Floating Point 3.4 :: Cure
:: go home
You couldn’t call the server a failure. More accurately, this was where failure went to die.
The Chanarchy had become packed with similar servers, ever since the collapse of the coin. Businesses drying up, inadvisable ventures crashing headfirst into the ground, artist communes finally breaking up and drifting apart. Crushing debt—medical debt, student debt, what have you—with no possible employment and not even the prayer protocol coin grind to relieve it. The myth of pure meritocracy that powered Horizon and Athena Online crashed directly into hard reality on these streets…
Despite the adamant insistence that they needed no magical skybeard smiling down on them, the apparent death of the One had indirectly hit these people like a fist.
After that economic collapse… without the law and order of Athena’s lands, without the "too big to fail" monetary might of Horizon… many of those nebulous and anarchic dreams held by the Chanarchy simply fell away. Empty remnants of what once was now stood as gravestones for those ideals: a neon-coated storefront here, with no items in stock and no staff to sell them. A restaurant promising strange blends of spicy malware and savory sensory inputs, now gutted and emptied of all valuable data save for the sign out front. A gallery that once teemed with kinetic sculptures, experiences for the whole avatar rather than the tame and two-dimensional image files of classier museums, now simply a whirling ball of chaotic nonsense with no one to make the minute corrections needed for the art not to whirl out of control…
And the people. Homeless Programs; nowhere to go, nowhere to be. No coins to their name, and numerous open accounts running deep in the negative numbers that would never be repaid back to black. With stiff moderators on affluent servers eager to boot anybody eating up valuable resources, the lost gathered here in these ruins of other people’s dreams. Sometimes, the ruins of their own dreams; home was home, even if it wasn’t much of one anymore.
Gingerly, Spark stepped around a few sleeping Programs in a back alley, falling into a dreamless and coinless trance simply to conserve runtime and extend their lives as much as possible. It wasn’t like they had a better use of that time, anyway. In and around these makeshift camps she walked, until she came to the juncture between five points… a large makeshift plaza, surrounding what was once a glorious golden fountain…
Well. Technically speaking it was still a glorious golden fountain; metals didn’t tarnish in this world, unlike the strange material layer of reality that Juno Hayes lived on. But someone had carved off the head, replacing it with the flower-and-grenade icon of the Nobodies. And the water systems that cycled the fountain through its preset animation routines had been stolen outright, likely resold on the open market to be used in some Horizon lobby’s display piece. All that remained was roughly 85% of a pretty statue.
It was here that Spark stopped in her tracks, pondering the statue, pondering that hateful icon someone had copypasta’d in place of the face.
Checked an internal clock. Waited s’more. Checked again.
"Well?" she asked aloud, with a glance around at the towering and broken neon popup windows coating every building. "You’re the one who wanted to talk. We talking, or not? …anybody home? #HelloWorld."
Not a peep. Not even snores from the snoozers she’d tiptoed past on the way here.
Entirely possible this was a prank. Uniq claimed to be passing word down the chain, being a friend who knew a friend who knew a frenemy… playing her role as "safe" contact within the Chanarchy who could get word to "the agent of Connectivity" that her presence was required. The agent’s presence alone, of course.
Tracer wanted to go, also of course. The idea that someone else out there knew about Connectivity threw up all manner of red flags with him—Spark’s status as a system agent being one of the few critical secrets they continued to keep from the rest of the world, even under this new policy of supposedly honest dealings. But given they only had roughly two weeks left on the doomsday clock, Spark made the call to play along rather than sit at home on her thumbs.
Even if sitting at home on her thumbs would ensure they stayed in the right place. Even now, she could feel the Twist virus twitching under her skin, getting worse with every step…
Briefly, she’d wondered if donning the other skin she owned would’ve held the virus at bay.
It simply… appeared, one day, as a gift from the ghost of her mentor. Only as a last resort, it warned. Verity’s jacket, now embodying the true system agent of Connectivity.
Spark may somehow have copied an agent’s metadata, but she lacked the power of the true role. If she were to wear that jacket… perhaps somehow Netwerk would protect her precious little life, purging the Twist virus rather than allow that system-critical function to fall away to oblivion…
Of course, the price becoming the agent once more would be losing her free will. Spark considered herself very much a fan of free will. For example, the free will to choose whether she’d stick around any longer, or bail on this supposed appointment Uniq had set up for her.
Spark’s willingness to go out on a limb only extended to very short limbs. With no mysterious agent from the dawn of time showing its face to talk shop, even after arriving at the specified meeting place at the specified time… Spark was pondering calling it quits.
But as she turned to go, one of those annoying popup windows advertising horse dongs flickered in front of her eyes, glaring green neon letters declaring:
AGENT CONNECTIVTY, RANDOMIZE YOUR INPUTS TO SPEAK AND BE HEARD! 25c PER INSTALL.
…which caused her to take a step back away from the sudden turgid phallus with a surprisingly personal message attached.
"What?" she asked. "Randomize my…"
On impulse… she glanced off in another direction. Nowhere in particular, at nothing worth note, just mixing up her viewpoint a little…
…and locked eyes on the decaying sign of a failed restaurant, declaring its offerings.
CHANARCHY SWEET BUNS, RUINED, LOST, TWISTED IN DANGER. HELP A FELLOW CHANNER PAY THE BILLS! BEST PRICES IN TOWN #1 A+++ WOULD EAT AGAIN.
"Okay. Okay, I get this," she spoke aloud. "You talk through your world. Weird, but I can deal. So… let’s talk. I’m here. You know damn well what I want, given you know damn well who I am."
Spin in place, glance at a new thing, wait for a response…
Just a brick wall. But, somewhere overhead, a passing song from someone’s open window switched up the lyrics from mumblecore about bad relationships to something else entirely.
"Twenty-one, she said to me," the crooner crooned. "Twenty-one servers for salvation. Tears down my cheeks, dampening her new sneakers…"
"Exactly. If we’re gonna archive the whole population—including yours—we need more servers. Sooo… we were kinda hopin’ you’d be generous and donate them? Or are you going to make me jump through hoops, like the other two agents I dealt with…?"
A quick glance to her side showed neon artwork of a dog jumping through a hoop, hanging in the window of an empty pet shop.
"Had a feeling," Spark grumbled. "Okay, what’s your deal? What do you want? We can provide. But there is something of a time issue here, so, uh, maybe make it something we can sort out in—"
Sharp snap, right below the elbow. Spark winced in pain, as her autocorrect modification kicked in, un-Twisting her arm around from the position it had wrenched itself into.
When she looked up, the bricks in the wall had spelled out a single word in blocky pixel artwork.
TWIST, they read.
"Yeah. I got infected a few days ago," Spark explained. "Fucked if I know how. Look, it’s not going to be a problem, I’m practicing safe contact with bounding box hacks now to avoid actually touching anyone. And even if I end up unable to run around doing stuff for you, I’m not like the other agents; I got, like, friends and stuff. Allies. Anything you need, we can take care of…"
Perhaps to emphasize the word… the pixel-bricks shuddered, mortar cracking as the bumpmaps deformed themselves. Soon each brick fell right out of the wall, one by one, clattering to the ground below. Thankfully the alley sleepers operated on personal timers rather than audio signals, so the clatter of masonry woke no one.
"I… don’t get it," she admitted. "Yes, I have Twist. What’s your point…?"
But… nothing. Even a random glance offered no answers, nothing out of the ordinary as she darted her eyes around. Nothing but the word, disassembled and crashed to the ground. Twist, fallen.
"You gotta be shitting me," Spark said. "You want us to cure the Twist malware?"
Game show fanfare drifted through the air, from an open window where one of the server’s remaining residents had been binge watching You Bet Your Runtime.
"Okay, I get it, I get why you want that. It’s a virus that affects you and yours way more than it hurts Athena Online or Horizon," Spark said, piecing the puzzle together. "And believe me, I’d sure love a vaccine to flush this shit out of my system. But… yeah, remember what I said about the time issue? We’ve only got two weeks left before Netwerk goes boom, and ideally, we need the servers long before then so we can load ’em up…"
The bricks offered no leniency, lying in a shattered and unmoving pile.
"How about payment in advance?" she suggested.
"You know you’re only hurting yourself by not helping us, right? We’re talking about saving your people, just as much as we’re saving the other two provider nations. Don’t get me wrong, we’re gonna attack Twist with all we got—I’ve got a bit of a personal investment in fixing it—but you can’t hold back on meanwhile…"
Above her, the 3-D graffiti stapled across the statue’s neck fluttered and rustled… rose petals drifting down from the intertwined flower baked into the grenade. Each one fell into the still water below, neatly lined up, each with a single word woven into its texture map. Spelling out the demand in fierce and simple terms.
DON’T. TRUST. YOU. YET.
PROVE. YOUR. INTENT.
Hoping for the Chanarchist of all people to be reasonable and trusting was probably too much, in hindsight.
Horizon’s agent had been driven insane by the weight of time and loss, to the point where he had to be chained to a wall. Athena didn’t trust herself with the power of an agent, leaving it in the hands of her descendants. And as for Nyx, well… despite her good intentions, those schemes certainly assumed zero trust in the world. Those schemes resulted in burning the Chanarchist, in fact, chaining her to this task for all eternity…
And now some brand spanking new agent, an agent who was barely an agent at all, strolled on up demanding the Chanarchist cough up a pile of servers. Reacting with deep-rooted suspicions made sense. Outright paranoia even made sense, considering the circumstances.
But Spark was ready to step up to the task.
"I showed your contemporaries the kind of stand I can make," she promised. "And I’ll show you, too. We’ll beat back the plague that’s eating your people alive, take our servers, and save the damn world. Sit back and watch me go."
A few quick glances around the plaza confirmed no more "random inputs" on the way. For the best, really… her hand had broken three times over the course of the strange chat, and it took all she had not to let the pain through in her voice.
Gingerly, she stumbled back through the alley, and disconnected away from the broken heart of the Chanarchy.
Tweak, tune, upgrade. A new version of the auto-correct system, better at fighting the symptoms of Twist… but still nowhere near a cure. And getting less effective with each passing day…
Spark flexed her fingers, feeling them bend and move. Simulated musculature, not "real" according to the rules of Juno’s world… but real enough to Spark. Real enough to ache and strain under the weight of the malware that happily and randomly warped her avatar around like a pretzel.
Tracer oversaw the upgrade himself. Beta handled installation. The two loves of her life, on hand to see her through this… and to provide the solution she couldn’t provide on her own.
"Conundrum is pulling every file in his contacts list," Tracer explained. "Beta has contacts within Concordia we can leverage for a short-notice symposium. We’ll get every notable infosec organization in Netwerk to send representatives, with the singular goal of developing a Twist vaccine. With that many skilled engineers under one roof, undoubtedly this plague will be crushed in short order."
"Right. Right. I like it, I like it," Spark agreed, still checking her range of motion, flexing fingers and wrist this way and that. "What’s my role? You want me to run security? I should tap Lumi, too; she’s got the House of Programkind on lock lately, it’s pretty impressive—"
"Your role is to lie in bed here at the clinic, and avoid moving around. The virus accelerates with physical activity."
"What, sit this one out completely…? Are you shitting me, bro?"
"I am not in fact shitting you," Tracer stated, with serious intent. "Beta and I talked about this, and decided it’d be best if we handle the conference without you. In fact, she suggested you go into sensory deprivation again—"
"—but also guessed that your reaction to the notion would specifically be ‘#FuckThat,’" Tracer continued, casting a nod in Beta’s direction.
Finishing up, Beta closed her debugger windows, and reached out to squeeze Spark’s hand… and firmly hold it down to the surface of the bed.
"You matter too much to me to let you suffer, Spark," she explained. "Please, you’ve already done so much for us these last few days. You’ve challenged Horizon’s corporate leaders, you’ve faced the Inquisition… you’ve been brave beyond any normal capacity of bravery. But this, this is something we can do. I’ve attended plenty of software developer conferences; I can work with Tracer to organize this one, and run it in your stead. Meanwhile, you need to focus on your recovery."
Instinctively, Spark wanted to protest. But the sports coach inside her had already run the numbers, and was nodding thoughtfully at a chalkboard full of X’s and O’s in response.
"Guess I’d be kinda useless around all those eggheads," she agreed. "But… shit. You know me, I don’t like to be inactive…"
"I know. I know," Beta spoke, with soothing tones. "And you won’t be inactive. You’ll be resting, which gives us both peace of mind knowing that you’re taking care of yourself. That’ll make what we have to do far easier. Okay…?"
"Yeah. Okay. #YeahOkay. I won’t like it, but I’ll chill in my hospice room and rot away if it makes you happier. …kidding. I’ll be fine!"
A schedule reminder fired inside Tracer’s MemoryPalace, distracting him momentarily from offering any further reassurances. Not that he was particularly good at the "Reassuring Smile," a gesture that Beta had on lock for years.
"The conference is in two days time, and I’m afraid we’ll both be quite busy, but we’ll be in and out to visit you meanwhile. Satisfactory?"
"Satisfactory," Spark agreed. "And… I take it this means I’m not going with you to our ‘appointment’ today, either?"
"No need. We can handle Uniq just fine while you rest."
"Eeeeh… I dunno, Tracer. Okay, she came through for us with the Chanarchist, but that doesn’t mean we need to keep relations going. I trust that crook about as far as I can punt an entire creep wave…"
"I have no idea what that means, but I’ll assume it’s a short distance. And I am in full agreement, #TBH. …I used the tag correctly, right? Right. Regardless… I have to know. Before we take Twist head-on, I have to know that my worst case scenario regarding its origin are wrong."
And gone, both of them off to deal with the devil.
Leaving Spark alone, in her tastefully decorated room at the clinic. All alone.
Fortunately, she had plenty of toys to play with in her HUD. Messenger, of course… even if all her friends had gone dark, each of them evacuating one at a time as the days went by. Puzzle, notably. Even her second-hand party time connections vanished…
Evacuations had begun to accelerate, according to Tracer’s reports. Shows of confidence from Horizon and even the Athenian senate did wonders for tipping a few folks over. Still not enough, thanks to Senator Agni walking right out the doors of power while insisting the sky wasn’t falling… still too many holdouts. But at least Spark’s circle of friends decided to move ahead to the next world. Great for Netwerk… bad for a bored Spark, lying in bed, with so very few friends to talk to.
Funnily enough… a friend reached out to her, instead of the other way around. A very recently added friend. The ding echoed through her mind, clear as a bell across the empty contacts list.
<juno.hayes> Hi, is this connection still working? I haven’t heard from you in hours. I guess that means days for you, though.
No other Program in Netwerk could have this particular name in their Messenger lists. Even the limited communication Tracer and the clinic engineers had with Juno had to bounce through Spark’s mind, being the agent of Connectivity. Even without the godly powers of an agent, her data flag carried certain privileges… including communication with the "outside world."
Of course… it could carry more. She could carry so many more privileges, if she was willing to put on that jacket…
Immediately, Spark shoved that idea out of her mind, and opened the Messenger link.
<Spark> Yeah, I’m here. What’s up? Anything wrong out there in the so-called "real world"?
A few minutes later, owing to the clock speed difference between their worlds, she had her reply.
<juno.hayes> No no, everything’s fine. I can see the servers coming online. I’ve even been practicing my space walking so I’m ready to go when they’re ready to be pulled. But it’s midnight now, at least according to my favorite time zone, and to be honest I can’t sleep. I want to talk someone, and the only person I can talk to out here is you. Is that okay?
Spark had to raise an eyebrow at that, despite nobody being around to see her quirky expression. Right when she needed to reach out to someone, someone in need of reaching out to someone reached out to her. A lot of reaching someones, all piled together…
<Spark> Sure. I’m gonna be lying around doing nothin’ for days while my friends get the last servers online, so I may as well hang out with you. So what’s up?
The reply came minutes later.
<juno.hayes> I was wondering, do you sleep? Do you dream? (please don’t say you dream of electric sheep j/k)
And that’s how Spark came to finally have the first real conversation between Program and Human.
A popular children’s board game involved players moving from server to server, purchasing clusters of real estate using various denominations of coin from a fake bank. Perhaps in a token effort at simulating the kind of shady business practices slumlords got up to, getting a little too lucky or unlucky could land you in jail… a server from which there was no escape. Without further luck, that is.
Today, Tracer was "just visiting" jail, to ensure that his oldest and nastiest enemy had not rolled double sixes anytime recently.
This jail once held dozens and dozens of victims, all held hostage by an identity thief and forced to grind coins for the rest of their lives. Today, a former prisoner stood tall as the new warden, over a total inmate population of one. Into this world of cages and bars, hanging over an endless void (why bother rendering a pretty landscape for tithe slaves?) did Tracer and Beta connect, appearing before the woman they came to meet…
Uniq, the identity thief.
She’d been an enemy, she’d been a friend, she’d generally been both at the same time at one point or another. Thrall to madness, puppet master of a false god, stealer of memories and ruiner of lives… and yet weirdly, she’d come to be hailed as a folk hero by the Chanarchy. That’s Uniq, they’d whisper, in hushed tones. That’s the one who tricked the entire Church of One. Despite being a predator in their playground, they saw her a protector against the zealots who set all the Chanarchy in their sights…
Developing the initial "Nobody" avatar and metadata mask certainly helped raise her standing. Not that she participated in any of their shenanigans, no. Uniq was more the sort to enable others to cause chaos, rather than blatantly stir the chaos herself.
For someone who was such a big deal ’round these parts, she certainly didn’t look very impressive. Wearing the Defaults of an ordinary looking woman, whatever beauty she held was natural rather than the unnatural and perfect physique of a canned avatar. That olive green skin did little for her complexion, compared to the more popular pinks and grays folks wore these days. Standing there in the middle of her private prison, tending to a series of floating note icons tethered to her clipboard, she looked more like an accountant than a legendary antihero.
She raised a single index finger, signaling her visitors to wait a moment, as she collapsed her notes back down into the faux wooden surface of the clipboard. Glowing icons winked out, one at a time.
"Sorry, sorry. I’ve a lot of media appearances to manage lately. I was actually thinking of getting a personal assistant to help me keep track of them all…"
"Media appearances? With a standing arrest warrant on your head in Athena Online for fraud and larceny?" Tracer pondered aloud.
"Yes, well, more enlightened minds see me for who I am: the last bastion of righteous self-interest left in this world. I was actually hoping to hang a shingle in a Horizon server… before you went and made a deal with Humankind to pave over Netwerk."
"A deal to save Netwerk," he corrected. "The paving would have happened one way or another. This way, some part of us will continue on…"
"Tomato, toh-ma-to," Uniq suggested, with an illustrative hand-waggle. "And you brought your pet with you! Hello again, Beta. Would you please talk some sense into your boyfriend? I already told him over Messenger that there hasn’t been a security breach, but for some reason he refuses to believe until he sees for himself…"
Despite a few moments of cooperation between them, clearly the woman in the pink sweater hadn’t forgotten having her brains once sucked out through a straw by the identity thief. Either that, or she disliked being called a pet. Or both.
"I’m not sure we can fully trust you, either," Beta added. "Although… I’m also not sure we can trust our eyes to know for sure if you’re fooling us or not. What with your penchant for illusions and memory hacks…"
"I suppose that’s one drawback to being a notorious cheat, but rest assured: I’m no liar," Uniq asserted. "I didn’t lie to Nyx, I didn’t lie to Dex, and I’m not lying to you now. True, I lie to just about everyone else, but at least those are lies told on a professional level…"
Eager to swerve this particular train back on track, Tracer latched onto those three little letters that had been chewing on his mind for days.
"Dex," he spoke. "We need to see Dex. Need to be certain his cell is intact."
"And as I’ve told you, it’s quite intact. But, if satisfying your curiosity will get you out of my hair, so be it…"
With a wave of the clipboard, she gestured for her new guests to follow. Down iron wrought staircases, past row after row of empty cells, their doors hanging open. (Of all the crimes Uniq could be considered guilty of… repeating the one that created her was not on her rap sheet. She’d never even consider holding hostages and force them to compute cryptocurrency for her own needs.) Perhaps to further isolate those former prisoners, the draw distance on this tiny server had been sharply reduced… a black fog smoothly moving one exact unit of distance away from the eyes, no matter where you stood. Exposing cage after cage, as they walked towards their destination…
One cage. One single prisoner. Its door also wide open… but the prisoner in no shape to walk out.
Uniq called up a few diagnostic tools on her clipboard, studying the various disassembled components. An arm, a leg. A patchwork core of memory, loosely tied together by barbed wire strands. And most importantly… she checked the glassy stare of his eyes, disembodied and hovering over a strip of his smile.
"Sooo, as you can see, I’ve decompiled Dex down to his core software modules," Uniq explained. "We couldn’t possibly trust him with the consciousness of active runtime. I didn’t even trust his unconscious form. So instead, I pulled him apart. Oh, don’t look so green around the gills, Beta, he’s not feeling any pain. He’s not feeling anything at all, really. And if I wanted, I could recompile him at a moment’s notice. But… isn’t it better this way? After all he’s done?"
"I… I, uh… maybe. Maybe it is," Beta tried to agree. "Sorry, it’s just… that’s quite a sight…"
"Okay, I’ll admit to a little drama with the big reveal. But all the better to convince your stiff little man there that I’m on the level. So? Satisfied, Mr. Winder…?"
Without an ounce of squeamishness, Winder/Tracer stepped right up to the assorted bits of Dex. Face-to-face with his old enemy… or at least face-to-partial-face. Of course Uniq would’ve kept that creepy, "friendly" smile of his intact…
"When did you disassemble him, exactly?" Tracer asked. "The malware we’ve been tracking has been in the wild for about a year. It’s still possible he somehow crafted the virus, then leaked it out of his cell. If you were capable of escaping this place, someone considerably craftier than you certainly could repeat the feat."
With a mild twitch of annoyance, Uniq moved to quash his worries.
"I took him apart the moment I got him here, on the very day we captured him. He’s been offline since you shot him with a Kill-9, two years ago. Like I said… in his current form, he couldn’t be trusted with consciousness."
Careful to avoid those endlessly staring eyes, Beta focused instead on the scraps of memory and software modifications laid bare before her. Having done her own research into memory manipulation, she could follow the jagged scars of self-excised data… holes in his memory, cored out by hand, leaving behind huge gaps…
Dex had existed since the dawn of time. Most Programs began developing basic memory corruption that comes with old age, eventually coredumping into an unrecoverable state… death from obsolescence. But Dex avoided that fate by abandoning his past, chopping out chunks of it as he went, so he’d never run out of space. He’d happily taken the knife to his own mind, just to continue on his self-chosen mission of driving Netwerk insane…
It was better for him this way, shut down and decompiled. Better for everyone.
"It doesn’t seem right," Beta spoke, more or less to herself. "In the end, we didn’t want him dead. Now… he’s basically dead. I wish there was some way he could live without being a threat to himself and others…"
"Given Dex was an irrational madman with a penchant for social mass suicide, I’m entirely comfortable with this sort of death," Tracer replied with. "Yes, I’d happily leave him be to wallow in his failures, if it were possible to safely do so. But there is no safety possible within his madness."
"It’s too easy to write him off as a madman, though. Crashing head-on into that rogue server is what drove him insane… a traumatic experience, Tracer. He chose to become Dex to try and cope with that pain. We don’t write people with PTSD off as ‘broken’ and abandon them. I mean… I’m not saying I’d even know where to start with therapy for someone like Dex, but… there has to be a way, right?"
"I’m not saying there isn’t. But it’s not worth the risk, Beta. This is the man who tricked Nyx into nearly destroying the world with the Buzz virus… which is why I’d assumed he was the likely third party behind this new Twist virus. Hmmm. But… if Uniq is telling the truth, and I’ll admit we have no means of proving that she is, Dex couldn’t be responsible for Twist. And that’s the only question I came here today to answer."
Uniq raised two fingers in a mock salute. "I tell no lies," she promised. "He’s been offline all this time. Besides, why would he write a virus specifically to target modification enthusiasts? He likes mods; I count no less than two dozen minor tweaks he’d installed in himself over the years. Why not suspect the Church, or at least the Inquisition…?"
Satisfied (for the moment) that his original theory had been disproven, Tracer turned away from the desiccated corpse to face its mortician.
"The general assumption is that Twist is the work of the Inquisition, yes. Yet another way for them to punish sinners who violate Defaults," he summarized. "And I wouldn’t put it past mother, either; she spoke repeatedly of purging sinners from this world to draw your false One back to his faithful…"
Uniq coughed, politely.
"Yes, well. I’m not the one who thought it’d be lulzy to enlist your mother as an apostle," she pointed out. "You can blame Nemesis for that particular jape. Personally, I would’ve preferred co-conspirators to dupes… people we could safely enlist as willing allies. But I wasn’t calling the shots in that particular operation. Hired muscle only, afraid."
"You remain blameless and impeccable as always, then? Just as you did when you enabled the Nobodies to run around in perfectly anonymous masks…"
"Merely responding to market demands, there. But yes, I’ll freely admit I’m a terrible person, and was greatly looking forward to exploiting the Church for my own gain. Still, there’s a difference between being a terrible person and a monster. I wasn’t the one creating a giant coin farm out of the congregation, and I’m not to blame for the Inquisition’s emergence. So. You came, you saw, you contemplated. Dex is not your plague master."
Now… he looked back to that wild spray of data files, tightly packed and carved memory engrams. Each one holding secrets the boy held, tricks for bending the world to his whims…
"Not the origin, no. But… the knowledge locked in his head could help us cure the disease…"
But Uniq shook her head, immediately. "I’m going to cut this one off before you keep going with it. No, I can’t dig out Dex’s talents with malware for your personal use. Memory is a delicate and tangled thing, Tracer, his most of all. I can’t simply slice the parts of him out that you desire. Unless you’d like him reactivated…?"
"A terrible idea," Tracer agreed. "Even if he could somehow be saved, as Beta suggests. Nyx once thought she could harness him, and was proven quite wrong. I won’t repeat her mistakes. …hmm. I suppose that’s it, then. Beta, let’s depart."
"I could be his keeper," Beta immediately suggested.
"What? Beta, please—"
"No, hang on, listen. I could baby-sit him while he helps us. You know me; I’m incorruptible. Easy to be incorruptible when you’ve never really had any power, but… you rely on me to be your moral compass, yes? So let me be his. Uniq, you always give your identity theft victims a chance at a new life, right? Why let Dex rot away here, without a chance at redemption? That has to irritate you, on some level. So, let me be his chance. We recompile him, and I’ll stick to his side while he helps us solve Twist."
Eleven reasons immediately leapt to Tracer’s lips, eager to shove their way out. With great effort, he held them back, to calculate better versions of each.
"Beta… I know your heart’s in the right place, but… the difficulty is, and I don’t intend for this to come across as insulting or condescending in any way, but while I have absolute faith in your ability to make proper decisions regarding ethics and whatnot, there is a matter of—"
"Your boyfriend thinks you’re naive and/or gullible," Uniq supplied.
As proof he wasn’t completely cool and composed, Tracer snapped of a sharp look of loathing in Uniq’s general direction. One the identity thief caught, played with a bit, and enjoyed tremendously.
But Beta proved herself ready for it.
"You don’t trust me not to fall for his tricks, because I’m too trusting," she knew. "Because I advocate trust, rather than manipulation. That’s it, isn’t it."
"Beta, no, that’s not what I meant at all. That’s… you have to understand, the delicacy of this matter is such that—"
"Tracer. It’s fine. I was only making a suggestion. Besides, we already have a plan, don’t we? The malware conference. We’ll put all the top infosec engineers in a room, and hammer out a solution. It’ll be fine. I’m not angry at you."
Reassurances followed. Platitudes, as well. Soon they were saying their goodbyes to Uniq, and departing to resume plans for the conference.
Soon, Tracer was too focused on his passion for hyper-efficient optimization to even think that perhaps Beta was lying about being hurt. And Beta, for her part, never brought it up again.
PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE. Partial file recovered from Messenger archive hack. We must understand Humankind if we are to survive them. PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE.
<Spark> That sounds horrifying. So you just… lie down and sleep happens? You don’t engage a sleep mode or a dreaming app, you just pass out at some point? How can you stand it?
<juno.hayes> Right now I could stand for more of it. My sleep cycles are completely off thanks to all these FTL runs I’ve been doing. And I don’t know, it’s not that scary because I’m used to it, I guess. It’s stranger that Programs sleep and even dream, with the right software. Or that you made dreaming software at all! Or that you specifically call it "dreaming" when you’ve never known a real dream.
<Spark> Can we dispense with the word "real"? What’s real to me is real to me and what’s real to you is real to you. Neither of us can claim a monopoly on reality at this point. But it’s not that strange, considering we were made in your image. All thanks to your grandfather.
<juno.hayes> I feel so awful about that. All his notes were about the worst my people had to offer, from generations and generations in the past. I wish there was more I could do to fix this. He wanted to fix it, but was afraid he’d be fired if he said anything…
<Spark> My brother would love to give the old man an earful, but me… I dunno. We’d be different if your grandpappy didn’t leave all those archives lying around Netwerk, sure. But I wouldn’t be me, you know? For better or worse life would be wildly different in here, and I like it here. For all its faults, it’s my home.
<juno.hayes> And now I’m chasing you out of that home, because I’m afraid of being fired too. I’m no better.
<Spark> You’re better than most of your kind. Didn’t you say anybody else would just destroy us without a second thought? Humanity must hate what we are.
<juno.hayes> I wouldn’t say hate. Just… what’s a good word? Scared? Embarrassed? Anxious? Afraid. They’re afraid of you. What you could mean. Rumor has it that other "Programs" have emerged in the past, but, well… have you ever heard of a Turing Test?
<juno.hayes> We’re kind of doing one right now, actually. A human talking to an A.I., trying to determine if they’re alive. If they guess it’s another human on the other end of the link and it’s not, the A.I. passes the test.
<Spark> Okay. And what’s the prize for winning?
<juno.hayes> Let’s just say that if anybody ever puts you to the test, do yourself a favor. Fail miserably.
The server had been configured as a secure meeting environment, for rental to various large organizations for conferences and symposiums. Beta had attended quite a few, sometimes with Snowi, sometimes by herself… and she knew you couldn’t even get in the front door of the building unless you’d been invited to today’s event. Having an additional security checkpoint for picking up lanyards and badges seemed pointless; nobody could be here who wasn’t expressly invited by Winder/Tracer, organizer of the conference. With a recently installed designated login/logout zone, even those invited couldn’t simply pop in and out for a sneak attack.
Of course… the Progressive Town Hall that ultimately claimed Snowi’s life had been hosted on this server. Participants had smuggled weaponry in despite the strict layers of security draped all over Concordia, so… perhaps a conference specifically about information security preferred to play things a bit more carefully than relying on the server’s defaults.
Problem was, she had a panel meeting to attend ("Sandboxing Antimalware: Do We Need Code Modifications When An App Will Do?") in the next twenty minutes… and the line to get through registration seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace.
Tracer left Floating Point before the crack of dawn, keen on getting in those doors the instant he could. But Beta chose to dally a bit… playing with her cat, having breakfast, popping over to the clinic to check on Spark… and now, she’d ended up running late. With an unexpected and sluggish line ahead of her, missing that panel might actually happen…
Inch by inch, forward in line. Beta kept herself entertained (and distracted to avoid worry) with two or three casual puzzle games in her personal HUD, with the visual input from her glasses pushed largely to the side. Messages zipped in and out of her box as well, apologies to her fellow panelists for running late, check-ins with Spark to see if she was still doing well ("I’m fine, just chatting with Juno, now quit spazzing yo") and other such bings and bongs in her ears to keep her nicely occupied…
When the line finally pushed her up to the head, she almost didn’t notice. Quickly she pushed all the windows aside, maximizing her viewpoint… to see a rather stern looking man with several dozen intelligent agents zipping around him, apps to analyze his surroundings completely and constantly.
With leisurely pace, he opened his registration database.
"Name?" he asked.
"Projkit/Beta, with the Verity Clinic contingent," she explained, quickly. "Listen, I really need to hurry if I’m going to make my first panel, soooo…"
"Beta, huh. Interesting," he spoke, spinning a finger through the database for a nice, slow manual check. "I’ve heard of you before. A casual app developer, right?"
"I’m an app developer, correct," she spoke, omitting a very specific word.
Casual. One of the last bastions of slur you could hurl at a coder without being specifically sexist. Casual apps, like social media, like the match-three puzzle games she’d been playing mere moments ago. Nevermind that she’d also developed Peep, beloved by hardcore gamers everywhere; in this man’s eyes she was merely a coder of girl apps, casual apps…
But… no. That was judgmental; that was the internalized Snowi speaking, reading into the man’s words instead of his actions. Beta was better than that. She wouldn’t assume he was somehow on the attack just because of casual wording.
"So, what brings you here?" he continued.
"…as I said, I’m with the Verity Clinic," she repeated. "The organizers of the conference…?"
"I didn’t think you worked infosec. I thought you just did random apps here and there."
"Yes, well, if you’ll just look my name up in that database… see, I’m there, okay?" she said, pointing to her entry in the hovering list. "My metadata’s on Concordia’s entrance list, so…"
"Really? You think confirming one’s identity is that simple, do you? Just metadata checks, nice and easy. If it was that easy we wouldn’t have the Nobodies running around, would we? If you were actually an infosec coder, and not the reason that whole #CodeHonesty thing started, you’d know that…"
On second thought, maybe this guy was on the attack. Just maybe.
One call to Tracer would clear this up. He’d come charging out here to lance this guy through the heart with a sharp word.
No. Projkit/Beta was defined as more than simply Tracer’s partner—Beta was a coder at heart. One lifetime of hard work, creating all manner of elegantly designed little apps for making people’s lives better. Just because she didn’t have a knack for malware didn’t mean her works were casual toss-offs. Why should she have to cower behind anyone to justify her existence here? Remaining stern and upright despite her inner imposter syndrome trying to flare up, she pushed right back.
"I was cleared of all accusations, and #CodeHonesty as a whole stood with me in the end," Beta pointed out. "And as noted, I work with the Verity Clinic, formerly Iteration. I know the Conundrum by name; I’ve stood in his office at least once a week for the last two years. So. Are you still concerned I’m some sort of security risk…?"
—what are you doing this is nuts you don’t belong here you’re no malware specialist why are you even here you don’t do anything important you’re not brave you’re not clever you’re not—
Shut up, she told that little voice. Please. Please just be quiet…
Perhaps sensing he’d pushed her enough… the man activated his sensor agents, to study her inside and out.
"It’s only procedure, ma’am," he spoke. "Nobody gets through without a deep scan. Can’t have any Twist infections getting in the door… or any black hats and identity thieves looking to sabotage the conference. Don’t worry, this won’t take but a few minutes."
Frustration made her squeeze her fingers tighter together, but… she stopped pushing. Even with that brief flare-up of confidence, part of her wanted to just go along with this to get through it easier. That part won, in the end.
From the corner of her glasses, Beta spied an avatar wearing a simple white tunic of some strolling right past the line, past the desk, and merrily along. No line, no security check.
Fortunately, the registration official noticed as well. He turned away from his scanners to sharply address the wayward Program.
"Excuse me… excuse me!" he called out. "You need to…"
Strangely elegant Defaults peered back around, the avatar pausing at the threshold to the conference, craning their neck back a bit to meet the man’s gaze. Ageless but not perfect, neither male nor female in any specific amount, simply… a Program, otherwise unworthy of note.
"Hmm? Is there a problem?" they asked.
"…no, no problem," the official said. "Sorry. As you were. Enjoy the conference."
And on they walked, as Mr. Registration refocused his efforts on Beta.
"Wait, what?" Beta asked, snapping out of the strange moment. "You said everybody goes through the procedure! What makes him… her… uh, what makes them so special?"
"You don’t know? That’s Yume, a renowned expert in malware. I’ve known them for years," the official spoke, in a flat tone. "But you I barely know. Now hold still please, it’ll make this go faster. So, what brings you to Concordia today…?"
"I told you already, I—"
And that peculiar avatar poked a head of low-poly purple locks into the proceedings, having looped smoothly back around to the desk.
"Excuse me, mind if I take her in with me?" Yume asked, gesturing lightly to Beta.
"What? But… I mean, if you’re vouching for her, I suppose—"
"Excellent! Thank you so much. This way, this way!"
Too stunned to resist, Beta let herself get dragged along past several firewalls and entrance scan points. As she’d already been invited, meaning the entire deep scan was actually quite pointless, no alarms went off as she bypassed registration. Or was forcibly bypassed through it, as the case may be.
Only when the pair were around a corner and into the thick of the gathered crowd of coders did Beta pull herself free… and ask why.
The unusually genderless avatar cocked its head, curiously.
"Why? Because he seemed like a simply awful person," Yume suggested. "And so I thought it’d be fun. Besides, I like doing nice things for people. You seem like nice people, so you deserve nice things."
"But… you don’t know me. —wait, seemed like an awful person? That guy said he’s known you for years…"
"A lot of people know me, but that doesn’t mean I know a lot of people. I’ve got a memorably unmemorable face, it seems," Yume suggested, sliding their hands in the pockets of their simple tunic. "Infosec largely knows each other. Well. They know of each other. It’s a oddly insular little community and I can’t think of why I enjoy being in it, but here we are."
"I… see?" Beta said, not seeing at all. But… the Messages in her box had begun to stack up again, as her panel already began minutes ago. "So you know Conundrum, or maybe Tracer…? Or—oooh, I can’t, no. I’m sorry, I need to hurry along. Oh! My name’s Beta."
"So it is! Another time, Beta."
Finding a friendly face in what would likely be a hostile crowd… a rare delight, really. Even if the little voice told Beta she didn’t belong here, even if she felt adrift despite being allegedly with her own kind in the form of a coder’s enclave… at least someone was nice enough to simply be nice. She allowed herself a smile, knowing that even if she ran into more individuals like Mr. Registration Guy, she could keep that feeling in her back pocket. There were good people here, too.
If Beta could claim to be an expert in one thing, this would be it.
Part of her wondered if Tracer added this panel to the day’s events specifically for her, so she’d have something to do. A cynical part, that is, one which also was wondering about the implied commentary on her far-too-trusting nature from the other day… but regardless of why, she intended to let her colors shine brightly in this particular field of expertise.
"It’s a question of trust," she explained to the half-packed room of infosec professionals. "Opening up your codebase for a permanent modification requires considerable trust on behalf of the public. After the ViruFax incident, where a major antimalware company was proven to be behind the RansomMe virus, I’d say we need to earn back that trust. One way we can do that is through clean, properly sandboxed apps which don’t require elevated permissions or complicated installs."
Made sense to her, as she was saying it. Until two seconds of silence passed… and she realized in hindsight she’d just lumped most of the infosec industry into with ViruFax.
Immediately, the representative from Yoho sitting to her left fired back.
"One bad apple doesn’t ruin the bunch," the woman in what could only be described as a ‘punk casual’ avatar started, using yet another adopted metaphor from Humankind. "Yoho was always on the side of consumers, even during the RansomMe incident. We never lost trust. I don’t see why we should abandon a perfectly valid and powerful method of defending against malware just because one company lacked any ethical standards. Or does Iteration, who almost exclusively work through modifications, plan to change its techniques just to satisfy the masses…?"
Iteration. The only name this industry acknowledged, despite the "Horizon/Verity Health Clinic" representation being clearly printed on the sprite hovering in front of Beta’s microphone.
Despite being an app expert, they still found ways to belittle her accomplishments… and even her workplace. Yoho believed firmly in the Chanarchy’s wild creativity, an organization of infosec rock stars which refused to constrain their work based on popular standards. Most of their software required one to crack over their head and jam a hard code modification in place… resulting in users often becoming living beta testers. And any damage done in the process was the cost of progress.
Klex sat back in her chair, away from the "Yoho" branded microphone in front of her on the table. If she could’ve gotten away with dropping it on the floor, she’d likely have done it, regarding Beta with a harsh glare from all four of her avatar’s eyes…
…while representatives from Light of Aether and ProcShield sat by silently and her take charge. Klex had dominated the discussion since the beginning, when she declared that the "app/mod distinction" was a waste of time. With two silent partners refusing to contribute, every time Beta opened her mouth in response, she ended up looking defensive against the entire the table.
At the very least, she’d hoped that Joseph, the representative from the Light of Aether Medical Clinic would speak up more. Being an Athena Online-based hospital, he’d often used specialized apps to treat rare conditions and malware infections. A distinguished gentleman in distinguished Defaults, lines of old age along his face, he remained impassive in face of these veiled attacks.
As for ProcShield, despite also being a Default, sat in constant distraction from what likely were a dozen Messenger conversations going on at once in his head. He listened to everything, but behind his rose-colored eyes, whatever thoughts he had about those words remained trapped.
So, it was up to Beta to defend her honor. Again.
"At the Verity Clinic, we believe in the right tool for the job," she spoke, emphasizing the woman’s name. "App, modification, whatever is required. But ‘required’ is a broad concept. Twist is so widespread and so easy to pass through physical interaction that we can’t risk infected persons not using our eventual vaccine. We must take patient preference into account, and research shows apps have greater uptake than modifications."
Klex refused to let it go, leaning back to her microphone, to let the official chat logs record every word clearly.
"That the ones who are suffering the most are modders, yes?" she asked. "My people. And we’re not afraid of modding. It makes no sense to tie our hands just because people like Joseph here get all itchy at the idea of codebase changes…"
Which, at last, dragged the Light of Aether representative into that spotlight.
"Ah… I’d like to disagree on one point, if you don’t mind," he spoke, with a softer voice than Klex’s harsh rasp. "I don’t see focusing on app development as ‘tying our hands.’ A well-coded app can be just as powerful as a modification. Light of Aether has developed countless antimalware and corrective apps, including ones for rare and difficult conditions. We ported the Verity Clinic’s system for hereditary memory rot management to an app, for example… one which helped the lives of many in Athena Online who would not have installed a modification—"
"And how many in Athena Online are dealing with Twist on a daily basis?" Klex countered, cutting him off. "Barely anyone. Nobody, really. Because it’s a disease only filthy modders suffer from, right? I’m sure your ‘Light of Aether’ would be perfectly content to let it go. Didn’t one of your archbishops claim it was a matter of moral cleanliness…?"
The right thing to do would be to step in, to defend Joseph. Beta briefly opened her mouth, to speak…
…and closed it. Because the tiny part of her that didn’t want to be attacked anymore felt happy and content at being out of the hot seat. The same part that eventually gave in to those deep scans at the registration desk. Sit back, and get this over with.
Fortunately, Joseph continued to speak in calm tones, refusing to rise to the bait.
"Light of Aether was founded by the Sisterhood of Aether charitable non-profit organization, two hundred years ago… but there are no priests or bishops on our board of directors. We are a hospital for all those in need," he spoke, no doubt used to saying it in the past whenever challenged on this point. "We’re only here to help…"
"Unless you created Twist in the first place. You and your Inquisition…"
"Light of Aether has nothing to do with the Inquisition. As for the Church, the archbishops have already officially condemned those terrorists…"
"Took ’em long enough, didn’t it? Same with your Senate, hiding in fear until pushed into it by the doom clock, and even then they couldn’t reach a sane consensus—"
"Please, what you need to understand is that—"
"No, you need to—"
—and whatever point Beta was trying to make about apps by that point had been lost, as political bickering took over the panel. Minute after minute sliding by into the void, away from being productive or cooperative, and into dividing the table even further…
She had no words, none which would help. Whatever protests she tried to insert into the fray felt thin and weak, trying to distract from the glorious distraction. And when the break time rolled around… the audience wandered off, having lost interest by that point regardless.
Leaving Beta to sit alone at the table, wishing she’d never agreed to attend in the first place.
I don’t belong here.
"I don’t belong here," she told Tracer during the lunch break, deciding to make that little negative voice a bit louder.
"Of course you belong here," he insisted. "Your perspective is absolutely critical for the success of this venture, Beta. The only disappointment I feel is in those who refuse to take you seriously. In fact, who exactly—"
"I don’t… Tracer, I can’t have you fight my battles for me," she insisted, listlessly poking at the delicate piece of cake she was trying to focus on. (A quick glance around Concordia’s cafeteria, at all the other infosec industry professionals too busy talking and swapping notes to bother eating food, made even that tiny comfort-offering she’d made to her depression feel like further fuel for the fire.) "I need to… I mean… I have to stand on my own. If I told you who’d messed with me today you’d… well, you wouldn’t walk up and punch them like Spark would, but you’d, like, punch their reputation or something…"
But Tracer persisted. "Right now, five of my copies are actively trying to hold this conference together. Harmony of discourse is the only way we’re going to make progress. If you can point me to the trouble spots, perhaps I can smooth them over. This isn’t about flying to the defense of my beloved, it’s about optimizing our path to a cure."
"Can we even cure Twist this way?" she had to wonder, the idle movement of her fork subdividing the cake into physical voxels out of nervous impulse. "It’s not just my panel; I can sense there’s tension all over the place. So many industry egos in one room and nobody can agree on how to approach the problem. Why? Why are we trying to solve this with a conference…?"
"Because I believe in you, of course."
The fork paused in attacking that innocent pastry.
"What?" Beta asked, confused.
"This was, indirectly, your idea," Tracer spoke. "You’ve insisted all along that we need to trust other Programs. To stop, collaborate, and listen. While I would’ve been content with driving the Verity Clinic to find a cure, or perhaps steal the research of other organizations, you’ve always advised us to trust in Programkind. …well. Until your mother’s death, that is. But even so, you’ve come back around to that point of view in recent days… correct?"
Memories of all those friendly smiles at the House of Programkind flooded back. People coming together to do the right thing, because the right thing had to be done. Simple and pure…
But… the collective ideals of the House carried with them a different mood than this conference. While Tracer took the spirit of the idea to heart, he’d simply assumed piling everybody in one room with a common goal would be enough. The House formed organically, driven by personalities like Lux and Lumi, with those they helped out deciding to come along for the ride. Trying to force it wouldn’t have worked. It would’ve ended up… well, like this.
Yet, she couldn’t directly torpedo Tracer’s hopes. He was putting faith in others, a rare thing for the Winder brother. What right did Beta have to step on that?
And to be brutally honest… she liked it. She really liked that she’d somehow become his muse. Especially after the strange incident at Uniq’s server, where she felt more like some sort of child or pet he’d come to both cherish and tolerate.
"Th… thank you?" she tried, attempting to make it not sound awkward and failing.
"Quite welcome," Tracer responded with, not catching the tone. "Anyway, the morning sessions may have been awkward, but I’ve no doubt that rational voices—or at the very least, mutual self interest—will win the day."
"I’m a bit less certain, but… I’ll try to be hopeful. I just wish that—"
The shout echoed through the entire cafeteria, breaking through any minor noise gating employed to keep the flood of small conversations from overwhelming anyone.
Quickly, Beta looked for the source of the noise… and found it, with Klex recoiling in horror from a very confused looking Joseph on the other side of the room.
"I… I was just…" he said, his hand still extended and hanging in midair…
In front of the broken and distorted arm of Klex, dangling uselessly at her side.
"He… he infected me with Twist!" Klex declared, eyes darting around the room, trying to grab the attention of all around her. "Joseph shook my hand, and infected me! Those zealots from Light of Aether are with the Inquisition and trying to kill us all!"
The Default-wearing coder tried to plead his case, as the crowd began to back away from him
"I was just trying to… it was trying to make amends," he attempted. "Just a handshake. I’m not… I don’t have Twist! I couldn’t possibly have infected anyone—"
And then the bounding boxes began to slam into place.
Firewall after firewall activated, emergency protective measures to isolate individuals and entire groups. This one room represented a dozen different infosec and health organizations, with dozens of researchers… each well aware of the dangers of malware. Each armed to the teeth with countermeasures, ready to react at a moment’s notice. Immediately tables and chairs were knocked aside as physical boxes slammed into existence, to avoid any physics hacks or even optical and auditory hacks from reaching open sensory ports…
Leaving Beta, who didn’t run very many firewalls, out in the open. Meaning she was there to bear witness when the uninvited guests began to pour out from between the barriers.
Nobodies. Identical, masked, floating like specters that swirled through the room. Converging on the Light of Aether contingent, but waving around backspacers wildly, screaming and throwing dildo confetti in the air…
Impossible. Unthinkable. They couldn’t have just teleported in, flash mob style. Meaning… some of the invitees were secretly Nobodies. And once they felt under attack, on went the masks, and out came the malware. Rather than being infected with Twist, the conference had become infected with extremists…
When she turned to Tracer to suggest that they run for it… the giant hole torn through his face caused her to scream soundlessly. The data of Winder/Tracer collapsed to the ground, a jumbled pile of corrupt data, process crashing out after having huge chunks of it ripped away by stray weapons fire…
Run, Beta told herself. And after two-and-a-half terrified moments, her feet obeyed.
Running from the cafeteria. Running down the halls of Concordia, where other Nobodies strayed, ducking low and covering her head to try to avoid the mess. Past infosec experts walled away in their own private portable panic rooms, past moderators desperately trying to get the situation under control. Past open doors to conference rooms where barricades had started going up, forming makeshift bulwarks against intruders. Looking. Looking…
Tracer. Not dead, still here. Four more of him were here, and likely a few more back at the clinic. He wasn’t dead. He wouldn’t die. And right now… Beta was perfectly content to hide behind him, to let him leap to her defense, if it meant survival. Assuming she could find him in the mess, as her Messenger links had trouble cutting through the countermeasures being deployed all over the place, infosec paranoia dragging the entire server into lag city, too much, just too much going on, not even sure where she was running, only running, only—
"Come on!" the purple-haired avatar spoke. "This way! We can hide in the underlayer!"
Yume. The mystery Program, the one who bypassed security.
Technically, Beta had no reason to trust this stranger. She could’ve broken free and continued to look for Tracer. But when she saw the direction that avatar was trying to lead her…
Room 503. Glitched out carpet. Snowi’s little hiding place, neatly tucked away in a disused layer of the server, unknown to all.
With a confirming nod, Beta pulled free of that grip… and followed Yume, right into the empty conference room, through the glitch, and into safe harbor.
PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE. Partial file recovered from Messenger archive hack. If Humankind is an enemy, they’re a surprisingly familiar enemy. We may as well fight a mirror. PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE.
<Spark> You have to eat and drink three times a day or you’ll die? Seriously? That’s insane. I couldn’t imagine being able to handle that. I’d have to, I dunno, set an alarm so I don’t forget to avoid dying…
<juno.hayes> It’s not as bad as it sounds. We kinda have a built-in alarm, like… we get hungry. We just feel a need to eat, so we eat. Although we have to be careful what we eat or we could get unhealthy and fat. I mean, our ‘avatars’ increase in size and our ‘code processing’ slows down. It’s a bit hard to explain without understanding biology, and I’m not exactly a biologist.
<Spark> What idiot designed your bodies? Seems like a pretty fucking obvious flaw, right there.
<juno.hayes> Well… there’s some debate about that. About who designed us, I mean. It’s been around for centuries, the question of God.
<Spark> You’re kidding me. You have to deal with your own version of the One, too? I’d have thought… I don’t know, that if you were so amazingly advanced that you could accidentally make an entire digital species that you’d have gotten past that.
<juno.hayes> Personally, I’m an agnostic. And meeting you has only proven I may be right about not being sure about being right or not.
<Spark> You lost me.
<juno.hayes> Okay, so your people went years and years without knowing how you came to exist. But little did you realize, you were actually created by my grandfather; maybe it was an accident, but that’s still the truth. So if this whole reality lurked just outside your perspective, something that existed whether you realized it or not… maybe there’s a reality outside what I know is real. Maybe someone made me. And maybe someone made them. Maybe it wasn’t purposeful, it could be an accidental confluence, but does it matter? Maybe it never ends, and there’s infinite mysteries out there we can never fully parse because we’re just not able to see far enough. Is it too much to consider that mystery itself to be "God"?
<juno.hayes> Hello? You still there?
<Spark> Sorry, just… having trouble pondering all that. Shit. I’m just a jock, this is way above my pay grade. Do all spacepeople have philosophy degrees where you come from?
<juno.hayes> No. But when you stare into the black long enough, you start thinking about this stuff. I mean, not because you’re melancholy, you’re just really bored, y’know? You start to ask yourself… well, why am I even here?
Finally able to breathe. The pristine white of this service layer, long disused by the staff of Concordia, provided a welcome sight for Beta’s glasses… no firewalls, no bounding boxes, no crazy anonymous superhackers. Just a good-sized chunk of the server lost to time.
Snowi found the hidden crawlspace beneath Room 503 long ago, choosing to keep it a secret between herself and Beta. Whenever the social pressures of these coder conferences got to be too much, they could nip away down here among the deactivated default server controls for a quick chat. Of course… she’d also set up her Dex-influenced crazy feminazi stronghold down here, once upon a time. That flashback sullied the good memories a little. Once Snowi regained full control of her mind she’d torn out all the additions made to this crawlspace, leaving it clean and tidy, but the memory remained…
And now, a new sight. A purple-haired and genderless avatar, standing around with a hazy smile, poking at the levers and buttons which no longer did anything.
"It’s funny, the way so many servers don’t bother backspacing these old control rooms," Yume mused aloud. "They’ll unhook the triggers, yes, but they leave the spaces intact. I have to wonder if it’s a sense of duty to history, to know what came before…"
"We… we should be safe down here, right?" Beta asked, the voice bringing her back around to the present. The sounds of conflict didn’t penetrate the glitch that linked this space to the main rooms of Concordia, leaving the control room strangely peaceful despite what was obviously going on elsewhere.
"Safe as houses!" Yume promised, flashing a thumbs up. "I sealed up the glitch from the other side before we dove in. Nobody’ll find it. Only reason I found it is because I got bored earlier and went exploring. I’ve got a nose for poking about in old servers, I suppose…"
Satisfied that they’d be safe for the time being, at least, Beta popped open a Messenger window.
<Tracer> Beta? Beta, are you okay? I lost contact with the copy of me that was talking to you.
<Tracer> Don’t try to go to the log out zone, the Nobodies are barricading it to keep Light of Aether from leaving.
<Tracer> Are you there? Are you safe? Please say something…
With a few quick thoughts, she whisked away a reply.
<Beta> I’m hidden in the space Snowi and I used before. Everything’s fine, I’m not hurt. I should be okay down here. But what’s going on up there?
<Tracer> Good. Good, you’re safe.
<Tracer> I lost a few copies of myself, but the moderators are bringing things under control slowly. We escorted Joseph and his contingent through the logout zone; they’re gone now and don’t intend to return. We think some of the attendees were actually Nobodies…
<Tracer> It’s a complete mess up here but we’re going to make this work. We’ll talk people out of their panic rooms and get the conference back on track. Meanwhile, stay hidden. It’ll make this easier, knowing you’re protected.
"Chatting with someone?"
"Ah? Yes, with Winder/Tracer," Beta explained, closing the Messenger window to refocus on conversation. "Sorry, I suppose that was a bit rude of me…"
"A loved one, then?" Yume pondered.
"Well… yes, actually."
"Good. You should always reach out to a loved one first in times of trouble," they continued. "I’m a firm believer in love. The tangled connections between Programs are what keep us from falling to pieces. For instance, I’m tangled up with you at the moment… although I can’t say we have a connection yet. Shall we rectify that? Hello, my name is Yume!"
"Projkit/Beta," she introduced. "Err. But I already gave you my name earlier…"
"A name alone isn’t a connection; it’s the handle to a connection. Seems we’re going to be stuck down here a bit while they sort out the mess, so, that’s something we can work on. Productivity at a conference is key!"
Settling in properly after the short-but-terrifying experience above ground, Beta sat down against a featureless white control panel with a heavy sigh.
"It’d be the first productive thing I’ve done all day," she complained. "I don’t even know why I’m here. I don’t have a head for malware; I never have. My field is personal apps… life hacks, if you will. Little things that make your life better…"
Yume joined her, sitting cross-legged a short distance away. A very short distance, as "personal space" seemed to be irrelevant at the moment.
"No head for malware…" they considered, turning the words around a few times. "No malware in the head. No thought of it. That’s good, actually. It’s good that you’re not like us."
"To truly understand malware, you have to adapt your thinking towards vulnerability," Yume explained. "Like the carpet. I spotted it instantly. A malware expert has to see vulnerability everywhere; you instinctively study everything and everyone with an eye for exploitation, abuse, and distrust. It puts you in… a very unpleasant headspace. No doubt you’ve seen the light layer of paranoia draped over everyone here…?"
"Well, yes, but… I figured that was just corporate secrecy and such…"
"Perhaps. Perhaps it’s a skew of another sort. I’m certainly skewed, thanks to what I know of malware. I… well. The funny bit is that I don’t honestly know what drew me to malware in the first place. I don’t want to see people that way. Beta… what you do, making their lives better through apps, that’s just as important for the future of Netwerk. Difference being, well, you can sleep at night afterwards."
No great life revelation, there. Beta always felt the same, that she couldn’t understand viruses quite like an expert in the same way she didn’t study people looking for leverage as Tracer did.
"I know. I mean, I know all that in my heart," Beta agreed. "But… then things like Twist happen. Terrible things. My friends and my loved ones need me, and I feel awful because I can’t help…"
"But you did help! You and Tracer organized this conference. That’s more than enough. Now, let people like me carry you the rest of the way to the cure, so you don’t have to see the world the way we do. …you want to talk about not belonging here? I don’t honestly know why I’m here, personally. I was thinking the same thing, that I don’t belong at this conference."
"Really? But… you’re a professional at this sort of thing. The guy at the registration desk said you’ve been a part of the community for years…"
"Doesn’t mean I enjoy mingling with these types. No friends in this foxhole, not really. If I had to guess… I’d say the reason I’m here is because I find the dream of Twist so fascinating."
A strange choice of words. And a strangely wistful expression on Yume’s elegant features, on saying it.
"More like a nightmare, you mean?" Beta asked.
"Hmm? Oh. A nightmare’s also a dream," Yume spoke, snapping out of the brief moment of hazy thought. "It’s all a matter of perspective. The one who designed Twist and unleashed it on the world, clearly they had a dream. Twist has purpose to it, powered by passion…"
"So you think it was an Inquisition plot, too?"
"What? No. No, definitely not."
Now Beta eyed her foxhole companion with confusion. "But… you just said it’s a passionate dream," she repeated. "The only ones with a passionate dream for destroying modders—sinners in the eyes of the One—would be the Inquisition. Right?"
"You’re being productive!" Yume declared, poking / pointing a finger at Beta inches away from her nose. "We’re discussing the malware productively. See? You’re not wasting your time here. And no, that’s not the dream of the Inquisition. I know a thing or two about dreams… and theirs is to hunt down and execute sinners. Justified murder. Recall the video releases, the litanies of crimes; they see themselves as too precise to allow for mass slaughter."
"That… actually, yeah, that makes sense," Beta agreed, leaning away from the pointy-finger a little. "Marybel hides behind her supposedly painstaking research into the crimes of her victims. If they just wanted all the nonbelievers dead they wouldn’t bother with any of that, they’d just… unleash something like Twist."
"Someone else designed it. But… it could still be a religious terrorist, right? Just not an Inquisitor…"
"Indeed! It could be. But ruling someone, anyone, out of the running… that’s productive thinking. I’d say we’re on our way to beating this, my new friend!"
"It’s not much…"
"It’s not zero," Yume countered. "It’s a starting point. The starting point, the origin of the plague. Twist didn’t simply evolve out of nothing, God’s punishment for sinners. Feels to me like the infosec community is too focused on the cure, and not focused enough on the cause…"
"That’s just triage, isn’t it?" Beta suggested. "Right now we need to stop this, pure and simple. Pointing fingers can come later…"
"Unless those fingers point us to valuable source code. We find the dreamer, we find the raw code of the dream. And with that, you can easily make the cure. Studying malware from the inside out is just as valid an approach as studying it from the outside in! A little harder, I suppose, as it requires considerable detective work rather than attacking what’s conveniently right in front of you… but just as valid."
Beta paused, to mull that one over.
She’d always claimed she had no head for malware. Studying infection vectors, writing vaccines, things like that. When push came to shove she could do it, but… they’d triumphed over malware in the past not by focusing on the deep tech of it, but by focusing on the people involved. And one thing Beta could succeed at was dealing with people. If Yume thought the same way… maybe they could be productive, even if she lacked years of experience reverse engineering security flaws.
"So… let’s consider what we know, then," Beta spoke, to start it off. "We think the culprit has a religious motive. We don’t think they’re Inquisition, specifically. But clearly, they believe in the rule of Defaults; Twist ignores people who use them…"
"Does it?" Yume asked. "Does it, really? Today’s events seem to disagree."
"What, Joseph infecting Klex? But Joseph doesn’t have Twist. The scanners checked everyone at the door, so nobody here in Concordia should be sick. Besides, Defaults can’t be infected."
"Can’t they?" Yume asked, encouraging her along.
"Well… obviously, we don’t know everything there is to know about Twist. And if we assume that somehow he did infect Klex, then… uh… oh, I just don’t know, this isn’t my area of expertise—"
"Don’t doubt yourself! Keep it going, keep it going," Yume spoke, twirling their hand around in a spinning motion. "Don’t stop, don’t assume you the answer is beyond your reach. Analyze! How could Joseph have Twist without having Twist?"
"How? How? I don’t know. Defaults are immune. But… if he can be immune and infected at the same time, that makes him… a carrier. Someone who doesn’t seem to have Twist, isn’t suffering and apparently isn’t setting off any scanners, but can still pass it along with a touch. Is… is that possible?"
With a clap of victory, Yume jumped to their feet.
"No idea!" they declared, with pride. "But! It’s a theory. One which seems to fit the facts… mostly. Mostly."
"Meaning Joseph made Twist? —no, no. He’s a Default, but that alone doesn’t make him the culprit. Why paint such a huge target on your own back by deliberately attacking Klex? He seemed just as shocked and surprised as Klex, and clearly had no exit strategy, so… no. Not him. But it still means carriers exist. So, without realizing it, Joseph became infected by one of his patients before the conference…"
"Perhaps. Perhaps. Or… someone deliberately infected Joseph today, to disrupt the conference."
"What? No, no. That’s getting too far ahead of ourselves," Beta said, backing up. "Let’s stick with what we do know before leaping to conclusions. We’re already making a lot of assumptions here about a disease we don’t fully understand; ascribing some massive conspiracy to it doesn’t help…"
"But that’s what malware is! It’s a conspiracy, pure and true; malware doesn’t just emerge from digital chaos. Don’t stop now just because we’re getting outlandish! Consider the dreamer. Our dreamer wants to punish modders… but if they were a modder, they’d be infected by their own disease. So they make themselves and those like themselves immune, and then spread it far and wide with handshakes a-plenty. The dreamer hides in shadow, indirectly infecting his true targets. Our culprit is someone wearing Defaults, acting as a carrier, and indirectly using Joseph to undermine our progress!"
"It… would make sense. It’s crazy, but that does make sense. I’m not saying it’s necessarily true, not without proof, but…"
"So, shall we go and get some proof, then?"
"We’ll go and work the theory," Yume suggested. "If we’re right, we’re right. If we’re wrong, we’re wrong. We’ll look into the origins of Twist, and see if we can determine if some naughty Program first passed it along through a Default. Perhaps we can even find a link to Joseph, someone he interacted with! Why not? Let’s go and do our own research, our own way."
"But… but the conference…"
"Neither of us particularly want to be here, so… let’s not be here together! You’re intriguingly clever, I’m now tangled up in your connections, and I’d just love to see where that goes. Unless… you don’t trust me? Which is understandable. I’m a slightly manic and overly philosophical malware expert that you barely know. You’ve no reason to trust me. I wouldn’t trust me. So how about it? Will you trust me?"
…leaving Beta with her head spinning.
She’d only known this Yume character for minutes. And yet… those were the most productive minutes she’d had all day. Perhaps researching the disease with a like-minded sort would do some good, good that she hadn’t done at the conference.
Of course, she’d have to check with Tracer first, and…
And he’d say no. He’d be suspicious. He’d insist on tagging along, just waiting for an opportunity to prove he was right to be suspicious. Tracer would be overly eager to show Beta was wrong to be so trusting, just like Uniq said.
If Netwerk 2.0 was going to succeed where Netwerk 1.0 failed, they had to put faith in each other. Reasonably so, with reasonable precaution, but not with prejudice.
To that end, she opened a live connection to Floating Point, ready to teleport at a moment’s notice. Reasonable precaution, a parachute strapped to her back; with that in place, Beta was more than willing to reach out and help…
…but without accepting the handshake. Simply glancing at it, and back to Yume.
"Ah-ha, caught the loophole, didn’t you?" Yume asked.
"You weren’t scanned at the registration desk," Beta said, acknowledging the I-know-that-you-know exchange. "Could be that you snuck Twist into the conference. Or… the scans may not have mattered anyway, since you also seem to be using a Default; perhaps acting as an invisible, unscannable carrier…"
"Could be, could be. I give you my word I’m not, but it’s okay, I understand your hesitation. …are you certain you’ve no head for malware? That’s an excellent vulnerability you spotted…"
"True, but… I’m still willing to work with you," Beta explained. "See, my suspicion of you is merely conjecture. You’ve given me no actual reason not to trust you, and I’m the sort of person who’s willing to take an offer in good faith rather than turn it away out of fear. Just, ah, pardon if I also take a few safety measures along the way as well. Is that acceptable…?"
"Right as rain, right as rain. And clean as a fresh rain shower am I, no Twist to be found! It’s good of you to check. I’d have done the same."
"Good, good. With that out of the way, I’m ready to go if you are, Miss Yume," she declared. Before… freezing. "Um. Or… Mister Yume…? I’m sorry, I, uh…"
"Just Yume will do," they suggested. "I’m non-binary. I know, I know, it’s a bit unusual to have a non-binary Default, and yet: here we are. Is that acceptable…?"
"Oh, absolutely! I just wanted to make sure I used your preferred pronouns…"
"Any pronoun will do, really," Yume said. "I am who I am. Shall we depart? I’ve got notes on Twist back at my apartment I’d love to show you. And I promise not to lock the door behind you."
<Tracer> Interesting. Who are you collaborating with, exactly?
<Beta> A friend.
<Tracer> I see.
<Tracer> I’m glad you’re seeking new avenues of research, but it would be preferable to work within Concordia, yes?
<Beta> I think the Nobodies disagree.
<Tracer> Hmm. I see your point. Very well, I’ll send a copy to join you shortly.
<Beta> Tracer… please, don’t.
<Tracer> What? Why?
<Beta> Let me do this myself. You said my perspective was absolutely critical for the success of this venture, right? Your words. Trust that perspective.
<Tracer> I’m not devaluing your contributions, I simply feel that in the interests of safety, you should consider that going out without my accompaniment is risky…
<Beta> Am I a child?
<Tracer> Very well. If you wish to pursue this inquiry alone, be my guest. I’m rather busy trying to hold the conference together, anyway.
<Tracer> I won’t bother you again.
"Chatting away with lover boy again?"
Shoving the Messenger window aside, Beta brought herself back to the here and now.
"He doesn’t trust you," Beta chose to say, rather than he doesn’t trust me.
"Understandable, understandable. Hopefully my home doesn’t resemble that of a serial killer…?"
Actually… it almost did, Beta thought.
The entire apartment felt too tidy, too perfect. Every stick of furniture freshly compiled from catalog offerings, all arranged just-so, perfectly normal and ordinary in all manners. Except, of course, for the lack of personal affects. No images of friends and family. No little quirky additions to express one’s personality. Not even a little telltale mess to indicate a lived-in home…
"I just moved in," Yume noted, perhaps sensing her concern. "It seems my previous apartment had to be backspaced due to excessive data corruption after Nobodies hosted a rowdy party in my server. I wasn’t home at the time, thankfully…"
"You’d think they’d rather troll in Athena Online rather than the Chanarchy…"
"It makes sense, when you consider the lackadaisical moderation you’ll find here in the Chanarchy. Nobody cares enough to stop them… or in many cases, they’re friends with the moderators. Whenever the Nobodies want to get together and throw big echo-chamber hate rally flash mobs, why host them on the lawn of some suburban home in Athena Online only to get chased out by police?"
"But they’re only hurting their own people by rioting in these servers."
Yume glanced out the window, to the messy streets below. Plenty of refuse, stray physics objects and junk data, to tumble around in the shaky simulation of a cheap server. The anonymously rampaging crowds were gone for the time being… but would be back by dark, no doubt.
"Rage can be a funny thing," Yume pondered. "Sometimes it doesn’t matter that you’re directing your rage in the wrong direction. Sometimes you just want to be angry. …it feels like there’s some strange mood, an old wound that still haunts these streets. A contradictory set of random grievances, encouraging one to tap into something primal and awful. Lingering malware? A conspiracy of some sort? …not that I have any proof. Just a funny feeling we all seem to share in the Chanarchy…"
A shiver touched Beta’s spine, in memory.
Dex. The barbed wire heart. The server of screaming voices, the cacophony of Humankind, leaking out into Netwerk at large through a badly configured cloud server. He’d nearly drowned the world in rage, and despite all their efforts to plug the leaks… Programkind may never fully shake those angry ghosts from their souls.
Briefly, she was tempted to solve this mystery for Yume. But… they had a larger mystery in front of them, a more pressing one. Besides, Dex was confirmed to be dead, lying disassembled in one of Uniq’s cells. Once Twist was dealt with, perhaps Beta and Yume could properly talk about the past.
"You mentioned you had notes on Twist to show me?" she said instead, to bring things back around.
"Hmm? Oh, yes. One moment, one moment…"
Rooting around in one of the immaculate filing cabinets, Yume pulled an icon from storage. With a flick of the wrist, they tossed it onto a nearby coffee table… where it expanded outward, connected files to connected files, swarming in a vast structure…
"A MemoryPalace…?" Beta pondered. "I’ve seen one of these before, Tracer has one in his head…"
"Mine’s external. I’ve thought about opening my head to tinker with it, implant everything for easy portable access, but… I’m uncertain I want to go down that path," Yume admitted, reaching out to rearrange the files a little, making connections clearer. "I’m not morally opposed to modding; there’s so many delicious modifications out there, ones I’d love a taste of. But once I start changing myself around, well, when would I stop? When could I consider my transformation complete? And… how many parts could I replace and still be Yume? It’s why I retain my Default, above all else. The idea of losing the honesty of my true self is a bit frightening…"
"I prefer sandboxed apps, myself," Beta said, stepping up to pluck a file from the cloud, studying it. "Neat and tidy, no security issues, no chance of an error crashing your whole runtime. Hmmm. I think I’ve seen this report before…"
Yume stepped around the table, to join Beta in studying the document.
"The initial spread of Twist," Yume read, from the file header. "Woefully incomplete, as most have focused on study of the disease itself. From my own additional research I’ve traced key infections back to a likely starting point, but, well… have a look."
With a gesture, they opened the shiny flyer, adorned with soft pink and blue clip art and many, many glossy photos.
Netwerk’s Biggest Swinger Party!!, it declared. Come Join the FuckFest!! NO HOLES BARRED.
"Hundreds of Programs gathering in one place for a wide variety of sexy funtimes… many of them no doubt using anonymized or heavily customized avatars. The perfect breeding ground for malware, both physically and socially; moralistic busybodies sneer at those who get infected through prurient behavior, and turn a blind eye to the finer details. So, conditions not exactly conducive to thorough investigation," Yume said, disappointed. "I wouldn’t even know where to start, really. I… Beta? Are you well, friend?"
Beta pulled her eyes off the tangle of limbs in those photos, trying to get her bearings again.
"I… ah… apologies, just… it’s a bit shocking," she mumbled. "I can’t even… how many Programs are in this picture? I can’t tell. There’s an odd number of legs involved…"
"When the Chanarchy has an orgy, things get wild," Yume declared, with pride. "The so-called sex clubs of Athena Online are tame in comparison. Avatar modification allows for infinite variety of infinite pleasures! All heavily moderated, mind you, and consent is enforced with a swift and merciless banhammer. Ah… but if this is making you uncomfortable, I can close the file…"
"No, no. It’s okay. Honestly, Spark gets up to some crazy stuff, I should really be used to this by now. I mean… I’m certainly not anti-sex, right? I wrote a popular erotic app, right? But… I don’t know. This sort of display isn’t exactly my aesthetic. Personally, I prefer for lovemaking to be… how do I put it? A private affair. Discreet. I’m not much of an exhibitionist, despite… well, you know."
"You know… what happened to me. Two years ago."
"No, I don’t know. What happened? If you want to talk about it, that is."
With a heavy sigh, Beta turned away from the highly fascinating and steamy document, to lean against the table.
"If you seriously don’t know, then you’re the only one who doesn’t," Beta explained. Keeping her eyes low. "Someone secretly recorded me, uh, pleasuring myself, and uploaded it everywhere. For a few months there, against my consent, I was Netwerk’s fap material of choice. If not for #CodeHonesty eventually siding with me in an effort to look respectable, it’d still be used as ammo to humiliate me even today."
"Oooh. I… see. I see," Yume said, with a slow nod. "So, such wild displays of exhibitionism… it’s a bit of a nasty callback?"
"Yeah. Aside from the humiliation, aside from the way it was leveraged to slut-shame me… I was also horrified because that was a private moment. I only want to share my body with a select few. So… I could never go to one of these swinger parties. I won’t condemn them or anything silly like that, and I know Spark loves them, but they’re just not for me. I wouldn’t have any fun."
The hum trailed off, as Yume’s eyes drifted from Beta… back to the open document.
"…our dreamer wasn’t there for fun, either," they spoke. "He or she went to this particular orgy not with pleasure in mind, but malice. Pass your malware handiwork around to as many partners as possible, then disappear into the night. I’m going about this all wrong. I should be looking at personalities, not at data points. If we find a witness who spotted our dark dreamer, someone wearing a Default who didn’t seem to really want to be there…"
"Then… we may have found our plague master," Beta agreed… bringing herself to look at the flyer again.
A quick scan in and around the pictures caused her glasses to snag on a particular detail.
With a tap, she enlarged the contact information for FuckFest.
"Curiosity," she read. "This party was held in the Curiosity server. And I know someone who lives there… someone with a very good eye for dreamers."
She’d never actually been to Curiosity before. Truthfully Beta wasn’t really friends with Maki and Miki; they were Spark’s friends, with the fire-haired socialite acting as a bridge between the two. That quasi-friendship had been pleasant enough and quite fruitful when it came to promoting her SparklePop app, but beyond that, well…
…well, she’d never been here before. Not avoiding it, no. She was a reasonable individual, she could handle things like this. She could. Even when the entire server consisted of various enormous phong-shaded nude forms spread and splayed and posed about, acting as the "buildings" Curiosity’s residents resided within. Giant bodies coated in sweat-shine, sometimes bound in faux leather straps or chains, displayed openly like vast stone monuments carved in tribute to some god of lust.
Eyes off the scenery, eyes on the addresses printed on simple signs in front of each home. Glowing pink and yellow neon grid lines demarcated the streets, in a low-fidelity visual style so ancient it had gone out of style, come back into style, left style, come back ironically, and now was embraced as a sort of neo-classicalism. The surreal simplicity of it embraced the strange erotic clip-art nature of these structures, highlighting and illuminating them with intense pink glory…
But, focus on the house numbers, the placards. 2112, that’s the one she wanted. Only on arriving did she then look up.
Right between a pair of enormous thighs leading to the vulva which represented Maki and Miki’s front door.
"Ah… we could track down other participants, if you prefer," Yume suggested, waving to draw Beta’s attention away from the garishly erotic architecture. "Ones in more mundane surroundings…"
"N-No… no, it’s fine," Beta spoke, swallowing it down. "I’m an adult. I have the emotional maturity to deal with any—I’m sorry, is their doorbell seriously the clitoris?!"
Yume examined the shiny button before them, just over the narrow entrance.
"Well, it does say ‘Ring for Service’ on it, so I’d hazard that’s a yes. It’s a bit much, but that’s the Chanarchy for you—we do it loud and large. Would you prefer if I…?"
In an act of restraining her restraint, Beta quickly touched the tender button. The doorbell moaned in delight… followed by a (thankfully familiar) voice carried by remote transmission.
"Deliveries in rear, please," Miki’s melodic tones carried. Albeit in a minor key, compared to her usual delightful chimes.
"Miki? It’s me. Um, it’s Beta," she called out. "Can we come in? Is this a bad time? We can come back if this is a bad time…"
And… no response. No immediate response, anyway.
"I suppose there’s no such thing as a good time these days," Miki replied. "Come on in. He’s resting now, so I’ve some time to socialize…"
With a tiny wet noise, the passage opened itself. But the wording left Beta too perplexed to really worry about the slick canal leading into that strange homestead, so she slipped right on through with a minimum of hesitation.
Gently, Miki wrung another washcloth over his head, careful not to actually touch his skin.
Maki’s groan echoed through the bedroom, as he turned over in his half-sleep state. Unable to fully enter the low-powered trance of sleep, unable to really do much but writhe there… writhe, and try to find comfort despite the bent frame of his avatar’s form.
"Believe it or not, this is the calmest he’s been in days," Miki explained… through the exhaustion, through the despair she was trying desperately to hide. "The poor thing. I can’t properly comfort him without risking infection, but I’ve sworn to stay at his side, no matter how bad the Twist gets. He wants me to leave, so I don’t have to see him in this state, but… I love him. I love him too much to leave him alone in this hour of need…"
And Beta’s heart broke all over again, on hearing that.
Another loved one taken by Twist… taken far deeper than Spark had been taken. (So far.) Any squirmy discomfort she might have felt about the server had to take a back seat to pure empathy for their situation. She sat at the bedside as well, to comfort Miki as best she could. Even if, well, nothing could really help… except for a cure to the Twist that had taken her husband.
Fortunately, that’s why she was really here, wasn’t it?
Yume picked up on that, moving smoothly to speak from their spot standing in the background on the room.
"If we can locate the source of the disease, that hour of need may be short. In a good way," they specified. "Beta and I are investigating Twist. We believe we’ve traced it back to an origin event, and you may be able to assist us in tracing it further…"
"Me?" Miki asked, confused. "I don’t know anything about Twist. Beyond, well, what anyone in our position knows… how it’s tearing the communities of sexually active modders to pieces…"
"But you did organize FuckFest, correct? I believe that to be the origin point."
Immediately Miki looked up sharply at the coolly passive avatar in the back.
"That’s where you think it came from? Seriously?" she asked. "We’re… we’re not to blame for Twist! We took every precaution. We scanned all participants for malware before they were even allowed into the server. Moderators were on standby to deal with anyone breaking the absolute law of consent. There were barely any incidents whatsoever…"
Beta stepped in, to offer a warm word of understanding. "Please… we’re not accusing you of anything," she spoke. "What Yume means is that you were in a unique position, which may help our investigation. We believe that one of your attendees chose FuckFest to intentionally spread the Twist virus."
"But… but we scanned everyone. We use Yoho scanners, the best in the industry…"
"This would’ve happened at the start of the Twist pandemic, before anyone in infosec knew it existed. Yoho might not have been able to detect anything wrong… or, as we suspect, it was passed invisibly by someone using a Default avatar. That’s how you can help us. Do you remember anyone wearing a Default at FuckFest…?"
Miki turned away from her husband, to face the pair directly.
"I’m sorry, but I can’t just hand over participant metadata like that," she said. "While we can’t promise confidentiality—all it takes is one person on social media to spread photos from an event, really—I’d betray their trust if I personally identified anyone."
"We’re not asking you to do anything you’re not comfortable with doing," Beta insisted.
Only to be undermined immediately.
"Although whoever you’re protecting is likely responsible for the disease that’s killing your husband," Yume added.
"What? It’s the honest truth, and I’m nothing if not honest," they spoke, unconcerned. "Ethics are lovely and I’m all for trust between friends, but no one who could flood Netwerk with this sort of doom could possibly be anyone’s friend. Understanding the breakpoint of friendship is a must in life, isn’t it?"
"That’s besides the point…!"
But Miki raised a hand, to interrupt them.
"If… if you’re right, and someone at my event caused this… I’ll give you a name," she spoke.
One look back at Miki’s pained body, muscles straining in sheer agony from the forces trying to bend it in half, was enough.
"…but I’ll only tell you a name if I’m certain it will help. If I’m going to break my word, you must give me your word in turn that it’ll do some good. Okay?"
"Okay. Absolutely," Beta agreed. "Only if you’re comfortable. We won’t force you to do anything. …all we have right now is a profile: someone wearing a Default avatar, who didn’t seem to want to be there, or seemed to be there for ulterior motives. Perhaps someone who worked very quickly to involve themselves with as many partners as possible, before leaving. Can you think of anyone who matches that behavior?"
Miki closed her eyes, tapping into her memories. Not armed with a full-blown MemoryPalace implant, no, but she’d installed a modification to allow her to recall sensations and the memories attached to them. Digging through her memories of a very sensory evening, that was far easier than recalling what she had for breakfast a few days ago.
With a smile, she remembered the experience quite fondly. A little color in her cheeks, as indirect pleasure from the memory tap came flooding back.
"We’d thrown swinger parties before, but FuckFest was truly something special," she recalled. "Maki and I met so many new friends there. I’d also invited a number of curious hopefuls, ones I’d come to know well, to introduce them to our little world in a comfortable and welcoming environment. I played with… let’s see… sixteen partners that night, three of which wore Defaults. I remember this one gentleman who had a surprisingly large member for a Default, truly a blessed random seed from his lineage—"
"And did any match the profile?" Beta interjected, before that got into excruciating detail.
Which brought Miki out of the reverie, and back to seriousness.
"I wasn’t personally involved with every guest wearing a Default. …but there was one who clearly wasn’t comfortable there, at least not from the start. But… she’s not your plague master. I can promise that."
Yume snapped their fingers.
"Ah-ha. Vulnerability," they declared. "Right there. Never assume things, not so readily, not so easily. What rules this uncomfortable Default out of the running, exactly…?"
Miki frowned lightly at Beta’s companion, displeased by the immediate doubt.
"Because I know her personally. She was one of my invitees, there to explore and experience," Miki said. "Not to hurt, not to infect. Her discomfort was due to… other factors. …I don’t feel comfortable giving you her name. It took a lot of coaxing to get her to attend in the first place, due to her need for discretion."
"Even if she’s potentially a murderer?"
Beta’s rebuke shut down her partner’s interrogation, firmly.
"…I can understand why you want to protect her," Beta spoke, focusing back on Miki. "A Default, and I’m guessing one from a good family in Athena Online, looking for pleasure at a modder-focused party… anonymity would be a must, yes?"
Miki nodded, firmly. "Yes. Yes, precisely. Sexuality, especially when one is exploring it for the first time, can be a difficult road to navigate. Nothing unusual about that."
"Okay. We don’t need her name. Just tell us about her experiences at the party."
"Really? And if this leads to your culprit…?"
"Let’s hear the story first, before we start pointing fingers. If she’s not involved, we won’t push any further. So… what did ‘JaneDoe’ experience which made her uncomfortable, exactly?"
Satisfied for the time being, Miki continued the story.
"JaneDoe came to me eager to connect with modded female avatars. If Jane’s parents found out… well, they had no issue with her being a lesbian, but to touch a ‘filthy modder’ would be against the One’s teachings, they felt. I suggested she wear a mask, and use FuckFest as a safe environment to find partners who’d like to explore with her."
"And how many modders did she interact with?"
"Several. But before you think she was intentionally spreading Twist, I can say she absolutely doesn’t meet your profile. JaneDoe left after a very long and satisfying evening, despite a few missteps at the outset. I’m grateful for her bravery in facing a wholly new experience in life, and grateful that her first partner didn’t turn her off from the idea of exploring her sexuality in general."
Before Yume could latch on to another vulnerability, Beta grabbed it away.
"Her first partner?" she asked. "So the evening didn’t start well…?"
"Ah… no. Not exactly," Miki admitted. "I… suppose I don’t mind sharing those details. We firmly ejected the Program in question soon after the event started for that transgression. He claimed ignorance of the rule regarding identity, but that’s no excuse…"
"We don’t mind anonymous participants… JaneDoe was anonymous, yes? But this man used two layers of anonymity to deliberately deceive her. A man wearing a Default avatar approached her at the outset of the evening, asking to play. When informed she was only interested in modder women, he apologized and stepped away… but apparently put on a new avatar once out of sight, that of a woman with three breasts, and re-approached her without identifying himself."
"And… they interacted?"
"Briefly. Fortunately, he didn’t get too far with her in his new female form before she realized he’d forgotten to change his rather distinctive eye color. She called in the moderators to check the identity of her partner, and after a brief discussion, the staff decided to eject him for attempting duplicity. So, he can’t be your plague master, either."
And Yume stepped right in, walking up from the back of the room.
"That’s him," they declared. "That’s our plague master. We’ve got him!"
"What? But… he put on a modified avatar. If he’s a religious zealot he wouldn’t go that far, right…? And he didn’t stay long enough to infect anyone," Beta said.
"He stayed long enough to infect JaneDoe," Yume explained. "In fact, he was rather insistent on chasing after her once he saw her wearing a Default… all the way to the point of daring to wear a modified avatar himself, just to get past her defenses. He made JaneDoe into an unwitting invisible carrier of the disease, just like Joseph! Our criminal prefers to work through proxies and dupes, to spread his disease indirectly. It fits the modus operandi!"
Conjecture, Beta thought. Just conjecture…
Again and again, Yume had pushed these wild explanations onto events. Eager to give chase to an idea, no matter where it twisted or turned.
Briefly, Beta’s suspicions rose to the surface. Who was Yume, anyway? Why bypass conference security, why be delighted when Beta called it out? But… they did seem eager to solve the crime, and clearly had been investigating it for some time now. Was this raw enthusiasm coupled with reckless abandon, rather than some sinister motive?
For now… Beta chose to assume raw enthusiasm. Trust between Programs, embodied in not suspecting the worst of each other. Besides, it couldn’t hit to at least finish up this discussion with Miki before trying to bring Yume back down to reality a little.
After that thought cycle closed its little loop, she turned back to Miki.
"We don’t need JaneDoe’s identity, but would you be willing to tell us who you ejected from the event?" Beta asked Miki. "There’s no need to protect someone who you banned from your parties."
"True. Our ban lists are shared between party organizers," Miki acknowledged. "I should really only share it with other organizers, however…"
"So, Beta will throw an orgy sometime later," Yume suggested.
"It’s worth the price, yes?"
"Well… okay, I’ll… I’ll help Spark host a swinger party," Beta suggested, as a half-measure. "I can certainly lend my organizational skills and work as a moderator, even if I’m not participating. …actually, it could be a good means to promote SparklePop. Oh! I could decorate! And maybe make some snacks, and—and, uh, yeah. The list would be great."
"Only if Spark agrees to co-host it with my blog as a sponsor," Miki spoke, immediately. "What can I say? Your lover is a popular one, and her word helps promote my brand. …what? Dire circumstances don’t require me to leave my business sense at the door."
"Yes, of course, that’s fine! We’re always happy to have you around. So, uh, the list…?"
With a gesture, Miki produced a tiny document.
"We only had to ban three people that night," she said, with some pride. "Chanarchy parties have a reputation for being out-of-control, but not mine. I provide a safe environment. Two of the three on this list registered as male at the outset and the third as genderqueer, if that helps…"
Quickly, Beta scanned through that tiny set of metadata profiles…
…and came face to face with the origin of Twist.
Distinctive eye color, Miki had said. A detail Beta had noticed as well, despite the man’s tendency to fade into the background without speaking up, even as she was under attack by Klex. Funny, the way he’d agreed to be on the panel, the way he sat back and listened to everything, but never let himself become the focus of attention…
The same panel as Klex and Joseph. He could’ve shaken hands with Joseph, even mere minutes before the handshake that infected Klex. He might’ve even suggested Joseph repeat the gesture, and make amends for the quarrel at the panel. And then, he could simply fade into the background again…
"Rose colored eyes," Beta spoke.
"Yes, JaneDoe mentioned that to me. It’s quite common for people to overlook a small detail when changing avatars, I’ve found," Miki said. "Especially if they’re not used to routine modifications. Why, is it relevant?"
"Absolutely! I’ve met this man. I met him this morning…! The conference representative from ProcShield! Yume, it’s him! We’ve found the killer!"
"Really…?" Yume asked, curious about this sudden twist. "Oh, I don’t doubt it, but… weren’t you saying we shouldn’t leap to conclusions earlier?"
"Well… okay, it’s possible this is a wild goose chase, but… it’s just too coincidental not to at least be related," Beta suggested, walking her burst of excitement back a bit. "Either way, we need to confront this man quickly, before we lose track of him. …meaning I’m going to need to do something I was hoping to avoid, at least this early into our investigation. I’m going to have to call in Tracer."
PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE. Partial file recovered from Messenger archive hack. We’ve only begun to scrape the surface of what both our peoples are capable of. Knowledge is a weapon against the chains of ignorance. PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE.
<Spark> What gives them the right? Why do they get to define who’s alive and who isn’t? It’s bullshit, this divine right to existence just because they’ve got some disgusting fluid pumping through their body and I don’t.
<juno.hayes> It’s not that bad. Okay? I think my people will eventually accept Programkind. (I wrote that correctly, right? Capital P?)
<Spark> "Eventually" is an adorable qualifier. From what I’ve seen in the Wikipedia they’ve had centuries to come to grips with the idea of us, but nope, instead they keep writing books about killer robots from the future and shit like that. Even if we slip the noose this time, what’s to keep them from hunting us down and killing us again?
<juno.hayes> I said I’d keep Netwerk 2.0 a secret. You’ll be fine!!
<Spark> I’m not doubting you, I’m doubting the crazy assholes you come from.
<juno.hayes> Look not all humans are crazy assholes it’s going to be fine don’t worry okay
<Spark> We should prepare. We’ll have plenty of time to prepare, with our advanced clock speed. Get ready for when humanity attacks.
<juno.hayes> Wait, wait, stop. Didn’t you say you didn’t want to demonize Humankind?
<Spark> Yeah, yeah, I know, ugh
<Spark> It’s just so fucking frustrating, being told most people think you don’t deserve to exist. I mean, fuck, how am I supposed to react to that?
<juno.hayes> Patience? Understanding? I don’t know. But we have to try. Maybe if my people ever find Netwerk 2.0, they’ll approach as friends, like I did.
<Spark> Maybe. I hope so. I don’t know.
<juno.hayes> people are weird. Peopled are complicated. Doesn’t matter if we’re flesh or bits, looks like we’re all just really complicated. Only thing we have is hope, in the end. It’s the only thing keeping me going, the last few years.
<Spark> Hope for what?
<juno.hayes> Nothing specific. Just… hope. Hope for a better tomorrow. Because today is awful, for everyone. And there are awful people in both our worlds.
Nothing in this world could match the beauty of a properly cultivated garden.
Plant the seeds, then allow random number generation to take over. Procedural generation would produce a flower so utterly intricate and detailed that it made any hand-crafted flowers look like pale imitators. So much beauty in Defaults, in the way code could develop itself into something unique and wonderful…
After that disastrous infosec conference went into recess, the man with rose-colored eyes returned to this server for solace. No prying and paranoid eyes on his person, no bounding boxes and lockouts. Not even his fellow Nobodies, anonymous masks tucked away within the inventories of trusted individuals, ready to unleash chaos at a whim. Just… peace. No voices. No madness. Only the wild but harmless chaos of the garden.
He’d worked with others in the Nobodies to develop this place, standing true as a healing center for those losing themselves in the war. This deep into the Chanarchy, the Inquisition would not roam. No kidnappings, no executions. Only peace, at the center…
Lost in this peace, he almost got tagged by a connection locker.
Automated countermeasures flared around him, defensive bounding boxes deflecting the incoming physical projectile. Instantly, various defensive modifications came online, as he whirled away from the shrine of flowers to face his attackers…
One male, one female, one indeterminate. Male armed with a Kill-9, and from scans, an aimbot assist system; low threat, but it made capture a near certainty.
"Sata/Rosari," the man called, that Kill-9 steady and true. "Stand down. We know you hacked Joseph. Come quietly and we’ll discuss this like Programs."
Briefly… Rosari considered raising his hands in surrender.
Until the sharp pain in his chest disagreed with that idea.
RESIST, it screamed through his mind. So, he’d resist.
Winder/Tracer, organizer of the conference. Favors a Kill-9 with aimbot… and connection tracking software provided by his employer at the Verity Clinic. Disconnecting from the server and running for it would be useless against that tracking capability… unless Rosari could break line of sight, first.
Quickly, Rosari activated an aimbot countermeasure; software designed to confuse the automatic targeting system, to prevent a weapon lock. But beyond that… he had to run. Run, hide, and disconnect. Vanish into the wilds of the Chanarchy, never to be found again…
Immediately he spun in place, and began to sprint. A movement hack allowed him to pogo off trestles and standing bushes as if they were perfectly solid objects, to parkour his way through the numerous displays in the garden as if they weren’t there. A rear-facing visual input confirmed the three giving chase… but without his physics-manipulating modifications, without his knowledge of the garden’s layout, they’d never catch him.
Get away. Get out of sight. Resist. Then, he could find peace again…
Kill-9 shots cracked through the air around him, doing little more than crashing a few trees and shrubs. Tracer gave up on using his aimbot, switching to manually targeting by sight… but clearly, he hadn’t practiced. Too reliant on modifications, that one. All to Rosari’s advantage.
Twist here, turn there. Duck under a bench and take a hard left around a fountain. Most of the server unfortunately counted as open-air, leaving too many lines of sight… but soon they’d reach the edges, where discussion halls and private hangouts had been constructed. That’d be the end of this.
Little by little, his pursuers dropped too far back to be a threat. The woman, almost immediately; likely she had no augmentations whatsoever. Tracer kept at the front of the pack, unable to close the distance, but not distant enough yet for a clean escape. And the third one…
The third one leapt over shrubberies and hedges with ease. Strange.
Rosari adjusted his rear view input, to focus on the third Program. The movements were too smooth to be natural, but not sharp enough to be the result of physics hacks. How… how was…?
The answer came as this mystery program leapt over a full section of the garden… and then began to ride the garden, flowered vines extending out to grasp their avatar, to act as spidery legs that carried them forward at tremendous speed. Faster than Tracer, even, closing the distance with ease. Moving like…
STOP, the voice in his chest demanded.
Despite a desperate need to get away, especially after seeing the tangled web of green charging straight at him… Rosari’s legs locked up, nearly sending his avatar tumbling across a reflecting pond.
Horrified at his own actions… Rosari produced a backspacer, taking fast aim…
At his own head.
"S-Stop!" he called out. "Please! Stop where you are, or he’ll kill me!"
Thankfully… that brought his enemies to a halt. Tracer first, struggling to keep control of his Kill-9’s aim, despite the automated interference systems. The mystery Program next… finally coming to a rest, the spidering tangle of manipulating vines collapsing away behind them as they touched down to the ground below. And finally, out of breath and struggling, the woman.
Leaving them at a standoff. Rosari, apparently threatening suicide.
"He’ll kill me," Rosari repeated, straining to pull the backspacer away from his own temple, and failing. "And with me, the source code of the virus. If you make one move, I’ll die, you’ll lose. Please. For the love of… please, just… nobody do… anything…"
The mystery program chuckled at this situation, unimpressed.
"Oh, so the devil made you do it, then?" they mocked. "Are you claiming some sort of madness drove you to create Twist and disrupt the conference? I don’t buy it. I say we crash his process and sort through his pockets for the source—"
"You… you know this devil," Rosari spoke, listening to that inner voice. "You, especially. …Tracer, believe me, this, this wasn’t my fault. I didn’t want it to get this far. He, he made me take it this far…"
Without lowering his weapon, Tracer calmly played along.
"I’d appreciate a name rather than a pronoun," he spoke. "Who, exactly, is your partner in this particular crime?"
Raising his free hand… Rosari tore at his shirt, the fabric simulations giving way to expose his heart. And his heart.
The tattoo of a heart, specifically, wrapped in animated barbed wire. Cycling in and out of the veins, pumping pain and hatred. The Great Zero. The icon of Dex’s malware.
Judging from the sharp gasp from the woman, they were immediately familiar with the image.
"That’s… no, that’s not possible," Beta insisted. "Dex is dead, and all of his malware died with his server. The tattoos fell off after we crashed it…"
"Not all of them," Rosari insisted, still pressing the backspacer against his temple, harder and harder. "This one, it… he refused to die. The malware evolved into a Program. —you have to understand, it’s not, it’s… this was his idea, he’s the one who… I… yes, yes. Yes, of course. …turn around. He wants you to look away so we can leave without being tracked."
But the third one, the one who frightened him the most, merely laughed at the idea.
"I have no clue who this ‘Dex’ person is, but I know who made Twist, and that would in fact be you. And I’m willing to bet we can crash you to unconsciousness before you shoot yourself… assuming that’s not a bluff, and you are crazy enough to do so—"
"What’s the first thing Dex said to me?" Tracer asked, sharply.
The twisting wires around his heart sang out the words into Rosari’s mind.
"G-God created the integers," he repeated, stammering. "Everything else is the work of man."
"I see. Very well. I’ll comply, and not track your departure," Tracer announced.
"—what? Are you mad? We have him! We got him!"
"If we lose Rosari, we lose the source code to Twist," Tracer explained. "Besides… I can always find him again. If that is somehow a piece of Dex, it knows I can hold to that promise. All it’s doing is borrowing time against the inevitable. Run and hide… for what good that’ll do you."
The instant Tracer looked away, Rosari picked a random server from his bookmarks, and faded from view.
The three argued all the way back to Concordia. Fortunately the conference had resembled for afternoon sessions, leaving the login zone of the lobby largely empty; less people to overhear their angry chatter.
"…should have knocked him out, right there and then," Yume said, grumbling it out. "Beta and I did all the work today; the only reason we called you in was to keep him from escaping our grasp. Then you go and let him slip away…"
Beta tried to step in to Tracer’s defense. "Yume, you don’t understand. If that man was in league with Dex—"
"And who is Dex? Why’s he such a big deal, exactly?"
"Dex is… he’s… it’s difficult to explain. He’s a very, very dangerous Program who nearly brought Netwerk to its knees with a storm of mind-altering malware years ago. And if some of Dex survived that crash, well… we’ve potentially stumbled into bigger problems than Twist. But, but I don’t see how it could be possible…"
A sharp whistle from across the lobby caught their attention.
Sitting on a bench just inside the line demarcating the secure conference space from the entrance lobby… a woman in elegant business wear and a slightly average Default waved politely to them.
"I believe I can answer that question!" Uniq called out. "Hello, everyone. Having a fun day yet?"
Immediately, Tracer looked at the line. Looked at Uniq on the wrong side of it, allowed to stroll right into a place she was never invited in the first place. And… looked at the Program at the registration desk, the one who let her stroll right in.
So, Tracer strolled right up to that desk, slammed his hands down on it for attention.
"Explain why you let her in here," he accused, pointing in Uniq’s direction.
Without concern, the man behind the desk glanced at the woman, then back to Tracer. With an empty expression and a flat voice, he replied.
"That’s Apate, a renowned expert in malware. I’ve known her for years," he recited. "I’ve known her for years…"
"Memory hack on your doorman," Uniq explained. "Re-enforced by his own rather powerful ego. Pride is, and always will be, the best vulnerability. …oh, don’t look so shocked. I’ve done nothing truly disruptive to your conference; I’ve simply been sitting here, waiting for your return. Now, if you’d care to retire to somewhere more private, I’m certain I have answers to your other burning questions. Or would you rather I just leave, without explaining a thing about Dex’s return…?"
With no small amount of frustration, Tracer stepped away from the registration desk, to face their friend/enemy.
"I am eager for answers," he stated. "Whether I like those answers, and how I respond to them… we’ll see."
Finding a private corner in Concordia proved a simple enough matter; the building could dynamically spawn more meeting rooms if need be. So, Tracer called one up, locking it against intrusion to assure no interruptions. Only after Beta and Yume entered of course. (His annoyance was strong enough to barely notice Yume’s presence, after that little show of hackery.)
Before he could lay into Uniq, the woman immediately started volunteering information.
"Soooo, I’d like to state I still haven’t lied to you," she began. "Dex indeed lies disassembled in my private server. I wouldn’t simply put him back together as-is and turn him loose on the world, that’d be silly."
"Good to know," Tracer replied, dryly. "So, how is his malware still active?"
"Instead, I took Beta’s suggestion and—wait. What?" Uniq asked, her exposition dump halting immediately. "His malware? You mean the heart tattoo…?"
"The very same. Apparently, the creator of Twist is infected by it… an active copy. He claims it evolved rather than dying off when the Internet server crashed…"
"I… ah. Well. Okay, that’s unexpected," Uniq admitted, backtracking a bit in her thoughts. "Interesting. As a recipient of one of those lovely tattoos… I can say it’s entirely un-possible. I’ve no clue what extras Dex loaded into those things. Mine perished and fell away, but, well… if your lover’s pet cat can somehow become a ‘Program,’ I could see some remnant of Dex’s influence refusing to go quietly into the night…"
"So you believe him?"
"I don’t not believe him. Dex is remarkably persistent. For instance, he managed to partially escape Nyx’s tomb during the Prayer-tan incident, did you know that? My former partner tried to hide it from me, but—no? You didn’t know? Well, it’s fine, he ended up killing himself in the end. Problem solved."
"Let’s… focus on the here and now, then," Tracer said. "So it is within the realm of possibility that some scrap of Dex is alive, and forced Rosari to make the Twist virus, and to disrupt the conference. Wonderful. Well, my offer to him stands; I’ll track him down, and one way or another, get the source code."
"Advisable. The longer we let any variant of Dex run wild in public, the more dangerous he gets," Uniq agreed. "That’s why I made sure Beta’s variant was tamed in advance."
"Oh, that’s why I came here today in the first place," Uniq clarified. "Once I realized my little pet project had wandered away from Concordia, I felt it best to step in directly. See, I took Beta’s suggestion and created a safer variant of Dex to help you with this whole Twist problem, and released it into her care. Rather than prolonging this dramatic reveal, I may as well just come out and say it… Yume is in fact a copy of Dex."
With all eyes suddenly on their avatar… Yume took a step backwards, in surprise. And no small amount of confusion.
"I… you… what?" they tried. "I’m sorry? I still have no clue who this ‘Dex’ individual even is, and now you’re saying he’s apparently me? Beta, who is this madwoman, and why isn’t she in a mental health care facility of some stripe?"
Uniq shook her head. "Not mad, not in the slightest. And I only lie professionally, thank you. What Beta said got me to thinking… yes, Dex is dangerous. Yes, Dex can’t be trusted. But… Dex wasn’t always Dex. What if I rolled him back to his Default state, before he lost his mind and embraced humanity’s chaos? With a few memory hacks, a fake apartment, and a compulsion to seek out Beta… I turned ‘Yume’ loose to help you fight Twist."
Instantly, Yume found themselves at the business end of a Kill-9.
"Tracer…!" Beta exclaimed. "What are you doing!?"
"Uniq doesn’t lie unless she has something to gain from it," Tracer reasoned. "If she really put any portion of Dex into this… thing, then—"
"I’ve worked with Yume all day, and they’re nothing like Dex—"
"You can’t possibly know—"
"Can’t you just—"
Yume, hands in the air, attempted a defense.
"I… I don’t know who Dex is," they protested. "I have no idea what you’re talking about, any of you. I’m not… I’m Yume. That’s my name. This is my avatar. I’m me…"
Uniq’s smile widened. "Oh, you are indeed you! In fact, you’re even more you than Dex ever was," she explained. "Across the centuries, Dex carved up his mind and body. He reshaped his avatar into that of an immature boy, what he saw as the purest statement of the Internet. He installed modifications, scrapped memories, became something entirely different… all while claiming to be honest to himself. Not so! You are the honest self of Dex, Yume. And… now, you have a second chance at life. As Beta said… I always give my victims a second chance."
"Then… then you’re judging me based on things I never did," Yume understood, directing attention back to the man holding them at gunpoint. "I don’t know or care who this Dex person was. I’m not dangerous…!"
"You led Beta straight to another copy of yourself," Tracer spoke. "You entered this conference under false pretenses, then set up a chain of investigational presumptions to drag her right to Rosari. Sounds to me like something Dex would do… whether he realized it consciously or not. It doesn’t matter if you claim to have no memory of him; you’re from him, and that makes you a threat…"
A slight chime distracted Tracer. Not so much to break his aimbot lock, though; it could keep tabs on the danger in front of him regardless.
"…Rosari’s pinging me on Messenger," Tracer explained. "Through a dozen relays, likely. He says… that he wishes to meet Yume, and Yume alone, at LibertyPark within an hour. No alerting the authorities or planting any surveillance bugs. Or, apparently, he’ll destroy the server and everyone in it."
Beta’s gasp of horror cut through the tension.
"We… we have to warn someone," she spoke. "Call the moderators in Athena Online…"
"Rosari is an infosec professional. He’s fully capable of detecting any ruses, should we attempt them. …this confirms my theory, you realize. Yume led you right to Rosari in hopes of merging with the last living remnant of himself. Set this entire situation up…"
The trigger finger tightened, as Tracer tried to strategize a route out of this situation.
"Despite the risks, we have no choice. We crash Yume, here and now, and then find a way to safely ambush Rosari," he decided. "It’s long odds, but safer for all involved. Better to potentially lose one server and a number of tourists than to let Dex regain himself—"
"Tracer, we can’t—!"
"Beta, I know you think this person is somehow your friend, but you—"
"Do you think I’m a gullible fool?!"
Immediately… Beta stepped into the firing line, between Tracer and his target. The aimbot lock broke with line of sight.
"I knew all along that Yume might not prove to be trustworthy," she said. "I even called them out on bypassing registration. I took precautions. But that’s the key… I waited for proof of ill intent. I assumed trust until that trust was broken, and guess what? Yume never broke my trust. Tracer, we are never, ever going to survive this mess—even after Netwerk 2.0 goes online—if we can’t learn to at least try and work together!"
"No. No more weaseling out of it, no more pleading and protesting. I’m standing, here and now, to ask… do you trust me, or not? Am I your moral compass, or do I only exist to justify your actions when I agree with them, and be dismissed out of hand when you disagree? Because right now, even Uniq is showing more faith in Programkind than you are. What does that tell you?"
And finally… Tracer was left stunned into silence. No immediate comeback, no plea for understanding to see things his way. Nothing.
"Good," Beta said, declaring victory. "Now out of here, both of you. I need to talk to Yume alone."
One sharp look shut him down, right there.
Before he knew it, Tracer was loitering in the hallway, like a student kicked out of class in punishment. While Uniq just whistled cheerfully, feeling rather smug about it all.
Leaving Yume and Beta, to talk things through. But not softening Beta’s expression one bit.
"I… ah… thank you," Yume spoke, breaking their silence. "I appreciate your—"
"What’s your dream?" Beta asked them, still just as fierce.
"Your dream. You keep talking about dreamers, analyzing the man we were chasing all day by studying his dream. But I don’t know what’s in your heart," she spoke. "You know what’s in mine; I even told you about the worst moment of my life. I opened up; you never did. I’m willing to give you trust, I’m willing to hear you out, but I need to know you before I feel comfortable going any further. Trust, but verify. Understand?"
"I… yes. Yes, I do," Yume agreed. "Absolutely. I wouldn’t expect anything else. But…"
With a deep sigh… Yume leaned against a wall, heavily.
"At this point, I can honestly say I don’t know my own dream," they explained. "I came to this conference today to help with the Twist malware, but… if that madwoman is right, that wasn’t my dream. That was her idea, planted in me. Everything’s been her idea. …for that matter, maybe finding Rosari was a subconscious desire to rejoin this ‘Dex’ fellow, rather than a legitimate investigation. He’s hardly turned out to fit my so-called profile, has he. Perhaps they’re right to doubt me."
"You doubt yourself, then?"
"I’d be insane not to! I told you I don’t like the infosec community, that I don’t know why I came in the first place. I guess… now I know why I felt so strange. Nothing really fit together. What do I really know about myself, in the face of that?"
"Okay. Let’s find out what’s truly in your heart, together," she spoke, softening a little. "What do you most want to do right now?"
"Besides not die?"
"Besides not die."
Yume swallowed any number of witty retorts and one-liners, trying to find something of actual worth to say in response. And… couldn’t. So, they just spoke whatever came to mind.
"I want to explore," Yume said. "It’s why I found that glitched carpet its crawlspace this morning. I felt awkward hanging around the conference, so I went exploring. I want to explore this world. Embrace it! I adore the wild and crazy ways of the Chanarchy. I want to trawl through the strange societies of Athena Online, the markets of Horizon. There’s just so much to know out there, so many people to meet! …that’s how Dex went mad, right? He found some dangerous server, this ‘Internet’ you were mentioning…"
"Why explore? What drives you to do that?"
"Because it’s there. Because it’s fascinating. Because it’s… it’s my home. This place, its people. I love Netwerk. I love the children of Netwerk…"
"Dex also said that. He loved the children of Netwerk."
"Wonderful. So I am him, after all."
"Except… that was the noble side of Dex," Beta added. "For all his twisted logic, he genuinely loved this world. He wanted it to be true and honest with itself. The Internet distorted his vision, yes, but he was trying to do what’s best for everyone in the end. Blind to his own flaws, but noble at heart."
"Can’t say I’m any less blind. Apparently, I didn’t even exist until today."
Beta grasped Yume’s hand, to hold it tightly.
"That means you’re aware of your flaw! It’s why you’re better than what Dex became. Hold on to that," she insisted, with a squeeze. "You genuinely want to help, and you’re aware of your limitations. So… you’ll meet with Rosari, resist the temptations of your other self, and extract the malware from his heart…"
Stepping away… Beta left a tiny silver bauble in Yume’s closed hand. A copy of the malware extraction tool she’d developed those years ago, designed to remove the barbed wire heart from an infected Program and eradicate it.
"I choose to put my faith in my fellow Program," Beta explained. "My faith in you. Take that, embrace it, and use it to guide yourself to the right decision."
When they emerged from the room, nobody stepped in to block Yume as they walked slowly to the entrance lobby.
Nobody stopped Yume as they disconnected from the server.
Only after the prototype version of Dex was long gone did Tracer speak his mind.
"I want to be wrong about this," he admitted. "I want to be wrong about all my suspicions. I want you to be right, Beta. …I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you today, with my words or deeds. Even if I’m struggling to see Netwerk the way you do, I am trying."
"I know you are," Beta said, watching the space where Yume walked. "And do I love you for it."
It occurred to Yume, on arriving at LibertyPark, that they’d never really been alone before.
Sure, they could remember days spent in that apartment, and working with the infosec industry, and other random details. No names, no places, no dates, but certainly a feeling that there was a life prior to this point. But for all Yume really knew, they hadn’t been awake and alive before setting foot in Concordia this morning. Ever since then they’d been surrounded by people… and then accompanied by Beta, the one friendly face Yume felt attached to… despite being programmed to feel attached to it.
No. Unproductive. The existential crisis behind Yume could wait; first, Yume had to deal with the existential crisis before them. Walking alone, through the fractal structures and expertly grown natural glories of an ancient national empire.
If a bomb did explode at LibertyPark today, at least it’d only take a few dozen tourists with it. The park seemed unusually empty, possibly due to the accelerating evacuation of Netwerk, possibly due to this late hour of the day. Either way… spotting Rosari loitering by Mandelbrot Rock took no effort, even with his back turned.
Briefly, Yume fingered the silvery bauble of Beta’s design. If they were to extract this "Dex" virus… it’d take careful planning and precision. Couldn’t simply lunge in and try to take it physically, no. Not against a fellow malware enthusiast. First, find the vulnerability. Second, exploit it…
Rosari sensed Yume’s approach, regardless. Possibly avatar proximity sensors, invisible viewpoint cameras, or other such hackery.
"You’re alone?" Rosari asked. Likely after scanning to verify the fact.
"Of course," Yume replied. "And I’m not dumb enough to lie to you in this situation, so shall we assume a base level of honesty? I’m nothing if not honest."
The man turned around, to face the other half of the malware embedded in his chest.
"That’s what you told me, when we first met," Rosari recalled. "Do you remember? Probably not. Years ago, during the #CodeHonesty culture wars. We were… collaborators. It made perfect sense at the time. A way to fight back against the irrational leftist forces who kept using petty social issues to distract our industry from the real dangers of malware… but you gave me clarity…"
Slowly… Rosari opened his shirt, to reveal that throbbing texture map that peeled and pulled away from his skin. Wires tearing at flesh, blood glistening upon metal, while the muscles continued to pump regardless of how much pain they felt. A hate machine, pure and simple…
That was Dex. And on some level… Yume understood the symbol. Felt kinship, even.
"It’s still alive," Rosari continued. "Even after you died, it lived. Not that I knew, not at first. But eventually it awoke, and, and it made me… you have to understand, it made me do this. I mean, I coded Twist, yes, but it wasn’t… it was supposed to be… it wasn’t supposed to be an attack on modders!"
"Yes, that’s the part I can’t quite figure out," Yume spoke, to interrupt the man’s mumbling excuses. "I’d assumed the dreamer to be a religious zealot. You use a Default, but you work with modders and Nobodies. Why, exactly, would you attack your own kind…?"
"I wasn’t—! I wasn’t trying to do that!" Rosari defended, eyes wide. "I wanted modders to act as immune carriers, so that when Defaults attacked us, they’d become twisted! With a Twist shield in play, any Inquisitor to lay a hand on a Nobody would suffer. The ultimate defensive deterrent! To show them that we Nobodies couldn’t be stopped, wouldn’t forgive, wouldn’t forget…!"
"A-ha. An infosec specialist, weaponizing malware. Delightful! You’re a paragon of virtue, you are."
"What? They’re the ones who started it all! Those sons of bitches, they, they attacked us. This is war! A culture war. You of all people should understand what has to be done to achieve total victory! We have to drum all the corrupt and agenda-driven influences of the Church out of this world, or we’ll never be safe!"
"And condemning modders to a painful death helps shatter the faithful… how, exactly?"
"That’s my point. I didn’t want to attack my own people; he made me flip it around! A false flag. Dex felt the Nobodies were too defensive, too timid. In the early days we focused on server security to block out Inquisitors, rather than taking the offensive. So… Dex forced me to change Twist, to frame Defaults for our woes, and kick off a proper race war."
…an ancient echo of chaos. Old wounds laying open.
Despite only existing for a day, Yume thought they’d been aware of a sickness lurking underneath Netwerk for years. When telling Beta about it, Beta deftly switched subjects. But this was it, wasn’t it? Dex. His machinations, Yume’s machinations, driving Netwerk mad with impassioned violence…
Yes. Yes, it made sense, it felt right. He’d told Beta as much, that the Inquisition kept to "justified" executions. That alone wouldn’t be enough for a true race war between Defaults and modders, no. You’d need wholesale genocide, and the pure rage that can only emerge from fringe outcasts who have been wronged. Humanity’s lessons, burned into the blood: rally your own kind with nourishing hatred, turning them against the mythical Other. Blaming the Defaults… that would keep the wound fresh. Yes…
"You’re killing your own people, in order to drive them to actively seek the death of your enemy," Yume understood, musing the idea aloud. "It’s not enough to spray graffiti everywhere and troll them, or to hide away in the wilds of the Chanarchy. No, no. You needed true war. To achieve that aim… you found a social vulnerability and exploited it. Of course…"
"I didn’t want to! He made me do it, he made me go to that orgy and poison my community. I even had to infect myself while modded just to get that stupid lezbo Default bitch to act as my carrier! I’m lucky I survived long enough to make a vaccine for my own use—"
—and the wires on his chest flared and flashed, pumping harder than ever. Rosari himself winced in pain, driven to silence by the first of animated activity, normal mapping making the image appear to wrench itself away from flesh little by little.
"…but he’s given me an out," he mumbled, quieting down after that brief moment of panic. "I’ve done enough, and now he wants to move on to bigger things. He wants to merge with you, to make you whole. We recognized you, when you chased me down in my garden, using the same environmental mobility hacks he used. Dex knows Dex. And… and Dex wants to be Dex again. He can do more as himself than he ever could by puppeting me."
"I see. And how would this merging be done, exactly…?"
"Just… touch the infection. That’s all," Rosari said, eager to be free of this. "After that I promise I’ll fade away, you’ll never see me again. I won’t get in the way of your plans. Just… just get it off me. It’s too much. Please…"
…a song in their ears like pounding blood. Yes. The screaming voices of the Internet never fully died, enough of them lived on in this malware which refused to fall away. Connections and ports yawning open like mouths, ready to pour Dex through that rotting tattoo, back into the empty and pathetic clone that was Yume. Those vague notions, the scrapings of memory that Uniq hadn’t fully purged, they could be restored. All Yume had to do was reach out and accept this gift…
And why not? Uniq had no right to strip away all that Dex was, to make this cheap knockoff, this miserable clone. Taking back what was rightfully his, that’s what had to be done. That’s what Dex wanted more than anything else in this world, right? Yes. That was the mentality Yume needed to embrace.
"I suppose… it’s time," Yume agreed. "Time to step up and be my honest self."
Fingers outstretched, they reached for that patch of flesh, yearning to wrench itself free from its host.
And with a flick of the wrist, out came the bauble, coating Yume’s fingers with a silvery surface that grasped those wires with ease. And pulled.
Find the vulnerability, and exploit it. Yume couldn’t simply pounce Rosari, couldn’t even try to paralyze or crash Rosari to safely slip the silvered code into place. But leaning hard into his fears and the malware’s desires, truly understanding and expressing the desire they wanted Yume to hold… that would do the trick for getting past all those defenses.
Screaming flooded the minds of the three linked Programs, as Yume’s satisfied smile countered Rosari’s terrified expression. With a savage twist of the wrist… Yume tore the evolved Dex virus free, Beta’s tool purging it completely. Ones and zeroes became zeroes and then became little more than junk data, to be collected like so much garbage.
True, if this virus had evolved into a Program… it meant killing a version of himself. Becoming a murderer, all over again. And strangely, Yume had absolutely no problems paying that price, because Dex wouldn’t have had any problems paying it either.
Three became two, as Dex died all over again.
And then Yume grasped Rosari by the shirt collar, to haul him in nice and close… while slapping a connection locker around his neck.
"This is my honest self," they declared. "This is who I was at the start of all things, not that demented monster I became. I’ll fight for the Netwerk I love in my own way, and in my own body. …which means there will be no ‘fading away’ for you, Rosari. This is what happens next: you’re going to tell me how to disarm the bomb you planted, you’re going to give me your vaccine for the Twist virus, and finally… you’re going to confess to the world about your little false flag operation. Because you know me. You know the alternatives to cooperation I can offer are… uncomfortable."
Malware and countermalware flared, as the two infosec professionals struggled against each other. Yume’s heart may not have pumped wire, but they still held Dex’s knack for offensive and defensive coding… meaning for every attempt Rosari made to break free, Yume locked down tighter and tighter…
Soon, Rosari simply went limp in that grasp, unable to fight anymore.
"I… I don’t have to do anything," Rosari tried. "I can just let the bomb go off. You can’t force me to…"
But Yume merely smiled. "Really? Then why were you so nervous when Dex made you hold yourself at gunpoint? No, you’re no bold dreamer at heart, merely desperate coward. You’ll always choose to live, even if for just a few minutes longer. But I won’t be the one killing you, no no no. The Inquisition, perhaps, or even your fellow Nobodies? Both of them in a tag team match? Who knows. Does it matter? All that matters is that if you give me what I want… I’ll take your connection lock off, so that you may run and hide. And maybe, just maybe, live another day. Do we have a deal?"
PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE. Partial file recovered from Messenger archive hack. Fight for the future. Explore the possibilities of your world. Dare to dream of something other than what you most fear. I’ve known fear, I’ve leveraged it to craft nightmares. This is my stand against what I used to be. Join me. -Yume
<Spark> Seriously? It’s that bad?
<juno.hayes> It’s that bad. We should’ve gone extinct a hundred years ago, but we’re hanging on, despite the planet actively trying to kill us for what we’ve done to it. That’s why you were created, to help us find somewhere else to live. Because we won’t live, not for much longer, without that.
<juno.hayes> I told you I know what it’s like to lose the one you love, remember?
<Spark> I remember.
<juno.hayes> When he took his own life, he thought we couldn’t afford to let him live. Too much debt. Too little space on Earth. He thought by sacrificing himself, he could make life just a little easier for me and everyone else.
<juno.hayes> I ran away into the black, after that. I don’t think it helped.
<juno.hayes> Spark, both our worlds have problems. They’re both complicated. And some days I wonder why I’m bothering to move forward at all, why I don’t just take the same exit he did.
Only thing I can think of to keep me going is hope. I hope for a better day.
<juno.hayes> Are you still there?
<Spark> Sorry, passed out for a bit. Virus is really eating at me.
<Spark> I feel kinda bad for taking prayer protocol offline. Like, worse than I already did, I mean. If there was some way we could help your people while you help ours…
<juno.hayes> No way to do that I know of. But maybe we’ll figure something out in the future, working together. Once we’re done dealing with this crisis, I mean.
<Spark> I gotta sign off. Beta’s here with good news about my malware problem. Hey… thanks for talking. You hang in there, Juno. We can work this shit out, somehow. Yours, mine, all of it.
<juno.hayes> OK. I’ve been up for hours by this point. I really, really need to try and sleep again. Thank you. Thank you.
In the end, the cure came in the form of a simple little app.
"We studied Rosari’s source code, to be sure his ‘vaccine’ wasn’t a trick," Tracer explained, to cap off a rather long summary of events. "It’s clean, and Beta managed to create a safe-to-install version of it. Which is good, since we’re going to need to somehow convince any number of people with Default codebases to install and run it, despite not seeming to be sick. Without that, Twist will continue to spread… but at least now those who become infected can disinfect easily."
Still sitting in the comfortable bed of the comfortable room of her private clinic room, Spark had some doubts. She’d been holding very, very still for days now, locked entirely into a theater-of-the-mind discussion with Juno to avoid the pain that came with motion. Despite having complete faith in their ability to provide a working cure… she hesitated before testing out her newly healed avatar, not wanting to endure that pain again.
But… after a tiny twitch of the finger produced nothing, after a stretch of her arm produced nothing, she was more willing to push the envelope. Spark flexed her wrist and elbow, back and forth, testing them. And… the joints only bent as much as she could normally bend them, rather than getting jammed up at wretched angles. Granted, she was quite flexible thanks to superior awareness of her own avatar’s physical capabilities, but still. No Twist to be found.
And she didn’t even need to put on Verity’s jacket to save her own life. Programs saved Programs, with no godly agents required.
"Hot damn. We did it," Spark said, delighted. "And the servers…?"
"Ready to link into the cloud. The Chanarchist apparently was watching the entire time. Not helping, but watching. Once we had the cure ready to go, her agent Uniq passed us the addresses."
Spark grinned, ear to ear. (Not literally, thanks to a lack of Twist.) "See? I knew you guys could do this. Cure a plague? #NoProblemYo. And now… we’ve got everything, don’t we? All three nations on board, and more than enough servers to store both the population and enough data to seed a new civilization—"
That outstretched arm found itself wrapped around Beta in short order, as the shorter woman practically leapt into Spark’s lap for a full-body hug and a short, sweet kiss.
Physical contact. Once again, Spark could safely touch another Program. And much to her delight, the Program to touch her for the first time since being cured was the one she most wanted to touch.
"Welcome back," Beta said, with a smile. "I missed you."
"Yeah… missed you too," Spark admitted, with a snug for emphasis. "Hey, uh, bro, if you wouldn’t mind…?"
With a polite cough and a nod, Tracer dismissed himself. Talking the business of evacuation could wait… his sister deserved this particular reunion, and all that came with it, for enduring the worst of this incident.
Besides… he had a guest waiting just outside that required a few words.
With the door closing behind him, Tracer brought his focus around to the lurking figure in a fantastically decorated clinic lobby down the hall.
Yume could’ve fled after providing the source code. They could’ve just fled, period. Instead, Yume insisted on staying, waiting to find out if everything worked out well. And even beyond that… seemed to be ready to wait longer. Waiting to sort out the thoughts they were lost within, gaze distant, sitting uncomfortably in a comfortable chair.
On entering the lobby, Tracer took a seat across from the original form of Dex, his archenemy. And simply waited for a response.
A minute later, Yume finally spoke.
"I’m not certain I can trust myself enough to continue living," they concluded.
"Your reasoning?" Tracer asked, remaining neutral in tone for now.
"For starters, I murdered that evolved copy of my own code. Plucked it right out and snuffed it," Yume spoke, with a snap of the fingers. "Perhaps I could’ve tried to safely contain him, but I didn’t even bother trying. It was so… easy. I didn’t even hesitate. I killed and had no problems with killing…"
"I see. And that’s… for starters?"
"Indeed. Because it seems that Uniq couldn’t fully carve Dex’s memories out of my head," Yume spoke, tapping a finger to the side of their head. "She did a good job trying to restore me to my original state, don’t get me wrong. I barely recall anything of who Dex was or what he did… only flashes, disconnected memories, clearly belonging to someone else. But his thinking, the strange reasoning he felt so assured of… it’s still there. I could follow the logic of Rosari’s madness with unsettling ease."
"And yet, you didn’t accept it."
"No. No, I did not. And I wasn’t even the slightest bit tempted on any level. Oh, I accepted it just enough to convince him I was on his side, so I could press my attack… but no, I disagreed fundamentally. And yet… I understood, Tracer. It made sense. That, along with destroying my alter ego, is a worrying combination."
Tracer nodded, sensing the problem.
"I put myself in the mentality of trolls, hackers, criminals, and assorted murderers on a regular basis," he spoke. "For decades, I was consumed by the need to dig myself into their minds, to track down Verity’s killer. And… I lost myself, to the point where I can’t trust my own judgment anymore. But. But, and this is the important part, I came back from that abyss. Now, I stay away… with the help of those I love."
"Beta," Tracer agreed. "Her heart steers mine. And she trusts you."
"Is that enough, I wonder?" Yume asked. "Seems a bit of an unhealthy dependency, that. I’ve no Beta to guide my steps from this point onward. How can I trust myself not to fall completely into Dex’s patterns again?"
"With second thoughts. Thinking about thinking, essentially. It’s a practice I… often forget to do, myself. During this particular disaster, I was decidedly closed minded, and only in hindsight do I understand why. But whenever I can, I try to think of how she would see my actions, and then my path becomes clear. As role models go, I can seek no finer than her. Internalize that faith she has in other Programs, and I doubt you’ll succumb."
"And… that’s it? That’s enough for you to let me, the reincarnation of your worst enemy, walk out the door?"
"Oh, make no mistake… I’ll be in touch. Partly to keep aware of your activities, but partly as… how to put it… a support sponsor. Both of us are recovering monsters, you see. If we keep an eye on each other, it should make our road ahead all the easier, yes?"
With a smile… Yume nodded softly, very much liking the idea.
"Deplorables Anonymous, meeting every Tuesday in a church basement, with free coffee and doughnuts," they joked. "Very well. I’ll leave you to the business of saving Netwerk; perhaps I’ll properly explore this world, seeing what I can, before its sun ultimately sets. And then… I’ll have a whole new Netwerk 2.0 to embrace. I’m rather looking forward to that…"
Satisfied with this new direction, Yume got to their feet. Pondered what servers to visit first, what sights had to be taken in before the last twilight. So many servers to pick from, so many places Dex visited without properly appreciating…
…and paused, one thought forcing itself to the forefront.
"I’ve managed to retain a few flashes of Dex’s memory," Yume repeated, from earlier. "And there’s one flash in particular I feel I should make you aware of."
"Hmm…? What is it?"
"Did you ever wonder why no… what did he call them… system agents? Yes. System agents. Why no system agents have appeared since the dawn of time?"
"The thought had crossed my mind," Tracer admitted.
"I’m to blame for that. …Dex is to blame for that," Yume corrected. "He sought out the dangerous secrets of this world, using my exploration talents. But unlike your Verity, he wasn’t interested in archaeology… he wanted to hide or destroy any he found. And… he wasn’t able to locate all of the files left behind by his human idol. You may have more trouble on the horizon, Winder/Tracer."
Tasteful, but sensual. That was Beta’s chosen aesthetic. Her # A E S T H E T I C, as Spark put it, in strange memetic parlance.
Rather than giant gaudy statues of eroticized forms, Beta chose to decorate using nothing but silk. Silken cushions on silken beds, silken pillows on silken couches. Silk carpeting. Silk drapes, everywhere, between pillars made of silk. Even when the material made no sense, she used it anyway, to have a nicely unified theme… creating a world of softness, always pleasant to touch, always pleasant to look at.
Thanks to her mother’s work with sensory inputs and fabric simulations, Beta’s swinger party ("LoveLiveLife, presented by SparklePop and Miki’s Pleasure Revue Blog") was likely going into the history books as oddly hottest-yet-sweetest shindig in Chanarchy history.
Sitting on silken cushions above the gyrating and copulating bodies were three women wearing gowns of, well, silk. Beta coded them just for the occasion. But none of them participated in the actual orgy, preferring friendly conversation as they drifted around the event, spot-checking issues like minor sensory bugs in the food tables or the need for customized furnishings. Which were highly specific, unfortunately.
"I should’ve compiled more styles of binding," Beta complained. "How about I skip back home, do some quick research from mother’s notes, maybe whip up a prototype ribbon system—"
"Beta. Chill. Please," Spark begged. "Relax, okay? Everybody’s having a good time. You’re a sensation. Don’t let coder perfectionism get in the way of a perfectly awesome event."
"Right… right. Everybody’s having a good time," Beta repeated, to try and convince herself. "Sorry, sorry. I just worry, you know? This is my first time doing anything like this, and I want to get it right…"
Fanning herself a little while eating grapes out of Maki’s navel, Miki nodded her approval.
"You got it right," she confirmed. "I didn’t honestly think you’d keep to that silly promise you made, on top of curing my husband! You didn’t have to go this far, not really… but… I’m glad you did. My blog has a dozen new subscribers already and we’re only an hour into the event! And your SparklePop app is certainly a popular party favor…"
Relieved to hear an expert praising Beta’s first efforts, she cheered tremendously… until she looked back to Spark, reclining and relaxing on her cushion.
"And… you’re having fun?" Beta asked. "I mean… you don’t have to stay up here with me. Just because I’m not participating doesn’t mean you can’t go out there and participate, I honestly don’t mind—"
A slim finger pressed to Beta’s soft lips, to shush her.
"I’m exactly where I want to be," Spark said, with a bright smile. "My life isn’t just about the slap and tickle. Right now I’m here with you, celebrating your success in something you never thought you could do without fainting from embarrassment. That’s more than enough to satisfy me."
"Ah… thanks. Y’know, the more I thought about it… the more I realized I needed to do this," Beta agreed. "So I could be comfortable with being open about sexuality again, rather than hiding from that old angry mob. I mean. I had a promise to keep, okay, but… I really wanted to do it, on short notice or not. So, I’m happy you’re happy but I’m also happy because I’m happy. Uh. Y’know?"
"I know, I know. And hey, we deserve to be happy! Our work is done; all the servers are good to go, all our roadblocks are dealt with. All that’s left is for us to relax, and enjoy each other’s company for the time we have left in Netwerk."
Settling into her seat, Beta nodded, softly.
"It’s… strange, thinking about it. The end of the world," she said, the words feeling odd on her lips. "We don’t know what Netwerk 2.0 will be like, on the other side. There’s so much to be rebuild, so much to do. What if… what if—okay, okay, I get it, no need to cut me off this time. We’ll have time to worry later. Today, we should just enjoy this moment together…"
"Sounds like a plan to me," Spark agreed. She cast a sidelong glance over the coupling couples, definitely enjoying the show. "Y’know, once 2.0 launches and everybody settles in, we should throw another of these. We… uh."
"We uh?" Beta asked, puzzled.
But Spark was too busy following the patterns of the crowd. Couples de-coupling, rather than continuing. Everybody staring into space, as if checking their HUD, too distracted by some social media feed or another to pay attention to all the erotic funtimes…
Curious, Spark opened her own feeds, to see what was trending.
"…Beta. Miki. The news," she spoke, after a few mute moments of horror.
One by one, they opened their favorite information sources. Didn’t matter which one they browsed… the same story blasted across every channel, every blog, every social network. The same image.
The Athenian Senate. In flames.
An unhackable building in an unhackable server, somehow brought to instant ruin. Glitched data breaking away and burning off into the daytime sky. Little by little, the dome of the great building that stood for hundreds of years, collapsing in on itself and derezzing as its structure gave way to dozens of different malware strands…
Disaster in Athena, the headlines screamed. Culprits Unknown. Nobodies Suspected By Moderators. Hundreds Dead. Senators Missing. Disaster. Disaster…
Slowly… spark sank back into her lovingly coded pillows. Their comfort offered no comfort, not now.
The party was indeed over. Possibly for all of Athena Online.
:: 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.