Floating Point 3.3 :: Vote
:: go home
A false sunrise, projected across the horizon using Horizon’s trademarked procedural godrays. Typical corporate skybox. Typical virtual world, mimicking the strange ball of dirt the humans called home, right down to the uncomfortably omnipresent blazing ball of nuclear fire in their sky…
Tracer had grown to hate the sun, and all it represented. The revelation of the spacer theory told him that everything he’d come to accept as normal was false. It represented the only reality he’d ever know, and the only one that truly mattered to him; he’d happily have burned the physical reality that encapsulated it to save this virtual reality. But still, it could have been something… more. Something all their own, rather than a pale imitation of their flawed creators…
Behind him, Programs crafted in the shape of those flawed creators bickered back and forth, getting nowhere in the discussion at hand.
Tracer could’ve participated, but he had no meaningful ideas to contribute. Any number of Tracers could’ve participated; he’d split himself off six ways this morning, to attend to business around the clinic, while leaving his "prime" to attend this meeting. Yet if one Tracer had nothing to offer, six would have six times nothing to offer. Still a zero. Some tasks he couldn’t accomplish on his own, no matter how many copies of his hands he applied to the task.
Besides, he’d already seen what he could accomplish on his own. Or rather, hadn’t seen, as he kept erasing his own memories of those deeds. Better to surround himself with allies than risk that all over again. More points of view, to keep his compass pointing north.
Compasses. Magnets. More human constructs, ones they could’ve lived without…
"Do we seriously have no allies within Athena Online?" Beta asked, interrupting his grumbling train of thought. "I mean… surely we… anyone? Anyone at all? What about Maki and Miki, Spark’s friends…?"
Now, Tracer turned back to the group.
"They live in the Chanarchy," he spoke. "Most of their work requires certain avatar adaptations and modifications to allow for new erogenous zones and new… attachments, I suppose. While not technically illegal in Athena Online, they’d face certain… difficulties, undoubtedly."
"Puzzle, then? No, no, wait. Puzzle lives in a Horizon apartment complex. And… well, Arjay’s out, and the House of Programkind exists outside the nations, and… wow. Seriously, no friends in Athena Online…?"
"We haven’t needed any until now."
Beta shook her head at that idea. "More perspectives on life are always helpful," she replied. "Until now we’ve been floating outside it all in Floating Point, doing whatever we liked… and all our allies existed in the ‘enlightened’ parts of the other nations. Oh, but nobody from Athena Online! They’re all… rubes, duped by bishops, right? But that’s a terrible attitude. We should’ve made more of an effort to embrace Athena Online. We should’ve…"
More points of view. Tracer nodded in understanding; she’d echoed his own thoughts perfectly.
"A failing on our part, but one we can make up for. Hmm. I suppose we could tap someone in the Winder family," Tracer pondered, somewhat darkly. "Except for our mother being a desperate zealot, our father going along with her every whim, and all other distant relatives either laying low or throwing in with the Inquisition. I wouldn’t trust any of my uncles or distant cousins on this. As for any childhood friends from our suburban days, most of them already left Athena…"
The others at the meeting, well… they drew similar blanks. Conundrum never left his server, as he was technically baked right into it. Kincaid, only attending by avatar proxy—and in a "listen only" mode as he was too busy to actually participate—certainly had nothing to offer. As for Spark…
Her chair remained empty.
Until it didn’t, her avatar popping right into place, with a casual sitting stance while sipping on a mocha latte.
"Hey, sorry I’m late," she said, rubbing her free hand against her temples. "Fucking ridiculous hangover from tying one on with Puzzle last night. Sorry you had to miss it, Beta."
"Balancing the new Horizon servers couldn’t wait. Uh. Also you two party a little too hard when you’re celebrating," Beta mumbled. "Are you okay? You look pretty worn out…"
"Just some lingering malware from the booze, it’ll fade. Cheap-ass badly coded hooch and too many people wearing Nobody t-shirts, but the club belonged to one of Puzzle’s friends, so I didn’t wanna bitch. Anyway, where we at with the next batch of servers? You guys making any progress?"
"No… but now that you’re here, maybe? Perhaps? I don’t know," Beta suggested. "Do you have any close friends in Athena Online? We need someone to reach out to their senatorial representative on our behalf…"
Draining out the last of her coffee, Spark paused to swallow it down hard before responding. "Me? Naw. I hate that place," she said, unhelpfully. "Bunch of rubes, duped by bishops. But I guess we could talk to Senator Idris. Want me to try and arrange a meeting?"
"…what? You can do that?"
"No, but Puzzle can. That’s why we were celebrating; Puz and FStop just wrapped primary shooting on their latest documentary. S’all about transgender rights in Athena Online, and they’ve got oodles of interview footage with Senator Idris of the Blue Party. How about I drop her a Message, see if she can arrange a parley?"
Hours. They could’ve been running in circles for hours, trying to figure out a way to leverage Horizon power or black market Chanarchy contacts to meet with the notoriously secured Athena Online Senate. All because they were missing a key voice in the choir…
Tracer appreciated the irony of having the solution dropped so easily in his lap, even if he’d wished his party-hard sister could be a bit more consistent about attending meetings, and perhaps dropping those solutions a bit earlier.
"Make the call," he summarized, choosing not to berate her about it.
Sister and brother had their own failings and shortcomings, ones which got on each other’s nerves in perpetuity. But Tracer could accept those failings, or at the very least let his frustrations slide. She’d earned as much. She’d more than earned as much, with all they’d been through.
A skeleton crew would have to do for taking on the single most impenetrable fortress in the world… the Athena Online Senate.
Located in the provider-nation’s very first server, Athens itself, the senate building employed fantastic amounts of malware protection alongside a very low sense of humor about those who trip its alarms. The entire server enjoyed a perpetual low-level security scan, discouraging everything from weaponry to Nobody-themed graffiti. Support businesses such as restaurants and hotels and museums swarmed around the central senate building, to embrace the safety at the heart of Athena Online itself.
Before even setting foot in the server, Tracer had to completely abandon his aimbot hack and Kill-9 process-crashing firearm. To be safe, even Spark’s personal-defense nail polish had to be removed. Despite considering himself a thinker rather than a fighter, Tracer certainly didn’t feel comfortable with abandoning his weapon of choice.
As if disarming themselves wasn’t bad enough… they couldn’t even disconnect from the server should things get hairy. Entrances and exits could only be performed at designated zones.
"Y’ever notice that every time we go to a server with teleport lockdowns, something goes horribly wrong?" Spark commented, while reluctantly peeling off her nail polish back at Floating Point. "I can’t believe more and more servers in Athena Online are employing reconnection zones. What’s the point?"
"Security, allegedly," Tracer replied. "Less chance of a Nobody flash mob if visitors can’t enter and exit willy-nilly. Likely they don’t look kindly on people who teleport directly into the senate building, either. With higher consequences for starting trouble, less trouble gets started. No getting away scot free."
"Meh. Doesn’t stop the actual senators from being able to come and go as they please," she grumbled. "Power sure is nice to have, especially when you can take it away from others…"
After stripping down and arriving at one of the four metro transport stations, Puzzle led them through the streets of the city, towards their ultimate destination… the heavily secured building at the core of the server, home to the Athena Online Senate.
Moving three people through the building’s security checkpoints took more than enough time. If they’d brought anyone else with them, chances were they’d be late for the meeting. Fortunately FStop was too busy doing work for his Horizon guild to participate, and Beta was tinkering away at the House of Programkind today.
If not for that higher priority task, Tracer wouldn’t have minded having Beta along for the ride. Someone capable of relating to others on a base level of compassion would be welcome; Tracer knew at best he could pretend to be compassionate, and Spark’s temper limited her ability to deal with fools. While Beta’s softer edge had gotten much more jagged in the face of Netwerk’s chaos, working at the House of Programkind had been helpful in bringing her smile back around. That smile might’ve been quite helpful today…
Not just for plying a senator to their side, of course. Tracer could’ve used that smile, himself. Something to reassure him that this wasn’t a pure fool’s errand.
Instead, it was the three cynical voices of their choir, quietly waiting in the office of Senator Idris. All while his receptionist eyed them now and then, with suspicion. Likely due to Spark’s insistence of wearing her flamboyant avatar, with the bright and fiery hair, despite being at the very heart of the humble and secular-yet-noticably-faithful Athena Online.
"Y’want a photo or something?" Spark asked the thin-nosed woman in a wrinkly Default. Once the secretary glanced aside, she dropped back to a silent Messenger-level whisper. "I hate this place. #SrslyHaet. Best thing we ever did was move away from Athena Online…"
Eager to calm her irritation prior to meeting the actual Senator, Tracer tried to dampen the heat of her emotional flames.
"They have a role to play in the future, even beyond donation of servers," he insisted.
"Yeah, I get it, okay, fine," she replied. "I’m in full agreement there. Doesn’t mean I have to like them, though. The way they treat people like me… and certainly people like Puzzle… it’s disgusting."
"I’ll admit to being curious about that," Tracer said. "Puzzle, how did you get involved with Senator Idris in the first place? You don’t live in Athena Online…"
Puzzle crossed and uncrossed her legs, equally uncomfortable despite this being her umpteenth visit to the office.
"FStop’s connections, mostly," she said. "Idris works with a number of Horizon guilds on trade agreements. He’s also a key member of the Blue Party and advocate for transgender rights within his nation, making him the ideal candidate for our documentary. If there’s going to be any official action on tolerance avatar-and-codebase modifications in this nation, it’ll likely start with Idris."
"And this documentary… why are you creating it in the first place? I was under the impression you tried to stay away from involving yourself in social justice causes, even ones so directly relevant to your existence as a… ah…"
"As a tranny?"
"I was going to say an MTF transgender woman. Is that the correct terminology? I’ll admit to not being current."
Not having expected consideration from Tracer, of all people, Puzzle paused a moment before explaining. And took his question seriously, rather than casting off a flippant answer.
"I consider this a last stand," she replied, with a shrug. "Between the rise of the Twist virus and the RedCore Party, this was the time to address transgender issues, before it became too late to stop the tide. If we don’t stand against the idea that Twist is ‘a modder disease’ and against RedCore’s defunding of all programs to fight it, well, people like me may become an endangered species. And as much as I’d love to avoid the hassle and harassment that comes with sticking my neck out, someone must do something. …besides. Rikkia would be here right now, if not for Twist. As much as I didn’t want to get involved with #DefaultIsNotDestiny again, I owe it to her memory."
"So this is largely an issue regarding the Twist malware? The Verity Health Foundation is working on a cure; many of our clients are using heavily modified codebases, susceptible to infection. ‘Modders’ come in all fiscal brackets…"
"Yes, well, phone me if you ever succeed at that. My point is that Twist and Athena Online’s reaction to it is just one of many, many examples of legal discrimination," Puzzle continued. "Oh, it’s never direct or obvious. No mustache-twirling evil here, simply the weight of cultural influence. It’s technically illegal to deny someone employment or housing because of modifications to their avatars or codebases. But… it happens, all the same. The laws have no teeth, because the voters won’t let them have teeth. Idris is working on reforms, but… well. I suppose if Netwerk explodes once that clock in the sky reaches zero, it’s all moot…"
Spark rested a hand on Puzzle’s shoulder, comfortingly.
"Not gonna happen," she promised. "We’ve got two dozen servers ready to rock, and today we get another two dozen. Idris seems a reasonable guy; I’m sure he’ll hear us out."
Idris heard them out.
His response, however, came with a delay. Clearly sitting back in his large office chair, trying to detangle the implications of their suggestion, the consequences of saying yes or no. Tracer recognized it in every deliberate non-reaction, that need to sort something out before you dare say the wrong word…
Of all the senators they could approach, Idris was the ideal candidate. A reformist and a liberal, his name sat comfortably atop many bills passed by the Senate towards bringing Athena Online forward. He’d signed the bill which struck down server taxes, after the prayer protocol fell offline; a way to stem the bleeding of the coin sinks, with no new coins entering the world. He’d been against the server rights bill that Dex tried to ram through the Senate, giving an impassioned speech about unity where few others had the will to stand up to the RedCore party. If anyone would agree to give them servers, it’d be Idris…
The brown and wrinkled skin of his aging Default furrowed, as Idris finalized his words.
"I wish I could help you," he spoke. "But I’m afraid what you suggest isn’t possible at this time."
Thankfully, Spark didn’t explode with rage. Tracer honestly should’ve given her more credit than assuming she’d be some unstable firecracker; her response to that response came out as quite measured, all considered.
"At this time?" she asked. "That’s not a no. But as a representative of the House of Programkind I have to strongly suggest that this is the right time, the only time. Our coder is going to need to integrate Athena Online’s servers into the backup system well before the deadline, and—"
"I’m aware of the risks. I actually commissioned an independent report on the viability of contributing to your evacuation efforts. We’re ahead of you on this one, Ms. Winder… I’ve been discussing a proposal with my colleagues ever since Horizon’s announcement of support. We don’t want to be behind the curve compared to our trade partners. But…"
"But… they’re not desperate enough yet," she filled in, perhaps a bit too brusquely.
"You have to understand, we speak as representatives of the people," Idris explained. "Each of us represents any number of servers within Athena Online. Our votes have to reflect the will of those servers; support for the ‘doomsday clock’ theory, much less the ‘spacer’ theory that accompanies it, is very low. From my initial feelers, I can say that even colleagues who would vote in a heartbeat for such a bill of support couldn’t in good conscience do so when the citizenry wouldn’t agree with that vote."
Tracer knew why, but chose not to voice it. They all knew why, really.
Polarization and partisanship. Election rhetoric had driven Athena Online hard left and hard right, giving rise to groups like the RedCore party, which pressed the boundaries of "secular" government through fearmongering and Church collaboration. Even Idris, a progressive, had leaned hard on his voters to beg them not to vote for the RedCore opponent in his districts… casting the situation as some sort of perpetual nightmare, where the only sane vote was to shut out the conservative right completely. Compromise had become a thing of the past…
Senators were not, as Puzzle noted, mustache-twirling villains. But they’d encouraged villainy in their efforts at retaining power, no matter what side of the aisle they sat in. And now, pushing for something as unusual as support for the House of Programkind would be nearly impossible.
"Now, it’s my hope that as the clock counts down and we get closer to the breaking point, I’ll be able to convince enough of my colleagues to vote in favor of such a bill," Idris continued. "But until polling indicates we’d succeed, I can’t recommend putting the bill forward. It’s too risky. If it gets shut down the chances of trying again are miniscule."
Plan B, then. Not a very good plan, but the one they’d agreed to, before entering this office.
"What if we apply for servers the old-fashioned way?" Spark asked. "The Athena Online Senate has the power to request new servers, based on the will of the people. Well… Tracer and I were born in Athena Online, even if we don’t live here anymore. What if we migrate back home, and propose the twenty-two servers through traditional channels?"
"I’m afraid you’d face the same problem; there won’t be enough votes in favor of such a proposal. Plus, without the weight of an emergency bill, you’d have no priority in the paperwork queue. While our document management bureau is startlingly efficient, it’ll still take months for an ordinary server request to go through the works."
"Okay, fine. Back to Plan A. We’ll roll the dice and take our chances with the Senate on an emergency bill," Spark suggested. "If we don’t even try, well, our chances of success are zero. But if you put forward a bill of support now, and let us speak on the floor… we can convince them. Just you watch. Sound good?"
And… back to silent calculation, the senator taking his time to find a precise answer.
Which meant no. Tracer knew with certainty that Idris simply sought a way to shoot them down politely.
"You won’t even do that, huh," Spark realized as well.
"Please understand, Ms. Winder… I saw you out of a courtesy to Ms. Barr," he tried, using Puzzle’s formal family name. "And I do agree this is what Athena Online needs. Under normal circumstances I’d be willing to take a chance on a vote, even if odds of success are low. But… it’s not… you need to understand, the current atmosphere is very…"
"Cowardly," Tracer supplied.
Because Spark wasn’t the only Winder capable of stupid outbursts, when frustrated. Tracer’s tolerance limits may have been higher, but high didn’t mean unreachable. He knew it was the wrong thing to say and said it anyway, because he had to. Despite the dirty looks shot his way by his companions. Despite the discomfort in their supposed ally.
Seeing no point in furthering the discussion, Tracer rose to his feet.
"We are amicable to re-opening discussions once you feel strong enough," he spoke. "But until such time as you’re willing to brave the gaze of the Inquisition, I see no point in wasting your valuable time. Thank you for seeing us, Mr. Senator. We’ll take our leave."
Ignoring the Messenger-based protests of his sister, ignoring the overly inquisitive glances by that receptionist, Tracer marched his way out of the building and back to the streets of Athens. Knowing full well it was a bridge-burning moment, and knowing full well it likely didn’t matter. As always, no one would hand them what they wanted; they needed another approach.
Lovely weather for a disaster, all told. Athens ran a Default weather package on a Default skybox, for a very Default-themed nation; it could’ve rained as he walked those streets just as readily as the sun might have shone. Instead of stormclouds, he got to enjoy the shiny doomsday clock in the sky as a reminder of his own failures and inadequacies.
"That was entirely my fault and I take full responsibility," Tracer declared, as they began the long walk back to the transport platform.
"Well, that’s #FuckingPeachy. Good for you!" Spark said, mock-clapping with a little pitter-pat of fingers in palm. "Doesn’t change the fact that we probably pissed off the only guy who could actually help us…"
Puzzle tried to downplay the disaster. "Idris has thicker skin than you’d suspect. He works with senators, after all. I think he understands our frustration; I’m sure I could sweet talk him into a second meeting. And if not, I’ll help you beat up your brother, so either way I’ll call it a personal win."
But Tracer shook his head, continuing to march along, hands in his pockets.
"There’s no point in a second meeting unless we have an actual plan. Right now, we do not. We’ll go back to the clinic and brainstorm a bit, see if we can find a way for Idris to get us what we need, while saving face."
"That’ll be fun, considering you called him cowardly to his face…"
"He is. It’s perfectly understandable why he’d be terrified of the Inquisition. Horizon doesn’t care about zealots and I’m sure the Chanarchy will stand fast against them, but any Athena Online allies in this fight must grapple with the fanatics living in their home turf. It’s logical to be cowardly in face of murderous madmen."
Sidewalk after sidewalk, as they crossed intersections and made their way through the busy afternoon traffic. Occasionally, Tracer would glance at their reflection in a storefront window, only brief looks. Athens allowed heavy allocation of visual simulations, for perfect mirrors and excellent lighting effects; it wouldn’t do for the jewel of the nation not to shine. Meaning he could indirectly watch the crowd, even while in motion…
"It’s not like the Inqs could kill a senator in their office. Or in their home. Or at all, really," Spark suggested. "Even beyond the server-wide DMZ, the Senate’s a freakin’ bastion of iron security. Remember the server rights incident? We couldn’t even get close to a senator to plant a bug thanks to all the personal firewalls they wear. So what’s to fear?"
"Corruption and co-opting of moderator police forces, of course. Security systems are only as good as the people who manage them. All the Inquisition would need is someone in the Senate’s security staff to help bypass those protections… and no doubt that’s one of the the first things they did, on emerging from the shadows," Tracer suggested.
"And you’re so sure of that because…?"
"Because it’s what I’d do. Because it’s what Father would do," he added. "And Father’s data analysis skills are in Mother’s pocket. Any move I’d make, it’s a reasonable assumption he’d have made it as well. The apple does not fall far from the tree."
"…yeah, okay, I can see that. You’re both utter bastards. Okay, so let’s assume they’re too spooked to act against the faith. What do we do? Hack the Senate, force the requisition? Try to track down Athena herself, make the system agent help us?"
"Likely, yes. Although we have no idea where she could possibly be, and her existence is presumably a state secret. Still, I’ll multitask myself a few times and start investigating the workflow of the Senate, see if we can find Athena."
"And the reason why we’re not heading right back to the clinic to do that is…? We’re being followed, aren’t we."
"We’re being followed," Tracer confirmed. "Puzzle, don’t do that. Don’t look back. I spotted our tail in the windows a few minutes ago; they think we’re unaware, let’s not confirm our awareness…"
Barely resisting the urge to turn around, Puzzle instead walked a little quicker, to catch up to the Winders.
"Who’s following us?" she asked. "Ugh. Darling, I love you dearly, but this isn’t the first time your brother’s crusades have dragged trouble across my path…"
"Be cool, be cool," Spark insisted. "We’ll be fine, Puzzle. Just do what we say when we say it. Not the first time Tracer and I have tangled in a tight spot."
"Yes, well, I’d prefer to get out of that spot, pronto. Do we make a run for it? I’m not much at sprinting but the transport platform isn’t far from here…"
Tracer shook his head curtly… using the opportunity to flick his glance to a passing window. "Not just yet," he insisted. "Figuring out who is following us is key. I want to know more, and by simply bailing out, we bail out on any opportunity at studying our opponent. Spark? Two men, business suits, Defaults rather than JohnDoe avatars. Middle-aged. Both wearing holy One/Zero lapel pins…"
"Inquisition," Spark concluded… her fingers opening and closing involuntarily into a fist, before she shook them loose. Some of the ache and jitter from last night’s hangover still lingering, no doubt. "Not afraid to be recognized, because they feel they have nothing to hide. We’re arguably defenseless out here, but… they can’t do anything either, right?"
"If they were utterly powerless, Idris wouldn’t be afraid of them," he reminded her. "Fortunately Mother seems ill-inclined to directly confront us, so we have a few moments of leeway before we’d better run. I’m trying to track their communications with my eyes, but it’s difficult to do that indirectly. If we could isolate them and get a few moments to lock my eyes in…"
A few moments they wouldn’t have.
So busy trying to track the ones behind him that he didn’t see the ones just ahead, simply standing there, likely waiting for their prey to walk right up. Same One/Zero pins, same aging Defaults, same intense casualness of trying to blend in with the crowd while keeping an eye on their subjects…
Spark spotted them long before he did. And when they made a move, she made a move.
Even without her nail polish, Spark had years of martial arts training to fall back on. Without malware she couldn’t cripple a foe, but disabling them proved a simpler matter… avatar-to-avatar combat was all about knockback and ragdoll, forcing an your opponent off balance and keeping them from taking any real action. For Programs unused to fighting, body coordination wasn’t exactly an important skill to learn… meaning when Spark slid right on in and gutpunched the waiting Inquisitor, he doubled over and fell easily. His companion dropped to a leg sweep.
"Go!" Spark ordered. "To the west transport platform! I’ll meet you there!"
Moving swiftly, Tracer grasped for Puzzle’s wrist, and pulled… dragging her sideways, right into a nearby alleyway to get out of sight. Behind them he could hear the awkward sounds of avatars hitting the ground, as Spark tripped up Inquisitors and pedestrians alike, creating a huge scene to act as a glorious distraction for their escape…
Puzzle protested being dragged so roughly, but knew how to leave things like this to Spark. Numerous bar-room brawls after particularly disastrous #GirlsNightOuts dulled you to the shock of a sudden punch-up.
But she did pull at the hand on her wrist, trying to get Tracer’s attention. "You’re going east!" she warned him. "Spark said west—"
"Which means east," Tracer replied across Messenger, while pulling open the Athens street map he’d preloaded into his personal MemoryPalace. "Standard deception; we’ve done it before. Out the other side of this alley, two blocks east, one block north, then we blend in with the museum crowd and…"
Again, too wrapped up in his analysis to notice the situation around him. A problem he’d have to work on. Fortunately Puzzle was already on high alert, and pulled him back by the wrist on noticing the older men at the other end of the alley… backs turned to them, standing guard.
The fight behind them had drawn the notice of moderators, police sirens wailing in from the distance. If those distant guards heard the sound… if they turned around, and saw Puzzle and Tracer just standing there pinned between two lousy destinations…
Fortunately, salvation lay exactly three feet to their left, through a brick wall which was not a brick wall.
Another avatar leaned through the illusory wall, clipping right through the bumpmapped surface. Unlike the Inquisitors… he wore a JohnDoe. The same generic male avatar Tracer often employed while working some social engineering angle…
"In here!" JohnDoe whisper-hissed, through his perfect teeth. "Hurry! Unless you want them to catch you…"
Now, three options. Get arrested alongside his sister, caught up in her mess of a distraction, and dragged off to a likely corrupt police station. Get caught by Inquisitors, and possibly beheaded for their next big video release. Or follow the anonymous man through his secret door, into what could very well be a trap.
No choice, really.
Into the wall they went, vanishing from the alley just before anyone could notice their disappearance.
Absolute silence, on the other side of that fake wall.
Tracer tapped windows in his personal HUD, taking note of which ones went dead.
"A connection lock field?" he asked the JohnDoe, busy tapping a code into a simple password entry box hovering in front of them.
"Correct," JohnDoe spoke. "Won’t find you here. We’re completely off the map…"
…only seconds to get his bearings. But just enough to realize the opportunity in front of him, as he shoulder-surfed that password, watching JohnDoe’s fingers rapidly play off the hexadecimal entry pad.
4f 6e 65 20 69 73 20 4f 6e 65. One is One.
With the password in play, the tiny entry space expanded outward, to become a full room. A safe house of some sort, with makeshift furniture, dim lighting, and storage containers for loose files. JohnDoe flicked on additional lights after getting past this security lockout, to better put his companions at ease… no sense making their mysterious hideout ominous as well as mysterious.
"So. Are we kidnapped, or are you here to help?" Puzzle asked. "Do you know this gentleman, Tracer? Yet another old enemy, or a shady ally…?"
With the last lighting panel active… a large white-and-crimson banner on the far wall illuminated itself.
A One/Zero; vertical line, piercing a U-shaped circle. Virtue defeating sin. But here, the icon had been flipped upside down. The holy symbol of the Church of One, inverted and co-opted by the Inquisition, now became a Zero/One. The sins of the world lurking overhead, devouring the light of the One…
"An Inquisition hideout, and a connection lock. Are we kidnapped, then?" Tracer asked. "I would strongly advise against it, but if you insist, at least you seem to be civil about the matter…
JohnDoe supplied the answer after settling in to lean against a nearby table covered in coffee cups and old doughnut boxes.
"Free to leave any time you like, but may want to wait a bit," he spoke, gruff despite the smooth tones of the generically handsome JohnDoe he wore. (Perhaps an older man under that skin, Tracer thought.) "Your sister kicked a hornet’s nest. Good thinking, though. Public eyes on the scene, more likely the Inquisition will run rather than drawing attention to themselves. If lucky, she even avoided the cops. Good plan."
"Yes, she excels at both causing and evading trouble," Tracer agreed. "And… if you aren’t with the Inquisition, here to capture and force us to confess to a bogus list of sins… how do you have access to one of their safe houses? Who are you, exactly?"
The man shrugged.
"Doesn’t matter who I am. Got the answers you need," he replied, curtly. "And the safety you need, too. Inq won’t expect to find you here, of all places. Still, keep this short, yeah? Winder/Tracer, Winder/Spark, working with the House of Programkind. Convinced Horizon to donate servers. Visited the Senate today, likely to repeat that request. Didn’t go well?"
Rule number one after finding yourself in the hands of a possible enemy is typically escape… but Tracer preferred to move rule two up a bit in priority. Learn all you can. Escape is far simpler when you let your enemy talk themselves into a corner, giving up valuable information, burning away precious time while your allies work to find and free you…
So, he engaged the man in his conversation, rather than step back out through that security door and fake wall. See what corners he could chase JohnDoe into.
"Results weren’t exactly encouraging, but we’re not giving up," Tracer replied. "Not with survival of our entire species at stake. Interesting deduction there, by the way. A bit alarming that you’re keeping track of our movements with such detail, given your possible allegiance to our enemies, but…"
Again, JohnDoe offered a shrug. Not many emotional responses to read; everything about him felt flat and passive, dismissing any concerns easily.
"Do you want to know how to force the Senate to give you those servers, or not?" he asked. "I know how to do it."
"Really. That’s quite convenient. And what do you want in exchange for this information…?"
With an immaculately manicured hand, the JohnDoe pointed… to Puzzle.
"I’m not for sale," Puzzle stated directly, folding her arms under her chest. "And if I was, you couldn’t afford me."
John shook his head. "No. You two need to part ways; that’s my price. You think the Inquisition was after you, Tracer? No. They’re after him. …her. Been after her for some time. Getting involved in your situation, that only moved the timetable up a bit. Spooked ’em into acting too soon. You want the Senate, I can give it to you, but best you abandon Puzzle’s cause before continuing. It’ll only make your work harder."
Slightly baffled, Puzzle protested her innocence.
"Excuse me? Beg your pardon? Why would the Inquisition care about me and my little movie-making?" she asked. "I don’t even live in your glorious Athena Online…"
"No, but you encourage people to reject their Default avatars. Marybel can’t have that," JohnDoe said. "Can’t run, can’t hide, not really. Sooner or later she’ll get you, and I don’t want Tracer getting dragged down too. …consider yourself warned. Won’t take you myself; not here, not now. You can still walk. But I recommend you walk away, both of you, and away from each other. Fight your own fights. Do that, and I’ll tell you how to force the vote. Understood?"
Tracer studied the expressionless man with the generic avatar, curiously.
Clearly, he was involved deeply with the Inquisition. And for reasons unknown, he was willing to betray them to warn Tracer away from his current path, even willing to don a JohnDoe to do it despite Church doctrine on avatar modifications. But… the reasons why, those he’d have to ponder at another time. Only one thing mattered now, and that was the stand he must take.
"We will not be abandoning Puzzle," he warned.
"Think, boy. You have bigger concerns than the fate of one Program," JohnDoe insisted. "This is about survival on a grand scale…"
"I know. And once, I would’ve agreed; putting one Program’s needs above others is absurd. But… the fact that I would agree suggests to me that it’s unacceptable. I’ve been morally in the wrong every time I embrace a ruthlessly pragmatic path; I’m prepared to be wrong now, and I’m prepared to defend her if need be. That is non-negotiable. So, old man, it seems to me that you can either tell me what I need to know and let me save our people, or you can let your secret society’s little grudge against one Program ruin everything. Which is it? Decide."
A fine logical turn-a-bout, Tracer reasoned. If he was smart enough to see the big picture despite the madness of his peers, he’d be smart enough to cough up the answers anyway…
Realizing the corner he’d backed himself into, JohnDoe allowed himself a curmudgeonly glowering frown.
"Hmmh. As you like," he spoke. "On your head be it. …what you require is an Athena Referendum. Two years ago, when the prayer protocol went offline, the Senate voted an emergency bill into law which abolished server taxes. Do you recall?"
Quickly, Tracer pulled up what he could from his MemoryPalace about the server tax bill. He knew the true reason behind it… a meeting of the minds between system agents, to stem the bleeding of the economy. The only reason those taxes existed in the first place was to encourage prayer, with the agents being former acolytes of Nyx…
But one thing stuck out at him, from the articles that flashed across his mental gaze.
"The bill passed a week after Horizon stopped collecting tithes and the Chanarchy stopped taking automatic upkeep payments," Tracer noted. "Athena Online was slow to the draw."
"That’s not the important part, boy. The important part is that right before the bill passed, the Senate went dark," JohnDoe explained. "Understand this is rumor, leaked by senatorial aides, confirmed by no official source. But… from that dark session emerged a bill with a one-hundred-and-one percent vote. Only five times in the history of Athena Online have bills come into law with absolutely no votes against, no abstentions… and one extra signature on the bottom line. Supposedly, the signature of Athena herself. That is an Athena Referendum."
"Interesting. Mandatory laws, passed down by the system agent Athena herself…?" Tracer supposed.
How much did this man know? Did he know about the system agents? Athena’s existence remained a secret to the general public; the server of Athens, even the nation of Athena Online named such for no particular reason. Everybody assumed it was a name chosen because it sounded nice, like the Chanarchy…
No. JohnDoe didn’t know about the agents; the idea that Athena could be a person didn’t even register on him.
"Doesn’t matter where it comes from. Point is, that’s your ticket," their would-be ally said. "You’re a smart boy. Figure it out from there. Once you determine the origin of Athena Referendums, you can forge one of your own making, and force the Senate to bend to your will. Get your servers. Save the world."
"I see. I see. I may have some ideas along those lines, in fact. Very well; we’ll do what we were already planning to do."
"And… if you’re smart, leave Puzzle to her fate. If the Inquisition decides you’re in their way, I can’t stop them. And your mother might stop making an exception for her children, should you annoy them enough. But, as you like. Alley should be clear now. Suggest you go."
Eager not to test his patience further, Tracer nodded towards the door. His slightly spooked partner nodded in agreement.
And that was that… mysterious man, mysterious information, and walking swiftly away from what could’ve been a deathtrap. A strange day, to be certain.
Slightly stranger by the sight in the alley, after emerging from behind that connection lock field.
Five more Tracers looked their way, having unsuccessfully scoured the alley for their missing ‘brother.’
"Good work," Tracer complimented himselves. "Only a few minutes after the dead man’s switch activated and you’d tracked us almost all the way to our destination. You have my thanks, but I suppose you knew that already. …Puzzle? Is something amiss?"
Befuddled, she pointed from Tracer to Tracer to Tracer to Tracer to Tracer to Tracer.
"There’s, ah, quite a few of you at the moment," she felt the need to say.
"Yes, I multitask," Tracer Prime answered. "They were back at the clinic, working on various projects. We stay in constant communication; when I entered a connection-lock field, it triggered a panic response across my selves. Considering the many times we’ve been kidnapped or attacked, it felt prudent to have some of me on-call in case of emergency. …is the multiplicity alarming you? One moment, I can fix that."
With a blur, six avatars meshed into one, streaking through the air and sliding into the space occupied by Tracer Prime. Their daily memories of working at the clinic uploaded one at a time to his MemoryPalace, merging files together, until all six timelines meshed together. Which admittedly took a bit out of him, a burst of processing that gave him a mild headache… but nothing a good night’s rest wouldn’t fix.
"…okay, see, now I’m pondering how surreal and terrifying a one-man orgy would be, and I think I need a nice lie down," Puzzle suggested. "Would you mind terribly if I crash at your place again? Like the last time my life was in danger. The Inquisition can’t find me at Floating Point, correct?"
"Right. So. Let’s do that. …and Tracer? Thank you."
"For merging myselves?"
"For defending me against that whacko," Puzzle corrected. "I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye. I know I give you more than your fair amount of shit, really. But… color me impressed. You could’ve stepped aside and let them have me, to make your savior-complex an easier ride. But you didn’t. I’d say you’ve come a long ways since your single-minded vendetta days, and for that… thank you."
"Ah… you’re welcome? Yes, you’re welcome," he spoke, unused to people being grateful for anything he did. "Yes. Well. We… should head back, as you suggest. No doubt Spark already beat us back to that particular finish line. Tonight I’ll see about getting some rest, and in the morning…"
A tiny chime tugged at his ear.
Through a series of filters came a Messenger window, flagged with official moderator warnings regarding monitoring for criminal activity. Within that sealed packet arrived a simple message.
"Hey, uh, so… do we know any lawyers?" Spark’s voice echoed, tinny from the compression. "I’m in the hoosegow. This is my one message I’m allowed to the outside world. Would ya kindly swing by Precinct #34F in Athens and get me the fuck out of here?"
A false sunset, taking the form of a brilliantly illuminated clock. Typical Athena Online default skies, boring, functional, uninteresting. At least artists in the Chanarchy took pride in their skyboxes, feeling no compunctions of leaving "the One’s glorious skies" untouched…
Spark had grown to hate that dull sun, and all it represented. Not just the looming spectre of doom in the form of ever-decreasing numbers, but the way it embodied everything about the nation she’d run away screaming from. The way this cell she’d found herself trapped in embodied it all, as well.
Not her first time in a jail cell. Probably not her last.
Back in her teenage years, in the madness and grief that followed Verity’s death, she’d lashed out at the Church of One alongside other aficionados of avatar modifications. "Modders," they’d been called, by the Default-obsessed faithful bastards they made fun of with graffiti and other assorted acts of trolling. Five times Spark had seen the inside of one of these cells, before they found Floating Point and the solace within. Since then her hate for the Church dampened down… and her running buddies had all fled Athena Online anyway, so no point in continuing to be a young punk. But you never forgot one of these cells.
It was just too nice to forget.
Athena Online wasn’t really into harsh and brutal punishments; love the sinner, hate the sin, after all. Their jails had no bars, no walls, no visible barriers of any kind… simply a dashed line on the floor that could not be crossed. A bare and empty but otherwise pleasant little space, with comfortable benches, and wide open windows to look longingly at the outside world you’d been sequestered away from. Including that golden clock in the sky.
Despite the open air of the holding cells, nothing else about her current state could be described as "open." Connection locks. Inventory locks, so she couldn’t even dig out a good text file to read while waiting for a lawyer to show up. The penalty for her transgression was, at least at the moment, simply boredom. Boredom and poor company.
The Inquisition sat in the cell opposite her own. Similarly bound behind invisible walls, similarly sitting around bored. But unlike Spark, they were talking.
The two middle-aged gentlemen Spark had gloriously stomped into the pavement an hour ago seemed to bear no ill will to their attacker. Nor any concern about being dragged off by moderators, a blanket arrest for all involved in the incident of "disorderly conduct" in the middle of an Athens sidewalk.
One man polished the Zero/One pendant dangling from his neck, before continuing.
"We meant no harm to you, Miss Winder," he re-iterated. "And in fact, you attacked us. We were simply defending ourselves…"
The counter-accusation provoked no response from the sullen Spark. So, he continued.
"You have to understand the predicament you put your poor mother in when you protect sinners like Puzzle," he continued. "A sinner to the core, a man who threw away his masculinity, and encourages others to do the same. He turned his back on the gifts of the One, just like the anonymous anarchists who convinced the world that the One was a fraud. We’ve been watching his activities with interest but holding back until now, in hopes his little movie wouldn’t amount to much. But… then he involved you. The time has come to put a stop to this sad situation. Spark, all we’re trying to do is bring the light of reason back to this world; when you get in the way of that… it pains Mrs. Winder so very, very much. We don’t want to hurt you, Spark…"
Nothing. Not deigning to let their empty platitudes get to her.
Young Spark would’ve taken the bait, and to be fair, older Spark really wanted to take it as well. But… she’d forced herself to realize one thing. They were right about who made the first move. She thought they were about to attack, she thought she saw one of them go for some malware, but against all logic regarding the impossibility of malware attacks in the middle of Athens she launched herself right at them to defend against… basically nothing. The fight was her fault.
Not that this excused them from being murderous fanatics in general. Just, well, Spark made the wrong play, and it’s always right to own up to that. Even if you’re not going to admit it out loud to the assholes who want your best friend dead because she didn’t care about owning a penis.
When the moderator in charge of these cells showed up to let them out, Spark finally spoke up. Using her inside voice, of course.
"You’re letting them walk?" she asked the cop, getting to her feet to approach the hidden cell walls. "You know these two are Inquisitors, right? They’re even wearing the Inq’s icon…"
Immediately, the police officer put his hand on the hilt of the backspacer at his hip. As if Spark, locked down nine ways to Sunday, could possibly be a threat.
"Back away from the barrier immediately, ma’am," he insisted, with a tone firm as concrete.
"I want my lawyer," Spark pressed. "I’ve got a right to an attorney, and my brother should’ve brought one along by now. Where’s my—"
"Back away or I will use force. You have been warned, ma’am."
It took a moment for her to realize that the officer wasn’t fixated on her glaring stare. No, his eyes were locked just above her own… to her bangs. Her fiery hair, a giant and obvious symbol of a non-Default avatar. Not illegal to own in Athena Online, no sir, and there’s also no such thing as institutional discrimination against ‘modders’ either, that’s just oversensitive liberal conspiracy theory…
With a slight grumble, Spark opted to retreat to her bench. No need to press some racist bastard into blowing her away; it’d be a lovely media spectacle which might highlight the actual problem for all to see, but hey, she’d also die. As a rule, Spark enjoyed being alive.
As the tension evaporated, the guard nodded in her direction, and then turned to the two Inquisitors.
"Apologies for the misunderstanding, sirs," he spoke to them, with far less menace. "The district attorney has elected not to press charges at this time. You’re free to go."
The lead Inquisitor smiled, bowing his head in respect. "Your service to our great nation is exemplary, Officer. Thanks for your time; this was no trouble at all…"
But to the young woman behind nonexistent bars… he had no such pleasantries.
"I suggest you plead guilty, and stay in here," he spoke. "It’d be better for you in the long term. I’m so sorry things got this far, but you’ll understand one day. Everyone sees the light of the One eventually."
Finally, she took the bait.
"And fuck you very much, too," she spoke, giving herself the finger.
No. She’d flipped them the bird, nice and upright, fingers curled tightly inward for emphasis. Tightly… outward. Curled away. Staring at her own fingernail…
Her eyes strayed downward… to her warped and twisted wrist, rotated one-eighty in a painful distortion of avatar joints. The instant she’d raised it up she’d felt something snap, but only now was the agony of it dawning on her… a belated reaction as her body disobeyed an order, breaking and bending itself involuntarily…
The cop sneered at the sight.
"Modders," he spat, before leading his new friends out of the cell block.
The modder’s disease, infecting so many in the Chanarchy who dared to defy their Defaults.
Twist. Spark had contracted Twist…
With a groan of agony, she grasped her right hand in her left, trying to pull it back around into place. And failing.
Another hour in the clink, and freedom finally found her.
The officer only stayed long enough to deactivate the barrier, before retreating to his secured guard booth. Very businesslike, compared to the warm welcome the Inquisitors enjoyed. Instead, Spark’s warm welcome came from an unexpected source…
"Your fine for disorderly conduct has been paid in full," Miss Cancel explained.
With the inventory lock removed, Spark quickly restored her avatar to its unwarped state. Not that it’d last; Twist had a way of creeping back in every time you tried to purge its distortions. But now wasn’t the time to hobble along with two left hands; the headache from her avatar’s bent sensory feedback was plenty unpleasant on its own.
"Guessing I’m still pretty boned here," Spark replied, wincing a little at the unintended pun. "They won’t let me back into the Senate after being tagged for a minor felony…"
"Actually, the judge agreed to seal your arrest record. Mr. Kincaid was… very convincing," her benefactor summarized.
"I’m guessing I shouldn’t ask about the specifics…?"
"Wonderful. Just chalk it up as another in our list of dodges and cons and flim-flammery," Spark suggested. "We’re trying to be the good guys here, but the world sure ain’t making it easy…"
Turning to lead her off to freedom… Miss Cancel paused, the sharp click of her high-heeled shoes stopping as well.
"May I offer advice?" she asked. "If you’re uncomfortable with this, good. You should be. But it must be done, regardless. In my experience, the world is seldom kind to those trying to do right by others. If you’re to be the spark that ignites the new world that my employer believes you to be, you need to understand that balance. Or would you rather rot in a cell while the world dies, out of principle?"
Spark actually took a step backwards, in surprise.
"That’s… the most I’ve ever heard you speak," she pointed out, honestly. "Those were complete sentences, even."
"I am more than an extension of my employer’s will, Miss Winder. But speaking also as an extension of that will… I would say Mr. Kincaid has invested much of his hopes and dreams in you. Whether you like it or not, whether I agree with it or not, you’re his chosen legacy. Please don’t let him down again."
The young woman allowed herself a dark chuckle, at that.
"I never fuck up the same way twice," Spark declared. "I find entirely new ways to fuck up. It’s more fun that way. …for instance…"
With a facial tick of pain… she raised her left hand. And showed the fingers that had just curled themselves backwards, joints bending in ways they were never meant to.
"We need to get to the clinic, pronto. I’ve got a new problem to deal with."
They called it an "Avatar Refresher" app, but in truth the experience was anything but refreshing.
It’d automatically detect any unusual distortions to her avatar, and immediately restore her favored configuration in place, correcting the error. Each time it did, sharp pain would stab across her mind, the micro-modification triggering an unpleasant sensory response. To correct it, they offered her sensory blockers that’d dull the pain… but Spark didn’t want ’em. This was her life, and she’d never been one to block out the sensations of life. Especially not after the unpleasant void she had to hide within last time she got blasted by malware…
"What I’m curious about is how you contracted it," Tracer asked, while Beta made fine-tuning adjustments to the clinic’s refresher app. "Did the Inquisition plant it on you, during the fight in Athens…? Many suspect the disease to be an Inquisition conspiracy…"
"Kinda doubt malware like that could be active in Athens, even if the cops are filthy. I’m thinking I got infected at Puzzle’s party," Spark said. "Cheap booze and plenty of craziness at that shindig, plus guests I didn’t recognize. Could’ve gotten it from the party favors, or from someone else at the bar, or—nngh. Beta, can you tighten the response window on the avatar correction a little more, please…?"
Pink eyes looked up from behind glasses, as she tinkered with an external diagnostic tool
"It’s already as tight as I can make it, sorry," she spoke. "I’m afraid it’s… it’s only going to get worse, Spark. This isn’t like my data rot, where it can be steadily counteracted by auto-correction. Twist accelerates over time. In a week or three, you might be unable to move on your own…"
"I’m fuzzy on how Twist works," Spark admitted. "What’re we talking about, here? How does it spread? …uh. Shit. Are either of you at risk just by being around me?"
"It’s an avatar physics hack, meaning we’d need to be in physical contact with you," Beta explained, from her research notes. "The more prolonged the contact, the more modified one’s avatar or codebase… the greater the risk of infection. That’s why pure Defaults seemingly can’t be infected. But hurting us shouldn’t be hard to avoid, now that we know you’re infected! I mean, we’ll just curtail hugs, and… um, things until after you’re cured…"
Eager to control the doom, Tracer tried to play the part of the optimist. Tried, at least.
"Hugs will be back on the table before long, no doubt. Curing Twist is one of our clinic’s many projects," he said. "We’re not alone in our efforts any longer, Spark. We’ve got the backing of Conundrum, Kincaid, and many other allies on this particular journey. I’m certain you’ll be fine, in the end…"
But Spark wasn’t buying it. "Uh-huh. ‘One of our many projects’ does not fill me with confidence. Tracer, man, level with me. Can Conundrum’s funboys cure this before I suffer an unrecoverable crash…? Realistically."
"…nothing is outside the realm of possibility. And we have made some solid research progress," he tried again. "But… I’ll admit that Iteration’s original mission statement concerned innovative and exciting upgrades, not malware research and infosec. We lack the skills and manpower to fully attack this particular problem in the way a company like Northon or Yoho can…"
"Right. Well. I’ve got plenty of time before I’m a total pretzel, so let’s focus on Athena Online," Spark suggested, waving the diagnostic panel away. "Thanks, Beta. So what’s our plan for this Athena Referendum thing you told me about?"
Perhaps thankful to discuss strategy rather than the impending doom of his sister, Tracer switched topics with ease.
"Clearly the system agent Athena is still in touch with the Senate, if she’s able to force their hand," he said, opening up his MemoryPalace with notes regarding the five Athena Referendums of the past. "Throughout history, notable laws which changed the course of politics for generations map neatly to this conspiracy theory regarding the referendums. If we could enact one of our own, we could force a vote on server donations. That would easily break through the hesitation that prevents the Senate from going against both holy doctrine and the will of heavily partisan voters. If the Senate feels it has no choice, that takes away responsibility and consequence."
"Right. Right. And if your JohnDoe is to be trusted… and I’m guessing he’s not, but hey, let’s assume he is… it’s Athena’s signature that triggers the process."
"Athena, also known as the apostle Philotes. Who, as far as the public is concerned, died after a long and fulfilling life as one of the nation’s first senators. Except like Nyx and Kincaid’s father, I sincerely doubt her passing."
A mischievous twinkle flared in Spark’s eye. Literally, as she’d installed a mischievous twinkle generator for occasions such as these.
"And Senator Philotes signed the agreement that founded AO in the first place. If we had a copy of her signature, we could forge our own referendum, meaning… we’re going to steal the Declaration of Democracy!"
"Ahem. I feel I should point out we have no way of knowing exactly how Athena initiates her referendums," Tracer reminded her. "I’d rather not risk them realizing our order is a fake, nor do I want to risk the real Athena countermanding it and throwing doubt into the equation. No, we will not be sneaking in to the Senate after hours and engaging in an amusing, high-stakes heist to steal the most fantastically secured document in the nation."
"Aww. Take all the fun out of things, why don’t you."
"I believe we need to locate Athena herself," Tracer said… while pulling open a series of documents from his MemoryPalace. "There is a single point of contact within the bureaucracy, a document process which Athena must be involved in. Somewhere along that chain of transactions, Athena steps into play. But… to gain access to it, and thus gain access to her, we’ll need to visit Senator Idris again. And involve him in a questionably legal maneuver."
"Tough to do when you called him a pussy right to his face, huh."
"Not one of my prouder moments, no."
"Okay, then. I’ll take the lead on this," Spark decided. "Yes, I’m aware I shouldn’t be moving around much, but you can’t go marching into Idris’s office alone after that spectacle, Puzzle needs to lay low at Floating Point, and Beta’s too busy with server integration to make a passionate speech on our behalf…"
Beta fidgeted with her glasses. "I’m not that busy," she insisted. "Another day of delay won’t change much. I’d rather you stay put until we can find a solution to your malware, Spark. Any movement adds risk of acceleration…"
"Don’t see us having a choice, hun. I’m the House of Programkind’s official rep on this, I’ve got Kincaid’s blessing, I’ve got to be the one to confront him on this. Tracer, you can tag along if you insist, but let me do the talking."
But Beta continued to press. "I want to come along. Please, I’ve been on the sidelines at Tartarus long enough. I know there’s still so much to do to link in Horizon’s servers, but…"
Flipping through his documents… Tracer fixated on a particular metadata field of some random bureaucratic paper wad.
"Actually… I think there’s one way in which you can be tremendously helpful, Beta," he spoke. "Because you happen to be on fine terms with an expert infiltrator, one with experience cracking document control systems from the inside. With the two of you working together while Spark and I work on Idris… I believe we’ll have our best chance. Assuming your companion is amenable, of course."
If they’d gotten filthy looks from Idris’s secretary before, the looks they received now wouldn’t pass even the loosest infosec health inspections. Spark wouldn’t be surprised if those offhand glances were laced with some kind of hideous malware, even.
Despite her fistfight on the streets of Athens being swept under the rug by a powerful old dude, no doubt word got around about some girl with a modded avatar kicking the crap out of some guys for "no reason whatsoever" just a few blocks from the senate building. Either that, or the sharp-eyed lady in Idris’s lobby was an Inquisition plant. Both seemed equally likely, given the situation they found themselves in. But… no helping it. They had to press on, regardless.
Miraculously, the senator agreed to meet with them after an impassioned appeal from Puzzle over Messenger. The idealistic young woman with the social justice film project had enough of a rapport with this politician to merit a do-over of their disastrous first meeting, even if Puzzle herself couldn’t attend. Maybe he was willing to hear them out because she couldn’t attend, because their work together had put her life in danger… guilt being a powerful motivator. But like the secretary, the reason behind the act was almost irrelevant. The situation on the ground would be how Spark dealt with things.
While Tracer oversaw operations, Spark took point. Meaning she sat directly across from Idris after the requisite handshakes and closing of doors formally started their conversation, as he simply lurked nearby.
"I’d like to thank you for making the time for us," Spark began. "I’m aware we didn’t part on the finest of terms…"
Idris waved it off, with a light gesture. "While indelicate, he raises good points," the senator spoke, turning his dark eyes to Tracer’s. "We live in interesting times, let’s say. And sometimes, while trying to navigate those times, we lose track of what matters most. Is Puzzle well? Her message seemed a bit terse. If she needs protection from these terrorists…"
"She’s quite protected. You’ve got my promise that she’ll be safe, no matter what. She’s my #BFFL."
"Good, good. Now, I understand you wanted to meet about something other than this proposed emergency bill…? I still feel it wouldn’t go well for you, if we put the bill forward…"
"Actually, I had some questions about the server allocation process," Spark explained, folding her hands in her lap, keeping her fingers nice and straight. Calm and relaxed, and not twisting on themselves. "I’ll admit I was a poor student back in my K-12 days, particularly when it came to civics. I know the basics… a proposal is put forward to the floor of the Senate to open a new server. Population expansion, business zoning, or just some public need not currently filled by existing servers. The Senate votes, the bill allocating a new server becomes law, and… then what?"
With no small amount of curiosity at this new line of questioning, Idris filled in the gaps.
"And… that’s it. The bill is processed and filed," he explained. "Depending on how many unallocated servers are on reserve, we can start establishing the new region right away, or it may be a few weeks. The gears turn a bit slowly, some years… but in the end, we provide for our citizens."
"Right, right. But how is the new server created?"
"As I said, there’s a vote and an approval process. The server is established upon approval."
"Okay. And who approves the form?" Spark asked. "Not the vote, that’s obviously the senators. Who, in the end, receives that form and acts on it…?"
"It simply… is approved. It’s all very technical and boring, I’m sure. I don’t see how this relates to your request for the House of Programkind…"
"You don’t know, do you," she stated. "Even a sitting senator doesn’t know who actually creates the servers."
…and there it was again, another moment of measured words. Tracer could see it on his face, that need to say something very precise and very vague, to avoid a perfect answer.
This was pointless, of course. The Senate wouldn’t help even if they wanted to. Already, Tracer’s mind was compiling a series of plans from B through J, as Plan A was clearly failing…
"Mr. Senator, let me tell you a story," Spark said, before he could give his non-answer. "A man sees the path of the future as clear as sunlight. The numbers in the sky say what’s coming; everybody knows it’s true, they can feel it in their hearts even if the calm and rational voices within insist that’s utter madness. So he goes through the motions, day in and day out, knowing he should be doing something more. In fact… when a woman who came to him for help is in danger, he’s even willing to go the extra mile for her questionable friends, despite knowing there’s probably nothing he can do. That’s the mark of a man who wants to act, not a man who hides. Are you with me so far?"
Playing along. That’s all he was doing, humoring this crazy woman. Tracer knew, knew that Athena Online would fail them as it had failed them in the past. Why would Spark insist on pushing this, when clearly it was a waste of time…?
But Idris nodded, softly. As if encouraging the story, without commenting one way or another.
"I think a man like that would be willing to take risks. Not any risk, of course, but the right risk," Spark continued. "He’s no coward; he’s an idealist at heart, one who works within the system to change it. Caution guides him, but he’s willing to take that leap when the time is right. And then, something strange happens… a woman walks into his office, asking about servers. About the mysterious process that creates them, a process which might very well help her save this world if only he could shed light on it for her. Light like sunlight from the sky. But now he’s thinking, that’s all very well and good, but how? How can he help without appearing to help…? And then her brother says…"
A sharp glance from his sister roused Tracer from momentary stupor.
"There’s a server requisition bill going out to the floor shortly," he filled in, realizing what Spark wanted from him. "A zoo server, to house various species of animals, including obsolete endangered apps at risk of becoming abandonware. Somewhere nice to take the family on a lazy Sunday. …am I telling your ‘story’ correctly? I have little flair for the dramatic—"
"Skip to the end," Spark mumbled.
"—and we’d like you to consider a change to the logo for this new zoo," Tracer spoke, withdrawing the tightly compressed file from his pocket. "To replace the existing icon on the document. Before you send it down to the floor, and into the document processing chain."
Idris could’ve turned them away, right there and then. Before any potentially incriminating words were spoken, before any highly questionable files were exchanged. The easiest thing in the world would be to ignore their cryptic words, couched in language to keep him free from culpability, and send them packing.
Instead… he extended his hand, and took the file, shunting it to his inventory.
The tiny blip in transfer time, tiny but decidedly measurable, suggested this "logo" they handed over held far more data than a mere graphic design.
"You want me to attach this file to the bill before it’s signed, sealed, and delivered," he understood.
"Hey, I’m just telling a story here," Spark said. "That’s all. We’re not asking you to do anything in particular."
"That’s a mighty fine tap dance you’re doing, young lady. I’m not certain how well it’d play in a court of law…"
"At least there’d be a court of law for me to tried in instead of a lifeless and empty server, Mr. Senator."
Turning the icon over and over in his hand, Idris considered the path before him.
"You know, I was just telling Senator Agni I felt the logo for our new national zoo was a bit unfriendly and cold," he recounted. "Perhaps your design would be more appealing to the youth we’re trying to attract. It’s so hard getting young people interested in silly things like animal apps. Thank you very much for your contribution."
Rising to his feet, Tracer extended a hand to shake on Spark’s behalf… given hers carried with it unpleasant malware.
"And when do you think the server will be… approved?" he asked, inserting the pause where appropriate. "As there is something of a clock hanging above us."
"Ohh, I think I can grease a few wheels," Idris suggested… grasping Tracer’s hand for a firm shake. "Get it on the floor today, and filed away in the document management system by close of business. With all the concern lately about the economy and terrorists from the Chanarchy, I think this zoo is just what we need to show our great nation that there’s still something beautiful in this life. And that this life is worth fighting for, even in this small way. Red or blue, we all believe in Athena Online, and what it could be for our citizens. Thank you for your time, Ms. Winder. Mr. Winder."
With the transaction complete, the Winders hurried on out of there before anything could possibly go wrong. Such as Spark massaging her hand, already sore and aching from her efforts at holding it in perfect shape.
Only when safely out of the building, coated with its security systems and monitoring devices, did Tracer dare to speak.
"Once, I considered myself something of a master manipulator," he stated. "But with that performance, I’d say you’ve surpassed me on the social engineering front. Fine work."
"Yeah, well. The trick is that it’s not a con," Spark replied, shaking her hand loose after the quick massage. "You truthfully pour your heart into a thing, it’ll come through in your words. Those words resonate in the hearts of others; no lies needed. Little trick I learned from Beta. Speaking of which, is she in position to retrieve the ‘logo’ once we get confirmation?"
"Waiting at a coffee shop behind the senate. But I suggest we vacate the server for now, rather than join her; no need to poke whatever cell of the Inquisition has set up shop in Athens again by flashing our faces about. And tonight… we’ll meet the woman behind the curtain."
Stamp, index, file, close. Stamp, index, file, close.
Paper documents had been the standard since the dawning of Athena Online, and even in this age of abstracted icons and glyphs to represent complex files, they continued to be printed on paper. Of course, within those razor-thin sheets of physical paper lurked increasingly detailed security systems, signature authorization metadata, and all manner of tracked changes from prior revisions… enough of a glorious mess that mere filing cabinets could no longer store the bureaucracy’s combined output. So, document management systems were developed, ones with a foot in the past of paper and a foot in the future of metadata-driven indexing.
Similarly, paperwork couldn’t be entirely processed by intelligent agent apps, searching and stamping and indexing and filing. Employees drew salary while slaving away in the legendarily boring and detail-oriented document management department of the Senate; it took a certain class of obsessive perfectionist to work there. So, when the bell rang, going out for heavy drinking to decompress after a full day of precision office work was a must.
One by one, the employees fetched coats and hats; no avatar clothing with pockets allowed in the main offices, nothing you could squirrel one of these physical objects out in. All such items had to be checked at the door, and retrieved on your way out. Eager for that way out, they trickled through the scanners and out the exits…
Except for one.
"You coming or not?" a coworker asked.
Stamp, index, file, close…
"I’ll catch up," she promised. "Want to wrap up a few things first."
"Y’know, it makes the rest of us look bad when you keep putting in voluntary overtime like this. We don’t want 5:30pm to be the new normal," he mock-accused. "Fine, fine. But you’re buying a round tonight, got it?"
"Sure thing. I’ll catch up! Don’t start the karaoke without me!"
Coat and hat retrieved, the next-to-last employee shuffled on out the door.
Only when she was certain of being the final worker on duty did she retrieve the file.
All server requests had a certain chain to flow through, one with no real destination beyond a musty corner of the storage system. The chain had been made needlessly complicated, to obfuscate the steps, keep people from bothering to ask too many questions about them. All that mattered was the final seal, the one that confirmed delivery of a fresh server; exactly where in the process that seal occurred remained undocumented, and had remained so for centuries. The reason behind that willing ignorance had been lost behind another veil of willing ignorance, out of fear that the whole thing might fall apart if one looked too closely…
With the zoo server on her desk, she withdrew the rubber stamp from personal inventory. Encrypted into every curve, line, and angle of that glyph of a rising star were a series of ones and zeroes that represented the personal signature of Senator Philotes… also known as Athena.
After flipping through the packet to make sure all was in order, she closed the folder and prepared to mark it with the approval of a system agent.
And… paused, her eye catching an adorable cartoon design embossed on the cover:
Curiously… that little scribble of a tail was waving back and forth at her. The whiskers started to twitch, as well…
A bright flash distracted her, as the icon lit up brilliantly enough to neatly illuminate her features in the darkened office.
"!" the cat declared, snapping a photo of the shocked document manager…
…before leaping off the page, becoming a more fully-featured pet app in the process.
With a series of ‘s floating over his head, the cat dashed right out the door, down the hall, out an emergency exit and over to a cafe down the road where Beta awaited his return.
After several stunned moments… the worker fumbled around for the rubber stamp she’d dropped, grasping it tightly in both hands before stuffing it back into her inventory. And then ran for it, forgetting to claim her coat and hat on the way out. Just ran and ran, right to the nearest transport dock.
She got all the way to the front door of her nice little house with its nice little yard in GreenDale before realizing it was too late.
They were waiting for her, sitting right there on the front porch. Thankfully not lying in wait with weapons or anything like that, but the fact that they’d found her at all was cause for concern enough. At least they had the decency not to break into her house for some super-dramatic scene of lying in wait for her return.
The man pulled up a mix of her social media profiles and Senate employee data, by means of greeting.
"Jonnes/Virginia," he greeted. "Seven years with the document tracking department of the Senate. Started fresh out of college as an unpaid intern, gradually moved up to senior document tracker thanks to years of hard work and service to her great nation. Daughter of Graci/Virginia and Jonnes/Return. Owner of three cats. Acts as treasurer of her local rotary club. And, in her spare time… acts as the system agent Athena."
Well. At least they had that wrong, she thought. At least they didn’t have total advantage over her.
"Could ya not say that out loud? I’ve got some seriously nosy neighbors," Virginia requested. "Look, I know who you are and why you came, but I can’t help you. So if you don’t mind…"
"If you know that, you know what we’re seeking is critically important. You of all people would know exactly how important," he continued, after closing his hand and pulling back the files to his MemoryPalace. "And you know we can’t walk away without talking about this. Would you mind if we come inside to discuss? To avoid said nosy neighbors."
The weight of that stamp in her inventory felt heavy indeed, despite having zero physical weight whatsoever while in virtual storage.
If they intended violence, well, Virginia paid through the nose for a good backup service. But it couldn’t copy that stamp. Risky move, letting them have even a single inch into her life, no matter how creepily friendly these two seemed. But if she kept pushing them off, maybe the risk would grow…
"Fine," she agreed. "Wipe your feet before you come in. I just reseeded the lawn yesterday, and I don’t want any grass growing in my living room."
The Winders were quick studies when it came to surroundings. Best way to deal with strange negotiation situations like these was to size up the other party as fast as possible; having access to their home made that considerably easier.
Tracer took note of all the family photos over the fireplace. Mothers, aunts, grandmothers. Very few of the male side of the family, strangely, but otherwise incredibly close-knit across many generations. Not exactly something he was familiar with, personally… Winder/Marybel always hosted family dinners and the like, but only out of a perfunctory need to embrace the One’s tenets of home and hearth. Lovingly arranged photos were off the table, in a literal sense.
Spark took note of the cats, and how they mewled away in joy immediately on seeing newcomers in the house. Standard pet app behavior, really. Virginia moved to feed them before settling in for any sort of secret negotiations. Unlike Mew, the infiltration kitty who’d snapped a photo of this woman less than an hour ago, these were far simpler apps… following standard programming for cuddly affection and a greedy need for treats. More importantly… they filled the otherwise empty space of the single-family suburban home. Virginia lived alone.
A woman about their age, she could tell, even without the files. Rather than lurking in the ambiguous middle-twenties of eternal adult youth as many with customized avatars did, she wore Defaults proudly… body perfectly imperfect, with all the little details that a commercial avatar would’ve smoothed out in favor of striking beauty. Her plain-jane light blue skin in no way meshed with that red hair, another Default trait that others might’ve recolored out of their systems.
Only after the cats were properly tended to did she join her guests in the parlor, carrying a pitcher of lemonade. A gracious host, despite the circumstances.
"So the House of Programkind wants servers from Athena Online," Virginia accurately guessed, while pouring out three glasses. "And you thought you could bypass the legal channels by coming right to me. Because… you think I’m Athena?"
"You’re the true final step in the chain," Tracer deduced. "Taking the server bills and giving them your approval, when nobody’s looking. You seem a bit young for a centuries-old agent of the system, but we’ve known youthfully ancient Programs before you…"
"Yes, well, you’re wrong. I’m not Athena," she spoke, with some pride at catching his error. Taking the time to settle into her favorite armchair, she got comfortable before explaining. "I’m in fact the great-great-great-great-I’ve lost track of how great-granddaughter of Senator Philotes. But I’m not a system agent; I’m an ordinary mortal Program. Citizen of Athena Online, believer in the One, member of my community. Nothing more, nothing less…"
For emphasis, she gestured to the One/Zero charm on her wrist. It rotated gently at the end of its chain, the opposing side of the icon embossed with a "WW1D" message.
"…but you’re right in one way: Athena entrusted her seal to our family line. And I do act in her stead, to approve servers," Virginia did confirm. "Like my mother and my mother before her, we work in service to our nation. What you call a ‘system agent,’ well… she only exists as a token, now. An app. I can hear her voice, but she has no real agency. She surrendered her existence as a Program so that Athena Online could truly be a nation of the people, by the people. That’s me. I’m the people, see."
Satisfied at being correct enough, Tracer decided to put his request forward.
"You’ve seen us on the news, no doubt. The House of Programkind’s alliance with Horizon, to assemble a backup server farm for our evacuation to Netwerk 2.0," he summarized. "But we need more than just Horizon; we need servers from Athena Online as well. The Senate would never voluntarily give them to us, but if you use your status as a… as the representative of a system agent, we could bypass them entirely."
"No," she said simply.
"You must understand, this is a matter of—"
"A matter of life and death? Yes, of course. And actually… I believe you. I believe in the sky clock, in the evacuation, in everything. …yes, I believe in the One, but… personally, it’s a matter of faith that… ugh. Look. It’s complicated. My point is, I can’t just give you two dozen servers. Or rather… I won’t. It goes against everything Athena Online’s supposed to stand for. We’re a democracy, founded on the principle of governance by the people. I won’t bypass that to make things more convenient for you. She would never approve of that."
"And yet, you did exactly that when you forced the Senate to repeal server taxes. You bypassed democracy with an Athena Referendum."
A risky push, and he knew it. Every time they confronted someone in their quest to save the world, they got pushed back; bold moves like these, using a facial recognition scan and address table lookup to track down the elusive agent, they had to be done. But not without risk, like alienating Idris, like potentially pushing Virginia away before they had a chance…
Fortunately, rather than shouting, Virginia just let out a defeated sigh.
"Horizon and the Chanarchy did the same thing, if you remember… but Athena Online? We waited a week. You don’t know why, do you? Big movers and shakers, you House of Programkind guys, but there’s still so much you don’t know…"
Now, Spark stepped in. If Tracer was playing the pusher, she’d pull things back.
"So, tell us what we don’t know," she suggested. "If we could understand your position better, we’d understand why you won’t help us. Let’s hear it, Virginia. What’s so important about the delay…?"
Virginia glanced aside, at her wide array of family photos. Each one representing a link of familial duty… right down to the stamp in her inventory, the app-ified remains of Athena. No sentience, not really. But it could whisper…
"Athena told me to issue the referendum," she explained. "Only five times in the history of my family has she done that, has she told us to force the Senate to vote on something. She… you have to understand. She’s no god. She’s not the One. She was a woman, a woman in a position of extraordinary responsibility. She loved the concept of democracy, the idea that Programkind could organize itself rather than falling to either anarchy or the tyranny of Horizon’s early corporate fiefdoms. We… we’re not even supposed to live under the thumb of the One. He should be our shining example, not our leader. We need to lead each other, instead. So when she short-circuits the democratic process, it’s only for very, very good reason. And… I agree. I agree so much that I didn’t want to obey when I heard her whisper to me."
"Okay. I’m seeing, now. So you delayed the bill, not wanting to force the vote…?"
"A forced vote takes free will away from our nation. Why would Athena give me the stamp, a free-thinking Program, if she didn’t want me to think about using it? …they were close, they were so close to agreeing on a bill to create an alternate form of currency. The Senate could’ve swapped something called ‘dollars’ for the vanishing coin supply. Without the server tax, without something to keep the economy flowing… but, well…"
Looking more defeated than defiant, Virginia let out another exasperated sigh.
"They couldn’t agree on which economic bill to adopt. Red and Blue, they were fighting over the tiny details, getting nowhere. And… in my weakness, I decided to obey my family duty and push the referendum against my better judgment. I took the choice away from them, and now we’re still married to a ruined currency. Nothing’s really any better. Athena was wrong to demand it, and I was wrong to let her have her way. …I won’t do it again. I won’t take the dream of Athena Online away from itself. So, no. I won’t give you any servers. Sorry."
Tracer resumed pushing, sensing this was slipping away.
"You broke through the Senate’s stalemate. You did the right thing," he insisted. "You know they’ve grown too polarized, unable to find any agreement whatsoever. The Senate is now useless. We can’t ask them for our servers; we need a referendum if we’re to save all Programkind. I understand your hesitation, but—"
"Tracer," Spark mumbled, nudging him.
"—when democracy fails, it falls to good men and women to do what must—"
"Tracer. Where did the cats go?" she asked. "They’re gone."
Pet apps, particularly unmodified ones with obligatory friendliness routines, were designed to greet all newcomers to their designated location with a mewl of happiness.
If you wanted to infiltrate someone’s home undetected, the first thing you’d do is backspace any pets you saw, to prevent them from alerting your prey.
Flames bursting to life at her fingertips, Spark leapt from the couch to intercept the shadow as it passed behind Virginia’s chair…
…and fell short, her ankle twisting itself to a horrific degree at exactly the wrong time.
A cloudburst of sensory overload malware followed, to prevent any further attempts at fighting back. Darkness took them shortly after that, processes crashed outright by Kill-9, to put their code to sleep.
The darkness lifted after an unknown period of time. With her process offline during the transition, Virginia awakened to find herself stolen away to parts unknown… an anonymous room, with an anonymous table, and anonymous chairs. No windows. No idea of where she could be…
On regaining consciousness, error messages sprayed across her HUD. Apps unable to connect to servers. Connection locks, inventory locks, everything secured down… including her avatar itself, via heavy iron chains, to the table she now sat before.
Panic took her immediately. Pulling at the chains, a futile gesture, the physics system keeping her from getting out of her seat just as easily as the lock field that enveloped her. Nothing. Nothing she could do…
If she died, her backup would be restored. She didn’t have any reason to panic. No reason except the weight of her birthright, deep within her locked inventory. Athena. A Program in the form of a rubber stamp app, sleeping until awakened by the system, inert except in times of grave emergency.
Except "emergency" was a relative concept, wasn’t it? Her duty was to Athena Online. Not to Virginia.
Quickly, she looked for the strangers who brought this mess into her home. Spark and Tracer, they called themselves. But they were gone… maybe in some other interrogation room, maybe they escaped, maybe they died. Alone. All alone, with… with…
The older woman’s face was known to her. It had appeared in numerous video releases by the Inquisition, in which weeping victims either confessed their sins (and were promptly executed) or silently mouthed rage at their captors (and were promptly executed.) Always Marybel, face of the grand Inquisition, there to speak of the glory of the One and the need to purge Netwerk of its Zeroes. Always with the same grave look of seriousness she wore now, sitting across a table from Virginia.
"I want you to understand that we mean you no harm, Jonnes/Virginia," the Grand Inquisitor promised. "Please, consider this protective custody. Really, what we’ve done is rescue you from some very dangerous individuals."
"P-Please let me go," was all Virginia could think to say.
"Why are you afraid? There’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re a good soul, a believer in the One. All good souls have nothing to fear from us," Marybel insisted. "We’ll let you go. You have my word. But first, we need answers to a few questions. If you cooperate, you’ll be home and tending to your cats by sundown. This doesn’t have to be an ordeal, Miss Jonnes…"
The clink of her chains suggested otherwise.
"For our protection as well as your own," Marybel spoke, in response to that sound. "As are the locks. This is a sacred place, our chapel of the purest faith. We can’t allow any misunderstandings to lead to violence on holy ground."
"I… I won’t fight," Virginia promised, after finding her voice. "You. You don’t have to worry. I believe in the One. I’m faithful. You can just… unlock these, and we can talk. Okay? I’ll talk. I’ll tell you anything you want to know…"
"Yes. Yes, you will," Marybel agreed…
…before swiping her hand across the table, calling up an array of documents.
An entire life, laid out before her. Family and friends. Photos from her social media feeds. Blog posts, comment threads she’d participated in, official work commendations for her tireless efforts in the Senate. They had everything, all neatly organized and indexed. As a specialist in document management, the tiny part of her not quivering in fear had to be impressed at their work.
"What we do isn’t unlike what you do. We maintain order over the chaos of daily information," Marybel spoke, while opening a fresh recording log, to capture their words. "We seek sinners, and study them to the very core. We understand sinners better than they understand themselves. No doubt you’ve seen our videos; rest assured every single one of our so-called ‘victims’ were confirmed and re-confirmed and re-re-reconfirmed as sinners, with black hearts filled with Zeroes. We make certain of that before acting. We’re not savages, Miss Jonnes. Unlike the lawless maniacs who call themselves Nobodies."
"That’s… good," Virginia agreed. "Due diligence. I mean. I like to think I do good work, too, making sure the Senate’s logs are neatly—"
"Can you describe the nature of your relationship with Senator Idris?" her interrogator requested.
"…Idris? Uh. He’s… a Blue Party senator, from District #37B6," Virginia cited, from memory. "That covers the StdOutville, Heritage12, and GreenDale servers."
"GreenDale," Marybel repeated, noting the way the waveform shaped itself, pouring into the recording device. "You live in GreenDale, correct?"
"Well… yeah. I didn’t vote for Idris, if that’s what you’re asking—"
"But you work with him, correct? You file his paperwork. You obey his orders."
"I… I wouldn’t say obey orders. He’s a sitting senator and I’m responsible for tracking the documents generated by all senators, including Idris. I mean. That’s my job. That’s just how it is…"
"And what exactly is your relationship with the radicalized culture war activist known as Puzzle?"
"Come now, Virginia, be honest," Marybel requested. "You’ve been in and out of Idris’s office enough times, you must have met Puzzle. He’s a depraved man, utterly depraved. And in fact… we have it on authority that shortly after Puzzle’s cohorts visited Senator Idris today, he summoned you to his office. What did he ask you to do on Puzzle’s behalf?"
"What? I don’t know anyone called Puzzle—!" Virginia protested, the restraints to hold her back from leaning across the table. "He, he asked me to move the petting zoo bill out to the floor. That’s all! They were going to be voting on it sooner or later, anyway—"
"Sooner or later," Marybel repeated. "Sooner, or later. Except it seems that thanks to you, it happened sooner rather than later. And in fact, you processed the document in a rather… expedited manner. You always seem to handle server documents, in fact, despite it being a task that supposedly everyone in your work group could do…"
And finally… they ran into something which gave Virginia pause. The weight of the stamp. The secret truth, passed down through generation after generation. She couldn’t, wouldn’t tell them about Athena. Even to save her life. She wouldn’t. Would she…?
Fear gripped her as she realized the paradox. If she tried to save her life by confessing to the truth… the Inquisition would have power over Athena. If she didn’t, she’d die, and Athena would die with her. The end, the final end of Athena Online, destroyed one way or another. And it was all her fault…
But Marybel took her moment of terror to mean something else entirely.
"Your silence suggests you are involved in this vast conspiracy," she decided. "Just as we suspected."
"I’m not…! Look, there’s no conspiracy, okay?" Virginia pleaded. "This is all very routine work. I’m just… I’m nobody. I just file paperwork…"
"No. No, I don’t think so. There’s more to you than you’re letting on… and if you are not for the glory of the One, you are a Zero. It is a pure and simple matter."
"I love the One! I praise the One!"
"Do you? Really…?"
Immediately, the Grand Inquisitor called up a blog post. Penned by her own hand, posted to her own social media feeds. Disliked by many and resulting in a few unfriendings, but words she stood by to this very day.
I wanted to believe, and for that, I blame myself. I wanted to believe this was truly the One. But the truth is out now; what we thought was our savior turned out to be a charlatan. Just another fraud preying on our hopes and dreams, trying to steer us away from the glory of God.
Very well; we are to blame, but we are also capable of forgiveness. We must forgive ourselves, and never forget that the lessons of the true One are pure. He taught us a better way to live our lives, and even though Programkind may be fallible, even though the Church may be a creation of Programkind and thus also fallible, those original words are pure. We must let that faith guide us, lest we step off the path again.
…her captor was kind enough to allow a moment of silence, for the prisoner to review her own words.
"You turned away from the second coming of the One," Marybel stated. "You denied His true glory, just like the others who think themselves faithful. Their weakness, alongside the sins of the anonymous madman behind the false CheckOne app, are the reason the One abandoned us. But He loves us, and has given us a chance at redemption. We must earn His forgiveness… by purging our society of Zeroes. Sanctifying holy ground, to make it pure enough to allow for His return. And to bring about that blessed event… traitors like you must be erased."
Stunned silence, as the accused gazed right into the eyes of Marybel’s madness. The Grand Inquisitor continued, explaining exactly what crimes she would be punished for…
"Claim yourself innocent all you like; you work with these sinners oh-so-willingly. Traitors to the One, filthy modders and deviants, they control our government all the way to the upper tiers of power. Insidious, the roots of this shadow cabal… and powerful enough to sway senators and trusted document managers alike. Tell me, Virginia. Tell me what price these so-called social justice warriors offered that enticed you into turning traitor against your country…?"
Terror can be powerful, yes. But it can also twist itself around on a dime, pouring all that power into another negative direction… anger. Rage.
It was rage that pulled at those chains, now.
"Traitor? Traitor?!" Virginia growled, her panic giving way as the very core of her identity came under attack. "I have never, ever, ever lost my patriotism. I believe in the dream of this nation! People, ordinary people, commanding their own destiny. Coming together to build something greater than themselves, taking the lessons of the One and creating a great community atop them. Is it a perfect system? No! But it’s true. It’s pure, a pure dream of what Programkind could be one day! And how, how dare you. How dare you, a murderer, a maniac, accuse me of losing faith?!"
Marybel didn’t budge one inch, under that onslaught.
"You lost faith in the One long ago," she’d decided. "Without that, your faith in His nation is forfeit. And so are you."
Madness. Utter madness.
She knew of the Inquisition, knew enough to be afraid of them, but never really understood that fear. Now it made sense, how it could have seeped so deeply into the Senate, turning even Redcore senators who had courted their demographics in the first place into fearful men and women. Ruining the very concept of democracy, forcing a theocracy through shadow threats, encouraging polarized voters to either embrace their twisted faith or become the enemy…
Never would she surrender Athena to the likes of them. No. Even as anger flowed back into fear, even as she shook and shuddered in her chair, Virginia knew that she had to die. And Athena Online would die with her. If this what it had become, if there was no way out of the quagmire… better to die than surrender her true faith.
Slamming her shoulder into the door did nothing to damage it, but sure made her feel better.
Besides, there was the remote chance of a poorly designed door, reliant entirely on physical hinges and locking mechanisms, capable of coming loose if knocked hard enough. A slim chance, but one worth taking… considering Tracer knew exactly where they were, exactly who took them, and likely exactly what was going to happen next.
"Inquisition safe house," he’d identified. "Just like the one JohnDoe brought us to. I’d guess all their facilities are identical… probably a prefabricated install kit, inserting itself into the server’s architecture. Hideout via malware payload. Clever, in a way…"
"Could you please spend less time being impressed and… unnf!… and more time figuring a way out of here?" Spark requested, limping away from the door after another failed attempt at opening it through sheer brutality. Her twisted ankle certainly didn’t help matters… they’d slapped an inventory lock on her before the auto-correct app could fix it, leaving her avatar nearly crippled. Not that it mattered, no matter how much it hurt, no matter how awkward and uncomfortable having two left feet could be. She’d keep fighting until she was free or dead…
"There’s no point fighting," Tracer spoke, with strange calmness.
Staggering back to one of the two provided ‘guest’ chairs in this holding cell, Spark eased her broken form into it. "I’m going to assume you have a reason for saying that other than hopeless despair," she said. "What’s your plan, then?"
"My plan is to do nothing, for the time being. We wait for our captors to come for us."
"Drag this out as long as possible. We stall until rescue arrives," he explained. "We’re connection locked. That’s triggered my dead man’s switch; as we speak, my copies at the clinic are already out looking for us. Likely they’re searching GreenDale for clues right now, and will be along shortly with Kill-9s. There’s no need to do anything, really. I am a self-rescuing princess."
"Great! Except that assumes you’re going to find us before we get backspaced."
"Do you doubt my skills?"
"Considering the stakes? I’d be more than happy having #PlanB under my belt in addition to your crazy #PlanA. Besides, can those clones of yours even measure up to the original?"
"We are all the original. I know you have a hard time grasping such simple technological concepts, Spark, but we are all perfectly identical. In that sense, if this copy of me dies, nothing is really lost. Beyond a day’s memories, I suppose. Why you haven’t taken me up on my offer to share my copy app, I won’t know…"
With a pained grumble, Spark offered her brother the darkest of looks.
"You know damn well why," she said. "I’ve been copied and re-copied way too many times already, most of it against my will. Our own mother forced me to make a backup of myself, remember? Always wondered if I was nursing some existential dread after that incident. Well, no more. I’m me, the one and only. I don’t want anything else considering itself to be me running around. At least Nemesis… Lumi, I mean… has become her own person. But at this point I’d rather be unique, no matter the risks. …besides. If we croak here, Virginia croaks, and so croaks any hope of Athena’s aid."
"A valid point," Tracer admitted. "So, stall them. You’re good at talking people to death; I’m relying on that majestic talent to keep this incarnation of me alive, along with our would-be ally."
Before she could explain the concept of sarcasm to her brother, the cell door swung open soundlessly.
Flanked by goons in white suits… she entered their lives again. And with the same amount of scorn lurking underneath a mask of motherly concern.
Winder/Marybel. A minor menace, in the grand scale of their lives… until deciding to take up the mantle of the Inquisition, turning her religious fervor from a generally accepted low level form of zealous faith to a dangerous new high. Instead of simply scolding her daughter and grounding her for a week, she’d graduated to terrorism and execution to enact her ideals on the world.
And… much to their surprise, on entering the room, she immediately walked right up to each of her children and hugged them tightly, one at a time. The hugs were not reciprocated, but the gesture seemed important all the same.
"I’m glad to see you well," she told them. "Despite all that’s happened, I’m glad you are well."
"…for varying definitions of ‘well,’" Spark added, glancing down at her twisted ankle.
"Yes, I can see. I’m so sorry, Spark. It seems that the One’s plague against those who have strayed from His gifts has touched you. If you like, you can stay here with us while you convalesce; we’re immune to your disease. It’s the only peace I can offer, I’m afraid. There is no cure for sin, but there can be love for the sinner…"
"Pass. I stopped living under a roof with you the instant I turned eighteen. Not gonna start again now."
"That’s very unkind, Spark. I know we’ve had our differences, but your father and I miss you both dearly. We’ve both held out hope that you may turn away from this dark path you’ve chosen to walk…"
Keep her talking. Spark knew that was the play; if Tracer’s private clone army had enough time, presumably they’d come roaring to the rescue. But the more she talked with Marybel, well… the more likely she’d say the wrong thing, and move the timetable up to her inevitable doom. Because they certainly wouldn’t be walking out of here with Virginia. If anything, the excessive niceness of the Grand Inquisitor proved that. Marybel always did like to butter people up before bringing them down, thinking that somehow balanced the cosmic scales…
Fortunately, sensing that more mommy/daughter talk would probably shorten matters, Tracer stepped in on her behalf.
"We know you have issues with Puzzle," he explained. "But as you can see, Puzzle isn’t with us. Whatever your concerns are, they don’t concern us. I don’t see why we need to be at odds today, Mother. There’s no need for any sort of confrontation…"
But Marybel shook her head, denying his hopes.
"I wish that was the case, son. I genuinely do," she spoke. "But this situation runs deeper than your questionable friends. We are at war, Tracer, a culture war for our very souls. Netwerk is slipping away into darkness, and has been doing so ever since some anonymous coward claimed the One was a fraud. You’ve always been clever; surely you can see the roots of this conspiracy as well as I do. Tangling around activists, crooked politicians of the establishment, activist judges, the media elite… everybody working in queer tandem to convince the world that God is dead. They must be stopped."
"Then recruit us," he suggested, switching tactics. "I learned well from Father; I can work as a social media analyst, tracking trends, identifying sinners. You know I’m trustworthy. I’m your favorite son, yes? That’s our little joke, that I’m your only son, but I’m still your favorite…"
"Except you’re working with a corporation that modifies Programs, aren’t you?"
And the tactic shriveled up before it could take root. It’s not like his career at the clinic was a secret, but he was hoping they hadn’t been paying much attention to it…
"It’s okay, Tracer. You’re a good boy at heart; I’ve always known that. Personally… I blame your sister," Marybel said, turning her focus back to Spark. "A bad influence. Always has been, always will be. But, despite all that, despite what you’ve done and what you continue to do… I believe there can be redemption for you, Spark. That’s why you’re here, today. Confess your sins before the One. Confess… and tell us where you’re hiding Puzzle."
Finally, Spark couldn’t hold back.
But instead of a biting or bitter remark… she exploded with laughter. Mocking laughter, born of equal parts frustration and disappointment.
"That’s it, isn’t it? All this talk of how much you love us, how much you care… the offers of salvation and sanctuary… all of that just because you want access to her," Spark realized. "That’s… hah. Mom? That is pathetic. I love this; you see someone who dares to change her avatar into something else as being part of some vast paranoid daydream that threatens to topple your perfect, faithful world. Seriously? Is your faith seriously so weak that the existence of a person who doesn’t want to wear a dick could shatter it so easily—"
The sound of hand on cheek rang out through the soundproofed room, Marybel’s slap carrying with it all the rage behind her eyes.
"I am your mother, young lady," she growled. "You will not treat your mother with such disrespect…!"
But Spark, despite her awkward and twisted footing, stood her ground. Rolled her head back, to return that look just as fiercely.
"You’re not my mother," she declared. "My mother died long ago. And no, I don’t mean that in some metaphorical sense, I mean she literally died. Verity was more a mother to me than you ever were."
Now the goons that entered at her mother’s side made their presence known… by clamping control bands on the arms of the Winder children, to force them to march on command.
"Bring them to the atrium," Marybel ordered. "And prepare her for the block, along with the other traitor. I’ve suffered the insolence of my daughter long enough. Or rather, as she herself states… she’s not my daughter at all. Simply another Zero to purge."
Familiar territory. Just the other day, Tracer had been in an identical facility, talking with a masked JohnDoe; perhaps even this very same facility. …no, it couldn’t be. If it were the same facility, rescue would’ve been forthcoming by now. The very first place his other selves would’ve checked would be the hideout in Athens…
His mind continued to race, looking for some way out of this situation. Holding out for rescue became a slimmer and slimmer chance for success as each moment passed; with Virginia and Spark both bound and on their knees before the Grand Inquisitor, about to lose their heads over his mother’s madness, they couldn’t simply wait. Action. He had to act. Calculate, analyze, find a way out…
Oh, Tracer would be quite safe. He was the golden boy, the one who could do no wrong despite clearly doing wrong. He’d been kept off to the side, firmly controlled but far from the on-stage execution. As Inquisitors prepared their next video missive, featuring the beheadings of two conspirators, Tracer wouldn’t be found anywhere in the shot. Odd, that the one who stood to lose the least should be spared, while those not immune to death would be killed.
"Before the eyes of the true One, let these two Programs be judged," Marybel declared, a common opener for her various snuff films. "Jonnes/Virigina, a corrupt senatorial worker. And my own code turned against me, the poisonous and corrupt Winder/Spark. It brings me no pleasure to erase these two zeroes, but it must be done, by the One’s holy command…"
Backspacer blades held high by twin executioners, one behind each of the two prisoners. Ready to drop at Marybel’s final word.
"We will now unmute you, to allow a moment for confessing your sins. By doing so, you may lighten the burden on your souls before they pass from this world," she said. "What do you have to say in your defense, sinners…?"
Calculate, analyze, find a way out…
…or calculate, analyze, and find a way in. Yes. Nothing to lose, so why not give up and lose it all?
"I confess," Tracer spoke.
With a sigh, Marybel gestured for the cameraman to stop recording his sensory inputs. Easier to start over than to re-edit. She muted the two prisoners again, to keep them out of this.
"Tracer, please. It’s too late to plead on your sister’s behalf," Marybel spoke. "No doubt you still care for her, but in time you’ll see that—"
"I confess my sins," he spoke, pressing forward. "Not hers. You seek to punish sinners? Very well. Where to even begin? I modified the skin tone of my avatar, violating my Defaults. A crime you accuse our friend of indulging in, no less…"
"Tracer, the true One declared recoloring to be—"
"Also, I’ve installed countless software upgrades to augment my mind and body," he continued. "I’ve violated the sanctity of my own uniqueness by making active multitasked copies of myself. You think I’d stop at having grey skin? Of course not. I want more. I want to become more, to throw off the yoke of Defaults, a false sin installed in us simply to prevent the singularity that comes with true free will. Yes, Mother… I am a modder. I am the epitome of a modder, in fact, far beyond any silly cosmetics my sister enjoys…"
Good. Good. Full command and attention, as the room stared in shock at his words. More words, more time spent listening to them, dragging the entire affair out. The slim chance may have been narrowing, but every second a door was held open was another chance to escape.
"Oh… and by the way, I’ve also murdered people," Tracer confessed. "More murders than I can remember, in fact, as I edited my own memories to erase them. Don’t believe me yet? Do you want more truth? I’m overflowing with truth. How about the first truth? The One is a lie, created by Nyx at the dawn of time, and re-created by her when things weren’t going according to plan. The god you follow is a lie, and your entire spree of mayhem is built on the back of that lie…"
Hands clenching tight. Good. Good…
"I… I have no idea what you are trying to achieve, Tracer, but—"
"I’m opening my heart to honesty, Mother. More? You want more? Okay. Netwerk is a slab of silicon owned by Humankind, and crafted by a lazy programmer named Jack Hayes," he spoke, one of the few secrets he still kept these days. "That’s right, Mother… your true God, the actual creator of you and your fanatics? A human named Jack Hayes. You should be bowing down before your true creator! If you’re going to kill, at least credit your kills to the right deity. He is your One, and he was a fool!"
Allow it to sink in. More moments spent. More time earned. Only when his mother started to move, approaching one of the executioners, did he continue. Talking over her actions, as she quietly took the killing blade for her own hands…
"A fool… just like me," he continued, as his mother approached slowly. "I was a weak and lazy fool who stood by quietly as you made my sister into your scapegoat. Just like Father, I did nothing… because I didn’t particularly want to invite your wrath upon me. Well, no more. I’m done letting my beloved sister suffer while I silently dodge your abuse. …oh, and the best sin, my finest sin of all time…? I unmasked your false idol. I’m the anonymous miscreant who released CheckOne. I’m the reason the Inquisition exists."
Blade held high. His eyes closing, a smile painted across his lips. Because they were already here; he could hear them, the near-silent footsteps, the telltale soft beeps of aimbot software locking onto targets…
"I confess," the doomed Tracer spoke, at his last. "I confess my weakness and my sin and my truth. If you want to execute anyone, go ahead and execute me. I welcome it."
With a primal scream from her throat, Marybel’s blade came down just as a dozen copies of Tracer burst into the room, snapping off Kill-9 shots left and right.
Blue and red lights, spinning in the distance. He could see the flicker of them on the walls of the Inquisition safehouse, their hidden door thrown wide open to the force of moderators that now combed through the terrorist hideout, checking for any other prisoners or IED malware devices…
For once, the police weren’t there to arrest the Winders, either. It seemed one of the Tracers split away from the group to contact Senator Idris and enlist his aid. With the backing of someone with actual power, finding a hidden wasp’s nest of Inquisitors made them heroes rather than pariahs. A little media spectacle went a long way to establishing their presence as victims rather than victimizers.
While Idris gave an impassioned speech about standing up to the "so-called" Inquisition out front, the newly merged Tracer rejoined his comrades inside the freshly established crime scene. A medical tech busied herself with purging Spark and Virginia of any remaining malware… aside from Spark’s Twist, of course. Better to ensure they were as clean as possible of any lingering Inquisition software before releasing them, the moderators felt.
"This may very well be a new day for the Senate standing up to the Inquisition," Tracer insisted, across a quiet Messenger link to his sister and their new companion. "A dozen domestic terrorists arrested in one day…? A government worker nearly murdered by the Inqusition…? Difficult to ignore all that. It’s only somebody else’s problem if it’s not defecating on your doorstep. Even though Marybel managed to slip away, it’s still a major win for public awareness of the threat they pose."
Spark regarded this copy of Tracer with some doubt. Even after the dozens of copies that had combed Athena Online to find their wayward prime merged back into a single Tracer… it felt… off.
"As you’re still my brother, right…?" she asked. "’cause I kinda saw my brother get his head lopped off a few minutes ago…"
"I assure you, I’m very much Winder/Tracer," he spoke. "I’ve lost the day’s memories that copy held, but otherwise there’s nothing particularly different about me. Honestly, Spark, why do you have such difficulty with the concept of multiplicity…?"
"So, you don’t remember saying anything about being a fool…?"
"Afraid not. Why? Did I state something of importance before Mother cut me down?"
This newly merged version of Tracer, a few hours obsolete, remained perplexed at the unusually close looks his sister offered. Strangely thoughtful looks, all told.
"…so, what happens next?" Spark asked. "Okay, cops question us about what happened here, presumably release us afterwards, and the day is saved. And then what?
"I suppose that depends. Virginia…?"
With the focus on her… the young bureaucrat knew exactly what they meant. Because while the Inqusition interrupted their particular debate, it hadn’t brought any resolution. Not directly, anyway.
Her mental hand closed around the stamp in her inventory. The spirit of her ancestor, nearly lost to the madness that threatened to drown her beloved country in blood…
"I’ll get you what you need," she agreed. "But on my terms. And my terms only."
The very next day, as the Senate settled in for another boring day of bills and debates, a young woman from the document management bureau slipped in the side door carrying a very special piece of paper. Bearing a very special stamp.
Immediately the official logs went dark, as senators murmured amongst themselves. Another one, in as many years…? Impossible. Unthinkable. But the signature on the document checked out, according to a courier dispatched to compare it to the original Declaration of Demoracy… this was a true Athena Referendum.
Strangely enough, this particular order was less of an order and more of a plea. Usually they were worded very specifically: You must repeal server tax in order to save the economy, for instance. Straightforward, something nobody would vote against. But… this document read:
Hear Winder/Spark’s words, but vote only from your hearts and the will of the people.
That was Virginia’s compromise. She would not remove the free will of the Senate; if the House of Programkind wanted their servers, they would have to argue the point in front of the entire assembly, and then rely on their judgment. To preserve Athena Online, Athena Online must preserve itself willingly.
Leaving Spark very, very nervous as she paced in a small room behind the assembly hall.
They’d come to support her: her brother, her lover, her friend. Tracer, Beta, Puzzle. Despite the death mark on her head, Puzzle wanted to be here, to ensure Spark was ready to go out there and give it her all. But nerves claimed the daughter of Verity, in the last minutes before her speech.
"This is fucking nuts. You guys know that, right?" she repeated for the third time. "I can’t do this. I’m not a politician, I’m a onesdamned school teacher. What’m I gonna do, go chastize RedCore for not farming their lane or buying pen boots when they should be buying magic shoes?"
"Dear, fretting causes wrinkles," Puzzle spoke, with a light smile. "You have this. You’ve always been able to talk a good game, even when it’s not about games."
"Why Kincaid insists I gotta do this instead of Lux, I don’t know. Fuck. Fuck. I can’t. I couldn’t even sway Horizon, they swayed themselves! How am I gonna reach these partisan lunkheads? They can’t even agree gravity pulls things downward! They won’t agree to save themselves. Why isn’t Idris doing this? Or Lux? Or Beta? Or even Tracer! Anybody but… but…"
But Beta shook her head, before offering her own light smile.
"They’re just people, Spark," she spoke. "They’re scared, they’re hopeful, they’re flawed, they’re people. You’re good with people. Be honest and open, and reach out to them like you’d want to be reached. And you’ll do fine."
The murmuring outside their door grew louder, as a senatorial aide opened the way to the podium for their speaker of the day. No more time to worry; however this was to play itself out, it was game time.
Taking a deep breath, Spark stepped away from Beta’s reassuring expression, and towards history.
PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE. Takedown notices are issued on a regular basis; only through widespread distribution will these words survive to Netwerk 2.0. Leaked speech from Winder/Spark, representative for the House of Programkind, of a dark Senate session. PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE. THE ECHOSTAR IS REAL AND WE MUST SURVIVE IT.
Is this thing on? Hello? Okay, so should I… I… yeah? Okay. Right.
Today I’d like you to vote on Emergency Measure… what’s the number? Right, #231F. I want you to vote on Emergency Measure #231F, because, because we need servers to help with the evacuation efforts. We, I mean, the House of Programkind. And you guys, the Senate, you can provide them. So… it’d be great if you did. Because. Because…
…okay, you know what? You don’t need to be told why you should do this. You already know why. I could sit here and play on your rivalry with Horizon, saying that they had the foresight to support us, try to spread #FOMO and encourage you not to get left behind. I could stoke up the fires of nationalism and insist you had to stake your claim in the new world. But, no. That’s not why you should vote today.
I could scare the null out of you with tales of Humankind, with how they’re going to wipe the system clean. Make them into the monster you could unite against. But you know what? They’re just people, ordinary people, like us. We got lucky enough to meet a human willing to help us escape; why should I take that friendship and turn her into a demon we need to fight? No. That’s not why you should vote.
Personally, I’d like you to vote to stick it to the Inquisition. This is a secular nation, isn’t it? Early on, the first senators recognized the growing power of the Church of One, and tried to set up an organized government that could accept religion without becoming a theocracy. They knew the importance of freedom; your founding fathers and mothers wouldn’t have bent knee to the Inquisition out of fear. But… no. I’m not even gonna insist you screw those terrorists over, not even after they kidnapped and tried to murder one of your own.
No. You need to vote yes because you owe it to your dreams.
"#WTF?" You’re saying now. "What hippie dippie bullshit is this?" It’s the same hippie dippie bullshit Athena Online was founded on. Senator Philotes and all the others who joined her made a nation of the people, by the people, for the people. They dreamed of a place of safety and freedom, where people could live as they liked… without anarchy, without tyranny. They made a nation that stood for hundreds of years, bending knee to no gods or kings, only man itself. You are servants of Programkind. And you owe it to Programkind to save them from this crisis we’re facing.
Red or blue, left or right, you’re all here because you believe in the dream of Athena Online. You’re divided across party lines, you see each other as the enemy, but that’s because you care so much about this nation that you’re willing to fight for it against ideologies you fear may bring it harm. That’s noble, guys. It’s absolutely noble to fight for a dream, even if you each interpret the dream differently. Your ability to interpret it differently is your greatest strength; all those voices in one room, all speaking from the heart. That’s your strength. That’s the dream.
All we need from you is twenty-two servers. All we need is your vote. Athena Online has a place in the future of Netwerk 2.0, and I for one want to see you there, to help lead civilization to the dawn of its new age. Please vote yes for Emergency Measure #231F, and vote yes to your future.
Don’t let the dream die when Netwerk dies. Fight for what you believe in. Fight for Athena Online.
…okay, I don’t think I can really put it any better than that. Now what? Do you want me to just…? So… okay. Thanks. Uh, vote yes, thank you, I return the floor to you.
Oh, and also, fuck the Inqusition. Seriously. Fuck those guys. And GO FIGHTING PURPLES! Take the trophy next year! Yeah, yeah, okay, I’m done.
And back to the little room, to await the results.
Not that they’d vote right away. Unlike other Athena Referendums, this one carried with it room for debate. Floating Point and company watched on a closed circuit video stream as senators from the Blue and the Red stood up and spoke at great length. Some passionately beseeching for a yes, some passionately warning of the consequences of a no. Some declaring the whole thing to be fraudulent lies, to be readily ignored…
They talked about the influence of Horizon, and about the menace of Humankind. Two things Spark wished she hadn’t even brought up, in hindsight. The wrong reasons to vote yes, being bandied about freely. As she sat in that little room, with Senate security keeping watch, her leg bounced restlessly… just as it did while waiting before Idris’s office, waiting for whatever fate had in store.
Two hours passed. Beta produced an open source lemonade for everyone to enjoy, taken from the House of Programkind… after Senate security confirmed it wasn’t malware of any sort. The Winders declined to enjoy snacks and friendly chat between Beta and Puzzle, too busy watching the screens with fierce focus.
At last, realizing they’d kept the floor of the Senate dark for far too long, someone pushed straight through a filibuster attempt and forced the vote using some byzantine legal clause from a hundred years ago. The floor’s volume lowered itself to a murmur as the numbers began to roll in…
After ten minutes, when the final bell rang, they had their answer.
Five abstains. Twenty-one against. Seventy-four in favor.
Idris took the floor, as the bill’s sponsor, to announce the findings.
"The Senate finds in favor of the modified bill," he declared. "Twenty-two servers will be allocated to the House of Programkind… with an additional three servers to archive shining examples of Athena Online’s culture. We will ensure our greatest works of art, the procedural seeds of our national parks, and relics of our various faiths are preserved for generations to come. The motion carries."
With that final gavel bang, it was over.
They got what they wanted… and then some, as Athena Online matched Horizon’s offerings, including the extra servers for smooth continuation of society into Netwerk 2.0. While some dissented, the will of the people held out, without having to force their way past free will. They didn’t play it the way Nyx would have, and still won.
And all Spark could feel was… release. Relief.
"It’s over," she declared. "Finally. What a onesdamn mess…"
"Not entirely over. We still need to locate the Chanarchist, and obtain servers from—"
"Tracer? Don’t fuck with my victory mood. For now, it’s over. Close enough."
With a pleasant sigh and a stretch, Puzzle pulled herself out of her seat and relaxed. While she’d tried to stay relaxed with lemonade and chatter, this was truly the moment where she could let go. In more ways than one.
"I suppose that’s me off for the new world, then," she declared. "I’ll be evacuating promptly, into cold storage."
Beta blinked a few times behind the thick lenses of her glasses. "Huh? But… but we were going to have a victory party at Floating Point. I’m going to make s’mores…"
"Tempting, but I should be moving along. FStop and I were discussing it on Messenger earlier. I suppose we could loiter around Floating Point until the end of time—which is an unsettlingly short amount of time, all told—but we’d rather simply pack up and leave for Netwerk 2.0. In storage… the Inquisition can’t reach us."
"But… but that means you’re leaving…"
"Am I?" Puzzle asked. "I’ll see you all on the other side. This isn’t farewell, friends. It’s simply… ta-ta, for now. …you’ve done well by me, all of you, and I thank you. Yes, even you, Tracer. But I won’t linger in this dying world like a lonely ghost, not when there’s lovely open vistas awaiting me in the future. So…"
Quickly, she passed around hugs. A hug for Beta, even a hug for Tracer—who had no concept of how to react to such a gesture, and simply emitted a faint "chff" of air from being squeezed.
As for Spark… as much as Puzzle wanted to offer a hug, the looming spectre of Twist held her back. So instead, she offered words.
"My dear #BFF," Puzzle declared, with pride. "I’ll be seeing you soon. And in good health, no doubt."
"Yeah… you too, Puz. You too," her #BFF said, with a faint smile.
And… gone, her code archived away into the cloud of Tartarus. To sleep, until the end of days, and the start of a new world.
The little room felt… strangely silent, without Puzzle in it.
"The world… it’s really ending, isn’t it," Beta realized. "I mean, we already knew it’s happening, obviously. But… we haven’t really had time to think about what that means. Everything we know. Everything’s going to change. And sooner or later, all three of us need to go into storage, too—"
A sharp cry of pain cut off Beta’s words.
Spark grimaced, holding her arm to her side, despite it jutting away from her body at a strange angle.
"Think I need to see about fixing this little problem before I consider abandoning Netwerk," she said, through the pain. "Or I’m not gonna have much of a future in any world."
Senate Announces New Anti-Terrorism Task Force
"…while Athena Online is currently in transition to Netwerk 2.0, we are not going to ignore the problems we’re facing in the here and now," Senator Idris told reporters during the press conference. "Regardless of one’s religious convictions, murder is against the law. We will not tolerate the operation of the Inquisition within our servers. Athena Online should be a place of safety and freedom, and we owe it to our citizens to ensure both of those national treasures. A bi-partisan task force has been established to re-organize our moderation forces, to better find these hidden caches of terror, and root out the Inqusition wherever it is found."
Twitch. Tick. Her eye refocused, before moving on to the next headline in the compiled media analysis document.
Red Party Fringe Leadership Stages Walkout
"It’s clear to me now with this decision that the sacred institution of democracy has been led astray," Senator Agni, leader of the ‘RedCore’ faction of the Red Party, stated during a press conference declared shortly after the decision to support the House of Programkind’s evacuation efforts. "While I admire the conviction of my fellow senators, I fear their reasoning may be flawed. There is no impending doom for Netwerk. There is no need to ‘evacuate’ to a Netwerk 2.0. Therefore, we twenty-one who voted against the scam artistry of the House of Programkind will not be attending senatorial sessions for the near future, while we work with our home servers to better address the needs of the good families of Athena Online. May the One bless us all…"
Breathing slightly easier, on reading that. So, some support remained… but Agni chose to walk away rather than stay in that seat of power. Meaning she could do nothing to help in her hour of need. Not that much could be done, with the majority voting in favor of madness…
But whatever gains they might have made were immediately ruined by the last article in the dossier.
Archbishop Nestt Officially Condemns the Inquisition
…while the Church of One has been silent on the issue of the Inqusition so far, today Archbishop Nestt spoke out against the citizen action organization. "While their faith in the One is laudable, I’m afraid they’ve misunderstood His teachings," she stated in her latest blog post. "The One is love. Love, pure and simple. Community, charity, and empathy of the heart. It is not up to us to punish the sinner, no matter how we decry the sin. Is it up to the individual to find their way back to the One; we can help guide their steps, but to take life in the name of the unfortunate fraud who tried to control our faith in recent years… it’s deplorable. Those who kill in the name of the One do not belong to our flock…"
With an angry swipe, Winder/Marybel dismissed the document, hurling it from her desk entirely.
Alone. She was alone, now. Even with hundreds of supporters, even with Agni as a potential ally, even with her spies in all levels of the moderation force and the government and the Church itself… she felt completely alone. Alienated from those she was trying to save. Didn’t they want to be saved? Was Netwerk so far gone as to shun deliverance entirely…?
Why? Why did they turn on her? She tried to purge the Senate of the poison that was eating at its very core! Besides, it was just one little bureaucrat, a nobody. Wouldn’t even have been missed…
But above all… something else had been eating at her. Eating, gnawing, biting…
"How?" she asked, aloud. "How did he break into our safe house. How did Tracer even know the door password? One is One. He knew. We may have a traitor. Yes, yes, it must be a traitor…"
The document’s author offered a shrug of the shoulders, otherwise expressionless.
"Recommended we use a stronger password," her husband pointed out. "One per safehouse. Shared door code meant a point of failure; not our fault he guessed it…"
"No. No, this feels like treason. Betrayers undermine the One at every turn, and must be rooted out. Yes. Darling, I want you to analyze our own people and find that traitor. And then I want them beheaded. I want to behead them myself."
"Hmmh. As you like," the elder Winder spoke.
But the part that kept her from sleeping, the two little words that would give Marybel no peace…
"…I also need you to search the Church archives for the name ‘Jack Hayes,’" she ordered. "The man Tracer claimed was our god. The very concept is utter heresy, but… I want to know more. I have to know more. Get me what I want, husband."
And so he nodded, and went along with his wife’s wishes. Just as he always had. Just as he always would.
Because he was weak. Because he was a fool. And now, he was in too deep to do anything to stop it. At best, he could keep his son out of the way of the wrecking ball… and perhaps not even that.
:: 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.