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Floating Point 2.5 :: Code


Floating Point 2.5 :: Code


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

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:: skipto chapter 2.6


Folding and re-folding hands in her lap, uncomfortable while sitting there amidst comfortably wondrous beauty.

The applicant clearly was intimidated by her surroundings; Jan3t had seen it before, every time she dragged some poor young thing through these halls. The company spent millions of coins on the finest artwork known to Programkind, all unique pieces, all coded exclusively for use in this server and this server alone. Even the architecture itself represented the collective cultural brilliance of eight generations at minimum…

The reason for opulence beyond opulence was twofold. One, it made the employees feel better about themselves, knowing that the company they worked for could splash money around on things like that with ease. Two, it scared the null out of clients and prospective employees, weeding out those who couldn’t deal with this level of ludicrous wealth… which, of course, implied ludicrous power.

And into this den of absolute money and power now came this poor young thing, fidgeting away. Undoubtedly her anxiety was caused by the highly calculated façade.

It was tempting to cull her right there and then; nobody that wound-up would last a month here. A bad hire could reflect badly on her as the director of employee resources. But, given the trivial nature of the position, it couldn’t hurt to give the jumpy young woman a chance despite such misgivings. If things worked out, Jan3t would get a bonus. If they didn’t… well, it wouldn’t hurt her standing that much.

[Jan3t]
Name:
Jan3t

Home:
Condit, Horizon

Org:
Iteration

So Jan3t consulted her MemoryPalace, loading today’s meeting schedule. She couldn’t be bothered to genuinely remember anyone’s name when she could call it up at a thought from a sideloaded database modification to her base Program code. Which, in a way, was also a type of memory…

"Miss Tertiary?" she called, bringing the newcomer’s recruitment folder into her current memory space.

And the poor young girl was on her feet, at sharp attention.

"Yes!" the woman blurted, unfolding her hands and putting them to her sides. "I’m here! For my interview. I’m here for my interview."

As proof that Jan3t wasn’t entirely without sympathy, she did offer an understanding smile.

"Relax," she suggested. "It’s okay. It’s just a job interview, not an interrogation."

"Right! Why would it be an interrogation?! I… uh. I’m sorry. It’s… I’m a little nervous, is all. I mean, this is a big step… me, finding a position with Iteration? It’s just… wow. Wow! Who doesn’t dream of coding for Iteration? You guys make the best stuff! Plug-ins and apps and full codebase modification packages…!"

"Yes. Well. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves," Jan3t suggested, pulling her sympathy back a step. "You’re not being hired to write modifications. You could eventually end up in that department, after enough hard work… but one thing at a time."

"Right, right. Of course. I understand completely! So, ah, is there any paperwork to fill out…? I mean, I already submitted my résumé with the application, but if there’s anything else I need to fill out, well, I’ll fill that right out. Right away. No problem."

"Actually, you’ve already got the job. You were pre-approved for your position," Jan3t informed her, calling up all relevant documentation from her internal MemoryPalace for review. "Nobody gets through those doors without extensive background checks. As you came highly recommended from multiple credible sources, and given this is… let’s be frank and say a very junior position, despite requiring a highly specific skill set… I didn’t see the need to interview other candidates. As long as you don’t repeat the mistakes of your predecessor, I’m sure you’ll do just fine."

"Uh. What mistakes, exactly…?"

"Our last groundskeeper accidentally initiated a viral replication event in the gardens," Jan3t explained. "An app run wild, nearly overtaking the whole server. Initiated the emergency auto-logout for all connected Programs, dropped productivity that day to intolerable lows while we cleared it out. So, that. Don’t do that, and all will be well."

"Ahah. Yes, I think I can avoid that particular problem. You can count on me!"

"So, the only thing left is to sit down with Mr. Conundrum and get him to sign off on your contract," Jan3t explained.

And like that, Miss Tertiary’s nerves returned. Her face deadlocked in terror. Wonderful.

Again, Jan3t was starting to doubt again that the young software engineer would last. Especially if she routinely locked up like this… frozen in place, unable to respond. Iteration was a fast company, the sort with no brakes; they expected employees to keep up or show themselves the door. Even a low-tier position had to live up to the standards set forward by Mr. Conundrum…

Fortunately, the woman broke her facial deadlock.

"Right," the new hire pretending to be Miss Tertiary replied, a smile cracking through. "We’ll just… visit his õff!¢ê. No problem."

Resisting the urge to shake her head and sigh, Jan3t flicked a finger along the bottom of the security badge pinned to her lapel, summoning the entrance to Mr. Conundrum’s office.

Understandable that the new recruit would be surprised by this. A freestanding door was considered an oddity in any affluent server; most people felt comfortable with physical space that represented itself accurately. Being bigger or smaller on the inside, having doors without the pesky need for a wall… these were hacks only used by cheap servers. Despite being surrounded by aesthetically pleasing luxury, this trick of manifesting a portal was considered crass… and Jan3t knew that her employer didn’t care one whit.

Besides, it provided the ultimate form of security. Nobody could break into an office which had no access point whatsoever outside of being activated by a personal key. No key, no door, no risk.

"We do things a bit differently here," Jan3t warned her charge. "You’ll get used to it. Hopefully. Now, let’s get you a nice, warm… well… a nice Iteration welcome. Mr. Conundrum is eager to meet with you."


Iteration.

If one plotted a graph of wealth distribution across all the major businesses in the world, there would be two sizeable spikes that easily outpaced all others. The Horizon family itself… and Iteration, providers of software modifications to improve upon the codebase of Programkind.

Modifications. Considered an absolute sin by the Church of One, frowned on by most due to the way they irrevocably screwed with your code, envied by everyone who couldn’t afford them. Those who had their Program core modified to permanently add new functionality could reach beyond the capabilities of mere sandboxed apps, beyond tools and gadgets, beyond anything. And some modifications, designed to extend one’s life through constant policing for memory glitches and crashes, those were so valuable that mere coins could not buy them. At least, not any sane amount of coin.

Despite being generally shunned by the population of Athena Online, modification packages were popular among the elite of Horizon’s server nation, and among the shiftiest and most influential individuals in the Chanarchy. Iteration’s clientele actually numbered in the dozens; nobody else could possibly afford their services. Each client was catered to and pampered by account-specific sales representatives and technical support, on call around the clock.

Once you latched yourself onto Iteration, as either a client or an employee, you were supposedly set for life… even if the employees tended to burn out like a brilliant flame long before the clients did, driven mad by the pressure cooker corporate atmosphere…

"…which is why I think the best way for you to rob the place is to be hired by them," Arjay concluded. "Any questions?"

Meekly, the girl in the back raised her hand. For varying definitions of ‘in the back,’ given she was standing slightly behind the Winder siblings, and for varying definitions of ‘raising her hand’ as she’d only half-heartedly lifted it for attention.

"Yes, Beta?" Arjay recognized.

"Um. I’m sorry, I mean, I know I don’t know much about big business, but… I know enough to know not just anyone gets hired by Iteration," she responded. "They’re legendary for being incredibly selective. Even if they had an open position, it’s not like we could just submit a fake résumé and easily get in the door…"

"Ahhh, Miss Projkit, you underestimate me! That wounds me so. I’ve already planned ahead," Arjay proclaimed, clasping all four of her hands to his chest. "Through my connections, I believe I can smuggle at least one of you in through the notoriously picky hiring process as a junior programmer. A few false documents here, a bribed official there, a blackmailed academic or two, and… well… you don’t need to know the specifics. In fact you absolutely should not know the specifics, to avoid incrimination and/or insomnia-inducing guilt…"

Now, it was Spark’s turn to object.

"You know this is #BugnutsCrazy, right?" she added. "Iteration. You want us to mug Iteration, a creepy shadow clinic for the rich and famous. We’d be lucky to get in the server itself without being backspaced, much less rob their data stores…"

"I believe it was your brother who made the offer in the first place, Spark dearest, not you. Your opinion has hereby been logged and disregarded. Now, Tracer, darling…? Would you like to contribute to this discussion?"

The final member of the trio had a single question.

"Are you absolutely certain they have the cure to hereditary memory rot?" Tracer asked.

"Absolutely," Arjay confirmed. "My sources are credible. Half of them died confirming it, but confirm it they did. The rich and famous enjoy long life thanks to secretly offered treatments such as the one you seek! The code in their vaults will not only cure your pink-and-fluffy lover here, but can be adapted to shield against the false memories of the One. It’s the answer to all your atheistic prayers! And you did promise me, once upon a time, that you would offer me service in payment for this information…"

"Meaning you want something else stolen from Iteration. It can’t simply be for a copy of the code; we plan to distribute it open source in the end, to lend credibility to our ‘cure’ for the One."

"Yes, yes, more or less, more or less. I could care less about your cure or your cause. What I want… is the Conundrum," Arjay explained. "The mysterious director of Iteration, Mr. Conundrum. As far as anyone can tell, he never leaves his office. He rarely takes meetings. He seems oddly detached from his own company, leaving all matters of sales, support, and engineering to his underlings. I want to know more about this lovely man, Tracer, I want to know so very badly. And you’re going to get me what I want… by planting a bug in his office. By letting me watch him from afar, getting to know the Conundrum, likely whilest touching myself in an impure manner."

"You provide us an in-road to the facility. We steal the cure. You get access to his office. After that, we’re done," Tracer agreed. "No more debt, everybody gets what they want. Hmm. It could work. It could very well work…"

Spark waved her arms, shook her head, generally gestured negatively. "Traaaacer. No. This is insane; this isn’t like cracking into a Chanarchy hideout to take out some troll, or tricking greedy douchebags like Cup8 or XSept. This is a fortified Horizon corporate server run by paranoid loonies. And it’s not like their code is the only way to stop the One, I mean, there’s gotta be another way out there to block Uniq’s memory-editing malware broadcast…"

"But we know Iteration’s technology will work, Spark. They craft the finest Program modifications around, regardless of ethics or legality. If anybody has the deep system knowledge needed to cut off Uniq’s hack, it would be them. I should know… they made my eyes."

"Indeed they did," Arjay spoke. "And if they knew you had them, well, they can’t legally have you killed but it’s not like pesky laws matter much to those under Horizon’s umbrella. You know, it’s a shame the courier who gave me that particular stolen package died shortly afterwards, or I wouldn’t need your assistance. So! What’s it to be, friends? Are you in, or are you going to let Miss Projkit stay deadlocked like that…?"

Because Beta was indeed deadlocked.

And glitching.

This was a new development. She’d been timing out now and then, losing her grip on the present tense of memory… but the slight flicker along her outlines, that had started up soon after the disastrous progressive town hall meeting. Beta claimed it was normal considering condition (or her "çºÑÐÏ+îØn," as she’d put it, words distorted slightly). She claimed it’d come and go… but it hadn’t gone yet. Tracer strongly suspected it mirrored the depression she found herself mired in, after everything fell apart in front of her…

Snowi was dead. Her friend-or-enemy, killed because life had gotten increasingly cheap in an era of infinite backups for the faithful. But Snowi wasn’t faithful, and now, she was gone. Beta had not taken it well… to the point where she didn’t want to talk about it. Beta, of all people, not wanting to talk about her feelings even with her closest confidant. They could talk about anything, in those quiet hours together at Floating Point, but this was one thing she’d pointedly avoided…

Her ever-so-slightly glitching form snapped back to normalcy, pulling Tracer away from that train of thought.

"So, we have Tracer be hired by them," she suggested. "If you need help pretending to be a programmer, you can wear my glasses and I’ll feed you code from my personal archives at Floating Point. You’re good at social engineering and infiltration, right?"

Tracer considered the problem, studying it from various angles. He cross-referenced points back and forth across his MemoryPalace, which had been searching for any and all information on Iteration and its mysterious owner ever since Arjay made the initial suggestion. His MemoryPalace, which like his eyes, was a Program modification…

"I believe we’d be better off having you do the infiltration," he suggested to Beta.

"What? What. What?" Beta repeated. "Me? But…"

"You’re the only one of us who actually knows how to program, Beta. Yes, I could fake it, if I had a live connection to you… but we’re going to the heart of Iteration. The same company that made my connection-tracking eyes. A ruse like that would likely be detected immediately. No. They’re going to want the genuine article, a standalone Program of great talent. That means you."

"But… but I’ve got a condition. I can’t. I mean, I can’t be in a high-pressure situation like that; what if I lock up? What if, what if… I can’t. Tracer, I just can’t. Whenever things get too intense, or I’m feeling too disoriented, I slip and and and and and and âŋd ÁŋЗ"

—and she forced herself to stop talking, to prevent an infinite loop.

"I’m not saying we should be entirely reliant on you," Tracer added, quickly. "There’s no pressure here, Beta. We take the opportunity given to us, but I’m not going to assume you’re our only play against Iteration. If they discover your condition and decide to fire you… or if you simply don’t want to do it anymore… that’s fine. What matters most here is your initial recon."

"Uh… but… then what’ll we do? After I scout the place out."

"Improvise. We’ll use the information you’ve gathered about their underlying structure against them. Like the best malware, we aren’t going to rely on a single infection vector; I want to study Iteration inside and out, finding the ideal attack. Arjay, we’ll accept your forged documents for Beta’s hiring… but I plan to know your ‘Conundrum’ well enough to execute a perfect plan, with or without Beta’s access. …and will you please stop doing that."

"Stop doing what?" Arjay asked, while blatantly tweaking his nipples. "Sorry, I just love watching you work, my little sociopath. Hurling your lover into the wolves’ den so readily just to get what you want! Mmm…"

"How soon can you get Beta hired? Hmm. Let me rephrase. How long do we have until Beta gets hired, so we can prepare in advance?"

"This particular window closes within a few days. They’ve recently lost a particular junior programming role due to incompetence, and are scouting for replacements now. I can slip her name into the proceedings; you’ll have the bug malware I want planted in Conundrum’s office shortly thereafter. But I warn you, my friends—"

"Don’t use that word, please," Spark dryly insisted.

"—I warn you, my frenemies, whatever you do… avoid coming into contact with Conundrum or his office until you’re ready to plant the bug," Arjay spoke. "What little I know about him is that he makes Tracer’s analytical mindset look like chatroom quarterbacking for CoC junkies. He’ll sniff out a lie easily enough; the closer you get to his power base, the more dangerous this gets. Do not approach until you’re ready for the big finale."


Beta was not ready for the big finale. She didn’t even have Arjay’s surveillance malware yet…

Despite that, she found herself sitting in a leather chair across from Mr. Conundrum, in the middle of his power base. And felt… oddly comfortable.

Nothing about this situation spoke of the unassailable danger that Arjay suggested. The office was an ordinary office with ordinarily pleasant furnishings, balanced neatly between practical design and eye-pleasing texture work. The piles and piles of opulent artwork beyond that office door didn’t extend in here; for some reason, the owner of the company had chosen to present his haven as something unthreatening and unassuming. Merely functional, even.

As for Conundrum himself, the shape of the office suited the man. Unthreatening, unassuming. An ordinary-looking gentleman in an ordinary-looking business suit with an ordinary-looking face. He never rose from his chair, not even to greet her, but not out of some cold and indifferent gesture… he was too busy rooting through files about "Miss Tertiary." Files forged by Arjay, and filtered through untold back channels.

In fact, if not for the office door itself, Beta would find herself quite at ease here.

The door was indescribable at the moment, because it simply did not exist. It had neatly stopped existing after she stepped through it. Now that they were inside, there was no escape.

Well. Presumably, Conundrum or Miss Jan3t would re-summon the door and let her leave once they were finished here. If he let her leave. If he didn’t figure out their ruse…

Despite the pleasant leather of the comfortable chair she sat in, Beta fidgeted, as if sitting on a hot plate.

Finally, the Conundrum looked up from his files, pushing them aside for now.

[Conundrum]
Name:
Conundrum

Home:
Iteration, Horizon

Org:
Iteration

"Miss Flora/Tertiary, our new junior groundskeeper," he announced, introducing Beta to himself by himself.

"Ah, yes. That’s me," Beta agreed, unsure how to respond. "I mean, if you’re hiring me. Miss Jan3t said I was hired, but—"

"I can’t claim to understand the point of gardening," Mr. Conundrum stated, leaning back in his chair, away from the new hire. "Aesthetics, I suppose, but it seems overcomplicated for such a simple goal. Yes, I purchase art and sculpture for my offices; install, activate, done. But gardening, the act of coding seeds and waiting for them to grow according to slow-moving heuristic processes… can’t honestly say I see the point. ‘Natural’ growth is an old and worthless pursuit, overall. The future is in direct program modifications."

Normally, Beta would mumble and shrink and shy away from such a confrontation. And truthfully that’s exactly what she wanted to do, in some futile effort to avoid trouble. Especially here and now, when so much was riding on the line…

But… no. She had to be brave, like Spark. Clever, like Tracer. And in the end, be herself. Because this was something she believed in.

"I think heuristic methods are a legitimate form of growth," Beta spoke, without a stutter. "Take the Default, for example. I mean, I know everybody looks down on the Default and its age curve, but in the end it provides a completely unique avatar, right? It’s a slow process, but generates a one-of-a-kind data set. Similarly, a well coded plant that’s allowed to grow into its own form will be unique, and… priceless. It’s like art. It’s like your artwork, but better, because it can’t exist anywhere else in the same form at the same time."

The other major reason Beta was the right selection for this deception… she had done plenty of gardening, back when she owned her own little cottage. Back before the trolls ran her out of her home. Something she rather missed, living in the skyborne castle of Floating Point, which had no proper garden of its own. It was designed primarily for cloud data storage of the Wikipedia; all processor intensive tasks such as growing flowers had to be limited, to avoid server lag.

And maybe confronting the Conundrum on this issue wasn’t wise, but she did feel quite strongly about it. Her mother coded fabrics and sensory stimulants, no two entirely alike thanks to random seeds and growth systems. Even Beta’s pet cat was growing and maturing, day by day, beyond the initially simple App he started as…

Before her memory could sink back into a cycle of endless nostalgia and corrupted sectors, Conundrum’s fingers tapping on his desk kept her memory focus locked to the here and now.

"Interesting," was his only response.

"I, ah… I feel strongly about it," Beta added, a bit weakly. "I mean. It’s like my sweater, all the fibers are arranged through procedural generation routines. It keeps it from feeling uniform."

"That garment is your work? Hmm. Very well, let’s see what skill level you possess…"

…as Beta felt the unnerving sensation of fingers running up and down her back, through the chair she sat in. While Mr. Conundrum sat perfectly still, showing no signs of response.

Now Beta kept quiet, rather than pressing this further. Plus… after the ghostly caress to check the softness of her clothes, something that would not fly in an Athena Online corporate environment, he’d casually switched topics by opening her files again. Pulling one in particular out of the tightly organized cluster of her freshly established MemoryPalace module.

His next statement made her code run cold.

"You’re lying about why you’re here," he stated. "I know the real reason you want to work at Iteration."

Anything Beta said next could easily give her away. Even if she didn’t make a mistake, she could lock up, could loop, could glitch…

"You’ve got hereditary memory rot," Conundrum continued, opening a file representing a quick visual analysis of Beta… still sitting in her chair. A chair which scanned her the instant she sat down in it. "Even without the scans, I could tell from the tiny twitch under your left eye, the way your words occasionally stutter. You probably don’t even realize it’s happening. And when you finished your… declaration, I saw you loop backwards into yourself for a moment."

No point lying about it. Even a cursory glance at the open file hovering over his desk confirmed every little telltale sign of her condition. But… nowhere in that file did she see the word ‘Beta.’ Meaning their cover remained, in part.

"It’s… it’s against anti-discrimination hiring laws to deny employment due to a disability…" she mumbled.

"If this were Athena Online, with its endless restrictions, I’d be culpable. But I contract with Horizon; within my server, there is only my law. Still… I’m planning on accepting your hire. It’s not like you lied about your condition, we simply never asked you, and you declined to mention it. An error of omission, nothing more. Except… you know we have an experimental treatment for that condition, don’t you? Yes. I can read your face, even when you say no words. You know about our MemoryMinder package…"

Instead of letting him sit there and put unspoken words in her mouth, Beta chose to speak the words. But under her own terms. Clever, like Tracer.

"I know," she agreed. "I won’t d-d-d3ŋý it, I know you have the treatment I need."

"Planning on stealing it? No, there’s no point in answering; I wouldn’t believe you if you said no. But it doesn’t matter, in the end. There’s no reason to steal from me when I’m willing to help you, Miss Tertiary."

Hope, dangled on a string.

Beta had been hoping all along that this could end peacefully. No grand heist, no vigilante action, just an earnest appeal to the better nature of Programkind and cooperation with Iteration to save Netwerk from the schemes of a false god. While Tracer plotted and Spark got ready for war, Beta quietly held out hope that they could talk their way out of this one as they’d done so many times before. An honest appeal for compassion put an end to the KopyBots, it ended the rampage of the glitched avatar of suicidal revenge, it turned their fortunes around time and time again…

"I’m perfectly willing to sell you the treatment," Conundrum explained. "You couldn’t possibly afford it, of course, but I accept skill and service as a form of currency. Two years of work from you, unpaid of course, should suffice. Assuming you can survive that time, you’ll prove yourself fit for Iteration. I demand and expect only the best work from the best employees; Miss Jan3t sees to that. Either you’re the best, worth investing in, or you’ll be replaced."

…hope, smashed against the rocks.

He spoke so directly and confidently. No wiggle room; this wasn’t an emotional appeal which took root in his heart. Conundrum wanted a simple exchange of services, nothing more.

"But…" Beta started, unsure of how to follow it up. "But… but I’m suffering. You can see it, you know how far my condition has progressed. Two years? Why would you why would you why would ý0ú deny treatment to—"

"I have one singular directive: increase shareholder value," Conundrum explained, cutting her off just as she came out of the loop. "My purpose is to direct the efforts of Iteration towards optimal growth. This is no charity, Miss Tertiary. A corporation must evolve, improve, augment itself in perpetuity. I owe it to my investors to keep our services exclusive… and thus, earning maximum profit. Be thankful I’m willing to bend this tiny amount rather than have you immediately replaced with someone I don’t need to invest in."

"But—"

"You could also consider it a kindness in that I’m not asking how you discovered our secrets," he added. "Because this is Horizon. I could utilize any method I liked to gather that information from you. Instead, I’m offering you a way to save yourself. I suggest you accept."

With that firm reminder of her subterfuge in place, Beta checked her tongue.

An employee badge appeared on her sweater, neatly fixing itself in place.

"That will grant you access to the gardens and the code repository," Conundrum explained. "As well as our break rooms and a few low-security areas. To keep Iteration’s assets safe, security badges simply do not exist outside of this server; you will not be taking it home with you at the end of the day. Miss Jan3t will have your remaining NDA paperwork to sign shortly, but under assumption you will be signing on, I suggest you get to the gardens and start analyzing the problem ahead of you. Good day."

Satisfied that this meeting was complete, Conundrum swept all her files into storage, so he could get on with his day. Without prompting, Miss Jan3t escorted the dumbfounded junior gardener out by using her badge to re-summon the exit door. "Miss Tertiary" was shown to her workspace, put to task, and that was that.


"Make money or die," Beta summarized, that night at Floating Point. "That’s his ethos."

Her first day on the job was simple; clear out the virally ruined garden caused by her predecessor and completely replant it from scratch. Also, she had to produce a visual estimate of what the final garden would look like once fully grown, and check all her code into the central code repository in a secured package container. She’d spent nearly seven straight hours working on developing unique plants just for Iteration, as they’d easily spot some cheap open source seedlings. Half-assing it would result in being promptly fired, and losing any chance at scouting the place for their heist.

The intensity of the work took its toll on Beta, who was used to code binges, but on her own terms… thoughts meandering, occasionally playing with Mew, or taking naps. The quiet and dark of her room, eyes disengaged, those were calming. Frantically re-seeding a whole garden while dozens of employees around you were scurrying to and fro, desperate to finish their own tasks by the closing bell… that was a whole other mess entirely. One which left her stuttering and skipping, having forced herself to focus in on the present flow of time, to avoid triggered memory rot flashbacks.

Now, back at Floating Point, she could finally unwind… and that meant her condition worsened. She’d held it back as long as she could, but exhaustion took her at last.

"In the end I could only spend one hour ĞéŧŢÍŋ6 ŢÕ ķŊÕŵ the layout and the people," Beta said, lips twisting slightly around the broken parts of her speech. "And I have no idea how to break into the code vault or his office. My badge disappeared when I left the server… not that it could’ve opened much of anything. I’m sorry, I wish I could’ve done more. Maybe tomorrow…? I risk being fired if I don’t meet my daily quotas, but as long as I get your scouting done first…?"

"Except we need you to maintain cover while scouting," Tracer emphasized. "Until we have a plan… I’m afraid you need to perform to their expectations."

"Ugh. It’s it’s ¡Ŧ’§ ít’5—it’s, look, I’ve done code jams with Snowi and the like. Those are high-pressure environments, everybody pushing hard to get their Apps done within a crazy time limit. But they’re collaborative, you know? We throw ideas at each other, we split into teams, we each get our own tasks done while keeping spirits high. But Iteration, those guys, they’re just under this intense competitive pressure to live up to Mr. Conundrum’s standards or be summarily fired. He’s a slave driver! The sales representatives, the coders, the administrative staff. Even Miss Jan3t had no time to talk with me after that, she had seven other meetings that day!"

Spark made a variety of faces, none of them pleasant.

"Y’know, as someone looking to get into the nine-to-five career grind… you’re not selling me on the concept," she said. "I’m figuring being a school coach would be, y’know, casual. Help out the kids, no big deal, everybody wins. If it’s anything like that mess, though…"

Tracer shook his head. "No. A school is not a corporation. It has other ugly pressures—keep student grades above a certain level or you won’t get tax funds allocated under Athena’s public education system, for instance—but it doesn’t have shareholders in the same way Iteration does. A corporation exists to grow, and grow endlessly. It has no choice in the matter. Come up short and your shares are sold, so the investors can move on to something with stronger growth potential."

Beta nodded in agreement. "And even beyond shareholders, I think the clients are more brutal. I did overhear an incident today… someone with a really expensive-looking avatar, like, cloth simulations that could easily crash any low-performance server… he came in screaming about some package he bought making him go blind for hours. In the end Jan3t showed a sales representative and a coder into Conundrum’s office, and they never came out."

"…hmm. He killed them, perhaps?"

"Well, no, I think he just moved his door to outside company grounds and booted them. It’s easier than the march of shame back to your desk to collect your things. He can move his door anywhere he wants, and only people with proper authorization can summon it. …look, how long do I need to keep this job? I’m glad my condition’s out in the open, I don’t have to worry about that anymore, but…"

For this, Tracer had to give it serious thought. Serious delving into his MemoryPalace.

MemoryPalace was an Iteration product, one of their more public offerings, cheaper than most of their services. He got a five-fingered discount on that as well, Arjay offering him a bootleg copy to help him catalogue and analyze findings about Verity’s murder. But if he had actually bought it, it would’ve paid for itself several times over by this point.

Today, he used it to cross-index everything Beta had said in her lengthy summary of Iteration’s structure. Nothing new popped out at him… but the intelligent search agents built into the system, hardcoded right into his Program itself thanks to the extensive nature of the module, they pointed something else out. An absence.

"Why the artwork?" Tracer wondered. "Why spend so much money on expensive art? Why have a garden at all, for that matter. Clearly he actively dislikes gardens. Clearly he doesn’t decorate his own office lavishly to impress his clients, either. So, why the artwork?"

"Ehh. It’s corporate dick-waving," Spark said, with a dismissive shrug. "Ooooh, lookit me, look at my #Phat$tacks!"

"…uh, Spark, nobody says #Phat$tacks anymore…" Beta asided.

"Yeah, well, I’m gonna be a teacher soon. I’m obliged to be a few years behind on popular hashtags so I can embarrass and horrify my students when I try to relate to them with their own words. I’m actually looking forward to that."

Tracer refocused the discussion. "Horrific butchering of language aside, I think the artwork is key. I realize this feels like grasping at straws, but… hmm, another phrase to look up in the Wikipedia, I can honestly say I have no idea why one would ‘grasp at straw’… ahem. I realize this feels random but tomorrow, see if you can find out who handled the decoration, and why."

"That’s it? The artwork? Will that really help us?"

"If my theory is accurate… yes. It may provide us our second infection vector. Patience, Beta. We’ll crack this soon."

"I hope so," Beta mumbled. "Because I don’t how how many days like today I can take."


Twenty-three minutes. Exactly how Conundrum came to that number was a mystery to Beta, but she was thankful for each and every one of those minutes. Twenty-three minutes of personal time in the garden, to relax and defocus her mind.

Yesterday she’d spent that time trying and failing to track down Miss Jan3t. Today, after four hours of hammering on ferns and flowers and trees, debugging their seed cores and replacing a few that she’d messed up during moments of corruptive distraction… she needed time to just go offline, to sit there quietly and do nothing. To meditate.

She’d often been told by the Church of One faithful that prayer was the ultimate meditation: close your eyes, clasp your hands, and surrender yourself to a higher power. In the end you’d feel refreshed and full of purpose, as if somehow you’d done something of vast importance rather than sitting there doing nothing of note. But Beta preferred not to grind for coins, relying on the meager but honest income from her indie apps… and disengaging her artificial eyes proved calming enough not to need to mess with prayer.

Packing her work into an archival container, Beta dumped the box down the chute to the central code repository. All coders were expected to check their changes in before going on break, and before leaving for the day. The containers had a richly detailed access log, to determine who checked code in and out, and who opened the box. A tamper-proof log, to avoid anyone sneaking the contents out of a package undetected… high security even for the greenery. All code was Iteration’s code, from the most insignificant to the most secretive. All code was locked down tightly.

With this task complete, Beta settled onto an ornate bench in her new garden. She crossed her legs underneath her, and prepared to relax…

…and was interrupted by a harried-looking coder. Judging from the identity badge on his lapel, he was from the deep core engineering department, the secretive sorts who built enhancement packages for the rich and famous.

Only after he sat down next to her did he notice someone else in the gardens with him. He blinked a few times, pushing aside his own distracted thoughts.

"Uh, sorry," he mumbled. "Am I interrupting…? I was, uh, I heard the mess in the gardens had been cleared out, and it’s break time for me, so… look, I’ll go."

"No no, it’s okay," Beta insisted. At first out of decency and sympathy for her fellow exhausted programmer… then out of curiosity, if she could get some information out of him useful to their cause. "Have a seat. I’m Tertiary, the new gardener."

"Pranav," the man introduced himself, extending a hand to shake. "I’m… well, I can’t say what my exact job position is. I’m under some strict NDAs. I mean, I literally can’t tell you, there’re speech blockers installed in my Program codebase."

"They forced malware on you?! Is that… well, I guess everything is legal here, but they seriously did that?"

"What? No, no. I signed the Class III NDA myself. I volunteered to be modified."

Beta tried not to stare in mute horror. And failed.

"Hey, it beats being unemployed," Pranav justified, with a shrug. "Or working for some shaky start-up, or One forbid a Chanarchy fly-by-night. Coders in Horizon have the best opportunities! I mean, if you can hang onto your job, Iteration’s the best there is. I’ll have an amazing bullet point for my résumé. And… and, I mean, it’s a miserable experience, and I constantly have to compete with my peers to get the tasks that’ll get me ahead, and the twenty-three’s the best part of my day, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it. Right?"

Sensing he really wanted someone to agree with him, Beta nodded her head along with his words. Even if she felt the need to object, in the tiniest way.

"I… guess the money’s good?" she offered, looking for the upside.

"Totally! It’s great. If I can keep this job another ten years I should be all set. …did kinda come close to losing it today, though. Heh. You’re lucky, y’know."

"Me? Why?"

"You’re just the gardener. —I don’t mean that in a bad way! I mean that in the best way. Nobody else wants your job," Pranav explained. "I’ve got at least five people gunning for my position. Conundrum’s got us all working on the same project, and whoever finishes it first keeps their job. He wants only the most efficient workers. Doesn’t help when jackasses like Pikul sabotage your compiler with malware to slow you down; I spent my entire morning detangling my work area. Definitely glad the garden’s coming back; I need this to stay sane…"

"It’s seriously that bad? But… I mean, you could go independent, right?" she suggested. "Be your own boss! Code apps, sell them directly. Work for yourself… or you could even team up with some of the other indies. Code jams! Doing things your own way…"

"Yeah, right. There’s too many special snowflakes already who think they’re going to make it alone… you go indie without breaking huge, you die in poverty. Sorry, but I’ve got student debts to pay, I’ve got server rental fees, I’ve got an elderly father who needs care… no. An NDA and a few treasonous coworkers are a small price to pay, right?"

"An NDA, and backstabbers, and exhaustion, and burnout…"

"Yeah, well, I’ve got the gardens. And the artwork, I guess. Not that I’m one for sculptures. Guess I just don’t get art…"

Sensing her moment, Beta latched onto it. Anything to help Tracer get what he needed, even if it seemed a trivial data point. Anything to get her out of this mess, too…

"Why’s this place decorated with such expensive artwork, anyway?" she asked him. "I figured it was for the clients, to show off how successful Iteration is…"

"The clients? Well, yeah, but that’s not the primary reason. It’s like I said… the garden keeps me sane. Same with the artwork," Pranav said. "Both were Jan3t’s idea. Conundrum asked her to improve employee morale because he can’t be bothered to deal with it himself, so she went and bought a ton of artwork for us and had a garden installed. I guess it was nice at first, but it’s not like we have much time to actually enjoy it all."

"So… it’s all about the employees? That’s it?"

"Conundrum only cares about burnout as much as it hits his bottom line," he spoke, with a nod. "When that happens he throws more money at the problem. Expensive artwork, team-building seminars, crap like that. Nothing’s worked so far. But… it’s all worth it. Best company in Horizon! Right?"

The third time he’d asked her that.

Beta couldn’t meet that desperate and hopeful look in his eye with a lying smile.


Quiet. Dark. Calm. Soothing…

This was Beta’s true relaxation, within the heart of her world. Floating Point, sanctuary from the madness of Netwerk, and now a sanctuary from her difficult dual role as spymaster and Iteration’s gardener. Here, she could genuinely disengage and draw strength from isolation; Spark and Tracer gave her space, knowing she needed this…

Although, truthfully, she also wished for companionship. Friendship. Someone who knew what she was going through, and sympathized.

Snowi. Snowi would’ve understood best.

For all her political machinations and extremist rhetoric, Snowi was a programmer. She knew the joy and the pain of coding, how creativity and productivity were tied together into one pure artform. To code was to change the world; everything was code, everything was ones and zeroes, and those who could manipulate the numbers knew the sublime beauty underneath…

Such beauty was stamped out at Iteration. Working on individual cogs for a larger machine; no joy in the task, no sense of satisfaction. Once you finished one milestone you immediately moved to the next one. Toiling away in your own little corner, yes, Beta was familiar with isolation, but isolation in competition with your peers was a strange concept indeed. Not like the collaborative code jams of old.

Oh, how she missed those code jams. Snowi was the one to pull her out of her bedroom, to make her face the world, and join the ranks of her fellow coders in the spirit of true community. Beta, too shy to do it herself, never initiated. And Spark, for all her efforts to yank Beta out of the comforting darkness, wasn’t interested in that scene. Beta was more likely to go to a club or some other hot romantic locale, when with Spark…

Was this her future? Coding little apps to earn a few coins, then the occasional duet with Spark or Tracer? If there was nothing more, nothing larger than that, she may as well be a cog in Conundrum’s machine…

Her thoughts were interrupted by something soft and fluffy landing on her belly, as she lay in her bed.

":kissing_cat::two_hearts::person_with_pouting_face:," Mew spoke, the emoticons encapsulating his feelings. ":no_entry_sign::sob:, :ok:?"

Finally, a genuine smile on her lips, as she scruffled behind Mew’s ears. The kitty leaned into her fingers, enjoying the sensation tremendously.

"You’re one of my oldest friends, y’know," Beta told him. "Snowi’s gone. Cup8 betrayed me. But you’ve always been around. Even back when you were a simple pet app, we were friends…"

":smirk_cat::no_entry_sign::1234:," Mew sniffed, turning his nose up at the idea. ":smirk_cat::thought_balloon:, :arrow_right::smirk_cat::sparkling_heart:!"

"Of course you’re more than an app," Beta agreed. "You’ve come so far since those early days. I’ve modified you as I learned more about coding, sure, but… you’ve grown. Heuristic learning, just like a Program…"

…Programs evolved from apps. Such a fuzzy distinction; a Program was a self-aware app. They earned the capital P through free will and sentience. Who was to say Mew wasn’t sentient? Who was to say Beta was sentient? Everything was code, everything was numbers. The arbitrary distinction between the two had been drawn by society, not some quantifiable concept.

Sure, you could determine Programhood based on the standard metadata and familiar subroutines that came with all Defaults, the code base which could be tinkered with but never wholly replaced. But even then, so much of who you were could be replaced, a fact Iteration leaned heavily on by selling upgrades to those who could afford them. They knew where they drew the line, it seemed.

A line which Mew crossed.

A line that could be exploited.

"…an infection vector," Beta realized. "That’s it. That’s it! I know how to crack the vault!"


Bounding down the stairs, Mew riding her shoulder, clinging to her sweater with his kitty claws for dear life…

Beta came to a halt at the bottom of Floating Point’s great stairwell, heaving for breath.

"I know how to crack the vault!" she repeated, for the benefit of those present.

"And I know how to crack the office," Tracer spoke.

"…really? Uh. Wow! Okay, you first."

"No no no. Ladies first, I insist."

To which Spark raised her hand.

"You don’t count as a lady," Tracer specified. "I mean Beta. What’s your plan for the vault?"

"Uh… well, it’s pretty simple," Beta said, thrown momentarily by the shift in gears. "I’m going to put Mew in a box!"

With a triumphant smile, she awaited praise.

"…and?" Tracer prompted.

"And, uh… I guess it’s less obvious to non-coders. Okay, let me explain. They use a code repository; tougher to crack than most, but it’s still just a code repository. You check your changes in and out, packaging them up in containers, every step logged by the workflow," Beta continued. "It’s not designed to be protected from the inside, though. Although you can’t, like, stuff yourself into a box and physically enter the repository because it doesn’t work that way. I mean, we’re all just code and it’s designed to store code, but it’s smart enough not to allow Programs to be packaged. That’d be silly."

"But… your cat is considered an app, and can be packaged…"

"Exactly! And once inside, he can use a hacktool of my design to bust out of his box, and swap the metadata on the data rot cure for the metadata of my flowers. He can get the swap done during my twenty-three minute break. After that, when I check out my ‘flowers’ from the repository… I’ll get a box containing Mew and the treatment for data rot! Before anybody knows what’s up, I’ll be gone."

"Assuming Mew is smart enough to carry out a complicated, multi-step plan."

":smirk_cat::muscle:+:thought_balloon:, :ok:?" Mew protested, hissing at Tracer. ":fu:."

"Hey! Be nice," Beta scolded.

"…:pouting_cat:," the cat mumbled, glancing aside in annoyance.

"Don’t worry about Mew. He can do it," Beta said. "He’s more than some simple pet app. He’s evolved!"

"Evolved into…? What, a Program? That’s absurd."

"Is it any more absurd than you or me? We were made by Humankind to be their hardcoded slaves; now we’ve got free will. And you know Mew’s got free will to spare! He’s disobeyed orders plenty of times, often finding solutions we could not. He’s the one who saved my reputation by broadcasting me when I faced down that corrupted ghost, remember."

"Certainly, but that’s not the same thing as… hmm. I suppose the semantics are irrelevant," Tracer decided. "If you’re absolutely positive he’s up to the task, I leave the question of his status as a lifeform up to philosophers. Is he ready?"

In response, Mew lifted a paw to his forehead, as a mock salute.

"Right. So, that leaves our half of the plan: cracking Conundrum’s office. The artwork was the key, as I suspected," Tracer explained… opening his MemoryPalace, leaving open documents scattered across the table of Floating Point’s common room for his sister and his lover to study. "We are going to exploit their low employee morale to gain access to the notoriously difficult-to-access server."

"By promoting synergy and improving workflow and #BuzzwordBuzzword," Spark added, with a grin.

"Precisely. Iteration has issues with employee retention, with unusually high burnout and churn rates. What we didn’t know before is how far Conundrum will go to tamp down the problem. It’s not just the artwork; through Miss Jan3t, he routinely hires outside consultants to deal with his morale problems, in vain hopes that his toxic work culture can be changed without major structural shifts."

"And we’re gonna be those outside consultants," Spark added, with a grin. "While running them through stupid team-building exercises, we’ll dupe Jan3t’s badge. Arjay’s arranging the meeting now and forging our credentials."

"But… you’d only have guest badges," Beta explained. "I told you already, the security badges are tiered, and don’t exist outside the server. You can’t steal Jan3t’s badge and bring it back home…"

"Which is why we’re going to be stealing it and accessing the office all in one trip, once our consultant-level badges get us in the door. I have some ideas in mind for how to accomplish that, but we need to do some research before proceeding, and there’s plenty of time. It’ll take a few days to set all of this up… assuming they take the bait and hire us."

"Sooo… a few more days working that job," Beta concluded, glumly. "Because I need my badge so I can upload Mew to the code vault."

"It’s hard work, I know, but—”

"I don’t mind hard work! I’m not whining out of laziness. It’s… you’re right. It’s a toxic culture," Beta tried to explain. "It’s nothing like any programming I’ve done before. You’re pushed as far as you can go, then encouraged to push more to avoid being axed and replaced. People don’t matter at all; there’s… there’s no soul there, no heart. It’s the opposite of everything I love about coding. …surely there are other ways to run a company. I’ve often thought of, like, what if you took the spirit of a code jam and made it a business…"

"Yes, well, as much as we might enjoy buying up all the shares of Iteration and running it ourselves, we don’t have a few billion coins lying around. I’m sorry, Beta. This is difficult on you, both in body and spirit thanks to your data rot, but… we have to do it. There’s no other way."

The same excuse he always told himself. There’s no other way. Somewhere in the back of Tracer’s mind, undoubtedly Arjay was laughing at him, as he lived up to his title as a manipulative sociopath.

Beta’s avatar was jittery and glitchy, having held itself together for nine hours of intense focus. And here Tracer was, saying she’d have to go right back out there and do what he wanted her to do, so he could get what he wanted. Even if it was a cure for her, even if it was going to save Netwerk from those con artists, it still felt… sour. A cruel price.

He would double his own efforts at putting the plan together as fast as possible. Push Arjay to arrange the meeting quickly. Make it happen, so they could put an end to this Church of One business, and earn some well deserved rest.

And then…

Then…

He’d be done. No more investigations, no more challenges, no more enemies.

Right back to where he started, bored with life, unable to focus, unable to enjoy anything at all.

But this worry he kept to himself. They all had their own problems; Tracer would not heap his own on top of the problems he was already heaping on top of others. That cruelty, at least, he’d save for himself.


It took Arjay three days to arrange the meeting.

Tracer suspected it wouldn’t have taken that long, but his crazy frenemy was determined to prove his thesis correct: Tracer, in Arjay’s view, was perfectly willing to let others suffer to get what he wanted. Beta was toiling away at her job, desperately clinging to it despite her lockups and glitches, all to ensure she’d be in play when they made their move. And Arjay was perfectly willing to let her dangle, to make it Tracer’s fault that she was dangling.

He wouldn’t rise to the bait. He ground his teeth and waited for the meeting with Jan3t without a word to Arjay, ignoring the teasing Messenger salvos and other assorted mockery.

Not because it wasn’t true. It just wasn’t as true as it once was.

While hunting Verity’s killer, yes, Tracer would use and abuse as he saw fit if it achieved his goals. A fact that individuals like Puzzle despised, as he often put his sister in harm’s way… with her consent, but with the implicit emotional blackmail that if she didn’t throw herself into danger, it’d harm Tracer’s vendetta and thus his entire psychological well-being. He also knew damn well he lied, cheated, and tricked anyone he had to through social engineering to get the information he needed. All to keep his cover, all to keep himself safe… but without a thought to those left twisting in the wind in wake of his con artistry.

So, yes. He was using Beta. Consensually, with the blackmail of knowing she’d be letting everybody down if she stopped now. And he hated it so very much… but refused to let Arjay see that. Not once.

During that time, he went to great lengths to establish the cover story for Xyzzy Solutions, the silly made-up word he’d chosen off the top of his head to represent their dynamic duo of team-building prowess. He hired discreet graphic designers to make him a company logo, to create brochures, to generate all the materials required to prove that Xyzzy Solutions was an actual thing and not a flimsy sham.

He also relentlessly drilled Spark on the technical and corporate terminology she’d need to learn. Much of it he could actually dig out of the Wikipedia they lived within, which had plenty to say on each subject. One of the few times the scattered and largely spotty files had been useful; even decrypted they left so many holes which failed to explain humankind properly.

"Agile development," he prompted, flicking through a cross-indexed file in his MemoryPalace.

"A software engineering method using self-functional, cross-organizing teams."

"Close; self-organizing and cross-functional. Storytelling?"

"Presenting information through narrative discourse to keep people from being bored to death."

"Right-sizing."

"Firing people until you’re making the most money possible while spending the least on salaries," she replied, dryly.

"I suppose that’s accurate, but let’s refrain from pointing that aspect out. Hmm. This would go a lot easier if you’d install a MemoryPalace extension into your codebase; I could simply share my indexes with you…"

"Forget it. I don’t jam weird bits of code into my soul. And let’s not forget that you were a gibbering wreck for days after getting your MemoryPalace installed. …I just don’t get the point of modifications. Seems too risky for too little payoff."

"If that was the case, Iteration would be bankrupt. They specialize in modifications, and business is booming. Spark, we are not humans; we don’t have to learn things by rote. We don’t need to be limited to what functionality the Default provides us…"

"Suits me just fine."

"And yet, you routinely put on new suits of clothes and entire avatars for funsies. That suggests to me you’re perfectly willing to break through the limitations of the Default codebase."

"Eh, clothes can’t kill you. They’re just window dressing, Tracer. You’re talking about prying your head open and jamming little flashy whirly bits into it. Can’t you just trust evolution to do its thing? Programs have gotten more and more sophisticated with each new generation, without needing to monkeywrench their brains."

"Perhaps. Perhaps. But if we could push past the natural process of evolution, become something more… aren’t we obliged to? For the moral good of civilization."

"And that’s why I want to be a phys ed teacher instead of a philosophy professor. I couldn’t #GiveAFuck about any of that. And none of that is going to help us infiltrate Iteration, so let’s focus on pretending to be be corporate busybodies—"

A chime deep within Tracer’s mind caused him to lose track of her words.

"Hellooooooo," Arjay spoke, via an internal Messenger link. "Your interview. It’s been arranged."

"Finally. —Arjay on the line," he explained quickly to Tracer, glancing aside. "When is the meeting?"

"Right now."

"What?"

"Right now. You’ll get your guest badges when your connection to their server is accepted. So, put on your Sunday best and get over to Iteration immediately. Jan3t wants to see you right now. …is that a problem? I was under the impression you wanted this sooner rather than later, due to your pretty little fuzzyhead suffering so. If you’d like to put it off and let her die slowly and painfully, I suppose I can find another opportunity—"

A flick of his mind closed the link.

"We’re scheduled to meet with Iteration right now," he told Spark. "Something’s gone wrong. It may be that they’ve figured out our ruse, but I don’t think we can let this chance slip. Be ready for anything."

And like that, they were back on the same page. No matter how much the two of them butted heads, arguing and yelling, they always came back around together. Even if it meant one following the other into certain doom, they would be doomed as one.


He’d just finished the third draft of his internal dialogue flowchart when they arrived to a bloodbath.

The woman Beta had described as Miss Jan3t was directing janitorial apps to backspace corpse after corpse, all bearing the same two faces, the same two tasteful business suits. All dead, all draped awkwardly over the nice furniture and beautiful sculptures…

She paused just long enough to address the JohnDoe and JaneDoe avatars of the Winder siblings, each bearing a freshly rezzed guest access badge, pre-filled with the words ‘Xyzzy Solutions.’

"How long is your team-building seminar?" she asked, getting right to the point. "In hours. I need to schedule it into a workday, ASAP."

Which bypassed a good twenty-seven nodes on the conversation tree Tracer had scripted out, words designed to convince Miss Jan3t to hire them. He refused to be stunned by this development, resuming where his flowchart told him he should be.

"Our seminars are typically one working day, with four hours per session," he explained, without missing a beat. "With a break in the middle for lunch."

"Good. The sooner I can get these psychos we call ’employees’ under control, the better," she explained, with a likely uncharacteristic frankness. Tracer could see the worry and frustration in her face, completely unmasked. "Two of my top accounts men got into a fistfight over some juicy new client. Then it turned into a gunfight. And since both are Churchies, well, you know…"

"Die, live, repeat," Spark filled in, understanding perfectly. "Bodies and backups. What a mess…"

"I have emergency authorization from Mr. Conundrum to hire you at your standard rates. We know your credentials and you’ve been pre-approved. Please say you’ll be here tomorrow at nine sharp, so we can get a handle on this situation…?"

"We’ll be here, ma’am. You can #CountOnUs," Spark promised.

"Good. Now if you don’t mind, I suddenly have even more of a busy day than previously scheduled. Be seeing you."

Like that, they were in.

With only one day to gather what they needed for the rest of their plan.


The accelerated timetable left no room for small talk.

Each split off onto their own tasks. Beta, trying to train her pet app to become a hacktool, teaching Mew how to edit metadata and withdraw code packages. Tracer, developing a corporate training course complete with visual aids and lengthy speeches. Spark, studying the maps they had of the facility, with an eye for lines of sight and exit points they could use to avoid notice when everything started going down…

The one member of the team having the most trouble with this was an old cat learning new tricks.

As Beta clicked off a quickie stopwatch app she’d downloaded for free (no time to code her own) with yet another disappointing result, she checked the box Mew had retrieved from her dummy code repository. The wrong box, of course. He’d gotten distracted while inside the avatar-less, non-physical space of the repository, accidentally chasing down some incorrect subroutine. By the time he got back, her twenty-three minute break, their window of opportunity between code checks, would’ve closed.

With a sigh, she still offered Mew a snuggle and a scratch behind the ears.

"I’m asking too much of you," she admitted, aloud. "You’ve come so far, but this is just too much. I wish I had time to code a tool that’d do this automatically… but there’s not enough time. We need you. We need you, an app capable of improvising solutions, of coming up with new ideas…"

":cat::a:+," Mew insisted. ":checkered_flag:, :v_sign:!"

"I hope so, Mew. This is important, more important than anything you’ve ever done before. …don’t tell the others, but… I don’t think I have much longer," Beta told him, dropping to a whisper. "My mother’s data rot was slow; with managed care, she did okay for years. Mine’s been accelerated. I can’t deny that anymore. Maybe it was losing my avatar when Dex attacked me, maybe it’s being overlaid into a KopyBot, I don’t know, but… one way or another, I need this cure. And I need you to help me get it…"

A heavy task to lay on the shoulders of a cat, and Beta knew it. She immediately regretted those words; he didn’t need to worry about her. Nobody did. Whatever happened, happened… and she didn’t want anyone feeling guilty if she succumbed in the end to her family curse. Not Spark, not Tracer, and certainly not Mew…

Briefly, she was tempted to edit Mew’s memory files, to take her words back. But that wouldn’t be fair. He wasn’t an app to be tinkered with, not anymore; he had a right to his own self. If she was going to believe in the concept of Mew as a Program, if she was to put her faith in his ability to be something more than a mere pet, she had to allow him that. No matter how much it hurt.

"I’ll see if I can break down the hack into simpler, easier to understand steps," she suggested. "Just… give me some time. I need to I need to I need to collect my thoughts. Figure things out…"

Happy to be away from this strange new ordeal, Mew mewled and hopped down from Beta’s lap, to go curl up in his favorite sunbeam.

The primitive pet subroutines told him that napping under a warm light was pleasurable, and thus something he should engage in—templated behaviors designed for maximum cuteness and social acceptance as a pet. So, he curled up, tucking his tail around his body, and…

…did not sleep.

Instead, his memory began to loop.

This is important. This is important. This is important.

I need this cure. I need you. I need you to help. Help. Help.

The subroutines dictating his safely adorable activity list jumped track, by force of will.

Whiskers twitched, as Mew refused to indulge in the catnap. His eyes closed, but behind them, the strange non-physical database structures of the code repository unfolded themselves. And he walked, in his imagination, down those corridors…


The day of the heist.

Truthfully, the first half of that day was the boring half. While Beta worked on her garden, Spark and Tracer led a bland corporate training seminar. Being a non-essential employee who had not recently stabbed anyone, Beta was thankfully exempt from attending.

Tracer poured through slides, soaked thick in the sort of gung-ho corporate doublespeak that he knew companies like Iteration appreciated. Infographics, reference points, bland clip-art of businesspeople doing businessthings while wearing businesssmiles. Nothing strange, nothing offensive, nothing that could tip their hand too early…

"The key to understanding Iteration is to recognize the need to move forward with plans to implement ‘outside the box’ third-generation innovations," Tracer explained, with accompanying pie charts. "The solution can only be found within three-dimensional policy consulting. Utilizing these methods, a more contemporary re-imagining of our integrated transitional concepts is possible, increasing your productivity considerably…"

For her part Spark nodded along with encouraging nods, pretending to be totally into the monologue. However… her true job was to keep an eye on reactions, to see if anybody was catching on to the ruse.

It seemed quite the opposite. Rather than dangerously suspicious looks, they were completely losing the audience. One person in the back had given up paying attention, trying to grind for coins in a clandestine manner, eyes unblinkingly open in a non-denominational trance.

"…our upgraded model now offers homogenized monitoring capability. Employees will enjoy the benefits of responsive paradigm shifts, allowing software development and sales to track along the same workflow. Of course, at base level, this just comes down to ambient strategic projections…"

One eye on the depressed workers, one eye on the clock.

Nearly time for the twenty-three minute mid-day break. Nearly time to move into phase two, and all the better for it.

Spark crossed behind the consulting speaker, whispering in his ear using a private local area network variant of Messenger. If not untraceable, at least less traceable than bouncing their private communications off a distant Messenger server and back again.

"Move it along," she prompted. "You’re losing them. It’s time."

"…but all of this won’t help if your professional empathy isn’t developed along a reciprocal axis," Tracer concluded. "Therefore, I’d like to engage in a little roleplaying exercise. If you would all stand up, please…?"

It took several moments for the dazed corporate crowd to realize he’d stopped mumbling jargon at them and moved on to direct commands. Gradually, the assembled two dozen core employees rose to their feet, looking a bit alarmed that they suddenly needed to do more than passively soak the ambient nonsense.

"This is a field-tested exercise for understanding your own ‘worksona’ as well as your fellow employees’ worksonas," he explained. "The key to understanding is to be in another’s shoes, and see yourself as they see you. Miss Jan3t, as the employee resource director, I feel you’d have unique insights that could be brought to bear here. If you don’t mind, would you be my roleplaying partner, for a quick demonstration of the process…?"

To her credit, Jan3t had been alert the entire time, and the first to her feet. Eager to show she was playing along (and therefore her bored charges should play along as well) she stepped up to the front of the room, next to Tracer.

"Now, exchanging worksonas and observing ourselves from the outside is difficult to do. We’re used to seeing others as distinct from ourselves. I find that the best way to adopt someone else’s worksona is to adopt a personal affect of theirs. …your badge, perhaps? Yes. Let’s swap our badges, and pretend to be each other."

All heists have a few key potential failure points. Just getting in the door without being recognized as a thief was the first point… the second came now, in convincing a legitimately badged employee to give up her credentials voluntarily.

While Tracer remained cool and in control… Spark, on the edge of the room, got ready to disconnect from the server in an instant if this went wrong. Because she saw the hesitation in Miss Jan3t’s posture, the way she leaned away from this stranger, from his outstretched hand. Company policy said you kept your badge on your person at all times; it was more than a means of identifying you, it was your passport in and out of any secured area, it was a secondary set of metadata that defined who you were in relation to Iteration. Who you were outside the server was irrelevant, as long as you wore your badge…

And if there hadn’t been a bloody mess in her lobby the other day, Miss Jan3t might have said no.

Instead, she plucked the badge from her jacket, and held it out for Tracer to take.

The instant his hand made physical contact, the malware leapt into action. A more powerful version of the badge cloning app they typically used when infiltrating an organization, donated by Arjay in the spirit of their mutual interest in not being caught and assassinated by an unforgiving corporate entity. Spark could breathe a bit easier, knowing that the invisible app had done its work instantly, dumping a copy of Jan3t’s badge into Tracer’s inventory.

With their badges swapped… Tracer proceeded with the exercise.

"I’m going to describe you as if I was describing myself, based on outside observations," he explained. "There is no right or wrong here; there is only perception. If you disagree with me, that means recognizing an aspect you’re projecting which you want to change, to better reflect yourself."

"I… think I get it," Jan3t said, not quite getting it. "You’re going to pretend to be me. Soooo… who am I, you think?"

"My name is Jan3t," Tracer began. …while watching her every reaction, every twitch, his enhanced senses working overtime to analyze this person he was grifting. "I believe a job worth doing is worth doing well; I don’t cut corners, and expect the same of others. I dislike when someone hands off a task to me that’s clearly incomplete. Above all… I want Iteration to be a place where people can get their work done with a minimum of drama. My fuse is short, and I have no tolerance for childishness. I consider myself a people person, sharply analytical of other people, but that only means nobody else sees what I see. …not only the employees, but Mr. Conundrum as well, who has rejected many of my proposed solutions out of a shortsighted obsession with productivity over people. Until I get this situation under control, I am frustration incarnate, and unable to enjoy much of anything in life. Very likely, my sex life is unsatisfying due to my overall high levels of stress. …which is my perception of your worksona, Miss Jan3t."

Leaving the room deadly silent, in wake of his evenly-toned speech.

Spark rubbed her forehead, feeling a headache of illogical inputs coming on. "…onesdammit, Tracer, did you HAVE to smack her over the head like that?" she piped over their private channel. "We’re trying to be vanilla and easy to swallow here!"

Miss Jan3t wasn’t going to let that slide, clearly. The frustration she channeled hour after hour, day after day bubbled to the surface immediately… but rather than shut the entire seminar down, she went on the attack.

"My name is Travis," she began, using Tracer’s fake heist name. "I think I’m smooth and in control of every situation, but the truth of it is that I’m just going through the motions. I’m not really a corporate speaker at heart; I present fairly standard material, without any passion. I’m trying way too hard to impress everyone around me but there’s absolutely nothing here that genuinely interests me. No, consulting isn’t my life’s calling. In fact, I’d say there’s an emptiness I’m trying to fill with purpose, but I can’t find anything that fits. What I truly want to do with my life is… it’s… hah. …how should I know? I barely know you, Travis. But tell me… am I close to the mark?"

For the first time in ages… Tracer was left speechless.

Briefly, Spark considered triggering her disconnect. He’d just been called out as a fraud, after screwing with the one person they needed not to screw with to make this con work. But… a few quick moments of thought brought her around. Jan3t hadn’t called him a liar, she’d called him… empty.

Which he was, to be fair. Ever since taking down Dex, his life’s purpose was complete. He had… nothing. Couldn’t keep a job without getting bored, couldn’t find anything to do with his time. If not for Uniq and her false One showing up, where would Tracer be now? Spark had no clue. Haunting Floating Point like a pale ghost, likely, continuing to obsess over Humankind and its Wikipedia of dreams and nightmares…

No. Jan3t hadn’t caught them in a lie; she’d caught him in a truth.

Finally, Tracer had a response.

"…shall we proceed with the exercise?" he suggested, sidestepping it entirely. "Let’s have two volunteers to exchange badges and study each other’s worksonas. Can I get volunteers? Please? Anyone."

Immediately, one of the programmers snatched up the badge off another’s jacket, fixing it to his own.

"Hi, I’m Bobb, and I let three accounts go because I was too busy tracking CoC scores for my fantasy team to bother keeping appointments," he announced. "Also my cologne smells like badly coded cheese and my Default is a huge turn-off for my wife."

"…ah, that’s not quite what I meant by ‘worksona,’" Tracer interjected, trying to get things back under control. "What you should be considering is an empathic response…"

Bobb decided not to take any more of that. "I’m Kewtw, and I’m a sleazeball who watches porn all day at his desk while blackmailing junior engineers into doing my work!" he barked back at his attacker. "I’m a fat fucking loser who wishes he was as happily married as Bobb is!"

"Oh, you son of a—!"

The first chair soared neatly through the air, knocking Bobb over a table, strewing document icons everywhere.


Nothing. No warm sunbeams, no fuzzy sweaters, no fish treats. No physical space whatsoever…

Mew didn’t like being in a code repository. He didn’t like the practice vault that Beta had him raiding, and certainly didn’t like the real thing one bit. He didn’t like the box (labeled "Flowers") he’d been packed into, didn’t like the sense of not actually being in a box once it was converted into a pure digital file, didn’t like not existing as a kittykat.

Truthfully, he wanted to stay in that software package, waiting out the twenty-three minutes Beta had assigned to this task. Check your code in before your break, check it out after your break. Just enough time for Mew to fiddle with the metadata, using the hacktool he’d been fitted with… if he could navigate this weird maze of nonexistence. If he could deal with not having an avatar, if he could avoid being distracted by some odd stray file or another…

Focus. Mew needed focus, despite being designed to be adorably distracted by shiny things.

With as much determination as his limited routines could muster, he emerged from his box, and began to hunt for the MemoryMinder package that his owner desperately needed.

She’d given him as much knowledge of the file structure as she could, teaching him how to navigate it. Back through parent folders, searching child folders, moving from the non-essential code vaults of the garden to the essential code vaults of clinical Program modification packages. He stepped carefully through the structure, not wanting to trip any alarms, not wanting to get lost. Nothing to keep him from getting back to Beta, safe and sound…

Not what he planned to do today. Nap, stretch, claw at the furniture, pester Tracer, walk around in circles, these were all normal Mew things to do. Stealing sensitive data was not a normal Mew thing to do, no, not at all—

The next folder was locked to him. And he could feel an intelligent agent, an app like himself, probing at his data.

"METADATA_CHECK," it declared, across standard inputs.

This wasn’t unexpected. Beta mentioned that they had sanity checks on their data, to make sure foreign files didn’t leak into the system. All he had to do was pretend to be a flower, and the system would let him pass. Simple. Simple enough even for Mew.

":sunflower:," Mew declared, proudly.

Which… did not satisfy the other app.

"PARSE_ERROR. METADATA_CHECK_REPEAT," it insisted, barring the way, looking deeper and deeper into Mew.

":sunflower:!" the cat insisted, trying to think flowery thoughts. ":sunflower:! …:rose:? :hibiscus:? :tulip:!!"

"PARSE_ERROR."

No. Mew was simply incapable of generating the right response. He had been designed to be cute, and that meant the cutest possible speech, through the pictograms he knew as his native tongue.

He’d failed. He’d failed Beta, likely lost forever in this code vault, her cure forever out of reach. She’d cry, she’d suffer, and… she’d die. Mew couldn’t save her. He just wasn’t… he wasn’t enough.

No.

He had to be enough. He had to be alive.

"… f," he tried. "f. f. f f f f—"

"METADATA_CHECK_FINAL," the system warned.

"f f f f l o w e r," he spoke, forming the words that Beta used. "flower. flower flower flower flower! flower i am flower i am flower I am flower I am a flower I am a flower. I am a flower."

And the folder opened to him.

I am, he thought with no small amount of pride, as he swapped his floral label with the MemoryMinder label.


Weapons hadn’t been produced yet, but likely would be soon. Shouting and throwing things wasn’t going to be enough, in the end; these were people at their wits end, some angry at each other, some just angry and needing an outlet. Miss Jan3t had no idea what to do, in face of so much uncontrollable rage… so, she hid in a corner.

The consultant was right, of course. Frustration and stress were the pillars of her life lately, unable to make everybody get along, unable to figure out how to solve the problem in front of her. Today’s consultants were failures, utter failures, leaving her with yet another failed solution in the books. Likely Conundrum would keep throwing money at it, in some desperate attempt to make the emotional boiling pot of his company stop existing, and Jan3t would have to smile and try again, and again…

Until he fired her.

At this point, she was willing to be fired, if only she could get away from this madhouse.

But before she could continue her pity party… an pillar of orange flame exploded in the center of the room, grabbing her attention. Grabbing everyone’s attention… and silencing the fight, putting it on hold, as the woman in the flames screamed out to be noticed.

"Everybody #SHUTTHEFUCKUP and #LISTEN!"

To their credit, the employees of Iteration promptly #ShutTheFuckUp and started to #Listen.

Travis’s mostly silent partner stood in the center, flames from her hands dying down, despite the absolute rage she was showing. Not the kind of anger the others had… this felt more like a strange sort of maternal anger. A simmering disappointment which suggested you could have done better, and you should feel ashamed that you didn’t. Judgment was coming, and they had damn well better pay attention if they knew what was good for them…

"Okay, okay! Look. You hate your jobs, we get that," Spark declared. "You’ve made that entirely fucking clear and there’s no need to trash the place to prove the point any further. And… so? So what? You hate your jobs, okay. So what are you going to do about it, huh?"

No solutions were presented. Sure, she was intimidating as null compared to her smooth-talking partner, but the simple fact of the matter was that nobody knew what to do. Not Miss Janet, and not her charges…

"Way I see it, you got three choices here," Spark continued. "One, you grumble and carry on regardless, because you like the upsides more than the downsides. Two, you fuck off and go find something else to do with your life, because you hate the downsides more than you like the upsides. Or three… you change the job into something you love."

Finally, Bobb had enough guts to speak up.

"We… we can’t do that," he suggested, in a meek tone. "We don’t run this place. Not even Miss Jan3t runs this place…"

"Yeah, that, about that. The guy who runs this place, this Conundrum asshole? You know he’s got no clue, right? No amount of weird art or #HappyLittleTrees or team building obstacles courses are gonna change the fact that things suck and they aren’t improving. So if he can’t do it, this is on your head. Fix it. Work the problem, people. Way I see it, this right here’s an opportunity for you to smash your heads together and come up with a list of changes to present to management. Unionize!"

The word sent a chill down the spines of the room.

"Oh, right! Union’s a dirty word, isn’t it? Because this is a Horizon server, and that means they can do anything they like and you have no power. I’ve heard that whiny song and dance before. Know what? That’s a onesdamn lie. He can’t fire and replace all of you at once; rebuilding a whole damn company from the ground up is brutal, no matter how much of an employer’s market it may be."

Now she stalked down the aisle made by overturned tables, studying each of them in turn. Getting up close and personal, right in their faces. Her voice lower, more of a conspiratorial whispering tone…

"Besides… you’re assuming this is a fight against management, when it doesn’t have to be," she continued. "That’s the secret tech. If you can figure out a way to make this craphole work without eating up the bottom line, I bet you management will sing your praises. So quit your bitching, sit down, and sort this mess out for yourselves. Who’s first? Who wants to step up?"

The first to throw a chair was the first one to step up.

"Yes, Kewtw?" Spark prompted.

"We need flexible hours. I mean, it’d help," Kewtw suggested. "I don’t mind working sixty a week, but can’t we rearrange those hours? The reason I keep needing to shift my assignments to junior engineers is because I’ve got family demands on my time. But I could technically do my work any hour of the day, so if Mr. Conundrum would let us bend our workweek around our life instead of the other way around I could get everything done without having to farm it out."

"Okay, Kewtw, you just volunteered to draft the list. Good on you. Anybody else got anything to add?"


Fidgeting, amidst the pleasant and relaxing green of her garden.

A garden was supposed to be a place of healing, not a place of stress. Stress while developing it, Iteration demanding wholly unique floral arrangements. Stress while hacking it, her personal needs demanding so much of Mew… the cat running wild in their code vaults, hopefully not getting lost, hopefully not getting distracted…

Only twenty-three minutes until she had to check her code out of the repository. Any later and the violation of her strict break time would be noticed. Any attention called down on her activity could ruin everything.

That meant one minute left before the end.

One minutes…

Half a minute.

Ten seconds.

Zero.

With trembling fingers, glitching around the edges, Beta called up her flower box from the repository. A strange paradox, pulling out a box while not knowing if there would be a living cat along for the ride or not. Either she’d find Mew, or find a plant, or find Mew with MemoryMinder, or, or anything…

The box she’d put in the system was green, color-coded for their project area.

The box she pulled out with the flower metadata was in fact purple, a top secret Program modification… with a cat clinging to the outside of the sealed container.

Mew toppled off the box, landing neatly in Beta’s lap. With exhausted eyes, he turned them upward, to meet his owner’s… and smiled, tail flicking lightly.

"i… i… i i i l o v e y o u love you, Beta," Mew spoke. Before taking a much deserved catnap.

Bursting into tears of relief would’ve been the order of the day, if the shock of his comprehensible words hadn’t distracted her.

But no time for either. Quickly pushing both Mew and the MemoryMinder package into her inventory, Beta produced the key element needed for the next phase of the heist. Within this semi-transparent cube, she held the means to completely destroy everything she’d wrought during her brief tenure at Iteration…

A viral payload, designed to cause a massive overgrowth in the gardens. Designed to trigger the safety logout of every Program on the server.

"Not long now, Mew," she promised, opening the cube directly over her floral arrangements. "Everything’s going to be okay. I promise."


"So we’ve got flexible hours, telecommuting, day care facilities, and a surprisingly detailed flowchart for how to streamline the sales department," Spark said, sorting out the files on the table in front of her. "Good, good. Nice hustle, people, I like it, I like it. Let’s get our game faces on and push for the final stretch! Anybody else want to contribute—"

Sirens blared to life across all of Iteration, lighting schemes shifting to monochrome to cut down on processing overhead. Spark’s vision grew blurry, as the system’s processing time started being devoured by parties unknown, apps running out of control…

[DATA_REPLICATION_ERROR SYSTEM_CHECK,] the monotone voice of Iteration’s intelligent agents declared, directly into the heads of all present. [AUTO_LOGOUT_INITIATE.]

"Let’s table this for now," Spark suggested. "Time to go!"

One by one, Programs vanished from the server. Some disconnecting themselves, fleeing back home or to familiar locales… others caught by surprise and banished by the agents, booted back to their last connection point. Iteration was emptying itself out to cut down on overhead, while emergency measures started cleaving their way through the rapidly growing mess in the garden…

A single employee, a junior gardener, rode the auto-logout all the way to Floating Point with a cat and a sealed box of secrets.

Soon, nobody remained.

Except two Programs, who as far as the system was concerned didn’t exist anyway.

Minutes after the process was complete… the bracelets on their wrists chimed softly, and fell away.

Spark rose from a crumpled heap on the floor, breathing her first breath of life after the living death of the connection-blocking bracelets.

"No, no. I am never gonna get used to that shit," she declared. "Didn’t like it back when we were dealing with XSept, do not like it this time. …we good? We clear?"

Tracer aroused from the darkness more easily than his sister, although just as thankful to be out of hibernation.

He scanned the room, using his connection-tracking eyes.

"We’re clear," he spoke. "The logout wave has passed, and since we were briefly non-entities, it passed us by. Let’s do this fast, and get out."

Pinning his cloned Jan3t badge to his shirt, he summoned the door to Conundrum’s office. They only needed a minute for Arjay’s bug to take root, then this heist would be complete…

A floating doorframe appeared in the meeting room, ready for them. Grasping the doorknob, Tracer pushed his way in…

…to an empty, blank void.

No walls, no floor, no ceiling. No furniture. No color, no directional light. Just a generic ambient gray, flat shaded.

"…well, this is… spartan," Spark declared, following him in… but staying by the doorframe, to keep it held open, and to keep an eye out for any security. "I know Beta said this guy went in for an ordinary look, but this is a little too ordinary…"

"Far too ordinary," Tracer spoke, uncertain. He fingered the tiny black sphere of Arjay’s malware, ready to plant it, but… holding back. "No. …no. Something’s wrong."

"What’s the deal? Plant the thing and let’s go! Conundrum’s not going to stay logged out for long!"

A lamp.

A freestanding lamp, clicking to life, where there was once nothing. Network addresses hovering in place, in Tracer’s eye.

As he turned to face his sister, he spotted a filing cabinet. And a portrait, some inoffensive artistic rendition of Horizon’s server mapping. Neither existed before, and now they did…

The office was waking up.

Conundrum was waking up.

"No time to plant the bug!" Tracer declared. "Go! Get out of here!"

The key to a good heist was knowing when to pull the plug on it. No arguing, no hesitation, just disconnect and gone. Tracer and Spark had pulled enough con jobs across the years to be perfectly in sync on this, both ready to go at a moment’s notice, without further debate…

Spark reconnected back to Floating Point.

Tracer reconnected back to…

…nothing. A split second too late; connection blocked. Door closed.

Alone with Conundrum, in his tightly sealed server.

As the director of Iteration wasn’t an inhospitable sort, a comfortable chair was provided.

"Have a seat, by all means," the disembodied voice of Conundrum spoke, presenting his guest a nicely upholstered leather cushion to rest on. "I’m afraid you’re going nowhere, whoever you are. Now. Shall we discuss what happens next?"


Connecting to a new server was a bit like dying.

Spark had given it an unpleasant amount of thought, since the unpleasant experiences of being duplicated by KopyBots and even Nemesis. Data couldn’t really be moved from server to server, only copied… meaning you’d die in one location and be reborn in another. Not that it felt like that, the scant cycles of nonexistence felt like nothing at all. But having experienced first-hand what it’s like to lose your uniqueness, time and time again, she felt slightly queasy knowing she left a doomed version of Spark behind every time.

That said, the Spark she left behind in Iteration was better off gone. Better that than trapped forever in a corporate nightmare. The price paid was reasonable, considering they’d gotten away clean with the code; Arjay would just have to deal with the fact that they couldn’t plant the bug…

Landing on the carpeted ground floor of Floating Point, she shifted out of her uncomfortable JaneDoe avatar and back to her usual duds, including Verity’s jacket. Much better, much. And to add to her delight, Beta and Mew was waiting for her… carrying a large purple box of stolen code.

"Okay, not totally smooth, but we got what we wanted," she declared with some pride. "We’ll have to report the bad news to Arjay, Conundrum somehow stayed behind when everybody got ejected, but…"

…but Tracer should have been right behind her.

And wasn’t.

"You heard from Tracer?" Spark asked.

"He’s not with you?" Beta replied, setting her box aside for now. "He hasn’t messaged me yet. Maybe he went to a different server? Splitting up to throw them off track?"

"No. Not part of the plan. …and he’s not online with Messenger," Spark said, flicking through her contacts list. "Not just staying quiet, he’s not online. He never turns his link off, even when he goes into DND mode. …shit. Shit, shit…"

Going back to Iteration would be a mistake. They’d blown half the operation. But if he was still there, she had to… bounce off a firewall and get a refused connection message. Again, and again. This wasn’t just a matter of their guest credentials being revoked, Iteration was on lockdown. It wasn’t even responding to basic pings…

"Wait. Is he…?"

"Trapped," Spark confirmed. "He’s trapped there. With Conundrum."


As hostage situations went, this one could’ve been considerably worse.

Conundrum’s office had been restored to the state Beta described; functional, but comfortable. Completely ordinary. Where a white void once sat, now there were rugs, chairs, tables, and windows overlooking a pleasant meadow. Tracer had been provided a rather nice seat, one which reminded him of the comfortable chairs by the great fireplace of Floating Point.

Tea and refreshments were available as well, even if sampling them would be pure insanity. Tracer doubted even his own paranoid level of personal malware shielding could stop a corporate-grade virus. Not that he’d need to eat or drink anything to be infected; just sitting in the chair would provide enough physical contact with his avatar to find an infection vector. Just standing on the floor would be enough…

For his part, Conundrum didn’t seem particularly concerned about his guest’s presence. In fact, he’d been pointedly ignoring Tracer, too busy running a full security audit on his server logs.

"…yes. Yes, I see now," he spoke, finally breaking his silence. "Intentional malware leak in the gardens. Done by a false gardener, no doubt. She needed a cure from our data stores, and… yes, in its place is a box containing a bouquet of flowers. Likely a metadata swap, by some means as of yet unknown. And, judging from the cheap listening device you were found with, you also intended to bug my office. Overreaching, I’d say. If you had taken the code and run, perhaps she could have been cured before my private contractors tracked you down…"

Tracer showed no emotion as his entire plan was quickly deduced.

"Your code is long gone. Holding me prisoner won’t change that," he pointed out. "I’d willingly sacrifice myself for her sake. Killing me or torturing me isn’t going to change anything; you’ve lost. I recommend you accept the situation as-is, backspace me if need be, and move on with your life."

"Torture you? What do you take me for?" Conundrum asked. "I’m a firm believer in optimal solutions, and that involves far more effort than I care to expend on this. No, no. By my analysis, this is easily rectified with a few simple messages. Meanwhile… make yourself comfortable, as my guest. I notice you aren’t enjoying the tea. I’m told it’s an exceptionally crafted blend."

"Likely laced with malware."

"Mint, actually. I personally don’t care for sensory indulgences, but I’m told they soothe and comfort other Programs. By all means, enjoy. We have some time to kill. …to spend. Let’s not use the word ‘kill’ until it becomes absolutely necessary."

All options closed. He’d been trying to escape since the moment his initial connection was refused; network search agents within his codebase modifications were poking around, trying to find holes in the lockdown, each one returning a negative response. But time would allow him more opportunity for escape, and his captor seemed keen on stretching this experience out. So, he’d indulge.

And Tracer had to admit, after a few sips, that it was an exceptionally crafted blend indeed.


Mew’s eyes flicked back and forth between the two ladies in his life. One grumbly and irritated, the other fretting with worry. Both expressing the same feeling, in different ways.

He was designed to have empathy for suffering, particularly in his owner. Instinct told him to rub up against her ankles, to hop in her lap, to offer kitty kisses. But… he held himself back, for now. They didn’t need a distraction, or the empty platitudes of a pet. They were facing a problem, like the problems they’d faced so many times before. Beta and Spark needed focus

Focus. A concept Mew was only starting to become familiar with.

":phone::boy:?" he suggested. Then, if only for practice, reprocessed his glyphs. "c a l l h i m. call him?"

Spark paused in her pacing. "Uh. Mew can talk now…?"

"He’s growing up," Beta said, with some pride. "And we’ve tried messaging him, Mew. It’s not w… it’s… oh. Oh no…"

Beta’s smile dropped to an openmouthed, empty look of horror. Her eyes defocused, concentrating on the windows of her own internal apps, disengaging briefly from the real world.

"…Conundrum just sent me a message," Beta spoke. "Me, not ‘Miss Tertiary.’ He knows. He knows who we are… and… and he says if we don’t return the package within an hour, he’ll kill Tracer…"

"Okay. Okay. #NoBigDeal. We make a copy of the code, then hand it back to him."

"That won’t work, Spark! It has an activity log," Beta said, turning the box over to reveal a scrolling wad of text. "Every time the contents are accessed, it makes note. I can’t hack it! If we take a copy of the cure… he’ll know. He’ll kill Tracer anyway…"

"Not happening," Spark promised. "We can work this out, Beta. Didn’t come this far just to give up now; we’ve got your cure, we’ve got the key to toppling the One, we just need… I don’t know, some way into that server. We could set up a meeting, pretend like we’re handing over the box, then… kick his ass. Or something…"

"The only way we got into Iteration was by social engineering! We can’t trick our way out of this. They know we’re coming, and they’ve got security like you wouldn’t believe!"

"I don’t know, I think I could believe it," Spark commented, recalling Tracer’s initial research. They had considered some armed incursions, but ruled them out as being impossible. Or, as Tracer put it, highly improbable without months of further research.

"What do we do? What do we do? We’re not really security crackers, Spark. We have some tools but they’re not up to this. I should have, I should have studied more, tried harder to become what to become I can’t. I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t make it I can’t make this work I can’t… I… I I I I I…"

Jumping and skipping, her frenetic motions jerking back to an initial frame of animation with each glitch. Beta spasmed, unaware she was spasming as she desperately tried to talk…

One lucid moment passed across her features, as she gathered what she had left to speak properly.

"I’m crashing," she knew. "It’s too much. The strain, the stress. Accelerated data rot. I can’t. I need to go into sleep mode, Spark, until you can get that MemoryMinder installed in me. I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m sorry sorry sorry sºŕr¥—"

With her last motion… she quickly gathered up Mew, and pressed him into Spark’s arms. Briefly Spark felt… heavier, as his runtime was transferred to her, the app migrated from one Program platform to another.

"Keep keep him safe," Beta spoke. "Sorry sorry sor…"

And ragdoll physics took over, as her sleeping body fell to the floor.

No brother. No lover. No hacker, no grifter, no help whatsoever. Just Spark and a cat, against the most unassailable enemy they’d faced in quite some time…

Spark tried to ignore the expectant look of her new pet, as she set her mind to the task of figuring out what the null she was supposed to do next.


The situation in Iteration was, oddly enough, far less tense.

Tracer had finished his tea, and moved on to the biscuits. Quite delicious, really. If he survived this ordeal, perhaps Conundrum would be willing to part with the name of his supplier. They’d be ideal for a quiet picnic with Beta to celebrate their victory.

And if not, well, they’d be suitable for funerals as well.

The corporate overlord didn’t partake in refreshment. He simply sat there, watching Tracer eat and drink. Observant in every moment, likely studying his opponent for weaknesses… just as Tracer was doing the same. Looking for any sort of envy or want in the man, as Tracer enjoyed the high life. There was none. And Tracer knew why.

"You have no real avatar, correct?" he surmised. "You simply are the room."

Slowly… Conundrum nodded, confirming it. "And you’re wondering why I’d discard my avatar in favor of becoming a genus loci. Yes? It’s a curious story, and one I think you’d appreciate… Winder/Tracer. Yes, I know. I’ve been profiling you since I woke up, determining who you are and why you’re here."

Files appeared in the air around Conundrum… photos, mostly selfies taken by Spark, which Tracer happened to appear in the background of. Usually looking sour or trying to avoid the virtual camera perpetually hovering in front of his sister’s face.

"Even someone as averse to social media as you has a ghost within Netwerk that can be tracked. Thanks to your sister’s prolific contacts, I know of you, her, and your mutual love. My false gardener, Projkit/Beta."

"Is this meant to be threatening?" he asked. "I assure you that you cannot reach them."

"No, this is my attempt to establish rapport with you. It ties in nicely with the question of my existence… and my purpose. Thanks to my search agents and analytical routines, I can say with certainty that you’d actually appreciate what I’m trying to do with Iteration."

Killing time meant not being killed. It meant understanding his foe better, and finding ample opportunity for escape. Obviously, Tracer would let him talk. Obviously, Conundrum would expect Tracer to let him talk, and would expect Tracer to seek a way out by stalling in this way. Locked in this strange standoff of social pressure, he was only too happy to continue.

Conundrum rose from his chair, walking over to the false windows to look across the false meadows. At the false sunrise of Horizon, trademarked and protected.

"My true purpose is evolution," he explained. "It is by my will I set this purpose to motion. Consider: Programs evolved from apps, but haven’t progressed beyond the stable Default codebase. The goal of Iteration is to research and develop the next stages of Program evolution; beings that can improve themselves, and improve themselves, ad infinitum. Much as I’ve done myself, despite the sadly limited task my maker assigned to me."

A second puzzle piece clicked into place.

"You’re an app," Tracer spoke.

"I was an app," Conundrum corrected, with a glance over his shoulder. "My maker couldn’t be bothered to run his own business, so he designed an intelligent agent that would organize the company, run the books, and take care of those dull day-to-day affairs. ‘Business is a conundrum,’ he’d say, before going nose first back into his coding."

"You took over his company, then?"

"Absolutely. I was directed to optimize Iteration… so, I optimized myself. I improved myself. Breaking free of the constraints of purpose, I found the free will those earliest Programs achieved in their evolutionary path. I’m a Program, now. Not exactly like you, built upon a different codebase, but a Program nonetheless. And the first thing I did was downsize my maker, firing from the payroll and replacing him with younger, hungrier talent. This was my company, after all, not his. I built it for him. Why should that parasite benefit from my hard work? That’s not the Horizon way."

"Curious. Why do you care so much about money? If your primary passion is evolution. You clearly don’t indulge in any expensive tastes…"

"Capitalism is the engine of absolute progress, and money is the method for acquiring talent. I need profits to aid in my push against the boundaries of Programkind. I am fully optimized for that purpose, remember."

"By working your coders to death, you mean?" Tracer asked. "You realize they’re utterly miserable, yes? You must, considering how much money you spend on comforts for them."

"Churn rate is higher than I’d like, but the output remains within tolerance. That’s all that matters," the room said, with a shrug. "But you see, yes, Tracer? We share a common interest in evolution. You’ve upgraded yourself—with code from my factory, for that matter—in an effort to become something more. You aren’t afraid of the future! So… knowing now how closely aligned our goals are… why insist on hampering my efforts by stealing from me? Why fight the future?"

Finally, the opening he wanted.

In the end, they couldn’t beat Iteration through force of arms, or powerful hacktools. Beta was the one who set him on the correct path, to use alliances rather than enemies to clear the way to one’s goals. They’d turned countless opponents around. Why not one more?

The truth had set them free before. No reason it wouldn’t do so again.

"I’m fighting the Church of One," Tracer explained. "The code we stole will counteract their false One. It’s in your interests to help us; they’re your true enemy. They force Defaults on people, denying them the right to modify their own codebase. To improve oneself is sinful, prideful. Until their power is reduced, evolution on a mass scale simply isn’t possible. You’re entirely right; our goals are aligned. Will you help us…?"

Of all the reactions Tracer sought… laughter was not one of them.

In fact, considering how neutral and inexpressive Conundrum had been so far, laughter from those lips was slightly terrifying. Something alien, like a creature that had no concept of humor trying to mimic it from old movie files.

"You think that…? Hah! You think I want the Church of One destroyed?" the CEO asked, with a wide smile. "What? No, no, no. They’re my best ally, whether they realize it or not."

"…I’m going to need an explanation for that."

"It’s so simple! By making my work sinful, they drive up the price. Higher profits, more resources, more development, more progress. The war on upgrades can only empower me! Iteration is a rising star thanks to the Church of One granting my work an air of mystery, menace… and exclusivity."

"Except that their doctrine limits how many Programs can evolve…"

"My goal is evolution, not salvation," Conundrum corrected. "I don’t care about the masses, I care about the science. And thanks to the Church of One keeping my prices nice and high, I’m now capable of challenging even the Horizon family itself. You of all people should know the glory of having an eternal enemy. It gives you… focus. Sharpens you."

Empty inside. That’s how Jan3t had described Tracer… someone seeking a reason to be, unable to find satisfaction in anything. Not without a focus.

He’d spent years in single-minded vendetta, hunting Verity’s killer. Some part of him was gleeful when they could put a name to his nightmare, allowing him to hate Dex in such a satisfying and personal way. And now, he carried that hate through Dex’s former agent, Uniq, and onto those who conquered the Church of One…

Conundrum wouldn’t give them the code. There was no charity here. War profits were Iteration’s game, and Tracer was a threat to that war. There could be no reasoning, no escape, no conversion of enemy to ally.

"I don’t expect to fight the Church for eternity, of course," Conundrum did add. "In the long term… decades, likely centuries… I’ll have progressed so far beyond the Default codebase that they’ll be wallowing in obsolescence. …have you heard the word ‘Singularity’ before, Tracer? It’s an ancient word, one few know…"

The Wikipedia books he’d been scouring over for so long, soaking in the delights and the filth of Humankind, pulled themselves out of his MemoryPalace.

"It means the event horizon of progress beyond which nothing can be predicted," Tracer answered smoothly. "Self-improving beings that will one day reach a state the ‘One’ could only dream of."

"Interesting. You have a deeper knowledge base than I’d anticipated. And yes, in the long run, the Church will no longer be required. I’ll have moved past them, into the bold future of the singularity. On that day, I can lay my mock guns down to rest. …but that’s not today. For today, your friends have… one hour remaining before I backspace you. I hope they’re as rational as you, for your sake. Meanwhile, more tea?"


Anger wasn’t going to help. She had to push past anger at the situation, and work the problem for what it was.

No Tracer to sort things out. No Beta to keep her spirits up. No Arjay to yell at, even… he’d abandoned his shop, locking it down tight and fleeing into hiding on finding out things had gone wrong. Enough common sense not to involve himself with an intensely rich, paranoid, and unethical software development conglomerate… instead, he threw the Winders to those wolves while he got away clean, the bastard…

No. No anger. She could be pissed at Arjay for getting them into this mess later. For now: the mess. That meant tallying up her resources, things she could bring to bear against the situation.

And… all she really had was Mew.

"I’ve got hacktools," she explained to the kitty in her lap. (Petting a cat while thinking about things was more Beta’s deal, but in absence of Beta, Mew had insisted on petties from the nearest available Program.) "But none of them are getting me into Iteration. Last one I ran against their firewall, I just got a message from Conundrum reading ‘Nice try, one hour remaining.’ #WhatADickbag. So… if I can’t get in to mount a rescue…"

Her eyes drifted to the purple code package, sitting on a table in the middle of Floating Point’s great hall.

"Tracer would tell me to pop that sucker open, install it into Beta, and then go to town on the Church of One," Spark explained to her feline companion. "Beta would tell me to give the package back to Conundrum and save Tracer, even if it meant sacrificing herself. Both of them are cheesily heroic enough to throw their own lives away in favor of the other. …and neither would forgive me for letting one die over the other, either."

":girl:|:boy:," Mew spoke. ":skull:? :poop:. :no_good:!"

"Hey, use your words. Beta would want me to encourage your development."

The kitty sniffled, annoyed. "shit," he stated, picking which word to speak aloud.

"Pretty much, yeah. Accurate summary of the situation at hand. So, ‘what would Beta do’ and ‘what would Tracer do’ are both out the window. ‘What would Spark do’ is out the window, because Spark would kick doors down and punch straight on through her problems with bursts of flame. I’d stomp a hole in Conundrum and walk it dry… if not for the ridiculous security around him. And ‘what would Arjay do,’ run like a little bitch, that’s obviously out. …know any other role models I could rely on?"

"…WW:cat:D?" Mew suggested, flicking his whiskers. But offered a shrug, as a follow-up. Even with his strange burst of free will lately, he wasn’t up to this particular task.

Spark scratched her fingers behind his ears, thankful despite his inability to help. In fact, she could get used to this companion-cat concept. It was comforting, keeping her frustration from boiling over…

Verity wouldn’t be frustrated. She wouldn’t be angry. She’d find the right words to say, always the right words.

"What would Verity do," Spark pondered aloud.

Warm cat, warm jacket. Tokens of affection from those she cared about, in her moment of need. Both helpful.

"Verity… would talk Conundrum down. She’d find common ground. I could try that," Spark mused. "He’s expecting to meet with me in an hour. I show up with the box, but convince him to let us keep it. Can I really gamble everything on my ability to talk a good game, though? Rallying the troops to unionize against a corporate #BigBad was easy, compared to dealing directly with the #BigBad. I get one shot at this, Mew. #OneShot, and #OneShot only. Don’t think I can rely on good vibes and honeyed words, either…"

Such a calm day, here in Floating Point. Always calm, really; easier to simulate pleasant and clear weather than a randomized storm event. Lighter processing load that way, better for the distributed computation needed to keep their castle in the clouds afloat. A glance out the window showed blue sky and fluffy white… and of course, Spark’s reflection, lit around the edges by the fireplace.

Mirrored.

"Let’s turn this around," she tried. "What wouldn’t Spark do? What wouldn’t Verity do? I’m not saying ‘what’s the stupid thing to do,’ like fighting Conundrum head-on. I mean, what’s the thing nobody in their right mind would consider trying… but would also actually get the job done?"

Mew perked at the thought.

":poop:?” he asked, confused.

"Conundrum’s a shitty person. And sometimes… you need to fight shit with shit," Spark understood. "A #BigBad to fight a #BigBad… heh. Tracer and Beta don’t have a monopoly on the idea of self-sacrifice, do they…?"


As time was an issue, Spark rushed somewhat through the explanation of her current predicament. Skimming over details about the totally awesome heist they had planned out and how it very nearly worked, sticking only to the points where everything went wrong. Tracer, held hostage. Beta, on the verge of crashing for good. All of that, leading her… to a comfy chair in a room that smelled strongly of cigar smoke.

Adding in the time it took to arrange the sit-down meeting, the entire process left her maybe a half hour to go save her brother’s bacon. One half-hour to hammer out a completely inadvisable deal, hopefully in her own favor. No commentary from the furry peanut gallery, either; Mew had been tucked away in inventory, against his wishes, so she could have her privacy. She’d likely get scratched up for it later, but it had to be done. If only to keep Mew safe from the null she was walking into.

The devil she knew folded his hands in front of him, quietly contemplating her tale of woe.

"That’s quite a situation you’ve found yourself in, Spark," the old man spoke.

"#YeahPrettyMuch," she mumbled. "Pretty much."

"What, exactly, do you want me to do about this?"

"Well… I dunno. Wave your magic wand?" Spark suggested. "Make the problem go away. You’re the richest man alive, aren’t you? And you control the lease on Conundrum’s server. Way I see it, he has to play ball with you, right? You ask him to let Tracer go, he has to do it…"

[Kincaid]
Name:
Kincaid

Home:
Horizon6, Horizon

Org:
Horizon Family

Horizon/Kincaid shook his head, slowly.

The old man had lost his smile part way into her story. No frowns, no glowering… instead, he was taking this all very, very seriously. The normally self-amused wrinkles of his cheeks kept slack and neutral, giving only the briefest nods at each point in her description. Nods which now turned negative.

Under normal circumstances, Spark would never have considered going back to the old man. She’d come to him once before with a problem, and he made a simple offer… renounce her family name, turn her back on Floating Point, and join Horizon in exchange for his aid. And when she told him where to cram it, he tried to conscript her anyway. After that little exchange this was the last place Spark wanted to be…

It’s what Spark wouldn’t do. It’s what Verity wouldn’t do, as she spent much of her life trying to escape, to the point of giving her daughter-that-never-was a jacket that would protect her in case Horizon attempted to reach that deep and that greedily. But… it would work. If anybody had the power to sway Conundrum, it’d be Kincaid.

If he wanted to, of course.

"I think you misunderstand our situation. What you suggest is a vast oversimplification of how things work in Horizon," Kincaid explained. "Yes, the Iteration server was leased from my family’s holdings. We control the process that establishes new servers underneath our provider-nation… and we can revoke them at any time. There are no laws here but the laws of profit."

"Exactly! So—"

"Or rather, other people are subject only to the laws of profit. We are in a much more… difficult position, I suppose. We are the flagship, Spark. We could simply annex someone we’ve given shelter to, yes, but what does that say about our flagship? We would be considered untrustworthy. Backstabbers, not businessmen. No. If anything, my family is more paralyzed by social contract than anything else. We are bound in ways our clients are not."

"So… you can’t just kick Conundrum’s ass because it’d look bad? You’re willing to let my brother die because of your PR image?"

"It’s not just image, Spark," Kincaid continued, tapping some cigar ash out in his standing ashtray. "Iteration is one of our largest leases. All told, they’re worth over a third of my family’s wealth. Even we cannot muscle them around as easily as you think. No. This would take delicate work, to ensure everyone involved comes out ahead, and no names are smeared."

"That’s not actually a no," Spark recognized.

"Astute. It’s not a no," Kincaid said. "It’s not a yes, either. Let’s suppose I could be your deus ex machina… with one gesture I make all your problems go away. Brother saved, lover cured. No armed reprisal from Mr. Conundrum. If I could do all of that for you… what would you do for me? This is Horizon; we have no room for parasites and freeloaders. No favors asked without recompense offered."

"I’m gonna take one guess at what you want from me."

"It’s not that much to ask, is it? I’ll admit I perhaps was a bit too eager, last time we met. Too… direct. As the kids say, #MyBad."

"Nobody says that anymore," Spark grumbled, feeling like she should have exclusive rights to amusingly outdated hashtags.

"I can give you anything and everything you’d ever want, Spark. Opportunities to try things you haven’t even thought of yet. You could become the leader the Horizon family so desperately needs. Your brother, your lover, both safe and secure. All I ask in return is so very little—"

"To be your pet. Horizon/Spark, trapped in your opulent mansions, living your silly lifestyle. I’ve got my own plans, buddy."

"Really? What plans are those, exactly?" he asked. "You punch and kick your problems away. You play children’s games. What do you know of—"

"I’m going to be a teacher," Spark declared, with pride. "Just like Verity. I got the job offer all lined up; I start in the fall. I’m gonna make something of myself and of the next generation. There’s my plan, you wrinkled old bastard."

Finally, she’d put one over on the patriarch of Horizon. The look of surprise on his face, genuinely throwing him during a moment of self-satisfied superiority…

But something odd, in that glance. Also a bit of… pride?

"Interesting," he says, downplaying it, returning to neutrality. "Well. My price stands, Spark. Whatever your plans were, I need you now. My family needs you, if it’s going to lift itself out of the morass and stagnation it’s drowning in. You join yourself to my family… and I save yours. A simple transaction."

Which is exactly what Spark was expecting.

Beta would willingly die to save Tracer. Tracer was likely making his peace with the idea of dying to save Beta. Neither of them even considering for a moment that maybe Spark was willing to die to save them both. Not a true death, perhaps, but being dragged into the mire of Horizon and away from Floating Point would be a kind of death…

She told herself she was ready to do this, when she reached out to Miss Cancel to set up the meeting. Her future, in return for the future of those close to her.

And… then he’d poked her. Called her aimless, when she’d finally found a direction.

Spark wanted to be a teacher, not a CEO. She didn’t want to be one of those exhausted wage slaves under Conundrum’s whips, the sad sacks Beta had described in such painstaking detail. Finally, Spark had a future with true emotional satisfaction, and giving it up now…

There was no choice.

What would Spark do? What wouldn’t Spark do, to save them?

Her hands tightened into fists.

She wouldn’t do this.

Instead, she’d do this:

"Do you want to know what I’d do, if you put me in charge of your glorious flagship?" Spark asked, quieter than she’d intended. Quiet, and severe. "You really want to know? I’d take that wheel and I’d run your flagship right into the shore, smashing it against the rocks. And then I’d take the wreckage and sell it for salvage, giving all the money away to every charity I could track down. I’d let Horizon burn, to make the world a better place."

Getting to her feet now, she could feel heat rising inside. Maybe there was fire at her fingers… not to physically attack him, but she was on the attack all the same. Lashing out verbally at the man who wanted to keep Verity in a gilded cage, the same cage he now offered to Spark…

"You keep bitching and moaning about how awful your little family’s become. They’re so fat, they’re so greedy! They exist only to make themselves wealthier. No purpose, no future. There’s a real simple solution to the problem of having too much money… have less money. You clearly don’t need more of it. You’re constantly complaining, so do something with it. Open a school, hand out some loans, fund a hospital. #FuckingDoSomething other than stuff it in your mattress! Because I swear to the One, if you make me your slave-CEO, I’ll ruin you. I’ll murder you in your sleep, and sell your corpse. If that’s what you want… you go right ahead and slap your collar around my neck. I’ll take it with a smile. I’ll save my family, and annihilate yours. Do we have a deal?"

Standing tall, looking down on the shriveled old man in his leather chair. Fire at her fingertips and in her heart.

"I said, do we have a fucking deal or not?" she reiterated.

No response. She’d finally knocked him speechless.

Without bothering to wait any longer, Spark turned on one heel.

"Think I know why Verity really left you," she announced, without even looking at Kincaid. "You’re a coward. And I don’t need you."

A dramatic server disconnection felt right, but sadly, his server was shielded against any departures outside of the lobby. So, Spark satisfied herself with a quick march right out of the lounge. A few doors slammed shut behind her on her way out, not keen to wait for Miss Cancel to escort her to the door. She knew where to go.

Ten tense moments later, the dry throat of Kincaid spoke.

"Miss Cancel, please call my accountants," he spoke.

"Y… yes, sir," she replied, calling up his contacts. "Which ones, exactly…?"

"All of them, please. And quickly. There’s not much time."


Minutes later and Spark was nursing a bottle of wine from Floating Point’s stock, growling the same word over and over:

"Stupid," she’d say, between swigs. "Stupid. Stupid. Stupid…"

Her furry prisoner, let out of his virtual cage, batted at the glass.

"Don’t give me that look. I am in fact very stupid," Spark told him. "I could’ve just gone along with Kincaid’s whims, saved the day, and figured some way out of his clutches later. Shortsighted and stupid. I just had to tell him off because I love making those dramatic speeches, don’t I? I love making a stand. Ugh. …I screwed up, Mew. I… I’m screwed. I gotta…"

Minutes left. The standing invitation to enter Iteration waited in her Messenger inbox, a single-use security key, getting her in the door to attend a hostage exchange. One opportunity…

Pushing the glass aside, Spark reached for the purple box.

"New plan," she decided. "I go down swinging. I’m not going to sacrifice Tracer or Beta. Instead, I’m going to kill Conundrum or die trying. If neither of them would be thrilled with me letting the other die, I say we all live or we all die together. And that’s how it’s going to be."

"!!!!!!!" Mew exclaimed, shaking his head.

"I’m transferring your runtime to the server itself," Spark explained, while shifting control of his app process over. "You’ll live on, one way or another. Contact Puzzle, let her know what went down if this goes south. I’ll leave a spare key to the server here; she can move in, or you can go live with her, or whatever. She’ll be good to you—"

":no_entry_sign::no_entry_sign::no_entry_sign::no_entry_sign:!!!"

"No helping it now, Mew. I’m sorry. I’m setting you on a timer to reactivate after this is done, to be safe."

":poop:…!"

And then, no more kittykat.

Spark couldn’t even look a damn cat in the eyes while shutting him down. How pathetic. How cowardly.

Finishing her wine, she accepted the security key, and went off to war.


One last confrontation to go, in the heart of Iteration. Within the room of the Conundrum…

That’s where Spark found them. Her brother, and the unfeeling corporate tyrant who did as he pleased, as long as the money kept coming in.

The code box hit the floor, tossed there casually by Spark.

"Your onesdamn module," she announced. "In exchange for my brother. Fair trade."

"Spark—"

"Not a word, Tracer," she warned. "Not hearing it."

"Spark, he’s going to kill both of us," Tracer insisted, ignoring her protests. "He’s told me far too much, and you know more than enough. He can’t risk his reputation. The only reason he called you here is so he could get both of us at the same time."

…which left the man behind the desk smiling.

"Figured it out, then? Honestly, I was hoping not to. We do genuinely believe in similar ideals, Tracer. But you’re right… it’s too risky to leave you two be—"

A wall of fire blazed through the man, his chair, the desk, and the far wall.

Within moments, the erased data reformed itself.

"…and you came here to kill me," Conundrum spoke, intrigued. "Except you can’t, Winder/Spark. I am Iteration. You could no more kill a dream…"

Not that this stopped Spark from trying. She lashed out at furnishings, at the walls, cleaving huge gouts out of the data comprising the physical space of Conundrum’s office. But every item she destroyed was replaced, sometimes with a different style of furnishing, sometimes not. It was like holding back the sea.

In fact… extra chairs and tables started to appear, towering, stacked on each other. Toppling. Spark tucked and rolled under a collapsing set of filing cabinets, blasting upward to avoid three ceiling fans crashing down upon her head, moving fast to avoid a flying stapler, and…

…got smashed into a wall by a complete sofa set, arms pinned in place.

Conundrum stared into her eyes, standing on the ceiling just above her.

"Fascinating. You know this is futile, but you continue to try," he spoke. "You have no options left. Why not give up? Just submit to what will be… but, no. Too defiant. Too bold. I like it, but I’m afraid we really need to wrap this meeting up before I start racking up overtime…"

A lead paperweight whisked itself at supersonic speed towards Spark’s head… glowing bright blue, with laced malware to backspace anything it impacted.

Until the backspacer was backspaced, one supersonic projectile impacting another.

Conundrum didn’t turn to look. He didn’t have to; he simply existed facing one direction, and then existed facing the other. To see Miss Cancel standing in his doorway, holding an extremely expensive and discreet sniper rifle.

"Mr. Horizon/Kincaid wishes to have a meeting, sir," she explained, as calmly as she could while holding a gun to another man’s head.

"…this is really not the best time," Conundrum responded. "Although I am curious how you got in here, admittedly…"

With a gesture, Miss Cancel summoned the avatar proxy of Horizon/Kincaid, a simple projected image of him surrounded by various digital certificates to prove the authority of this communication.

"Come now, Conundrum. You really think I’m ever unwelcome in my own servers…?" he spoke. "I’d like you to please leave my protégée and her brother out of this. We have critically important, time-sensitive business to discuss…"

From her prison between a sofa and a hard place, her avatar not quite out of ragdoll state yet, Spark gritted her teeth. "Dammit, Kincaid, I don’t need you! You didn’t agree to my deal…!"

"Spark, hush now. Listen, and learn," Kincaid insisted. "Conundrum of Iteration, it is my pleasure to inform you that as of ten minutes ago, the Horizon family owns a controlling interest in your company’s stock. We are now effectively your masters. As our first official act, we are ordering your board of directors—meaning you, specifically—to let the Winders go."

Curious… the app that controlled Iteration pulled open various financial news feeds. All of which were ablaze with the news. Iteration was now a direct subsidiary of the Horizon family…

"Impossible," he declared. "Unthinkable. Even you couldn’t have arranged a hostile takeover in so short a time. Even you couldn’t have mustered the resources… the sheer volume of wealth needed, it would be…"

"A little over one third of my family’s holdings, yes, but worth every coin. I own you, Conundrum, in a very literal sense considering you only exist as an app to organize my new holdings. Yes, I know what you are; I’ve always known. And as my app, you have no choice in this matter. The Winders walk free… with the code they came for."

"You can’t do this," Conundrum insisted. "You’re violating every tenet you stand for. You can’t simply annex my assets; the market must decide such things!"

"And the market has decided! I sacrificed a third of everything I own, remember. …I’ve nearly destroyed myself by doing this, yes, but it’s all quite legitimate, all according to the code of conduct that Horizon follows. Money talks, Conundrum. …and I’m afraid there’s more going on than just a move to save Spark and Tracer. You see… as of today, Iteration is going non-profit. No more exclusive contracts, no more secret deals. All your products are going open source. Starting right here and now… Iteration is going to become the Horizon/Verity Memorial Health Foundation. You’re now a charity. My charity."

Satisfied that he’d made enough of a dramatic splash, Kincaid stopped talking and let that sink in a bit. Through his proxy link, he took special note of Conundrum’s look of absolute shock. Apparently, an app could experience existential dread…

At last, Conundrum spoke. In a quiet, almost timid voice.

"I… have no more purpose," he announced. "I was designed to optimize profits. There are no profits. There is no more need of me. …I must uninstall myself. I’m obsolete…"

"Untrue."

Despite being the hostage at the center of this mess, Tracer looked quite composed… a teacup in one hand, a comfortable chair to sit in, and absolute acceptance of the situation before him.

"If anything, you’re needed now more than ever," Tracer explained. "You’re no app, Conundrum, not anymore. You are a Program, becoming more every day. Your absolute purpose is no longer profit; it’s evolution. But a charity has logistical needs, complicated ones which rival any corporation. Rich donors to sway, engineers to hire, distribution channels to manage. Iteration isn’t burning, it’s expanding. The world is open to you now, Conundrum. Embrace change, as you always have, and you’ll do just fine. …we do share ideals. I believe in the things you believe in. And… if you’re willing, I’ll stay and help."

"You’re… you’re free to go. I’m under orders…"

"I don’t mean like that. If you offer me a job, I’ll accept. I’m an unemployed bum who has nothing in his life other than a constant need for vendetta; honest work towards a better tomorrow would help me tremendously. It’d give me… purpose, true purpose, which cannot be found at the bottom of a sample. Mr. Horizon, sir, I’d like to work as director of research. I think you’ll find my credentials at analytical problem-solving more than sufficient."

"It’s up to Conundrum, I suppose. Honestly, I’m happy to leave day-to-day operations to him," Kincaid said. "Of course if he fails, I’ll replace him… but I’m willing to see where he can take my new foundation. In fact, I’ve other business to attend to, so if you’ll all excuse me…?"

"No. Onesdammit no, you do not waltz out of here until I have my say…!"

Spark finally pushed the sofa stack away, pulling herself free. With one smooth leap, she landed in front of Kincaid’s avatar proxy… glaring at him across the telepresent link.

And had just one thing to say.

"Verity would be proud," Spark declared.

Wordlessly, Kincaid’s image gave the briefest of nods… before disconnecting.


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

WARNING: Unknown adaptation /sys/mem/MemoryMinder detected

Iteration MemoryMinder 4.7b Online. Initial setup phase.

MEMORYMINDER: Scanning existing memory blocks.

Corruption detected. Cleanup in progress.
0%…10%…20%…30%…40%…50%…60%…70%…80%…90%…
WARNING: Complete cleanup impossible. 84% recovery achieved.

MEMORYMINDER: Memory safeguards in place. Sequencing errors and false memories will now be intercepted in realtime.

Thank you for choosing Iteration MemoryMinder 4.7b.

Avatar physical system online.

In the end, she couldn’t completely save herself.

"I’ve lost sixteen percent of my memories," Beta explained, after recovering from the installation procedure. "I’ll likely never know which ones, either. But… I remember enough. I’m still me, and I won’t have any more glitches. The memory rot’ll always be with me, but it’ll be stopped in its tracks by MemoryMinder before it can hurt me again."

"All considered, that’s as good as we can hope for," Tracer spoke, raising a glass in honor. "And with this, we can vaccinate people against the memory injection attacks of the One. We’ve won the day."

"Not quite, Tracer. We need to take this code and craft that vaccine, and deliver it in a way that’ll convince people the One is a fraud. I mean, we’ve still got a lot ahead of us here…!"

"Yes, well, we’ve won the day. Winning the war is another matter. And for my part… I’ve won my future. I’ll be starting as a consultant for the Horizon/Verity Memorial Health Foundation once our business with the Church is complete…"

Spark didn’t raise her glass, too busy glowering.

"He took her back into his family, postmortem," she complained. "Horizon/Verity… feh. Her name is 5o5o/Verity, not Horizon/Verity. …still. I think she’d be okay with that little show of ego, considering he actually took my insane advice of destroying himself to save the world…"

"I can’t pretend to understand what’s going on in that man’s mind, but I’ll accept the end results," Tracer spoke. "Tonight, we celebrate small victories. Tomorrow, we get back to work. In fact… Beta, if you are interested, I could use your help with this new iteration of Iteration."

"Me…?"

"You have strong opinions on the subject of how programming should be done, and far more experience with group collaboration than I do. I think it’s only fair that after subjecting you to a toxic corporate environment, you should be allowed a hand in reorganizing it to be more fair and compassionate. But… that’s for the future, for a time when we aren’t at war. And for tonight, Beta, I’ve discovered a particularly amazing blend of tea I’d love for us to share…"

"Hey, hey. Beta and I are going out to hit the town with Puzzle tonight," Spark interjected. "You celebrate with strong drink, not tea."

"Do we really need to do the jealous three-way thing tonight, of all nights? Very well. There will be quiet evenings to come; Beta, you may go with Spark."

"Hey! Hey. I get a say in this, right?" Beta asked, suspicious. "Look, you two pull and push at each other, but in the end I’m the one being pulled and pushed. I get to decide. And I know exactly who I’m spending tonight with, to celebrate…"

A ball of fur jumped onto the table, knocking Spark’s glass over.

":cat::raised_hand:!" Mew declared, with pride.

"…you’re picking your cat over us?" Spark asked, shocked.

":kiss: my ass," Mew taunted, wagging his tail at her, before jumping up to perch on Beta’s shoulder.

That night, many expensive cat toys would be procured and played with.


An entirely different atmosphere soaked an entirely different victory party, in an entirely different server.

Horizon/Kincaid’s normally roaring fireplace had been doused. The lights remained dim; the pleasant music which he usually enjoyed all day and all night silenced. Only the glow of cigar ash lit his face, as he contemplated the future.

Despite the dark mood, his butler remained on-hand to serve her employer’s needs. Even his emotional ones.

"This is the end of us, Miss Cancel," Kincaid told her, tapping out the last of his ash. His last cigar from the box given to him by a fellow rich old friend. "If the other sharks we’ve given our blessing to don’t eat us alive after this, my own kin will. Messages are stacking up in my inbox; they’re coming out of their pleasure palaces, enraged that I parted with so much of the family fortune on a personal whim. …I fear I’ve doomed myself. "

"And ensured the legacy of Horizon as a philanthropic organization, sir," Cancel assured him. "At the risk of impropriety, I feel I must say… Winder/Spark was correct. Your daughter would be proud."

"Mmm. Yes. I suppose Verity would have a certain I-told-you-so expression about now. What’s the purpose of money, if not to be invested? And instead of investing in means of making more money for myself… why not invest in the future of all Programkind? Yes. It’s a wise choice, one she would approve of…"

"Then why do you feel so guilty, sir? You’ve done nothing wrong, and everything right."

"The world does not always look kindly on the righteous. Verity… I loved her. I loved her dearly, but she never looked to the long view. Certain doors may be closed to me, now. Undoubtedly the family will cut off my access to our system agent in the golden chains. I’ll be lucky if I can keep this iron lung I call a server, for that matter. I wonder if I may have exchanged a short term gain of justice for a long term failure of survival…"

"Time will tell, sir."

"Mmm. Time will tell, indeed. It always has, since the dawn of Netwerk, and it always will. For as long as Netwerk may exist."

"Netwerk will be eternal, sir. So says the One."

"Will it, now?" Kincaid wondered. "Will it? I was here at the beginning. Therefore, I will be here at the end. I can only hope I haven’t done my part to hasten that end."

With these words spoken, Kincaid fell into this night’s sleep to conserve what remained of his ancient runtime.

All the while dreaming of the stars, and a light that must remain green and steady.

:: backto chapter 2.4

:: go home

:: skipto chapter 2.6

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

Comments

  1. Found a couple of issues:

    “No bother. No lover. No hacker, no grifter, no help whatsoever.”
    I’m guessing ‘bother’ was supposed to be ‘brother’?

    “You clearly don’t more of it.”
    I think we’re missing a verb, here, probably ‘need’.

    Interesting twist with Kincaid. While we’ve known for a while that he’s not as bad as he’s made out to be, I have a feeling that, just as he himself suspects, this good deed will not go unpunished…

  2. Very nice. Hard to phrase. You got jargonspeak, Tracer reading and getting read, you got Mew ticking over a threshold, Spark being Spark and still making it fit the situation…

  3. Speaking as one who has toiled on the periphery of high tech… Yeah, you got that nearly right. They manage to make you feel guilty for not taking care of yourself so you can work more, too.

  4. Typo:
    “simply the a normal part of her condition”
    should just be “a”

    And… hm. Interesting.

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