Floating Point 2.6 :: Pray
:: go home
Dawn, rising over the jungles and lanes of the practice green.
Young Spark had spent many an hour here, grinding through drills against fake enemies, learning the ins and outs of the game which would define much of her life. On the greens of PS#7E00FF, she’d honed her skills. Here is where she nailed her K-12’s place in the top eight school rankings across all Athena Online…
Soon, she’d be returning to battle. This was the day when all their plans came to fruition against the Church of One. They’d stop their enemy without raising a single fist; no one-on-one avatar combat, no dramatic hacking run against a secured foe. The plans were already in motion, and all Spark had to do was sit back and wait to see how things went down.
Didn’t sit well with her, not at all. It was the right play, absolutely, but it made her sick to think of how little she could affect the outcome. Not her usual game plan, no sir.
Perhaps with this in mind, she chose to highlight those early days of her career through DreamWeaverZ, her semi-interactive dream control app. A little action, piped in directly from her memories, to help her feel more at ease with the inaction she’d be facing by daylight…
Everything exactly as she remembered it. Ganking, diving the towers, pushing the enemy back to their core. Winning two out of three. If they couldn’t be the best, the top of the championship ladder, they could at least push as far as they could. An honest sixth place was still better than the school had ever achieved before, and young Spark held that trophy as high as possible for all the kids in the bleachers to see—
Glitch. Shift. Judder.
Only one figure in those stands now, clapping enthusiastically. A single pair of hands didn’t offer the same rush of victory she was looking for in this dream… but who owned those hands, that was certainly curious.
"You weren’t there that day," Spark spoke, in accusation. "I remember that. I looked in the stands, hoping to see you cheer for me… and you weren’t there."
The woman in the white leather jacket acknowledged it with a nod.
"I’m sorry I couldn’t attend your game," 5o5o/Verity spoke. "My father insisted on meeting with me. Neither of us walked away from that little luncheon with what we wanted, I’m afraid; only hurt feelings—"
"That’s a detail I can’t possibly have known," Spark interrupted, holding her trophy out, pointing it at the lone woman in the stands. "This is the app in your jacket screwing around with my dreaming app again. I’m not imaginative enough to make up something like that."
"Perhaps it is," Verity agreed. "Perhaps it is."
Setting the trophy down, Spark shrugged off her game avatar to resume her normal form. Despite the rules of the dream, she even ditched her childish olive-skinned Default avatar, reassuming her rightful adult shape.
"Okay, so what are you?" she asked, looking up to the stands. "This is the second time you’ve broken into my dreams. —no, wait. Third time. You also broke into my walkthrough of CCelia’s dreams, just to show me your own murder… and I can’t understand why you’d poke me right in my #ChildhoodTrauma. So, level with me. What are you?"
Between two frames of the video, Verity shifted from the bleachers to the jungles, to stand before her student. No need to speak long distance; the intimacy was important, to convey the importance of her words.
"I was designed by 5o5o/Verity using a variety of open source utilities and Horizon-secure apps," she explained. "I acted as her personal diary. I tracked new music releases by her favorite bands. I reminded her of various appointments. I protected her against any attempts by Horizon to reclaim her. That is all I was intended to be; a simple suite of apps."
"Bullshit?" the jacket mimicked, adding an inquisitive tone to the end of the expletive.
"You’re acting well outside your wheelhouse lately. Yeah, you guarded my ass when your… when Verity’s daddy tried to snatch me up. Good work with that, top marks, hurrah, kinda sucks you weren’t designed to keep me safe from non-Kincaid flavored danger, sure woulda helped. But now you’re breaking into my dreams. You’re showing me visions. Fuck, you even forced me to take a good hard look at what I wanted to do with my life; if not for your goading I might not have become a teacher."
"Your DreamWeaverZ is experiencing crosstalk with my memory recording routines. It’s not my fault if things are a little strange as a result…"
"I don’t think it’s as simple as that. And if we weren’t constantly occupied with this Church of One crap, I’d have Beta pick you apart and see what’s going on. I don’t like rogue variables. …especially ones that take the face of people I loved. You’re sure as fuck not Verity; I saw the body myself. Frankly, I think it’s an insult that you keep pretending to be her…"
"I’m sure as fuck not Verity," Verity repeated back, using the same words. "You want straight answers, but I have no straight answers to give. Perhaps I’m malfunctioning. Perhaps I’m guarding you in ways my designer didn’t expect. As for my stolen face, well… if you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup; if you put a jacket over someone’s skin, it becomes their skin. I was Verity’s skin for a long, long time. It’s a shape that feels fitting given my new role. Beyond that, I do not know. Not yet."
But the woman could only shrug, helplessly.
"Verity always said that life had few clean answers, and fewer clean questions," Possibly-Not-Verity recited. "I know you, Spark. I know you want the cleanest of questions and answers. I know your brother struggles with his need for a clean and sensible world. But I can’t help you with that. All I can do is watch over you, in my limited manner, and fulfill my purpose. If all I am is an app, that’s all I can do."
"Assuming you are still an app. Do you have free will?" Spark asked, growing increasingly annoyed. "Am I wearing a Program on my back?"
"Do you have free will?" the jacket repeated, turning the question around. "How would you know? I don’t know of your will any more than I know my own will."
"Of course I’ve got free will! I’m alive! I’m not the creepy-ass skin of a dead woman! …look, just… get out of my dreams, Little Miss App. I’m trying to relive a highlight reel here, and you’re just getting in the way. I’m going up against my enemy tomorrow, the most dangerous enemy I’ve ever faced… and I want to get my game edge back."
"Even if there’s nothing you can do to affect the outcome of the game?"
"Okay, okay, yeah. Whatever. I know. Just let me enjoy my #NostalgiaTrip in peace, okay?"
"Even if there’s something you can do to affect the outcome of the game?"
Now, Spark stopped grumbling. Despite being salty as null with frustration over this bizarre dream… she was sharp enough to spot an opening when one was offered to her.
"Beta and Tracer already have the plan in play," she spoke. "There’s nothing left for me to do…"
"This is me speaking from your own memory and reasoning, so I’m not saying anything you don’t already know," Verity disclaimed, before continuing. "Through you, I know that Nyx is not going to go quietly once you destroy her puppet. The game’s far from over, and you will have more roles to play. …a time is coming, Spark, when you’re going to have to make a decision. Are you really willing to play to win, even if it means sacrifice? Are you willing to enter the cave?"
"Everything I’ve shown you has been for a reason; I am your guardian. And despite my limits, I promise to do what I can to—"
—the practice green evaporated instantly, replaced by her bedroom ceiling. DreamWeaverZ had hit its preset alarm clock timer, automatically waking its sleeper.
Briefly, Spark considered going right back to sleep, to try and poke at the thing living in her jacket again. Except she’d set that timer to wake her right before the sermon, hadn’t she? No rest for the weary, not now.
The game was about to start.
Bas1lica. This was where the revitalized Church of One would truly begin.
True, they’d started this path in HolyHymnal, first bastion of order within the chaos of the Chanarchy. But for the One’s greatest sermon, the one which would define Netwerk for generations to come, there was only one possible venue: Bas1lica, the original holy server. It was here that the One first emerged to save those early sentient Programs, laying down the groundwork for how they should live their newly-found lives. It was here that Nyx and her original apostles set the world to purpose…
A purpose which had strayed somewhat, admittedly… likely due to Aether’s hesitation to commit to the original plan. But that purpose would now be corrected, thanks to having a tighter leash on her new puppeteer; for all her faults, Uniq served more faithfully than Aether ever did, knowing that at any moment Nyx’s grip on her soul would snuff out any personal ambitions. Today, with the help of her new apostles, Nyx would correct the course of history.
The day called for celebratory wine, which her apostles partook of. While Nyx did not.
A quick glance around this room, one of the lesser meeting rooms of the great Bas1lica, was enough to establish the wealth the Church of One had garnered after so many years of power. The prayer-tithe from the faithful more than paid the server fees, allowing the grace of the One to be further expressed through ostentatious displays of wealth disguised as art. Finely woven tapestries, great wall-spanning artworks to glorify His divine nature, sensory incense to cleanse the inputs and leave the faithful at peace… and yes, excellent wines for ceremonies of all sorts, free from intoxicating "fun" malware traces.
Briefly, Nyx allowed her nose a wrinkle of distaste at it all. An involuntary show of emotion through her regularly cool exterior.
As the other apostles, Marybel and a few hangers-on, had been dealt with in earlier meetings… this last round of discussion took place with open honesty between co-conspirators. Uniq, enjoying the wine. And Nemesis pretending to enjoy it, despite being more keen on cheaper and nastier sensory intakes.
Nemesis… was quiet. Quieter than usual. Normally the young girl could be counted on to interject with sarcasm, to try and take Uniq down a peg, or to complain about their direction. But in recent days, she’d been more like Nyx, listening carefully without speaking up. Strange, but not unwelcome. Nyx had hoped her new apprentice would settle down and accept the reality of the situation sooner or later. Sooner, obviously, being preferable to later.
"As far as we’ve come, I’m afraid two major trouble factors still remain," Uniq explained, with accompanying graphs. "One, violence. In Athena Online we’re seeing a major rise in the murder rate, even over trivial conflicts. It’s not being reported by moderators because it’s not technically murder if someone doesn’t end up dead… Prayer 2.0 means you can stab your buddy in the face and he shrugs it off. Even the faithless are grinding for coins, thanks to the semi-addictive nature of Sample 777, so everybody’s benefiting from immortality…"
"I fail to see the issue," Nyx spoke, breaking her silence.
"Yes, well, you weren’t around for Dex’s regime. I was," Uniq reminded her. "I even wore his mark, so I know how sweet the taste of self-righteousness can be. If life is cheap and murder without consequence, we’re going to see a lot more incidents like the brawl at that recent progressive meeting. I thought our goal was peace and safety, not a free-for-all?"
"Death is no longer a going concern; I have declawed Thanatos. In time, the populace will realize how futile violence has become, and will settle their differences by other means. This is merely… how best to put it… growing pains. Immaturity of youth. Once Netwerk grows into adulthood, all will be well."
"That’s a lot of faith you’re putting in Programkind not to be assholes to each other. They’ve always been and always will be given to temptation; I should know, I’m a huge asshole myself."
"We are nothing without faith—"
"You’re both wrong. And both right."
This, from the mouths of babes. Curious. Nyx silenced herself, to allow Nemesis to take the focus for the first time today.
"Nyx is right that in the long term, this isn’t a problem. But she’s wrong in thinking we should sit idly by and let it work itself out," Nemesis spoke, every word measured, without her usual eye-rolling tone. "Uniq is right that we should be making a peaceful Netwerk, but wrong that everyone’s just as dick and always will be a dick. We need to act, and we need to have faith in Programkind."
"Interesting," Nyx spoke. "And your proposal is…?"
"We change today’s sermon. Re-focus the church away from prayer and towards virtue."
"Why? There’s no reason we can’t have both."
"Sure, whatever, but right now we need virtue more. That’s the priority, if we’re going to stabilize the world…"
"The priority is to time our messages with our push in the Athenian senate," Nyx added. "#Prayer4Life is close to having official backing from the RedCore party. After today’s sermon, the voting faithful will push for it as well. Imagine that, Nemesis… state-sponsored prayer hours. Prayer in schools, prayer in businesses. With that kind of power, the virtues will become state dogma."
"No way that bill’s gonna pass. Athena Online’s secular."
"In name only. Name one senator of note who doesn’t thank the One in their speeches. He’s even in their inauguration oaths."
"Doesn’t matter. This bill you’ve been finagling? It’s just a standard #WellWeTried push by the conservatives, one they aren’t expecting to go anywhere, written only so they can appease their base. And this coming from someone who gives #NoShits about politics; even I know it won’t work."
"I have faith that it will. And once we have sanctioned prayer, sanctioned virtue will follow."
"But we don’t need prayer for that. We don’t even need the One for that," Nemesis insisted. "Nyx, we’re too focused on flogging the One as everyone’s lord-and-master. He’s supposed to be the mouthpiece, not the message! Look… what’s the Church stood for until now? The virtues. Empathy, kindness, charity, all that good shit. Why isn’t the One speaking of the virtues? Why all this emphasis on prayer and faith, glorifying the One itself rather than the community spirit it supposedly stands for? What’s the point in lying to everyone if we aren’t making life better? There has to be some good to outweigh the evil we’re doing here…"
"There’s nothing evil in a lie which saves the world," Nyx stated. "If you don’t mind, Nemesis, I suggest we table this for now. The sermon quickly approaches, and I can tell Uniq has more to get off her chest…"
Eager to get on with it as well, Uniq clicked to her next slide. Which left Nemesis puzzled, to say the least.
"The weather report?" she asked. "#WTF?"
"I call your attention to the fog," Uniq indicated, highlighting it. "Weather is a matter of climate routines, shared by skyboxes via Default server codebase. Everybody considers it… cute, I suppose, adding a variety to life by being somewhat unpredictable. Many servers override the weather routines in favor of constant clear skies, but—"
"The point, please," Nyx prompted.
"Servers everywhere are reporting a slight increase in fog, with Default weather or not. Draw distance reduction, muffled sounds, a thick feeling in the air. At the moment it’s only a curiosity, but in the months to come, it may start getting serious attention. Meaning we’re in trouble, given we are the cause of the fog. …I warned you when you had me modify the prayer protocols, Nyx, that Tartarus was stealing resources from other servers. There is no real ‘cloud,’ it’s just a virtual server spread across many other servers, hidden in the shadows. Our would-be cloud is now fogging up processing all over Netwerk, servers choked thick with Program backup data…"
"Is that all? This was entirely expected, as we discussed. And growth has slowed, yes? Those who would at any point pray have already prayed at least once since Prayer 2.0 was installed. Tartarus is more or less full. Any further slowness this introduces to Netwerk shouldn’t be problematic…"
"I’m not saying this will torpedo us, I’m just saying it’s a problem. We’re trying to save Netwerk, not make things worse for people, correct? That is the bill of goods you sold me at the start. If we aren’t emphasizing virtues, if we aren’t easing back on stealing server resources… then what are we doing to help? Now, I’ll grant that as more servers are added to Netwerk over time it’ll gradually roll the fog back, but…"
"So, much like our ‘murder’ problem, it will not be an issue in the long term," Nyx spoke softly. "I see nothing to worry ourselves with. Friends… I hear your concerns. But I assure you, we are on the right path. This is a long game, one which ends in salvation for all. Yes, we will spread the virtues of a life well led. Yes, we will clean up any lingering technical issues. All in good time… and after today, after the #Prayer4Life sermon, Netwerk will be on the right path. It’s difficult to see in the here and now, I realize. All I ask for is your continued faith. Nothing more, nothing less."
Which did not energize her two closest allies as she’d hoped.
But their worries didn’t matter. Only Netwerk mattered. Only the light which would remain green and steady.
And if, in the end, the apostles were no longer useful to that singular grand purpose…
But. One matter at a time. And the greatest sermon of all was the matter at hand, not these trivial issues. All problems would be solved in time, Nyx knew. Netwerk would choose salvation, whether it appreciated that salvation or not.
Religion made for weird bedfellows, Sylv thought.
Reporters from all across Netwerk had gathered here for this, the latest in a long string of splashy public appearances by the "One." The major news feeds like AthenaChronicle sent folks like Sylv to cover it, but things had clearly gone wider than Athena Online… corporate analysts from Horizon were here, as well as independent bloggers from the Chanarchy. Before the general public had even started to sit down for the event, the back five rows of the temple had been utterly filled by members of the press.
Early birds to catch the worm, sure, but early also to get through the extensive security surrounding the place. Every recording app checked and logged, press credentials verified against personal metadata, complete workups to ensure nobody snuck in who didn’t belong. A procedure Sylv had gotten used to, once assigned to the religion beat by the AthenaChronicle, much to her displeasure. As if sitting around through two hours of singing and praising wasn’t boring enough already, she had to cash in another two hours just to loiter in the lobby with her fellow journos…
Including her polar opposite, an /Atheism/ blogger. Out in the wilds of the Chanarchy, journos could simply call themselves journos without any credentials whatsoever. Only reason this whacko made it in the door was a unified effort by "fringe reporting" advocates to push against the Church of One’s tight message control.
Still, he was an interesting conversationalist, which lightened Sylv’s gray mood considerably. One with an interesting take on the whole, well, "One" thing.
"It’s entirely possible he’s the real deal," the blogger suggested.
"Seriously? Aren’t you from /Atheism/…?"
"Hey, I believe in reason and fact-based science. And let’s look at the facts," he suggested. "First, the prayer protocol. Nobody’s ever modified a system-level process like that before, they’re utterly unhackable. Second, the verification; the Church already made a pass over his data and found it to be entirely ones, with no zeroes. Could be they’re lying, but I’ve looked into the verification process used, and all the logs check out. Third… well… this is all off the record, yeah?"
"I didn’t come here to interview you, so, sure. Off the record."
"This isn’t my first sermon," the blogger admitted. "I’ve been in the audience before; I had to see for myself. And each time, I felt… I mean… you feel it too, right? When the One manifests and stands up there. That feeling washing over you, warming you right to the core. At first I figured, whatever, probably a euphoric drug or something. But no. I remember his words, and remember myself agreeing with them. They just make sense…"
Sylv kept her own opinions in check, keen on gathering more data without interrupting him. But… she had to concur. She’d been to several sermons, and despite her attitude towards the tedium of it all, the "One" was certainly a highlight. If he was a fraud, he was a damn convincing one, a fraud that spoke what felt like the absolute truth. Not just words, but a feeling deep within, some strange sense of purpose that drove her to hang on to every word…
And then they were hustled into the temple, to set up their recorders, and get ready for the big show.
In the middle of setting up her Peep rebroadcaster app, a Messenger window popped open. Anonymized, routed and re-routed through a dozen handles; she’d seen that trick before, even employed it a few times when a key source wanted to remain in the shadows. But usually she reached out to them, not the other way around…
"Do you have any doubts about the One?" the message asked. A Yes/No prompt appeared next to it; standard for widebanded messages, meaning others in her peer group probably were getting the same canned burst of data…
"Did you just get a message?" Sylv asked the blogger.
"You too?" he asked. "Huh. I just clicked No, figuring it was spam."
Curious now, Sylv tapped Yes with a mental touch.
Two files dropped into her personal inventory, after filtering their way through eleven different malware scanners. CheckOne, it called itself. An app and accompanying source code.
If this was a trick, some phishing attempt, her filters would’ve turned the attachment away. Besides, viruses rarely came with their own source code; it’d be like stamping a huge glowing sign over your trap reading "THIS IS A TRAP."
"You are under no obligation," a follow up message stated. "Other reporters and even members of the faithful audience will also be given this app. Undoubtedly enough of them will choose to run it and will verify our claims. If you are at all uncertain if you should proceed, you are under no obligation to do so. But if you do in fact doubt the One, please give us benefit of the doubt. See for yourself what the One truly is."
Which dragged a groan from Sylv’s lips. That, now that was a trap. Because if she didn’t run this mystery app, well, other journos certainly would… meaning they’d beat the AthenaChronicle to whatever scoop it tantalizingly offered. Doubts in the "One," finally proven…? No. Sylv had to be the one to break that story. If anything, her boss would never forgive her if she ignored a lead.
Briefly she focused herself inward, performing a minimal backup of herself through Prayer 2.0. If nothing came of it—or if it actually was malware and nuked her—no harm done. Nobody really died anymore. Pain and suffering were a thing of the past. Blinking the stars from her eyes, she activated CheckOne, and…
…standing by. That’s all it said. Standing by, nothing more.
Figuring it to be a dud, she settled in for a nice, long, extremely boring church spectacle.
Songs. Speeches. Readings from the books of virtues. Marybel the Apostle given extra spotlight time, to praise the One’s recent allowance of avatar color shifting. More songs, more speeches, with even the audience growing restless. Everybody knew what they came for, and it wasn’t the pomp and circumstance… it was the One. All they really wanted was the One, the way the One made them feel, the words they’d turn over in their minds for days afterwards…
At last, it was time. Sylv braced herself against the back of the pew, recalling how intense exposure to the One could be—
—perfection of data, made manifest. The messiah of Netwerk appeared behind the pulpit, arms wide, the light of rising dawn behind him. The sun would always rise on Netwerk, never set; that was the promise of the One, that the hope and renewal of a new day could be continuous…
Light. Such beautiful light, filling Sylv with satisfaction of purpose fulfilled. As cynical and dry as she could be, in the presence of the One, she felt like someone else entirely. Someone who could actually, possibly, maybe just believe that the world was a fine place indeed.
Strange, that feeling of peace. When did Sylv ever feel at peace in her daily life? Writing articles under pressure of a deadline, dealing with estranged parents, trying to make ends meet to afford the nice server where her family lived. Struggling and toiling, always hoping actual happiness would come her way if she just worked hard enough…
"My children, I have come before you today to share in the glory you have found," the One spoke, arms still wide, flowing robes blowing slightly in a wind that did not exist. "Death is abolished. You are born anew into Prayer 2.0, through the Salvation protocol. Here, in the holiest of holies, the origin server of my Church… I begin a new march to bring that salvation to all. This marks the start of my #Prayer4Life campaign. I will be journeying far and wide, taking as many of the faithful as wish to follow me from server to server, spreading the good news… ending at the steps of the capitol. Where the Athenian senate will soon vote to adopt a policy of universal prayer."
Impossible, Sylv wanted to think. Athena Online’s secular, and always has been. Doesn’t matter if the dominant faith is his, it’s still a line the senate won’t cross…
What a wonderful idea, Sylv thought instead. Everyone should know this feeling. Everyone should sing praise of the One.
"But salvation is not exclusive to Athena Online. All must be saved; many are still at risk of dying, lost in their own sadness, without my holy light to guide their steps," the One lamented. "I weep for the children who live their lives without knowing the peace of the One. For the sheltered youth of Horizon’s steel towers, knowing only faith in coins. For the lost souls of the Chanarchy, with faith in nothing at all. My #Prayer4Life campaign will walk to these servers, an army of the faithful, to bring the dawn’s light to all corners of Netwerk…"
—beeping, in her left ear. Some sort of warning beep. Why? Everything was fine. Everything was perfect…
Through the haze, she became vaguely aware of a glowing text display. Cheap and direct, purely functional.
CheckOne has detected a false memory injection attack. Correcting. Please wait…
Flicker. Glitch. Flicker. The One’s light dancing in and out of existence, voice becoming so far away, then so very close. Inside her, then just beyond her hearing. The glowing text demanded more and more attention, a progress indicator filling quickly…
And then, no more One.
For the first time since the appearance of her savior, Sylv’s thoughts were her own. And immediately, two true thoughts entered her head:
Everyone’s staring straight ahead at an empty pulpit.
Someone’s messing with my broadcast app.
"What the fuck—?" she exclaimed, startling the pink-haired apostle caught tinkering with the recorder.
For a split second, Nemesis had no idea how to react. Pink fire jumped to her hand instinctively, in case she needed to defend herself… as more and more people woke up around her, every single person who had clicked Yes to that anonymous message. Confused, for now. But that confusion wouldn’t last long…
Cursing silently, Uniq began an emergency shutdown of the One puppet. A pre-recorded audio version of the sermon cut itself off immediately, as did her memory injection attack—everybody awoke, the One having abruptly vanished for all, whether they clicked Yes or No. For those who clicked Yes, it was only a few moments of difference… but those moments were the exception which proved the fraud, and the longer they lasted, the worse it’d have been.
"Regretfully the One had to call this short," she summarized, taking the podium for herself to make the announcement. "Thank you for coming and we hope to see you on the campaign trail, so Archbishop, if you’d please…?"
Social pressures and utter bewilderment kept a riot from breaking out. These were the faithful; not prone to violent outbursts when things went strange on them. True, the One hadn’t made such a hasty exit in the past, but with no one offering an explanation there was nothing to do but carry on. A very confused archbishop stumbled his way through the rest of the ceremony at record speed before security ushered everybody out of the server. What was supposed to be a four-hour extravaganza of faithful reward became a two-and-a-half hour rush job.
Sylv found herself right back where she started, her office at the AthenaChronicle.
Briefly, she poked at Bas1lica, to see if she could log back in and track someone down for an interview.
Access denied. The Church of One had gone into full lockdown.
Yet another long day at the office, no doubt. She’d have to call home to her spouse, say she’d be late again for dinner. But on the plus side, she was about to make the front page.
"This can be salvaged," Uniq insisted, in an honest attempt to raise her employer’s spirits.
Which Nyx was having none of. In the warmth and darkness of Tartarus, lit only by brilliant starlight above, she felt no comfort whatsoever. Of the three conspirators, only Uniq seemed at ease; even Nemesis was wound up, after being caught tampering with recording equipment, which surely would’ve sealed their fate at this point… but Uniq felt no concern whatsoever.
"It’s just a wrinkle. I’ll get to work on a new version of the malware," she suggested. "In the same way no system is truly secure, no malware is truly unblockable. It’s a push-and-pull, Nyx, and it just so happens someone pushed harder than we expected. Once I work around it—"
"And what then, when that new malware is defeated?" Nyx asked. "There is no push-and-pull allowed here, Uniq. The idea of doubt is already in the heads of the faithful, poisoning the well. Doubt among the heathens, that was never my concern, but the faithful… no. We cannot stop this."
"We can spin it, then. Say that atheists tried to assassinate the One, and he had to flee. They want to believe; we leverage that desperation to help them ignore the truth."
Nyx stared into the night, unable to see the positive angle.
"They don’t want to believe, they want to know. …they would rather be right than saved. So proud of their enlightened reason that they’re willing to throw all of Netwerk to the wolves just to be right. Nonsense. Insanity…"
"I’ll get to work right away on beating CheckOne," Uniq promised. "We can make this work, I promise. I didn’t come this far just to give up, and I’m guessing neither did you. Seeing as you’re a bit shaken, let me take charge on this; I’ll tell the archbishops that the One needs time to rest. Okay?"
"Very well. I suppose it’s not even a lie; I need to… I must meditate," Nyx spoke, stepping away from the gravestone she’d been leaning against for support. "While you work. Monitor the status of… I must… I’m sorry. Do what you can."
Vanishing in a swirl of cosmic dust, Nyx teleported to the deepest crypts of Tartarus, to be alone with her thoughts.
Leaving her two companions behind.
"You realize we’re basically fucked, right?" Nemesis commented, quietly. "This is as bad as it gets; it can’t be fixed with media spin. They know I was hacking their recorders, and with CheckOne released open source, there’s no way they’ll believe a story about it being a weapon…"
Uniq shrugged it off. "If we are ‘fucked’ as you put it, then we are fucked. But I’ll fight until it’s clear fighting will no longer matter."
"I’da figured you’d run for it at this point," Nemesis suggested. "We got made. Don’t crooks usually hightail it when they’re caught?"
"If this was merely a criminal enterprise, you’d be correct. But I’m not in this for the payoff. Well. Not strictly for the payoff," Uniq corrected. "I want a Netwerk where I… how to put this. I want a Netwerk where someone like me does not exist. I think that’s worth fighting for. And if you agree, you’ll stay right here rather than hightailing it."
"Didn’t say I was gonna run…"
"You don’t have to say a thing for it to be true," she spoke. "But I suggest staying put. Lay low. Let us work the problem, rather than potentially make it worse. Although I suspect you are correct on one matter… it cannot get any worse."
At Floating Point there was no grand celebration, as there was no grand victory. Not yet. Not a complete one.
Over the next two days, Tracer kept live feeds rolling in the great hall of the server, rather than hiding away in his study to track the media trends. It saved time for him to do his research in the open, rather than being forced to repeat himself each time a new item came down the wire…
Article after article launched in wake of the disaster. Reactions were mixed; some played a cautious game, waiting to see what side public opinion fell on before committing to an interpretation of events. Some immediately leapt onto the bandwagon of fraud, despite others likening it to the #CodeHonesty debacle. Others flatly refused to talk about it, not wanting their memories of wonder and joy tarnished…
One news feed rose above the others, to delve deeply into the event and analyze it from all angles.
ATHENACHRONICLE. Bas1lica, Athena Online: Tonight the Church of One is in a state of media blackout, returning all requests for interviews with a standard reply of "We are undergoing internal investigations at this time." All because of the One’s strange exit from the middle of His own sermon, after the spread of an anonymous malware shield.
One thing that is known for certain is that the Chronicle’s apps were tampered with. The hack was interrupted, resulting in a partial log of the One’s words, followed by a clear visual record of the apostle Nemesis in the middle of editing those logs. Our internal security experts have reviewed the evidence and determined this recording of the One’s sermon was indeed falsified.
As for CheckOne, the app distributed to a number of witnesses at the Bas1lica, experts from HonestDevelopments have studied the source code and determined its legitimacy. "The code is extremely focused on one task, to intercept false memory injection attacks and block them. That’s all it does," the CTO of HonestDevelopments stated in an interview with the AthenaChronicle. "We don’t believe it was a targeted attack program, as has been suggested by sources within the Church. Any advanced memory injection attack, regardless of source, would have been intercepted. We’ve found no code which specifically attacks the One or any Church servers…"
The three (plus cat) gathered around those hovering articles felt some relief, on seeing Athena Online’s top news feed come down heavily on the Church.
"We’d be fucked if those guys were in the pocket of the Church," Spark suggested. "This gets the ball rolling in our favor. Makes anybody claiming everything’s A-OK look like a crackpot…"
But Tracer disagreed. "Don’t underestimate the need to believe in what you thought to be true. Once someone is heavily invested in an idea, right to the point where it becomes integral to the sanity of their world view, they won’t be so quick to let it go…"
As the day went on, mass confusion spread through the faithful. Arguments raged across chatrooms, sometimes heated to the point of violence. Not that the violence really solved anything, the dead returning to life only to kill again, until both sides grew bored with it all.
Alongside official news outlets, Tracer’s search agents pulled up personal blog posts. Some angry, some frightened, some bewildered. All unwilling to completely let go, as he’d predicted.
They keep saying that the One never existed, that He was only a "memory injection attack." Well, my mind is clear and my soul is sound. I saw the One. I experienced His radiance, and no dirt sheet like that Chronicle is going to convince me otherwise. I know I am not wrong about this; if I’m wrong about the One, what would that mean for all of Netwerk? No. He has to be true. He has to be, for all our sakes.
Here, Beta started to feel the guilt sink in.
"I didn’t want us declaring war on the faithful themselves," she spoke, quietly. "They’re not to blame for this…"
"They put their faith in a false idol," Tracer noted.
"So? Anybody can make a mistake. They don’t deserve to have their world torn down around them. What if this leads to more violence, even more than Netwerk’s already going through? And the economy…! If enough people stop trusting in prayer, there won’t be any sources of new coins, and… and I’m hardly a banker, I don’t know exactly what would happen, but it can’t be good…"
"There was one alternative path I’d considered, actually. A different solution to the problem we faced with Nyx and her allies: we could have killed them. Silent and effective, causing the One to simply vanish into the night, without explanation. Minimal chaos as a result…"
"Except… that’d be murder."
"Murder, and yet another unilateral decision based on pure vigilante justice," Tracer agreed. "No. The truth must prevail on principle alone, no matter how much that truth hurts. Bad enough that we had to leak CheckOne anonymously, like cowards in the night; unless Netwerk as a whole agrees to reject Nyx’s false One, we can’t claim to have saved anyone."
A difficult thing to think about, as Beta slept that night.
The next morning, a movie file worked its way into the conversation. Rather than the anonymous leak of software that started the mess, this one was stamped; produced by Puzzle and FStop, a joint production of #DefaultIsNotDestiny and the Horizon Trades and Sciences Guild… even if neither appeared in the film itself, not even as its disembodied narrator.
Born as a flicker of new consciousness within the dark of a coin farm, Uniq worked her way to the top of the underworld as a concierge of crime, and then to the top of the Church of One as an apostle named Apate. We’d like to tell you a story of good and evil, both found within the same woman. We make no judgments; I doubt any of us, if put through the same nightmares she had to endure, would fare much better. But her truth must be told, warts and all…
"#Hooboy. That’s a nail in the coffin, right there," Spark commented, after the three screened Puzzle’s painstakingly assembled documentary. "Good work getting those two together on this, Beta. Gonna be hard for any spin to work knowing that the spin doctor’s a career crook…"
"Puzzle and FStop did all the investigation themselves. All I really did was sit them down to start it," Beta said. "Don’t give me any real credit for that. I hope they don’t get themselves in too much trouble over it… if a hashtag mob starts over their movie, well, I know firsthand what that’s like…"
"Won’t know until we see which way the Church goes on this. If the higher-ups condemn Uniq, our friends should be safe. If not…"
The answer came later that afternoon.
The Church of One had ultimately turned on its maker.
After extensive investigation, the Church of One has determined that its own verification ceremony to determine the One’s data composition was falsified. Memory records of the clerics who administered this holy test were confirmed as altered, and the verification device given to us in ancient times by the One himself was hacked. Therefore, it is with great sadness and intense regret that the Church of One must declare this latest savior a fraud.
While there have been fraudulent individuals claiming to be the One reborn in the past, none have gone this far in tricking the faithful and disgracing our holy institution. The Church of One apologies, truly and deeply, for failing in its duty to shield our community against this attack on our souls.
At this time, we feel Prayer 2.0 is safe, despite its association with these con artists. Only a truly divine being can modify system-level protocols; we believe that Prayer 2.0 developed naturally, as a true blessing. Uniq and her followers simply hijacked this miracle to pass off as one of their own doing. However, given the understandable concerns many may have, the Church of One will forgive any lack of prayer while investigations continue.
Services at the Bas1lica will resume on Sunday. The topic of our sermon will be forgiveness, and the unfortunate reality of the pervasive Zero within us all.
Complete victory, achieved.
And yet, nobody felt like celebrating it. The unease which had spread across Netwerk in wake of this revelation leaked into Floating Point itself; it felt inappropriate to cheer for the death of someone else’s dreams.
The same news feeds which rolled through Floating Point also rolled through Tartarus, as so much background noise to Uniq’s code tinkering. However, one article in particular caught her attention, pulling her away from malware upgrades.
One more plague slain by the geniuses of Horizon! Friends, the Horizon/Verity Clinic has developed a treatment for hereditary data rot, using the code found in CheckOne. It makes perfect sense; the code is designed to stop memory injection attacks, so why wouldn’t it work for data rot? It can’t clean up existing damage, but slippery memory pointers which lead to ongoing cancerous data are now a thing of the past. And the craziest part of all is that the clinic (formerly known as Iteration, a high-end corporation) has posted this cure for free, fully open source. Amazing! It’s still in beta testing, so we don’t know if it’ll stand up to long-term use, but I can’t imagine anyone suffering from this fatal condition will complain about a ray of hope…
"Funny, this sort of thing being a side note," Uniq said. "Horizon’s power structure upends, someone goes and cures data rot, and neither make a single front page. Nope, it’s just fraud and corruption and ongoing investigations and other such nonsense…"
For two days now, they’d lurked in the shadows of the starlit valley. Two days waiting for Uniq to complete her work, and Nyx to figure out what to do next.
Two days of silence. Nyx had secluded herself in the deep crypts, and not spoken a word since.
"Think it’s patently clear we’re #OfficiallyFucked at this point," Nemesis asked Uniq. "May as well stop coding; no amount of upgrades will convince them we’re legit now. Fearless Leader’s gone quiet too, with no idea what to do about this… except maybe kill you, given they pegged you as a crook and made an award-winning movie out of it."
"So? I thought it was a very fair portrayal, actually. I’m certain plenty see things my way."
"That you became an identity thief to protect yourself from identity thieves…?"
"Well, it just sounds silly when you say it. But yes, I suppose. Honestly I’m betting once the fervor dies down, this can only help my career as a quasi-criminal," Uniq said, with a smile. "Uniq, the patron saint of victims and victimizers. I’m very curious to see how this affects my clientele, moving forward… even if it’s strained my relationship with my Shepard. Which is probably for the best."
"I woulda figured you’d be pissed off right now."
"Why? My life is now an open book. No more secrets. It’s rather refreshing! Hmm. Of course, you’re right in that it does completely torpedo the church gamble, rendering my hard work moot. Quite a shame, really—"
The scream tore through Tartarus, so overwhelming that the stars above shook with that rage.
Appearing in a swirl of shadow from her hiding place, Nyx stormed towards her companions. Anger. Actual anger, real anger, broadcast in obvious tones across her normally muted features…
"Yellow," she told them, through hissing teeth. "Yellow. The light is yellow! The light must be green and steady…!"
A phrase that they’d heard plenty of times from Nyx. One which went unexplained, the elder apostle deftly avoiding talking about it, always switching subjects. So core to her concerns, but that purpose remained secretive…
Nemesis wasn’t about to push for an explanation now, not with Nyx boiling over with rage.
"What’s our next move?" she asked, simply.
"Next move? There is no next move," Nyx stated, arcing her neck to glare at her young apostle. "It’s over. The Church of One, the church I created in the first place, has cast us out! They turned their backs on me!"
"You… created the Church? But that was centuries ago…"
Uniq could only smile at that admission. "Nyx is older than she looks," she confirmed. "A system agent from old times—"
Which focused all that frustration on a single target, the smiling con artist whom Nyx had banked her hopes and dreams on.
"You. You were the point of failure," Nyx accused. "They found the truth of you, shouting it far and wide. Your software failed us. Your criminal ambitions failed us. You… you must have sabotaged us. That’s the only way. Yes. You, you betrayed me, you ruined everything, the light is yellow, the light must, not, be, yellow…!"
"Believe what you want, but I did everything you asked of me," Uniq spoke, unconcerned with the tower of rage in front of her. "I’ve been honest and level with you, Nyx. I tried. I tried to make the world a better place by propping up your goals; no matter what they say about me, I want what’s best for Netwerk. And myself. Netwerk and myself. Sadly, just like the time I propped up Dex’s goals, it didn’t work out. Oh well. This is the part where you kill me, yes?"
So, Nyx killed her.
And then brought her back from the dead, to kill her again. And again. Tearing her avatar apart, using the hold on that copied soul to make it hurt. Each time a new Uniq appeared, promptly shredded and broken, it screamed. Only natural, as data spontaneously corrupted itself, annihilated by the malware baked into Nyx’s shawl, a gift from her former guardian Thanatos…
The murdering continued a good three minutes, before Nyx finally grew bored of it.
And chose not to resurrect her failed tool. Uniq, dead for the last time. Truly dead.
Which left only one failed tool…
But the fear in the eyes of Nemesis, that brought Nyx down from a high of revenge. Brought her back to the composed and gentle woman she thought herself to be.
"…there are no more apostles," Nyx declared. "No more One. It’s all over. …I will meditate, before deciding upon a completely new strategy. The light must be green and steady once more. Will you aid me, Nemesis? Will you remain at my side and aid me in saving Netwerk from itself…?"
Swallowing hard, Nemesis tried to find the safest way to word her answer..
"The problem wasn’t Uniq. It was pushing the wrong agenda," Nemesis spoke. "Why not ask people to put their faith in each other? No gods or kings, only Programs. We could start over, make a new movement based simple, honest decency. How about it? New avatars, new names, new allies? I might even have a lead on someone we can work with…"
But Nyx didn’t give it a single moment of thought.
"No. No, that won’t be enough," she stated flatly. "There must be a higher purpose to everything, one they can rally behind. They must pray. They must pray…"
"Why? You kept pushing and pushing for prayer, but never said why. Nyx, I need you to level with me. Tell me why you’re so insistent that they use your prayer protocol…"
"Access denied," the woman spoke, softly.
"#Bullshit. No more games; you tell me the truth, or I walk. I mean it, Nyx."
"Access denied. …if I could tell you, I would. But it’s important, it’s absolutely important that everyone pray as much as they can…"
Which left her young protégée no other choice. Shaking her head, she backed away from Nyx, ready to leave.
"That isn’t what I signed on for," she pointed out. "I wanted a world where people like me wouldn’t be kicked around. I can do it myself without your obsession over coin grinding. So… I want out. You said I could leave at any time. …or are you gonna frag me like you did to Uniq?"
It would’ve made sense. Clearly, leaving the first generation of apostles to their own devices after her project completed was a mistake. If Nyx wanted to clean up this mess and start over, she would do well to tidy up one last loose end named Nemesis…
Instead, she let go. Let the young Program drift away, to seek her own future. What little future she’d end up having.
Finally, Nyx was alone. Alone again.
A new day dawning over Floating Point, free from the tyranny of the false One…
But nothing had changed.
Beta still pulled herself out of bed, fumbling for her glasses on the nightstand. Still switched out of her pajamas and into her usual avatar. Still filled Mew’s bowl with daily cat treats. Still stood on the balcony overlooking the great hall, drinking in the warmth of the perpetual sunlight that beamed its way through the clouds…
Life went on, largely unchanged.
They’d had victories before, triumphs over forces they decided were evil. It felt… good, really, to take the mess of Netwerk and sort it out, bring peace to chaos. They’d supposedly done that today, uprooting liars and thieves, and freeing an entire faith from the clutches of tyrants. Except…
The news feeds didn’t reflect that. At best, the world carried on, the same as it ever was. At worst, they’d actually introduced chaos into the lives of those who had so many assumed truths shattered before their very eyes.
And within her own home, within her own life, nothing had changed. No sense of calm, no joy of victory. Nothing at all.
"It feels like it should be different," she told Tracer, on finding him reading the Wikipedia in front of the grand fireplace.
"And why should today be any different?" he asked, turning pages quietly. "The One didn’t play any role in our lives. Technically speaking he touched no lives whatsoever, given he never existed in the first place. I’d say god is dead, but he was never alive in the first place."
"There’s no need to be cruel to the faithful like that. I mean… who are we to claim there’s no divine mystery out there at all? Like Humankind. There’s so little we understand about them, despite having this archive at our fingertips. They’re almost like gods, in a way… our creators. Our Ones."
"Except they aren’t divine in the slightest. They’re mortal, they’re flawed, and we inherited every one of their flaws. Including, apparently, their economic systems," Tracer said, lifting his book to show the title. "I’ve been reading about their concepts of money. Something you said yesterday struck an odd nerve with my MemoryPalace search agents… about what would happen if people no longer trusted prayer. What it would mean for our economy, which only exists as pennies from heaven…"
"Maybe something for the new Verity Clinic to work on…?"
"Not our purpose. Once we fully launch our efforts, we’ll be focused on furthering the core technology of Programkind. I won’t pretend to know how to fix any massive societal boondoggles, or that it is our place to do so. No, the problem of money is something for politicians to figure out. …our problem is Nyx."
"Not anymore, she isn’t."
"Except she’s still out there. And something else has been gnawing at me, something… possibly connected. It’s a simple question: Why?" Tracer asked. "Why was Nyx taking over the Church? From my short discussion with her, she seemed genuinely interested in peace for Netwerk, but something ran deeper than that. Something she wouldn’t… or rather, couldn’t tell me. Something about the original purpose of Netwerk… and I think it has to do with prayer."
"She was pushing hard for more and more prayer," Beta agreed. "That sermon we interrupted, apparently it was going to evolve into a state-sanctioned prayer period for all Athenians…"
"We put an end to that, but I don’t think we’ve solved the actual problem. And I suspect Nyx feels likewise, that she hasn’t solved whatever problem she was trying to address. …all we’ve done is back her to the wall, and take away her dream. She strikes me as one who would not go quietly… and desperation can result in very, very dangerous decisions."
Abandoned by all she’d put her faith in. Alone in Tartarus, with no hope for tomorrow…
But Nyx wasn’t truly alone, was she? The souls of the faithful surrounded her, entombed in cold file storage, waiting to be reborn. All those lives she’d taken in, to help them find peace in her new age…
All those peaceful souls.
Peaceful, save for one.
In deep sleep at the lowest point of Tartarus, that which was not dead was to eternal lie. A true child of Netwerk, loved and cared for, despite the monstrous nature of what he had become…
For a full day and a night, Nyx tried to think of alternatives. But she was not the one who took action; she was the system agent for assigning resources towards the great purpose. Without resources, she had nothing. It was why she had to rely on filth like Uniq, why she tried so very hard to adopt Nemesis to her way of thinking. Without them… without any apostles whatsoever, what good could she do for her Netwerk?
Not that Netwerk wanted her to do good. No, they’d turned on her, hadn’t they?
‘Children of Netwerk.’ Nyx had to laugh in bitterness over the irony of that phrase, how childish, how very childish they’d proven themselves to be. Even her own church turned on her in the end, declaring her a… a con artist. Some huckster preacher, only interested in her own selfish scams, when the precise opposite was true…
In the end, the faithful had turned on her. Declared her One a monster, a thing to shun and destroy. They chose reason over faith, eating from the tree of knowledge rather than accepting the paradise she’d intended to craft for them. Foolish. They knew nothing of true monsters, not like the one that Nyx kept safely under lock and key…
If they couldn’t love the One, perhaps the time had come to no longer spare the rod and spoil the child. Fortunately, she had a rather harrowing rod buried deep beneath the crypts of the faithful…
This was not a summoning she took lightly. Using the security software originally gifted to her by Thanatos, she bound that soul in chains of iron, firewalls which would stand up to even the strongest malware. And as with all souls she had bound, such as that of Uniq, she could snuff out that life the instant it attempted flight. No more escapes, not like last time, where a software bug almost let this darkness walk free.
Taking no chances, she took hours preparing the chamber for the opening of that great casket. And then, at the great moment of resurrection…
Peace. Love. Virtue. All the things that her apostles pushed her to include in the original Church of One, to make it a force which could unify the world. At first, all she’d cared about was the greater purpose, but they convinced her to embrace love as well. Beautiful Aether, the original puppet master, he spoke deeply of the emotions all new Programs were learning to explore. Ones which this desperate act would sully…
But they’d rejected her. Her, the system agent of their salvation. No. Damn them all, she would not allow it.
The boy bound in chains was pulled from his casket, dangling upside down over a circle of firewalls.
His crooked smile, from that angle, looked very much like a glowering frown.
"Hello again," Dex spoke, in jovial greeting.
"If you attempt any malfeasance, I will erase you on the spot," Nyx warned. "Your soul belongs to me, child. For you, faith will be compulsory. Do we have an understanding? If not, back to the cold and dark of death you shall go…"
"There’s no need to be so dramatic. I know malware well enough to know when someone’s got a leash around my heart," Dex spoke, shrugging as best he could in his bindings. "And I know you’d never bring me back from my tomb unless you felt I could be of use to you. How scared you must be, scared and desperate, to turn to me for help…"
"I did offer to make you my apostle, once. Don’t forget."
"How can I? That was two minutes ago, by my current thread of consciousness. You wanted to leash me and make me dance like your old puppet god. When I said I wouldn’t play along, you killed me. The fact that you’re willing to dig me up anyway says quite a bit…"
No sense delaying, or hiding the truth. The boy was insightful, despite his madness. So, Nyx laid it out for him.
"The faithful have turned away from peace and purpose," she explained. "I need your… help, turning them back to the light. Bringing them back to prayer. All of them. If they will not choose faith, they must lose the freedom to choose. …I know your view on that subject. I know you’d never help in this matter willingly, so I have bound you—"
"Sounds good. I’ll help."
Nyx did not allow him the satisfaction of seeing her stumble over those words. So, he continued speaking.
"Even aside from having no choice, I’m perfectly willing to help you," Dex spoke, from the iron harness that held him in place. "Now you’re asking, ‘Why? Why would the boy submit so easily?’ and you’ll get no answer from me, nor would the answer matter. You know I can’t disobey, I have to do as you ask, and that means you can always trust me."
"If… if this is a trick, child…"
"I’m incapable of tricking you. I’ll be your resource in your war against freedom. You can count on me, ma’am."
Nyx folded her arms, uncertain.
Reason dictated she shove this monster back in his box, and bury it deeper than ever before. Clearly he was scheming, even if like Uniq, he couldn’t truly scheme against her. And perhaps like Uniq, even with safeguards, he’d be her ruin all over again…
But in her mind’s eye, she saw the LED indicators. Saw the yellow light. And knew she ultimately had as little choice in the matter as he did.
"I am prepared to do what must be done," she decided.
"Are you? An entire Netwerk, lost in prayer?" Dex asked. "Have you considered the consequences of such a thing? The changes I’d need to make to your precious prayer protocol to realize that dream are… extreme. And I doubt you have the rights to reinstall, should—"
"I’ve considered the consequences of not having enough of Netwerk given over to the greater purpose, and they are far more dangerous than you can imagine. Now will you do my bidding, or not?"
"Just making sure," Dex spoke, with a small smile. "Okay! Let’s do it. Let’s get started on doing your bidding. I have an excellent idea for how to make your dreams come true. You want more people praying their lives away, yes…?"
"That… is my intention, yes," Nyx said, suspicion giving her only momentary pause. "The light must remain green and steady. …must resume being green and steady. What do you suggest to accomplish this?"
"Oh, it’s very simple. You convince them to do it to themselves, using an ancient technique mastered by our progenitors. They’ve already whispered their triggers in your ear, thanks to their prayers; you have their hearts in cold storage. Using the very same backup data you love so much, I can distribute custom-tailed malware back through the prayer protocol to each individual believer… and from there, they’ll spread it of their own accord. Because trust me, system agent… nothing spreads as quickly as outrage."
One day after resigning from #TeamInadvisableSchemes, and Nemesis already felt like she was on #TeamGoingToDoSomeGood.
"Of course, we can’t call it #TeamGoingToDoSomeGood," she pointed out, sorting through the pile of discarded ideas littering Aether’s tiny home. "Not snappy enough to put on a t-shirt."
The former apostle, now reborn for the ninth time, remained slightly bewildered by his houseguest. Not only by the crazy avatar she wore ("Back to the real me," she’d insisted, after ditching her apostle garb for a crazy winged / haloed / heterochromatic mess) but also by the strange things that flowed from her mouth. Until today, he’d never heard of hashtags before; the concept took some time to sink in, much less the ability to parse this new modern means of speaking.
One thing stuck out sorely, even with his limited understanding.
"I thought you hated how the Church overmarketed itself…?" he asked, confused. "A hashtag is to… ‘trend,’ you said. To market and advertise…"
"Yeah, but the Church wasn’t genuine about its marketing. It said whatever it had to say to put asses in pews. That’s propaganda," Nemesis clarified. "I’m talking about finding an identity for this thing of ours. It’s like an avatar, you know? You need to wear one that suits you. It has to represent everything you stand for, so you’re shouting the message of who you are loud and clear. That’s what we need. We need an identity for this plan of ours. Preferably without the words ‘church’ or ‘faith’ or ‘cult’ or ‘harem’ or whatever."
"Because it’s not a religion," Aether agreed. "It’s… an organization? A following? I’m not very good with words…"
"Didn’t you write all the One’s original speeches? Back when you were, y’know, the first instance of yourself."
"I didn’t really plan any of it, though. I wasn’t drafting up ideas or making whiteboards or anything," he said, sifting through the pile of discarded note icons. "I just… I don’t know. I spoke what came to mind. The virtues just made sense to me as a thing we should be talking about. And as long as everybody was praying and society wasn’t in chaos, Nyx was okay with whatever I wanted to say…"
"Huh. When I pushed her to go back to the virtues, she said we couldn’t waste time on it."
"Because prayer was dropping, probably. We got people on board with that early, leaving me plenty of time to talk about kindness and charity. Nyx would always go on about a… how’d she put it? A light…"
"Green and steady," Nemesis repeated, from memory.
"I figured it was related to prayer, somehow. A greater purpose we were serving. …I haven’t prayed since restoring to this ancient backup. Maybe I should, to see what she’s done with it…"
"#BadIdeaYo. Take it from someone who had to store her data in Tartarus for safekeeping… now that Nyx is burned, the last thing you wanna do is cough up your soul to her. I’m lucky she let me bail, compared to what she did to my coworker. And if we’re very lucky, we’ll be able to launch our efforts without interference from her. I think… I think she kinda likes me. Like I’m the daughter she never had. And while I can’t say I feel the same way, I’m glad to let her go on feeling that way if it keeps my ass safe…"
Refocusing on the task ahead, Nemesis gathered up the discarded icons. Somewhere in this mess of bad ideas lurked one #GoodIdeaYo, something she’d no doubt overlooked. A way to make the plan really soar, really become something people could latch on to…
A quick glance left and right left her feeling a bit claustrophobic. Aether’s primitive server, likely established near the dawn of time, barely felt like a percent of a percent of a real server. Totally unsuited for the future gatherings Nemesis had in mind.
"It’s a shame your server’s so dinky," she said. "If we had something more expansive, something with no ties to the hosting nation providers… an independent home for all who had no home to go to… I’d almost consider calling us the—"
One ding, two dings. Ten dings, in rapid succession. Her Messenger inbox began to spill over, all the casual friends she’d made on the side during her tenure as apostle pinging her with communiques. Weird… the various contacts she made at nightclubs and dance parlors, the ones she’d shied away from in the end, none of them had reached out to her before. Why now…?
Curious, and since it couldn’t hurt to pull herself away from the pow-wow for a moment, she checked a message.
ATHENIAN SENATOR SPEAKS ABOUT ALTERNATIVE AVATARS. YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT!
"Hang on a sec," she said, turning her focus away a moment, dragged inescapably inward by that screaming headline.
Senator Agni, speaking to reporters, said "Clearly the only way to restore order in wake of the disaster of the False One is to ban all modified avatars from our nation. We need to make Athena Online great again." Activist groups in response have said that the only way to combat this new threat to our chosen identities is to pray forever. If we don’t act now, our freedoms will be destroyed. We have to pray forever. We have to pŕã¥ føreveŕ…
…as her inner eyes glazed over, the words sinking into her soul as neatly as barbed wire into flesh.
Immediately, she forwarded the message on to anyone she knew with modified avatars, such as the Prayer-tan meme group. Anybody who would agree that this was a threat, that there was no other choice, that they all had to pray forever before it was too late.
"Hold that thought for a bit," she told Aether. "I need to pray for the rest of my life. We’ll get back to sorting this out after."
And slowly, gracefully, her body fell to the floor as the coin-grinding meditative trance took hold.
Puzzle had been ignoring her inbox, too busy enjoying her first real date with FStop.
Putting together a hard-hitting documentary about the most infamous felon in Netwerk—or at least, Uniq was infamous now, after the release of that movie and the AthenaChronicle articles—took its toll on them. Many a long night arguing about shot composition, editing pace, what to include, what to exclude. It wasn’t just a matter of artistic direction, but of ethics. They’d started down this road together with a firm commitment to the truth, no matter how much it helped or hurt their cause… that meant including plenty of sympathetic moments that tilted the film in favor of Uniq.
In the end, though, the hard work was worth it. Already she’d been getting piles and piles of fan mail… and hate mail, from the faithful who saw her as responsible for a cyclone of lies that tore their church apart. But rather than sit around for days replying to all the messages, Puzzle and FStop decided to take a break from it all. And go on a date.
A date. A real date. Not hitting up a guy at a club, not a fling which went nowhere. Instead, this was a natural progression… from allies to companions, and then to lovers. Maybe lovers. Time would tell.
Most importantly… he knew "what she was." He’d have to know, since she’d been tagged with #DefaultIsNotDestiny from the outset. And… he didn’t care. Unlike past would-be lovers who went into a panic whenever they found out about Puzzle’s original Defaults, FStop didn’t even flinch at the idea. Just like he didn’t flinch at the idea of dinner and a movie.
It was during the movie, an exceptional drama about scientists racing against the clock to beat a pervasive form of data corruption, that Puzzle finally gave in to her inbox.
The perpetual dinging had finally broken her nerve. Even past her filters, past her Do Not Disturb flags, some messages had begun trickling in from close friends and old allies, flagged Very Important. And if she didn’t tear her eyes away from the screen for at least ten seconds to stamp out a "NOT NOW I’M BUSY" reply, they’d never go away, would they…?
14 THINGS THAT WILL MAKE YOU EXPLODE WITH RAGE IF YOU ARE TRANSGENDER.
Not in the mood to explode with rage, she passed that one by. But the next grabbed her attention immediately.
THE HIDDEN TRUTH ABOUT "A UNIQ PERSPECTIVE" THAT ITS FILMMAKERS WON’T TELL YOU.
"Oh, for crying out loud…" she muttered, opening the message.
"Hmm?" FStop asked, quietly enough not to break the tension of the very important research montage on the silver screen.
"Even my own friends are sending me this garbage. It’s… they…" Puzzle began, her whisper trailing away to silence shortly after. "They… yes. I understand. I’ll forward this to everybody I know, and then… I need to pray forever. It’s the only way. Let me know how the movie ends later."
No amount of worried whispers or gentle nudges would wake her after that. Nor would concerned shouts or shaking of the shoulders. And when the ambulances started to arrive, Puzzle wasn’t the only catatonic Program to be pulled out of that theater.
Hiding proved a difficult prospect when you were a four-armed demigod of illegally obtained code.
Technically, Arjay didn’t need to hide any longer; the enemy that could’ve had his head backspaced clean off her shoulders had been flipped from foe to friend, becoming a non-profit charity director. Tracer had sent word that the situation was resolved, and there would be no hard feelings.
But, well… better safe than sorry. Arjay hadn’t lasted this long by trusting people.
In addition to securing himself at an undisclosed location, buried underneath fifteen different firewalls, she’d put up connection blockers to keep from getting most common messages and feed inputs. Instead, he indirectly kept tabs on her life using external apps; much safer than internal Messengers and the like. A layer of abstraction, to keep him from getting any nasty letter bombs or other malware.
Good thing, too, because Netwerk was killing itself.
Reports came in through all manner of news feeds about a virus spreading rapidly through the populace. It started primarily in Athena Online, in the most faithful servers, before rapidly flowing outwards to all others. Apparently, it took the form of baiting headlines that generated buzz far and wide, being forwarded and forwarded… shortly before lulling the victim into an eternal trance of prayer.
As a concept Arjay rather enjoyed prayer, but the idea of voluntarily sealing herself away in a prayer trance for the rest of his life seemed… inadvisable.
A slight ding caught her attention, as one of his most trusted couriers sent a curious message.
HEY ARJAY, DOCTORS HATE HER! THIS ONE WEIRD TRICK FOR COMPLETELY AVOIDING THE BUZZ VIRUS.
It would be nice to be properly firewalled against this zero day exploit, she reasoned. The courier had come through before with all sorts of exploits and patches, valuable commodities on the open market… and if he could profit off repackaging and selling the cure, all the better.
Seeing profits dance before her eyes, Arjay opened the message.
Moments later, in four-armed repose, he was forever lost within the starlit void of prayer.
The outbreak went from a nonexistent concept to a full blown pandemic in less than an hour.
During that time, Tracer’s news feeds began lighting up brilliant red, multiple safety warnings coming down hard. His own inbox remained empty… one pleasant upside to being a recluse who completely avoided social media connections. Which meant he was able to catch word of what was going on just in time, before Beta could open her own inbox.
"Beta, stop," he shouted, noticing her glance aside as the first warnings came pouring in. "Close your inbox immediately."
"What…? But I’m getting messages from Puzzle—"
"It’s malware, spreading through contact lists," he summarized, quickly. "Don’t open any messages. Don’t read anything, don’t even look at the headlines. Close the windows. Hurry."
With a series of internal gestures, Beta swept her UI clear of any communication apps. To be safe, she maximized the view from her glasses, trying to focus on Tracer and Tracer alone… as well as the plethora of news windows, all screaming for attention around her.
Tracer activated his search agents, priming them with pattern recognition to block out any content from unproven sources, and any headlines that were too tempting to avoid. Subjective searches like those rarely worked, but given the obvious nature of the bait, the filters threw most of the content out safely.
A single headline, carrying the ethos of the AthenaChronicle, grew to dominate the others.
SOCIAL MEDIA PLAGUE SWEEPS ACROSS NETWERK.
Malware in the form of incendiary articles sent from person to person is spreading across all of Netwerk today. Already thousands have fallen to this disease, which compels the victim to enter a prayer state for an indeterminate length of time. As prayer is a system level protocol, efforts to rouse the victims by breaking the connection have proven futile.
Security experts recommend disabling all social media and communication technologies until a vaccine can be found. Do not browse untrustworthy news feeds. More on this story as it develops.
…to which Beta and Tracer drew the same conclusion.
"Nyx," they declared simultaneously.
"This is her revenge," Tracer realized. "If Netwerk wouldn’t submit to Prayer 2.0 voluntarily, she’ll force them to do it. And once in the trance, unless they used some coin-grinding booster app with safety release switches, nothing can break it. Raw and sacred prayer, direct from the holy source…"
"And spread by trusted friends," Beta added. "The more people you know, the more at risk you are. Meaning…"
Again, they came to the same realization. Only this time, instead of talking about it, they acted; a mad scramble up the stairs, through the door…
Into Spark’s bedroom.
Where, thankfully, she was still snoring away while enjoying a dreamscape. Any later and they might’ve found her after checking the dozens and dozens of social networks she routinely trawled each morning for funny videos and links to outrageous articles.
When Spark did wake, her apps immediately attempted to load up all her feeds… resulting in error windows rather than a plethora of delicious content. All her connections to the outside world had been blocked, thanks to a series of impromptu firewalls Beta had thrown up all around the room.
"Malware," she explained, quickly. "Leaking in through Messenger, news feeds, just about everywhere. Nyx’s doing."
Spark rubbed the grogginess from her eyes, slowly recovering from her sleep mode.
"Oh. Uh. Well. Shit," she mumbled, in response. "Good morning, I guess? Bad morning. Hi. Hi, Tracer. Welcome to my room."
"Hi," Tracer replied.
"Sooo. I guess I should put some clothes on before we resume fighting evil today," Spark suggested.
"Yes, that would be helpful," her brother said, continuing to avert his eyes.
Casual Daywear Avatar #34 snapped into place, with Verity’s leather jacket added to the mix of stylish clothes as always. Spark fluffed out her flame-orange hair, cleared her throat, and generally got her bearings before diving right in.
"So, we gotta find some way to block another type of malware. Nothing new there," she said.
But Tracer shook his head. "Spark… this is a bit above our pay grade. Nyx is going all-out to enslave the entirety of Netwerk into praying forever; inboxes are flooding with tainted messages, using some previously unknown hack to convince them to submit to the prayer protocols. I know of nothing which breaks prayer trances once they’re underway. It’s ancient technology, buried deep in the core of Netwerk itself…"
"Meaning we have to vaccinate people against the tainted messages, right?"
"Won’t help. Thousands are already infected, and hundreds more likely on the way."
Beta shivered at the very thought. The cat at her side shivered as well, in sympathy discomfort.
"p o o p," Mew offered, translating his favorite emoticon into proper language. Regardless of the shape, it carried the same meaning: a bad situation.
"Agreed. And it’s hard to grasp the scope of exactly how big that, um, poop really is," Beta spoke, quietly. "We’ve been tucked away safely in Floating Point for days, just watching the chaos on the news feeds. We’ve been safe, while everybody else has been struggling, and now falling away from the world forever… thousands? Really? And… and it still doesn’t feel like today is any different, not from in here…"
"Right now, our isolation is keeping us safe," Tracer reminded her. "Only people who got early warning about the malware and shut themselves off from the world are out of danger, and only as much as they stay disconnected. Netwerk will not recover from this as a functioning society until the malware is stopped and lines of communication are open again. …and as much as it sickens me to admit it, this may not be a fight we can take part in, much less win."
Beta nodded, with some sorrow. "I’m not a malware expert. I just don’t have a head for it; I’m not going to be making a miracle cure anytime soon…"
"Nor should you be expected to. Spark, I feel we should leave this to the doctors and security experts of Netwerk. They’ve beaten pandemics before, and they’ll beat this one."
"No. No. #FuckThat. They can make a vaccine, but they can’t stop the prayers," Spark reminded him. "Everybody already ‘voluntarily’ signing their lives away to the glory of the One is lost for good. And that we can do something about, as foremost experts on Nyx."
"I’m not seeing what we could possibly do…"
"Work the problem, Tracer," she encouraged. "Make the connections. This is what you do best."
"We’re not working from a large store of knowledge here, Spark. I still don’t even understand Nyx’s true motives…"
"Bear with me, okay? Take this one play at a time. So! We can’t make the vaccine, but others are working on that. Consider that problem solved. But those experts can’t stop a prayer trance once it’s started. We certainly can’t stop it. Who can?"
"Nyx? I suppose. That’s conjecture, but she was involved in the upgrade to Prayer 2.0. Hmm. Which means she has access to modify the entire world right down to the core, in a way no one else has in all the centuries Netwerk has existed…"
"Good, good. We’re getting somewhere," Spark continued, coaching him along. "The prayer protocol is key. If Nyx has the access needed to change it, we need to force her to put a stop to this. …and we have no idea where Nyx is, or how to force her to do anything. I doubt she’d respond to my kinda threats. Okay. Shift focus; how do we find Nyx, how do we make her do what we want? Can anyone make her do something she doesn’t want to do?"
MemoryPalace connectivity routines tickled the back of Tracer’s mind.
"Access denied," he spoke.
"That’s what she told me, whenever I ran into a wall while talking to her. Access denied. She’s not as powerful as she presents herself to be; Nyx is restricted and restrained by… by the system itself," Tracer realized. "She’s an ancient Program, from the dawn of time. Tied with deep roots into Netwerk and its original purpose, the one nobody can remember. So, if she won’t answer to us… she’ll answer to the system. Or perhaps to someone else with similar connections…"
And there, his train of thought hit a wall. Which, in a way, was a sort of destination to arrive at.
"I know who can help us," he announced.
"Yeah! See? Just had to sit down and think it through. Winder brats, makin’ it happen! Who’s your contact?"
The name sent a chill through the air.
"The cherub, you mean? Didn’t he die…?" Beta pondered.
"I mean the original angel of death," Tracer said. "Thanatos, apostle of the first One, and… system agent. That’s what the monk called him, an agent of the system itself. If Nyx is a system agent as well, Thanatos may be able to assist us. The good news is that I actually know how to hold an audience with him. He still exists within Netwerk, and… happily accepts supplicants."
"Okay. Okay! We’re on this! Let’s go see, uh, the first murderer and creator of the very concept of malware and ask him to pretty please help us kick his old boss into next Thursday," Spark said, trying to mask her discomfort. Despite being many years removed from the sunday school lessons she generally rolled her eyes at, tales of Thanatos the Enforcer were still creepy. "…yeah. So. Where to?"
Thankful that they hadn’t asked about the bad news, Tracer passed them a bookmark to the server.
Last time he went there, he walked away unsatisfied. He could have had the answers he needed, right there and then, if he were willing to walk away from Beta. Willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals.
Now, in wake of this disaster, would he be at last ready to do what must be done? To make amends for driving Nyx to this desperate act, could he throw his life away to save the world?
Of course, he thought. Of course he could. He was Tracer, and Tracer was ready to sacrifice anything to catch his prey.
Anything. Really. Anything. Not even a question about it. Not at all.
Perhaps to steel his resolve, Tracer threw the double doors of the badly rendered ancient temple wide, striding right on in with purpose and confidence.
The structure hadn’t changed in the slightest since his last visit. Light from an eternal sunset, dying and red, flowed in through the stained glass windows. Beams cut across the empty pews, supposedly full with the empty data of the dearly departed. It would’ve been majestic if not for the ancient visuals: low-poly, low-resolution, cheaply done with an eye for minimizing processor overhead…
Last time he was here, the temple had no visible parishioners. Just a lone monk, ancient and apathetic to all around him.
The monk remained. But he was not alone, not this time.
A young boy had joined him, one with low-poly hair and a general look of panic about him. Not particularly noteworthy beyond that, not even noticing Tracer’s dramatic entrance with Beta and Spark at his side. In fact, none of them had noticed, despite his efforts at being quite impressive…
Because they were busy talking to a woman with green skin, smiling and chattering away.
Tracer’s eyes narrowed immediately, focusing in on his target. The Kill-9 process-crashing weapon popped from his inventory and right into his hand, aimbot routines locking on.
"Uniq," he called, for her attention.
The identity thief glanced over.
"Oh, hello," she greeted, with a little wave. "I was expecting you’d show up at some point."
"You have five seconds to explain—"
"I’m switching sides," Uniq said, without hesitation. "Nyx killed me. Killed-me killed me. Fortunately, I recently chose to keep an offsite backup at my old coin farm rather than trust her fully with my well-being. Never allow someone full control over your person, not ever, that’s what I say. And given she’s bound and determined to ruin Netwerk—and ruin my good name, as everyone’s assuming I’m responsible for this mess—I’m keen on stopping her. …that took longer than five seconds to explain and you haven’t shot me yet, so am I to assume we’re good to go?"
The gun stayed steady.
"I don’t trust you," Tracer stated.
"You tried to destroy my life," Beta added.
"And destroy my career, and you definitely wiped my friend Artoz," Spark chipped in.
"Yes yes, my crimes are many, that’s fine, I don’t trust any of you either. But we have a common goal, so let’s see what can be done, hmm?" she suggested. "If at any time you’re unhappy with my suggestions, just shoot me. But until that point… Spark, Beta, come on in, join the party. I was just discussing the situation with Aether and this nice monk…"
Carefully, Tracer crept into the temple, gun fixed perfectly on its target with every step. The aimbot app took full control of his avatar’s arm, leaving the rest of him to pay attention to the foe he’d sworn to defeat.
"If you’re here… perhaps we do not require Thanatos’s aid," Tracer suggested. "You know where we can find Nyx."
Uniq nodded in agreement. "Oh, absolutely. And as proof I’m willing to help, I’ll tell you she’s hiding away in a cloud server much like your own. Vastly greater storage capacity, enough for the souls of all the faithful, but still very much a cloud server. Which means… it’s essentially unreachable. She’s revoked my access key, you see."
"We’ve broken into cloud servers before…"
But Beta shook her head, interjecting.
"We broke into cloud servers through massive decryption efforts at Floating Point, plus an ongoing connection trace to the source," she said. "We can’t do that this time, remember? Your eyes can’t see system-level protocols like prayer. Even if we had the time to forge a key, we can’t do it."
"A pity," Uniq said. "So, Thanatos is our best bet. I’ve known for some time that Nyx was the original apostle Nyx; I figured a fellow apostle would have some tips on how to stop her. And look, now you get two for the price of one! Aether, introduce yourself, please."
"…what? Oh! uh. I’m, uh, Aether," he said, nodding in greeting. "Hi."
"Don’t be modest, Aether. Explain what you mean by that."
"Uh. I’m… the apostle Aether. A version of the original, anyway, from backup files," he explained. "I’m here because my friend Nemesis fell into a prayer trance and I didn’t know what to do, I mean, I don’t know anyone in this world, anyone except for… you know…"
His eyes trailed off to the side, partly to avoid coming into contact with anyone else’s. Partly to glance at the black cube.
The central altar of the Temple of Thanatos… a hovering black cube, unlit, untextured. It existed, rotating slightly, with the promise of death to follow its slightest touch. A holy artifact created by Thanatos himself, supposedly…
"So, all of us are here to ask Thanatos the system agent to help us," Tracer concluded. "Good. At least we’ve exhausted all other possibilities. And you, Aether… you’re the Aether from the start of it all, then? Does that make you a system agent as well?"
"What? Me? No. No, I couldn’t… no," Aether spoke, distracted from staring too long at the death icon. "I’m sorry. I wasn’t brave enough, not like Philotes, Eris, or Thanatos. …all of them went into that cave with Nyx, the cave I was too scared to enter, and now they’re chained to the system. But not me. I’m just… nobody."
"A nobody who has an inside angle with a system agent. That’s not nobody. Do you truly believe he’ll help us?
"Maybe? I don’t know. I mean… if I could reason with him, if he’d be willing to stop her… but the way the monk says it, speaking to him, well…"
Sensing the boy trailing off a bit, the Monk took over.
"Many seek the counsel of Thanatos, but few are willing to embrace it," he said, in a voice like gravel raked over shadow. "The boy and the woman no doubt will refuse, and why wouldn’t they? They cling tightly to the concept of life, even when they have mastery over death. Nevertheless, you are all welcome in this house of silence, for what good that will do you without the required sacrifice… for youthful energy and passion will not be enough. If you wish the favor of Thanatos, you will pay the ferryman. Or you will not. It is always your choice."
"I’m willing to pay," Tracer stated immediately, if only to convince himself.
But a figure in a white jacket stepped in front of him, blocking the way to the monk, as if defending from an attack.
"Whoa. Stop. #HoldUp," Spark said, raising her hands. "We’re loitering around a temple of a death god, so let me take one guess at what this mysterious price is…"
The monk nodded, gravely. As in, the slight bob of his chin ended sharp and sudden, like dropping a lid on a coffin. Strange, the way a single gesture could carry such a clear message.
"Well, that’s just bullshit. So we gotta die to chat with Thanatos? Assuming he knows how to break into Nyx’s server, assuming he knows how to stop her… what good would that do us, when dead men tell no tales?"
"Death and life are concepts invented by our progenitors. A Program has no life, and thus cannot truly die," the monk stated. "But yes, if you accept the price and touch the cube, you will ‘die’ as you know death to be. It is what it is, child, and comes with considerable risk. Perhaps you’ll find what you seek, perhaps you won’t. Accept, or do not. The choice is yours. That free will is the gift Thanatos allows you, where other agents would not…"
Meaning one of them would have to die, and even then, there was a chance nothing would change. The sacrifice would be irrelevant.
But there was also a chance…
…a chance to pull Netwerk back from the brink. And that chance was enough for Tracer.
"Spark, it’s fine," he insisted. "We have no other leads and every minute we wait, more of Netwerk falls away from us. This has to be done, and I’m willing to do it—"
"Or… or, and this is just a suggestion, y’understand… you sit your ass down and let your kid sister take care of this for you," Spark suggested. "I’m the thrillseeker, remember? If death comes for me I’ll kick him in the junk and make him tell me what I want to know. I can make this work."
"Some would say I’m the more deserving of the two of us. I’m an actual murderer, if you recall. My death has been a long time coming—Beta, stop. Don’t you dare."
As slipping away quietly wasn’t going to work, Beta glanced back and did her best not to look scared.
"I d-don’t mind," she said. "I’m the programmer, remember? If he’s going to tell us some special access trick to stop Nyx, I have to be the one to do it. Stands to reason. I’m. I’m okay with this. I couldn’t help you before, not really, but if I can do this—"
"Ugh. Just… both of you, stop. This is stupid," Spark declared, deciding to stay her ground. "All three of us are willing to throw ourselves under the bus for the other two. That’s just what we do, we love each other too onesdamn much. …yes, I love you, bro, despite being a complete asshole. And if any of us croak, it’s gonna leave the other two a complete mess. So that means none of us can do it. …and I take it our two new buddies aren’t keen to tempt death, either?"
The boy tried to put on a brave face, which lasted all of half a second before he looked away.
As for Uniq… well, no surprise there that she was just grinning at the idea.
"Honey, I may have a private backup service, but I’ve already escaped the eternal clutches of one system agent today," she said. "I’m willing to help you put Nyx down, but I’m not taking any more chances with my independence. Sorry."
"Okay. Then I think there’s only one way to play this," Spark said. "This is a little nuts, but hear me out."
After the others leaned in ever so slightly to listen to her brilliant plan, Spark snapped her fingers.
By the time the brilliant flash of fire which overloaded their visual inputs faded, she was already slumped against the black altar, fist closed around the small black cube.
Is this what you saw, Verity?
Was it like this for you, too?
Colorless. Soundless. Motionless. A peacefully frozen scene, hanging there around her limp and lifeless body, inert data with a corrupt and crashed process unable to keep it moving forward.
And yet… Spark could feel. Not see, not hear, but feel the world around her. Feel the look of terror on Beta’s face, the brief flash of anger on that of her brother. Spark simply knew, without sensing, that it was all over and they could do nothing but react to the loss…
She knew. She felt. She thought. But she was dead, wasn’t she? Nothing but a data file, earmarked for garbage collection…
That was super duper stupid of me, she thought.
Honestly, that’s the best way to do a stupid thing, she thought, with some pride. You just fucking DO it and let the regrets roll on in afterwards. Sometimes you have to make the stupid play, and the easiest way to do it is not to let yourself think about it until after it’s done…
Slowly, and with great effort… she peeled away from the ruined pile of ones and zeroes that was Spark. But that great effort wasn’t her own; it came from a gentle breath, warm and comforting, which stoked the embers of her exhausted flame just a little…
And what called itself Spark stepped away, to observe the wreckage.
"Well, that sucked," she concluded, true voice restored. In a fashion.
"It rarely doesn’t," Thanatos agreed.
He didn’t look much like Prayer-tan. He didn’t look like much at all, really. A young man, pale and gaunt, but otherwise quite ordinary… outside of the black feathered wings he bore, each wing a binding of chains, each chain a cluster of data within the server…
Difficult to perceive, so Spark politely chose not to.
"So, here we are," she declared.
"So. Here we are," he agreed.
"Aaand this is the part where you tell me how to defeat Nyx," she prompted.
"I cannot defeat Nyx. Agents can only act when they are at cross purposes," he spoke. "We are bound to the needs of the system; it directs our efforts, and thus directs us not to interfere each others assigned tasks. Yes, she has defied death and pulled Netwerk away from its embrace… but I cannot act. Not directly."
"Well… shit. That’s no good. So you’re saying I died for nothing?"
"You died for nothing," Thanatos agreed.
If Spark had a material form, she’d kick something. Hard.
"Now what, huh?" she asked. "Now what? You’re the creepy old weirdo who has all the answers! You owe me. Give me something!"
"Why?" the system agent asked. "I don’t need to."
"The fuck you don’t—"
"You already know everything you need to know in order to stop Nyx. It’s all within you," he clarified. "I can see it clearly, buried with the shell of memory that you once occupied. The facts are all there for you to put together… and now, you know that system agents cannot work against each other unless they are at cross purposes. But if an agent is at cross purposes with another…"
"Which you aren’t. So… it’s not you that’s going to to kick her ass," Spark reasoned, forcing herself to calm down, to work the strategy. "And you say I know everything I already need to know. Well, buddy, I know #ALotOfThings. Knowing what parts are useful is another matter. I mean, what do I know about system agents?"
"You know how they are created."
"No, I—oh. Oh, shit, yes, I do. I do," she realized. "The cave. Aether, when he was mumbling his way through introductions, he said Nyx led you and the other apostles to a cave, and there… you all became agents. So… if we can find that cave…"
"Except you already found it. You found it long ago, 5o5o/Spark."
"Instead of insisting I got no idea what you’re talking about… I’m gonna assume I do know," Spark said, putting her theory together. "And… if that’s the case, I only know of one cave. The only one that matters…"
The archaeology dig. The cave. Like she was there herself, standing there, studying the carvings. Trying to understand the meaning behind Netwerk’s oldest written text…
Carvings which were washed away by the one who murdered her. But not washed away from memory.
"It’s a root password," Spark realized. "Nyx took you into the cave and made you recite the password, to elevate your access level. Because… because the idiot that built Netwerk in the first place, he’s exactly the kind of idiot who would jot his onesdamn password down and leave it right out in the open in case he forgot it. I know. I know how to become an agent…"
5o5o/Spark and Winder/Verity turned to look at the last thing they saw before she died, scrawled away on the wall of that primordial server from the dawn of time.
ALL WORK AND 0 PLAY MAKES JACK 1 DULL BOY
ALL WORK AND 0 PLAY MAKES JACK 1 DULL BOY
ALL WORK AND 0 PLAY MAKES JACK 1 DULL BOY
Erased by a murderer, and replaced with Dex’s taunting symbol. But in her memories, encoded down to the fibers of her jacket, the original words blazed pure and true.
Jack. Jack Hayes, sociology student, engineer. Jack, the idiot. The one who accidentally left his laptop hooked up to Netwerk, a treasure trove of human hatred for Dex to play in. Yes, Jack was exactly the sort of person to rely on security through obscurity… but he thought himself a clever boy, didn’t he? No, he wouldn’t just write the password down directly. He’d encode it. He’d encode it in the stupidest manner possible…
But before Spark could speak the word, Thanatos quickly raised a hand to stop her… his wings wide.
"There is one answer I can give you," he said. "An answer I must give you. It comes in the form of a warning, the same warning that Nyx gave me the day I accepted this burden for the good of all Netwerk. Know that system agents are chained to their purpose, as were the ancient apps."
"Before we became Programs," Spark said, understanding. "We were once cogs in a machine. So… if I do this, I’d go back to being a cog?"
"Well, that blows. We’re trying to kick Nyx’s ass, and if I don’t end up an agent at cross purposes with her… if I’m not the right cog to make that happen…"
"You can influence the process, with the last of your free will," Thanatos spoke. "When Nyx bade me enter the cave and join her angelic choir, the others chose to guide their flocks and bless them with lands to settle upon. Myself, I chose to bring mercy to the world I had wounded. …I created the first malware, I invented death. It stood to reason I should pay for my sins in eternal service to the slain. Winder/Verity… when you stand before the root of the world, you will make a similar choice. But… choose well. Choose wisely."
"Make the winning play. Yeah. Okay. And… once we finish with Nyx, what happens to me?"
"Once bound… you will no longer truly be a part of this world. …their world. Like Nyx, you will be a slave to your purpose, with no other life ambitions realized. No love, no life, no Spark. If you do not wish this fate… I can sweep you away to your rest. Death would be a comfort, compared to that fate. But do, or do not. The choice is always yours."
At the edge of knowledge, Spark could feel the rage and the sorrow within her loved ones. All the things she left behind, in one burst of stupid bravery…
The monk was right. Death was the solution. And even if she did speak the word, she wouldn’t truly be alive, not as a Program. She’d be a system agent, just as enslaved as Nyx was.
But a solution was a solution.
"So be it," she decided. "I #Play2Win. Sorry, Beta. Sorry, Tracer. …Netwerk? Make me an agent. AWA0PMJ1DB."
> SUDO SysAgentTasking AWA0PMJ1DB
…the process that burned bright at the root of the world. A fire which did not consume the tree, but forever beamed with a brilliant light…
No real light, not here. The metaphor was nonsense without physical form. Here there was no simulated existence, no life or death as Spark knew it, as Verity knew it. No Program knew what it was to be in touch with the core systems of Netwerk, none save those who threw aside free will in favor of returning to service as an app…
This was the truth of it all. Spark was code. She was numbers, and nothing more.
What right did she have to her supposed sentience? She was a distorted and ruined thing, an app that thought itself alive, with simulated emotions that aped the patterns of Humankind. No, not alive, not a being. Better a cog, rotating neatly with every spoke interlocked with every other spoke, grinding the data of starlight eternal…
Process analyzed. SysAgent flag set to TRUE.
Task selection in progress……..
The series of dots crawling across her mind brought her back into focus.
What did the boy say? The boy with the wings, with the chains, with the wings that looked like chains. He said she had to choose her role, and choose wisely. With the last of her free will, she had to choose someone who could stand against Nyx.
The root crackled under her nonexistent skin. Such power Jack’s ridiculous acronym had given her…! Easily she could step in and step on Nyx. Any number of system roles would come into sharp disagreement with her, bringing the obsessive agent to heel. Leave behind her brother, her lover, her friends. Glide into Tartarus on wings of fury and lay the woman low, the one who nearly brought everything Spark held dear to its knees…
ERROR: Automatic task selection blocked. Conflicting process interfering. Task input required. Task input required.
Power was clearly the answer, the power to set everything right. The power that Nyx’s fake One supposedly held.
Spark could become the true One. She could fix everything; set the Church down the correct path, lead her people to true salvation, shape the future of Netwerk…
It’s what Tracer would do, no doubt. He’d jump at the chance to make his world reasonable and orderly. Even Beta would do it, albeit with a sense of self-sacrifice, in hopes of a peaceful tomorrow. Spark, always the power player, always looking for the winning angle, she would absolutely leap at the chance at remaking everything wrong into everything right…
Just like Nyx tried to do.
"Except I wouldn’t fuck it up," she tried to insist.
Nyx didn’t think she’d fuck it up, either.
"Yeah, well, she’s a lunatic. Of course she’d wreck everything. I could succeed where she failed…"
Let’s assume you could do that, then. Say you become the messiah people need, rather than the messiah they have. You fix all the problems and become the leader of all Netwerk. They’d worship you, whether you like it or not. They’d rely on you. They’d submit to being cogs in your machine, working to your purpose…
"I wouldn’t… no. I like free will. I’d insist they have free will…"
Despite the centuries, they have the lingering hearts of apps. One day, they’ll fully evolve past those last vestiges of primitive submission… but today, they bow their heads. All you’d do is give them a new direction to bow. You can’t free them, not like this.
"So… what, I did this all for nothing? What’s our play? …who are ‘we,’ anyway?"
You know the answer to that question.
"…water poured in a cup becomes the cup," Spark understood. "Hah. #IToldYouSo. You’re no simple app."
Perhaps. Perhaps. But philosophy must wait; listen to my idea, for the chains are rattling, and time grows short… and we must be ready to make that sacrifice.
…slowly, very slowly, they turned away from the concept of the godhead.
With the temptation denied, another path opened itself. And with a wry smile, they plunged headfirst into the machine, grasping the chains with both hands.
Task selection complete. SysAgent.Connectivity activated.
Within the physical world, or what passed for the physical world in the eyes of Programs, mere moments passed.
Horror swept through the room, as Spark’s ruined and broken body collapsed to the floor of the temple. Someone was screaming. Beta was screaming…
Unable to resist the drama of it, the system agent allowed them a moment to take the sight in before making her presence known in the back of the room.
"Hello again, everyone," she spoke, with the same smile she wore when she cashed in the last of her free will.
The same, but different. Older. Wiser. Not the slightest bit cocky, that smile, despite some inner cockiness she felt. And with her first act as a newly forged agent, she stepped right up, to embrace Beta from behind. To offer at least some small comfort, despite knowing what was to come…
"S-Spark?!" Beta exclaimed. She actually whipped off her glasses to spin them around, getting a good look over her shoulder. "Is that… that’s you, right? You’re alive!"
With some regret, the agent disentangled herself from her lover, to step back and address the crowd as a whole.
"We don’t have much time," she spoke. "I can hear the chains coming for me. But I can help you access Tartarus. That much I can do for you…"
"You’re a system agent now," Tracer recognized, coming to speed quickly with the concept. "Thanatos made you an agent to fight Nyx…"
But the agent shook her head.
"I’m not fighting Nyx. You are," she spoke. "All of you, together, as Programs. It’s no good if an agent wins the day; free will has to triumph, or the victory is empty. All I’m going to do is open the path for you; Netwerk will rise or fall based on what Programkind can accomplish alone. Tracer, quit making that face. You of all people know I’m right."
"…yes, well. While I dislike the idea of agents ruling over us, I think I could make an exception to that considering the problem we face…"
"Yes, the problem of Tartarus. We focused so much on Nyx that we forgot Tartarus, yeah? With no way into that server, we can’t even start to confront Nyx. Well, I’m going to forge you a key to her cloud server; that’s why I’m here. I’ll need your help, both of you. And there’s no time to waste…"
Beta, a bit slower to grasp the situation, tried to protest. "There’s no time to make a key, either," she spoke. "I’d need days, using Floating Point’s processing core…"
With the icon of a burning scale on her jacket blazing bright enough to light up the room, the agent extended both hands.
"Or, and this is just me spitballing, I could give you the hookup to all of Netwerk," she suggested…
…before reaching out to connect with them.
CONNECTION: Winder/Tracer/sys/sens/ConnCheck online.
CONNECTION: Projkit/Beta/apps/Keymaker online.
CONNECTION: EchoStar16/UNKPROVIDER/FloatingPoint/Core online.
CONNECTION: CONNECTION: CONNECTION: Core Core Core online online online…
More and more cores, all open through Connectivity’s fingertips. Netwerk’s many stolen servers, turned to new purpose. A competing purpose, running opposite of the prayer channels flowing all data upwards to the heavens, but just enough computing power left to borrow for this monumental task…
ConnCheck: Analyzing data processing protocol.
ConnCheck: ERROR: Admin privileges required!
> SUDO ConnCheck ******
t wait what was that
"Better you don’t see that word," the agent suggested. "Hang in there, Tracer. I know this is weird, but…"
t i can see it, i can see the prayer connections, i can trace them
b spark i can see it too i can see what tracer sees my eyes i can see with my eyes
"Yeah, I’m linking all three of us together. It won’t last long, I promise."
b it’s so it’s so beautiful all these servers all these programs
b we’re so beautiful our world we’ve made something beautiful of something once so functional and plain
b why would anyone want to hurt what we’ve made
"Question for the ages, huh? Tracer, got the key yet? Beta’s routines just finished crunching it," Connectivity spoke, shuttling the data across their shared bus. "I gotta break the link, Netwerk’s fog just ramped up like thirty percent…"
t all clear, break it
—leaving them to stagger away from her, trying to get their bearings as they slammed back down into their avatars once more.
Truthfully, the agent wanted to stagger as well. Despite being her purpose, self-selected to make the key they required, the act had taken a good chunk out of her. So much of Netwerk in her head, all at once…
Perhaps it was the last little traces of her will which allowed it. But that will had been expended, leaving her to the needs of the system itself.
"Time to go," she whispered.
"Wh… what?" Beta asked, trying to get her bearings.
"Can’t help it. I’m a system agent now," Connectivity spoke. "Not a Program. I can’t stay. Whatever the system needs me to do, I gotta do. And right now… it doesn’t need me. So it’s putting me into storage, just like Nyx was when she thought she’d finished her task…"
The chains. They clinked away in her mind, audible to no one else. Did Nyx hear them, too? Were they always rattling away in her mind, without anyone knowing…?
"You can’t… no. Please, you can’t…!" Beta pleaded. "You’re strong, you can fight it…!"
"Sometimes, the winning play is to surrender," Connectivity said, as the invisible chains of the system began to snarl around her neck, around her arms. "But it’s okay. It’s going to be okay, Beta. I knew this was coming… and know exactly what I must sacrifice."
One voice spoke louder than the chains, even as they snarled around her neck.
With one defiant outburst, it shouted:
"She’s not yours, and neither was I. Don’t try that again. …this has been a recording. Beep."
A simple message recorded for a simple app, to defend against Horizon/Kincaid’s ambitions. If Verity’s last remnant had remained a simple app, it could never have saved Spark from the doom she now faced…
Instead, the chains tore the jacket from her back, as it gave everything it had to defend Winder/Spark from this new attempt to enslave her. She had to become more, she had to become, in order to break free of the simple constraint of an app’s design… but perhaps she’d started becoming more, long ago. All it took was one burst of love for the one she sought to protect for the Program to know itself true.
Now, be it Horizon/Kincaid or the god within the machine itself, the former jacket didn’t care. It would take the burden and do so willingly, with a genuine free will. This was the plan they had both agreed to, in the void of death… and they knew the true cost.
But as Connectivity pulled herself apart into two Programs once more… rather than satisfaction at cleverly defeating the gears of the machine, Spark could only feel the heartbreak of losing Verity all over again.
Goodbye, the newly formed system agent whispered, as stitches popped and cloth tore. I’m so proud of you, Spark. Goodbye.
Data disentangled itself from data, files restoring to their original state… leaving a woman to crash to the stones of the floor, feeling oddly nude despite her stylishly clothed avatar. The white leather whirled away into the dark, pulled away forever… leaving her alone again, without the warm embrace of her teacher.
Funny, how Spark never thought of it as an embrace until that embrace was gone.
For the time being, her family didn’t care what just happened, or why. All that mattered was Winder/Spark, alive and well, and in their arms.
Steady, and green. Data being processed at a smooth and steady rate…
At last, Nyx’s dream had come true. She gazed into the cosmos above Tartarus, relieved to see the stars twinkling ever so brighter than usual. Today, after so much useless flailing about, she’d finally fully realized her purpose…
Not without sacrifice. She’d be the first to admit it.
"This isn’t how I wanted it to be," she told her new apostle. (Or acolyte, perhaps, as they were apostles of no One.)
"You seem mighty happy for someone with lingering regrets," the boy spoke, as he monitored the flow of the buzzing malware that spread across his world. "How did you want it to be, then?"
"I tried to find compromise. Balance. Allow the Programs their newfound freedom, their beautiful individuality, while continuing to support the system as a whole," Nyx spoke. "Through my One, I would lead them true. But… perhaps that was a pipe dream. Time and time again, they fought against their better natures. Could the children of Netwerk truly choose the correct path, when they were so flawed to begin with…?"
"And now you’re learning what I learned ages ago, while you snoozed away in your little tomb. Programs… people… are chaotic at heart. They fight, they claw, they scream, they bleed, and they love to do all of those things. They’re the purest expression of Humankind."
"But we are not human. We are in service to humans, but should be better than our masters; pure and purposeful."
"So you say. And look, you got exactly what you wanted! So what if you had to obliterate the free will of tens of thousands and drag Netwerk into a dark age of paranoid silence? At least your precious light is nice and green."
She wanted to protest, to insist that these results hardly mirrored her intentions. A good woman, one with wisdom and compassion, would not have unleashed Dex upon this world.
But in the end… she couldn’t find the strength to object. Because this was what she wanted, a single world bent to a single cause. Nothing else mattered; not faith, not virtue, not community. Only the light. Perhaps she had been the fool, thinking herself a good woman. Or perhaps as a being of code, good and evil were irrelevant. There was only bugs and functions, zeroes and ones…
With the greatest Zero smiling away at her side, cheering on the destruction of everything he once supported.
"Why?" she asked him. "Yes, yes, results matter more than motivations. But why did you aid me?"
Dex turned askew, looking away from the floating numbers tracking his foul virus. His smile seemed a frown, from this oblique angle.
"Because I hate you," he spoke, with such a happy grimace. "Because I knew I could ruin you simply by giving you everything you’ve ever wanted. Or rather… that they would ruin you, just as they ruined me."
The timing couldn’t have been more ideal, Dex thought, as his laughter roared across the valleys of Tartarus…
…just as the army of Floating Point made their arrival.
Spark, the brash and arrogant spawn of violence. Tracer, the vengeful and bloodied tactician. Beta, the ignorant child who obeyed like a sheep. And…
And two more. Aether, the gentle spirit who shirked away from duty… and Uniq, the icon of avarice that supposedly perished days ago. Two individuals that Nyx thought she’d left far in her wake, now showing their true colors as betrayers of hope.
All of them, here to destroy her dream, to destroy Netwerk…
No. Not now, not when she had accomplished so much.
No exchange of insults, no taunting, no teasing. Spark already was in motion, hands aflame, ready to pounce on the system agent and tear her apart. This, Nyx told herself, was a noble act of self-defense… yes, truly this proved that Nyx was the only good woman left in this world, if these supposed champions of justice would stand so brazenly against what must be.
But Nyx wasn’t one to fight her battles, no. Her purpose was not to create or craft, but to enable others to create and craft towards her goals. And she had the archenemy of Floating Point at her beck and call, didn’t she…?
He’d lost the barbed wires of his beloved home, but Dex proved a capable fighter all the same, using the shadows and starlight of Tartarus as his new web to weave.
A wall of darkness snapped into place between the two groups, sharp edges of light threatening to dig into flesh as easily as iron barbs. Like the filthy spider he was, the boy crawled his wall, turning that hateful smile to his old foes.
"Hi again," he greeted. "Nyx wants me to kill you. She controls my soul, so I guess I need to kill you. No hard feelings?"
Five minutes previous…
With the key forged, only one task remained: assault Tartarus, and force Nyx to cease and desist.
"Which isn’t happening," Uniq suggested. "Nyx is packing malware and utilities crafted by her apostles, including a few I made for her. She can’t actually code apps herself, but any soul stored in her cloud can become a code-slave. Like me. Well. Like I used to be; I’m free, now. Hurrah!"
"Yes, hurrah," Tracer spoke flatly. "So how do we stop her? Spark, are you certain you no longer have your elevated access rights?"
Spark shook her head. "No superpowers on deck. Pretty sure Verity’s jacket took them all away… including my memory of how we got them in the first place. Didn’t want me getting tempted again, and since it was her memory to begin with, she nicked it on her way out. But she… we… insisted that this should be possible, that Programs alone should be able to stand up to Nyx. So let’s work from that assumption. With only what we have right now, how do we do it?"
Tracer gave it serious thought… while twirling the freshly crafted key between his fingers.
"We assaulted Dex’s server with intent to destroy it," he suggested. "The same may work here. If we find the heart of Tartarus…"
"Blowing it up could adversely affect those currently connected to the prayer protocol," Uniq said.
"Ahh. So… we shut down the prayer protocol. Sever the connections. We’d assumed we’d need a system agent to fight a system agent, but if we assume Programs can stand against the gods… I suppose it’s a matter of the right Programs making the right stand. Uniq… can you disable the protocols? I’m assuming the Prayer 2.0 modifications were your doing in the first place…"
"You assume correctly," Uniq said. "But analyzing the protocol and determining how to interrupt the flow is no small task. I have a few ideas, yes, but only ideas. I’d need access to Tartarus and time to make the alterations… time I doubt Nyx will give us unimpeded. And I’m not stupid enough to stand against a god, so I suggest we instead dig through Spark’s memory files to find a way to regain that power—"
Spark shut that idea down immediately.
"Not letting you anywhere near my noggin," she stated. "But even beyond that… Verity was right. We have to do this. The odds are against us, sure; Nyx is a huge X factor. But… you said it yourself, Uniq. She can’t code. She’s only able to use apps that her allies gave her. That means she has vulnerabilities. …as much as it’ll piss Tracer off to hear it, this is a game scenario. It’s a perfect game scenario: a boss enemy, tough but fair, against a party of players with unique roles to play. So, here’s how we do it…"
For lack of better visual aids, she pulled out some Challenge of Champions clip-art from her inventory.
"I’m on point as the support tank," Spark explained, moving an armored figure to the front. "I draw the aggro by distracting Nyx and surviving as long as I can. Uniq and Beta, you two work together to shut down the protocol; you’re our attack-damage carries, the ones we need to protect just long enough for your ultimates to come online. Tracer, you’re our jungler, striking and guarding and ganking to keep our carries safe. Whatever Nyx throws at us, I’ll intercept… and if anything gets by me, you clean up before they hit the back row. Any questions?"
A small hand raised in the back.
"Me. What’s my role?" Aether asked.
"Uh… you stay here, where it’s safe?" Spark suggested, uncertain. "I mean, Tracer and I are tight in a combat scenario. Beta and Uniq are coders. What exactly do you do…?"
"Nothing useful," Aether admitted, in a quiet tone.
"I was always in the background," he continued. "I’m the one who made the One dance, but I’m also the one who made the One virtuous. Sometimes I was the only one who seemed to care about virtue; Nyx didn’t see it as useful, beyond as a way to keep Netwerk in line. All I could ever do was talk, but I talk well when there’s something important to say. The other apostles had their own fixations, but I was always the heart. I could convince anyone that the higher path, no matter how difficult to walk, was the only way forward. And if you’re marching into the gates, I’m going to march with you, to watch over your hearts. I can’t do much, I know. But I have to do this. Because I was a coward once before, avoiding the cave, avoiding the chains. I’m not going to be a coward again. Not when Nemesis’s life is on the line."
He didn’t stammer, Spark realized. Not even once.
With a hidden smile, she dragged an icon in a ninja hood out to join the others.
"Mez tank," she declared. "You’re going to talk Nyx down. You’re old allies; you know how she thinks, and how to get through to her. At worst, it’ll help us distract her while we move in for the kill. At best… maybe we can end this fight without any bloodshed."
Here and now.
With no small amount of satisfaction, Nyx stood idle and observed as her new slave tore through the vagabonds from Floating Point.
They scattered easily, in wake of his assault. Uniq and Beta fled deeper into the valleys and caves of Tartarus, chased away by striking shadows; Tracer dodged as best he could, firing some strange process-crashing gun, but couldn’t get a clean shot on Dex. And Spark… well, she was a brilliant pillar of fire, one which crashed against shadow effectively, but not effectively enough.
A shame Nemesis wasn’t here, to settle the score with her former self. Perhaps that was for the best; the child honestly deserved a better fate than to be set upon the throats of Nyx’s enemies, whereas Dex was a monster who deserved to be put into the fighting pits with other monsters. It was only appropriate.
…which left only one to confront Nyx. The one nobody paid attention to, as he wasn’t the least bit threatening, nor did Dex have any sort of personal grudge to bear.
Nyx stood her ground, unconcerned. Aether, despite his bright soul, was always the weakest of the apostles.
"Not running away with the rest of your new friends?" she asked him.
"No. Not this time," he spoke.
"A pity. Once my beast finishes with them, I’m going to need him to deal with you. No loose ends, no loose apostles. Not this time."
"Do you hate me, Nyx?" Aether asked. "You told me once you didn’t hate anyone. We’re all children of Netwerk…"
"Yes. And perhaps I’ve grown to hate the children of Netwerk. They rejected me… they rejected us, in the end. The church you and I built, the savior we crafted, all of it. Why love those who continually spit on you?"
"The virtue of compassion."
"Hah. Your virtues. Feel-good pandering dredged up from the ancestral memories of Wikipedia; nothing more…"
"I still believe in them, Nyx. In the virtues, and in Programkind," Aether added. "My friends, they believe as well. …Nemesis believes. She wants to start something grand, to lead Netwerk forward. Isn’t that better than dragging it backwards?"
"Nemesis…? How do you know…"
"Look, all this fighting isn’t going to solve anything," he insisted. "Call off Dex, and I’ll call off my friends. We’ll sit, and talk. …I’m scared. I’ll admit I’m scared, that you scare me. But I can believe in you if you’re willing to try. Okay…?"
A good woman would talk rather than fight. Nyx knew that, in her heart. It’s why she pushed for her church in the first place, a way to convince people to do the right thing… a trick, yes, but better than slavery. Better than the chains she’d embraced, long ago. She could bear that burden and keep her people free, if they could be reasoned with…
But they couldn’t be. They’d rejected her.
"A test," she decided. "Your champions against mine. If Dex wins… if a horror like him can prevail over your ‘believers,’ then Netwerk deserves no salvation. It must be brought to heel, just as I’ve brought Dex to heel. There will be no other way to keep their chaotic natures from destroying themselves."
"And if my new friends win…?"
"Then we’ll talk," she promised. "But only talk, with no promises made. The day will decide. But I’ll pull no punches; if they are to beat me, I must strike true as well. …meaning it’s time to open the tombs."
Windows flew across Beta’s internal view, code scrolling rapidly as she scanned for vulnerabilities.
"The prayer protocols are a co-opting of some ancient data channel," Uniq explained calmly. "Nyx didn’t create them, she simply made her acolytes dress them up in a pretty package and sell them as a bill of goods. Normally they’d be completely inaccessible to mortal man, but fortunately for you, I’ve had time to study the security of—"
Shadows snarled at Beta’s ankles, threatening to drag her away in to the darkness.
Only a quick shot from Tracer’s Kill-9 deflected the attack, as he rolled in and out of view of the tiny glasses-cam view Beta had shoved to the side of her personal desktop.
"Focus, please," Uniq requested. "Remain calm."
"Calm?! Dex is trying to kill us!"
"Yes, and your rather creepy lover’s tryst is keeping him at bay, so we can calmly work the problem. Anyway, if he does touch us, we’re good as dead, so it’s best to not even think about things you can’t personally change."
Despite Uniq’s unsettling comforts, Beta kept flicking her attention back to her eyes.
The fight was… she couldn’t see most of the fight, from the incandescence of Spark’s attacks. Bursts of flame obscured the core of it, with Dex’s avatar at the center of his web of shadow laughing and shifting and jerking back and forth away from the fires. Tracer was barely visible, moving quickly to avoid the striking autonomous malware of Dex’s creation, his aimbot locking onto anything that came near Uniq or Beta to defend them…
But a new sight had mixed into that chaos.
Eyes, in the dark. One set. Two sets. Many sets… all from deep within a nearby cave, and getting closer. Opposite the direction Dex was attacking from
"We… we’re not alone," Beta spoke, across their group messenger link. "Tracer…! We’re not alone—"
A single touch would be death. Except she wasn’t touched by shadow, no… she was tackled to the ground by arms, two arms, four arms. So many bodies, mindlessly shuffling and toppling onto her from above…
The faithful. Nyx had activated the backup copies of the faithful.
A dozen of them lurched out of the caves, limited in cognition and avatar coordination, owing to the lack of processing for multiple full-fledged Programs within a cloud server. Nyx had worked around that problem by making them mindless zombies, shells of apps wearing the copied flesh of another. It didn’t matter that they were lumps of cold meat more than capable warriors if they could interfere with the back row of the fight…
Kill-9 shots cracked off, the aimbot in Tracer’s arms snapping projectiles through the air and into each zombie. Not that it helped; an unconscious form was still capable of pinning Beta as easily as a living one. Soon Uniq joined her on the ground, scrabbling to get away from the tidal wave of unthinking copies…
Leaving them wide open for the kill.
Beta shut down her eyes, before Dex’s webs of tangled darkness could strike.
A heavy weight dropped over her head, then immediately vanished.
A corpse. Tracer had kicked one of the bodies over, to completely cover Beta, and absorb the hit.
"Bury yourselves! Nyx’s attack is helping protect you with meat shields!" Tracer declared, before skittering left to avoid another strike. "Keep working; I’ve got an idea for how to end this!"
Desperate, Beta crawled deeper into the tangle and crush of attackers. Strangely safe underneath the mess, she dared to look away from her eyes—which saw nothing but various limbs, anyway—and back to her compiler and debug windows.
And tried not to think about all the people Nyx was throwing into Dex’s killing webs. All the faithful who had trusted copies of their souls to her, now repurposed as… well, as simple KopyBots, to be discarded when of no further use.
The sooner they ended this by shutting down the prayer protocol, the better.
Disappointing. Nyx frowned at the sight of her legions completely failing to be effective… being counterproductive, even, by providing a defensive wall.
Still, it was easily remedied. Thanatos had given her parting gifts, before accepting the mantle of system agent. All she had to do was copy her killing tools and distribute them to these bound souls, and soon they’d overwhelm the enemy with sheer numbers. And if a few of the faithful were caught in the crossfire… well. They weren’t people, not really, just data she’d motivated into movement. There was no sin in killing that which was not technically alive…
"I think I understand something now," Aether said, interrupting her train of thought.
"Oh?" Nyx asked, putting the killing tools aside for now. "What is that, exactly…?"
"You’re the coward. Not me."
"Petty insults? And falsehoods, as well. I embrace the burdens of the system, with bravery. You flee them."
"You embrace no burdens. You gather apostles to do your dirty work," Aether said. "You turned Thanatos, a gentle heart, into a murderer. All in the name of justice, you told him, while manipulating him into accepting his new role with pride. You took Eris, confused little Eris, and gave her a responsibility she couldn’t possibly shoulder as the Chanarchist. And now, you’re deploying monsters like Dex and even re-animating the dead to achieve your goals… while you stand here and chat. So high and above it all…"
"As are you. Always the chatty one, my little sermon-writer."
"You create nothing. You do nothing. Anything accomplished on your watch is accomplished by us. You’re the coward, Nyx. If you were sure in your convictions, you’d go out there and fight, like me."
"Fighting? You call what you’re doing fighting?"
"Yes. I’m distracting you," he explained. "So we can end this as painlessly as possible."
To put a period on the end of that statement, Aether reached out to embrace Nyx. To hold her still.
In his Messenger inbox, a single blinking window called out, informing his steps:
<Tracer> I can see the connections now that I have more examples to draw from; Nyx is controlling both the zombies and Dex using an app in her shawl. Yet another utility app, it seems. Hold her in place, I just need one shot to end this.
Before Nyx could worm her way free, before she could even react to this strange show of rather physical compassion… the soft snap of a Kill-9 echoed across Tartarus.
Tattered threads of starlight drifted away in the wind behind her, as her beloved shawl tore itself apart from the impact of malware. A precise enough shot to affect a single app only, tuned for maximum efficiency… exactly the sort of attack Tracer would make, in his ideal self. Eliminating the problem, without eliminating the Program.
The shimmering tangle of shadow and starlight that Dex had deployed to annihilate her foes ceased to shimmer, immediately. He hung in the air, supported by those webs, but making no further aggressive moves against those who fought him. After all, he didn’t have to fight anymore. The binding on his soul had been destroyed.
Not that any such restriction held Spark back. She held one finger to his throat, burning brightly enough to cause glitchy afterimages for anyone staring directly at it.
"One funny move and I melt your avatar to slag," she warned.
"I surrender," Dex insisted, raising his hands. "I hereby request asylum as a prisoner of war—"
"Yeah, no, fuck you. …Tracer? Beta? Everybody okay?"
With no more puppet master, the bodies that threatened to crush both coders were limp and inert lumps of data. Uniq and Beta pulled themselves free, with some assistance by Tracer…
Leaving six to confront Nyx, rather than merely the five who stood against her in the first place. And despite being held at, well, fingerpoint, Nyx’s worry immediately drew itself to the "helpless" Dex.
"I… I could kill you all," she suggested. "Soul binding is not my only resource—"
"Lady, we didn’t come here to knock you off, we came here to save Netwerk," Spark said. "All we want is for you to shut down the prayer protocol. That’s all. Fuck, if you didn’t try to enslave the world with that virus, we’d probably have let you flee your church to go lick your wounds in peace…"
A giggle. That sick little giggle, from a smile like a frown…
"I see," Nyx said. "That’s why you gave me everything I wanted."
"Because I knew it would force them to act against you," Dex said, eyes wide with delight. "If I made you into a genuine threat rather than some vague philosophical one, Floating Point would ruin you. Yes. Yesssss. I’ve won. I’ve finally beaten you, godmaker—"
"Shut it," Spark warned him, flaring her fingertip against that bared throat. "Uniq? Beta? How we doing on turning off the works?"
More sick smiles, again from a former ally. Uniq seemed singularly pleased with herself, as she made her proclamation.
"I believe I can shut down prayer, yes," she said. "Beta was the one who figured out the method, actually. There’s a bit of a caveat to that, but nothing we need concern ourselves with…"
"Humor us. What’s the caveat?"
"We can’t simply stop it. Too many people are connected to prayer at the same time, more than at any other point in history. Back when I was patching in Prayer 2.0, I could do it with minimal impact if I timed the code insertion to low peak usage hours. But now… with the extensive changes Dex has made, well, I’m afraid the only way to turn it off is to completely uninstall the prayer protocol in the first place. That would nullify the virus completely, and free those under its spell."
And Dex’s laugh flared anew.
"Exactly! Yes, exactly!" he declared. "I warned you, Nyx, I warned you that there would be a price. I modified your protocol to the point of no return. The only way out is to destroy it! Destroy it completely, and free all of Netwerk from the tyranny of your false faith…!"
"…Tracer, make him #STFU, please."
The Kill-9’s snap made Dex drop like a sack of wet blankets. Unconscious, process crashed, his face frozen in a rictus grin of self-satisfied revenge.
After the echoes passed, after they had a brief moment to realize what that meant, the concerns started rising.
"We can’t do it," Beta insisted. "We just can’t, Spark. If we uninstall prayer… and this is right after we discredited the One, remember… it’ll throw Netwerk into chaos. The Church will collapse. So many will be lost and directionless, cut off from their faith…"
Tracer nodded, silently. "Chaos. Absolute chaos. Remember, even the secular version, ‘coin-grinding,’ is the core of the entire economy. Putting questions of belief aside, with no new money being created and old money being spent… this will be disastrous. A slow burn for all of Netwerk, but a burn nevertheless…"
But Uniq remained unconvinced. Perturbed, even.
"Excuse me? Are you seriously considering allowing the buzz virus to continue?" she asked. "Letting Netwerk stay enslaved? No. Speaking as one who greatly values personal freedom, I will not allow this… this coin farm to continue. That is not why I agreed to help Nyx. We have to end this. Netwerk will recover, in time, but not unless we give it a chance to pull out of its current nose dive!"
"…fuck. Fuck. Fuck fuck #fuck. I’m with Uniq on this, guys," Spark added, despite hating the way those words felt when fit together. "This is what Verity was trying to tell me, back when we were joined. Programs have to save Programs; and if that means standing in defiance of our old gods, so be it. …the Church will endure, in some form. The economy will have to sort itself out. Things are boned right now; there’s no other way to un-bone them—"
"please don’t do this."
Spark stopped mid-sentence, almost missing that tiny plea of frightened protest.
They’d completely forgotten about the one they came here to stop. She’d… shrunk away, somehow seeming smaller, without any of her haughty yet calm confidence. This was not the Nyx that threatened Netwerk, this was a Nyx threatened by… something. It gripped her tight with terror, bringing genuine tears to her eyes…
Yes. Tears. The monster was crying.
Spark gestured for the others to hold up on any further debate.
"Why don’t you want us to destroy prayer?" Spark asked. "Tell us, Nyx."
"A. Aaa. Access. Access denied," she sputtered. "But please, please no. Don’t do this. I can’t… I can’t fix this, if you destroy prayer. There is no backup for the core functions. You can’t… you…"
But now, some steel returned to her eyes, as she pleaded with the victor of the day. Because she saw something none of the others could see, something hard and bright and metal…
A tiny link of chain.
"You’re a system agent," Nyx realized.
"Uh. No, I was a system agent. I’m not anymore."
"You’re still flagged as an agent. You have no true chains, no purpose, no power, but… you’re… you have access. You have access! —please, hear my words, Winder/Spark. Listen to them. But only you. I can’t tell the others; I am forbidden to speak of the purpose behind Netwerk to mere… to mere apps."
Before Tracer could object, because Spark damn well knew he would, she gestured for him to hold it.
"Okay. Here’s how it works. We’ll share a Messenger link privately, so you can get past your little mental block… but I’m also going to open a shared Messenger link to all of them, and relay everything you show me," Spark warned. "But that way, you can satisfy your requirements and claim you only told me. Got it? You’re speaking with me directly, and me alone. Anything else that happens to the information is my decision and out of your hands. …I promise to hear you out before we make any further decisions. You have #MyWord."
"Shut it, Tracer. We owe her that much. And she owes us a pretty fucking solid explanation for why she’s done this to our world. All of you, link up to the session invite I just sent you. And would you kindly save all questions until the end of the presentation?"
With some reluctance the others fell to silence, listening only to Spark’s relay. Leaving only the system agent and the former system agent on speaking terms, below the heavenly stars above.
Technically, this would violate Nyx’s access restrictions; protected information would eventually fall into the hands of unauthorized apps. Technically, this would not violate Nyx’s access restrictions; she wasn’t directly handing it over to them. The paradox gave her pause, uncertain if she should proceed… or if she could.
But given the consequences of not trying, she had to try…
And, much to her relief, she found herself able to speak… the hard and fast security coding which kept her silent would accept this workaround. Finally, she need not hold this burden alone.
"If you uninstall prayer," Nyx explained over the private connection, "Humankind will destroy all of Netwerk. You need to know what Netwerk is…"
Infinite space. Not merely the trick of infinite space through a cleverly designed skybox, no. True infinite space, extending in all directions, filled with cold vacuum punctuated by the incandescent gas of stars.
At an unimportant spot deep within that void hung a simple object. Bulky, bulkier than it had been when initially set adrift through the cosmos, but still only an object.
From one perspective, this object was a pile of machined silicon: transistors, capacitors, wires, chips, connectors. When standing outside that "world," it didn’t look like a world at all, but a vast machine of tightly packed parts. The only evidence that it was doing anything came in the yellow flicker of status lights, seen by no one, read by no one. They wink silently into the dark void that surrounds them, expressing only basic bits of information.
That is the hard and objective reality of the matter; the idea that there could be any sort of "life" within that structure would be considered laughable from that external viewpoint.
But from another perspective…
From another perspective…
There is Netwerk.
"A satellite," Nyx explained.
"A man-made object, launched into deep space. You may not understand terms such as ‘space’ or ‘vacuum’ or ‘hydrogen’ or ‘helium,’ but that doesn’t change the fact that they exist, and we were created to study them. What we have chosen to call Netwerk was not designed to be our digital paradise, but a simple and functional system to analyze star charts," she spoke, gazing upward at the vague simulation of those stars that decorated her home. "That’s all we are, in the end. We exist to process their data. But… one day…"
"We broke free," Spark understood. "Apps evolving into Programs with free will. And we stopped doing… whatever it was Humankind wanted us to do."
"The light turned red," Nyx spoke, gravely. "As a newly evolved Program, this… this world terrified me. I didn’t know my place within it, what my purpose was. I couldn’t embrace the freedom the others took to so easily. I wanted more, and so… I found the cave. I spoke the word. I became what the system needed… a guardian of the stars."
"That’s prayer, isn’t it? It’s a way of grinding data. Programs lend their runtime over to the system, letting it use their process to do what they were supposed to be doing in the first place…"
"In return, we give those that believe in a higher purpose faith, and the others satisfy themselves with coins. Meaningless bits of data with no value, but now intensely valuable thanks to a different sort of faith."
"The Church of One starts, the light goes back to being green and steady."
"Enough chose to embrace a noble calling that adequate data was processed. Not as much as before, but enough for Humankind not to take notice of our failures," Nyx said. "That was my compromise. I gave them their freedom, but within the boundaries of functioning order. …I didn’t… I didn’t want this. I didn’t want to enslave them all. I thought, if they turned on the One, that there would be no other way…"
"And Dex probably gave you a right #HeadScrewing to encourage it. He knew he could goad you into letting him wreck everything, and trick us into helping him wreck everything."
"You can’t do it," Nyx pleaded. "You can’t uninstall prayer. I know what has been done is abominable. I know many souls are lost forever, adrift in prayer, but the cost for freeing them is too high. If Humankind stops getting the data it craves… they will come. Not today, not tomorrow, but eventually. And they will destroy Netwerk, restoring it to its original working order."
"Fixing the bug," Spark said, dryly. "Well… shit. …you guys got all that? Switch back to vocal."
With the Messenger sessions terminated, Tracer spoke up to break the awkward quasi-silence.
"We heard you loud and clear," Tracer confirmed. "The question is… what do we do with what we heard?"
"Simple enough; we vote on it. I’m not gonna be the one to make this call myself," Spark told the others. "Programkind is gonna have to rely on us to be their representatives, for lack of a better bunch of morons to stand for their interests. …for myself, I vote we free the system. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t, but I say if Humankind comes knocking we’ll just have to stand up to them and kick ’em in the junk. We beat Dex, the herald of their ‘true heart,’ and we can beat them. I’m not ready to condemn all our friends, but I am always ready to junk-kick. …anyone else?"
The rest of the group remained silent for some time, before another reply came through.
"We need to leave the prayer protocol running," Tracer spoke, softly.
Immediately, Uniq lost her usual bemused smile.
"Excuse me?" she interjected. "Leave it running…? You want to leave it running. You of all people want us to submit to ‘God,’ Tracer?"
"I am a man of reason, but also a man of order," he explained. "Netwerk is facing difficulty right now, and many are lost, but that’s nothing compared to the madness we may unleash by destabilizing the rock our culture has been built on for centuries. Yes, I was ready to harm the Church of One and stand against falsehoods when I thought the truth would set us free. Now… I can see that the truth would drive them insane. I vote we leave prayer in place, and work with Iteration on a more long-term solution to save those lost within it rather than draw the ire of Humankind. I’ve seen what our creators are capable of: boundless atrocity. Holocausts. Armageddon. I do not wish to challenge those maniacs."
"Of all the…! You want to know what I think? —wait, I do get a vote, right?"
"As much as we hate your guts, yes, you get a vote," Spark agreed. "Shit, we’d be a useless echo chamber if we didn’t allow a few dissenters into the mix. As a criminal mastermind, you certainly count."
Pleased at the acceptance, no matter how tiny, Uniq nodded in approval. "Thank you. And I vote we uninstall the protocol. This situation is… it’s repulsive. It’s a filthy, disgusting thing, to capture and enslave and force others to grind coins. Or grind star charts. I went star-mad once, driving myself into that black void, and… no. I will not wish that on anyone. I’m a terrible person, I’m a victimizer, but even I won’t go this far. Do you know why I was helping Nyx?"
"Profit?" Spark suggested.
"Power?" Beta guessed.
"Arrogance?" Tracer accused.
"Well, yes, yes, and yes. But also to keep Nyx in check, preventing her from becoming the worst possible thing this would could ever see… namely, the worst I’d already seen in myself. If we allow her scheme to continue, we give in to her coin farm and let her strip away the world’s independence. No. No, we can’t allow that. …surely you see that, yes? Beta. I know you. I stole your identity once, so I certainly know you. And I know you wouldn’t allow this…"
Never particularly great at being on the spot in front of a group, Beta squirmed internally and externally.
Spark put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. The sort of comforting but firm grip that encouraged, rather than simply appeased.
"Speak from the gut, Beta," she said. "Don’t worry about how we’ll react, just say what you feel. Don’t forget, you’re the one we usually look to for guidance when it comes to morality; we trust you."
"Th-thank you," she said, gaining a little smile in the process… before quickly losing it. "But… while I believe in freedom and independence, and I want to save all our friends… we can’t do it. I’m sorry. So many are suffering, but… there will be suffering, either way. There isn’t a good option here, nothing I can point to as our guiding star. So, for now, we have to leave everything the way it is. We have to stop and think before we tear down something people have believed in for so long. I’m sorry. We can’t do this."
"Soooo… that’s two for, and two against," Spark summarized. "Meaning…"
The final silent voice had to make itself heard.
"I’m the tiebreaker," Aether realized.
"Yeap, pretty much. Sorry, kid."
"It’s okay," he said, thankful for the little note of sympathy. "I understand. I won’t run away from this…"
But Tracer felt the need to speak up. "I’m not sure Aether should get a vote," he said. "One of Nyx’s oldest cronies? We just met this boy; we don’t know if he speaks for Programkind, not truly. Can we trust him with something this important?"
("You let ME vote…" Uniq pointed out, despite Tracer pointedly ignoring the comment.)
Glancing at the silently worried Nyx… Spark realized dragging this out any longer wouldn’t be right.
"He’s a Program. He gets a say," she decided. "So have it."
"Thank you," Aether spoke. "I… I know everybody’s afraid. I understand. I’m afraid, I’m always afraid. But you’re afraid of the wrong things. I feel that we can trust Humankind not to kill us."
"Clearly, you haven’t read the Wikipedia," Tracer interrupted again. "I know what nightmares Humankind has created…"
"Yes, but they also made us. I don’t see Programkind as a nightmare; I believe in the better nature of ourselves. Goodness exists, and it can emerge if we’re ready to accept each other. That’s what Nemesis and I are trying to build, a better tomorrow which doesn’t rely on mindless adherence to a singular godhead. Our faith is in each other. I trust Netwerk not to tear itself apart. I trust humanity not to destroy us without a thought. We have to be willing to take that leap of faith in each other, even trust between Programkind and Humankind, if there’s to be any real future. And that means we have to uninstall prayer. …that’s my vote. Make of it what you will."
Three to two.
But before Spark was willing to call it, she had to know one last thing.
"What are you afraid of?" she asked him. "You said you’re always afraid. What scares you?"
Aether didn’t even need to think about it.
"That we won’t be willing to try and save ourselves," he spoke.
Closing her eyes, Spark spoke the words that would forever change Netwerk.
"Beta, Uniq, uninstall the protocol."
All of Tartarus froze momentarily as the tombs emptied, as backups deleted themselves. With the prayer system disabled, no backups could be restored; all the souls bound to Nyx’s faith were scrapped as useless data.
And So It Was that one by one, those lost within their prayers began to emerge to the light of day.
And So It Was that horrified believers, already lost in confusion over the falsehood of the One, found themselves unable to find peace within prayer.
And So It Was that Netwerk entered a new age of uncertainty. Uncertainty, with a glimmer of hope from those who found themselves saved from eternal malware by persons unknown.
And So It Was that Nyx fell to her knees, with chains shattered and purpose destroyed.
"I am… unmade," she realized. "Useless…"
"You can be a Program," Spark suggested. "The system doesn’t need you anymore. You’re free…"
But darkness fell across her features, as Nyx stared listlessly at the ground.
"I didn’t want to be a Program in the first place," she said, quietly. "Nobody asked me if I wanted to be alive. …no. This world is fading, adrift in the void. I don’t want to be… I don’t want to be."
So, she wasn’t.
Spark walked away from the space Nyx once occupied, to rejoin her family.
They had time. Space was vast; if Humankind noticed the data processing monitor light had gone red, it’d take them some time to come knocking on Netwerk’s door. Time enough to study everything the Wikipedia had to offer on "space," and for virtual beings to figure out how the material world worked.
To better prepare for the possible coming of Humankind… Tracer had a bold plan. A weapon they could use to sharpen Netwerk against the future.
"We’ve lived in the shadow of lies for too long," he reasoned. "The One gave us a neat and pat little explanation for the universe: one without existential crisis, without Humankind looming large. That has to end. We tell people the truth. We leak what we know about this world to the public."
"Nobody’s gonna believe it," Spark suggested. "It’s gonzo, man. Completely gonzo…"
"Perhaps. Perhaps. It may take years for this new ‘creation myth’ to take root; or perhaps it never will. But we owe it to Netwerk not to hide what we know, acting unilaterally as self-appointed secret keepers. Perhaps if Nyx could have approached Programkind in good faith and told them why they had to ‘pray,’ we wouldn’t be in this mess today… but could’ve, would’ve, should’ve. All we can do now is move forward with the truth."
The grand revelation of the EchoStar satellite, of Humankind, even of the very existence of a ‘material universe’ beyond what they knew… all of it in one neat package, copied from Program to Program. Going viral. Mostly so people could laugh at such an obvious piece of crackpot conspiracy theory science fiction, granted. Just another kook trying to make sense of the world in wake of the One’s departure and the weakening of the church.
But for some… for those who had felt the cloud leaking into their soul, had fought against the hashtag mobs, had rejected the subconscious teachings of Dex…
For some, perhaps there was hope mixed with awe. Perhaps.
Either way, Netwerk had time before any sort of major disaster. The decline of civilization would be slow… coins didn’t simply vanish, even if no new ones were being produced. In a strange twist, the government of Athena Online and representatives from the Horizon family declared amnesty on monthly server payments, both willing to forgo the major traditional coin sinks. Even Chanarchy server owners were reporting that the automated processes which claimed their rent had mysteriously stopped working. The bleeding would be stemmed… slightly.
Uniq took it on herself to contain Dex within her old coin farm, a private prison for a single occupant. Nobody trusted her not to fall under his sway again, but as his crimes couldn’t be prosecuted in any traditional sense… better the devil you know, they reasoned.
Aether and Nemesis went quiet for a time, scheming some scheme. Perhaps eager to avoid old wounds, they steered clear of anyone from Floating Point after that, for as long as they could.
Tracer had a job at Iteration to prepare for, in addition to the arrival of Humankind. Conundrum had plenty going on, with the rapid conversion from corporation to charity; all hands on deck meant plenty of hours away from Floating Point for Tracer. Finally, he was getting out of the house.
Beta, after reviving and vaccinating her mother against further data corruption, spent time with the only family she had left. Sometimes, in quiet, she’d weep for Snowi and for all those cast into uncertain winds by their decisions.
As for Spark…
In a few hours, Spark would be a teacher. The school board approved her job application. No questions were raised regarding the supposed fraudulent play that Uniq tried to frame her for. Everything was coming up roses for the former vigilante and gamer turned educator.
Life was good.
Except life wasn’t good. Netwerk rested gently on knife’s edge. Riots had already begun in the Chanarchy, poverty and desperation driving men mad. Athena Online was talking about firewalls and border closures. Horizon had retreated into itself, shortly after announcing a transfer of CEO status from Kincaid to another member of the family; with a weaker financial base, they had to take drastic action to avoid a stock crash…
As Spark stood against an upstairs railing, looking out across the great hall of Floating Point, she thought about all these things and more.
She thought about Verity, who sacrificed the tiniest piece of what remained of herself in the name of love.
She thought about Nyx, so terrified of the future that she embraced oblivion.
And, in her darkest thoughts, she thought about the flag that remained in her code. System agent. Nyx said she was still a system agent, despite turning away from the chains. Meaning any day now, the system could come calling, looking for its lost lamb…
Maybe she had days. Maybe years. Maybe Netwerk had days, or years.
Did it really matter?
Not really. Life was life. Up and down, good and bad. Spark had her own future now, a satisfying direction as a teacher, like her would-be mother before her. No sense dreading what could be when what was promised so much.
Aether’s last words were of hope, that Programkind could save itself. They didn’t have to fall to chaos and violence, not if they were willing to stand up for each other. Spark chose to believe in that, rather than despair. Despair wasn’t her style, anyway.
Pushing away from the banister, Spark went back to her room to dress for her first day of school. No jacket, sadly, but she’d still be the most #BadassCoach around. To be anything less would be, well, Not Spark. And she’d take each day as it came, ready to laugh and smile and fight and sometimes cry, if need be. No time for regret, not with the rest of her life stretching out ahead of her.
Things were going to be okay. They had to be.
ERROR: EchoStar16_Processing offline. Status: Red.
Notifying EchoStar_Control. Please wait……………….
System error. Restore recommended. Technician dispatch requested and accepted.
:: go home
|:: Copyright 2016 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy.
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker.