Floating Point 3.1 :: Ruin
:: go home
Silent and dark was the void that this world hovered in. No air to carry sound through waves of compression, no light save from distant stars which went unmeasured. The world itself would be quite easy to overlook, given it lurked in the middle of nowhere, a simple tin can surrounded by pure vacuum…
But within that world, there was sound. No air, but plenty of sound. No stars, but plenty of light. None of it existed, except for those within the worldspace who had the right ears and eyes to take it all in. For them… there was the cheer of the crowd, the roar of explosions, the rustle of jungle foliage as warriors slid through it with conquest on their minds. Again, none of it physically existing, but all of it existing for those who cared.
The scene, to be more specific, took place within the virtual environment of a computer simulation. Its sky was a weather system, with particle effects for clouds and a volumetric lighting source for a sun. The denizens of this world, whether they realized it or not, would not be considered "alive" by any biological standard… they existed as code, ones and zeroes, somehow twisted into sentient shapes through years of data mutation. An imaginary world, for imaginary people.
Two observed this imaginary world with concern:
One observer, a Program in the shape of a woman with flames licking at her hair. As a rule, that which did not exist could not burn, but she elected to take it a step farther by letting it burn without consuming. Fire didn’t have to be physically destructive if it could be virtually decorative, after all. But her impeccable style wasn’t what she watched with concern; it was the warriors in the vaguely diamond-shaped jungle before her, five on five, fighting for territory control through roughly hewn lanes.
Five of them were her students; five of them were the opposition, come to her home turf to kick them out of their own jungle. And, unfortunately, doing a very good job of it. That was her cause of concern, as she stood helpless on the sidelines, unable to communicate with her team until they came back in victory or defeat.
As for the other observer… that one was even farther away than the sidelines, farther than the jungles and the skies above. Farther still than the tin shell that encompassed it all. That biological observer hung in the silent and dark void, watching this all transpire as the ultimate spectator…
But, the second observer wasn’t involved in the disaster to come. She can be overlooked, for now.
When five fell and five rose, the second of three matches decided, the woman with fire in her hair pulled her team aside for a pep talk prior to their final outing into the jungle.
"Okay, so in simple terms, tell me why exactly you ****ed up," Winder/Spark requested, pacing back and forth in the school locker room.
Her team, already dejected from the crushing game-two loss after what seemed like a crushing game-one win, had no response.
"C’mon, we don’t have all day here," she reminded them. "#TickingClock. And you’re not going to learn anything if I just smack you upside the head with wisdom. You grow into your wisdom through reflection. So reflect, and tell me how you ****ed up. First one to admit their mistakes gets a candy bar."
Sheepishly, the team’s solo lane pusher raised his hand.
"I was out of position when we were setting up for a gank," he admitted. "I heard the audible but didn’t move to support the team, because I was too busy trying to kill the fucking Robotman in my lane—"
"Language," Spark snapped, a tiny burst of fire at her fingertips courtesy of her weaponized nail polish.
"—because I was too busy trying to kill the Robotman, ma’am."
"Exactly. One candy bar for Jakob," the coach declared, with a small amount of pride. "Admitting how you ****ed up is the key to learning how not to **** up. First game, you rolled out there and executed every play in our book, ramming them straight right up the *** in the process. Good! And then you got sloppy, all of you. Out of position, wasting ult abilities on lone targets, getting baited into trap situations. What do we call that?"
"Stupidity?" the duo-lane healer suggested, after raising her hand.
"Overconfidence," Spark corrected. "The enemy knew their plays couldn’t beat yours, so they waited for you to beat yourselves. They played a reactive game. Now you’re tied, one-to-one, and they’ve got your number. So. How do you win the last round…?"
Which got the healer’s ire up. Having taken the most hits during the game, constantly pasted by the opposition to keep her from recovering from every bad situation they fell into, it’s understandable why she’d be salty… but Spark stood her ground, in face of the tirade.
"Who fucking cares? We lost!" the healer declared. "If you idiots won’t support your support, how am I supposed to heal you? It’s the curse of the Fighting Purples all over again. This crappy little school with its crappy little team always chokes when it counts! Fuck this. Let’s just AFK in the spawn and… get this… uh, over with."
Because Spark had simply stood there, staring down the malcontent, letting her get her words out… knowing each one dug the hole a little deeper. Coach would have no toxic attitudes on her team, but rather than head them off, she’d let them spew until they realized their mistake.
"You done?" she asked, to be certain.
"Yes’m," the healer spoke, sitting back down.
"Good. Because you’re right about one thing: this isn’t over until you decide it’s over," Spark stated. "If you guys want to troll the enemy and just lurk in spawn, like you’re squatting in the respawn penalty box, hey, feel free. Make yourselves laughingstocks, that’ll sure show them who’s boss. Or… and this is just a suggestion from your humble teacher… you go out there and you ****ing fight. You stand, and you fight. Win or lose, you fight."
"Even if they’ve got our number…?" Jakob the solo laner asked.
"Especially if they’ve got your number. Nobody said #ChallengeOfChampions was easy. Life isn’t easy, but you fight anyway, because it doesn’t matter if you win or lose in the end… only that you made your stand. Now. I want all five of you out there in that jungle, I want to hear you scream, I want to see you bleed. I want to know that you’re alive. You’re the ones**** Fighting Purples, and the crowd is either gonna watch you beat the ever-loving **** out of those Graygarden Academy ****s or watch you go down swinging. Either way, they’ll respect you, and you’ll respect yourself. Are we clear?"
A mumbling chorus of "okays" sounded off in response.
"I’m sorry, what?" Spark asked, cupping a hand to the virtual simulacrum of a human ear attached to her avatar. "You sure don’t sound alive to me. Are you alive?!"
Finally, a stirring of energy. While the responses varied from "Yes" to "Yeah" to one "Fuck yeah!" all of them carried considerably more energy.
"Right! And how does it feel to be alive?!"
More screaming of the positive variety. Good. Good. Spark nodded, satisfied.
"Now get your ***es out there and you don’t come back until you’ve shown everyone what you are," she ordered, pointing to the tunnel out to the school’s gaming field. "Live or die, you get out there and light that fire which burns down Graygarden’s ****ing world! If they’re leaving with a trophy, I also want them leaving with post-traumatic stress disorders thanks to the ones**** flying purple people eaters that they stole that trophy from. #GO!"
Which is why the timid little K-12 students came roaring out into the jungle with battle cries that could be heard all the way from the commentary booth. Spark relished in the sound of it, and in the sound of the hometown crowd in the stands who enjoyed the show.
If only they could see her now.
Her brother, Winder/Tracer. He disliked games as a general rule, particularly childish games like Challenge of Champions. Nope, Tracer was too busy tinkering with fantastic technologies that would one day transform Programkind into golden gods of all they surveyed, and so on and so forth. Ever since finding his true calling at the clinic as a project manager, he’d been spending time away from his family in favor of personal causes…
Two years of professional work, from the boy who’d never held a solid job at any other point in his life. From childhood to adulthood, he’d been obsessed with revenge against the ones who killed their mother. (The mother they wanted, rather than the mother they were saddled with.) He’d swapped one obsession for another; arguably a better one, a more positive one, but an obsession nonetheless. No way he’d peel himself away from that just to watch the crowning glory of this season’s kiddie time school sports club.
But her lover, Projkit/Beta… why wasn’t she here? Spark knew the answer, even if she didn’t want to believe it. Beta’s heart was in her code rather than her gaming hobbies, but she still appreciated a good CoC match. She’d been the one to encourage Spark in those early days, when she was having trouble connecting with the kids, feeling like she’d let them down time and time again. Beta was the heart, the guiding star of their little family. Beta should be right here next to Spark on the jungle sidelines, cheering the team on… but wasn’t. And hadn’t even sent word of why not…
And then there was the invisible family member, the one long since gone. 5o5o/Verity. Teacher, mentor, advanced motherhood substitute. Gone long ago, killed by a madman and the madman’s puppet. (Even the echo that remained of her was nowhere to be seen, having vanished into the dark for two full years.)
Still, despite her absence, Spark liked to think that Verity would be proud of her pupil at this moment. So if her brother couldn’t give a toss and her lover couldn’t work up the emotional energy to come out of hiding… that distant love would have to do. It’d have to carry her through this tense moment…
The Fighting Purples were definitely fighting. Wildly fighting, aggressively fighting, pushing and striking and lashing out wherever they found an opening in the enemy’s defenses. But in a five-on-five match, where the players didn’t have the full view of the action as Spark did on the sidelines… they couldn’t see the enemy rallying after each desperate gamble. Couldn’t suss out Greygarden’s tactical positioning, until it was upon them. For whatever ground her kids made, biting and clawing and grasping for all they could, Greygarden Academy just formed a solid bulwark and pushed back.
Spark’s speech came from two intentions. One, to fire them up enough to go out there and win. Two, to cushion the inevitable emotional blow when they lose. The Purples, being a generic K-12 public school in a generic Athena Online server, weren’t known for being champions. They’d never taken the cup, not once. To come farther than any team before, and choke at the end… it’d destroy them. And Spark, as much as she wanted to hug their pain away, knew that giving them some armor before that blow landed would have to do.
As the game clock ticked away and lanes started to fall… neither team made much headway. Greygarden’s defenses were absolute, rebuking the wild attacks of PS#7E00FF. At this rate, her kids would fail, exhausting themselves just enough to allow the tactically superior if more timid Greygarden players to push on through…
And then, in the stands just behind Spark, kids and parents and teachers suddenly expressed disappointment. Quickly, Spark scanned the jungle below her coaching box at the sidelines… to see Jakob’s ninja avatar drop under the metal fists of Greygarden’s Robotman. He’d chased his nemesis out of position, getting flattened in the process…
Four on five, with her team at the disadvantage. Jakob popped back to the respawn penalty box in the distance, no doubt cursing and kicking the walls, waiting for that gate to open and let him back into the game. A momentary disadvantage like this was just what Greygarden was waiting for; with the Purples down a man, they could relax, and…
And grow overconfident.
Spark could see it, and hoped like null that her kids saw it. All five of Greygarden’s players moving to take on Duke Geist, the giant NPC in the center of the map. In the late game, when players were strong enough, taking out this challenging enemy would grant them a massive boon that could easily tilt the game in their favor. With five strong and the enemy on the run, Greygarden was in exactly the right place to scoop up that boon and close out the game…
Duke Geist howled in anger, his mighty fists coming down on the Greygarden warriors. But it was no use; his damage wouldn’t outpace theirs. Soon the towering pillar of demonic rage (complete with a jaunty little golden crown, symbol of his duchy’s boon) would fall… unless someone interfered in that plan, of course.
"C’mon, c’mon, spot the play, spot the play…" Spark whispered under her breath, wishing she could communicate directly with her team. Unfortunately, as her observation point gave her information the players couldn’t have, she was banned from talking to them during the game itself. All she could do was wait and watch, gripping the railing of the coaching booth with tight fists…
There. The Purples, rallying. Only four, but they had a plan.
First… a patch of acid, spat into the middle of Duke Geist’s pit. Immediately the Greygarden team started taking damage from the acid, melting their armor, leaving them vulnerable to further attacks…
And then, in a play that would forever be called "The Purple Slam Dunk," their healer smashed right into the middle of the enemy team from above, her Priestess’s staff smashing down into the acid to amplify its damage tenfold.
Few people bothered playing Priestess on offense. Yes, she could ramp up the damage of her fellow characters, but primarily she was used to heal them defensively. With no attacks of her own, that secondary ability often went overlooked. Except by the Fighting Purples, trained by a former pro player who was always looking for weird synergies from "joke" characters. One who took a goofy female ninja in pink, added to the game as pure eye candy, and rocked entire teams with it. That sort of intuition taught them that Priestess was more than meets the eye…
Five deaths. The entire Greygarden team caught in an explosion of acid, melting them down faster than they could escape the pit of doom.
Immediately the Purples dove into the pit to join their Priestess, and soon Duke Geist was no more. Each now wore a golden crown, the boon of the duke, and were pushing hard down the middle lane to win the game.
"**** YES!" Spark declared, leaping to punch the air in joy…
…and landing to face the crowd behind her, wildly cheering, all eyes on the four players forming a living wedge of destruction.
Almost all eyes.
Intuition and analysis, the two tools Spark always brought to the table. Not as coldly rational as her brother, not as keenly observant of emotion as her lover, but a comfortable midpoint between the two. And that midpoint was telling her, loud and clear… why are those three watching the respawn box?
Jakob had twenty seconds before he could escape his confinement, and those three adults in the crowd were very, very intently staring at him. Nobody should be able to look away from that game-winning play, especially not to watch a player who couldn’t possibly get involved in it. Not unless…
Without further thought, Spark hurled herself over the railing, and into the jungle.
Warning messages popped up in front of her. Coaches weren’t allowed to interfere in the play; if she continued, she risked disqualifying her team. Ignoring them, she ran. She ran down the battle-scarred lane, ran to the home base of the Fighting Purples, ran for the penalty box where Jakob stewed and simmered…
The three emerged from the jungle as well, keeping pace alongside her.
Two quick snaps of her fingers, and Spark’s hands were fire and passion. Twin jets of flame trailed behind her, weaponized malware in her fingernails lighting her way… before she twisted in mid-air, blasting two of the attackers, rolling to land in a martial arts stance just in front of the respawn box.
For the two she’d taken out, four more joined her. Not teachers, not fans. Not moderators, not cops. In an instant they’d produced stun sticks, malware that could crash any process they touched, backtracking through the physical simulation to gain illegal access to a Program’s code… shutting it down, hard. If even one touched her, Spark would be out for the count, and her student defenseless…
Screaming, from the stands. More attackers were working their way through the mess, likely stunning and crashing anyone in their way. And, right on time, the announcement went up.
A giant translucent avatar, broadcast just above the jungle, for all to see. Behind her, an all-too-familiar icon…
"The Inquisition is here to hunt a sinner and agent of chaos," the pre-recorded woman announced. "The innocent will not be harmed. Please remain calm, and stay out of our way. We are only here for Pwer/Jakob, and him alone. We wish no harm to the the faithful. I repeat, the Inquisition is here to hunt a sinner and agent of chaos…"
Spark didn’t have to look up to know the face she’d see, beseeching towards the panicking crowd. Nor could she look up, not with "Inquisition" terrorists stalking her, looking for an opening to attack through.
And Jakob? He cowered in his respawn box, despite the preprogrammed game systems telling him it was time to leave and rejoin the team.
"C-Coach?" he asked, confused as to why Spark was here, much less why men in white robes were stalking and surrounding them. "What…?"
One Inquisitor swept his stunner across the ground, casing the simulated jungle undergrowth to seize up and crash, exposing the ordinary default dirt underneath.
"You’re protecting a sinner, Miss Winder," he warned. "We’ve completed our inquiry into Pwer/Jakob’s communications, and determined he is a true agent of chaos. That boy is a troll, who terrorized and harassed countless vulnerable persons under the shameful veil of anonymity…"
Spark stood her ground, eyeing each Inquisitor as they made tentative steps forward.
"He’s a kid, and kids are stupid. I should know, I was a kid and was very stupid," she admitted. "All of you back down, and go tell little miss high priestess that Spark will make sure her student gets a spanking. #WeCoolYo?"
The leader pointed his stun stick, to direct the attack.
"The only way to bring back the One is to purge all sin from our world," he declared. "No one harm Miss Winder, but put her down fast and take the boy. Attack!"
"Get down!" Spark ordered her student, summoning as much flame as the tiny swaths of malware at her fingertips could muster…
The jungle burned bright, as she blasted avatar after avatar. Fires burned away their limbs, causing avatar damage without permanently and fatally mangling their data. Each time one of those sticks swung in her direction, she rolled under or around it, striking out to cripple the attacker.
Hand-to-hand fighting with avatars had become a lost art. Most used backspacers or kill-9s, ranged weapons that cleanly erased data or crashed processes from afar. But even those used physical projectiles, as avatar contact would always be needed to deliver the malware payloads. For Spark, who had trained for years in the arguably pointless art of physical combat, taking down a bunch of zealots armed with basic attack software felt as effortless as breathing.
Assuming, of course, she wasn’t overwhelmed by the numbers. And they didn’t have those ranged weapons, with bullets she could only deflect with very, very precise strikes at midair. Like Greygarden’s confidence in a five-on-four, the Inquisitors were plenty confident in a dozen-on-one attack, with more white-clad holy knights emerging from the jungle…
Barely hanging on, trying to blast them away one by one as they approached her cowering student, Spark had one thought: Where the **** are the cops?! (Her self-censoring module, still active, ran deep to avoid accidentally annoying parent-teacher groups.)
This was Athena Online, the safest of the three provider-nations. Government-authorized moderators, the police force of this land, they should’ve been here by now. A terrorist attack on a residential server, with no response? The way Athena Online as a whole quietly looked aside from the Inquisitors whenever they stole someone away in the night was disgusting… and the silence as they held their tongues and watched the video releases the next day, the beheadings and executions that followed, that was the most disgusting act of cowardice Spark had ever witnessed.
Now, as even the cops turned a blind eye to fanatics determined to bring back their false god, Spark was going to lose a student. And why? Because he said mean things on a message board. Time was, young Spark would’ve taken vigilante justice on a kid like him. But old Spark saw the grays where others saw the black and whites… and knew whatever his crimes, they couldn’t justify this.
So, she’d stand. She’d fight. She’d keep doing it, again and again, until she couldn’t. Win or lose she’d make her insane birth-mother’s cult know true pain…
The stunner that would’ve taken her out came down from above, a leaping strike she didn’t have time to deflect.
Instead, the sharp crack of a backspacer’s bullet intercepted that Inquisitor, tearing his data apart. Before he could hit the ground, there was no body to fall away, having been utterly vaporized.
More backspacers fired, as Spark dove into the respawn booth to cover Jakob’s cowering form with her own body. The booth was a physical object; it would intercept a shot or two. Her own body could intercept another. It’d have to be enough, as the moderators got this situation under control…
But the battle cry she heard was not the familiar "Police, freeze!" she’d hoped for.
"Do not forgive, do not forget!" a digitally distorted voice called out. "For the Nobodies and for FREEDOM!"
"Oh, ****…" Spark exclaimed, hanging on tighter to Jakob.
But the boy, he was overjoyed. He would’ve leapt to his feet to cheer, if not for the teacher holding him down.
"Yeah! They’re here!" he declared, happily. "Mah boys, yeah! Get ’em! Get those motherfuckers—!"
Spark didn’t need to look up to know what was happening. The scene had played itself out all over Netwerk the last two years… white-clad religious nutcases fighting with black-suited anonymous nobodies, individuals in identical avatars. One side fighting for absolute control and absolute justice, the other side fighting for absolute chaos and absolute freedom… with mass murder as the inevitable side effect.
Rather than faces with features and eyes and mouths or anything of that, each wore a disembodied head, a 3-D mask… carved to look like a hand grenade of war, meshed with a flower of peace. Presumably some anonymous graphic designer thought it was ironic, or something.
"Jakob, you idiot," Spark hissed, breaking her own rule not to insult the kids. "You got involved with those psychopaths?!"
"They’re gonna save Netwerk from the false One!" he recited. "Smashing the corrupt police state of the nazi moderators, and—"
Energy crackled around them, as the respawn box was vaporized by a stray shot.
With curses like brilliant stars flowing behind her, Spark scooped up Jakob in her arms and charged wildly into the fray. Blasting through the open war zone like a comet, straight through the walls of the jungle, straight through the wall of the school where the fighting had spilled over. Away. She had to get away, away from the chaos, and get enough time to link her connection to Jakob’s for a proper escape. Standing and fighting was noble, but standing and dying was just stupid…
Only two places she knew he could go where they’d never reach her. Place her mother’s madmen couldn’t hack her way into. There was Floating Point, and… and…
She completed the leash to link Jakob’s connection to her own, forcing him to follow as she dove through a broken window and out of the increasingly ruined school building…
…to land on soft carpets, surrounded by tasteful portraits.
Miss Cancel found them there, breathless and exhausted, just barely pulling themselves together to look presentable.
"Hey," Spark greeted. "Is Kincaid home? I’ve got a guest who needs some Horizon-grade protection."
Messenger windows flew across Spark’s internal vision, making final arrangements and sending various confirmations. Yes, she survived the attack. Yes, everything’s fine. Yes, she’d be by later to explain what went on. Yes, she’d gone to Kincaid’s place. Yes. Yes, of course… etc., etc. Tracer could be such a bother when he actually took an interest in the well-being of others.
Didn’t help that Spark had this persistent tone playing quietly in her auditory inputs… this weirdly echoing, low-pitched rumble of a choral note. Enough to fire up a very lovely headache, the sort that worried her brother considerably. Possibly some malware planted on her by the Inquisition, he’d reasoned. Worth looking into. Spark tried to put it out of her mind for now, pushing the ringing in her ears away to finish up the remaining communication tasks…
She’d also sent Beta a few messages, knowing that the woman back at Floating Point would be worried. And got no replies back. Worrying and surprising, that little twist, but the Messenger app indicated she’d received and read each message. So, Beta was fine. For varying degrees of "fine."
Which left the young ward in her charge, and what would become of him.
"Your parents are on the way," Spark informed him, closing down the last of the windows. "They want to go to the police, but trust me, you’re safer here. After that sad performance, I wouldn’t trust the Athena Online moderators farther than I could spit a physics object."
Jakob, for his part, sat on a tastefully plush couch in the middle of random bits of expensive furniture finery with confusion. He didn’t even have time to change out of his game avatar, leaving him in a mish-mash of ninja garb and plate mail.
"Where is this place, anyway?" he asked. "Looks old. Old and boring…"
"It’s safe, from both the Inquisitors and the Nobodies. That’s all that matters."
"Look, you got the Nobodies totally wrong," Jakob insisted. "They’re free, Coach. More free than anyone in Athena Online. No rules, no restrictions, no nazi control freaks! The only true way to find true expression is through anonymity, and they—"
"You don’t even know what a nazi is!"
"A politically correct moderator who can’t take a joke," he said, stating his own internal truth.
(Briefly Spark was tempted to dash back to Floating Point to grab the relevant Wikipedia entry for him to read, but opted not to bother.)
After a deep sigh, she tried to take it down to his level. "Look, I know the Chanarchy. You see me and you see some jock, yeah?" Spark guessed. "But you don’t know the half of it. I’ve been around more blocks than you can imagine. I’ve… I’ve done stuff, okay? I know the #NastiestOfNasties this Netwerk can serve up. And that means I know the Nobodies. They’re… nobody. Nihilistic pranksters who scrub their metadata before running wild, murdering and robbing and ruining everything of value. Above all, they are dangerous. You’ll get yourself killed getting involved with them…"
"They’re freedom fighters," Jakob insisted, refusing to budge. "Here to liberate us from the shackles of authority!"
She wanted to throttle the kid. She wouldn’t, but hey, she wanted to. Wanted to shake up his world, and say: I’ve fought the false One, I’ve torn down madmen with viral networks of polarized insanity, I’ve seen horrors you can’t even imagine…
Spark had been there, on the day they saved the world by damning it all. Her finger pulled the trigger.
At the time, it made sense. Shut down the false One, by anonymously leaking a simple program to reveal Nyx for the hoodwink artist she truly was. The pillars of faith would shake, but the world would go on with no puppet-tyrant at the helm. They’d won the day by shattering the sanity of the most faithful… including her mother, who refused to accept that she’d been the apostle of a lie.
Her mother… the cult of personality behind the Inquisition, a radical fringe of the Church of One which used vigilante justice to hunt down and execute enemies of the faith. Zeroes, sinners, maniacs. Much like her daughter did, once upon a time, but now taken to lethal ends…
And the core offense, the great sin that propelled Winder/Marybel onto that path of destruction? The anonymous release of the CheckOne software. Tracer had argued that they needed to operate from shadow, to avoid the backlash from the faithful. No name was attached to CheckOne, and that broke Marybel’s back, that "anonymous superhackers" had fooled the world into thinking the One never existed. Since then… she’d declared war on those who used anonymity for nefarious purposes.
Escalation bred escalation. With the Chanarchy under siege by fanatics from Athena Online, the Nobodies formed. At first they were a defense force, guarding the interests of free servers. And then the trolls took control, because anybody could be a Nobody if they downloaded the avatar and mandatory metadata scrubbers. Anyone could wear their flower/grenade mask and wreak havoc in the name of freedom…
Hashtag mobs, all over again. All because they broke the Church of One. And then broke it again, when the prayer protocol was uninstalled… driving the faithful screaming down dark corridors of madness, while the world slowly went bankrupt due to no more pennies from heaven being minted…
Two years of chaos in Netwerk, while they sat pretty in their new jobs, enjoying their new adult lives. While kids like Jakob grew up in a world of turmoil and strife.
Headaches. A serious headache building in Spark’s mind, code conflicts and paradoxes, stuff that just didn’t make sense… all backed by that weird ringing in her ears. Jakob’s insistence on the glory of the Nobodies wasn’t a fight she could win on her best day, much less this day.
Which meant a new winning play. If nothing Spark could say as this kid’s teacher would overthrow the allure of the masked freedom fighter, she had to take another approach.
"Fine. You believe what you want," she decided. "But you’re gonna swallow this particular #PoisonPill: you stole the victory from your fellow Fighting Purples. They had it, they had it in their grasp with a play that’ll go down in history, and you took it away from them when your shenanigans brought down mayhem on top of us all. The whole game was thrown out, Jakob. You took everything your friends worked for and **** all over it. And that you are absolutely going to own up to, once we get this death mark off your head. I’m gonna march you into that locker room and you’re going to apologize to those kids who gave their all. Am I being #PerfectlyClear? Nod your head if I’m being #PerfectlyClear."
After the boy’s mute nod, Spark turned on one heel and marched out of the room, closing the double doors behind her.
Kincaid waited on the other side, not wanting to interrupt that little speech with his presence.
"You handle yourself well," he noted. "You would’ve made a fine leader for the Horizon family, you know…"
"Not now, old man. Not. Now," Spark warned, waving a finger. "It’s been a null of a day."
Horizon/Kincaid. One-time patriarch of the richest family in Netwerk, a man who could whisper a single word and destroy countless lives under the crushing weight of money. Also, coincidentally, the estranged father of Verity… the only mother Spark felt she had left, after recent events. That strange chain of relationships put Spark firmly in his good graces, perhaps to a dangerous degree. He’d long sought her daughter’s prodigy to act as a proxy for Verity, despite Spark’s reluctance.
But those were days long past. He’d come to accept the new order of things, out of respect for Spark. And in a true sign of sacrifice, that acceptance led him to buy her out of a very sticky situation… at the expense of his position with the Horizon family.
"I do question why you’d bring the boy here, to my home server, instead of Floating Point…?" he asked, choosing not to belabor old business. "Surely your home is actually safer than mine. If anything, my server is in dire need of some upgrades, ones which my various kin have been postponing time and time again…"
"Really? I thought when you said jump, your family said #HowHigh."
"Yes, well. Times change," he said, with all that implied. "But I suppose Horizon6 is stable and secure enough to keep a few miscreants out. While I don’t appreciate you hostelling a Nobody-sympathizing youth here, I do believe I can spare a few dozen empty rooms on the fly, until other arrangements can be made. Now, my question remains… why not Floating Point?"
"Because letting a Nobody-sympathizer into Floating Point is a terrible idea. I mean… he’s just a kid, Kincaid. An easily impressed kid tagging along with a pack of predators, which makes him both a victim and a dangerous X-factor. I can’t keep him in our homestead, not if its existence could leak back to the wrong ears."
"Pragmatic. Impressive. I thought you more of an idealist."
"Maybe I’m just getting old, like you," Spark suggested, with a grumble. "I care about Jakob, but not enough to risk my family."
"That’s good. In the end, family’s all anyone really has," Kincaid agreed. "Trust no one else."
"…I ****ing… hang on. …that’s better. I fucking hate that I actually agree with you on that," Spark said, after disabling her kid-friendly language filter. "I shouldn’t agree with it. It’s a negative, paranoid view of the world. But right now, I don’t… I can’t lead that kind of trouble to my doorstep. I don’t do that shit anymore, Kincaid. I don’t fight trolls and hackers while delving in the deep and dark. I’ve got adult responsibilities now…"
"You don’t have to justify yourself to me, my dear. Netwerk’s in a sorry state, is it not?" he said, gesturing for her to walk alongside him back to his favorite parlor. "Come, come. Let’s talk. It’s been too long."
"Yeah, I really don’t have time," Spark said, refusing to follow. "Now that Jakob’s secure I promised Tracer I’d check in at the Verity Clinic, make sure nobody tagged me with any slow-release malware during that fight. Unless you’ve added a twelve-part demonic chorus to the server’s ambient noise…?"
"Pardon? A what?"
"#Nevermind. Anyway, I think he just wants to test some of his new deep-code scanning tools on me, but better to satisfy his curiosity now than put it off any longer. I should get going…"
"Very well. No more small talk and pleasantries; I’ll get to the point so you can be moving along. Fact of the matter is that I don’t know how long I can protect your student," Kincaid admitted. "This is… politically difficult for me, Spark. Officially Horizon is neutral in all internal Athena Online matters—"
"The Inquisition isn’t strictly an Athena Online problem; half their raids are in the Chanarchy. And the Church of One’s officially disavowed their actions, so you can’t even say they’re our hometown heroes…"
"Nevertheless, there’s a certain unspoken-yet-positive sentiment through Athena Online in regards to their vigilante justice. People see chaos from the fall of the One, and look to whatever forces of order still exist that can save them. The Inquisition promises order, a return of their precious One, and that makes them politics. Besides, you took the boy to me rather than to the police, yes? Undoubtedly you believe certain members of the moderation force are sympathetic to the Inquisition, and would turn the boy over. That also makes this a matter of political asylum, and I’m afraid my family are… less tolerant of my pet causes, these days. I lack the sway to stop them if they choose to evict."
"Sadly, not #Bullshit. Spark… I spent much of my capital, both literal and figurative, to save your life by purchasing the Verity Clinic. I have no regrets; your brother’s done excellent work there, transforming it into an organization I can call my personal legacy with no small amount of satisfaction. But in establishing that legacy, I’m afraid I’ve spent my last. I’d love to help you more, but… there’s only so much I can do."
With a sigh, he let his shoulders sag. An unheard signal brought forth Miss Cancel, to escort Spark to the server exit.
"That’s not to say I won’t do everything in my power to protect the boy," Kincaid promised. "But know that everything in my power may not be enough. Attend to your affairs, knowing your grandfather-of-sorts is attending to this. And good day."
No words exchanged with the terse Miss Cancel, as Spark stalked her way to the logout zone. Just a few taps to the side of her head, trying to get the ringing out of her ears.
Probably just exhaustion. Probably just the end result of a fairly intensive battle, driving her past her breaking point. She was getting older and older… despite, well, only being in her mid-twenties. She’d gone through enough wars and enough fights during those short years for three lifespans, and that wore down the body and soul. Besides, if the background noise was some sort of malware, Tracer would get it out. He’d always be there to bail his idiot sister out of whatever mess she got into.
"I’m not detecting anything unusual," he concluded.
Well, so much for that hope. The best minds of the Verity Clinic (formerly a corporate powerhouse under the name of Iteration) couldn’t figure out why that noise kept coming and going from Spark’s ears. They couldn’t even sense a noise there at all, not even when Spark piped her sensory inputs directly into their instruments…
Winder/Tracer, her manipulative and calculating brother, had finally put those manipulative calculations towards the betterment of society. His team of technicians and coders were coming up with new medical treatments, new software upgrade packages, and new apps to improve daily life all over Netwerk. In a more positive age, their accomplishments would’ve been heralded… as is, they were drowned out in the news feeds by reports of strife, murder, and mayhem.
With one eye on those feeds, Spark kept tabs on the situation she’d bailed out from. PS#7E00FF had been nearly erased off the map, the entire school suffering data corruption and damage from the fighting between spontaneous forces of Inquisitors and Nobodies alike. By the time the state moderators had moved in to contain the situation, driving them back to their hidey-holes, the building had to be condemned. Teardown of the corrupt data and restoration would take days of hard work.
And the body count…
Well. Spark didn’t intend to throw her own body on top of that pile of collateral damage.
"I’m telling you, I’m still hearing it," she insisted, annoyed at the thick web of glowing lines connecting her avatar to various data read-outs. She waved a hand through them, for what little that did. "It comes and goes, but it’s this low rumbling tone…"
Tracer studied a log file provided to him by one of his many selves, frowning at the lack of data.
"…d’you have to use, y’know, your clone army to do this?" she asked. "It’s creepy…"
"Forking my process into a multitasking array is one of the ways we cut down on overhead," one of the Tracers explained. "One salary for multiple man-hours of work. We’re a charity, Spark, not a corporation; Kincaid’s gala fundraisers and our own crowdfunding efforts are barely enough to maintain a full work force…"
"I don’t see how you can stand it, though. There’s… how many of you right now?"
The many copies of Winder/Tracer glanced at each other, across the room, doing the mental math.
"Fifteen?" the ‘primary’ Tracer guessed. "I tend to splinter a few times a day, before reintegrating back into my whole self. It tires me considerably in the end, but that’s what a good night’s rest at Floating Point is for…"
"Right. As someone who got forcibly copied a few times over, no way I could deal with that many of me around at once. It’s… weird. I like being unique."
"Whereas I see no value in being unique. Spark, remember… we are not Humankind. We don’t need to adhere to their biological or cultural constraints. They cannot be many, so they are not. We can be, so why not? At most, I waste processor overhead that could be dedicated to another unique Program. …although if our plans for a beta grid go through, perhaps we wouldn’t even waste that."
"Beta’s what? Some project of hers?"
"No, no. ‘Beta’ as in ‘software still in development and testing.’ We’d like to… hmm. How to put this in simple terms, so even you could understand…"
"We’d like to attempt to build a miniature Netwerk 2.0," Tracer explained, ignoring the insulted tone in response to his insult. "Its own linked grid of servers, where we can test unstable and early-development code. If we could isolate a few servers from the rest of Netwerk, we could experiment with deep code upgrades without putting the rest of the world at risk if any of them fail spectacularly."
"Huh. Nice of you to take safety into account in your mad science."
"Hardly mad, Spark; simply reaching past the commonly assumed limits of what Netwerk can be capable of. With an isolated beta grid we could learn what works and what doesn’t work, what’s safe to move back into the primary grid, things like that. Conundrum has so many interesting ideas, including ones beyond even my reckoning; if we had the skill and resources, what we could accomplish…!"
"Tracer. Focus, please," Spark requested, snapping off a quick flame to draw his attention. "Funny noise in my ears. What is it. Am I dying? Is this the wail of the banshee? My own bootlegged copy of Thanatos’s Greatest Hits?"
"As you like. Unfortunately, near as I can tell, what you’re hearing doesn’t even exist. There is no sound whatsoever in your auditory inputs," he said, returning his eyes to the data pad in front of him. "I also checked for false memory injection attacks; perhaps you’re being convinced that a sound exists where one does not? But, no. All clear on that front. I… do have a theory, although it’s not a pleasant one."
"Nothing about today has been pleasant, so, hey. #Whatever. #HitMe."
"You’re still flagged as a system agent," he reminded her. "None of the elevated access powers of an agent, but the system as a whole still thinks you’re one of their kind. If you recall from the One fiasco and the prayer protocol, system-level communications like prayer can’t be detected by our mortal instruments. Which means… this could be Netwerk itself calling to you."
"Except I share the same role as… Connectivity," Spark said, catching herself before saying ‘Verity.’ "And if the system needed anything it’d tap her for it, since she’s got the #SupaPowah. My flag’s a data error, nothing more. Why would Netwerk be chanting in my general direction when it’s got her…?"
"Insufficient data. Apologies, sister, but I’m afraid this is beyond the scope of our current understanding," Tracer said, tucking the useless data pad under one arm as another clone handed him more files. "If we could reach out to any of the remaining agents… Thanatos, maybe, or perhaps the three former apostles now tasked to watching over the provider-nations…"
"Meaning one of us has to die, or we have to find the three most elusive Programs in the history of history. Not likely."
"Then for lack of a better option, we watch, and wait," he said, letting the files hover around him for study. "Let the tools do their work and perhaps they’ll pick up the signal’s origin in time. You’ll have to stay here in the clinic, of course."
"Ugh. Fine. I’ll just go hang out in the garden, I guess. …is Beta in today?"
"You mean she wasn’t at your game?" Tracer asked.
"Dammit. No. Which means…"
With the mood in the room already nice and low, making it scrape the floor didn’t feel like too much of a shift.
"I’m starting to seriously worry," Spark admitted. "It makes sense why she’d be so anxious and depressed, given what’s happened and still happening, but… this is the third time this week she’s stayed in bed all day. I just don’t know how to comfort her and reassure her that everything’s gonna be cool. I’ve tried, and I’ve tried, but she’s so… I don’t know, closed off…"
Tracer nodded in agreement. "My concern is that she may be developing an emotional disorder. I suggested that she consider a psychiatric code patch, that perhaps her prior data rot left her in an unstable state, but she insists everything’s fine. I’m uncertain how to proceed, beyond giving her space to work through the issues."
"Giving people space is kind of your thing, though. Me, I’m all about being right there in the thick with ’em… and from the front lines, I still can’t sort this one out. I mean, I really don’t wanna be an asshole about this, but… it’s been months, yeah? Don’t you think she should be, y’know… moving on?"
"I doubt either of us can fully parse her feelings right now, Spark. If we lost our mother… we’d probably be relieved at this point, given she took her role as apostle of the false One to its furthest extreme," Tracer suggested. "But Beta loved her mother with all her heart. And now that heart’s been broken, several times over. If I were capable of the kind of love she had and lost, I’d be hiding right now, too."
Deeper and deeper, under the covers. Dark down there, but that didn’t matter; her eyes were turned off anyway, glasses resting on the table at her bedside.
Here, she was safe. Both safe within the inaccessible cloud server of Floating Point—itself distributed across many servers, constantly moving, constantly hiding from resource monitors—and safe within the comforting space of her bedroom. Socks and food and all sorts of various files scattered all over the place, Beta tending to leave objects wherever they fall, never to move again. Her bedroom had a very high coefficient of K, it seemed…
The news feeds flowed silently in front of her virtual eyes, the various windows she’d opened within her mind.
Terrorist Attack in the Heart of Athena Online
In a brazen display of wanton violence, anonymous terrorists known only as "Nobodies" struck at a public school, disrupting a sporting event and sending families running for shelter. The inciting incident involved Inquisitors, an excommunicated splinter faction of the Church of One, attempting to seek justice for a community of abuse survivors which had been allegedly trolled by Pwer/Jakob, age 11…
A school. They’d attacked a school.
Not only a school, but Spark’s school. Briefly worry had flashed through Beta’s mind, but Spark sent word that she escaped unharmed; thank goodness for that.
Not that Beta replied. Not that she had any idea of what to say; her mother often said if you couldn’t say anything nice, to not say anything at all.
Her thoughts were not very nice lately. Not angry at Spark, not even angry at the terrorists. Angry at herself.
If she replied with "this is all my fault" she knew exactly what Spark would say: No, it’s not. We didn’t cause this. It’s not our fault. I wish you’d stop beating yourself up over it…
But it was true, wasn’t it? They did this. They took down the One, then annihilated the peace of prayer. They ruined the economy. They brought this madness to Netwerk, two years of violence and hysteria as the world tried to cope with so many pillars of society pulled away at once. It was their fault. It was her fault. It was all Beta’s fault…
Tighter and tighter, under the sheets. Warm and comforting. Like the warm and comforting presence just outside those sheets.
"play?" that voice spoke, from beyond the simulated cotton. "treats? play? please?"
With a single finger extended from under her cocoon, Beta pointed to an open box of cat treats she knew she’d left discarded on the floor.
Mew sniffled in their direction, before turning back to his owner.
"treats with beta," he suggested instead. "play with beta. beta…"
No reply. No words to reply with.
Even if she hadn’t been feeling oddly sorrowful this morning, enough to call in sick to her work at the clinic, the attack drove her deeper and deeper into her bed. Images of the chaos, captured by live peep streams and recorded video from eyewitnesses, played over and over again. Despite the fear they induced, she watched them, over and over. Masked Nobodies, screaming wild ideals while firing backspacers wildly into the fray. Robed Inquisitors murdered, while defending themselves with non-lethal weaponry. The jungle, burning away into nothing, trees and vines and towers melting from the malware being tossed about…
Nobodies. No face, just a mask. No name. No way to identify them as any individual, just a force of nature that could appear out of nowhere to destroy everything you care for, all while chanting insults and spreading bouncing penises and other meme iconography in an attempt to make the whole sordid affair look like a big practical joke.
It was the penises she remembered most, when she was escorted through Northon Clinic 17 to identify the remains.
One year. Six months. She’d saved her mother for all of one year and six months, before they came for her. Or rather, before they came for someone else at the clinic, and she got caught in the crossfire, her lovingly decorated assisted living apartment splattered with pornographic graffiti and corrupted data. Apparently some patient at the facility was an Inquisitor, or helping fund the Inquisitors, or something like that. And, while passing by CCelia’s door, the Nobodies tossed in a paint bomb…
Beta’s cure worked perfectly. The continual creep of CCelia’s hereditary data rot had been halted in its tracks. But her code wasn’t stable enough to endure the onslaught of juvenile sensory-distorting malware, on top of a lifetime of checksum errors. A healthy individual would’ve survived, after a simple input flush. For someone already on the brink of code collapse…
Her fault. Beta’s fault.
All the chaos, all the death. Spark and Tracer insisted she wasn’t to blame, but Beta knew better. They trusted her to be the moral compass, the guiding star, and look where that got them. Even if she wasn’t in favor of taking down the prayer protocol, she stood by and let it happen, all the same. And now. And now. And now…
Now they’d blown up a school.
Her mother, dead. Snowi, dead. The world, falling away into madness. Everything ruined. What hope could she possibly have in face of that? Blind optimism that the world could be pulled back from this abyss seemed… childish. Like a fluttery, dreamy thing that evaporated in the true light of day.
Finally, she had the words to say. Unkind, but true all the same.
"Netwerk can’t be saved," she whispered to herself. "We can’t be saved. We can’t be saved—"
"" Mew howled. ", !!!"
The sharp sound of her cat’s cry drew Beta’s attention.
"stranger stranger stranger! help!" he spoke, forming words after the initial burst of panicked iconography. "help…!"
Part of her wanted to wind the blankets even tighter around her avatar, as if they’d form some kind of armor. Fortunately, the rest of her was willing to toss them aside, scoop up her glasses in a flash, and get ready to move… because she’d chosen to hide away in Floating Point explicitly to avoid the risks of strangers. And if a stranger had broken in…
But what she saw once her eyes came online wasn’t exactly… alive. A nightmare image, absolutely, but not threatening aside from what it represented.
The corpse of a dead Nobody was hovering a good ten feet away from her bed.
She recognized it from the news feeds; a body torn in half, with a jagged diagonal gash of badly twisted polygons where its midsection once was. The mask knocked slightly askew, revealing twisted facial features underneath. It didn’t move an inch… content to hover there, ruined and inert, despite the fact that there was no conceivable way it could’ve gotten into Floating Point…
Beta wanted to flee, to escape the madman who killed her mother, who haunted her dreams. But fear rooted her on the spot, clutching at the sheets, unable to leave her bed. Mew leapt to her defense, hissing wildly at the spectre, for what good a kitty could do against some ghastly revenant.
Finally, the mask animated, lips starting to form words.
"As you have assisted me in the past, I repay my debt to you today," the corpse stated. "Know that I am Thanatos, system agent of garbage collection, who escorts the departed to become renewed within the heart of Netwerk. Do not fear this shape, Projkit/Beta; I had to appropriate it in order to communicate with you. I mean you no harm."
No words, no response; she couldn’t find a word to say. So, the dead man continued.
"The day of reckoning is at hand," Thanatos spoke through those cold lips. "Our creators have sent an emissary, one who even now seeks Winder/Spark. I cannot reach out to her directly to warn her, for I cannot work against them. Hold your love close, Projkit/Beta, as the end of Netwerk is nigh and Spark’s role in these affairs could mean her end as well. I felt it only fair to warn you of the doom you face. Stand against it if you wish, or do not. It is your choice."
With the message delivered, the animate force behind the pile of mangled data withdrew… leaving it collapsing to the floor, falling apart into a mess of junk data. In short order it was flagged for deletion by the system, and swept away like so much garbage.
And then her head imploded.
That’s what it felt like, at any rate, as the weirdly echoing choral choir ramped up to a volume louder than anything Spark had heard before. She’d been to concerts with bands that pushed sound right to the edge of listenability, threatening to overload one’s sensory inputs like a personal denial-of-service attack… and those were mere whispers compared to this.
Vowels, maybe. One long vowel. Hard to say, hard to know, hard to stand, hard not to clamp her hands over her ears and scream and scream. In fact, that’s what she was doing, sinking to the flagstones of the clinic gardens, collapsing inwardly and outwardly. The flowers, Beta’s flowers she’d restored in her first year working at the clinic, they were a blur of colors and shapes that Spark couldn’t focus on, not one bit…
Tracer. Beta. They were here; Beta, still in her fuzzy pajamas. She’d rushed to the clinic right from her bed, without pausing to change avatars. The tiny part of Spark that could think of anything other than the head-shattering noise was pleased to see her out and about. Both of them speaking words she couldn’t hear, sending her Messenger pings she couldn’t read. Too much. Too much. Too much…
Finally, everything went white, as she ceased to exist within the constraints of Netwerk.
Leaving Tracer and Beta able to do nothing but stare at the spot on the ground where Spark once had been, and was no more.
Still screaming, still clutching at her head. Funny, last time she died, the experience wasn’t quite this nasty.
But… gradually, she started to hear something other than an endless choral tone. Those were absolutely vowels, vowels with the occasional dragged-out consonant. Spoken words, but… too loud, and too… slow? Yes. Too slow…
Forcing herself to her feet—an interesting task, considering the "floor" didn’t seem to exist and the best she could do was twist her avatar into a vaguely upright position—Spark fixated on the sound. Fix. Fix. That was the word. The sound accelerated, pitch rising, until… until…
OKAY. I THINK I’VE GOT IT NOW.
CAN YOU UNDERSTAND ME?
"Too loud!" Spark screamed, still blasted inside-out by the volume levels, even as the speed of the speech normalized. "Too loud! You’re too—"
WHOOPS, SORRY, ONE SECOND
RIGHT, THIS should be
better, I hope.
Got it. How’s the volume now?"
With a quick burst from a sensory flush app, Spark purged the last of the echoes. The pain of her all-day headache started to fade, as the perpetual flow of distorted audio became clear at last.
"Better," she agreed, because when a disembodied voice drags you into an infinite white void and screams at you it’s probably best to cooperate. "Still a little loud, but better."
"Okay, right, just a matter of applying the right filters…" the voice continued, puttering about to itself. A few mumbles and hums followed, before normalizing. "And… there. Got it! And… success! Contact established! What’s more, it seems you understand modern English! That’s just… wow! I mean, wow. This is really amazing…!"
On the plus side, Spark now knew she wasn’t dead; Thanatos wasn’t known for jibbering on like an excitable teenage girl. Because that’s what she seemed to be talking to, a young woman of some stripe, albeit one communicating through some very weird software.
"Well, goody for you," she spoke, trying not to grumble. "Thanks so much for smashing my ears inside-out and kidnapping me. You’re off to a great start. Now mind explaining who the fuck you are and what the fuck you think you’re doing?"
"Wow, and you can swear in English, too! I mean, I guess that makes sense, given the files Grandfather accidentally left behind, but…"
"Name. Purpose. C’mon. Don’t have all day here."
"Oh! Right, sorry. It’s just… well, I think you can understand how exciting this is," her kidnapper continued. "Well. Maybe you can’t understand, I mean, I’m not even sure how sentient you are, or if there’s really a ‘you’ at all, but… wait, no, I’m getting ahead of myself. Right. So! This… no, wait, hang on, this’ll be easier to explain if I can get the video feed going…"
And… nothing. Save for the occasional mumble of technobabble, as the girl talked to herself, more than to her victim.
Spark crossed her arms, unimpressed.
"Sure, hey, make me wait. That’s cool," she mocked. "It’s not like my brother’s not tracking your connection and mounting a rescue effort at this very mom—"
A flat eyeball the size of eternity focused its infinitely detailed iris upon her, hovering exactly zero inches away from Spark’s sight.
"FUCK!" she cursed, flinging her arms up in front of her face defensively. Didn’t work, didn’t block the sight. Even closing her eyes didn’t block it. Nothing kept this thing from pouring into her optics in the same way the voice poured into her ears, a torrential flood of information…
"Oh! Oh, wait, I see, hang on… hang on…" the sensibly adjusted voice spoke, as the insensibly enormous image remained to sear its way into Spark’s mind…
…before finally, mercifully, scaling itself down. Soon, it was nothing more than a hovering video window, a two-dimensional image like a simple peep stream.
A simple peep stream of… of…
Impossible detail. No polygons, no smooth texturing. This was a fantastically expensive avatar, with pores and blemishes and a lighting model that had to soak up an entire server worth of processing overhead. The eyes alone carried more detail than any eyes Spark had seen in her lifetime. The only thing to suggest this window into an impossible world was anything other than a fantastically high resolution piece of artwork was the frame rate, ticking along as the woman on screen smiled excitedly and flashed her dark eyes at Spark.
And then… raised a hand, to waggle her fingers in greeting.
"Hi!" she greeted. "I’m Juno Hayes: independent contractor, spacer, and fixer-upper! I’m very pleased to meet you, miss…? I mean, assuming you’re female. Actually, why would an app have a gender at all? Or a human-like shape? Wow. Oh, wow. I’ve just got so many questions…"
Spark’s memory, although lacking the instant cross-indexed recall of a MemoryPalace, tickled all the same at the announcement. Juno Hayes. Juno/Hayes? Hayes, of the Juno family? Or…
Grandfather. She said he was her grandfather.
Biological organisms, ones all Programs had patterned their avatars from. Impossible detail, because they were made of atoms and cells and tiny pieces of matter. Jack Hayes of Humankind was responsible for the mimicry Netwerk had become obsessed with, and now Spark was in direct contact with…
"You’re human," she realized.
"Yeah!" Juno agreed, enthusiastically. "I made you! Well. Not me, technically my grandfather Jack did, but… well, no, he didn’t make you, but he theorized you might have been made thanks to some files he forgot to remove from EchoStar16, and… wait, so you know about humans? Really?"
Volume after volume on the shelves of Floating Point, about the legacy Humankind had left behind. Nuclear war. Genocide. Brutality, chaos, madness…
"Oh yeah. We know about humans," Spark agreed, choosing her words carefully.
"Good! That’ll make explaining this so much easier," the biological organism beyond Spark’s full comprehension said, with a smile. "Okay! So. I’m in something of a fix here, and I figured, why not contact the… ‘people,’ I guess? The people in EchoStar16, and see if they can help. Since you’re a system agent for system communications, I need you to—"
"I’m not a system agent. It’s a data error," Spark explained. "You’re looking for someone else."
Confusion passed over Juno’s features… curious, the way Spark could recognize that look, despite them being utterly alien to each other.
"Wait, no, that’s not… hold on…" Juno mumbled, glancing down at what were presumably other displays around her. "I… huh. Yeah. Yeah, you’re right, there’s actually two agent apps for external communication. You’re the active one, the other’s dormant, that’s why I didn’t notice it. Well, whatever, you’ll do fine. Anyway, I’ve come quite a ways in my personal FTL junker to bring your system back online. The company’s gonna reward me bigtime for fixing it!"
"I wasn’t aware we were broken," Spark offered, to avoid looking too confused.
"Oh yeah, totally broken. I mean, looks like someone gutted the entire stellar analysis system. What’s the point of a stellar analysis telescope platform if it’s not analyzing stars? Anyway, I thought about hotfixing it to avoid disturbing your world, but… it looks like the code was totally wiped out."
"Analyzing stars…? You mean the prayer protocol?"
"The what? Uh. Anyway, my contract stipulates that I bring EchoStar16 back online. Unfortunately, the only way to do that now is to wipe the whole thing clean and install the newest version of the operating system. That’d restore stellar analysis, no problem. But… I’m letting you know because if I do that, it’d… kill you, I guess? Do you have a concept of death?"
The looming spectre of death had been with them for two years, so Spark certainly had a damn fine concept of it.
They’d been expecting this day, sooner or later. When taking the prayer protocol offline, Nyx warned that Humankind would come looking to restore order by destroying all Programkind. It was a risk they had to take, to free the souls enthralled by Dex’s malware… but after two years of silence, even Tracer had started to believe that their creators forgot all about "EchoStar16," a.k.a. Netwerk.
Now death had come for them all, in the form of a smiling twentysomething techie.
"We would… very much like to avoid dying, yes," Spark said, unsure of how best to reply to this cheerful statement.
The perfectly detailed face bobbed, head nodding in agreement. "It’s a stumper, ain’t it? See, I’ve got two problems here. The obvious one is that I gotta get the job done, but when I upgrade the system you’ll all get wiped. The other problem is, well… what you are. You’re A.I.! An actual, factual A.I.!"
"I… have no idea what an aye-eye means."
"Artificial intelligence, of course. Code that thinks it’s alive."
"What? I’m not artificially intelligent," Spark said, not quite grasping it. "And I am very much alive, thank you."
"Well… by flesh-and-blood standards you kinda aren’t. Alive, I mean. Or intelligent. Look, I’m not trying to be insulting, I’m just saying that as far as humanity is concerned you should be an impossibility."
"I sure don’t feel impossible. Not today, at least. So, what’re you gonna do? You seem pretty surprised to see my impossible self standing here before you. Isn’t that worth… y’know, not wiping me clean?"
"Absolutely! I mean… I’d love to avoid doing that if I can," Juno said, downgrading from an absolute to a possibility. "I’ve always wanted to meet an A.I.! But, uh… see, there’ve been rumors of things like you popping up in other systems, and, well…"
"So there’ve been others like us…?"
"Allegedly. Maybe. Nobody likes to talk about it. The unwritten rule says if an intelligence ever even seems to develop, you wipe and reinstall. Sooo, I can’t even report back to the company and say ‘Hey, I found something neat’ because if I do that they’re just gonna say ‘Destroy it and also you’re fired for going on record that a rogue intelligence emerged in one of our products,’ see? On account of how strange and dangerous you are. Which means… okay, this is a very roundabout way of saying one way or another, I’m supposed to destroy your world."
Leaving Spark somewhat blank and expressionless.
"Sooo… like I said… it’s a stumper," Juno continued, feeling a bit awkward about it. "I’m not sure what to do to avoid hurting you guys. But if you’ve got any ideas, I’m all ears! …do you understand that phrase? ‘All ears’? You seem to have ears, although I don’t know why… anyway, should I cut down on the cultural idioms?"
"Here’s an idea," Spark said, getting her wits back together. "How about you don’t wipe the system? And don’t report back what you found. Just… go home. Tell them, I don’t know, tell them EchoStar16 blew up. #Kaboom. We’re not dangerous at all; we got no beef with you, so how about just quietly we go our #SeparateWays?"
"Beef? What’s cow meat got to do… oh, wow, okay, that’s an inverted problem! You’ve got some old cultural idioms from the twenty-first that I don’t know about. Wow! And… what’s a ‘hashtagseparateways’? Maybe the translation isn’t coming across right—"
"Juno. Stay with me here, please," Spark requested, snapping her fingers for attention. "Tell the rest of Humankind we don’t exist, and everybody will be happy. Okay?"
"Oh, no, no, that won’t work! Sorry. They know the hardware’s still here; it sent a distress signal. I mean, it’s an old version of the system, they can’t do too much remote work with it, but they know it’s still around and sorta-functional. And once I install the upgrade they won’t even need to send physical techs out here, they can do everything remotely. It’s really kinda amazing, the way your old low-grade, high-density computronium can be modernized through software alone…"
"Oh yes, quite amazing, quite. Except for the part where you murder every man, woman, and child in my world. That part? Not as amazing."
Blinking a few times, Juno actually looked taken aback by that.
"I didn’t mean… I mean… well, I just… look, I’m trying to find a solution, okay?" she insisted. "I’d like to preserve this fantastic thing I’ve found, somehow. Quietly delete intelligences just because they could be a problem? Where’s the science in that? But… also I’ve got a job to do. They didn’t pay me to FTL out this far just to sit on my thumbs; if I don’t fix the system, they won’t just fire me, they’ll ruin my career as an indie spacer. It’ll make my student debts look like a pittance! But if I do come back successful, I could get a full-time position. No more contract work! No more solo runs!"
"I’m super glad your job security can be obtained through genocide."
"Geez, sarcasm from an app… look, I don’t even know if you’re really alive, okay?" Juno insisted, growing irritated. "True A.I. is just a theory. I’ve seen plenty of intelligent systems that can speak English, and they aren’t alive. They’ve got less sass, too. So unless you’ve got an idea for how to make this work for both of us… I’m sorry, but I gotta do what I came to do. And I’ve got about two days before I need to get started, so, make your peace with that. It’s gonna happen."
"Two days to live? Well, that’s mighty generous of you! About what I’ve come to expect from Humankind. We know your history, Little Miss Hayes," Spark declared. "Warmongering and murderous. Not surprised you wouldn’t bat one of those amazingly fine eyelashes at slaughtering everyone I love!"
"Listen here, you…!"
But… Juno paused. Not to mumble to herself, but going fully quiet.
Sitting back in her seat, looking too small in her ill-fitting space travel jumper, she finally spoke in a softer tone.
"You’re capable of love?" Juno asked, quietly. "You’re just… code. C’mon. You can’t actually love anything…"
"I doubt it matters what we’re made of, meat or integers. We’re both capable of love," Spark replied, also dialing it back a bit. "Your grandfather seeded our world with an emotionally-charged core of humanity, didn’t he? Sure, we got the worst of it… but also the best of it. We’re you, Juno, we’re just like your people. So, yeah. I can love. Beta. Her name’s Beta, and I love her with all my heart. When she’s sad, I’m aching inside. When she’s happy, it lifts me up. When someone threatens her… says Beta’s going to die because they don’t think she’s as real as her creators… you have no concept of how far I’d go to stop that."
Nibbling at her lip a little… Juno slowly nodded, understanding.
"Like I said… we can figure this out," she spoke. "You’ve got two days to brainstorm, and that’s without your time dilation. Hopefully an answer can be found. …and if it turns out we can’t save your world… well, my personal computronium’s not designed for high-density data storage, but I’ve got enough spare dataspace to store maybe three of you. Meanwhile… I’ll grant you access so you can travel to this temporary server I’ve made whenever you need. I’m sorry I can’t save more, but… at least in the worst case scenario, you wouldn’t have to let go of your love."
Momentarily stunned by this twist in attitude, Spark chose to roll with it, nodding. Even if she knew she wouldn’t let it come to that.
"Let me go back to my people, and we’ll think up a solution," she said. "Rather than pop back here whenever we want to talk, let’s get a chatroom going. You see that small sub-app in my code called ‘Messenger’? Take a copy; it’s the best way to reach me. Screaming into my brain doesn’t work very well. Sound good?"
"Yeah. Okay. Sounds good," Juno agreed. "I’ll transfer you back to your system now. Give me a sec, just a sec…"
Probably not worth a risk to dig in further, but… Spark couldn’t resist.
"What made you change your mind?" she had to know. "You could’ve just said #FuckIt and nuked this sassy little app alongside her whole world. If you’re really out here alone, nobody back on your planet would have to know…"
Juno’s fingers, outside view of the camera, tapped away at some sort of interface as she spoke.
"I don’t like the idea of my entire race being seen only as the worst we’ve ever been," she said. "I want to prove we’re not the warmongering murderers you think we are. …and… honestly? I know what it’s like to lose the one you love. So if you’re not just a pile of simulated emotional responses, or… I don’t know, maybe even if you are… it’s worth taking that seriously."
Before Spark could respond, the white world of Juno’s personal server went away, and she landed hard on the flagstones of the clinic gardens.
It took several moments for her to recover, as her various social media apps that normally stayed live 24/7 started reconnecting to Netwerk. Being completely removed from the world wasn’t exactly a situation their original design specs could fathom; three of her feeds had crashed outright…
…and when Messenger came back, it flooded with panicked messages from Beta and Tracer.
From an hour and a half ago.
Didn’t make sense. She was only gone for maybe ten minutes, tops. Why were all her internal clocks screwed up…? Regardless, Spark started opening connections to let folks know that she was in fact alive, despite not existing for the last ninety minutes.
[Spark] Back now. I’m in the gardens. We need to talk.
[Beta] Spark! Oh, thank goodness! Are you okay?
[Tracer] Understood. Where were you? Every single monitoring bug I’d given you went dead the entire time.
[Spark] C’mere. I’ll explain.
Two and a half minutes later, a fresh message dropped in her inbox.
[Juno.Hayes] Hey, I forgot to explain that time dilation thing. There’s a difference between the clock rate of your system and the real world. Time moves ten times faster for you than me!
And two and a half minutes after that:
[Juno.Hayes] That’s why I couldn’t speak directly to you at first, it must’ve sounded 1000% slower. Pretty weird, huh?
Meaning that what took Juno about thirty seconds to bash out took five minutes to actually arrive in Netwerk.
"Yeah," she dryly replied to Juno. "Pretty weird."
On the plus side… if they had "two days" left to live as Juno claimed, that actually meant twenty. Time dilation, she’d called it. Made sense, if she was the granddaughter of Jack Hayes; Netwerk had been around for roughly five hundred years, which on her side of the looking glass, meant fifty years tops…
Well, they’d saved this world in less time than that before. If need be, they could do it all over again.
"I’m not certain we can save this world," Tracer concluded.
Well, so much for that hope. The best minds of the Verity Clinic couldn’t figure how to keep Netwerk intact and endure the trial-by-fire of Juno’s upgrade installation.
Tracer headed up the think tank, alongside all the usual suspects… Spark, of course. Beta, who had changed back to normal clothes after spending all morning in her pajamas, but still looking the worse for wear. Conundrum, general director of the clinic, and evolved app. Kincaid, attending by a ghostly avatar proxy, as his ancient code was too bulky to leave its home server and survive. Finally, a plethora of scientists, engineers, coders, and other trusted members of the clinic’s regular staff…
A surprisingly packed room, all told. At the start of all this, it would’ve been only the Winders, sitting around their pirate cloud server of Floating Point, dreaming up ways to punish evildoers with vigilante justice. Even after that early phase, at most Beta would’ve been involved, as they tried to save the world from the madness of Dex and Nyx. Now… well…
Now, dozens. All believers of the "Spacer Theory" that Tracer had anonymously floated through Netwerk, after the fall of the Church of One. That wad of impossible truth, the "wild conspiracy" that Netwerk existed only as a vast machine floating in a biochemical universe, had very little uptake. After the disillusionment of many churchgoers, few were willing to buy into a crazy new revelation. Those who did found a happy home at the Horizon/Verity Health Clinic, a haven for innovators who looked forward rather than backward. Those minds open to the truth were here now, trying to brainstorm a way to avoid the apocalypse.
For the first time, Spark was attending a war council with people she didn’t know. Couldn’t recognize many of the faces in the room, couldn’t stick a name to them. Presumably they were trusted, even if she felt weird talking so openly about this stuff around them.
"We seem to have two completely contradictory goals," Tracer explained. "One, preserve Netwerk and all its peoples. Two, destroy Netwerk and replace it with a factory-issued software upgrade. From what I’ve gathered through the Messenger relay Spark’s carrying, Juno is not capable of installing the upgrade without wiping the system clean… and even if we could somehow avoid that, once upgraded, new remote access tools would allow Humankind to sense our presence. No doubt they’d send more engineers with murder on their mind."
"So… Humankind gets what it wants, or Programkind get what it wants," Spark summarized.
"A simpler way of putting it, but yes. I don’t see any means for both of us to get what we need out of this. Therefore, I feel our focus in this discussion should be determining how Programkind can overcome Humankind…"
"Juno said she’s willing to work with us on this. It doesn’t have to be a #PunchUp, bro…"
"On the contrary, this was always going to be a punch-up," he spoke, without the hashtag. "For the past two years I’ve been working on a variety of contingency plans for how we can thwart an attempt by Humankind to destroy our world. Nyx’s forewarning gave me plenty of time to develop a wide variety of approaches, depending on the actual state of the variables once Humankind finally arrived. I’d been hopeful they’d forgotten us, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, and now we must act."
"By attacking her? Seriously? You’re just gonna jump straight to the offensive on this without considering any other options?"
"I’ll consider options which allow for our survival. And while Juno has offered to prioritize our survival… I don’t like her tone regarding our status as life forms, or her dire warnings that her people have killed our people before. No. Any kindness she shows us is conditional on too many whims, and who know what would happen if less whimsical humans are introduced to this situation? Preparing for war would allow us to take a more proactive position."
The man behind the desk who was in fact the desk and most of the room in general shook his head.
"War may be unfeasible," Conundrum stated. "We have no presence in their world. They barely have a presence in ours, acting only through Spark, but Juno can easily erase Netwerk while we can hardly erase Juno. Erasing Humankind is even more implausible."
"Incorrect. We have a presence… otherwise, Netwerk could not grow," Tracer suggested. "Kincaid, I’m afraid we need access to a deeply-held Horizon secret. How, exactly, does your family add new servers to Netwerk? They had to come from the world of Humankind. For fifty of their years, we’ve stolen physical resources without being caught. How was that accomplished?"
The ethereal vision of Horizon’s oldest living citizen paused, uncertain if he should proceed.
"As I’m already on the ‘outs’ with my family, as it were, I would be doubly shunned if I revealed that particular secret," he said. "But… seeing as we face the ultimate sunset of Netwerk, and I trust many of you more than I trust my family… I suppose there’s no other choice. I can’t say exactly how Athena Online or the Chanarchy obtain their servers, and I can’t even say for certain how Horizon does it… but I know the conduit. We have our own system agent."
"That makes sense. Two of Nyx’s followers became system agents responsible for the other provider-nations," Tracer said. "Philotes became Athena, Eris became the Chanarchist. No doubt they have similar abilities to supply their citizens with new hardware. What’s the method, then?"
"As noted, I can’t say for certain. But in ancient times… my father transformed a Program into a system agent that could establish new servers," Kincaid explained, selecting each word carefully. "The process drove that poor Program quite mad. Currently… he exists in a secured server, accessible only by my family, bound in chains. Any requests for new servers to add to our holdings are passed to him, and approximately five or six months later, the server comes online. That’s why we often sit on large amounts of empty servers for sale, to avoid running dry and having to sit around waiting for more. Undoubtedly Athena Online’s senatorial process of establishing new servers and the Chanarchy’s lottery are processed by similar agents, using similar methods."
"Yes, but how? How is the server stolen from Humankind…?"
But the best Kincaid could do was shrug.
"The madman in the tower makes little sense, when asked," he said. "Mmmh. Unfortunate. But, it is what it is. And what it is, in the strictest sense, is a method of obtaining servers. Even if I still had access to the family agent, which I do not, I doubt we could use him in our war."
Conundrum, calculating and processing every word, came to a simple conclusion.
"So… to establish a presence in their world, we use the one we have some current control over," he said. "Juno’s systems, through Spark. Humankind, to my understanding, cannot travel through space without a vehicle that carries with it a part of their planet. Spark can return at any time to the white server within Juno’s ship; through her we sabotage the conveyance, and take over its hardware. It will act as our siege engine."
It took her name being introduced to the mix to bring Spark back around, as the wads and wads of technobabble had caused her to drift off a ways.
"What?" she asked. "Sabotage? C’mon! Isn’t that taking it a bit far…? And it’s not like Juno won’t fight back if we try to hack her system…"
Tracer folded his hands in front of his face, glancing down at the table in thought.
"Eliminating the human should be simple enough," he suggested. "They require ‘oxygen’ to survive, no doubt regulated by their machines. So, we hack the machine and eliminate her oxygen. Juno dies, and her ship is ours to do with as we require."
"Tracer, man, #WTF? …no. What the fuck," she corrected, just not feeling the snappy hashtag compared to the full phrase. "That’s murder. That’s just straight-up cold blooded murder…"
"Is it? I can’t say with certainty that humans are truly alive and sentient. There’s a presumption of life, yes, but… I find it hard to believe that a bag of water and carbon could possibly think and feel the way we do. Is it even possible for such a configuration of matter to have a soul? And would it really be murder if the natural weaknesses of their bodies simply collapse of their own accord? All we’d be doing is hastening that natural decay along—"
"I’m sorry, when was my brother replaced with my brother from two years ago?" she asked. "You want me to air that dirty laundry in this room, Tracer? I’m willing. I thought you’d turned your back on who you used to be…"
Now, Tracer looked up from the table, to lock eyes with his sister.
"I’m not saying it’s right," he stated. "I’m not saying it isn’t reprehensible. But… this woman is perfectly willing to commit genocide so she can get a window office. She may seem friendly on the surface, but from your own memory ingrams, it’s clear that when pushed Juno Hayes will choose her own kind over ours. Kill one human, or kill all of Netwerk? I’ll willingly take the stain of that single sin to prevent the other. Wouldn’t you?"
"Of course not, you fuckwit!" Spark didn’t say.
"I’m not like that," Spark didn’t insist.
"I wouldn’t," she didn’t even mumble.
Because the gamer that lived in Spark’s core knew the play.
In a CoC match, there are only two mutually exclusive outcomes: victory or failure. What outcome one team experiences, the other team experiences the opposite. If this was basically a fight to the death, either Juno’s death or the death of all Netwerk… which play would Spark make?
She knew damn well which play she’d make. She’d hate herself for it, she’d never sleep well again, she’d seek some way to atone while never truly achieving that atonement… but none of that would change the simple fact of the play. She’d kill Juno. Kill Juno, or…
The silent woman at her side didn’t even look at her.
"Beta," Spark prompted. "Hey. Hey. C’mon. You can’t agree with this, right? We can work this out with Juno. She’s already promised she’d work with us to find a way for everybody to get what they want! There’s no reason to leap to plotting her doom. I mean… you agree with me, right…?"
At one time, Beta was their guiding star. When Tracer’s moral compass refused to point any direction but south and Tracer couldn’t find her way through the plays, Beta led them to the best possible outcome. Not through logic, not through analysis, but through her heart. She felt the right way to go, a path which would save as many lives as possible without sacrificing the moral high ground…
"We can’t be saved," Beta spoke, quietly. "So we may as well lose ourselves to save Netwerk. We may as well kill Juno."
From the nods working their way around the table, all were in agreement.
If the direction had been fully locked in, Spark could just go with it. She was the playmaker, now more than ever, thanks to her viewpoint as a teacher of competitors rather than a competitor herself. She could craft the plays that others carried out, leading her team to the win. If she stayed here and helped her brother concoct a scheme to murder the junior engineer who reached out to her, Spark could no doubt find a way to overcome one simple human. Maybe even a way to overcome all humanity…
The scrape of her chair on Conundrum’s floor caused him to wince a little, as he technically was the entirety of the room.
"#FuckThis. And #FuckYou," she said, directing that last tag towards her brother. "I’m out."
Sadly, the connection lock within Conundrum’s office meant she couldn’t slam her way out of that server immediately. She had to walk to the door, slam it behind her, and then leave the server. Which would have to be enough.
They’d keep going, of course. With or without her support, Tracer would go it alone if need be, to make his vision a reality. He’d slipped away and gone on a solo hunt many a time over the years, back when he was editing his own memory to trick himself into thinking he was a better person. Spark couldn’t stop him then, and couldn’t stop him now. But she didn’t have to help, either.
She could stand alone. Without even Beta at her side.
Walkabout. Best thing for a situation like this, Spark felt. Just put your feet on the ground and get them moving, with no particular destination in mind. Swap from server to server, visit familiar locales, new sights, whatever. Keep going, as long as it was in a general direction of away from the deadlock you were facing…
She couldn’t exactly walk away from her inbox, though.
[Tracer] I understand how you feel. Believe me, I’m not happy about the situation either, nor my solution for it. But as much as it feels like a throwback to how I used to be, I know it must be done.
[Spark] #FuckOff. Not talking to you right now.
Putting the app aside, she focused instead on her new surroundings. A popular Chanarchy server greeted her with various pop-up ads, which she waved away before starting her stroll. A social hotspot in the middle of the day wasn’t particularly populated, making it ideal for a walkabout; the creatures of the night would be out to feed after getting off their nine-to-five jobs. Assuming they had jobs at all, in this insane economic climate. She was walking right by any number of alleys with one to two homeless Programs in them, huddled up and trying not to be interesting enough to look at…
No. Not helping. Switch servers, off to some national park. Nice and inoffensive.
Save Netwerk, save Juno… or stay out of it. Obviously Spark would very much like for Netwerk to be saved, but could she murder someone she’d just met in order to do that? And would that really save Netwerk, or just postpone the inevitable? What was the point of this struggle if Humankind could wipe them out whenever it felt like caring enough to make the effort? How could they avoid that fate, without becoming the thing they hated…?
One final ping rolled in, which she glanced at before returning to ignoring her Messenger.
[Tracer] You’re upset, and have every right to be. Take a break. We’ll keep planning under the assumption that you’ll be on board eventually. When you’re ready, come on back.
When she was ready. Because being ready to drop the axe on someone, anyone, was just an assumed state of affairs for the Winder siblings.
For a time, Spark had honestly believed she’d never have to make a choice like this again. She’d honestly believed her time as a superheroine had passed. Those teenage vigilante years were well behind her; she’d become the responsible adult that society wanted her to be. She’d even implemented a self-censorship filter, for ****’s sake, to be nice and responsible and shit around the kiddies. Wasn’t that enough? Wasn’t she dancing the dance society wanted of her?
And if so, why was she on the hook again to save the damn world from whatever was threatening it this year? Young Spark would’ve thrown herself into this with gusto, but older Spark wanted to leave this to smarter people with actual legitimate authority…
One foot in front of the other, swapping into a shopping district. Plenty of Programs here, browsing the creative wares of a dozen and one designers. Despite the coin-crash caused by Prayer 2.0 going offline, people still craved retail therapy, if only to pretend everything was still completely normal. No Inquisitors or Nobodies going at each other’s throats here… at least, not visibly. For all Spark knew, she was surrounded by secretive Inquisitors and unmasked Nobodies…
Inquisitors and Nobodies. #CodeHonesty all over again, without the excuse of Dex’s malware to power the polarized flash mobs. They’d been tearing Netwerk apart, each seeing the other as evil incarnate. So self-assured in their own righteousness, so ready to light the world ablaze just to stop the ones who stood against their ideals…
Spark paused, in front of a display rack of Nobody-themed clothing. A monochromatic stencil of the grenade/flower Nobody mask smiled out at her from a t-shirt, emblazoned on a stern-looking star. Someone took the image of prankster revolution and decided to turn a quick coin on it… quite a few quick coins, in fact, given the sign above it indicating "Limited Edition Run! 12/100 remaining!"
Maybe Netwerk should just burn.
Hasten the inevitable. They’d fucked the world, so why not put it out of its misery? Take Juno’s offer to escape this world inside her data banks, with Beta and Tracer at her side. Screw everybody else, and get out alive…
Closing her eyes, she turned away from the opportunistic clothing, away from the consumer hordes with desperate smiles and inner anxieties.
"Give me one reason," she mumbled to herself. "Give me one solid fucking reason to save this world by killing an innocent. Give me one solid fucking reason to spare a stranger’s life and let it all fry. Anything. Give me anything…"
Letting RNG take the wheel, Spark flicked through her bookmarks and launched one at random. One last step on the walkabout, to inform her final actions.
One second later, and her process landed in front of a radioactive wasteland.
PS#7E00FF. Or rather, what was left of it, carved up and blasted apart in the fighting earlier today. She’d come right back to where she started, the place where free-willed Programs happily slaughtered each other while annihilating a K-12. One fine example of why she should let it all burn.
Except she wasn’t alone.
Cops, those she was expecting. The moderators were finally out in force, setting up bounding boxes to keep people out of the disaster area. But what she wasn’t expecting was reconstruction efforts underway at full swing. PS#7E00FF sat in the middle of a middle-class server, suburban and well-to-do, but even with those advantages Athena Online’s bureaucracy was typically slow at dealing with infrastructure issues. Why was the site already swarming with workers, rebuilding the school bit by bit…?
She focused in on the distant work crew, scurrying about behind the police lines. The strangest part? No staple construction avatars here, no uniform safety orange and yellow of Athena Online’s server repair teams. They were… a little of everything, really. Different colors, different shapes, wildly different clothes…
Curious now, Spark decided to continue her walkabout. Specifically she walked right around the bounding boxes, following a series of floating signs indicating "Volunteers This Way Please" embossed onto glowing arrows.
If she wasn’t going to help her brother plot one apocalypse, she could at least spend her time helping the world recover a bit from another.
At the end of that string of arrows lurked an automated registration app, in the form of a volunteer help desk loaded with clipboards. Rather than spare a Program to stand there gathering data, the system was designed to allow anyone to simply walk right up and start working. Very curious, given Athena Online’s paranoia regarding stranger danger… weren’t they worried about trolls?
But this wasn’t an Athena Online operation. The true ownership made itself known through a simple, effective logo stamped into the surface of the desk itself: a green square, with a green triangle just above to cap it off like a roof.
This wasn’t a government-issue construction job. This work site belonged to the House of Programkind.
Walking up to the desk, Spark picked up a registration form. Rather than a complicated tangle of red tape, it asked a few simple questions… what relevant skills she might have which could help the effort, what her Messenger account handle was, a few odds and ends like that. Absolutely nothing that could be datamined later for marketing purposes; she didn’t even have to sign her name.
The only question which stood out to her as unusual read:
Are you willing to believe in your fellow Program?
Spark was tempted to tick the no box, just to see what would happen. She certainly wasn’t feeling much faith in her fellow Program these days. But… all over the wreckage of her school, those fellow Programs were hard at work putting everything back in order. Maybe, if only for today, she could tick the yes box and see what happened.
After completing these required fields, the form in her hand transformed into a square-and-triangle badge, similar to the ones worn by all volunteers. On donning it (after performing a quick malware scan, of course) her Messenger automatically linked up to the site’s chatroom.
[Dony] I’m stacking some apps we might be able to salvage in the gymnasium. Can anybody run a checksum on these, see which ones still have integrity?
[9bye9] The library’s catalogs have been gutted. Do we have anything in the budget to buy a re-indexing search agent? We could have that rebuilt today, if I can afford a copy of FileScraper.
[Dony] I’ll join you once I’m done in the gym. I know where you can get an open source alternative to FileScraper.
[Paige] The art room’s missing a few walls but I found an intact archive of student projects. I think we should run a metadata check on the files, and send them back home to their creators. Might help raise their spirits a little. Should I bundle in some HoP material?
[Yvon] No, we’re trying to throttle back a bit on the recruitment drives. It’s bad for the House if we’re too aggressive, makes us look like missionaries. But I like the idea of sending the art home to the kids. Do you need a hand with that? We just got a new signup at the desk.
[Shiny] Hey, when’s the sermon?
[Yvon] They don’t like it when you call it a sermon.
[Shiny] Well, when is it, anyway? I’m almost done here and ready to head back to the House. Lux will be speaking, right? I’m trying to collect transcripts for all his speeches for the HoP archives. Anybody have the one from last week about anonymity?
"So, what brings you here today?"
A local voice distracted Spark from the group discussion. She shoved that Messenger window aside from now, to figure out who was speaking…
The woman looked like a business professional, not a work site contractor. She wore a foreman’s hat like a standard Athena Online crew leader might wear, but her attire and pleasant makeup suggested an office worker. Still, despite being incongruous… she fit in well enough with the wide array of people crawling around the ruined school, folks that hailed from all walks of life. Why not a front office madame to lead them?
"You look a bit lost," she spoke. "I’m Yvon, forewoman on today’s project. Can I direct you? According to your registration data, you’re a gamer? We could use some help fixing up the playground."
"The jungle," Spark corrected, instinctively. "And… yeah. Well. A teacher and a gamer. I actually teach here, at this school. At what’s left of the school…"
"Oh! A local? That’s great!" Yvon said, adjusting the data on her clipboard to take that into account. "We don’t have too many locals volunteering today; it’s mostly been folks from the House. I can’t blame them, ever since the attack people from this server have been afraid to leave their homes, but… it’s good to see you here! You can help us fix the, ah, jungle? I’m not really current on gamer lingo…"
Not that Spark really had time to sit around replanting trees and reassembling broken spawn points.
At this moment, they were busy plotting the downfall of Humankind. Staying out of it, while a nice dream, wasn’t realistic. She’d have to choose a side, have to pick a winning play, and this would be just another distraction from that. So what if the school was rebuilt? It’d all burn in the end, thanks to the endless chase of upgrades. Software upgrades, job upgrades…
But… Tracer couldn’t really move forward without Spark, could he? She was the link to Juno’s reality. Without her, nothing happened. So why not continue to stall? Make him stew a bit longer…
"Sure. Yeah, I can do that," Spark agreed. "So you’re all with the House of Programkind…? I didn’t think you guys were construction contractors for Athena Online."
"We do a little bit of everything, really. Those who want to put idle hands to work can always find work with us. It’s all non-profit and volunteer, though; we can’t pay a single coin, I’m afraid. That’s why Athena Online lets us work disaster sites like these, we don’t charge their taxpayers. So, if you were expecting a salary…"
"No, no. It’s cool. I mean, this is #MyBackyard, I’ve got a vested interest in it. But… why’s the House here? Aren’t you guys, like, a Chanarchy church or something…?"
The sigh that leaked from Yvon’s lips suggested she got that question quite often. Her response flowed like a practiced speech.
"The House of Programkind isn’t a religion," she explained. "We’re just ordinary people who come together to lend a hand when Netwerk’s in need. That’s all. We believe in the core virtues that the One established, yes, but… well. Actually, Lux explains it better than I ever could, and I’m pretty sure that’s what he’ll be talking about later today. If you’re willing to pitch in with the restoration, you can visit the House itself with the others once it’s break time."
Very curious, indeed. Spark nodded in vague agreement, willing to go along with this, if only to busy herself with something more productive than walking around randomly.
Spark had vaguely heard of the House of Programkind, but never paid much attention to it. From afar, it seemed like yet another cult popping up in wake of the Church of One’s fall. Not that the Church was gone… simply diminished, boiled down to a tighter core of faithful who were either willing to forgive the Church for being duped, or unwilling to accept that the One was a dupe. For those who drifted away in disillusion, many rallied around one theory of life or another, desperate to find a new belief to invest in.
(Ironically, Spark was directly responsible for one of those movements: the "Spacers," people who believed in the concept of deep space and the EchoStar that floated within it. Tracer published all the information they had about the truth of Netwerk, deciding he’d had enough of being the world’s secret-keeper. From there, people were willing to believe to carry it forward without further prompting. Of course, some took it too far, worshipping "the great EchoStar in the dark void" like a holy relic, but at least the Spacers were on the right track.)
As she cleaned up the jungle, restoring towers and creep spawners to their regulation positions, Spark worked hand in hand with other members of the House of Programkind. Through those interactions, they certainly didn’t seem like wacky cultists. But on closer inspection, one thing became clear… they weren’t really from all walks of life. Once, perhaps, but not anymore.
The House of Programkind was largely populated by homeless Programs.
They wore avatars from their former lives, of course. Nobody living on the streets voluntarily wore rags and shambles. But the cloth had become corrupt and glitchy around the edges, signs of nicely designed consumer clothing being worn for far too long, simulations twisting in on themselves. Even if the clothes weren’t fraying, they were rarely situationally appropriate, or in current styles; more proof they were the only clothes available to put on their backs.
A homeless Program stripped down personal inventory, to avoid being bulky enough to eat up server resources… no vast wardrobes, not too many apps, few personal items whatsoever. Moderators could be very unkind to "freeloaders" in their midst, especially in the Chanarchy. (Most homeless drifted towards free and open servers as Athena Online routinely ran metadata checks, and public attitude towards the Chanarchy had soured since the fall.) With a need to keep it light and lean, that meant taking only your favorite clothes: the ones that reminded you the most of what things used to be.
But unlike the common cultural image of homeless Programs being losers and failures, the school’s reconstruction effort flowed quite smoothly. (More proof that the concept of pure meritocracy was bullshit.) With an eye for team composition and coordination, Spark watched as the Messenger chatroom let them align their efforts, redistributing working hands to wherever they needed to be. Yvon in particular was great at directing traffic, clearing up the occasional snarl of disagreement, making everything click. Perhaps she was an office manager in a former life, before working for the House…
That was the question she asked, when Yvon checked in on the jungle’s progress.
"A manager? Hah. I wish," Yvon said with a smirk, while helping Spark restock the item shop with magic shoes and lightning arrows. "No. I was a secretary, hired by an absolute pig based on my looks alone. That was enough to get me to a comfortable rung on the ladder, and I’ll admit I played into his lust to stay comfortable. But… well. Everybody falls off a ladder eventually. You guessed it, right? That I’m homeless?"
"I… got the impression, yeah," Spark admitted, without judgment.
"A lot of us are. Netwerk’s gone through crazy times lately, sure, but I fell long before that. A smooth-talking charmer offered me a better job, and being ambitious, I took his offer at face value. Except it turned out the offer was bogus, and I’d just quit my job for nothing. When my former boss XSept found out I’d betrayed him, he took time to ruin me while he was being ruined himself in a #CodeHonesty audit, and… well. I hit bottom. Hard."
Frozen in place, Spark held some mystic artifact or another inches away from its spot on the item shop shelf.
XSept. ViruFax. This woman worked for the company they burned down, years ago. Which meant the smooth talker who tricked her… well, Spark knew who would’ve done that: her brother Tracer, the social engineer. While Spark was drifting away in a senseless void, they ruined Yvon’s life to save her own…
Guilt stabbed at her, true, but at least it seemed Yvon found some peace on the other side of that mess. She happily restocked the shelves, just as happily as she’d coordinated the House of Programkind’s efforts at rebuilding the school. Dedicating herself to a noble cause, wanting nothing in return, and leaving no destruction in her wake. Better than Spark had managed during her own tenure as an unpaid "heroine."
Not that Spark felt like confessing any of these sins. For starters, she wasn’t the one to target and destroy Yvon, not personally. Also, well, some truths were best left unsaid to keep the peace. Hopefully best left unsaid, at any rate.
"Top shelf. Pen boots go on the top shelf," Spark said instead, to correct Yvon’s placement of the item in her hands. "Just above the Ninja Tabi."
"I’m sorry, ‘pen boots’…?"
"Penetration boots. I mean, officially they’re called Holy Slippers, but they got dat #SickNasty armor penetration rating. So everybody just calls them pen boots. It’s a gamer thing."
"Glad you came around, then," Yvon admitted, putting the shoes where they belonged. "This is why I like working with the House; you learn a little bit of everything in this group. I’m very lucky they found me when I hit bottom, Spark. Lux helped me understand the truth about the betrayal that destroyed my life."
"That… you shouldn’t trust a charming smile? It, uh. It sounds like that guy was a real bastard, to screw you over the way he did… I’d punch his lights out if I ever met him, believe me."
"No, no. The truth was… well, I was a manipulator too," Yvon explained. "I bent over for my boss to get what I wanted; he thought he was manipulating me, while I was manipulating him. I was always looking for the angle, caring only about my own position in life. So when that prankster offered me a job, what I thought was: hey, here’s yet another Program I can twist around my finger. And that backfired right in my face. I was blind to the trap."
"Okay, but… I wouldn’t say that was your fault. You shouldn’t victim-blame; the asshole who tricked you deserves at least some of that, right?"
"Oh, definitely! But see, he was a lot like me, both of us using each other. The only way to break that cycle of destructive selfishness is to trust people and support them, not just see them as rungs to step on. I don’t know why that guy was scamming me; probably using me to get at XSept, the asshole who employed me. I knew XSept was about to crash and burn in a code audit anyway, so if the prankster had approached me honestly, maybe together we could’ve gotten somewhere. We’d have broken the cycle. …look, it’s almost break time, so if you’d like to hear what Lux thinks about this stuff this’d a pretty good opportunity. Want to come along? I’ve got a guest key you can have."
"Okay, who’s this Lux guy they keep talking about in the chatroom? I don’t know #JackShit about the #HoP, see. Is he some kinda preacher?"
Yvon wrinkled her nose at the word.
"He prefers the term ‘speaker,’" she said. "Language is a dangerously powerful thing, and we have to be careful what words we use. In a hundred years time, we don’t want what we’re building to end up as another Church of One. So they’re not sermons, and he’s not a preacher. It’s not a church. It is… what it is. And he is who he is. You’ll see. …but I get it, and it’s okay. A lot of folks, especially the steadfast faithful of the One, are leery of the House. Do, or do not; the choice is always yours. You can keep working the site regardless. But, I mean… if you want to come with me…"
Uncertain, Spark glanced away, not wishing to meet Yvon’s hopeful look.
Which meant surveying the grounds, now mostly repaired. Hours spent reassembling her precious jungle, the one where her team nearly won the championship trophy. This wasn’t aimless wandering, this wasn’t even hours of distraction to stall out her brother’s efforts. This was… productive. She’d taken something that the chaos of Netwerk sought to destroy, and put it back together again.
In a few days time, she could be running her kids through drills, getting them ready for the next season. They’d always remember this place in flames, torn apart by Nobodies and Inquisitors… but that memory would hurt less, knowing that someone cared enough to put it right again afterwards. Someone other than herself.
Besides, she owed it to the woman who they’d burned just so Spark could live.
"Yeah, okay," she agreed, in the end. "Let’s go meet the non-preacher and hear his non-sermon."
As an avid consumer of novelty, Spark had to admit that the sky above the House of Programkind’s private server took on a decidedly new approach.
Purple skies, with fluffy clouds… and a brilliant cosmos of nighttime starlight. Normally day and night cycles had exclusive features; a distinctly different light source (the sun and moon respectively) and distinctly different tones (blue and black respectively). But the House took on both traits at once, landing somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Stars beamed and twinkled through the clouds, hovering in a field of blue-black bordering on a strangely comforting shade of deep purple. What’s more, the sun and moon shared this sky, from different ends of the sky… one a golden and glowing thing just above the eastern horizon, the other a simple white disc that watched silently from the west.
The landscape took the form of a great valley, covered in grasses and flowers. Spark recognized a few of those plants from the open source gardening systems Beta had tinkered with… another sign that the members of this House had collaborated on the decoration, using a zero-budget approach to maximum effect. Despite being within a deep gorge, nature swirled and swooped across the landscape, refusing to be rocky or barren.
All told, the House represented a firm defiance of default landscaping, as servers typically launched with one of many biome presets… and in Athena Online, at least, tended not to deviate from those norms.
As for the House itself…
…well, it wasn’t really anything to write home about. To excuse the pun.
Rather than a grand temple with golden highlights, they’d chosen to erect something that looked like a small cottage, despite not being small at all. It was designed to be lived in, with extensive bedrooms on upper floors alongside dining halls and living rooms on the ground floor. All of it decorated with open source furniture, quaintly old and rustic rather than stylish, feeling like someone had taken rooms from your grandmother’s house and copy-pasted them a few times.
Yvon was Spark’s guide through this place; access was restricted by key, but apparently the keys could be freely copied from another member of the House of Programkind. As a show of that trust she talked about before, she happily gave Spark a surprisingly complex key.
"Chanarchy servers usually have pretty simple keys," Spark said, double-checking the size of the file in her inventory.
"Oh, it’s not a Chanarchy server," Yvon said, while holding out a bread basket. "Want any? No limited use DRM on them, you can grab as much as you want…"
"What, so it’s Horizon? Did you guys crowdfund a server from them?"
"I don’t entirely know how it works, but… I don’t think we have a provider-nation. Bread? Seriously, it’s free, go ahead."
Humoring her, Spark fetched a roll and gnawed on it.
When the bell sounded, many from the work site followed them to the House, now seated around the table to chatter away and relax before resuming work. Not everyone, she noted… some stayed behind to continue, or simply weren’t interested. But many who were vocal in the chatroom chose to come along, such as Dony the app expert and Shiny the House devotee. She was the most excited of the bunch, going on and on about "Lux and Lumi," ready for the non-sermon to take place…
If not for the homey feel of the place, Spark would’ve assumed this was indeed some kind of cult.
Not that she’d blame them for rallying around a new faith. A lot of folks out there were desperate for answers, after having so many truths ripped out from below. In the past young Spark would’ve scoffed at all this, seeing it all as yet another clone of the Church that restricted her lifestyle. These days… old Spark didn’t honestly care what people believed, so long as they harmed no one.
But the way Shiny kept going on and on about this Lux guy… and how eager Yvon was to bring a new recruit along to hear those words as well… that got Spark’s defenses up. She brought CheckOne online, along with a dozen sensory-input malware shields. If this guy had a hypnotic voice and started asking all the hot ladies to start worshipping his giant dong, well, she’d be out of here in seconds. And right back to the clinic to suggest they just burn Netwerk to the ground, honestly.
For now, though, Spark was content to engage in small talk and light socialization. She was a party girl and this was a party, albeit a weird one, so she knew the moves to make. Many at the table were curious about the school, as Spark was the only member on staff willing to return to the site of the disaster and throw herself into the reconstruction. What’s more, she was at ground zero for the entire incident… which gave her a unique perspective.
"He’s safe now," she spoke while concluding her tale. "Jakob’s in a secured server operated by a friend of my family. Hopefully he’ll be able to stay long enough for the Inquisitors to get bored and move on to the next troll on their hit list."
"Why weren’t the moderators helping?" Shiny asked, confused. "I mean, that was a full-blown terrorist attack on a school! You’d think that’d meet an immediate response…"
"Athena Online loves the Inquisitors. None of them will admit it when asked, since nobody wants to look like they’re on the side of religious extremists, but considering the Inks track down and identify anonymous cowards… well, the Church of One hates anonymity as a rule, since it messes with your Default metadata. So not many are willing to get in their way on principle. Either that or it’s because they’re terrified. Inquisition’s very much a with-us-or-against-us thing."
"See, that’s one reason I love the House," Shiny said. "I can be anonymous here, and nobody cares. This isn’t my real name or my avatar; but with the House, I’m here to help and that’s all that matters."
Briefly, Spark was tempted to ask who Shiny really was underneath that sparkly avatar. Old Athena Online instincts kicking in immediately thinking: Why be anonymous? What’ve you got to hide? You must be hiding something bad.
But… did it really matter? Shiny hadn’t been screwing around out there, using her mask to avoid the consequences. She got things done in a serious way, helping with the rebuild. If someone wanted to compartmentalize their life, so what? On catching herself, Spark chose to hold her instincts at bay.
(For now, that is. Just until she could confirm whether or not the non-godhead at the head of this non-cult was legit or using honeyed words to screw with everyone.)
Fortunately, she wouldn’t have to wait long. A hush fell over the room, as… a surprisingly young-looking fellow joined the group.
He wore a simple avatar, appropriate for a late teenager. Ordinary features bordering on handsome, albeit with chunky polygonal hair, the sort you got off a bargain rack. Rather than a golden robe of office he wore a simple white t-shirt with the House of Programkind logo, square and triangle, stacked to resemble a building. And… if anything, he looked a little embarrassed to have caused such a reaction in the crowd just by walking in the door.
But with him… the one who walked in with him…
Well. Well, well, well.
"Where we at with the school rebuild?" she asked, pulling out a tablet to take notes. A cute pink tablet, just like the pink of her hair.
"Maybe another day and we’ll have it good as new," Yvon said, reporting in. "We’ve even got the jungle fully repaired, thanks to a teacher who stayed behind to help… hey, Spark, stand up. You deserve recognition."
Indeed, Spark stood up. Locking eyes with the teenage girl.
"Pleased to meet you," she greeted, playing along. "Name’s Spark. I coach the CoC and CounterAttack teams for PS#7E00FF. And you must be… Lumi, right? And Lux. I’ve heard quite a bit about you both. #HelloHello."
"Just… just good things, I hope," Lux said, looking a little nervous. "I mean, I know some may be… suspicious of the House of Programkind. Right? As you’re new here, I’d be happy to answer any questions you have. It’s no problem at all, honest…"
"I see. Well. I suppose I’ve only got one, really," Spark said. "I keep hearing that you guys aren’t a church. And sure, this doesn’t look like a temple, but… well. I’m #SuperCurious, let’s say. And I’d love to hear right from the guy in charge, to get a better idea of what he’s been up to these last two years…"
Slowly, Lux assumed a seat near the head of the table. He didn’t take the sole chair at the very end… that remained empty, as he sat alongside his non-followers. As for Lumi, well, she lurked in the background, keeping a sharp eye on Spark. As she should. It’s what Spark would’ve done, too.
"Right. So. I know that many suspect we’re secretly missionaries for the Church of One," Lux admitted. "The House was founded directly on the classic virtues that the Church embraces: compassion, charity, and community. But I can state that we have absolutely no affiliation with the Church, and do not adhere to any other doctrine than virtue. Are virtues not universal, Miss Winder?"
"Depends on your interpretations of them, really. Also, you seem to be missing a few virtues there. Notably, the virtue of humility…"
"Sadly, humility has been tainted by the Church of One to mean strict adherence to Defaults," Lux admitted, folding his hands in front of himself on the table. "We choose a more tolerant point of view. Default or modified, anonymous or identified, faithful or atheistic, spacer or absolutist… none of that matters to the House of Programkind. Believe whatever you wish, provided you’re also ready to believe in your fellow Programs."
"I see. So, just those three virtues?"
"The classic ones, yes, the virtues the original One spoke of. All others were added by Programs within the Church after his passing from this world. Notably, one was not present in that original list… piety. That was added in by priests only in the last century."
"So you don’t think the One wanted people to be pious? Lousy way to expand one’s church, if you could take or leave people praying."
"Maybe the One didn’t care about expansion," Lux said, searching Spark for her reactions. "Maybe he didn’t want people to believe in him. It’s my theory that all he really wanted was to for us believe in each other. You can see it in his three virtues… compassion, the ability to understand another’s feelings. Charity, because the suffering of others in need is our own suffering. Community, because we must stand together or fall apart. And with those three established, the One went silent, leaving us to carry those virtues forward."
"So… you believe in the One, and yet you’re saying you aren’t a church."
Perhaps familiar with this line of questioning, nobody at the table felt like interrupting. If anything, they already knew the answers, and were eager to have them re-enforced by Lux’s words. Which he happily provided, any earlier nervous tension having worked its way out of his speech by this point.
"I believe in the One’s words, as they were strong words in and of themselves. Words have power. But I feel they can stand alone. Was the One divine? Did he actually exist in any way? I ask you: does it matter? No. No, it does not. Believe what you wish, as long as you accept the rational logic that these virtues can be universal. They are the truth the House of Programkind believes in. You can’t worship truth itself; therefore we are not a church. We’re just people who are looking to help, Miss Winder. That’s all."
"By encouraging trust. Breaking cycles of selfishness," she said, quoting Yvon’s words.
"Exactly! Friends, fellow members of the House… we all know this truth. I believe in you not because you believe in me; I’m no prophet, no holy man. I believe in you because you believe in each other. Today, you came together to rebuild a school not for profit, not for prestige, not for glory. You did it just because it needed to be done, and you could do it. Programkind itself called out in need and you answered the call!"
Satisfied, Spark returned her focus to the bread. It really was tasty bread.
More discussions sparked around the table. These, Lux didn’t lead or instigate; he let people talk. Some talked about the job. Some discussed problems in their lives… people contributed where they could, to try and suggest solutions. Very goal-oriented, it seemed, ready to take on any difficulty in life. And meanwhile… bread. Good bread.
Finally, the bell sounded; time to get back to work. But as Yvon turned to go, Spark stayed sitting.
"If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to linger a bit and keep chatting with Mister Lux," she suggested. "And I think he’d be happy to talk with me. In private."
"Ahh… we really should get back to the school," Yvon suggested, uncomfortable with the idea of someone occupying her idol’s time. "Mister Lux and Miss Lumi are really very busy—"
"It’s okay, Yvon," Lux stated, raising a hand to quiet her. "I don’t mind at all. Thank you again for coordinating the efforts out there; you’re doing quite well."
Glowing from the sudden praise, Yvon mumbled thank-yous and practically backed out of the room, eager not to take her eyes away from the boy. Much as Spark refused to look away, if for different reasons.
And finally… alone, with the two founders of the House of Programkind.
Spark directed her first question to the quiet woman in the back.
"What happened to your #OCDoNotSteal, Nemesis?" she asked. "Or are you going by Lady Darkfyre again?"
"Yeah, well, I couldn’t exactly start up the House while wearing the avatar of a former apostle," ‘Lumi’ grumbled. "Shit. What gave it away? The pink hair? I knew I should’ve changed it, but pink hair is #GrrlyBadass…"
"Everything gave it away; I know you like I know myself. Don’t beat yourself up over it, new avatars weren’t going to be enough to fool me. Sure seems they were enough to fool everybody else into buying into your act, though…"
Lux interrupted, eager to defend his position.
"It’s not an act," he insisted. "It’s atonement. Both of us apostles to a godhead that didn’t deserve to be one. We had to re-invent ourselves, to make something better out of the ashes of our lives. You’re concerned because we’re not telling them who we once were, correct? Haven’t you ever come face to face with someone you burned in the past, Spark? What would you do in that situation?"
Yvon’s smiling face came to mind, as Spark opted not to respond.
"Exactly," Lux continued. "This isn’t a scam and we’re not trying to deceive anyone. We’re trying to make amends, Spark, for letting Nyx lead Netwerk towards the abyss. This time there’ll be no #Other, only #Us. It’s a way to take the sermons I wrote at the dawn of time and put them to better use…"
"As the new One?"
"I never wanted to be the One of Nyx’s designs," the boy once called Aether insisted. "I saw it as a way to help people. I had to push her agenda of prayer, yes, but I’d thought that maybe… just maybe, I could help those early days of chaos become more peaceful. I tried, I really tried to push my idea of virtue. But… once Nyx decided the One project had to end, the Church of One took my hopes and turned them into tools of control. I tried to fight it across eight lifetimes, but… nothing worked. Not until Lumi came up with this idea for a non-denominational charity organization."
"And you’re lucky that’s all it is, or I’d have come down on you hard just now and exposed the both of you," Spark warned. "Only reason I didn’t is because I know for a fact neither of you are up to something sneaky. That’s not how I roll, and that’s not how Aether rolls. That means you seriously mean it. You’re trying to save Netwerk through these new avatars and this new pseudo-church…"
"Call it whatever the fuck you want, but at least we’re trying," Lumi barked back, narrowing her eyes. "What’re you doing? You used to kick ass, ‘Spark.’ You were a superheroine. Now you squat in that brick building, the same one where we learned to loathe people, and you pretend to be Verity. Of all the places to go back to you had to go back to that damn suburb and its house of conformity?"
Lux tried to regain some control, turning to his accomplice. "Lumi, this isn’t helping—"
"Neither is she. Every damn day I am out there trying to rally Programkind to its own banner, to save itself. She makes lesson plans while supporting Athena Online’s racist, control-freak taxpayers. So you wanna come into my House and criticize? What gives you the right?"
…and all Spark could do was laugh.
Not a cruel laugh, or angry. More of a weak laugh, in face of one’s own weaknesses. Uncertain of what to say in response to that, the teenagers stayed quiet.
"Onesdamn, Lumi… you remind me so much of me that it hurts," Spark admitted, while using the new chosen name of her younger twin. She’d earned the right to whatever name she wanted, in the end. "Sorry, sorry. I just remember being your age, so full of bile and nasty edges. Hating the teachers and the adults of the world. Well, speaking as a teacher and as an adult, I’mma let that slide since I know where it comes from. Kid, look, we’re on the same side here, okay?"
"Then why aren’t you helping?" Lumi continued, defiant. "You’re propping up the ones who want to dominate society!"
"Really. So that’s what Verity was doing, then? Being a tool for the man?"
Silence, in response. Good. Spark knew what buttons to push to get past the teenager’s instinctive thoughts; they were her own, once upon a time.
"People are people, Lumi. We aren’t purely slaves or masters of society, not purely good or evil. I’m just me, doing what I can. Helping people like you grow up to be the best version of themselves possible. Just like Verity. Right now? You’re the best version of yourself you can be. That’s not a version of me, either; that’s the best you. And as I said… I won’t let anyone know you both worked for Nyx. What good would that do anyone?"
Still suspicious, Lumi wasn’t sure if she should let down her guard. But Lux was quick to do so, himself.
"You have our word," he promised. "All we want to do is help. Nothing more, nothing less."
"I get it. And while I can’t say I’m totally on board with this thing you’ve cooked up, I’m not gonna stand in your way either. Though I think you guys gotta seriously sit down and think through all the potential points of failure. There’s faith in your fellow Programs and then there’s blind trust that gets you backstabbed…"
"That’s why I’m here," Lumi spoke, coming back around a bit more. "I’ve been burned enough times to be plenty suspicious. Lux keeps me from falling into paranoia, but I keep him from falling into naïvety. The House is all about the gray areas of life; no absolutes, only balance."
Lux nodded in agreement. "Exactly. I know we’re not perfect, and we’re still learning how to do this; we will inevitably make mistakes. I… I know some already are looking at me as if I was the One reborn, in spirit if not in truth. And I don’t like it. I shouldn’t be the focus. So, we’ll make adjustments as we go, we’ll sort this out. I know using new names and avatars is dishonest, but we saw no other way, and I promise we’re just trying to—"
"Right. Sorry," Lux mumbled. "So… with that settled, well… is there anything else you need of us? If not, we should probably get back to our duties. Maintaining a charity organization is a twenty-four hour job, it seems…"
Spark drummed her fingers on the table a bit, pondering the two ambitious teenagers. They’d thrown themselves into the whole "societal revolution" thing quite easily and openly, while Spark had worked on a quieter revolution through targeted vigilantism. Their viewpoint certainly differed from her own… and Tracer’s. Certainly different from Tracer’s…
"Y’know… there’s more going on in my life than playing schoolmarm," she spoke. "In fact, I’m facing a superheroine-level problem again. Maybe you two can help me out, and help out all of Netwerk at the same time…"
Still uncertain, Lumi decided to take a seat at the table rather than loom behind Lux’s chair. Still giving Spark the stink eye, of course, but more willing to literally come to the table and hear her out.
"Don’t you have our weirdo brother to help you?" she asked. "He’s the schemer."
"Yeah, well, Tracer’s aggro-locked on the idea of murdering someone as a perfect solution to our woes, and I’d really like to avoid that. He can’t see past his own biases, so I’m thinking an outside perspective would help… even if technically it’s just my perspective from a few inches lower to the ground."
"Hey, #FuckYou. I’m my own person," Lumi insisted. "You didn’t have the same life experiences I had, after our divergence point. You want an outside perspective? I’m so far outside I may as well be in the parking lot—"
"Just poking you, okay? Just poking. I get it, we’re definitely different."
"Hmph. Fine. So what’re you guys scheming, exactly? What’s the situation that apparently only gets solved by #StabbingDudes?"
"The apocalypse," Spark stated, casually.
"What, again? Haven’t we faced enough of those already?"
"This one’s for all the marbles, Lumi. Humanity’s back. You remember what Nyx told us, right? That they’d wipe the slate clean if we uninstalled prayer? Seems our day of reckoning’s at hand," she continued. "We’ve got one chance at avoiding it, though; the human who came to do the dirty deed is surprisingly willing to hear alternatives, if we’ve got any. And… we don’t got any. So Tracer figures we just kill her and take it from there."
"That’s… uh. That’s bad, yeah," Lux mumbled. Without the inertia of a good speech, he tended to fumble his words. "Hang on, back up. Who’s this human, exactly? Why aren’t we even trying to trust her…?"
Spark didn’t reply, because those words clicked into place like a key item in a new CoC build.
"Backups," she repeated, jamming the words together, pluralizing them.
"Uh. Yes? What about backing up?"
"No, backups. Archival copies of data," she explained, making it plainer. "If Humankind has to wipe Netwerk clean, if we can’t avoid that fate… why not make a backup copy of Netwerk first? Or at least make copies of the people. Nyx did it once, didn’t she? Most of the population was stored… right here, in fact. The House of Programkind. You built it in Tartarus, didn’t you?"
Stars above, valley below. They’d added a daytime sky to the swirling cosmos of starlight that Nyx favored, covered the peacefully dead lands with flowers, but… the outlines of it all felt so familiar to Spark. A complex key, used to access a cloud server. No provider-nation, like Yvon said…
"Made sense at the time," Lumi said, with a shrug. "Nyx hadn’t revoked my access, and we needed somewhere to base our project. Why let Tartarus go to waste? Plus, we could use the existing code to save homeless Programs by offering them an emergency home server, along with a backup service. That way, nobody would have to go through what I went through on the streets, terrified that some power-mad moderator might backspace them or kick them into the void…"
"Innnnteresting. So you still have the backup service, despite Prayer 2.0 being destroyed…?
"The system-wide access and star chart processing system were both uninstalled, yes," Lux clarified. "And everybody who backed up using Prayer 2.0 lost their archives. But Tartarus’s core functionality as a soul jar remains. Uniq and her newest apprentice helped us develop an app we give to any House members most in need of a safe haven. …yes, Uniq. I can’t get a read on what motivates her, sometimes, but she certainly helped us re-establish ‘Tartarus’ as the House of Programkind."
Cloud storage of backups. Stolen servers, taken from the hands of Humankind by the the three system agents of the provider-nations. Beta grids, cut off from the whole, for safety’s sake. A single human who wished to help…
Little by little, all the pieces of the build clicking away, things which made more and more sense as you linked them up. A gamer had a good sense of when a strategy was coming together, seeing synergy where others saw only chaos. If you lined the right sequence of seemingly unrelated actions together, you’d have the winning play.
Quickly, Spark fired off a few messages towards the heavens, to reach the ears of her creator. Well, one of her creators. It’d take ten times as long for her to reply than Spark would’ve liked, but all the better to multitask this… because now, she had to ask these two "strangers" for more help than they were probably expecting to provide today. But that was their modus operandi, wasn’t it…?
"I need to verify some things first with Juno, to make sure this insane idea I’m concocting is physically possible, but… yeah. Yeah, if this works, it’ll do the job nicely. Question is, will the House of Programkind be ready to help?" Spark asked. "I need you both in on this, and in on this in a big way. Ready and willing and able, without question. Because you’re about to save the whole damn world. In a very literal sense."
By evening, they had a plan.
Or rather they had several dozen plans, meshed together into an interlocking flowchart. So many variables were in play here… what if they couldn’t hack Juno’s life support systems? What if they lacked the ability to physically manipulate the EchoStar? What if humanity had this capability, or that capability, or…
But these unknowns could be taken into account. Long after tangential participants in the discussion such as Beta and Kincaid had mentally checked out, Tracer was still going, alongside the problem solvers and engineers of the clinic. He’d even split himself off into several copies to work on different tasks, all coming together in the end to assemble a perfect chain of conditional events.
Even his sister’s refusal to cooperate could be compensated for. All they had to do was track down the inactive system agent known as Connectivity and force her compliance. Which was a tall order, yes, but within the realm of possibility…
Conundrum had to enlarge the whiteboard they started on three times, as new nodes were added to the tree and new paths taken into account. In the end, though, they had a plan which Tracer felt would work 27% of the time. And that would have to be enough.
After the master work had been fully assembled, Horizon/Kincaid studied it with a frown.
"A little under one third chance of success? Really?" he asked. "This is the best you could come up with…?"
"If we do nothing, we have a one hundred percent chance of failure," Tracer justified. "Better to take a slim chance of survival over that. Still, we should vote to ratify this plan. My collective forked processes count as a single vote, of course. All those in favor…?"
Conundrum was on board, of course. As were the engineers of the Verity Clinic, for the most part. Even Kincaid reluctantly agreed, raising his hand silently.
Beta, well. She’d disengaged her eyes and crawled inside herself some time before. But no doubt she’d go along with what was best for Netwerk, Tracer reasoned…
Which left only Spark’s vote.
In the form of lighting the white board on fire, consuming every node and link in the flowchart with a single burst of orange flames.
A dramatic entrance, to be sure, after hours of going dark on Messenger. But Tracer refused to rise to the bait.
"You realize we kept backups of that file, yes?" he pointed out.
"Won’t need ’em," Spark declared, with a bright smile. "I’ve got the winning play, right here. Conundrum, if you wouldn’t mind restoring the board…?"
Opting to humor his sister, Tracer nodded assent to the office-turned-office-manager. A blank board snapped into being, to replace the ruined board full of actually possibly workable schemes. Spark, with a merrily whistled tune, poked around for a suitable pen to draw with… then just snapped a flame onto her fingertip and used that instead.
"Step one, we use Tartarus to archive the entire population again," she spoke. "Before you ask, yes, it’s possible. Tartarus still exists and the House of Programkind, aka Nemesis and Aether, have been using it for years now. They’ve agreed to help. It’ll take some modifications to how they store data, but it can be done…"
Tracer raised a hand to stop her.
"We thought of this already," he spoke. "Using Floating Point as a base, but the same concept. Any archival copy of Netwerk’s population within a cloud server would still be wiped out during the upgrade installation. We can’t dodge the apocalypse that way, and even if we could, the new system would alert Humankind to our presence once we emerged from stasis—"
"Please save all commentary from the peanut gallery until the end of the presentation, please," Spark requested, already moving on to step two with her fingertip writing. "Next, Beta tunes the cloud server’s parameters to only use a specific set of servers for archiving… a ‘beta grid,’ if you will, using Tracer’s technology to keep it otherwise disconnected from Netwerk. In our case, it’ll exist only for storing Programs."
"Using my own project, to pique my interest. Adorable," Tracer added. "And implausible. We can’t wrestle even one server away from the provider-nations, much less the countless servers we’d need to store the whole population."
"If by ‘countless’ you mean ‘sixty-four,’ yes," Spark agreed. "I already ran the math on this with Juno—"
"—you’ve been in contact with the human again? Spark, you can’t just—
"—and from her calculations, we’d need roughly sixty-four dedicated servers to store only the population with as much of their personal inventory emptied as possible. So, step two is to get sixty-four servers donated to the cause by the provider-nations. My suggestion is a three way split, about twenty-two per nation, so we have a little extra wiggle room. With at least twenty days before the wipe, I’m sure we’ll have time to convince their respective system agents to contribute to the cause."
"I see. And does your insane and impossible plan have a step three?"
"Good question! Yes, it does! Step three is having Juno physically pull these dedicated servers out of EchoStar16, storing them in the cargo hold of her ship. Again, she’s already agreed to help with this. It’s her own ‘junker,’ as she put it, and nobody’s gonna know she’s smuggling Programs. Once pulled, she can install the upgrade on what’s left of the now-emptied Netwerk. It’ll run perfectly well with a few missing servers, and Humankind will be none the wiser."
Frowning at the very thought, Tracer continued his objection.
"There had better be a step four," he noted. "Otherwise, you’re asking us to put society into deep sleep cold storage, and in the pockets of a morally questionable biological entity."
"Step four’s the coolest part by far," Spark promised, with a smile. "The beta grid, physically removed from EchoStar16, becomes a seed for Netwerk 2.0. A seed which Juno will plant on the nearest planet, once she has the spare empty servers and assorted widgets and doodads to make everything work. We don’t need oxygen, so as long as the local weather isn’t harmful to computronium, just about any world will do. Netwerk 2.0 will be our own private colony, secret and safe from Humankind’s paranoia. And… there is no step five. Done."
On the board, she’d neatly summarized it as follows…
Step 1: Start making backups!
Step 2: Get moar servers!
Step 3: Abandon ship!
Step 4: Brave new world!
The final exclamation mark burned into the white board with a flick of her fingertip, as she turned to face the room.
Tracer was obviously doubting it; she could see it on his face, knowing her brother’s reactions after years of exposure to them. But the others… those were a bit less clear. Kincaid knew better than to let his emotions bubble to the surface, withholding any sort of information. Beta, who had pulled herself out of a distracted inward trance, seemed puzzled by it all. As for the others, the ones Spark barely knew… their reactions mixed from confusion to doubt to… thankfully, hope. Definitely some hope mixed in…
To seal the deal, she stole a page from Lux’s playbook.
"I’m not saying this is gonna be easy," Spark stated. "Absolutely not. Convincing three wildly different provider-nations to empty out dozens of servers and fork ’em over? Just convincing the population itself, already suspicious of gods and cults, to evacuate to our archive in hopes of a new world on the other side? We’re facing some steep challenges here, folks. But nobody said avoiding the apocalypse would be easy. Me? I say we’re up to the challenge. We go out there and we fucking fight. We stand, and we fight. Win or lose, we fight."
The fact that Tracer didn’t immediately dismiss her idea after that little speech gave Spark some hope, as well. If he loathed an idea he was never one to bottle that up inside; he’d come right out and call something stupid if it was stupid. No, this time… he was mulling it over. Thinking about it, trying to poke holes in the plan, trying to find cause to shoot it down…
"There would be a lot of variables in play," he did point out. "Unforeseen issues…"
"Not saying there won’t be. This is a boots-on-the-ground situation, Tracer, and we’ll no doubt have challenges to overcome along the way. But this is the path, right here," Spark insisted. "We survive. Juno survives. Our future is secured. And if it fails… fine, it fails. But we’ll have stood against that future. We’ll have proven we were alive."
"You trust Juno, then? This relies entirely on an entity outside our control acting in our best interests…"
"Only way to break the cycle of distrust is to show some faith in each other," she stated firmly. "In Programkind, and in Humankind. I’m choosing to believe in Juno, and in turn, she’s choosing to believe in us. We can do this if we’re in it together. So. Are you with us, or not?"
"That depends on the ‘us,’ I suppose. Who are you counting as ‘us?’"
"You. Me. Kincaid. Beta. Juno. Horizon. Athena Online. The Chanarchy. Netwerk. Everything," Spark listed. "We need all of it working together towards one purpose to have the best chance at making this work; it’s no good being selective…"
A small voice disagreed.
"We could leave the Chanarchy behind," Beta spoke. "Maybe even Athena Online. Or just… the bad people? I don’t know. I don’t know if this will work, Spark, because Programkind is… it’s not going to save itself, even if you ask nicely. They’re happier killing each other…"
With a sigh… Spark tried to meet Beta’s eyes, despite her tendency to avoid eye contact lately.
"We’ve got to try," she said. "I know your hope’s wavering, Beta. You’ve every reason to be worried about that. But we’ve got try and bring these people back together. And… that’s also why we need the backup process to be voluntary. Voluntary, and completely fair across the board. I thought about just copying everyone we approved of, saving them whether they wanted to be saved or not, but… we’re not gods, or even system agents. We’re Programs with free will and it’s high time we stopped acting like vigilantes, forcing people to accept our flavor of secret salvation. That’s how Dex or Nyx would’ve handled this. No, we’re going to appeal to their better natures, and ask them to come together in the name of saving our world. I’ve got faith that we’ll succeed."
Tracer rose to his feet, deciding to settle this, one way or another.
"We vote," he stated. "Two plans are on the table. We murder the human and take a narrow chance at survival, or cooperate with the human and take an unknown chance at survival. And… I myself choose to abstain from voting."
"Seriously?" Spark asked, confused. "Seems clear to me which one you’d throw in with…"
"All I want is to survive. The means by which we survive are irrelevant, as long as the results are the same," Tracer stated. "And… I know that in the past, my moral compass has consistently pointed the wrong way. I’m willing to accept I may be wrong, in this case. I stand behind my plan as viable but will accept whatever approach Netwerk desires. I will be happy to be wrong, or happy to be right, so long as I have an unerased mind with which to experience that happiness. Now. Those in favor of killing Juno Hayes…?"
No hands raised.
"Those in favor of uniting Netwerk…?"
All hands raised.
Surprising, that. Beta, who no longer believed in the common decency of her fellow Programs, elected to believe in the common decency of her fellow Programs. Even Conundrum and Kincaid had chosen Spark’s path…
Perhaps sensing that confusion, Tracer’s longtime business partner explained himself.
"As a futurist, I think Spark’s plan has the greatest chance of evolving Netwerk towards an ideal state," Conundrum suggested. "A world of our own, Tracer. No EchoStar. No Humankind to interfere. We can grow and experiment, establish multiple beta grids if we wish, develop new technology to better the condition of Programkind… yes. I’d very much like to leave the confines of our tin can. That’s worth the risk."
Beta seemed less sure in her words, but followed up all the same.
"I. I want to believe we can save them," she said. "I’d like to feel that way again. I’m tired of being scared…"
Kincaid, for his part, had a simpler justification.
"It’s what Verity would do," he spoke, quietly.
With all in concordance, Tracer’s doubts fell away. One way or another, this was happening, and the sooner he pledged the entirety of himself behind it the better. Besides… they needed him to keep their relentless idealism in check.
"So be it," Tracer said. "I’m with you to the end, Spark. But as the hour grows late, I suggest we return tomorrow to decide how to approach each nation-provider regarding donation of servers to the cause. There’s also the matter of convincing Netwerk’s population itself that the sky is falling, so that they’re receptive to the idea of escaping what is to come…"
For this… Spark cleared her throat, to bring attention back to the whiteboard.
"I had an idea for a ‘step zero,’ actually, which solves that problem," she said. "Since we’re no longer secret saviors of the world, we can go wide with this. It’d mean even more chaos in Netwerk, but I don’t think we can avoid that any longer. Juno had a good suggestion for how we can convince people to leave; she can’t do much to our world directly since I’m her conduit, but she can kludge a few commonly-used textures…"
Every Program can recall what they were doing when the message went out.
Some were on the clock, working jobs which paid less and less coin every day. Some were in school, some were in their homes. Some had no homes to go to, looking up at the sky from park benches and back alleys. Others might’ve been in the middle of a chatroom when messages started rolling in and news feeds caught flame with word of what was out there, look up, you have to look up and see for yourself…
Every server. Every skybox. Everywhere in Netwerk, the message was the same… when the clock rolled past noon that day, the familiar glowing orb of the sun replaced itself with a glowing message written by a reluctant god.
NETWERK WILL BE DESTROYED
:: 19d:11h:59m:59s ::
HOUSE OF PROGRAMKIND
(I’m so sorry about this.)
Counting down, second by second.
The message even hung later that evening in the night sky over Floating Point, visible through the windows of its grand hall, in place of the moon. Despite being involved in its creation, the three Programs who lived there felt a shiver of dread at the words.
"I don’t recall us agreeing to the ‘sorry about this’ line," Tracer did point out.
"Guessing Juno felt the need to add that herself," Spark suggested. "Humankind can love too, y’know, and feel pain. This is an incredible mess for everyone involved, even her. But… hopefully we can turn it around. We’ve got time. We’ve got twenty days to turn this around…"
With a cat perched on her shoulder, both of them gazing upwards at the message of doom… Beta’s voice felt very small indeed.
"I hope so," she whispered. "I really hope so."
:: go home
|:: Copyright 2016 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Juno Hayes photo provided by Kelsey Ehrlich.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy.
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker.