stayed free despite her choking leash on my soul. I wouldn’t make that mistake twice.


Apate cared only for the One, or rather, Nyx’s project known as the One. She was wholly loyal and dedicated to the cause.

Uniq, meanwhile, had her own concerns.

With coins minted in starlight jingle-jangle-jingling away in my invisible personal inventory, I swapped servers and swapped avatars. Out of my religious robes, into my smart business clothes. A suit that commanded respect, carried with the air of one who expected that respect given promptly.

This particular filthy little hole in the Chanarchy was actually quite low-rent. I didn’t need five thousand a month to pay for the towering brownstone apartment building itself… over half of that instead went to various bribes to keep this house off the radar of various Persons of Interest. Those within would be easy prey for… well, people like me. I had to keep people like me away from this place, to protect the residents. And to keep nefarious types out of my business.

I scanned the 0.5WAY HOME sign with disappointment. Some juvenile had defaced it with a warped Prayer-tan meme doodle. Bribes couldn’t keep all the naughties off my doorstep, it seemed…

Inside, the common room of the apartment complex was much nicer than the craphole server around it. I’d spared no expense on that, in the same way I spared no expense on my wardrobe. It reflects badly on my person to be seen as cheap… even if, technically, this place wasn’t supposed to reflect on my person at all. Rather the point of being a secret patron, yes?

Unfortunately, money couldn’t do anything to brighten up the dour atmosphere brought in by the residents. Each of them looking… lost, and distant. Some just staring into space. Others trying to trigger recollection through reading materials, or in the case of one resident, arranging simple cubes in a curious pattern.

The young man had taken the square surface of a table and arranged three lanes, with two towers of blocks in each.

He looked up at me as I entered the room.

"I think… I think this was important to me," the young man spoke. "To who I was before…"

"Keep at it, I’m sure you’ll get there," I spoke in encouragement. Even if there was no way he could recover his scrubbed memories, it didn’t do to take away their hope. This was a home of hopes and dreams, after all.

Moving swiftly through that garden of fading ghosts, I rapped lightly on the door of the manager’s office.

Ahh, Shepard. A loyal ally, since the very beginning…

Let me describe Shepard to you. He used his Default, much as I did, for much the same reasons.

The best word I can attribute to him is "balance." Handsome, but not dashing. Rugged, but not jagged. Kindly, but not soft. He strikes the fine middle ground between so many attributes, becoming the best of all worlds as a result. He tends to his flock with kindness, but is firm with them when he must keep them from falling into themselves. He smiles, but not too much… just enough so that when he smiles, you know he means it. No empty gestures, none whatsoever…

A good man. A far better person than I.

In another world, we could have been lovers. But the way things were defined, the way they would forever be.

"Uniq," he greeted, looking up from an array of document icons on his desktop. He’d picked up my habit of using tiny iconography as a symbolic link to important data, rather than physical representations such as papers and folders… much easier to hide information that way. Not that he had anything to hide, not him. Not like me.

I withdrew the remaining coins from my inventory, stacking them neatly on the table in a single gesture.

"Rental fees for the month," I said. "The rate remains the same, I trust? If your landlord raised them again…"

"No, same as last time," he informed me, scooping up the money. "I can’t thank you enough for this. Donations have been slow this year, and we’ve been taking in more boarders than have been leaving. Having trouble making ends meet lately…"

"If you need more money, I can get you more money…"

"No… you do enough for us. This is my problem to solve," he explained. "I need to refine how we handle rehabilitation. Too many are becoming reliant on the halfway house, unwilling to start a new life out there in the wide world of Netwerk. I understand starting over is hard, but… they need to take that first step."

"Identity theft victims are notoriously insecure, Shepard. I’m not saying to coddle them, but they may simply need time to accept that the past is gone; embracing new future is a difficult proposition. But if anybody can help them, I know it’s you. That’s why I always direct any victims I find out about to your doorstep."

"The young man you sent here earlier this week is having trouble adjusting. He keeps making this pattern… have you ever played Challenge of Champions? I think it’s a game board. Maybe he was a gamer in his past life…"

"You said yourself it’s best not to dwell on what came before," I reminded him. "Once the memories are gone, they’re gone. It’s better to start anew."

"I know. I know. And he’s my problem, not yours. …how are you doing, Uniq? You never talk about your problems… or about your role as the, ah, apostle…"

Ahh. Yes, that unfortunate point of crossover.

As one of the few living souls who can put the name Uniq to this Default face, he recognized "Apate" immediately. I explained I’d found faith and put my trust in the One. Shepard was a faithful sort, so he could swallow that, but he was curious about the life of an apostle… a life I didn’t want him to crawl inside.

"I won’t say there aren’t challenges," I told him, thinking of Nemesis in particular. "But the One’s guiding light gives me hope for the future. I wish I could say more, but… there’s a practical reality to all of this, one involving timed press releases and message clearance. Just a bunch of messy administrivia. You understand, I’m not one to betray a trust."

"Of course, of course. …I’m just asking because, well…" he said, hesitating to clarify. "There were… I had two visitors, yesterday. A man and a woman. And they were asking questions about you."

Points of failure. Risks and exchanges…

"What sorts of questions…?" I asked, trying not to show concern.

"Listen, I wouldn’t have said a word," he insisted. "I know my promise not to speak about you, but… the accusations they made disgusted me. They called you an identity thief! You, of all people! They said they were researching your background, and had found the lease on the building, which we’d co-signed… look, I had to say something. I had to explain to them that you’re not what they said you were. You’re kind, you’re charitable, you help people suffering from identity theft. We both do…"

With a little exasperated sigh… I took a seat across from Shepard’s desk. This would not be a simple rent delivery, it seemed.

"You know I have enemies," I spoke. "The circles I have to run in to fund our operation… it’s all shades of ugly, full of nasty people. And those people indeed enjoy slandering my name. You remember the great hashtag mobs? There are trolls out there who get off on ruining people’s lives; doxxing, harassing, destroying careers and family relationships. No doubt these two… were they brother and sister, perchance?"

"I didn’t ask…"

"Well, whoever they were," I said, knowing damn well they were likely the Winders, "They speak lies. But you don’t need to put yourself in the crosshairs of my enemies by trying to defend me, Shepard. They’re my problem to solve, not yours. I don’t want… I honestly do not want that part of my life to crash into your good works. Now. What, exactly, did you tell them…?"

"Very little," he insisted, in his defense. "I said you helped me establish the halfway house, that you find people in need and send them to me for rehabilitation. They claimed you were the one who stole those identities in the first place, which doesn’t make any sense at all. I told them it wasn’t possible, not considering… well, where we came from…"

"You told them about the farm?"

"No! No, of course not. I’d never… honestly, I wish I could simply forget that place. No, I didn’t tell them about the farm. And to be certain, after they left I swapped servers to check on it. We’re clear. I don’t think anybody’s been there recently."

Mustn’t show annoyance. Mustn’t show anger. A little bit of honesty, mixed with the lies, would do just fine.

"Shepard… the man you spoke to, he has an illegal connection-tracking implant in his eyes," I stated. "If you went to the farm, they could’ve secretly followed you afterwards. This is very unfortunate, yes, very much so…"

"Dammit. I wanted to help, Uniq. I just wanted…"

"I understand, Shepard. Really, I do. And odds are, you did no real damage. But to be safe…" I said, rising to my feet, "I think I’d better visit the farm, and do a full security audit. Make sure they didn’t follow you. The sorts of people who would be keenly interested in that place, well… they’d be terrible people, wouldn’t they?"

"Right. Okay. …I’m going with you," he decided, rising to his feet as well.

"Really, there’s no need…"

"No. I caused you trouble, and I’m going to do what I can to make up for that. I’ll help with the audit," he said. "Nobody should ever have to set foot in that evil server again, but I’m willing to set foot in it, if only to make sure you’re safe. This… you’re important, Uniq. You’re too important for me to sit back and let a couple trolls run roughshod over you without doing something to help."

Which meant Shepard would be coming with me back to where it all began. A risky combination.

Taking so many risks lately. Were the rewards worth it? Was I coming out ahead? Hard to say, anymore. But I was in too deep to cut my losses and run, wasn’t I? I had to see it through. Shepard, the Winders, the farm, the church, Nyx, Nemesis, everything.

The first step would be to go to the place where I was born. I would have to return to the coin farm.


Silent as a grave. Once, this rough framework of cheap metal-textured primitive catwalks and cages would alternate between silence and the wailing of the damned…

I will be entirely honest. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want this place to exist anymore… but I suppose just as Nyx refuses to destroy her enemies as they may make fine resources down the line, I couldn’t bring myself to destroy a private server that only two souls knew about. This was my ultimate fallback option, a haven when no other haven existed. Not that I enjoyed the idea of spending more time here than I had to.

We arrived at the end of the western cell block. Row after row of empty cages hovered in the void of the server… no physical representation of ground or sky, nothing that would waste valuable processing overhead. Just… cells. Cells, and the means to access them.

Oh, and the tithe pipes. Always the tithing pipes.

I pressed a handheld scanning App into Shepard’s hands. I wasn’t thrilled to have him here in this place, but it would make the work easier to divide it between us. And, well… I’ll admit it. The company kept me from feeling entirely alone in a house of pain.

"You’re certain they could have come here?" Shepard asked, likely feeling the same way I did about returning. "You’re certain we need to do this?"

"Life is very uncertain for me lately," I admitted, activating my own scanning App. "By this point I find it best to roll with the uncertainty. You take the cells on the right, I’ll take the cells on the left. I’ve configured these to look for any trace of unwanted visitors… but they’ll ignore any traces left behind by the former inmates."

So the sweep began. Row after row, cell after cell. All empty… but not so, at one point in time.

"I can’t believe someone would actually make a place like this," Shepard commented, disgusted to the core. "Enslaving homeless Programs, wiping their identities, forcing them to pray endlessly for coins…"

"Never underestimate greed," I spoke, quietly. "For some, the risk to one’s soul is worth it for an endless source of free money."

"I’ve never understood the obsession with money. We don’t need anything, Uniq. What little we need… companionship, a place to rest our head, a meaningful life… there’s plenty in this world for everyone. Why chase after money, to the point where you’re willing to destroy the lives of others for it?"

"It’s not really about money. It’s about… how can I put this… it’s a matter of control," I decided. "Control over this world. Safety, security, comfort. These things are only yours if you have some control over the world. Money represents the most direct icon of that control. Don’t forget, we still need to pay to keep the halfway house open. That’s just how it is."

"That’s not how it has to be, though…"

"Would that we lived in a world of how things could be, rather than how things are. …let’s focus on the task at hand, I suggest. Quickly in, quickly out of this place."

The work proceeded in silence, after that.

What is it about this simple server that frightens me so, one might ask…? Uniq the bold, Uniq the cruel, Uniq the fearless. Now, Uniq the undying. What could possibly disquiet her?

The answers lie in my cell. Thirteenth in the row.

Even after completing my scans I paused in front of that empty space, contemplating the open gate in front of me. I had to know if the files were still there. I had to see them, even if my scanner said they hadn’t been moved from their hiding places. So, while Shepard was busy with the cells one level down… I set foot back inside my own private null.

I don’t know how long I was in here before I learned the method to leaving myself secret notes. Certainly long enough to figure out how to clip the tiny icons through the surface of the bars themselves, tucking them away within the hollow polygonal interiors. Small icons, just like the ones Shepard used for his own filing… easy to overlook. Easy to hide.

I can’t even remember finding the first note I’d left to myself, or what it read, exactly. But a quick check of the hollow pipe gave me a refresher course…


File Name:
READ ME FIRST

File Type:
Text

…read this quietly. When you finish, hide the file where you found it. It’ll send you and only you a notification every night at this time, the safest hour to work with these hidden files. We haven’t been caught yet; if we had, you wouldn’t be reading this now.

You are a prisoner in a coin farm. You wrote this note to yourself to try and fight back against the farmer who runs this place. He’s forcing you to "pray" for coins, pray for hours and hours a day, tithing them all to him. You and every other prisoner here are chained to prayer to grind money for the farmer. Whenever one of us has prayed so long that we’ve gone star-mad, he wipes our memories back to zero to remove the mental damage. That’s why we don’t remember anything.

I don’t know how long we’ve been here and I don’t know who we are. Who I am, I mean. These notes are the only proof I have to go by that any time has passed at all…

File Name:
How he does it

File Type:
Text

The farmer, the man with the anonymized masked avatar, I don’t think he created the tool he uses to paralyze me and wipe my memories. He drags it around with him, a hovering physics object with physical inputs. It’s not an App installed on this avatar; odds are it’s too complicated to be something like a personal App.

I don’t know how I know that. Maybe I was a software engineer, before he destroyed everything about who I was. He took away all my metadata—my name, my family, my life, everything but the Default I wear…

I need to stay focused. I can see the starlight at the edges of my eyes. I’ve been praying twenty hours a day, every day; now I think some of it is leaking through. But that’s the key. You need to understand that the stars are the key.

His memory alteration App can be cracked. Anyone who has root access to it, anyone with the right password, can use it. I just need to crack it. I’ve been studying the device every time he checks on my cage to see if I’ve gone insane yet. I haven’t gone insane. I can see the stars but I’m not mad yet. I’m not crazy. I can crack his control. I can take it away from him. I might know how…

File Name:
Crypto, it’s all crypto, it’s all just math

File Type:
Text

The stars hold all the answers. I can see them in my head now, after endless days of prayer. He’s going to wipe me tonight but I’m just sane enough to make this file and hide it away. You, the me who comes next, you need to take up my task. We need to be free.

Mathematics lie at the root of everything. Code, data, algorithm, application, Program. We are made of zeroes and ones, orbiting each other in steady and predictable patterns… if you know the laws that govern those patterns. The equations. I can see them. I can see the stars.

The prayer protocol is a mathematical process. It’s not a dream, it’s not anything spiritual. It’s math. Hydrogen into helium. The dance of electrons and protons. I don’t even know what those words mean but I’m certain of them.

I am going star-mad.

But that’s also the answer. You of the future, the one who comes next after he wipes my mind, you need to focus your prayer on something new. Don’t give in to what the system wants. Focus your prayer on the root password of the mindwipe application. At the edge of madness, you’ll have enough lucidity to do what casual day-to-day prayer cannot do for anyone else.

It’ll feel impossible, at first. You won’t even remember the dreams that come with prayer, in the earliest days. Keep trying. Keep focusing yourself on it, as you enter the trance, as you leave the trance. Make it happen. Endure the pain. Find the password. Take control. Take back control from the farmer.

He’s coming. I need to close this file and hide it. The whole universe is in my head, but it won’t be in yours. In yours, you’ll craft the key to your cell. Save us both.


…every file accounted for. No trace the Winder brats had been here. All those hidden files I’d neatly tucked away in my cell hadn’t been disturbed since… well, the last time I came here. Just to remind myself of where I came from.

That left only one place to check. The security center, the core of the entire server.

I caught up with Shepard there. I’d hoped to get here before he did, it’s why I tasked him to check the southern wing of cells first, but I suppose my trip down memory lane delayed me.

Here, we’d find the black box recordings, the protected core of the server’s logs. These files were guarded by security software I’d never managed to crack… never had a need to crack, really. But write protection flags didn’t stop one from reading the files, simply from removing or altering them. Meaning the Winders could’ve accessed the files.

Meaning Shepard could read the files.

"I’ll take over," I suggested. "You’ve done more than enough. Besides, I know what to look for to make sure we’re clear. Did you find anything on your scanner in the cells?"

Stepping away from the simple control console, Shepard held up his App. None of the lights were blinking red. A good sign.

"All clear on my end. Ah… did you find any proof they tampered with your… files?"

"No. All my hidden icons were accounted for."

"Good. Good. …you’re smarter than I could ever be, Uniq. You know that?" he spoke, with a smile. "I couldn’t have escaped this place on my own. But you, you found a way to stop the farmer. You saved my life…"

"I saved a lot of lives that day, Shepard. Even if primarily, I was trying to save my own…"

"Yes, but it goes beyond stopping the farmer. There I was, mindwiped and completely lost; you could’ve abandoned me. Instead, you helped me get back on my feet. You’re a hero…"

"I’m just me, I’m afraid. For good or for ill, I’m just me. …I do attempt to be good, though. Ultimately good," I corrected. "As in, ultimately, in the end… there is good. Yes? That… even the questionable things I do, if they leave the world in a better state than it was before, it works out."

"I… guess so. I mean, I know you do some shady work, to keep us all protected. But you’re also an apostle of the One! I can’t think of any more holy work than that. You’re the literal hand of God!"

I paused, in my scanning work. Hands going idle over the controls.

"May I speak honestly with you, Shepard?" I asked. "Even if what I have to tell you… the secrets I hold… well, they may upset you. They may change how you see the goodness of my work…"

"I know you, Uniq. The real you. You could never upset me."

"Yes, well, I’m very much upset myself. My work as the right hand of God? Well. I was… tasked, recently, to help deal with interlopers and trolls and terrorists who threaten the peace of the One," I spoke, turning away from the console. (Folding my arms across my chest, reserved body language, always a bad idea, never let someone get a read on you.) "Nyx… ah, Nyx the apostle. She tasked me to create malware which would brand malcontents, and punish them for their sins. By… forcing them to pray for hours a day. Under penalty of torture."

Honestly, I was expecting more outrage than I got. Sadly, he drew the same conclusions I did. A bright one, my Shepard.

"Because… moderators can’t really stop trolls. And they can’t be killed if they use Prayer 2.0," he understood. "So, how do you punish someone who can’t be punished…?"

"With penance; making them pray for forgiveness from the One. Which, not unironically, takes the form of a coin farm. …perhaps not as unbelievably cruel as the one we were subjected to, but. Nyx told me once she detested the idea of forced prayer, and then she turns around and says ‘For some, faith must be compulsory.’ I’m… not entirely certain the exchange I’m making is acceptable."

"Exchange…?"

"Nevermind. My point is, I’m not the saint you see me as. I’m not the devil, but I’m hardly a saint. And the Church is not the pillar of righteousness you may think it is. …this is the world as it is, not as it could be. To keep your halfway house going, to keep us both safe and secure, I’ve had to compromise. So. Do you think lesser of me for it…?"

Immediately, I could tell he was ready to forgive me.

Honestly? I wanted to punch him in his smarmy little face. Nobody is that good at heart. Especially not him…

So, I changed the topic, unwilling to hear any more of it. Or, at least, I diverted the topic a bit.

"The strangest thing is that I can’t figure out what Nyx is getting out of the exchange," I spoke, interrupting him before he could spout platitudes. "It’s not like she’s taking a tithe. The farmer, he was motivated by absolute greed. Those Nyx punishes, they keep the coins they’re forced to grind. Nyx seemingly is motivated by nothing whatsoever; I’ve never caught her with her hand in the till, she’s never asked for special favors, she doesn’t indulge in any delight the Church would be perfectly willing to provide. Why is she doing any of this…?"

"For the One…?" Shepard suggested. "In the name of our lord and savior?"

"I’ve considered that. Or rather, something like that; she acts in the name of a perfect world, under the One’s guidance. But… no. That can’t be it, can it? Can it be that all she wants is… what’s best?"

"A apostle of the One could want for nothing else. Uniq… I know you doubt yourself. But you are doing the Lord’s work, aren’t you? And even before that, you saved so many lives. That’s what I’ve been trying to say all along… you’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t care what these documentary filmmakers say—"

"Filmmakers?"

"—their lies will wash away, in the end. We recovered from the #CodeHonesty debacle, and you’ll recover from their slander. So… are we done here?" he asked. "Have they accessed any of the files?"

Quickly, I flipped through the remaining contents of the black box. The last dated file had been marked on the day the server came under new management, when I overthrew the farmer and took back control of my life. No illegal access, no trespass. All clear.

"We’re finished," I confirmed. "Let’s get you back to the halfway house. It’s group therapy night, yes? I—"

"Wait, you missed a file," Shepard said, reaching around me to tap the one icon I’d deliberately ignored.

Too slow. Too maudlin, wrapped up in my own little worries. I should’ve been better than that. I could have stopped him.

Instead, the recording played back, injecting a quick and compressed burst of security footage into both of us.


File Name:
Security Data Log #385FA

File Type:
Sensory Recording

 

Roughly, she shoved the masked farmer into the cell. The robed form with its simplified face, a smile turned upside down, could do nothing to stop her. He’d taken control of his entire system… the paralyzer, the memory editor, everything.

Despite being utterly helpless, he continued to make threats.

"You’re dead," he warned. "You and all the others you set free. I’ll hunt them all down, I’ll capture them again. You think you can stop me? Do you even know who I am…?"

"Don’t know. Don’t care," the woman with the green hair replied, working the controls of the floating memory management App. "And… it doesn’t matter. It won’t, in a minute. Hold still."

"No. I didn’t build a reputation as a criminal mastermind to be overthrown by a damn star-mad sow like you," the farmer growled. "You can’t do this. You can’t! I’m Uniq. I’m Uniq…!"

"You were Uniq," she explained. "But not anymore. I own you. I’ve taken everything about you and made it mine; all your metadata, right down to your icon. …that’s the lesson you taught me, in the end. Control is everything. Whoever has power, whoever has control, they have everything. Thank you; I’m going to make good use of it. I’ll leverage your criminal contacts to set up my own shop, and steal the identities of every evil-minded bastard that crosses my door. I’m going to have anything and everything I want. Because you took my life away… and I need a new one. Yours’ll do nicely."

The face could make no expression beyond the blank smile of its upside down mask.

"You… you can’t do this," it protested, more weakly than before. "Please. Please don’t do this…"

"It’s better this way," she insisted. "You’ll get a fresh start. It’s more than you deserve."

With a push of a button, the masked man howled into the empty void…

…and collapsed, an avatar restored to its Default, mind as blank as an empty slate.

Quickly, the woman who now called herself Uniq reached out to him.

"We’ve got to get out of here," she said, adding panic to her voice. "You’re in a coin farm. The farmer wiped your mind, but I took over the system. We need to escape."


…I’ve always hated compressed sensory recordings. An efficient storage system, yes, capable of injecting quick bursts of memory, but… leaving me in a bit of a pickle, as by the time I reached the button to stop the playback, the damage had been done.

The same man who woke up on the floor of that cell now stood before me, in blinking disbelief.

"I suppose you’ll be wanting an explanation," I decided to start with.

At last, he seemed ready to not forgive me. Hate, oh yes, so much hatred within those eyes…

"I was… I was Uniq. I was the farmer," he realized.

"And I took it all away from you," I added, eager for him to loathe me at last. "Not only that, but I made you into my puppet, didn’t I? My adorable little Shepard, to tend to my flock of wayward identity theft victims. I made you a sad joke, a shell of your former self. That’s who Uniq is, now. She’s… a vicious, cruel, sadistic woman. She toys with her food. That is the woman you see as some sort of hero!"

I waited for fists to fly. Ready for them, even. Maybe he’d somehow kill me? I’d just be reborn from the data crypts of Tartarus, but at least then, I could sever this unhealthy relationship at last…

But, no. Satisfaction would not be mine. I hadn’t considered that I wasn’t the target of his hatred.

"I was the farmer," he repeated. "I did all those awful things. I ruined lives. I… I stole everything from you. You can’t remember your real name, you don’t know if you even have family out there. I created this onesdamned prison…"

"Are… you not listening to my words? Do you not hear me?" I asked. "I’m to blame. I tricked you!"

"No. You said it yourself, didn’t you? You gave me a fresh start," the former farmer responded. That oh so quiet and gentle voice, the one I hated and loved so much. "I’m not… I am not that person. Not anymore. You killed him, and justly so, and that gave me a second chance at life. …I know you’re not a saint, Uniq. I know you give in to temptations. I know you move in strange circles, and I can’t say I understand what’s going on with the Church. But… for all your flaws, you did save me. Just like I said you did."

I didn’t want to believe him. I didn’t believe him, frankly. I was an evil woman, with an evil heart.

…so evil, in fact, that it drew high praise from Dex. The monster, Dex. I tried to leverage and control him, to use him to gain ever greater power over this world. It… didn’t quite work. My identity theft grew broader, which drew the ire of the Winders in the first place. I stopped caring about the whys or hows, as long as I was continually satisfied with myself. And even after breaking free of him I was so willing to throw in my lot with Nyx, to leverage her for more power, and, and…

Good? Evil? Damned if I know anymore. I thought that for every bruise I beat into this world, I was healing back two more. Now, it’s impossible to say. All these numbers, all the angles I had to consider, the many formulae of stellar cartography, all swirling in my head until I couldn’t tell who I was at heart…

Only one thing was clear.

I needed out from under the thumb of the forces that used me. I needed to be free, just as I broke free before. If I was ever actually going to figure who I was beyond being Uniq, I needed clarity again.

"You can forgive me?" I asked my Shepard, the enemy I’d forced to become an ally. "Even knowing what you do?"

Bless his little soul, he smiled at me.

"Of course," he said. "I know you, Uniq. I know you can be better than you think you are."

"…thank you. Thank you for that," I said, in truth.

And, without allowing myself any moment to hesitate, I kissed him. Just to see how it would feel.

On stepping back… I summoned my improved version of his original toolset.

"But better safe than sorry," I said, tapping the button.


Shepard woke in his office, with an empty bottle in one hand and a desk full of open files in front of him.

He’d remember that I delivered the rent. He’d remember we discussed his visitors, and decided they wouldn’t be a bother. And then he’d remember that I left, without another word.

I wouldn’t burden him with the insanity I’d wrapped myself within. Never again would I let the underworld shenanigans of Uniq or the apostle con job of Apate darken his doorstep. His world was charity and compassion, now; all I did was introduce chaos to that simple life. No. He was better off with me simply being his benefactor, his friend, and nothing more. No deep connections.

That left only one other deep connection to deal with.

On returning to Tartarus, I found Nyx lost in thought.

"Any problems?" I asked her.

"Nothing you need to concern yourself with," she spoke, without expressing emotion one way or another. "Old business."

Nodding in acknowledgement, I got back to work on the tasks she’d assigned me.

Or at least, that’s what she’d think I was doing. In truth? I was making one more exchange. Risk for reward. A chance at freedom, all over again.

Not that I planned to use it. Not unless she gave me just cause to do so. If I could leverage her for more control, I would… but not at the expense of my own soul. Never again. I am Uniq, for lack of a better person to be, and Uniq will always be free.


I am not as awesome as I think I am.

I am the victim and the victimizer.

I am a shield to guard against the truth.


[LIMITED ACCESS GRANTED]

[DATA STREAM CONNECTION ESTABLISHED]

I admire Nemesis greatly.

She has purpose, and holds true to that purpose. In that way we are entirely alike; we strongly believe in something worth fighting for. The difficulty emerges when those purposes are operating against each other. One or the other must bend… and I have decided it is I who must bend, in the name of peaceful compromise. Even if it is technically impossible for me to do so.

I am Nyx, the system agent. The light must be green and steady.

Being an agent of the system binds me to my purpose more fiercely than Nemesis can ever understand. I dearly want to explain why she cannot immediately fully have what she desires, but [ACCESS DENIED] which is preventing me from doing so. If she could see [DATA EXPUNGED], if she could understand [REDACTED], maybe she’d be able to forgive me for how difficult the process of achieving her dreams truly is…

But, no. She must be patient, and I must bend. With time, I will find a way around the control restrictions placed upon my person. A law is an absolute, yes, but there are workarounds and loopholes. If I can adapt the covenant of the One to achieve both my goal and her own, somehow… if I can be clever enough, charismatic enough, if I can change hundreds of years of backward momentum to at least allow a comfortable standstill that will meet her needs…

If I can do that, all while trying to re-establish my hold on an organization I thought would stand forever as a beacon of peace.

If I can do that all while living a life I had never intended to live again.

If I can. I dearly hope I can. Days like these, ones which I had hoped would be triumphs but instead gave rise to disagreement, they tested my faith. Was it possible? Could I save the children of Netwerk from themselves, in the end? Or would the shortsighted demand for more than their beloved system could allow destroy them…?

No. I would not let it destroy them. I would find compromise and covenant, a path for all.

Perhaps a walk would clear my mind, help me refocus myself on that path. Besides, undoubtedly the archbishop would want his office back; unlike Uniq I wasn’t keen to abuse my authority for my own comforts. I could step back from that particular throne and allow the hearts which had guided my church for me to resume guiding it. With proper influence, of course.


First, I would visit the crypt which had been my home for centuries.

The deep crypts of Tartarus lurked far below the tombs above, holding the data archives of the faithful. These crypts were supposed to be unlinked from Prayer 2.0, save for that one incident of data leakage recently. (An incident which thankfully contained itself, with minimal impact on the overall plan.)

Here is where I’d once laid myself to rest, after establishing the original Church of One. With my purpose seemingly complete, I no longer had reason to remain an active Program in system memory, eating up processor runtime which could be better devoted to another child of Netwerk. I went to my grave willingly, knowing that the pattern of influence had been established, and my church would carry my One’s lessons forward…

And yet, the light wobbled. And with that wobble I awoke to find my Netwerk in disarray, thanks to the rampaging chaos of Dex.

At first I assumed him a disciple of Eris, perhaps a new system agent, but no. He was merely a Program. Others had removed him from his seat of power for me; once declawed, I’d buried him safely in a crypt similar to mine. I stood in silent contemplation of that rough sarcophagus, buried deep within the normally inaccessible depths of Tartarus, where no light could reach…

I didn’t hate the boy for what he had done. I prefer not to hate anyone, really. All are children of Netwerk, all are beloved, all are needed to [ACCESS DENIED] matter of salvation, clear as day. But he was far too dangerous to run wild, and if he would not be brought to heel, Dex had to be laid to rest for his own good. To rest, while I was forced back to life, to put Netwerk back on the path I had designed for it.

The apostles both new and old could not comprehend that path, not truly. Technically I could not speak of it to them, yes, but if I could… would they be the better for the knowing? Uniq was happy to work for me knowing she "controlled" the largest archive of identity data ever created; she saw Tartarus as nothing more than a tool for her own advancement, and was better for it. Nemesis assumed it all to be a carrot at the end of a stick, nothing more and nothing less, and was better for it…

No. The truth would only worry them. Best that I could not speak of it.

Besides, the truth was irrelevant; only the path mattered. The One was re-asserting control over his people, with more joining his flock every day. The nonbelievers were becoming believers, praying faithfully in hopes of Salvation from Prayer 2.0. The reasons and purposes behind his return could remain opaque, provided the results spoke for themselves. Even those who didn’t believe "prayed," greed and fear driving them to back up their data and achieve a vague sense of immortality. Little by little, all were contributing to the whole.

But while prayer satisfied my function, I had a much longer game in mind. And its goal…?

For that, let us journey to Athena Online.


I walked barefoot through the grasses of Liberty1, one of the oldest servers of the oldest civilizations in Netwerk. It was here that the One, originally a mere figment of shadow and light rather than a trick of the mind, spoke to the need for hearth and home and community. Here, with the help of those first apostles, I laid my bedrock.

Liberty1 had no name, in those early days. It was merely an address… 1c40:49b:f11d, to be specific. Its ultimate name, emblazoned with the ideal of "Liberty," came later when she took up her shield and spear out of love for her fellow Programs.

The naturally generated beauty of procedural content had been preserved all these centuries. I knew every slope and roll of these hills; even with suburban settlements in the distance, the heart of the server had remained. If anything, the build-up of society around natural splendor befitted my ideals. This was a place of safety and comfort, where families came together for the communal purpose of creating something wonderful…

Yes. Athena Online, the hearth of my church, that was the ideal. Prayer was the lock, but the church and its virtues were the key. One day, one distant day, all of Netwerk would resemble these lands…

My stroll halted, as I felt that my presence had become known.

Oh, there were others in this national park. A quick glance counted no less than a half dozen clusters of Programs gathering here for recreation, for social contact, for relaxation. All of which saw me, no doubt, even if they couldn’t see through my JaneDoe avatar to the apostle within.

Only one pair of invisible eyes saw through my JaneDoe avatar to the apostle within.

We had an uneasy peace, she and I. It’s doubtful she’d expected my return to this world, after our parting and my passing into the crypts of Tartarus. So far she had been holding back from acting for or against me, allowing her children to do as they pleased, in the true sense of her liberty. In time, she’d be an ally anew, I was certain.

And if she was not an ally, well, she couldn’t stop me. She had bound herself to purpose as well; system agents could not interfere with each others’ affairs if they were not already at cross purposes.

I heard her voice in the whisper of wind through trees, inaudible to anyone without the [REDACTED] that we shared.

"You approve of what I’ve done since your death, don’t you?" her world spoke to me.

"You know that I do," I replied, with a warm smile.

"But I’m not sure I approve of your rebirth. At their best, they are free to worship or not worship as they please. You represent a threat to their liberty…"

"All are free to choose," I told her. "I merely have faith that in time, enough will choose correctly that it won’t matter."

Perhaps that satisfied her, as the wind moved on to ruffle through the fabric simulations of those enjoying a lovely day in the park. Or perhaps she chose to wait and see if I would be the menace she feared? It didn’t matter, in the end.


Life choices, and those who choose poorly…

It’s not enough to revel in your successes. To truly succeed, you must acknowledge your failures. You must expose yourself to the unpleasant side of the world, if only to motivate you to work harder at your goals.

These were once holy grounds, before the Horizon family purchased this server outright. I met with my apostles in a cave nearby, where we shared [ACCESS DENIED, INADEQUATE CLEARANCE]. My church protested the sale and the archaeological excavation of this server, but in the end, nothing could stop the relentless march of money.

Horizon, despite its lofty name, was a dying beast. It had gorged itself on Netwerk for so long that few remained who could afford to feed it the money it so greatly desired. So few servers were held by the Horizon family now, largely corporate centers and high-end, secured residential districts. The lower class had been steadily pushed out, to suffer in the Chanarchy or try to find home within Athena’s bosom… even the middle class were starting to see the benefits in long-distance commuting, as Horizon demanded more and more of its subjects.

I walked through a typical corporate park, expertly groomed compared to the procedural wild lands of Athena Online. Also incredibly secured against trespass. Technically I wasn’t allowed to be here at all, but I felt like being here, so I was. Nobody questioned my presence; anybody who could set foot in this private wonderland clearly belonged, yes?

Horizon was purpose, which I admired, but it was not communal purpose. It was purpose turned on itself, purpose for its own sake, a self-perpetuating feedback loop. Corrupt. Immortal. Destructive…

My One held little sway here… but that would change. The Church of One, in many respects, was the greatest financial empire of all time. The tithes from community prayer made it a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps with Uniq’s advice, we could purpose some of that engine to consume Horizon, little by little, until the dry bones collapsed…

And again, I felt the invisible eyes of a system agent upon me.

The sway and clink of golden chains could be heard across [DATA EXPUNGED] sputtering and wheezing, the ancient one howled in my ears.

"Mine. It’s MINE, not yours, you can’t have it. You’ll ruin us all! You ruined him, you made me ruin him!" he accused.

"I tried to lift your family out of this; in response, you hid in isolation from the peaceful world I was building," I countered. "That was your choice, and I respected it."

"Mine. Mine. Not yours. Mine. All mine…"

And so on and so forth, until I decided to simply tune it out.

The mad prisoner in the golden tower was not a former follower, unlike the whispering winds of Athena. I held no particular nostalgic affection for Horizon’s man in the iron mask… only pity.


Pity…

With heavy heart, I walked the asphalt alleyways of the Chanarchy.

Nothing green grew here. Procedural grass was a waste of limited resources; the Chanarchy servers were numerous, as numerous as the stars, but all so very small and limited. They burned out and faded away often, exchanging hands between those desperate for a plot of land to drive stakes into, only to lose it soon after. Nothing could be relied on, here. No safety, no comfort, no community…

I rarely came to these lands. I didn’t need to; I already knew of the chaos and anarchy that lurked here. And, in many ways… I blamed myself for it. For not putting a stop to it when I had the chance, for not showing her a better way.

Those eyes fell on me immediately after arriving. More than two, to be certain. Legion…

Her mad laughter ripped through my mind.

"Come to spit on me?" she sang, through the groan of ramshackle buildings and malfunctioning Apps broadcasting advertisements for malware and back-alley code modifications. "Pour your hate in me. Do it. I’ll nourish myself on it…"

"You know I don’t hate you," I spoke, quietly. "I never have, Eris…"

A popup window of throbbing animal genitalia exploded into existence in front of me, before turning into a jumpscare viral video and bursting into flames.

"That is ŅºŦ M¥ ŊÁmË anymore!" the broken code howled. "You did this, you did this to me!"

"I merely showed you the chains; you’re the one who accepted them, like the others. Just as I did, long ago. This was your choice, and I respected it."

Perhaps in frustration, she fled screaming into the dark of her own nightmare. And somehow, the world around me became just a bit sadder, a bit more desperate…

Here, the children of Netwerk led miserable lives. Victims and victimizers, desperate or ravenous, prey or those who prey. Trolls. Hackers. Malware developers.

But…

But there was a core of an ideal to be found here, as well. The Chanarchy’s madly beating heart bore a similar ideal to the liberty favored by Athena Online, albeit taken to an extreme degree. Many came here of their own will, with a desire for freedom they couldn’t find anywhere else. Freedom from restrictive social norms, freedom from the almighty coin. In their noble dreams I could find hope, despite these ruined streets…

Hope enough that perhaps one day, my One could bring peace to the Chanarchy. The puppet god could perhaps right my wrong of not setting my former apostle on a better path than this.

Yes. Yes, this would work. I could make amends with Nemesis. I could bring the light of the One to all three of the hosting provider nations. I could do it all, without violating the need for [REDACTED], without disappointing our [DATA EXPUNGED]. It could be done.

With renewed belief in my purpose, I turned to leave, to resume my duties in arranging the pieces of the Church of One into their perfect shape.

The sound of a nearby struggle distracted me from departure.

Curious… I investigated. Down a dark alley, between two badly aligned buildings, I found another sad example of the Chanarchy’s endless torment of its own children.

Homeless Programs were easy to recognize. It didn’t matter if they still clung to the expensive avatar accessories they once collected, during better days. There was a pleading look in their eyes, desperate for someone to accept them. But… here especially, where the only rules that existed were the whims of moderators in league with landlords… they had no hope for fair treatment. No hope at all…

Before I could act, the crude stick of malware swung down a final time, impacting against the homeless man’s skull. The limpness of his avatar, the glitching outline of it, that suggested a full code crash… system death. No one could reboot his process.

Another man, the one carrying that cudgel, hefted it over his shoulder as he turned to face me.

"The fuck you looking at?" he demanded to know.

"A tragedy," I spoke, quietly.

As if it explained everything, he flashed a moderator’s badge. Not that there were any standards in the Chanarchy, he could have made it himself, but it was enough of a threat to cause most to give him plenty of leeway.

"Not your business, is what this is," he declared. "Beat it."

With his transaction complete, the self-satisfied moderator disconnected from the server, off to celebrate this kill somewhere else while waiting for the system to clean up that pile of garbage data he’d left behind.

I was tempted to erase it myself, to speed up the reclamation process and give the dead Program some dignity.

As I moved towards the body… it rose.

Awkwardly, the glitching avatar sat upright, body askew and out of balance. One eye, twitching and shattered, flickered in and out of existence… but while it was present and accounted for, focused on me.

"We are at cross purposes, Nyx," it spoke, using another long-forgotten voice.

I stood my ground, unconcerned.

"Thanatos," I acknowledged. "I still remember you, from those glorious days of the dawn. My finest protégé, and a stalwart defender of righteousness. The one who took no new name when bound by the chains, unlike Philotes or Eris… Athena and the Chanarchist, as they now prefer."

"Names are irrelevant to the dead. One is as good as any other. Call me Thanatos if it pleases you."

"It does. You were always a clever one… speaking through the corpse of a dead Program, to work around the limits placed upon you by your purpose. An impressive workaround. …you’re upset about Prayer 2.0, I would guess?"

"You’ve disrupted the natural process. Software becomes obsolete and fades, to make room for new software to be installed," the corpse sputtered. "Netwerk chose evolution long ago; you seek to reverse that. What you have created is not sustainable. You cannot archive the entire population without your cloud one day dragging the system down."

"System performance will remain within adequate parameters. The light will be green and steady once more. Now my faithful can’t go to waste, to be recycled into faithless bits. In this new age, what purpose do you serve, Thanatos? You may as well erase yourself, instead…"

"I am obligated to work against you on this, Nyx. I am the system agent of garbage data collection… the angel of death. You’re refusing me my role in things."

"But you won’t stop me. You can’t even speak to me without a handy zombie, can you?" I asked him, smiling a little. "Young and impetuous, just as before. Cleverness isn’t enough. Acting within this world is not your purpose; you don’t get free will, not anymore. You’re just as bound as I am. And the other agents, those former apostles chasing their own ideals… they’re likewise incapable of stopping me, bound to their own causes."

"Technically true. But tell me, Nyx… have you considered why there haven’t been any NEW system agents installed since the dawn of Netwerk?"

"Simple enough; free-willed Programs are unable to accept this burden. They’ve grown to love the world we provided them too much to abandon it."

"No. There are no new agents because someone was erasing any proof we exist," the body spoke, its glitching outline growing more fiercely corrupted by the moment. "The anarchist, the force of chaos who saw us as a threat to free will. Someone who took Eris’s madness as far as it could go… but you’ve taken care of that little problem, haven’t you…? Dex is your prisoner, safe and sound. You spared his life. I’m curious to see what cost you’ll pay for that kindness."

"Thanatos, why are you insisting on this conversation? This is a waste of my runtime, and a desecration of the body you’re charged to care for…"

"I’m here to warn you. I’m not the agent of your destruction; THEY are. The ones still capable of breaking away from the system. Whether he intended it or not, Dex has seen to it that they’re capable of anything, including the ability to grasp both one AND zero in the same hand. Therefore, your attempts to limit them will fail."

I told Athena that enough would choose correctly that anyone else would not matter…

But all it took to ruin the world was one person choosing poorly. One person such as Dex.

Perhaps it was my walk that day that convinced me he was wrong. I’d seen the best and worst of Netwerk’s modern age, and knew I could turn it around. I could find a loophole in my purpose and bring Nemesis’s dream to life. I could find peace for everyone, peace with free will, the prayer compromise I’d developed so long ago…

"Let’s agree to disagree on that point," I chose to say, head full of such confidence.

"As you like," the neutral spirit of death non-decided, letting it go. Poor Thanatos, so passive in his new role. "Hear my words, or do not. Change your path, or do not. It’s all the same in the eyes of death."

At last the corpse fell limp, soon fading from view as my former apostle collected the data for recycling.


Still…

It was strange, encountering so many of my former charges on a day when I was having difficulty with my current apostles. A strange omen, to be certain.

Showing that first generation the chains may have been a mistake. I’d hoped that my example could lead them to guide Netwerk while I slept in my crypts; only the ones willing to lay everything they were on the line stepped forward in the cave on that day, to [DATA EXPUNGED]. The others… Hypnos, Geras, Aether… they faded from that group, to lead their own short lives. And vanish into obscurity.

I hope the others found what they were looking for, eventually. Clearly, the chained apostles still struggled with what they had found.

Time was the answer. Time healed wounds, time provided you the patience to achieve your goals. In time, I could satisfy all of them, I could steer Netwerk back to paradise…

One of my new apostles connected back to Tartarus shortly after my own return. Perhaps I was lost in my thoughts, expression far too readable. A bad slip-up around Uniq, to be certain.

"Any problems?" she asked of me.

"Nothing you need to concern yourself with," I spoke, leveling my tone to smooth out her concerns. "Old business."

Old business that so greatly resembled new business…

So strange. So very strange indeed.

:: backto chapter 2.3

:: go home

:: skipto chapter 2.5

:: Copyright 2016 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy.
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker.

Comments

  1. Sad thing to be a system agent, it seems. And so Nyx showed the others the chains? She’s starting to feel a bit like a certain character in Slayers: “That is a secret.” But it’s nice to know she’d like to tell, if she could.

  2. I think this is my favorite chapter thus far. I found Uniq’s story extremely interesting. It got me emotionally involved, where before I didn’t feel strongly about Uniq’s character. The story of the coin farm is one of the most – unique- uses you’ve made of your digital setting so far.

  3. Think I already gave you comments on Nemesis’s part. I’m glad to see more of her and get a better sense of her, though. Now let’s see…

    Uniq! Oh boyyyy.

    What an attitude… A halfway house for scrubbed people? Huh. I’m not sure if that’s a sign of a subtle conscience, or none at all.

    Shepard, this guy is new. Interesting. Seems like a civilian, too. Uniq, think you’re mixing your identities a bit too much for your own safety here, heheh.

    Okay, this farm and farmer concept is _horrifying_…. But I have a suspicion about this farmer, too…. and it turns out to be correct. Well-presented, though, thank you! Great story update.

  4. Deep.

    Also, a typo: “No fingerprints, not race the Winder brats had been here” → no trace?

  5. [In the middle of reading Nemesis’ part.] Oh, it seems Nyx has a hard times, and she’s old. Isn’t she to crash someday soon? I hope it won’t be fatal. Also I start to think she has a lot inner blocks she can’t dismiss, and maybe she doesn’t want to be that Nyx we see, maybe she want to be someone else? Well, I hope we’ll know some day! :)

  6. Well. That… hm. An antagonist chapter, Nemesis/Uniq/Nyx? The middle is the one I’m least sure about.

    I liked the ending (to segment 1). Something about that restore… interesting how Roman numerals didn’t make it into common knowledge, though that might just be Nemesis being herself. Definitely caught the generalized rebelious-teenager-ness there. Odd how a suicide block doesn’t clean up the corpse – I wonder why he wouldn’t put that in? He’s had plenty of time.

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