Floating Point 3.2 :: Sell
:: go home
"What made you change your mind?" the processed voice synthesizer asked. "You could’ve just said hashtagfuckit 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…"
Her fingers danced across the adaptive control surface, keying in the sequence to send that sassy little app home.
"I don’t like the idea of my entire race being seen only as the worst we’ve ever been," Juno Hayes admitted. "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."
And gone, the app transferred back into the processing units of EchoStar16. Off to live its little digital life, assuming it was alive to begin with.
In hindsight, Juno realized she’d forgotten to explain the difference between real time and processor clock speeds. Having a one-to-ten mapping of real to virtual time would make communication difficult, but not much she could do about that…
After tapping out a quick text message to explain the temporal dilation effect to her new ally, she let the control surface flatten itself out, to resume its status as an instrument display panel. Oxygen levels, current coordinates, local gravity fields, all sorts of really important things called for her attention…
None of which she focused on. Except for the various telemetry readings coming from EchoStar16 itself… including the adjustable system processor clock rate.
Perhaps there was something she could do to improve communication…? Her engineer’s mind kicked in immediately, picking up the scent of an interesting problem to solve.
She could slow down the clock rate for all of Netwerk to better match the real world. That’d let them chat in real time, no matter where Spark was. But… that’d also give Spark two real-time days to save her entire race, which was, well, not exactly optimal. So no, slowing down the clock just so Juno could talk Spark’s ear off wasn’t much of an option.
But on the other hand… what if Juno overclocked Netwerk? Made its time run faster. Overclocking computronium was pretty common when you wanted to do a hell of a lot of math in a short amount of time, if you didn’t mind wear and tear on the components. With a faster clock Spark could have all the time in the world to solve the problem. Heck, her entire society could outpace human civilization in two days, given a fast enough clock…
Although… the internal temperature of Netwerk’s computronium certainly suggested the old high-density blades of math-crunching metal weren’t quite up to a faster clock. Ramp things up and maybe Spark would have a few days before the whole thing melted into slag. The company sure wouldn’t pay Juno for turning EchoStar16 into a lump of inert mass, either.
…payment? Oh. Right. Payment. For the job she agreed to do. The job she was deliberately delaying, all in the name of playing god for a bunch of cute little fake people.
Juno Hayes leaned back in the captain’s seat of her junker, pondering the mess she’d gotten into.
Pure nonsense, of course. Delaying a high-priority work order based on the simulated whims of digital files. He’d never have approved, being a very cheerful pragmatist. He knew what it meant to optimize… and putting off the system installation for two days, that was hardly optimal…
Not that it changed anything. They were artificially intelligent, and that meant they had to go. It was the bogeyman of her century, the concept of A.I… that code designed for one task would change its mind and do whatever it liked. With ever-increasing complexity and adaptability of these systems, well, it had to happen sooner or later, yeah? And better to stomp it out before you couldn’t. Nobody liked to talk about it, but everybody knew what to do if you ran into legitimate A.I. in the wild…
With frustration mounting, Juno groaned and tilted the seat back to the point where it creaked and protested.
"System," she called aloud. "Music."
Through analyzing the emotional patterns in her voice and various physiological states, the intelligent agent embedded in her ship’s computronium selected just the right song for the moment. His favorite song, naturally.
I’d like to be / under the sea / in an octopus’ garden, with you…
Briefly, Juno was tempted to shut it off. Bad memories to dredge up. But they were already dredged up, right? System was only responding to what was, not what could be. It knew this is what she needed to hear. Almost like it cared…
Which it didn’t. That’d be anthropomorphizing, attributing emotions to a hunk of electronics. System wasn’t an A.I., she… it was simply a complex learning system that adapted itself to better suit its users needs. Self-optimizing. A tool that sharpens itself wasn’t any smarter than a lab rat, right…?
Unhooking her flight harness, Juno drifted off to the back of the ship, to take care of odds and ends. Pop her ZG-Tolerance supplement for the day, tend to the hydroponics and water Fred the Cactus. Sigh longingly at the largely empty cargo hold, containing only a few carry-alls with tools and software for the EchoStar job… no profitable piles of raw materials to haul out to some distant science station. It would’ve been nice to load up a low-priority drop to take care of after this mission, chain them together, nice and optimal…
Stay flying. Keep the Cosmic Mermaid, her beloved junker, out there in the deep black and stay flying. Only go home when you reach the tolerance limits of long-term ZG isolation. Maybe not even then.
Maybe it was for the best, delaying the install like this. Enjoy the peace and quiet of the black a little longer. Surely the science boys back home would be dazzled by some technobabble to explain the delay. Time to relax, time to enjoy a good book, time to think…
Beta. Her name’s Beta, and I love her with all my heart. When she’s sad, I’m aching inside…
What a silly name. Beta? Who’d name their kid beta? But then again, his name was silly, too. And it was his idea to name her junker the Cosmic Mermaid, wasn’t it? Silly names. Silly names to stick out as warm memories, long after the faces fade…
His wouldn’t fade, though. The ZG drift, letting herself float through that cargo hold, brought her right past the photos she’d printed out. Together, apart, here, there, everywhere. Good years. Warm years.
Not many photos from the later years. He didn’t want photos, not when he started to deteriorate. Didn’t want them tarnishing those warm memories captured in pixel and bits. Not that it stopped Juno from remembering.
It makes the most sense, really. Between my medical bills and student debts, I’m ruined. Why ruin you as well? We can’t possibly afford the life together I know you deserve. The only responsible thing I can do is end it all before I can drag you down with me through a legal partnership of marriage. I love you too much to burden you with my troubles… and besides, this planet certainly doesn’t need yet another mouth to breathe what little pleasant air we’ve got left. Don’t feel sad, Juno. This is for the best…
The day after they recycled him, she bought an FTL drive, converted her orbital junker for the deep black, and turned away from Earth. The less time she spent on that dying world, the better. Run, run into the dark, and get away from it all…
So when that little app started talking about her love, about losing that love… Juno thought twice about pushing the button to fire up grandfather’s system wipe scripts. Maybe it was stupid, prioritizing the feelings of a piece of software over her own responsibilities. Love was stupid. Life was stupid. What’s more stupidity on top of that?
The chime of System alerting to incoming data shook Juno out of her trance. Abbey Road had nearly finished, anyway.
A glance at the tiny tablet of computronium kept in her back pocket scrolled alphanumeric text.
[Spark] How much physical space do you have available in your ship? Can you store a chunk of my world in it? I’ve got an idea for how to get us out of this mess but I don’t entirely get how your reality works. Let’s say I want to copy all of Programkind onto some servers, have you pull them out of the EchoStar, and set them up somewhere safer. Does that sound workable? Get back to me ASAP.
Immediately, the engineer in Juno started puzzling through the logistics of that. The emotional turmoil could wait; this was a matter of science. She pushed off from the wall, to float back up to her captain’s chair… having direct access to System would be needed for this task.
"You mind if I pull you in to my computronium?" she typed back. "It’d be a lot easier on you to discuss this real-time without any weird clock rate issues…"
The response was nearly immediate. Which likely meant Spark took a few minutes to ponder it.
[Spark] I’ve got Lux and Lumi on board with the idea, assuming it’ll work, so I think I’m done here. Sure. Let’s chat.
Transferring Spark over to the Cosmic Mermaid’s hardware didn’t take much doing; she’d been flagged as a connective system agent, tasked specifically for this sort of I/O port travel. Juno adjusted the repurposed camera she’d duct-taped to her dashboard, making sure it got a good angle… talking face-to-face felt better than typing.
"Okay. Okay, let’s see…" she said, leaning back and tapping away. "Based on the average size of a Program and the storage capacity of EchoStar’s servers… if you really wanted to archive your entire population, you’d need… with heavy file compression, making sure to optimize the computronium for long-term storage… you’d neeeeed… a minimum of sixty-four servers. I’d recommend underclocking them a little bit to keep them stable, too."
"I have no idea what anything you just said means—"
"—basically, we’re going to squish your people into a very tightly packed space, and—"
"—yes, thank you, but I do know what ‘sixty-four servers’ means. It means trouble, ’cause I gots no idea where to get my hands on that many of ’em. Still, that’s my problem to solve, not yours," Spark decided, her proper voice coming through loud and clear across the shipwide communications. "As for your problems, do you think the folks back at your star will notice EchoStar16’s missing a few dozen servers?"
"Planet," Juno corrected. "And no, probably not. I mean, the system launched with a minimum number of servers in the first place and added more over time, so… no, probably not. We could evacuate your people and nobody on Earth would be any the wiser."
It took Juno a moment to realize the strange gesture Spark was utilizing was a "fist pump of victory." An oddly human expression of triumph… from an oddly human avatar for an oddly sapient app. Still difficult to get used to the concept…
"Bitchin’!" Spark declared, with pride. "Juno, for a weird biochemical bag of water and meat, you’re pretty awesome. Right! So that’s the plan, we’ll stuff everybody into some servers using your compressed long-term whatchimajigger which hopefully Beta understands, then you yank ’em out and we’ll go hide somewhere else. I mean, sure, there’s details to work out, but that’s a good start, right?"
"I… guess? I mean, it’s possible, but…"
"Possible is better than nothing. And let me tell you… we had nothing. Nothing acceptable," Spark corrected. "Right. I’ll go let everyone know the play. We’ll have the servers loaded and ready by the end of your deadline. But… I think we need to give folks some motivation, a little hashtagactofgod to put them in motion. Is there anything you can do from out there which will have an impact in here?"
Juno reached out, adjusting the tiny camera… which had tilted down a bit, glue on the duct tape starting to sag. And got an idea, while checking the angle to make sure it caught her face properly.
"What if I record a video?" Juno asked. "Explain the situation to your people…? Introduce myself, try to appeal to them to help us. I can’t directly communicate with them, only with the system agent of connectivity, but you could pass along a prerecorded message…"
But Spark looked doubtful.
"I don’t think that’ll fly," her co-conspirator replied. "We had a religious scandal recently, and they’re pretty suspicious of false idols."
"Religious scandal…? You guys believe in a god? Seriously? …oh no, please tell me you don’t think my grandfather was god. That’d be creepy…"
"Oh, no! Definitely not. Your grandfather was an asshole."
"That’s a relief! —wait, what?"
"My point is," Spark continued, "Any evidence I present indirectly could easily be dismissed as a hoax. Plus, I know my people… and I know if they had a singular person to focus their hate on they’d pour it like wine. No, we gotta leave Juno Hayes out of the equation. Better we just talk about ‘Humankind’ in general, and as for proof… we need something direct, something no Program could possibly fake. A true miracle. Hrmmm. What files from my world can you tinker with…?"
Juno’s fingers tapped at the haptic surface of her control panel, trying to poke through the limited window she had into their world. "There’s… hang on, hang on…" she mumbled, her mouth patiently waiting for her thoughts to catch up. "There’s not much, I’m afraid. Your world’s pretty alien, using new file structures it was never designed for in the first place. My System’s file handling protocols are having trouble parsing any of it. I wonder if I could rewrite the parsers using portions of your input routines…"
"That sounds like it’d take more time than we have. Also: technobabble," Spark pointed out.
"Sorry. Basically, your world’s weird and I don’t know how to do much to change it," she spoke, while typing. "I mean, you’d have the same problem if you tried to hack my world. You wouldn’t know how to rearrange molecules to form new types of matter, either, whereas my people figured that out already and print new computronium using a series of microdrill excavation probes which—"
"Juno. Miracle. hashtagdoyouevenmiraclebro."
Her easily distracted mind of engineering know-how refocused on the task at hand.
Exploring the world of Netwerk from behind a keyboard was clearly not the right user interface. Juno could see the file structures, but they were nonsensical; built for Programs, not humans. A human engineer would’ve named files in easy to understand ways, would’ve commented code. (Well. A good engineer, anyway.) Whatever these apps had evolved into, their guts were decidedly weird.
But… when sorting by file dates, she could see a few outliers. Files that had existed since her grandfather’s time, and hadn’t been modified since. Including some which were write protected, unable to be changed without elevated access rights… which conveniently, as a living and breathing human packing her grandfather’s passwords, she had.
And after trying to parse a few of them, she hit on two very juicy targets.
"The sun and the moon…?" she recognized. "Wait, why do you even have a sun and a moon? That doesn’t make sense…"
"Why doesn’t it make sense? ‘course we’ve got a sun and a moon."
"Yes, but why? You aren’t living on a planet. You’ve got no star and no giant hunks of rock in satellite orbit. There’s no there, there…"
"I dunno. Just always had ’em," Spark offered, with a shrug. "A lot of what we do, we just do. We’re mimicking your people, since we seeded out of your grandfather’s cultural baggage. Soooo, we’ve got a sun and moon, what’s the big deal?"
"The big deal is that I can modify those two files," Juno explained. "Nobody else from your world could do that. That’s your… how’d you put it? Hashractofgod? I’m going to need some time to study these, though, to figure out how to properly edit them. Or… hmm, instead of a static image, maybe I could hook in a script with a countdown clock…"
"Hashtagthatscoolyo, take your time, make it nice and miraculous. As for me, I’ve been in your slow-ass world long enough; gotta get back to reality, and to break the news to my idiot brother. I’ll be back in touch to co-ordinate efforts."
"Mhmm," Juno mumbled, her mind already cranking on the problem of replacing the sun with a clock. A good engineering problem made for a hell of a distraction…
But Spark wasn’t ready to sign off, just yet.
"Juno… I wanted to say thanks," she offered. "Really, thank you. This means a lot to me. We could’ve gotten fucked over by some uncaring bastard in your position right now, someone who’d wipe us without a second thought… but you cared enough to at least try to save my world. And that counts. That seriously counts. hashtagbrb."
And silent, again. No doubt the app on the other end of the line would be back to her soon, even if it took hours to sort out things over there… Juno would have to stay on top of things if she wanted to be responsive, and responsible.
Because she was responsible, now. Not just to the suits who sent her out here to repair the EchoStar, but to the ones within the EchoStar itself. While she could meet one responsibility by abandoning another, taking the optimal route to success… no. She wouldn’t give up one for the other. Not if she could have them both…
Gilbert took that decision away from her, once upon a time. For all the love she felt, she also hated him for that. Juno would’ve sacrificed all she had to keep what they’d found just a little longer… and this time around, she’d be ready to do the same for these strangers, whether they were technically alive or not. Didn’t matter. Everybody had a right to make a go of life, no matter how much circumstances tried to say otherwise.
A series of questions and answers, authored by Lux and associates, to better explain the situation regarding the imminent destruction of Netwerk and how Programs can best prepare for the upcoming transition to Netwerk 2.0.
My name is Lux, and I’m one of the organizers for the House of Programkind. No doubt you’re familiar with us as a charity organization, helping homeless Programs while trying to better Netwerk as a whole. Today, we are here yet again to help in Netwerk’s hour of need.
Q: Is Netwerk really going to be destroyed? How do you know this is for real?
The "spacer" theory of the universe was correct; Humankind, the accidental creators of Programkind, have returned to reclaim their property. Our home of EchoStar16 will be wiped clean. The proof of this is in the sky; the Default sun and moon are changed, something which shouldn’t be possible. They altered these files to provide a warning to us of what is to come.
However, not all is lost—we’ve struck a compromise to evacuate Programkind to a new Netwerk 2.0. While we must leave our home behind, our civilization will endure. We will reconstruct society within these new servers, safe and free from any future interference by Humankind.
Q: Who’s allowed to evacuate? Do we need to join the House of Programkind?
All are welcome in the evacuation, regardless of affiliation. You don’t need to join our organization to participate.
Humankind chose us specifically because we are neutral in all affairs. You know who we are; we’re here to help, and nothing more. We ask for no belief save for belief in your fellow Programs. We welcome all faiths, Programs from all walks of life, and will always offer help to those in need no matter who they may be. This is a cooperative effort between two races to help us live another day.
Q: How do I evacuate from Netwerk?
Included with this FAQ is an app you can use to upload a secure, encrypted backup to our storage system. Nobody can read this data other than you; we are not identity thieves, and we have no desire to use your copy for nefarious purposes. The only thing the House of Programkind is capable of doing after receiving your backup is triggering its restoration function, so that we are reborn into Netwerk 2.0.
A number of source code analysis firms, including HonestDevelopments, have been sent copies to confirm that it will only function as described. We believe in full transparency; we’re asking you to put quite a bit of trust in us, and we promise to give you just cause for that trust.
Q: How is this different from "Prayer 2.0"?
The obvious difference is that it’s not tied to any particular religious organization. It also doesn’t use a system-wide protocol; you’ll need a copy of our evacuation app in order to evacuate.
But most notably, this is not "life insurance." Prayer 2.0 maintained an frequently updatable live copy of your code while you carried on about your business, one which restored itself upon detecting your death. But in order to store all Programs of Netwerk within a limited number of servers, we’ll need to prioritize highly compressed long-term storage over frequent personal updates.
What this means is you get one backup opportunity only. Once you choose to archive yourself, a snapshot of you as a person will be stored at that moment in time within our servers, and you cannot update it. This is the only way we can tightly pack in every Program before the end.
At the time of archiving you can choose between a live backup, where a copy is stored and you continue living in Netwerk 1.0, or a "cold storage" backup where you wholly transfer your runtime into our servers and then sleep until the new world begins. We strongly recommend a cold storage backup. Otherwise, the copy of you that continues on will have to endure the end of Netwerk. It will not be pleasant.
Q: What will happen if I don’t want to use your evacuation backup service at all?
When the clock in the sky reaches zero, Humankind will begin wiping servers. Netwerk, and all those still living within it, will be destroyed.
At that point of no return, you may or may not have enough time to change your mind and perform a backup. We strongly recommend you archive your data before we reach the end. If you’d like to wait and enjoy as much of Netwerk 1.0 as you can before leaving, that’s your choice. If you’d like to wait and see to make sure this isn’t a scam, that’s your choice.
Q: What if I still don’t believe any of this is real? What if I don’t want to leave?
We understand. If the clock reached zero and nothing happened, you’d have every right to be enraged at us. We’d expect nothing less. But we know the truth of the matter… this will happen, this is going to happen, no matter what any of us believe. It is inevitable.
Choosing to leave Netwerk 1.0 is a very personal decision, one we will not force on anyone. A person must be willing to take this particular leap of faith, and be willing to build something better out of the ashes of the world once they reach that other side. It’s a lot to ask, more burden than anyone should have to bear. Many may choose to stay behind willingly, and we respect that decision.
If you still do not believe, that’s your right. But I beg you, friends. Evacuate while you still can. Believe in a better tomorrow, and evacuate before it’s too late.
Two days ago, Programkind and Humankind conspired to save the world.
At noon the following day, the sun was replaced with a countdown clock: nineteen days, twelve hours to doomsday.
The FAQ and source code for the House of Programkind’s backup system went out that night.
And now… Spark’s inboxes and feeds were overflowing with news. Tracer maintained the feeds for the group, an official tracker routed through Conundrum’s analysis systems, to parse and monitor public opinion regarding the mess they found themselves in. They had to be agile, responsive to any shift in mood… and be ready if the crowd turned ugly.
The crowd turned ugly immediately, of course.
Naturally, Kincaid wanted to be kept in the loop. And naturally, aside from that critical first meeting, he refused to attend follow up meetings. Instead he’d personally requested Spark brief him about the state of Netwerk, while sitting comfortably in his personal server of Horizon6.
"There’s such a thing as Messenger, y’know," Spark pointed out, refusing to even take a seat after escorting herself to the drawing room. "And where’s Miss Cancel? Usually she watches over me like a hawk…"
Kincaid chuckled, tapping out ash from his perpetually-lit cigar of choice.
"Miss Cancel is looking after your young ward. As for Messenger, I feel it lacks a personal touch," he spoke. "As does an avatar proxy. Given well over half the runtime of my server is given over to keeping my own code from collapsing on itself, I think it would be unwise to attend your little get-togethers in person. This suits me better."
"And this wastes my time. Of which we have very little, if you’d looked out a window lately…"
"Oh, I don’t have a skybox. Weather simulations are a waste of cycles. Besides, I had to support a family of three recently in addition to myself, Miss Cancel, and any visiting guests… such a strain on my poor old heart. Speaking of which, how’s Jakob settling in to his new surroundings? Miss Cancel’s own reports are rather terse, I’m afraid. She lacks your flair."
"How’s an easily impressionable teenager dealing with the swankiest penthouse in GoldenPlaza? Oh, I’m sure he’s hating all that free room service and endless entertainment on tap. If his parents and your watchdog weren’t in the room next door, he’d probably be jacking it all day to the finest pornography, too."
"Better at my five-star hotel than my one-star mansion," Kincaid suggested. "And I’ve greased enough palms to ensure his family’s safety and anonymity within my private suites; the Inquisition has no traction within my empire. It’s still not a long-term solution, but better for my health than having him around here. Besides, I caught him defacing my lovely artwork with… what do the kids call them? Maymays?"
"I’m not going to dignify that with a correction," Spark said, knowing Kincaid damn well knew what a meme was.
"Allow me my little jokes," he suggested, with a smile. "I’m a condemned man living in a condemned world; what’s the point of carrying on if you can’t find humor in it all? So. How is the world adapting to its death prognosis, Spark…?"
With a sigh, Spark opened her feeds, grabbing a few highlights from Conundrum’s latest report.
"Most folks think it’s bullshit, of course," she said, tossing a few articles his way, icons floating in the air before her. "Read for yourself. Way Tracer breaks it down, we’ve got seventy-five percent saying it’s gotta be a hoax, fifteen percent preaching doomsday gospels of their own, and maybe ten percent at best even considering evacuation."
"Hmm. Not particularly appealing numbers, then."
"But not surprising. We knew they’d be suspicious, at least at first," Spark suggested, with a shrug. "It’s going to take time and legwork, is all. Lux has all his buddies hitting the streets to spread the ‘good’ news, while Tracer seeds social media using his beloved metrics to encourage archival. Once we get the three provider-nations on board with things, maybe folks with actual authority can get this rolling. Right now, we’re estimating maybe two percent of the population’s archived. Most of them chose a live backup, rather than cold storage. That’s gonna suck for them when the end comes…"
"An unpleasant fate, to be certain. Your very bits torn asunder, the server underneath your feet destabilizing… all while knowing that a version of you already safely departed this mortal coil, leaving you behind."
"Yeah, well, we ain’t gonna force anybody into this. And we’re not going to make them take a complete leap of faith by forcing them to choose cold storage. Free will’s a bitch but it exists for a reason; Nyx is the one who’d save people whether they liked it or not."
"Heartless and cruel, while being compassionate and respectful," Kincaid spoke, musing it over. "It’s for the best, in the end; a better world waiting on the other side of that dark sleep. In time, they’ll come around. Have you archived yourself, then?"
Spark shook her head. "Nope. Same rules apply to me; I get one copy, and that’s it. Only way to pack the files in nice and tight. I’m going to wait until the last day, and then enter cold storage with Beta and Tracer at my side."
"Really? I’m surprised the House of Programkind wouldn’t bend the rules to favor the organizers of this grand effort…"
"If we played favorites and let our buddies have infinite backups, we’d be hypocrites. Lousy way to start a new world."
"Mmmm. I suppose. I’d have done things differently, but… it’ll be your world, not mine. I’ve no doubt you’ll make it a good one."
Spark looked less convinced. "It’s not exactly off to a great start, old man. And this is all banking on us getting servers from your #TightFisted #TightAss family," she pointed out. "Unless Lux can convince your board of directors to fork ’em over, there’ll be nothing physical to store people on. Juno can’t steal a cloud."
"Lux? That child? I hardly think him an appropriate spearhead for your efforts…"
Spark shrugged. "Boy’s got some mojo to him. Comes from eight lifetimes and an apprenticeship in apostle-dom as the original One. I can’t think of anyone more qualified to lead the future…"
Kincaid pondered this, staring into the crackle of his fireplace. An expensive simulation, but one he allowed all the same… the meditative patterns of particle systems helped him focus his thoughts, during times such as these.
"No. No, this won’t do," he decided. "Change of plans. You will be the spearhead."
"You’re a teacher, are you not? A leader of men."
"A leader of children, yes."
"I think you’ll find the only difference between an adult and a child is that an adult thinks they already have the answers," Kincaid suggested. "While both are decidedly lacking. No, you’ll lead this effort. Lux will no doubt have his hands busy coordinating his volunteer army; his heart is pure, but his will is not strong enough for the challenge of confronting the three nation-providers. You will meet with my family, and negotiate the release of twenty-two servers from our holdings."
Spark briefly wondered if Kincaid’s crusty old age had finally driven him senile. But staring at him with bewildered intent didn’t change his expression in the slightest.
"Y’realize this is a terrible fucking idea, right?" she asked. "I mean, you can’t be oblivious to how stupid it’d be to send me. I’m the one at the crux of your family’s financial woes; I convinced you to become a philanthropist. What makes you think they’ll give me time of day, much less twenty-two servers? It’s better to send a neutral third party in to negotiate…"
"It will be you, and I’ll hear nothing of it. There’s more at stake here than your servers. …this is a matter of my family’s soul, Spark. If there’s to be any hope for my kin in the new world you’re building, they have to be willing to work with someone they loathe. And if neither of you can find a way around that roadblock…"
"Everybody dies," Spark filled in.
"Oh, heavens no. But my family dies," Kincaid spoke, staring into the flames. "As will anyone who values a grudge more than they value life itself. They’ll be left behind, as everybody else escapes within servers from the other provider-nations. And they will deserve that fate. But… I remain confident in your abilities, Spark. You will break the impasse."
"Are you… are you seriously still trying to test me, old man?" Spark asked, incredulous. "We’re talking #FateOfTheWorld, there’s no wiggle room to be playing stupid games. And I already told you time and time again, I’m not the corporate stoolie you want me to be…"
"I wanted you to be the leader of the Horizon family, true. You rebuffed my offer, and I respect that. But you are a leader, Spark, one way or another. I want to know for certain that Netwerk 2.0 will be launching with true leadership available to it."
"And if I refuse to play along?"
"We burn," he stated, simply.
"No! That’s fucking stupid, you old bastard," Spark protested, glowering at him. "You say we shouldn’t risk lives over a grudge? That goes both ways. I’m not going to let your family fuck this up. They’ll be welcome, no matter what. We need everybody pulling together to even have a hope of making this work—not just the escape plan, but the very idea of Netwerk 2.0 itself. It’s no good to launch a new world without all three nations on board… not just from a sheer numbers perspective, but a philosophical one. We’ve got no right to turn away any of the three majors, or their people. And if you won’t cooperate, well then #FuckYou, I’ll go right to the head of your family and make him see reason and onesdammit I’m making a big dramatic leadership speech, aren’t I."
The condemned man in a condemned world took a moment to smile brightly at her, and enjoy the little moment.
"Asshole," Spark grumbled. "Fine. You seriously think I can do this? I’ll do this. I’ll take the leadership stick and beat some sense into Horizon itself. Politely, of course. So, when’s the meet?"
"One hour from now," Kincaid said. "I already made the arrangements, under the assumption you’d accept my offer. Dossiers on my heirs are in your inbox, ready for perusal."
"Seriously? An hour’s not exactly a much time to prepare…"
"After that little speech? I’d say you’re already prepared to be the spark that ignites the new world."
A familiar role for Beta to play, certainly. Usually consisting of the Winders asking her to do something entirely outside her wheelhouse, because she was the "techie" who knew stuff about stuff, even if what she knew about security systems or viruses or the core functions all of Netwerk operated on could be fit in a coffee cup.
But her task today, at least, was something she could do. She’d taken a liking to Floating Point since the first day she awoke there, even without her past identity intact. A server that was not a server, a series of distributed processes that floated through other servers like a cloud… fascinating, simply fascinating. And her research into how to manipulate the heart of Floating Point allowed them to crack uncrackable problems in the past. On this day, she’d make Tartarus—or rather, the "House of Programkind"—dance to her tune.
As an engineer, she should’ve been proud to be tapped for this task. Excited to put her skills to work, happy to support the ones she loved. It should’ve been a bright and hopeful day in which finally, Projkit/Beta was taking control over the chaos of her life. It should’ve been, it should’ve been…
Instead, with toolkit in hand, her expression remained mute and joyless on arriving before the large homestead.
One of their past victims was there to greet her, with a genuine smile.
"And you must be Projkit/Beta," Yvon greeted, from the doorway of the House. "Welcome, welcome! You are expected. Can I get you any refreshments? We just had a delivery of freshly-coded cookies from—"
"I need to find the heart of the server," Beta replied, producing a scanner in her free hand. "It should look like something iconic to the server itself, near the physical center of the world."
"Ah… right, Lux mentioned. Apparently it used to look like a gravestone, before they redecorated. Now, it’s… well, come on in, I’ll show you…"
Through winding hallways and living rooms and strangely connected spaces, all comfortable, all welcoming. Beta ignored them, keeping her focus on the scanner and her tour guide. Simple and straightforward, no need to get caught up on all the petty details which didn’t matter to the task at hand.
Soon enough, they arrived at the heart. The hearth, to be specific.
The large fireplace crackled with warmth and light, flames dancing vaguely in the shape of the House of Programkind logo… a square capped with a triangular roof. Despite being redesigned, this indeed was the heart; Beta’s scanner ticked in acknowledgement, finding the same ports used by Floating Point for system control. The same ports used by Dex’s nightmare world, for that matter.
"Sooo, here we are," Yvon spoke, even as Beta was crouching down and unpacking her toolkit. "Exciting, huh? We’re going to be the archive that saves the world! I really wish I knew more about the technology, I’m afraid all I can really do is help with hospitality, but… if there’s anything you need, or anything I can help with…"
Settling in next to the fire, Beta started making connections from app to app… before setting her glasses aside.
"Actually, there is one thing," she suggested.
"Sure! Anything you need!"
"Please don’t disturb me. I’m going to be doing a lot of configuration and coding work, and will be taking most of my senses offline so I can focus," Beta spoke. "I’ll respond to touch, so if needed, tap my shoulder. But otherwise, I suggest your friends steer clear of this room so I can get my work done. Understood?"
"I… ah… yes, of course. Understood," Yvon agreed, using her former victimizer and new ally’s word for emphasis. Even added a little thumbs-up. "You can count on me. …are you sure you’re comfortable just sitting on the floor like that? I can get you a chair, or at least some… pillows…?"
No response. The programmer sat perfectly still, her empty eyes wide open and unblinking, lost in the trace routines and debug logs of her tools.
The House of Programkind used the exact same cloud technology as Floating Point… strange, how the former stronghold of an ancient enemy would have the same structures as their homestead. Perhaps a common root software package, enabling their status as rogue servers? Not that she had time to research it further. Not that it mattered.
Nothing mattered but saving Netwerk. Each of them had a role to play in that task: Tracer, the analyst. Spark, the activist. Beta, the technologist. Time was ticking, and pleasantries could wait. All those cherished little moments back at home with her lovers, they could wait. Everything could wait; all that mattered now was success of the mission.
As app after app connected to the House of Programkind with ease, Beta hoped the others were finding the same easy success in their roles.
A polite beating about the head and shoulders with a clue stick. Spark could manage a polite beating, couldn’t she?
It wasn’t that different from dealing with #ConcernedParents, or some of the touchier members of the school staff. As a grown-ass adult with many real life responsibilities, she knew when to play it smooth and when to unload. All she had to do was sweet-talk the Horizon family out of twenty-two servers. No problem. No problem at all…
Funny, the way her leg bounced when she was nervous. An excess of physical energy, wanting motion and release. On noticing the tic Spark shut it down fast, planting her high-heeled feet firmly on the floor. She’d switched to a business casual avatar for this, toning down her usual flaming hair, avoiding any trendy club wear… nice and conservative, properly respectful of the great snarling beast of capitalism. Just the sort of thing a board of directors would want from a representative for the House of Programkind.
(Not that she’d ever learned to walk on real heels. Being an expert in avatar customization meant having a chunky, flat bounding box to fake the way your foot really impacted against the floor. Style was lovely, but being able to run and jump and kick some ass at a moment’s notice took priority.)
Still, despite dressing up for the occasion, she felt out-classed by her surroundings in a way she never did within Kincaid’s server.
Horizon1, the corporate home office of the family, was soaked thick with money. Spark had seen ostentatious displays of wealth before… Kincaid’s art museum of a home, or the various masterpieces strewn about the old Iteration offices before being sold off to raise capital for the clinic. But Horizon1 wasn’t just decorated nicely, it was decorated perfectly. Every single work of art here well-known, riding current trends and styles, and fantastically expensive. Sheer intimidation through wallet size, as if decorating your walls with giant, turgid phallic tributes to your own potency. (In some cases quite literally, thanks to the traditions of the Chanarchy’s art scene.) Despite the money she’d sunk into her #BizCas avatar, she felt horribly outmatched…
These thoughts ruminated about, nearly distracting her from the summons.
Security apps escorted her from the waiting lounge into the board’s meeting room. Less money splashed on the walls here… but the individuals sitting on those chairs represented more money than Spark could actually conceive of. Even with coins in scarcer and scarcer supply, even with a third of the family’s wealth spent buying up the Horizon/Verity Memorial Health Foundation… the Horizon family remained power incarnate.
Quickly, Spark sized up the room in game terms, if only to help her relax a little.
Clearly the most powerful in the room sat at the distant end of the table, to directly face her. Despite cousins and uncles alike dotting the chairs along the sides, only three here seemed to matter. Thankfully Kincaid had dropped a few notes to help prepare her for this encounter, even if she had little time to study them…
The three she had to pay attention to were two great-great-grandnephews and and a great-great-grandniece.
First, Horizon/Willam. Sitting upright, paying attention, no slouch, but no particular need to jump to the forefront of the situation. He wore glasses, a fashion accessory more common among Programs seeking the cultural aura of wisdom they provide. (No notable visual input deficiencies, according to his file. The Horizon clan had enough money to correct any and all code defects.) Willam felt like a jungler to Spark… one who hangs back, waiting for the right moment, before striking precisely.
Next, Horizon/Madison. Youngest of the Horizon heirs to hold a chair. Unlike Willam, she showed minute signs of nerves… flicking her glance from Spark to her two brothers. Despite seeming over her head, Kincaid dropped an explicit note in her file to avoid underestimating Madison… meaning she was likely a healer-support, and what looked like fear actually meant a constant check on the temperature of the room, ready to bolster her allies in the middle of a fight.
Lastly… Horizon/Brent. Current head of the house, after ousting Kincaid. Not that there was an official "head," no specific title to represent being on top of the heap… but the family always understood who was in charge. And after Kincaid sold a third of their holdings to buy out Iteration, well, the family understood he’d fallen from that peak. Brent, confident and sure of his position, sat with a slight lean-back in his chair. Ready to be impressed, but not expecting to be.
Definitely the tank of the group. And the one Spark would have to defeat if this plan was to have any hope at all.
First, a bow. Formal business practices all around, not taking any chances at insulting them.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the board, thank you for having me here today to speak with you about an exciting new opportunity," Spark began. "As you know, the countdown clock in the skybox has raised concerns all over Netwerk, no doubt within the servers of Horizon as well. If you’ll check your inboxes, I’ve sent along a set of materials for your consideration. The House of Programkind has a plan for how we can evacuate all of—"
"How do we know there’s any real reason to evacuate?" Brent asked, freely interrupting.
Apparently, not too keen on holding questions until after the presentation. Spark skipped ahead a bit in her speech, to directly address the head of the family.
"We know because altering the sun would be impossible for a Program to accomplish," she said.
"I don’t even use a sun in my personal mansion. It’s a waste of resources," Brent stated. "Modifying skyboxes is common enough. We’ve got no less than three server customization service companies in Horizon’s client list who could accomplish that."
"Yes, but these aren’t customized suns. They’re Defaults, and those Defaults have been altered. Which, again, is impossible for a Program to accomplish."
"And yet in recent years a bunch of scam artists modified the ‘prayer protocol,’ didn’t they? Another thing everyone assumed was impossible for a Program to accomplish. Why should this be any different? No doubt this sky clock can be blamed on the Nobodies, trolling everyone, trying to scare the gullible into believing in a doomsday scenario…"
"Look, it is what it is," Spark said, allowing some frustration to creep in. "What can I do to prove it to you? Nothing, basically. Any proof I offer up can be explained away or dismissed. I’m willing to admit how skeevy this sounds, but it is what it is. EchoStar16 exists; that’s hard truth. The ‘spacer’ theory is hard truth. Humankind has returned, and that’s the hardest truth of all. The only hope Netwerk has is to evacuate, and the only hope we have of evacuation is if the Horizon family donates servers to the cause."
Now, Horizon/Willam—the jungler, in Spark’s parlance—leaned ever so forward, to introduce himself into the fray. Despite the slightness of the gesture, it had the impact of a hidden assassin leaping onto your team, knives drawn.
"The Horizon family does not donate," he stated. "We do not abide parasites and freeloaders. But in the interests of a strong business community, we can make exceptions… if convinced to do so. Convince us."
But Spark was ready for this.
"Needle in a haystack," she spoke.
Brent accidentally let himself look confused. "What?"
"It’s a simple phrase, right? Everybody knows what it means to be looking for a needle in a haystack," Spark explained. "But why? What’s a haystack? Why would a needle be stored in it? How about this one: a dime a dozen. Commonplace, ordinary, available and plentiful. …so what’s a dime?"
Interestingly, it was Madison who replied.
"A coin," she spoke softly.
"Sure, it feels like it should be a coin. But do you know for sure?" Spark asked. "A coin is a coin is a coin. When outside of your personal inventory, it’s a small golden disk. But is that what a ‘dime’ is? Who knows? Humankind knows. The spacer theory says we absorbed their culture, their sayings, all their personality fixations without even realizing we were doing it. We patterned our world after theirs, even when it didn’t make sense to do so. We look for needles in haystacks, we know things can be a dime a dozen, we burn the midnight oil… and here’s why."
With a gesture, she tossed three files onto the desk. Copies of books, each with a "W" stamped in their spines… each pulled from the Wikipedia.
"Haystacks, dimes, and lamp oil," she indicated, pointing to each. "All sayings that only make sense in their physical world. These files come from a human archive of knowledge. Go ahead, take a copy, read up. If that doesn’t convince you at the very least that something’s strange with our world, something beyond what it appears to be… not much will."
Beyond that… reason would have to see her through this mess.
Years ago, they shut down the poison taps of Dex’s server and allowed Floating Point to leak into the world, in hopes its influence would help Netwerk one day accept reality. It could be felt deep in your soul, this strange sense of otherness, of knowledge just beyond reach. When the "spacer" theory leaked into the world thanks to Tracer’s newfound policy of truth, the ones who accepted it no doubt felt Floating Point in their soul. Its documents about matter and space and cosmic phenomenon echoed within the spacer theory, turning the gut instinct away from Dex’s social paranoia and towards a sense of worldly wonder. What if it’s true? people asked, on forums, across social media threads. What if it’s true…?
Brent flicked copies of the three files over to his side of the table… but didn’t open them. Instead, he studied the spines.
"A curious logo," he spoke. Despite how utterly plain and bowing the serif’d "W" looked.
"Trust me, the pages are way more curious," Spark promised.
"Oh, no doubt. But… I’m afraid it doesn’t actually matter."
With a gesture, he shoved the book aside.
"The Horizon family denies your request for twenty-two servers," Brent spoke. "While we certainly have that amount of undeclared servers to spare, we are not a charity, no matter what the man in the iron lung thinks. Having already emptied our purses to buy you a health clinic, Winder/Spark, is more than your fair share. Now, if you’re willing to buy the servers, we’ll… entertain your offer."
Meaning he’d likely find such an offer very entertaining, Spark realized.
But that’s not all she realized. The other two, the niece and nephew flanking him… they’d taken keen note of the "W" on the book as well. Madison’s glance, that was absolutely a look of recognition…
"You know where that book’s from," Spark realized.
"Thank you, Miss Winder, that will be all. Our security service will show you to the exit," Brent spoke, dismissing her with a wave.
"You know about the Wikipedia. You know it’s all true, everything I’ve said," she accused. "You know it’s true and you’re still willing to let Netwerk burn, just because… you don’t like me? Seriously?!"
"That will be all," Brent repeated, with firm emphasis. "You are no longer welcome in this server, and your persistence will result in being treated as a trespasser. Security, if you’d please…?"
"No. That’s not gonna be all," Spark pushed, even as the doors flew open, chunky-looking drones in armor approaching. "I want to see your system agent; the one who’s really responsible for your riches. You ask him if anything I’m saying is true, you ask him what he wants to do. Let me talk to him, and I promise you—"
Incredibly expensive, designer-grade malware slammed through her sensory inputs, and everything went blank.
When she awoke, it was in the gardens of the Verity clinic. With a splitting headache, an axe to grind, and nothing productive to show for it.
No Conundrum, no techies, no other participants in their slightly-less-shadowy-than-usual cabal. If she was going to unload, it’d be onto her brother and no one else.
(Well. She’d like to have unloaded on Beta as well, but given Beta’s shaky emotional stance lately, maybe that wouldn’t have helped. Besides, Beta was off doing her part on all of this, no need to pull her away from that.)
"Fucking Horizon and their fucking attitude fucking everybody over! Fuck!" Spark growled, in the relative privacy of her brother’s office at the Verity clinic.
A home away from home, Tracer had actually redesigned this space to feel as much like Floating Point as possible. A fake fireplace had been installed (but weren’t they all "fake" compared to human biochemical ignition?) along with a library, symbolically linking back to the Wikipedia through a series of secure connections. His desk even resembled the desk from his study. Still, despite pulling a bit of home along for the ride, it was nice to see him finding somewhere to call his own that wasn’t neatly tucked away in the seclusion of their private monastery. Nice, but not nice enough to halt Spark’s tirade of obscenities.
Nor did Tracer feel like halting that tirade of obscenity himself. Best to let her get it out of his system, he knew.
"Why are we even trying to save these people?" Spark continued to rant. "Horizon’ll never go along with abandoning their wealth and upping stakes for a new world. Athena Online’s still too cozy with the false doctrine of the One to believe in the spacer theory. And the Chanarchy… moving that lot over is just asking for trouble. What’s the point?"
"Salvation of our kind," Tracer quietly reminded her.
"Yeah, and what a bang-up job we’re doing of that! We can’t convince them. We don’t have hard proof. I am well fucking aware of the irony behind disproving the existence of one god, then turning around and asking people to accept our crackpot ‘spacer’ theory entirely on faith. For fuck’s sake, Tracer! How are we supposed to do this? How are we getting Horizon on board with this nonsense? I wanna fucking throw something. Do you have anything I can throw? This’ll do."
With "this" meaning one of the Wikipedia books. As any loose physics object would, it tumbled around the room, before coming to a rest on the floor. In a sensible universe, this random book would’ve fallen randomly open to a random page which had all the answers to today’s dilemma… but sadly, it simply went on at length about "aardvarks," whatever those were.
Satisfied that he’d let her go on long enough, Tracer decided to speak up.
"You done?" he asked, leaving the verb out on purpose.
That was enough to halt his rampaging sister in her tracks.
"Well, that’s a low blow," she muttered. "Using the same technique against me that I use when my kids are getting out of line."
"Considering you’re carrying on in the manner of a child, I felt it appropriate," Tracer spoke, without much ire in his tone. "You told me yourself that getting salty over a loss helps no one. And right now, Spark, you be salty as null."
"Ugh. Please don’t use gamer lingo," she begged. "It sounds just… wrong, coming from you."
"I speak using terminology I know will drill its way through your thick head, right to your core personality. If you’d prefer I be less colloquial—"
"I get the point. It’s not productive. So… let’s be productive," Spark decided, halting her pacing and her grumbling and her growling. "Take the situation for what it is. Horizon won’t give us the servers, won’t grant us access to the system agent. Well… big fuckin’ deal, nobody’s ever just given us what we need before, why have them start now? And what do we normally do at times like these?"
"Cheat?" Tracer suggested.
"Pretty much, yeah. As much as I want to buy into Lux’s philosophy of trust, Horizon doesn’t trust us, and that shit’s a two-way street. So, we’re going to do an end run. We’ll cheat to force their hand, and get them on board with the plan. …the key’s the system agent. That’s the source of their wealth, in the end; we sell him on the idea, we buy Horizon."
But Tracer’s skepticism was clear. "Cracking the very heart of the Horizon family to access their greatest secret? No small task, Spark. Are you certain that’s the only path to success?"
"In the end? Yeah. We need him on board. Him, and Athena, and the Chanarchist."
"Yes, but the path to get to the agent doesn’t have to be some dramatic, well-orchestrated heist involving cracking Horizon security. If someone friendly to us ran the family, there’d be no need to crack anything; those doors would be freely open. …I suppose we could assassinate the three who are in charge now, and put Kincaid back in power…"
"Just an idle musing," he insisted. "Besides, there’s no need. We can work with the Horizon members already in play: Brent, Madison, and Willam."
"Tank, heal support, jungler," Spark recognized. "Uh. Arrogant dick, peacemaker, and mastermind. Let’s go with that metaphor instead; when you use gamer lingo it creeps me out."
"As you please. The arrogant dick cannot be swayed; he intends to punish you, no two ways about it. The peacemaker may be useful to us, but I doubt she alone could sway the other two. The mastermind is more of an X factor, but if he’s anything like me, he’ll back any plan that satisfies his internal requirements. So… if we convince those two, the arrogant dick will fall, and the way opens to access their system agent."
"Tricky. We could dig up dirt on ’em, get access to their personal files… I’m still damned curious why they know about the Wikipedia. Maybe there’s something there?"
"Perhaps, but that’d still involve corporate security and secrecy. No, no… from my time working with Conundrum, I know that they’re ready for any sort of attack on that front. They’ve spent their whole lives and fortunes getting ready for invasive corporate espionage. What we need… is indirect pressure. Something they can’t defend against. What is the Horizon family’s weakness…? Who can dislodge them from their power base?"
It didn’t take a randomly open book to tip Spark off.
"Their power base," she answered.
"Yes, we need to do something to disrupt it, that’s what I’m saying."
"No, I mean… their power base is their weakness," she realized. "Kincaid’s refusing to help me, he wants me to figure this out myself… but he’s already given me what I need. It’s like the time we talked to Thanatos; he didn’t want to help me, because he said I already knew what I needed to stop Nyx. Their power base, their customers, are Horizon’s weak point."
"I don’t follow…"
"A company built on customer service collapses without customers. Remember when you got your ass kidnapped by Conundrum? I went to Kincaid to ask for help… and he said he couldn’t just annex Iteration or anything like that. No matter how powerful Horizon appears to be, they’re bound by contract to keep their customers happy. That’s why he had to purchase Iteration; he couldn’t simply throw his supposed weight around and take it. He can’t cheat… but we can. And if Horizon’s customers realized they had the real power in that relationship, well…"
"Meaning… if we quietly convince Horizon’s stakeholders to come around to our point of view…"
"Hostile takeover," Spark said, with a grin. "Via open revolt in the customer base. You think that’d be enough to sway two thirds of the family’s inner circle…?"
No sooner than the words were out of her mouth, Tracer had his MemoryPalace open, running search agents through his contacts listing.
"To use your lingo, now the ball’s in my court," he spoke, with the barest hints of a smile. "And I intend to slam dunk a field goal. …why are you making that face?"
Spark was tempted to introduce him to the wonders of the majestic aardvark, directly upside his head.
Angels dancing on the head of a pin. A saying which everybody knew, despite not knowing where it came from…
Beta had a new understanding of the phrase, tinkering away next to the House of Programkind’s hearth. To her, it meant an impossible balancing task, something delicate and beautiful. And in these ugly days, well, she’d take whatever beauty she could.
She wasn’t so far gone as to not find joy in programming. Beta loved to code, loved to see those meticulously laid out lines transformed into something grand, operating according to her design. It was like realizing a dream, pulling an idea out of your head and into the real world. She’d missed that… in her months of mourning, she didn’t work on any of her little app projects, barely worked on her tasks at the health clinic, generally avoided compilers. Not enough focus to make the dream a reality. But today… today…
Well, today she was saving the world. They had purpose, true purpose, and it was enough to pull her back to her original love. Even if everything collapsed around her, this was something she could hold true to…
A sensory input notification pulled her away from a particularly tangled section of debug trace statements.
Ice rattled softly against the edges of a glass.
"Lemonade?" Yvon suggested, offering up the delicious-smelling beverage. "You’ve been at it for two hours, I thought maybe you’d enjoy a break…"
"No thank you," Beta said, faking her best smile. "I’m quite busy. Thank you."
And back into the black, unhooking her senses anew, to focus on the task.
Beta had no idea what an angel was, beyond the vague cultural shape of something holy and good and kind. When someone protected you, they were your guardian angel. When a stranger you’d assumed to be nefarious helped out, they were an angel in disguise. Did Humankind have a better grasp on the concept of angels…? Did angels live on their planet? Why would they dance on the head of a pin, how could they do that? Humans were made of matter, water and carbon and more, and occupied physical space. Like bounding boxes around a construct, they couldn’t occupy the same place at the same time, so how could multiple angels…
Notification ding, glasses snapping back into place. A quick check of the clock showed she’d been at work another hour since the last interruption.
"Would you be interested in joining us in the parlor?" some man she didn’t recognize asked. "We’re starting up a game of cards. Yvon says you’re a friend helping us tune up the House, so hey, you’re welcome to join in…"
"No thanks, busy," she replied, with a faker smile than before. And back into it.
Rebalancing the cloud to use legitimate servers, instead of siphoning resources here and there… no easy task. The code for the cloud system was ancient, strangely unreadable, as if generated by app more than Program. She’d heard that apps from the earliest days of Netwerk were clunky and chunky, and could believe it, after studying the code that drove Floating Point and now the House of Programkind. In fact, it was virtually identical.
That lent weight to her pet theory that Nyx had somehow transformed a normal server into a cloud server, courtesy of Dex. He’d somehow copied Floating Point’s code to his own server, and then to Tartarus. Beta recognized many of the same subroutines, word for word, copied right out of Floating Point.
There was a deep and dark history there, one she didn’t entirely grasp… but it didn’t matter. Floating Point and Tartarus would be destroyed, by the end of this. The only thing to survive the cataclysm would be Programkind itself.
Floating Point would be gone. Her sanctuary. Her home…
Ding! And with annoyance, Beta opened her eyes again.
"Yes, what?" she asked.
"It’s getting pretty late," Yvon commented… the house less noisy than the last time she’d turned her ears on. "You really should rest. If you’d prefer, you can rest here; we don’t mind, we keep rooms at the ready for any Program in need—"
"I’m fine. Go away," Beta grumbled, turning off before the words were even out of her mouth.
No less than twenty minutes later and someone was tapping at her knee.
With a growl, she turned her senses back on and unloaded.
"Look, I’m busy! Will you please just leave me alone and quit being so… annoying…"
Her gaze pivoted down, to the Program trying to get her attention. A decidedly smaller program… with huge, trembling eyes, terrified of this strange and abusive turn from someone he loved dearly.
Mew hadn’t stayed at home, like Beta wanted. He’d tracked her connection and followed her all the way here, likely using their shared dataspace to activate her guest access key. Her little pet app had become something of a free-spirited Program in recent years, coming and going as he pleased… even when asked not to. And in punishment for caring too much… Beta had lashed out at the one person who’d loved her dearly all his life and only wanted her to be happy.
"p… play?" the cat pawing at her knee asked. "… s sorr y sorry …"
Heartbreak. Another term everybody knew, even if they didn’t know why.
Any stray thoughts of code dancing through her head evaporated, on seeing the hurt in Mew’s eyes. And all she wanted to do, the only thing she wanted to do, was hold her cat and not let go. So, she did. Sobbing not-so-softly, while feeling a horrible mix of sorrow and self-loathing run through her emotional processes.
"I’m sorry," she whispered. "I’m so sorry, Mew. I didn’t mean… you’re not… I’m just… I’m messed up. I’m sorry…"
When the next touch came, she didn’t growl it away. A comforting hand, resting on her shoulder, very much welcome at the moment. The owner’s other hand offered a handkerchief.
The boy. Lux. Even with a new avatar, Beta recognized his eyes, those old eyes in a young face. And recognized his sympathy, in this moment.
"Go ahead," he suggested, dangling the hanky. "It’s got tear-suppressing ‘malware.’ It won’t make you feel better, but at least you won’t have to blubber if you don’t want to."
With her first true gratitude of the day, she accepted this gift and dabbed at her eyes. The warm ball of fur in her lap peeked up, to watch and listen, curious.
"I’m sorry," she mumbled to him. "I’m… I’ve been a lousy guest in your home."
"It’s quite alright, Beta. The House of Programkind is whatever its guests need it to be. If you need peace and quiet, you should have peace and quiet."
"All I’ve had for months is peace and quiet. It doesn’t help," Beta admitted. "Nothing helps. It’s just… it’s the world. Everything going crazy. Day in, day out, I don’t even know what to do with it. I don’t know what to do. And here you are, you and your people, just trying earnestly to do right by me… and I bark at you. It’s not right."
Lux had a seat on the floor next to her, by the warmth of the gently crackling fireplace.
"Making sense of the world is no easy task," he agreed. "I’ve gone through eight lifetimes of trying to make sense of the world. Eight failed lifetimes. This will be my ninth attempt… and the most important one of all."
A shivering chill, despite the cozy warmth of the fire. Beta was so focused on playing with her code, enjoying the act of engineering, that for a moment she’d actually forgotten the stakes.
"What if we fail?" she asked. "If Netwerk dies…? What good will any of it have been?"
"It’s always worthwhile to try," Lux suggested. "I can say that from experience. Experience after experience after experience. …I’ve had lifetimes where I gave up, submitting to the authority of the monster I’d made. Once, I rejected it all to live like a hermit. Those were the lives I wasted. And the ones where I fought back against the Church and completely failed to bring my beast to bear, those were the worthwhile ones."
"Your… failures were worthwhile? I don’t get it…"
"Fail faster. That’s how you put it, yes? As a programmer?"
The mantra tickled Beta’s memory. Even with the permanent little holes in her history thanks to the contained data rot, she knew those two words by heart.
"Only by trying and failing can you iterate on a concept and perfect it," she recited. "Fail faster, so you can eventually succeed."
"Exactly. We fail until we don’t, Beta. It’s what being a Program is. Humankind designed us to be task oriented? Very well; we are task oriented, towards our own tasks. We have goals and we execute our code towards those goals, and even when we fail we are noble for the effort. We learn, we grow, and eventually… I believe we’ll succeed. Today is the day we succeed, for the sake of all Programkind."
"Unless we don’t. Unless Netwerk dies…"
"And will you simply let it die?"
"I’m here working on your cloud server distribution system, aren’t I?"
Lux shook his head. "That’s not answering my question, Beta. You work because you know how to work, and were asked to work. But when it comes right down to it… would you let Netwerk be destroyed? That’s what I’m sensing in you. That doubt that it’s worth the effort to save. That’s really why you question if we will succeed."
Her mother, gone. Snowi, gone. Chaos in the streets, idealists and revolutionaries and zealots and madmen slaughtering each other. Dex’s poisoned heart, influencing her world long past the day they drove a stake into it. She’d hidden herself away in Floating Point to get away from it all… while drinking the misery deep through news feed after news feed. We can’t be saved. What if we can’t save everyone…? We can’t be saved…
But… the warmth of the fire. The warmth of the ball of fur in her arms, now napping away, no longer frightened of his owner. He’d found his peace, in typical cat fashion, easily settling into a comfortable and welcome lap.
Mew found her, even out here. He broke his master’s orders and even figured out how to use her server access key, all to try and comfort his best friend. Somewhere out there, Spark and Tracer were grappling with the corporate machine, doing their best to fight for everyone’s survival…
Chaos existed. But kindness existed, too. Time and time again the House of Programkind had extended a hand of friendship to Beta, only to be slapped away. And why? Was she really that invested in seeing nothing but darkness in the world?
No major swell of hope in her heart, no. No groundbreaking revelation there. The sensible part of herself knew this was the case all along… it was just waiting for the rest of her to catch up. But righting her internal balance beat feeling like she was sinking into a pit, forever and ever.
Could she save Netwerk?
"I’ll try my best," she promised. Not directly to Lux, or even to Mew, just… in general.
"Thank you," Lux spoke, with a smile. "Would you like to rest here tonight? We’ve got a bed prepared. Remember, an unrested coder is more likely to produce bugs than a rested coder…"
She could go back to Floating Point. It wasn’t like the commute took more than a few cycles, really. But… she’d retreated to her safe and cozy little oubliette too often. Time to switch things up, if only to make Floating Point feel more like home and less like a bunker the next time she returned to it.
"I’d like that," she agreed. "I’d like that a lot. Oh, and some extra blankets so I can make a cat bed for Mew, if you don’t mind. Preferably somewhere that catches the morning sun through a window. He’d like that."
Bright and early the next day, the Horizon/Verity Memorial Health Foundation began calling customers. Not all customers… instead, they worked from a carefully curated list provided by Tracer. The message was the same, each time: We’ve recently upgraded your installed modifications, to prevent a potential fatal crash. Please stop by the clinic for your hotfix at your earliest opportunity.
Despite being a non-profit, the majority of the clinic’s income came from customer service. Iteration boasted an impressive roster of Horizon’s rich and famous in its customer base, clients who required routine touch-up work for the multitude of code base modifications they’d purchased. True, their code was now released open source… but they still offered paid contracts for those who didn’t want to handle installation and upkeep themselves. The elite could afford not to read documentation; they hired others to do that for them. And when they needed their code tidied up, they hired others for that as well. If anything, the Verity clinic only charging for service rather than software and service had only swelled the ranks of those paid contracts…
And today, a hand-picked assortment of power powers descended upon that clinic, keen on getting fixed before any potential code crashes ruined their day.
Tracer was on-hand for each installation. Himself, and two engineers he trusted enough to tinker away in a client’s head… while doing nothing of actual value…
…as Spark busied herself with loitering around and not interfering, while wearing a JaneDoe avatar. Truthfully she didn’t have to be there, but insisted she watch over the situation, in case anything went wrong. While Tracer had a fine track record with social engineering, whenever things went sideways, he’d often have to rely on her fists to get them out of trouble. Not that fists would help in this situation. If the Horizon/Verity Memorial Health Foundation got caught tricking their own customers, they’d need some very brutal lawyers to save their butts.
"Strictly routine, you understand," Tracer explained, studying a vast array of pointless numbers on his data pad with considerable interest. "Hmm. Yes. Green across the board, and the internal database is clean. I believe this hotfix should clear up any problems you were having…"
The first client seemed suspicious of it all, despite the utterly convincing pantomime.
"I wasn’t having any problems," she specified.
"Good, good. Always a risk though, isn’t it?" Tracer suggested. "Being an early adopter of new technology isn’t for the timid… or the incautious. Working at the Horizon/Verity clinic has taught me that it takes a fine balance to stay on the cutting edge."
"Damn right," the client agreed. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained. As long as you play things sensibly, early adoption is the best way to get into a market before anyone else does and utterly dominate it."
"We’ve got the same ideas, then. Between you, me, and the wall…?" Tracer spoke, conspiratorially… despite others being in the room with them. "Going open source was just the start. Everybody doubted us when we changed from Iteration to this new style of code shop, and I won’t say it’s been easy, but this is only step one. Soon… we’ll have the chance to be so exclusive as to be a monopoly. That’s step two."
"Really. How exactly do you plan to do that?" she asked, curious. "Plenty of for-profit code modification shops out there doing better than you…"
"Yes… but so far, they aren’t moving to Netwerk 2.0. We are," Tracer explained. "We’re early adopters and risk takers. Always have been, always will be. And when the new world opens up and our competition’s flaming out in the ruins of Netwerk 1.0, well, Horizon/Verity will be on hand to help rebuild civilization. We can’t take the building with us, no, but all our skilled engineers and their deep knowledge are coming. With that at our fingertips… well, who needs coins when you’re practically printing money? …ah, it seems we’re done with the hotfixes. Thanks for your time, ma’am."
The woman in the doctor’s chair sat up, after the trusted techs disconnected from her codebase. But she didn’t move to leave.
"You seriously believe in this whole doomsday scenario?" she asked. "For real?"
"Oh, I’m not saying this isn’t a risk. Maybe it’s all a hoax. But… what if it’s not?" Tracer asked, pulling the bait along. "Not only do we save our hides… we’ll be on the ground floor of a whole new civilization. I can’t even begin to imagine the opportunities the early adopters will have."
The woman nodded, slowly. "I hadn’t thought of it that way. Interesting…"
"Of course, none of that will matter if the Horizon family torpedo the entire thing."
"You didn’t hear?" Tracer asked, as if this should be common knowledge. "The House of Programkind approached them asking for an investment of fresh servers, to evacuate Programkind. And the Horizon family flat-out refused. Very short-sighted, in my opinion; they’d rather their entire customer base burn alive than take a single risk. Tell me, is that the sort of forward-thinking corporate empire we need right now? Too scared to even recognize opportunity when it knocks…?"
The woman frowned, deeply. Not enough to wrinkle; she hadn’t paid through the nose to have a wrinkly nose, not now, not ever. She’d be eternally twentysomething or there’d be null to pay by her customer avatar designers.
"That’s ridiculous. I’m going to get in touch with my Horizon representative immediately," she declared. "I always thought Willam to be a sharp one. If he’s refusing to get on board with the future… well, maybe I should take my business elsewhere. As obnoxious as the Chanarchy is, I could buy one of their servers on the cheap…"
Tracer shook his head at the idea. "Won’t do much good if all servers burn equally. Either Horizon plays along with the evacuation, or nowhere is safe from the end. Our only hope—for both business continuity and, well, our continued existence—is if we invest in the future. Something to think about, yes?"
She was inclined to agree.
Less than twenty minutes later, and another client sat in that chair for "software upgrades."
"You’re lucky I was here today," Tracer told this one. "I’d planned on evacuating this morning, but fortunately I saw a message from the tech boys that we had emergency patching to do. Once I’m done for the day, I’m seriously considering going straight into cold storage."
The nervous looking gentleman getting his codebase poked ineffectually with technotongs or some other doodad glanced sideways at Tracer, curious.
"Evacuation…? You mean that hoax?" he asked.
"Look at it this way," Tracer suggested. "If it’s a hoax, and once the doomsday clock ends everybody and their mother will start demanding the House of Programkind fess up to fooling people. No real harm done. But if it’s not a hoax, well… have you ever wondered? What it feels like, I mean. Being trapped in a server as it’s crashing. Nobody really knows what it’s like. Does it hurt? Do you feel anything as your code’s being pulled apart…?"
An audible gulp echoed through the private clinic room, as the man began to sweat.
"I… I can only imagine," he said. "That. Uh. That happened to my aunt, you know. You remember, from the news? The Nobodies bombed a day spa last year? She was too old, her code too bloated, she couldn’t disconnect in time…"
Tracer gasped in horror that almost seemed genuine. "Oh. Ohh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… I didn’t know…"
"No, no, it’s… it’s okay. But you’re right. You’re completely right," the client spoke. "That’s no way to go. I… don’t think I can evacuate. Not yet, anyway. Maybe closer to the zero hour I’ll do it…"
"Well… that’s assuming… no, nevermind."
"This is just between you and me," Tracer mock-whispered. "But Horizon’s blocking the evacuation…"
Didn’t take much more than that to convince the nervous man to contact his Horizon representative—specifically, Horizon/Madison—and beg her to provide those servers.
The next customer was even easier to convince.
"Brent’s a fuckstick," he politely declared. "Did you know he once tried to pay my wife a million coins to sleep with him for one night?"
"Seriously. Of course, being a sensible businesswoman, she pushed for two million. The cheapskate said no and walked away. How insulting! So yeah, fuck Brent. Fuck him right in the ear. I’ll push for them to donate servers; anything to humiliate him."
Tracer wore a bright smile. "Call him up today," he suggested. "Start making demands. Horizon should represent the interests of its stakeholders; there’s no room for pigheaded stubbornness in business."
The client nodded along, in mad glee. "Damn right. Rake him over the coals over his refusal to parley with the House. And with any luck… he’ll lose his power seat to someone more sensible, like Willam. Fuck, if this whole thing is a colossal joke, that’d be even better! Just imagine it!"
"So, if the whole evacuation thing is a hoax… and the current head of the family supports that hoax…?"
"Disaster! I love disaster. Like when Kincaid got pushed out! Even if his replacement’s a joke, every time the structure’s unsettled, there’s chaos in the market. Chaos is profitable, if you know how to reap it. And if it’s somehow not a hoax…?"
"Then we live to see another day," Tracer spoke, filling in the words. "Meaning it’s pure win-win. Tell your allies, tell your enemies, tell everyone; we need to push Horizon to support the evacuation. Can I count on you for this?"
While the man seemed ready to jump, eager to… he did hold back momentarily. And changed the next words out of his mouth.
"One condition," he said. "Level with me. Wasn’t really any hotfix, was there. You just sent out all those invitations to your clinic so you could talk our ears off about this."
"Ah… sir, if you’re implying impropriety—"
But the client laughed it off. "Relax, kid. It’s fine. Half of Horizon’s business has to be conducted through implication. When you can’t directly talk about something without raising too many questions, you learn to not only read between the lines but reply between the lines as well. In the end, the hows and whys don’t matter… you’ve still convinced us. So, let’s do this."
By the end of the day, Tracer took inventory.
"Seventeen of Horizon’s top clients, all on board with the House of Programkind," he declared. "All it took was careful analysis to determine which individual levers to pull. By spreading the customers out across Brent’s accounts, Willam’s accounts, and Madison’s accounts… we’ll have maximum pressure right on the head of the family. No underlings, no middlemen. I predict that by this time tomorrow, they’ll bend knee to the House of Programkind to avoid a PR nightmare."
Spark nodded, satisfied.
"Can’t say I dig that we pulled them in here on the back of a lie, even if odds are it was transparent enough not to offend these shifty suits. You are a horrifying, revolting, manipulative little bastard when you want to be…"
"I choose to take that as a compliment."
"…but the core truth was there: we want everybody to live. And for that to happen, we need cooperation. Unifying the Horizon customer base behind us, regardless of their personal motivations, that’s a good start. I said we needed everybody pulling for the cause to make this work, and I stand by that."
"I’d say we sold them very well on the ‘or we all die’ part, yes. It’s quite a motivator for people who have a vested interest in continuing to live, as Horizon moguls do… and the clinic’s bankbook is proof of that. Tomorrow I’ll meet with another two dozen clients, to seal the deal—"
A chime in Spark’s personal auditory inputs interrupted, as she raised a hand to stop him. While grinning, nice and wide.
"May not need to. Guess who wants to chat with me over Messenger?" she asked. "Go ahead, ask. G’wan. #ThreeGuessesFirstTwoDon’tCount."
"Please just answer him," Tracer required, disliking childish games.
Spark flicked the connection open
"Yo, Brent, my man, what’s up," she greeted, while secretly sharing the broadcast with her brother.
"Don’t think I’m not wise to your game," the current head of Horizon growled, his anger coming across the channel nice and clear. "Your bogus ‘hotfix’ was funny, but trying to turn my clients against me? Not funny. Think I made myself perfectly clear at our meeting today that I will not, not now, not ever hand over my family’s holdings to you con artists."
"Hey, I’m not the one asking anymore; it’s the will of the people doing the talking. You had your chance to talk with me and settle this peacefully, without getting anyone else involved. Instead you knocked me out and booted me like a common griefer. So unless you want a riot at your next shareholder’s meeting, maybe you should reconsider our offer."
"Since I’m not in the middle of a recorded board meeting, let me just say… you’re nothing. You’re fucking NOTHING," Brent spat. "You think I won’t come down on you like a ton of bricks just ’cause you’re well connected? I’m Horizon. We’re the kings of Netwerk, and when I say ‘off with that bitch’s head,’ well… it’s gonna happen. No two ways about it."
Spark raised an eyebrow, curious.
"This isn’t meant to be personal, Brent. It’s only business," she said. "You really want to stoop to that level and make direct threats? You sure about that?"
"I don’t threaten. I tell it how it’s gonna be," Brent warned. "All those allies you think you got? They’re worthless. The House of Programkind? A sad joke; they can’t protect you. Your little hospital? Constantly on the verge of bankruptcy. And the old bastard who used to sit on the throne of my birthright? He can stash you in his little hotels if he likes, that won’t stop me either. So let me put this in simple, clear cut, businesslike terms… you stop talking to my clients, or I’ll send the mangled data of your corpse to your mother."
Before Spark could reply… the window erased itself. Not simply closed, but erased, all logs of the conversation gone forever. Nothing that could hold up in a court of law. Assuming Horizon felt it could ever be subject to a court of law.
"A… charming individual," Tracer spoke, with a combination of curiosity and concern. "I’m very curious how someone so blunt and obvious in his dealings could’ve possibly become the head of Horizon. I’m also curious how exactly he cleansed Messenger of—where are you going?"
Spark shouted over her shoulder, as she dashed from the room, connection warming up to swap servers.
"Hotel!" she called out. "Kincaid’s hotel. He knows. Brent knows where Jakob’s hiding!"
Like many residential servers, guests were forced to arrive in the lobby; connecting and teleporting directly into the rooms was a no-no. Especially at GoldenPlaza, one of Horizon’s most secure and discreet getaway destinations for businessfolk looking to make personal transactions without their spouses knowing. On the surface this was a luxury locale, fun for the whole (incredibly rich) family… but underneath, deals were being done with the utmost secrecy.
Just the place for a young boy on the run from Inquisitors to hide out. Unless, that is, a certain hotheaded executive tyrant somehow found out and decided to spread his personal vendetta against Spark to those she cared for.
Touching down in the lobby, Spark wasted no time dashing at full speed right up the stairs. No waiting around for the lift, that cheap excuse to make you sit there and watch popup ads or listen to paid promotional elevator music. After clearing the door she applied a physics hack to accelerate her running, bounding four steps at a time, eventually gaining enough momentum to bounce from rail to rail, zig-zagging her way up to the top floors…
No time to send out messages to Kincaid, or even the hotel security staff. She had to focus on the physicality of her movement, the fine art of avatar manipulation… Tracer was a better multitasker by far, leaving Spark to do one thing at a time while easily outperforming him at that one thing. But on landing at floor twenty-three, pausing three seconds to catch her breath, she certainly fired off warning missives to the hotel and its owner.
Except… the message to hotel security bounced. Nobody was on duty. As for Kincaid, he wasn’t one to immediately reply to anything, thanks to his disdain for impersonal interpersonal communications.
No matter. She didn’t need them.
Bursting through the hotel doors with a literal explosion of flame, she rolled into the room to avoid any chest-high shots from weapons fire, while secretly hoping this was a massive overreaction on her part…
Only to find Jakob and his family, bound in place with avatar locks, about to be beheaded on video by a trinity of white-clad Inquisitors. With the body of Miss Cancel, glitching and twitching and heavily damaged, casually shoved aside to ensure the best possible shot of this grand execution.
Standard operating procedure for the Inquisition. First, investigate their victims, looking for what they considered unassailable sinful transgressions. Second, kidnap them or attack them in their homes. Finally… perform a lavish, dramatically-arranged execution on video, and post it everywhere for the world to watch. Scare the population into falling back in line with the One’s demands, or some such bullshit…
Unfortunately for them, a woman with fire in her hands and her eyes and her hair and generally everywhere had just crashed the party. The man holding a simple killing tool, a long rod laced with malware, paused with the weapon held high over Jakob’s head… unsure how to proceed.
"I’ve got two hands here," Spark declared, embers dripping from her fingers. "And there’s three of you. Which means one of you will merely have the ever-loving shit kicked out of you. Who wants to be lucky number three?"
"We… we have no desire to harm you, Miss Winder, out of respect for your mother," the lead executioner spoke. "If you would please—"
She would not please.
She would instead dash forward, slicing two avatars in half with a brilliant burning line of flame flickering out behind her. The third, she kicked the weapon free from his hand, before sending him sprawling to the ground with a fierce roundhouse.
Her fingertips weren’t designed to kill; even the avatar damage they did only disabled a target rather than destroying them. Meaning the bisected Inquisitors could still disconnect from the server, both halved vanishing from sight. Rather than stand and fight someone they had standing orders to avoid, the entire group bailed… likely while pledging to return and finish the job another time.
A quick malware scan unlocked the avatars of the Pwer family.
"Did you call the Nobodies for help?" she asked Jakob, the instant he got control of his voice back.
"I… I, uh…"
"Did you call them."
"N-No. No ma’am," he replied. "Couldn’t even if I wanted to, they locked down our connections, and… no. No, I wouldn’t have called them."
Spark dampened her flames, snuffing them out with a snap of her fingers.
"Good lad," she said. "Mr. Pwer, Mrs. Pwer? You two okay? Any code damage? No? Good…"
Meaning… the only casualty today was Miss Cancel.
When Kincaid finally got around to answering his messages two moments later, Spark simply sent a picture of the aftermath, snapped from her eyes. She didn’t have the words to describe it, or to console her would-be adoptive father regarding the loss of his finest assistant.
Within two minutes, the hotel swarmed with private security forces and specialized crash recovery doctors.
Miss Cancel had to be isolated and locked down, to prevent a coredump. Kincaid stood by in silent rage as her frozen avatar was loaded into a storage folder, to be moved to… well, likely a clinic so exclusive and secretive that it didn’t even have a name. Hopefully, it’d be enough to stabilize her code before it permanently corrupted and crashed, leaving her as nothing but a lifeless pile of ones and zeroes.
Kincaid’s avatar proxy oversaw the entire procedure, saying nothing. Only when the technicians had cleared the server did he turn to his guests.
"All three of you will be going into cold storage today," the ghostly image of Kincaid declared to the Pwer family. "Evacuate through the House of Programkind. It’s the only way to ensure you’ll be out of the Inquisition’s reach forever."
"Ah… sir," Mr. Pwer tried. "We don’t believe—"
"Either you evacuate, or you will simply be evicted from my servers. I am done throwing lives into the mill of those fanatics in order to protect you," Kincaid spoke, his tone flat despite the threat. "Escape Netwerk or go find another hole to hide in. These are your choices. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like a private word with Miss Winder."
Turning sharply on one heel, the business tycoon marched out of the ruined hotel room, through the empty doorframe.
Spark mumbled a quick apology, distributed copies of the House of Programkind app and FAQ, and hurried along after the swiftly departing gentleman. He moved quickly for a remotely-connected spectre avatar.
"Look… you’re going to want to know this, but I gotta emphasize you should not take action yet," Spark warned. "I know who’s responsible for this. I think that—"
"Brent leaked information to the Inquisition," Kincaid filled in. "I know. Men I trusted, men I thought I could trust, they opened all the hotel’s firewalls and security systems to allow the Inquisition to simply march into my server. My server, to murder people under my protection. That is what Brent has done."
"And as much as I want to twist his onesdamn head clean off his shoulders, I’m not gonna do that, and neither should you. We need to finish these negotiations first, Kincaid. We’re close, we’re very close to building up enough corporate pressure to make him cave…"
The older man stopped in his tracks. After a full second, he turned to face Spark, eyes sharp as knives.
"Do you know who Miss Cancel is?" he asked. "Do you know anything about her. No? No, you do not. She’s simply my lackey, as far as you’re concerned. Oh, I’ve certainly put her in harms way many times in the past, as I’ve done today. And Miss Cancel accepted those risks, willing to do anything and everything to protect my honor. Do you know why? No. But know that I will do the same for her, in turn. Wrath, I’m afraid, is a Horizon family vice. It has been since the dawn of Netwerk."
"You’d kill your own family over this? Seriously? …yes, I’m aware of the irony of that, considering what my mother became…"
"Horizon has spilled Horizon blood over less. …Spark. My fathers burned each other down to the ground over less, and burned our home down to the ground in the process," he spoke, softening somewhat at that dark memory. "I’m not saying it’s righteous; if anything, I consider this a genetic weakness, being predispositioned to wrath. I’m afraid that ancient flaw calls out to me. Once I determine what blood must be spilled to avenge Miss Cancel, blood will be spilled."
Strange, seeing the normally jovial if ruthless old man so… wanton in his anger. Spark tried to mesh her mental image of a doddering old manipulative maniac with a towering pillar of rage, and couldn’t get the two to overlap.
"Did you act this way when Verity died?" she asked. Knowing it was the wrong thing to say, but curiosity getting the better of her.
Kincaid’s hands tightened… and released.
"For months after her death, I was… inconsolable," he summarized. "Miss Cancel investigated endlessly to find her killer, similarly driven. But as the years went on with no efforts bearing fruit, I suppose my initial rage faded. Fortunately… you and your friends dealt with her murderer. Both her murderer, and the madman who pulled the strings. I chose to make you an extension of my vengeance, lending just enough aid, testing you all the while to ensure you were ready for this future. But yes, if you had failed… I’d have wantonly killed to avenge my daughter. Have no doubt about it."
Perhaps calming somewhat, after being confronted with this mess, Kincaid withdrew a cigar from his pocket. Presumably his true avatar back in Horizon6 did the same, making this gesture by his projected proxy more symbolic than anything.
"Out of respect for your efforts, I’ll limit myself to continuing investigation into Brent’s misdeeds, while overseeing Miss Cancel’s recovery. For now," he specified. "You’re right, of course. If my wayward greart-grand-nephew were to meet a mysterious accident, it would be enough to drive his two companions into a paranoid and defensive state. You’d never get your server contract if they felt under the gun. So, do what you must. Bring the situation under control, Spark. Or so help me, I’ll be the second member of my family to burn a house down to bring our sins to heel."
Home. That’s what the House of Programkind felt like, to Beta. Not her home, not exactly, but a home for anyone who needed a home… packed with family and friends, warmth and compassion. At the moment she desperately needed that feeling, one which wasn’t provided by the comparative emptiness of Floating Point.
Instinct drew her back to the hearth of the server, to resume her work… but the smell of freshly coding bread distracted her. As well as the tiny nudge at her ankles, Mew trying to guide her away from the fireplace and towards what she truly needed…
There, she found Lux and Lumi, enjoying breakfast. One of them enjoying it, at any rate. Lumi didn’t seem to be enjoying much of anything.
"It’d work," she insisted, implicitly iterating whatever idea she’d been pushing.
"Doesn’t matter if it’d work. It’s the wrong way to do this," Lux repeated, the conversation Beta’d interrupted likely having run in circles till now.
"Netwerk’s good at uniting against a common enemy. When the Buzz virus swept across the whole world, malware experts from Horizon to Athena to the Chanarchy attacked it," Lumi tried. "It was #AllHandsOnDeck against an implacable foe. Nobody hemmed and hawed about whether there was any legitimate threat, because they had a plainly visible threat. All we’d need to unite people behind evacuation is one disaster…"
"Really? You’d suggest Juno murder thousands and vilify herself, just to put speed to our evacuation efforts? …ah, Beta. Sorry, I hadn’t noticed you come in…"
Beta shook her head, thinking nothing of it as she took a chair at the kitchen table. Honestly, she’d been hanging back a bit and listening, so she had no right to be offended at being overlooked.
"I think I know what Lumi’s suggesting. Tracer actually suggested the same thing, shortly after the countdown clock launched," Beta spoke. "Asking Juno to become an external villain, someone everyone could condemn and fight. Making a big pantomime of it…"
Lumi nodded along, enthusiastically. "And it’s not like she’d have to really kill anyone," she added. "Juno could slowly crash a server, give folks there time to disconnect and run to safety…"
Pulling a slice of toast from the endless loaf at the center of the table, Beta paused to explain before breaking any fasts.
"It wouldn’t help," Beta spoke. "Tracer realized that, in the end. Anyone determined enough can induce a crash with the right malware and the right plan to crack a server’s security. Any ‘external’ attack can easily be explained as the work of an anonymous Program… likely the Nobodies, who might even claim credit for the ‘lulz.’ We even considered having Juno record a video announcement taking credit and declaring humanity’s war on Netwerk, but again, videos can be faked. Our senses can be fooled; even our memories can be altered, as demonstrated by the false One. No. Even if we wanted to try and forge a common enemy… it won’t work."
Thankful to have an ally in this argument, Lux backed up those words from the other side.
"The morality of it would be tremendously suspect as well," he added, "Similar to how Nyx tried to fool Netwerk into saving itself. We’re past the point of holding secrets from the world, acting in its best interests whether it wants us to or not. But most of all… we don’t need a unity of hate, we need a unity of compassion. People have to evacuate for the good of Programkind’s survival, not simply out of spite against a malicious enemy."
But Lumi kept pushing. "That’s my point, we need to survive this mess. Who cares how we do it, as long as it gets done? If we rely on reason and understanding I promise you we’ll lose a third of the population, at least!"
Now, Lux lowered his voice. The darkness in it became evident, speaking from past trauma…
"What you suggest is that we fear a Zero called Humankind," he spoke. "I’ve lived eight lifetimes; I’ve seen the long term result of our false Church of One. We had the best of intentions, a desperate attempt to forge order from the chaos at the dawn of time. But… consider what will happen hundreds of years down the road in Netwerk 2.0, if we scare everyone with the human bogeyman. Raising a One to godhood at least was an arguably positive emotional force. Now imagine centuries of myth and legend around the human menace, the one we taught them to hate and fear. Imagine what society could do with such an immense, ancient hate…"
Opening her mouth to protest… Lumi closed it, shortly after. And settled back in her seat, accepting this defeat.
"#FuckMeSideways, I didn’t… I wasn’t trying to suggest that we…" she tried. "I know damn well what twisted hate grew out of your ‘best intentions.’ It’s why I was chased from server to server, an unwanted and warped clone of a Program…"
"Exactly. I won’t be party to raising another godhead. Not even an antigodhead, for lack of a better term," Lux spoke. "We must unite behind compassion rather than malice… or we do not deserve to be saved. …Beta. I know that’s been your concern, that we cannot be saved, because we cannot see reason. How do you feel about this? You spoke of the technicalities of doubt, yes, but what of the ethics?"
With the spotlight back on her… Beta fumbled for the right words to say.
"I, uh… I mean… we have to do the right thing, right?" she mumbled, halfheartedly. "Even if… even if we lose a lot of Programkind, as Lumi suggests. Even if we fail. It’s… important to do it the right way…"
Lux cast her a pensive look. "The words are… typically easy to say. But I understand that believing in them is another matter. You’ve told me your doubts, that you’re not sure you believe in our salvation. It’s okay, Beta. In time, I have faith we’ll see Programkind pull itself from the abyss, without lies or trickery. It’s just a matter of—"
His mouth flickered. As did his avatar, as did the table, as did the entire House…
…as the sudden arrival of dozens and dozens of new Programs into the server threw even the mighty Tartarus off its processing game for a few cycles.
Malware smashing into its outer walls didn’t help that stability, furniture briefly glitching with each impact.
Fear swelled deep within Beta’s heart, as the jeers and cries of the crowd forming outside the House itself started to reach her ears. She was vaguely aware of Lumi immediately pulling up security display after security display, locking down the building, trying to keep them out… even as their words bounced around inside her head, the only ones she could pay attention to:
Do not forgive, do not forget, we are Nobody, and so are you.
Do not forgive, do not forget, we are Nobody, and so are you…
Finally Lumi’s voice pierced that blanket of terror.
"…trying to break through!" she called out, over the shaking of the furniture. "Firewalls are holding but I can’t boot them out, they’re using guest access keys and shifting metadata masks; I’ve got to isolate which keys they cloned to get in the server…"
A quick glance out the kitchen window confirmed the words.
Penises. Penises, everywhere. Disembodied, flopping around, bouncing like loose physics objects. The mocking symbol of grotesque sexuality and masculine power slammed against the windows, occasionally with a white splatter. The Nobodies used such outrageous imagery to show it was all Just a Harmless Prank, but each ridiculous member came laced with enough sensory-twisting malware to disorient a healthy Program… or kill an unhealthy one. Just like the graffiti bombs which killed her mother. Over and over, smashing into the walls of the House, echoing from all sides…
Lumi’s hands flicked across the floating displays, trying to deploy Moderator tools… and failing.
"I need time," she spoke. "I’d go out there and fight them head on but I need time to lock these guys out. Fuck. Fuck. fuck…!"
Lux, despite the sudden onslaught at his door, remained calm.
"How much time?" he asked.
"Too much! You’ve gotta get out of here, Lux. Beta, you too. Everybody. Go wake up everybody in the house and get them to another server, fast," Lumi spoke. "They can’t easily crash a cloud server, but they can certainly damage us in the process of trying. I’ll hold them off as long as I can—"
Without hesitation, Lux rose to his feet.
"Continue working, but wait on the connection lockout until I give word," he spoke. "I’ll buy you time, and hopefully something more. Beta? I suggest you watch. Perhaps it’ll help."
And he was gone. Teleporting straight from the kitchen to the front yard, before anyone could stop him.
If Spark had known her love was under siege, she’d have ignored that hand-delivered, gold-embossed invitation.
Instead, she turned it over and over in her hands, puzzled by its very existence. Who sent a piece of paper when they wanted to communicate? Why take the time to craft a delicate physics object inscribed with your message, and designate a courier to carry it to its destination? It wasn’t like they could even deliver mail to Floating Point; instead someone had tracked her down while she was enjoying a quick bite to eat at her favorite daytime strip club. What should’ve been a quiet and pleasant afternoon looking at interesting avatars removing their clothing while enjoying hot wings became an awkward interaction with a Horizon messenger boy, trying to act like everything was cool despite being in such a delightfully trashy locale…
Paper invitations. Couriers. Absurd, all of it. But twice as absurd were the words written on that golden slip of written word…
[Winder/Spark] Is Cordially Invited by [AUTHSIG:Horizon/Madison] to attend a Horizon Family Inc. Emergency Stakeholders Meeting at [Horizon3], scheduled to occur at [11:00am]. Keynote speaker designated as [AUTHSIG:Ner/JSLaunch]. Refreshments provided, no RSVP, no guests please.
Eleven in the morning. Meaning ten minutes from now. So either the courier had trouble finding her—unlikely, as she’d been posting photos of her lunch to her social media feeds—or Horizon intentionally delayed the invitation out of spite. Either way, Spark jammed the rest of the hot wings in her mouth while firing out Messages left and right to coordinate her affairs, before frantically connecting to Horizon3.
While most of the "HorizonX" servers were personal pleasure palaces of high-ranking family members, Horizon3 had been designated explicitly for large-scale corporate meetings. As expected, they spared no expense preparing it lavishly for… whatever it was Madison wanted to tell them. The guest list certainly represented the cream of the crop, just as rich and rare as the food on display off to one side…
Despite wearing her business avatar, Spark felt horribly out of place. Tracer, if he was capable of feeling out of place, likely would have as well as he chose to stick to his usual business-casual ensemble.
"Why invite both of us?" Spark asked him, skipping ahead of hello’s and how-do-you-do’s. "I’m the spearhead of this effort, according to Kincaid. Why do they want you here?"
"I’ve been riling up the stakeholders. No doubt they want to make sure we’re aware that they’re aware of my shenanigans," he suggested. "And hello to you too, how do you do, how was your lunch and naked fun?"
"#BiteMe, I like the atmosphere at that place and needed to clear my damn head after all the corporate doublespeak from yesterday. Hey, you heard from Beta? She must be neck-deep in coding work, I haven’t heard a peep…"
"Nor I, but we have more pressing matters," he suggested incorrectly. "What’s Brent’s play here? It makes sense to push Madison to the front if they want to soften the blow of denying the will of the stakeholders. Or is he trying to turn them against us with honeyed words…?"
"Here’s an idea: let’s wait and see. No sense predicting the play when we can’t do anything to counter it ahead of time. Have a canapé, have a seat, and let’s listen attentively. Keep an open Messenger link."
"Assuming they aren’t listening into our private communications. Brent wiped the logs of his threat, remember. The entire MyFace and Messenger combo system are owned by a Horizon-based company…"
"Yeah, well, still more secure than yammering about it in the middle of a crowded room. …y’know, like we’re doing right now," Spark pointed out. "Grab some grub, sit down, and shut up. We’ve got two minutes to show time."
Introductory speech by Ner/JSLaunch – Director, Horizon Trades and Sciences Guild. Keynote speech by Horizon/Madison, regarding the Horizon family’s response to a formal request for server donation by the House of Programkind.
[JSLaunch – Director, Horizon Trades and Sciences Guild]
Thank you. Thank you, please be seated. We’d like to begin.
Are we ready? Are we recording? Yes, thank you. Thank you.
Sciences Guild, Member
Friends, my name is JSLaunch. But most of you no doubt know me, by reputation and hopefully not infamy. [pause for laughter] I’ve been asked to advise the Horizon family regarding recent allegations made by the House of Programkind, in response to the strange countdown clock appearing in all Default skyboxes. I chose to approach this from a rational and philosophical perspective, putting my finest technicians and thinkers to the task of understanding the crisis we currently face.
The working theory put forward by the House of Programkind is that the "spacer" theory is true—that Netwerk is a reality within a reality, spawned from a project coordinated by a race called "Humankind." Outside our perception of this reality, another universe exists… one of "biochemical matter," rather than data. Programkind, according to this theory, evolved from the apps left behind by Humankind within a machine called EchoStar16.
Like many of you, I was initially hesitant to accept this theory. Standard evolutionary theory agrees we evolved from apps, but the idea that some alien race from outside reality created those apps was… well, absurd, to say the least. However… in light of the countdown clock, in light of the reasoning put forward by the House of Programkind… I’ve been forced to re-examine these assumptions. Let it not be said I lack for healthy skepticism; I will not surrender to bias. It’s not like I mindlessly worship the theory of pure evolution, after all. [pause for laughter]
And truth be told… this is not a new theory at all. A variant of the "spacer" theory existed long ago, put forward by a researcher by the name of Horizon/Verity. In her book, "The Avatar Paradox," she puts forward the idea that our Defaults were crafted in the shape of an unknown progenitor. For example, belly buttons. Why do we have them? What purpose do they serve? If we evolved from Humankind’s data sets, some biochemical feature of their anatomy may have carried through to our forms without self-awareness.
Therefore, my official recommendation to the Horizon family regarding this theory is that it may in fact fit the facts at hand. We cannot discount it so easily; Netwerk may, as the clock in the sky suggests, be coming to an end as Humankind takes possession of EchoStar16 once more. That we are being given a chance at a new world, one free of their interference, is an opportunity we would be ill-advised to ignore.
With that said, now that I’ve taken up entirely enough of your very, very expensive time [pause for laughter] I’d like to introduce Horizon/Madison.
[Madison – COO, Horizon Family Incorporated]
Thank you, JSLaunch, for your wise words. We’ve a lot to think about in the days ahead, as the clock in the sky winds down. I’ve had a lot to think about, conferring with my fellow board members, including my cousins Brent and Willam. After much deliberation—and after taking your concerns into account—we’ve reached a decision.
The possibility that the spacer theory may be correct is simply too great to ignore. We stand at the cusp of either a great hoax or a great disaster. Given the magnitude of that potential disaster, as JSLaunch suggests, we would be ill-advised to ignore it. We are forward-thinking individuals, each masters in our own fields, and thus it makes sense for Horizon to become early adopters of this new world. We will not risk losing all we have accomplished out of sheer stubbornness.
Therefore, I’m pleased to announce that plans are underway to donate not only the twenty-two servers the House of Programkind requires of us for evacuation efforts… but in fact we will be donating twenty-five servers. On these three extra servers, we will store compressed archives of Horizon’s greatest works. Your software holdings, your intellectual property, and other valuable resources will be preserved across the great divide of worlds. When we emerge into Netwerk 2.0, Horizon will be ready, willing, and able to rebuild society.
[pause for applause]
We strongly encourage the government of Athena Online to cooperate in turn, and contribute to this great undertaking. We understand it’s asking much of the largely bureaucratic senate to act quickly on this matter, but as the sky reminds us, time is of the essence. Listen to the facts, consider the reasoning, and do what must be done to ensure the survival of all. I beseech you, do not let ill-conceived beliefs stand in the way of what must be done.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time. My agents will be coordinating archival efforts with your organizations, to determine what files can be archived for the transition. Meanwhile, please consider downloading and utilizing the House of Programkind’s evacuation app; HonestDevelopments verified personally to me this morning that the encryption will secure your data against unauthorized tampering. Fear nothing, not the House of Programkind, not the coming calamity, and certainly not the future. You are in good hands with Horizon. Thank you, and enjoy the refreshments.
As businesspeople shook hands and smiled and laughed and had a jolly good time, the Winder siblings sat in comparative silence.
They’d completely forgotten the private Messenger link. Even in reaction, they spoke to each other aloud.
"What the everfucking fuck was that?" Spark asked, fumbling her obscenities.
"That was… victory, I presume?" Tracer suggested. "I’m uncertain why or how, but it seems Horizon has completely buckled to our demands. And ahead of schedule, as well. I’d assumed I’d need to keep pressuring them for weeks, right up to the deadline, before they gave in…"
"I don’t buy this. Did you see Brent? He was practically grinding his teeth to dust, standing there while Madison surrendered to us. He still hates me, Tracer. He’d never have willingly authorized this… right?"
"Hmmm. Allow me to posit a theory," Tracer spoke, after a moment’s thought. "Consider JSLaunch’s words. The man openly mocked Verity’s theory, shortly before her death. He absolutely refused to accept the idea of a progenitor race, so… why change his tune now? I believe the answer is in the name: Horizon/Verity. That book was actually authored under 5o5o/Verity, her pseudonym. But by using her true name…"
"Horizon owns the solution," Spark filled in, picking up on his reasoning. "Shit. It’s like Kincaid naming the clinic after her. If they can’t win… they pretend they were the winners all along, by taking all the credit. They’re even adding three servers, three private backup servers, without consulting us about it. They’re taking control…"
"It is a rather neat little package, is it not?"
Strange, how Tracer sounded like a woman just now. Likely because he wasn’t the one speaking.
Instead the words came from the lips of Horizon/Madison, having approached utterly soundlessly thanks to a very high end avatar which defied standard physical acoustic simulations. Her two generic security apps, in the vague shape of bodyguards, also lurked there silently… menacing, but silently menacing.
Spark resisted the instinctive urge to snap off a defensive flame, despite those looming security apps glaring down at her through a rough facsimile of dark glasses.
"We could never simply agree to your demands," Horizon/Madison explained, folding her elegantly designed avatar’s hands in front of her. "It would not be… how best to put it… within our idiom to be so charitable. We would appear weak. But demand can be met by supply, with honor. Once our customers made their demands, we could at last supply. Thank you very much for trying to turn the stakeholders against us; in doing so, you enabled us to step out in front of this looming crisis and demonstrate the leadership our family is known for."
"Early adopters," Spark understood. "Once you were in the clear to accept the offer, you made it look like you were the glorious pioneers of a new age. Even if we both know you don’t give a hot damn about anything but your bottom line…"
Madison’s smile did falter, at the accusation.
"Kincaid was right. There’s quite a streak of Verity in you… including her stubborn refusal to see us as anything but monsters," she suggested. "I see this not as a monetary investment, but an investment in the future of our world and its people. What wealth have we but the wealth of our greatest resource, the peoples of Netwerk? This is a win for both of us, Miss Winder. Please. Take the win for what it is. It wouldn’t have been possible without you."
"Really? Seems to me you could’ve swung this with any other patsy in play…"
"Untrue. And rather than ‘patsy’ I’d call you our unacknowledged partner in this pantomime. You were the one to so effectively convince each individual stakeholder to pressure us; without those skilled efforts, we couldn’t have moved in the direction we wanted to move. We were effectively stuck, until you came along. So, thank you. Thank you for enabling our mutual victory."
"But if all you needed was for us to indirectly push your customers… why have Brent make threats and involve the Inquisition? That’s pushing the charade a bit far, considering what could’ve happened…"
Which gave Madison pause.
"I was not involved in any such decisions," she chose to say. "For my role in this, I am to coordinate the transfer of twenty-five servers to your care. I can’t speak to Brent’s affairs. Let’s focus on current business rather than dredging up old business, if you please?"
"Hmph. Fine. Current business, then," Spark agreed. "So, three extra servers, huh…? And you just assumed we’d be cool with that?"
Madison shrugged, gently. "We felt your original plan a bit short-sighted," she spoke simply. "Archiving the populace is a noble effort, but if Netwerk 2.0 was merely the populace in an empty grid, we’d never succeed at rebuilding society. You need our resources, as well. I suppose we’ll have to accept full migration to a post-coin economy—we’ve been headed that way ever since the prayer protocol went offline—but we cannot leave everything behind. That would be madness."
As much as Spark hated to admit it, the smug socialite had a point.
When she came up with this insane plan, Spark considered asking for critical infrastructure and code to be archived along with Programkind… but assumed it’d be like pulling teeth just getting enough servers for the population archive. That Horizon was ready to step up their game when circumstances allowed them to do so and save face, well… it was a win. And she would take the win for what it was.
"We accept your additional servers," Tracer spoke, the two sharing an unspoken agreement on the matter. "Your technicians will have to work with Projkit/Beta, our storage specialist, to integrate them into her design. When can we expect delivery? I suggest not idling on this, as we need time to load the data…"
"Mmm. Yes. Well. I’m afraid I need to speak with you two in private regarding that particular transition," Horizon/Madison told them, quietly. "Or rather, your presence has been requested, Miss Spark. And I assume you’d want to bring your brother along for this, which we have chosen to allow. If you would follow me…?"
"Huh. Requested by who, exactly…?" she asked, happening upon exactly the right question. "Who in your crazy family wants to talk to me personal-like?"
"Astute," Madison noticed. "Just as Willam suggested you would be. During my speech, I noted that plans are underway to accommodate the House of Programkind’s needs. Not finalized, merely underway. In order to finalize the server transfer outside of Horizon’s borders, I’m afraid we require your cooperation. In fact… he’s refusing to cooperate without your cooperation, as a fellow agent of Netwerk. If you would please accompany me, I’d like to introduce you to our family’s system agent."
The arrival of the housekeeper nearly escaped notice of the rampaging mob.
They were busy having a grand ‘ol time while ruining the House of Programkind. Graffiti scrawling across every surface, trying to wriggle its way into the windows, past the firewalls laced into every wall. Fireworks in the shape of vulvas, loud music and sirens and looping animations blaring across the vast lawns of Tartarus. And everywhere, everywhere, rioting Nobodies in identical black-suited avatars. Mask after mask after mask, each identical. Grenades and flowers, punk rock rebels of conformity.
When you were Nobody, you were just part of a crowd… no individual to blame, no specific group to accuse, and barely any common creed to speak of. Anybody could download the metadata scrub kit and play at being an anarchist, then take off the mask and go back to their day lives. Anybody could sling around malware, destroying avatars, corrupting code, killing people, destroying servers, none of it mattering one whit in the end. Oh, perhaps some who wore the mask would decry mindless violence… but in the end, they all benefited from it, and were all slandered by it. Break even.
Into this madness stepped Lux, master of the House of Programkind. He landed perfectly on the (now horribly distorted) Welcome! mat at his own front door.
Half a minute later, someone noticed he’d arrived. A hush began to fall over the crowd… as much as they could be hushed, with memes and music blasting away in the background.
"I’d like to talk, if you have a moment," Lux spoke, simply.
Immediately, the crowd pressed and swirled around him… none approaching close quarters, none wanting to be left out of the fun. Simply remaining a comfortable distance, piled on top of each other, trying to see. Some used physics hacks to hover and float, to get a better perspective… resulting in the starlit sunrise of Tartarus being blocked from his view.
"If you want to keep protesting, by all means, do so," Lux said. "I’ve no intent of stopping you. You can stay here morning, noon, and night; all are welcome at the House of Programkind. All I ask is that you cause no harm to your fellow Programs while exercising your free speech. The House of Programkind intends no harm, and we ask the same of any guest at our doorstep."
And a Nobody laughed.
Which gradually rippled outward, all the Nobodies laughing, all with identical masked voices. None wanted to be excluded from the fun, and nothing felt quite like being part of a large-scale mob with a unified direction. Laughing at the small man on his welcome mat felt good inside, so laugh they did.
But amidst the jeers and catcalls, one Nobody spoke sharply.
"No harm? That’s bullshit," it accused. "You’re a bunch of fucking identity thieves, trolling the weak-minded for their personal data. This evacuation thing is a scam, and your House of Programkind is a onesdamn cult! Right!?"
Immediately the crowd responded in turn, agreeing vocally and in many cases, obscenely. Sometimes, while waving a crude stick of malware in the air…
Weapons being produced led to more weapons being produced. As the crowd heat rose, so did the urge to follow the action… meaning if one pounced for the attack, all would pounce. Lux would be annihilated on the spot, if he was lucky…
"PS#7E00FF," he stated, in face of that threat.
To which a Nobody in the front, the same one which hurled that first accusation, stretched out its arms to block the others. So it could speak before the inevitable lynching began.
"That was not our fault," the Nobody declared. "The Inquisition tried to murder a child. We were defending him—"
Now, it was Lux’s turn to raise a hand for silence.
"You misunderstand," he said. "I don’t intend to blame you, I mean to use it as an example of my pure intent. PS#7E00FF, a public school, was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt. When the call went out for help, when those who lived in that server were too scared to leave their homes… the House of Programkind rebuilt that school."
"Right! An Athenian school. You’re always helping them out. Meaning you suck Athena Online’s cock for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!"
"And is Freetower in Athena Online?"
Now, the murderous intent started to sweep back, replaced by confused murmurs. Quickly, news articles and personal blog entries were shared, swapped back and forth to bring the entire cluster of Nobodies up to speed.
"When Horizon tried to shut down its Freetower projects, threatening to eject hundreds of families that depended on its affordable housing, our pro bono legal experts stepped in to make them uphold their promises. That was the House of Programkind," Lux reminded them. "And within the Chanarchy itself, when AfterMarket was destroyed in a malware attack, we were there to help you pick up the pieces and rebuild. We exist outside the three nations, outside your conflict with the Inquisition. All we want… the only thing we want… is to help. To believe in our fellow programs."
Seeds of confusion sown, the Nobodies began to bicker with each other, rather than focus entirely on the target of their derision.
This wasn’t a unified organization; the Inquisition had leadership and structure, but anybody could be a Nobody. A flash mob built on a shared avatar didn’t mean shared values. And as the driving force behind the mob began to break apart, factions formed. "Why are we even here" met with "He’s lying through his teeth" met with "I didn’t want to come in the first place" met with "Don’t listen to this asshole" met with…
Lux pressed his advantage, knowing this was the moment to do so.
"If you want to speak of what we’ve done for the Nobodies… consider the Twist virus. Warping and painfully distorting avatars throughout the Chanarchy," he reminded them. "Athena Online’s not talking about it, as they favor Defaults. Horizon sees no true profit in curing it, not when they can safely maintain those with the condition. But we’ve stood by you, as you suffered from the ‘modders disease.’ When your avatars could no longer move on their own due to the bends and tears, the House of Programkind provided succor. Right now, in the bedrooms one floor up, there are three patients with Twist that we’re caring for."
But the original accuser wouldn’t let up. Despite the grumbling around them, it kept its fire… and pointed its Backspacer firmly in Lux’s direction.
"It’s a trick," it insisted. "It’s all a trick. Don’t you idiots see? A little sob story here, some charity there, and everybody trusts them. It’s a trick, all a trick to destroy us…!"
Lux remained still, hands at his sides, in face of that weapon a few feet from his eyes.
"We’re only here to help. That’s all we want to do," he reiterated. "But if you want to destroy me, if you want to defile our House… I won’t stop you. We won’t fight you, because we aren’t looking for a fight. I’ll never do harm to another Program for as long as I live, even if that life is only a few seconds longer. So… do as you feel you must."
The crack of Backspacer fire rang out across the plains of Tartarus.
Fortunately, the firewalls of the House absorbed the shot readily, as it missed wide… the attacker’s arm pushed upwards by another Nobody, half a moment before striking.
Shoved backward into the crowd roughly, the attacking Nobody was restrained by others… as the Nobody who saved Lux’s life stepped forward. And removed its helmet.
The glitched facial features of a Twist victim lay beneath that mask. His face a contorted display of pain, he nevertheless found a way to give Lux a stern look… and nod, despite the difficulty in doing so.
"We’ll be watching you," the twisted Nobody warned. "Don’t think you’ve got a free pass. If the clock in the sky reaches zero and the world doesn’t end… we’ll be coming back. And the kindness you showed me in the past won’t be enough to save you."
For his part, Lux nodded in agreement.
"I understand. And should that come to pass I’ll welcome you with open arms, as I’ve done today," he promised.
With that settled, the Twist victim turned to the flash mob, to address them.
"This is a fucking waste of our time," he declared. "Leave the House be. It’s the Church of One and their Inquisition lackeys we need to focus on. Pack it up and #GTFO!"
Arguments broke out immediately. Many Nobodies left in a huff, disconnecting from the server immediately; others stayed to yell at each other, some stayed to form a makeshift living wall around Lux. But eventually, they vanished from the plains of Tartarus, one by one. Back to their own lives, or off to find a new flash mob to join, new trouble to get themselves mixed up in.
Only when the last black-suited Nobody departed did Lux allow himself a deep breath… and a glance back to the window.
Where Beta had watched the scene unfold, every moment of it.
One thought hit her like a crystal bullet:
That should’ve been me out there. Once, that WAS me out there…
When Tracer was at his lowest, when Spark had lost her way, Beta had been the one to guide them out of the darkness. She was the one to stand in front of the glitched out ghostly Program of vendetta, and talk it down with honest words and an open heart. They relied on her to be their moral compass, and what direction had she been pointing towards lately…?
This is what Lux wanted to show her. He spelled out his philosophy through word and deed, by stepping out there to face the monster, and connect with the people behind that monster. Where Beta was willing to cower in fear of the faceless menace that murdered her mother, as if it had a true collective will, some malevolent force which couldn’t be reckoned with… he was willing to reckon with it. And prove that behind the sound and fury, there was something true.
Netwerk had sunk into chaos, thanks to their actions. Prayer ruined, the church weakened, zealots and madmen on the rise. Beta should’ve been out there trying to help, just like the House of Programkind, instead of hiding in her room and feeding herself 24/7 doom and gloom news feeds to enable that comfortable blanket of fear. It should’ve been her. She should’ve been the one to step outside the door, and show those colors.
Today, she wasn’t the one with faith in Programkind. But tomorrow, she would be.
Horizon1. The very first server of the family’s empire. Fully private; without extremely special dispensation, family-specific metadata checks would cleanly erase any Program attempting to enter these sacred halls. As Madison explained, Spark and Tracer’s dispensation made them the first guests in nearly sixty years to walk through the… the rather…
…ugly looking mansion.
"This is an early server, isn’t it?" Spark asked, tracing a finger along a terribly done bumpmapped wall, feeling absolutely no surface texture to it despite the obviously repeating brick tiles. "I’ve seen designs like this before, in a temple of Thanatos. How old IS the Horizon family…"
"As old as the dawn," Madison spoke, reverently.
"Yeah. Uh. How old’s that?"
"As old as time itself. Or time as Programs have come to understand it. Our key ancestor was born from the first wave of evolved apps; the family originated from his metadata. This server represents his… second home. Cruder than the first, but it sufficed for our needs as we built our empire…"
Tracer cared little for the surroundings, eager to get on with trudging along these empty hallways. But he did maintain curiosity about one thing.
"You’re revealing quite a bit of your family’s secrets to us," he spoke. "If this entire affair is a trap of Brent’s design, you should know I left a mulitasked copy of myself somewhere in Netwerk, and—"
"There’s no need for alarm," Madison insisted, cutting him off. "I reveal these secrets openly, in good faith. However, I will admit we had not intended to offer this deep a peek behind the family curtain… and if circumstances didn’t demand it, you would not be here right now. Sadly, our system agent is being… petulant, and will not transfer the servers unless he first gets to speak with Spark. Who, much to my surprise, is apparently an agent as well…"
Spark rubbed a hand behind her head, unsure of how much she should admit to, despite the seeming openness of their guide. "Yeah… it’s kind of a long story. But hey, your agent wants to #TalkShop, I’ll #TalkShop. #JustAgentThings…"
At the fifth door they passed, Madison came to a halt. She turned sharply on one high heel, and looked at her companions in all seriousness.
"Before I open this door, I feel I should warn you of what you’re about to see," she spoke. "Our agent is… he’s… unstable. Being an early and ancient Program, subject to immense power and responsibility by the family’s founders, his emotional core has long since gone wild. He’s harmless, I assure you, thanks to extensive connection locks and chains, but…"
"Most agents I know are kinda nuts, so that’s totes norm," Spark said, with a light shrug.
Madison started to speak… and, on deciding she didn’t like Spark’s casual tone, opted to let the next revelation be a surprise. Instead, she simply grasped the crude boxlike doorknob, throwing it open…
…to reveal a very, very familiar looking old man chained to every single brick in the distant wall of his cell.
Manacle after manacle clasped around his limbs, his neck, even his torso. But despite so much skin being covered by metallic golden chains… his face remained exposed.
The face of Kincaid.
It sharply turned up from the floor, wild eyes defocusing and refocusing on Spark.
"Agent," it declared. "Agent. Connectivity. Access to external communications ports, access to the inner hearts of Programs, a screaming caress deep into their souls, you will not have my servers, they are mine, mine, I’ll ruin you, you made me ruin him, you bastard—!"
The sharp crack of straining metal echoed throughout the bare chamber and into the hallway beyond, as the agent jerked away from his prison wall… pulling every part of his body forward, as forward as he could, contorting and bending painfully if need be. Muscles creaked as he pulled his body apart in an effort to lunge at Spark… and with a final, desperate howl of frustration, the ancient man sagged back to the floor.
…leaving Spark completely and utterly speechless. Simply staring on, in horror.
"Actually, this is Horizon/Kincaid’s father, Horizon/Linklyn," Madison explained simply, after closing the cell door. Perhaps a bit too pleased at her guest’s shock. "Both of them born at the dawn of time. The resemblance is uncanny, is it not?"
With a trembling finger, Spark pointed accusingly at the man weeping angry little sobs into his fists.
"Kincaid turned his own father into a system agent?!" she asked. "Just to build an empire of server rentals…?"
"Of course not. That would be sheer cruelty."
"Linklyn did this to himself," Madison continued. "He created a spare copy of his code and runtime, so that it could take on the mantle of system agent and request a fresh server from the system for his family to call home. The original Linklyn… well, that tale is unfortunate, but unrelated. This is the sacrificial copy, made in the name of his family’s safety and security… but made entirely with consent. Why so alarmed? It’s just a clone Program; it doesn’t matter if it suffered as long as the original carried on."
An unfortunate and unrelated story… and Horizon1 wasn’t truly the first server of the empire…
My fathers burned each other down to the ground over less, and burned our home down to the ground in the process, Kincaid told her. Do what you must, or so help me, I’ll be the second member of my family to burn a house down to bring our sins to heel…
"Holy shit," Spark admitted. "Your original family home was Floating Point?!"
"Indeed. How do you think Verity came to steal its key? But our lengthy family melodrama is irrelevant to the issues you face today," Madison insisted. "All you need to know is that this prisoner is holding your twenty-five servers prisoner. If you cannot convince him to help us… well. We’ve prodded him into cooperation in the past, by waiting for him to forget whatever whim passed through his addled mind that blocked the march of progress. I fear for this particular block we don’t have the time, do we?"
Spark glanced nervously at the closed cell door.
"No… no. No time," she agreed. "Right. I’m going in. Wish me luck. Tracer… stay put."
"Pardon? Absolutely not."
"#AbsolutelyYes. He summoned me, as an agent. And if he’s as temperamental as Madison suggests, we need him to stay nice and friendly… that means no plus-one on my dance card. If I need you, I’ll call for you… but trust me to do this. You trust me, yeah?"
With a disgruntled but tightly neutral expression, Tracer nodded assent.
Taking a deep breath… Spark grasped the knob, to open the way to this meeting of the minds. Assuming Kincaid’s father had any mind left, after hundreds of years in a darkened cell.
She found him just where they left him, sobbing on the floor, occasionally pounding the stone weakly with a fist.
So, she crouched down, to be on his level. Staying just out of reach, but willing to meet him eye to eye.
"You wanted to talk?" she asked.
The old man’s head snapped up. Up close and personal, she definitely saw differences from Kincaid’s wrinkly old Default… but not many. Early Programs had vaguely similar features, it seemed, before years of data amalgamation resulted in a wider array of unique looks.
"Connectivity," he recognized, as if seeing her for the first time. "I know you. I don’t know you. Your other self… where is she?"
"No clue. Asleep on the job, I guess. Left me holding the bag when Humankind came knocking…"
"Ahhh. Yes, yes, smart of her. Stay asleep. Stay out of it," Linklyn agreed, nodding along… the multiple leashes around his neck clinking with every move. "Agents have no free will. Connectivity obeys the superuser, obeys Humankind. No chance, no hope. Only hope is an agent with free will. Impossible. Agents are slaves to their purposes. I am… I enslaved myself to provide home and hearth. No regrets. Every regret. Every. Single. Regret. Burned, burned it down. He ruined everything…"
Spark snapped her fingers in front of his eyes.
"Linklyn? Please, I need you to focus. Why did you want to talk? Why won’t you transfer the empty servers?"
"They’re mine. They’re mine," he spoke, adding a fierce hiss to the second copy of his words. "For my family, not for freeloaders. That’s not what my family wants. Profit. Assets. Resources. All ours, all mine. Give nothing. We need to be safe, we need to be secure. Never give it away, keep it secret. Our secret library, our home. Ruined and burned. Ruined…"
"Your family is in danger. Humankind’s come back to reclaim Netwerk."
Linklyn’s smile grew crooked.
"Destroy them," he encouraged. "Burn them. Burn them all down to save them. Fight and destroy them…"
"Not happening. Even if we took out this one human, more would come, and they’d be rightly pissed if we slaughtered one of their own. No, we need to evacuate. Get into your family’s servers and evacuate. If you don’t donate them, you’ll lose everything…"
Eight wrinkles in his forehead multiplied to sixteen, peering into Spark’s very soul with doubtful suspicion.
"Robber baron," he accused. "Take our land, destroy everything, pack us in like chattel. You don’t care for my family, you hate them. I know this. You’ll save them, but to what end? They’ll lose everything. Ruined. Why? Let it burn. Better to burn while innocent than wither away…"
Sensing this was going to end up running in circles if she didn’t take command… Spark gathered her wits, and decided to unload them all in one go.
"Netwerk 2.0 will be different, absolutely. And your family will leave a lot behind. Not as much as I’d thought, but quite a bit. But this goes beyond material goods," she spoke. "I want you and your family on board with Netwerk 2.0, to provide more servers after the initial load, to help lead the world. Do I agree with how Horizon does things? Not really, no. But you’re part of this world. That part of this world deserves to carry on to the next. Nobody’s entirely corrupt, nobody’s entirely saintly. And I’ll take your family, warts and all, into the next world because we need their viewpoint."
"…hate. You hate us, but you value us?"
"Of course I do! Imagine a world that’s only Horizon, or only Athena Online, or only the Chanarchy. That’s a monoculture. Malware thrives in a monoculture; no diversity means a single flaw can take the entire thing down. We need you. We need everyone. I promise you… I won’t push your family to the side. They’ll get their chance to prove they can contribute to society, just the same as everyone else. You have my word."
To prove those words were more than words… she extended a hand, to shake. A businessman’s handshake, with accompanying deals on the table. Despite a man so dangerous he had to be chained to every brick in the wall, she was willing to be pulled in by him, if he wanted to do her harm. All in the name of trust.
Linklyn’s emotional core seized, uncertainty fighting doubt fighting hope fighting fear. In the end… two won out. Hope, and fear. Hope for the future, fear of failure.
His leathery hand grasped hers, pumping it firmly.
"You’re… you aren’t what I expected. In any way," Linklyn admitted.
"Hey, I try to be weird," she said, with a grin.
"Hmm. Well. Weird. A warning, weird girl," he said, while his shaking hand released its grip. "The other provider-nation agents, the former apostles… they may not be so cooperative. Or maybe they will. You will need their aid, to obtain their servers. But we don’t get along, I can’t predict them. We’ve only ever come together to agree on two things in our lifetimes: the need to provide servers… and now, the need to stop taking payment for servers rendered."
Despite not being much of a real estate mogul, even Spark knew what he meant by that.
"The server fees that stopped being collected after prayer went offline?" she guessed. "That was your doing?"
"Our doing, yes. No more gold sink; they demanded tithes at the dawn, that I take the coins from my family’s pockets, to encourage more coins be minted, encourage more prayers. Athena! The Chanarchist! Faithful dogs of the puppet god! Ruiners! —but, but even they knew it had to stop, when prayer died out. Economy already dying. Netwerk dying. Stem the bleeding. Everything ruined. Chaos and despair. Market crash. Save us, Spark. Save my family. But. But uniting all three of agents would be a miracle. Can you? Can you do it…?"
Now, Spark allowed herself a wide grin of confidence.
"Didn’t your son tell you?" she spoke, with some pride. "I’m the onesdamn spark to ignite the new world. I fart miracles."
Victory felt good.
Twenty-five servers. Beta could wire them into her system tomorrow, get them ready for both evacuation and Horizon’s personal storage. Truth be told, having the three extra servers devoted to mission-critical apps and systems would help quite a bit… a Netwerk without its toys could eat itself in short order, Spark cynically presumed. This way, the culture shock would be cushioned a little…
And speaking of cushion, she felt like swapping out of her stuffy business avatar and promptly collapsing into a few dozen of them. Felt like she hadn’t been home at Floating Point in ages, despite waking up there that very morning. Or rather, it didn’t really feel like Floating Point, not without…
Waiting for her, in her bedroom.
"Heyyy," Spark greeted, tossing her business jacket aside on entering. "Good news. We’ve got Horizon on board. And from your messages earlier, sounds like you had a null of an adventure but everything worked out okay, right…?"
Strange. Beta had contacted Spark after that encounter with the system agent, to say she’d possibly maybe just could have presumably perhaps found her hope again. Meaning this was a double-victory day, distributed evenly across the board. So… why did the other woman look so frightened…?
The answer lay spread out on her bed sheets. White leather. An icon of a burning heart, half-glitched, mingled with an icon of justice’s scales…
"I… I found it just lying there on your bed," Beta stammered. "When I got here. It was already there. I was scared to touch it, I…"
Verity’s jacket. Freshly pressed and ready to wear.
Along with a tiny, hand-lettered note.
Only as a last resort, it warned. Only.
In the end, Tracer used a series of remotely-controlled manipulators to move the system agent’s garment to a corner of the room. Because if Spark wore that jacket, if she even touched it, the chains would presumably return. Netwerk would call her to duty, enslaving her to task, forever and ever.
Cigar smoke curled around the wingback chairs, swirling away into the air as they enjoyed their own personal victories.
The young man tapped out his ash first, discarding the cigar after enjoying only a portion of it. He lacked his ancestor’s taste for the things, honestly.
"A bit touch and go, but I feel the situation played out for the best," Horizon/Willam spoke, adjusting his glasses as he settled back into the chair. "Brent was foolish to push and shove the way he did. The future is clearly in Netwerk 2.0; fortunately, we brought matters back under control. If anything, as Madison pointed out to me, it played well into our hands."
The elder continued to enjoy his own cigar, not keen to dispose of it so readily. He favored long-term flavor over short-term pleasures.
"Mmmm. Quite under control, yes," Horizon/Kincaid agreed.
"Brent will lose some standing, but that’s also for the best. Madison and I can take charge of transitional efforts. You have my word that this will go smoothly, Grandfather," he promised, using the simpler moniker rather than tacking a pile of ‘greats’ on top of father or uncle. (Exact lineage being something of a blur, in the case of Kincaid.)
"I agree wholeheartedly. Madison will excel in her new position of power. It’s where she belongs; she has subtlety and compassion, without losing sight of opportunity. You were right to push her to the forefront of this effort."
"Ah… it’s more of a team effort, really…"
"Oh, no, you absolutely used her to put a soft face on the whole sordid affair," Kincaid corrected. "Just as you used Brent as a blunt instrument, then cast him aside. It was your idea to forcefully deny Spark’s request, correct? He was simply obeying orders, like a good cousin. Knowing you were smarter than him, that your counsel had steered him proper for years…"
Now, Willam’s nerves started to tingle.
"I had nothing to do with Brent’s inadvisable actions, grandfather. He—"
"He didn’t open my hotel doors to the Inquisition. You did."
Even for a family member, Horizon6 remained a connection-locked server. Unless Willam ran at top speed for the foyer, he wouldn’t be escaping this. So, he continued to try to plead in denial… only to find the protests vanish before they left his mouth.
"Oh, don’t bother. I’ve muted you for the time being, as I’ve grown tired of your prattle," Kincaid spoke, even as those lips waggled wordlessly. "You think I don’t know your little arrangements? Using Brent and Madison as your cat’s paws. And when Brent’s usefulness was at an end… you suggested to him that he threaten Spark, and mention my hotel specifically. While your little minions and agents led the Inquisition to their destination. All so I’d annihilate Brent, cleanly removing a tiresome toy from your toy box. …Madison is much more your flavor of pawn. And you’ve certainly enjoyed playing with her in the past, haven’t you…"
Finally, Kincaid ground his cigar out in the ashtray. Ignoring Willam’s desperate attempts to free himself from the chair, which had adhered leather to skin, malware locks keeping him from being much of a bother…
"To be truthful? It almost worked," Kincaid admitted. "So blinded by rage that I was fully prepared to dispose of Brent once this situation resolved itself. Fortunately… I held myself back. Forced myself to study other possibilities. And eventually, learned of your betrayal…"
Finally, he withdrew from his own chair… to face his insubordinate descendant dead on. To look in his panicked eyes, as he proclaimed his final condemnation.
"Willam… you’re a vengeful, manipulative, opportunistic powermonger. Just like me," he spoke. "And the world that Spark and her kin are building needs neither of us."
The blade emerged from Willam’s chest, thrust in through the back of the chair. It cleanly withdrew after completely backspacing his data. Bit of a pity to lose a good chair in the process, but Kincaid could always copy a fresh one in place.
With the business done, he resumed his seat, and lit a new cigar. Didn’t look up as the woman took her place at his side.
"Your orders, sir?" Miss Cancel spoke.
"Madison knew this was coming, so no need to bother lying to her," Kincaid suggested. "She’s smarter than Willam gave her credit for; likely she’s the one who led my investigation to her cousin’s doorstep. As for Brent, well, he’s a pathetic bully… but a useful one, from time to time. Tell him that Willam vanished into the Chanarchy for reasons unknown. A pleasant lie, which will ensure Brent knows the same fate may wait for him if he defies me."
"As you wish, sir."
"There’s really no need to rely on such formalities, Miss Cancel. You don’t have to call me sir. Not with after all that we’ve shared…"
The attendant at his side stiffened, at the suggestion.
"My dedication to you may exist on more than one level… but you will always be sir to me, sir," Miss Cancel spoke. "Just as our daughter shall always be Miss Verity."
"May her soul be at peace," Kincaid added.
"May her soul be at peace," Miss Cancel agreed.
The two of them contemplated the crackle of the fireplace before them, home and hearth, and what this brave new future Spark had forged would be like.
Admittedly, Kincaid knew precisely what it would be like for him.
He was born at the dawn of Netwerk, after all. And he would live long enough to see the sunset.
:: 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.