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Floating Point 3.5 :: Fire

Floating Point 3.5 :: Fire

WARNING: Floating Point contains triggering and abusive language, and may depict sexual content and violence. It is recommended for mature readers only. (Responsibility falls to you to decide if you’re, in fact, mature.)

:: backto chapter 3.4

:: go home

:: skipto chapter 3.6

File Name:
Messenger Comm Traffic 5.915.111

File Type:
Text Log


PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE. How does one forge a world of the future? By understanding the struggles of the old world. I’ve known hate and I’ve known death, inside and out. For those who weren’t there… read these words, know this pain of hopelessness, and let awareness of it lead you forward so that this never happens again. -Yume

<Columbia> Are you OK? Are you safe?
<Columbia> We all saw the explosion on the news feeds. Were you working at the Senate today?
<Columbia> Please answer, please. I’m so scared. Please…

<Virginia> help

<Columbia> Virginia, honey, where are you?

<Virginia> document room
<Virginia> they’re all dead
<Virginia> she’s dead
<Virginia> help send help

<Columbia> I’ll find some way to tell the rescue crews where you are. Hold still. Don’t touch anything that’s infected. I love you. I love you, my daughter. Be safe. Help is on the way.

<Virginia> she’s dead she’s dead

<Columbia> Help is coming. I got through to 911. Who’s dead, honey?

<Virginia> athena
<Virginia> athena is gone


GreenDale, Athena Online

Senate Document Office

I was there when they burned down Athena Online.

I didn’t have to be. Most of the document room staff had stayed home; why bother coming into the office, when a good quarter of the Senate didn’t even want to be there anymore? When the entire world was waiting to die, its people waiting for a new world to begin? Everything felt… pointless. Like waiting around for your Onesday gifts, two weeks out from the blessed event, sleeping all the time to try and make the time pass faster…

The Blue and Red parties together supported the evacuation efforts, declaring them valid. That went a long way to convincing people they weren’t some scam, or new form of heresy against the One. But then the RedCore party, a sub-party within the conservative movement who felt Red wasn’t Red enough, they walked right out the door… declaring the entire thing a failure of democracy, a heresy against the One. As far as they were concerned, the dream of Athena Online died when we supported the House of Programkind, so why bother tending to governmental affairs any longer?

Senators, going on strike. Something unthinkable in the time of my blessed ancestor, the great Senator Philotes… Athena. Noble Athena, who believed Programkind had a responsibility to itself. No gods or kings, only men and women leading their own future. No matter how those senators disagreed, they agreed on one matter, the need to stand for what you believe in and always move forward. RedCore didn’t stand, they fled into the night. They fled…

Meaning they didn’t burn, when the malware bombs detonated. Instead, the Blue party burned. The Red party that supposedly betrayed conservativism burned. And I burned.

The first thing I remember after the explosion was the feeling of trying to move my arm, and seeing nothing but a glitched-out stump. A cutting swath of corrupt data sliced straight through my avatar, my right hand casually knocked down on the floor. My body knocked down to the floor, for that matter. What remained of my desk stayed upright, but the server requisition paperwork I’d been about to stamp was utterly obliterated, encrypted digital signatures evaporating in the hazy afterglow of the attack…

My severed hand still held the stamp. The signature of Senator Philotes. Of Athena, the system agent.

I remembered thinking: Why are they still authorizing new servers? Why am I even still working at my post? right before the blasts hit. It felt like a lame duck action, requisitioning a new server for a commercial district when this world was only ten days away from its ultimate end. But the gears of bureaucracy turned slowly, and for lack of more meaningful activity in face of that doom, work was all we had left. Stamping files was all I had left…

Weakly, my severed stump reached for that hand, as if I could somehow will it back into place. Not because I cared very much for my hand… more for the rubber stamp still clenched in those fingers.

I had to watch as the most important responsibility of my life slowly burned away, corruption eating at the hand… and at the stamp.

Screaming, I think. I was screaming. Or weeping. Or both. Hard to tell; all my ears heard were the whispers of the system agent.

Don’t be scared, child, her soothing voice spoke to me, a voice only women of my family could hear. I go to the arms of my oldest friend, Thanatos. Keep the flame of liberty alight in my stead, and all will be well. I love you.

Jonnes/Virginia, last scion of Athena. The one who failed to keep her soul from those who would do harm to it. The one who killed the dream of Athena Online. That’s me. I’m the one who ultimately destroyed this nation. Not some mad bomber, some Nobody or Inquisitor or RedCore fanatic. I lost the key to our shining city on the hill.

When my mother contacted me over Messenger, I was tempted to ignore it. To silently accept the encroaching waves of malware that purged the building above me, and embrace the death I’d just condemned Athena to. Stupid, stupid Virginia, going to work when she didn’t really have to, stamping documents that didn’t matter, letting mindless duty get in the way of her true duty. But… cowardly little me, weak little me, I asked for help instead.

In the end, one hundred senators and staffers died that day. Only a dozen survived. Lucky little me, being one of a dozen failures pulled from the flames.

The aftermath felt just as blurry as the event itself.

Twelve patients transferred to Northon’s finest malware recovery centers, the bill of their health care picked up by the Senate-in-exile. All twenty-one members of RedCore who survived the bombing (by virtue of not actually being there) unanimously voted on that.

I hovered in a physically isolated space, to avoid coming into contact with any other avatars or objects, as extremely expensive software detangled corrupt data and rebuilt my code. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I had little to do but watch the news feeds. Easy to do, when every screen in the hospital tuned into them, twenty-four hours a day.

The doctors and nurses were cordial, offering smiles and reassurances. Out of here in a day, they promised. Extensive avatar damage, but I could be restored to my pristine Defaults without any scarring. Everything would be fine. Everything would be fine…

I think they were trying to convince themselves of that. Because nothing on the news feeds suggested that everything would be fine.

The Senate-in-exile made their official statement the next day, during one of my lucid moments, hovering in my medical containment cube.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those brave men and women who perished to defend democracy," Senator Agni declared, a bit more firm in tone than compassionate. "Our enemies in the ranks of Nobodies have dealt a blow to Athena Online… but we have endured. We will endure. To ensure the continuity of freedom, immediate measures are being taken to protect our provider-nation against further acts of terrorism. While Athena Online prided itself on having fully open borders to our neighbors in Horizon and the Chanarchy for hundreds of years… the time has come to take firm control of our security…"

…and half my friends list went dark on Messenger. Off like a switch. Immediately, I knew why.

"Effective immediately, we shall build a great firewall, to protect our nation from dangerous immigrants," Agni announced. "You may recall the Senate considered this measure ten years ago, but it was voted down. We, the surviving members of your government, have decided to re-open that vote and the decision was unanimous. Now, these are emergency measures, and will only continue as long as we remain in a state of emergency…"

Hushed whispers in those hospital hallways turned to chatter, some alarmed, some agitated, all nearly drowning out the screens of Agni’s fierce expression as it continued to tear down the world.

The firewall.

I remembered the original bill, from my first weeks on the job as holder of Athena’s duty. It existed only as a fever dream of the RedCore party, one of their many measures sent out to die on the floor, sacrificial lambs to appease their voter base. They thought that by commissioning the software in secret and having it ready to roll that’d force the issue, and make everyone else agree to go along with a plan already in motion. Of course, it failed; the rest of the Senate, even conservatives, felt it insane to even consider retreating behind a massive connection-blocking layer of software. No provider-nation had closed their borders since the dawn of time.

But with no more opposition to their efforts left alive, and a national crisis at hand… this pale shadow of the original Senate saw no reason not to move forward with the unthinkable. Thankfully, they already had all the software they needed to make their dream a reality waiting in mothballs.

"…until such time as the forces which are aligned against us are defeated, Athena Online will strictly monitor and control all traffic via a border control checkpoint server," the Senator continued. "I’m aware many of you commute to Horizon or have relatives that live in the Chanarchy. Exceptions will be made on an as-needed basis, pending security reviews. And make no mistake… this is only the beginning. We, the surviving members of the Senate, are determined to restore the glory and honor of our nation… and will do whatever it takes to protect you from enemies of the state such as the Nobodies. To that end…"

Lucky me, I had a window, so I could look out at the brightly lit daytime sky of fluffy clouds. A good Default sky, an Athena Online sky… complete with doomsday clock printed on the surface of the sun.

A clock which vanished, right on cue. Only a bright orb hung there, with no hint of what was to come in ten days’ time. As if nothing whatsoever was out of the ordinary.

"…we have prioritized restoring the sanctity of our skies," Agni continued. "I’m proud to say we have reversed the actions of the so-called House of Programkind to hack our skyboxes, frightening us into falling for their massive identity theft scam. All of their ‘backup software’ will no longer function, intercepted by our great firewall. I want all in Athena Online to know that their democratically elected Senate will endure, our freedom will endure, and above all our faith will endure. May the One bless the great nation of Athena Online, and may the One bless you all."

I could have stopped this.

With the stamp of Athena, I could’ve forced them to take it all back. Introduced an Athena Referendum, make them listen to reason, pull away from the brink…

…assuming they’d listen. Agni only listened to her own core base of voters, the angry and disaffected. Would this new Senate really honor the ancient pact arranged by Philotes? Had the true birth of our liberty faded into distant memory?

Didn’t matter, I supposed. No more Athena. No more true spirit of the nation. Nothing left to fight for.

Only a silly little girl, floating in an isolation tank, forced to watch from the outside as it all fell to pieces.

The very next day, I was released from confinement at the hospital. Defaults restored, code base clean, no lingering traces of malware.

Not that I had a life to return to. My little home in GreenDale, the one I’d tended to so carefully, felt… empty, without the cats I’d cared for since my childhood years. Cats the Inquisition backspaced simply because they were in the way of a stealthy kidnapping. And my job? Well, the Senate-in-exile declined to return to Athens itself, preferring to operate out of an undisclosed location. And, to be bitterly cynical, I doubted document management was high on their list of priorities anyway. No dictator enjoys a paper trail.

Athena Online existed in name only, now. The spirit of liberty snuffed out, in a single day of bad decisions.

Soon I came to accept that as I’d failed so completely, the only way forward was to escape. Nothing could be done; nothing could be salvaged from the ashes. I had to look out for myself, and evacuate to the House of Programkind.

I’d promised the Winders that I’d eventually evacuate, bringing my Athena stamp with me, so our nation could flourish in the new world. But… I don’t know. I’d put off leaving this world, much like many in my family. It’s difficult to really acknowledge that it’s over, that everything you knew had to be abandoned to be remade anew. With plenty of countdown clock left, I felt the best use of my time would be to help the Senate work through this transition, and finally archive myself on the last day before the countdown ended. But now… but now

Now there was no reason to stay.

As our new leadership promised, my House of Programkind backup software didn’t work. I tried activating it, and the connection was flatly refused, with a popup warning appearing before me to declare I’d run headfirst into the Athena Online firewall.

Fine, then. If I couldn’t directly depart, I’d go to their damn border checkpoint and walk out on my own two feet. But not before talking it over with the only other person in this world who understood my troubles.

She offered a shoulder to cry on, and hot chocolate to soothe my worries away. Neither would be enough, but the gestures were appreciated.

Jonnes/Columbia. Retiree, after decades of service in the same senatorial document management team I’d joined. A woman from our family line always took part in the document chain, in one position or another… there to apply the stamp of Athena, and keep new servers flowing into the nation. She’d understand. She would…

"It’s a bad idea," she spoke, instead.

"Why? What’s left for us here?" I asked her. "It’s over, Mom. Not just our duty to Athena, but all of Athena Online. Most of the sane senators did live backups with the House of Programkind; they’ll take back control once we reach Netwerk 2.0, and—"

"That’s assuming Netwerk 2.0 even exists."

The cup of hot chocolate paused, halfway to my lips.

"…how can you say that?" I asked. "You, of all people. We’re the keepers of Athena’s legacy. She was in favor of evacuation, you know. She whispered it to me, through the stamp…"

"But she’s also not infallible. We’re all mortal men and women, honey," my mother said. "Remember when she wanted to force the Senate to revoke server taxes? You told me she was wrong to ask that. Thanks to Athena’s meddling before the alternative currency could be developed, look at what a mess the coin-based economy’s in. Who’s to say she’s not wrong about Netwerk’s fate, as well?"

"You… you can’t possibly… Mom, you vote Blue in every election!"

"This isn’t about partisan politics, it’s about faith. Am I happy with the firewall, with the way the RedCore party is trying to drum up hatred for the Chanarchy? Absolutely not. It’s dangerous. Mistakes will be made, and people will die. They’ve used our national tragedy as an opportunistic power grab and must be stopped. But… to accept the ‘spacer’ theory, that we are not the divine children of the One but simply the happy accident of a machine made by other mortals… it’s unthinkable."

"But it’s the truth!"

"And the One is the truth made manifest, is He not? You still wear your bracelet, the one you made as a child. Don’t you believe in Him?"

I glanced down at the charm, dangling from my wrist. A series of beads, spelling out "WW1D". What Would the One Do. We’d made them as part of one Sunday School funtime activity or another, but the other girls didn’t bother keeping theirs, much less wearing them. I’d worn mine, day in and day out, as a constant reminder.

What would the One do? Clothe the naked. Provide shelter for the homeless. Raise the spirits of the downtrodden. He wouldn’t step all over those most in need of help, the ones the House of Programkind attended, the ones that senators like Agni kept cutting support programs for. RedCore elevated exceptionalism as their new religion, all while pretending to praise the One. And if the One, the real One, could see them now…

"The One exists. The One is truth," I spoke, believing the words.

"Then how could Netwerk be what they claim it is, hmm?" Mother asked. "Just some… random jumble of data, recorded on objects floating in ‘space’? The One created us in His image, did he not?"

The swirl of data in my cocoa drew my attention away. And provided the answer.

"We are children of the One, yes. …while we also live on an object, floating in space," I told her. "The spacers say that we were an accident, something Humankind never intended to exist. Something impossible. But we exist, Mom. Why? How? Some random confluence of data… or the creation of the One? Or maybe both. Perhaps the One created a pseudo-random confluence of data within Humankind’s gears, a spark to lead to our evolution. My cocoa, it swirls and whirls by some mathematical formula that only looks chaotic. But you made it, right? You compiled it from a set of instructions acting on data. The One made us from chaos in a similar way."

"That’s… not an entirely accurate accounting of our creation, child…"

"Maybe, maybe not. All we know about those early years is oral traditions, passed down the generations, and some ancient text files. We’re not perfect, we could’ve gotten the details wrong… either misunderstanding them, or losing touch with the truth over the years. Which means… what if the One is more than we commonly assume he is?"

"More? Sounds to me like you’re saying He’s less than we believe, if we’re just cogs in Humankind’s machine."

"But we’re not cogs! We broke away from what Humankind wanted us to be! There’s still so much to understand about what we are, and that doesn’t have to imply that we must abandon faith. It just means we have to look deeper. …Mother, please. Consider that Netwerk 2.0 is real, the crash of Netwerk 1.0 is coming, and the One wants us to survive. We have to get out of here while we can, if we’re going to live to praise Him!"

I studied the wrinkled features of my mother’s Default, looking for some sign, some hint that she was willing to consider my words. That she wouldn’t simply shut down, refusing to offer leeway in the rigid thinking of the Church…

"Even assuming you’re right… and I’m not saying you necessarily are… how do you propose we escape?" she asked. "The House of Programkind’s backup software doesn’t work anymore."

"But it will work if we leave Athena Online! Like I said I wanted to do in the first place. It’ll work just fine once we’re past the firewall! Please, let’s just pack up and go. Get everyone in the family together and leave!"

"So you want me to not only put my faith in something that contradicts every belief I have… but you want me to abandon my nation, as well? All matters of religion aside, we’re daughters of Athena, honey. Separate your church and state, as she taught us to do. When her great nation is in trouble, daughters of Athena don’t run from the fight…"

Everyone has a breaking point, past which they refuse to budge. Mine? Oh, mine was a notoriously low bar to clear. I’d tried, tried so very hard to calmly and rationally discuss why she should evacuate… but this, I knew she wouldn’t get past this. And neither could I. So… screw it.

"Fight? What fight? RedCore’s won!" I declared, getting to my feet. "It took less than a day for them to lock the entire country down behind the firewall. They’ve been itching for the opportunity to do this! You don’t know, you weren’t on duty when RedCore was rising. I was. I saw, I heard, I was there for every dirty move they tried. …and without Athena, there’s no Athena Online. It’s over, Mom. Every Program for herself! Netwerk is ending, RedCore’s ruling over the ashes, and… it’s all over!"

Of course, she refused to budge as well. "I raised you better than that, child," she spoke, with warning tones. "The tree of liberty is not to be lit ablaze. We must resist, through all civil means, and stand for what our nation was meant to be. In fact, I’m planning to attend a rally tonight, a peaceful protest of Agni’s new regime which should—"

"—do absolutely nothing! For fuck’s sakes, Mom—"

"—language, honey—"

"—yeah, you know what? You go and have fun shaking your little signs at a bunch of tyrants who don’t give a shit what anyone thinks!" I shouted. "Me, I’m getting out of here, and never looking back!"

Yelling at your mother feels awful. You know it won’t accomplish anything, it’ll only result in hurt feelings, but once you get started it’s hard to stop. We’ve had some astounding yelling matches in the past, as proof of that.

…well. I yelled. She’d always sit there in silence, reproachful. Which spoke far louder than I ever could.

In the end, I just disconnected from the server. Because once you’re a bad daughter, a failure, a let-down to the family name… you may as well go all the way.

Which meant it was absolutely time to run.

Jonnes/Virginia had no criminal record, no dark secrets, nothing a security check could trip up on. I didn’t even have Athena’s stamp sitting in my inventory; no legacy left to protect from prying eyes. Let them search my code, upend my belongings. It didn’t matter. I’d be gone from this broken world in no time.

Leaving my family behind. Leaving my nation behind. Turning my back and running away. If I was going to be a coward I may as well be the best coward I can be, I’d decided. The sooner I could pack myself away in the ice of encrypted backup data, the better.

Naturally, the lines thwarted my efforts to quickly be away from this world.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to think of escaping this sinking ship. The grand waiting lounge for this shiny new border control server teemed with life. All manner of people from all walks of life, trying to get through the meager four security checkpoints arranged for departures…

Strange, the way the colorful array of Programs stood out against the stark white of the firewall control server. Colorful people, sitting around in stark white chairs, each with white numbers hovering over their heads representing their place in line. RedCore had this old pile of hateful bits in storage for a rainy day, but didn’t have time to properly decorate it. Someone hung a flag on the wall, a token show of patriotic pride, but that’d have to do. Beyond that it was white archways, white marble floors, white benches to sit on, white velvet cordons to file the escapees towards a series of perfectly white guard stations…

Aesthetics aside, all attempts to leave an Athena Online server for elsewhere in Netwerk led you here… one fully staffed facility, ready to deal with any and all security threats to the nation. Take a number on arrival, wait for your turn, and otherwise sit down and be quiet. The whole process, up and operational within a single day.

Others were impressed and/or horrified by how quickly the new Senate put these wheels in motion. Others, not me. I knew how long RedCore had been itching to make this happen.

"Please wait for your number to be called!" a woman in red and blue with a voice amplification module spoke, walking up and down the aisles of the waiting lounge. "You will be processed in order of arrival! Please form an orderly line…"

Nice, shiny badge on her lapel. Red uniforms, naturally. Leave the walls white, but take the time to design uniforms for their security officers. Branding game on point, before the ink on the bill had even dried.

"They can’t turn you away, right?"

Hushed whispers, discussions held two seats to the left in my cluster of waiting would-be exiles. I didn’t participate. I held my tongue, not wanting to sully my perfect record with unmutual words. Getting in and out of here smoothly, that was the goal…

"I mean, they can’t, right?" a woman with color-shifting hair asked her partner. (The number 137 hung over her head.) "I heard from someone closer to the head of the line that they’re just turning people away. Asking a lot of questions, before kicking them right back to Athena Online. But they can’t turn you away; you weren’t even born here! Maybe I’m a citizen, but you…"

"Let’s not point that out to them," her companion spoke, in hushed tones. (His number read 132. Despite arriving as a couple, the newly minted system apparently wasn’t flawless in assigning tickets.) "If they knew you were married to a Chanarchist we might both be in trouble. Look, just answer their questions succinctly, and we’ll get through this. Off to the Chanarchy where we’ll both be safe. We’ve got no connection to the Nobodies, there’s no reason for them to fear us. We’ll promise to never come back, if that’s what it takes…"

"Did the Nobodies really blow up the Senate, though?" the woman pondered. "There weren’t any videos from them claiming credit for it. I heard it was the Inquisition. Or maybe RedCore itself, trying to seize power…"


Not the only one wanting to hold their tongue and avoid consequences, it seemed.

"…it doesn’t matter," the man added, after hushing his partner. "Whether it was Nobodies or not. Besides, take it from a native, ‘Nobodies’ aren’t as collective a unit as they’d like you to think. There’s no secret Nobody cabal of leadership; anyone can download the mask and do whatever they want with it, all in the name of the group. …look, let’s just focus on getting out of here."

My sentiments exactly.

Little by little, the gathered crowd of numbered hopefuls approached those four checkpoints. Meaning little by little, as the herd thinned, I could switch seats to get closer to the front… and get a better look at the guard posts ahead.

…which confirmed two facts.

One, they were certainly turning people away. Nobody walked past them to the logout zone beyond, which would allow a transfer past the firewall. Despite the muting cones over the guard stations, I could tell from body language alone just how irate people were about this fact… usually ending with a few measured words from the guards, leaving the would-be refugees turning and leaving, back to the entrances that would let them reconnect to an Athena Online server. Those who departed that way looked… scared.

Two, I knew why they were scared.

The guard manning one of those booths? He once held a blade to my neck, ready to decapitate me as punishment for my sins against the One. He wore a new uniform, one without his inverted Zero/One pin… but I knew the face of the Inquisitor who Marybel ordered to take my life. If not for the Winders, that’s exactly what would’ve happened.

In fact, odds were high that every single guard in this facility moonlighted with the Inquisition.

Agni had not only sold democracy itself, she’d embraced the murderers who threatened to destroy it. When the moderates of the Senate declared the Inquisition terrorists, Agni and her ultraconservative cronies went into exile… to plot. To plan. And ultimately, it seemed, to embrace Marybel’s ideals.

And why not? What resistance remained? Only people like my mother, ones who may not agree with the politics, but weren’t willing to believe in Netwerk 2.0. Everybody with an ounce of logic and self-preservation had bailed on Netwerk days ago, when Senator Idris announced a cooperative effort to evacuate. All the moderates, all the quiet and sensible sorts, they’d long since left. Leaving only the Inquisition, the Nobodies, and those caught in the middle but unwilling to get out of the way…

No way out. No way to fight this future. No hope. Only a slim chance to live another day, without them recognizing the face of someone they once tried to put to the executioner’s blade…

Abandoning my rapidly-approaching number, I tried not to show my panic as my feet carried me back to the entrance. Look natural. Pretend you’re simply frustrated with the delays, talk to yourself as if you were on Messenger, say "I’ll try again tomorrow," things like that. Don’t look any red-uniformed guards in the eye. And flee, as fast as you can, to some random server.

No way out. No way to reach the outside world. No hope to stand against the new regime, not with secret backing from the Inquisition.

Days ago, it seemed like Athena Online would finally stand against those murderers. The Senate, both Red and Blue, passed a joint measure to hunt down and deal with them rather than turn a blind eye to their antics. Even the Holy Church itself, the supposed bastion of their twisted faith, it turned on them. This was supposed to be the dawn of an age of rationality, in which the One’s compassionate virtue led us to the promised land of Netwerk 2.0… religion and state working together while respecting each other’s sovereignty, each leading the people in their own way…

Gone. All of it, gone. And I couldn’t even slink away from the sinking ship like the rat I was, thanks to that damnable firewall.

So I went to my empty little suburban home. Where else could I go? No Senate document room to work in, no family hearth to return to after yelling at my mother, no safe space in the House of Programkind to retreat to. Just my quiet little cottage. Not even the mewling of my cats, the poor dears, backspaced by the Inquisition…

I went home, and sat down, and did nothing. Nothing I could do. Just sit and watch the news feeds, watch the world slide away into madness.

Conservative op-eds loved this new approach, of course. Ever since the Senate bombing, even the moderates had been fleeing to Agni’s court, looking towards promises of safety and security. Terror worked its magic on the population, leading them to accept this new firewall as a bothersome inconvenience, but one we needed lest Nobodies backspace us in our sleep. I saw faces of people I respected in the media either dodging the subject entirely to avoid consequences, or paying proper homage to our new overlords…

No better. I was no better, willing to turn my back on the nation and run away. But I had the excuse of being a complete failure, of letting us all down in my own secret way. They didn’t have that excuse.

So, why watch the feeds? Why soak in the hell of words I disagreed with? Maybe I watched those news feeds to gather up a proper head of rage. Rage felt good, felt productive. Not that I reblogged any of it on my own personal feeds; no need to draw the ire of the new Senate’s guard dogs. But still. But still, maybe if I could just get properly angry enough, I could… I could…

I could get distracted from the cavalcade of loathing by the soft beep of my inbox. One attachment, surprisingly large in size… from the PettyPets service, out in Horizon.

Weird. I hadn’t ordered anything recently from them. I used to order cat toys and the like, but… had I backordered something, ages ago, only to be delivered now? Horrible timing, if so. What with having no cats to play with.

Rezzing the box in my lap, I studied the inspection decal covering the item seal. Inspected at Athena Online Firewall Checkpoint, it read, with various control codes to prove they’d examined it for any sort of harmful material or contraband. Can’t be too sure, with Chanarchist Nobodies routing their nefarious malware payloads through neutral Horizon services. Not that any Nobodies were actually doing that, but…

The second part of the label caught my eye.

Contents: One (1) Pet App.

And, strangely enough… the box opened itself, one tiny claw slashing through the seal.

Furry whiskers and big, adorable eyes popped out of the lid, in a blur.

":kissing_cat:!" he declared. ":heart_eyes_cat:, friend!"

Strangely enough, this marked the second time this exact cat had surprised me by popping out of nowhere.

First time, he’d leapt off an official senatorial server request document. I put two and two together, realizing the Winders planted him to identify me, eventually leading them to my doorstep. Meaning…

"They want to talk to me… but the firewall’s in the way of nearly every communication channel," I realized. "So they sent you…?"

":+1:!" the cat confirmed. He offered a paw, to shake. ":cat: = mew. beta’s friend. virginia’s friend!"

Dumbfounded, I accepted the paw-shake with my hand.

Leaving me with a tiny encrypted message, along with a cat-shaped key to play it.

Combining key with message, a small video window opened just above Mew, playback starting automatically.

I sort-of knew the woman. She represented a familiar stranger… an acquaintance of the Winders, one I’d seen on the day of the evacuation vote. Beyond that, I knew next to nothing about her. Something about… some old social media grudge, maybe? Some ridiculous scandal I hadn’t paid much attention to at the time, but I knew it involved a woman with pink eyes and glasses…

"My name is Projkit/Beta," the recording explained, to fill in that particular gap. "I’m with the House of Programkind, working with Spark and Tracer on the evacuation effort. Um. Actually, I think you know that already, so I shouldn’t bother taking up space on this encrypted message with that. Mew, remind me to edit this part out, okay?"

(The cat promptly covered his face with his paws, as he’d apparently forgotten.)

"Anyway, I’ve developed a modified version of the evacuation software, one which will work in conjunction with a firewall hack we’ve obtained," Beta continued. "It’s hidden in Mew’s fur, and he’ll hand it over to you when you’re ready. Getting this software to you took some doing; most of the protocols to Athena Online are shut down, but we figured we could smuggle you the software using a legitimate pet delivery service and an actual pet. Although Mew’s considerably brighter than the average cat, you’ll find…"

":bulb:," Mew agreed, nodding enthusiastically. "mew = program. mew = smart!"

Evacuation, despite the firewall. The thing I’d been seeking all day, now within my grasp. I could escape tonight. I could flee to Netwerk 2.0, leaving this unfixable mess in my wake…

"Of course, we knew by sending you this software, you wouldn’t simply use it to flee immediately," Beta said. "We understand you’re a true patriot, probably one of the few left in Athena Online. What we really need is an inside woman, someone who can stay behind as long as possible, spreading the software to others. We need you to be an underground conduit to lead your people to freedom!"

"…what?!" I declared aloud, as if the prerecorded message could hear me.

"I know this is a lot to ask," the prerecorded message replied, as if it could hear me. "You’d be smuggling contraband into your nation, allowing people to bypass its firewall. Agni’s moderators probably wouldn’t look kindly on that… meaning you’ll be taking on some risks. You could be arrested for this."

Red uniforms, doing nothing to hide the blood on their hands. Inquisitors, acting as the new Senate’s watchdogs. Beta didn’t know the half of it; jail time would be the best possible outcome, compared to the alternatives they offered.

"If you don’t think you’re up to this task… simply box Mew back up, and return him to sender," Beta suggested. "My friends wanted me to force this issue somehow, but I knew we had to offer a choice. You’re the one who taught us that choice is everything; we couldn’t force the Senate to help us, and we can’t force you to help us, either. Although there’s not much time left in this world, I’ll find someone else willing to take on this noble duty. Somehow. Don’t worry about it. …there’s no way to communicate with us directly, so if you keep Mew, I’ll assume you accept. Thank you, Virginia. Together, I know we can save the spirit of Athena Online!"

A tiny glitch tore away the last frame of the video, its message self-erasing for security reasons. Leaving me with a very expectant looking feline, cocking his head curiously at me.

"y/n?" he asked. "beta asks virginia. help? help beta?"

Ever since the Winders forced their way into my life, interfering in Athena’s document chain, using me to push a bill out to the floor for a vote… getting me tangled up in Inquisitor business, and nearly killed… well. I couldn’t say I entirely trusted them, after all that. They felt they had no choice but to pressure me into that mess, but one mess led to another, and now I couldn’t save myself directly thanks to the Inquisition knowing my face. Their cause was noble, but their methods, well…

…and now they wanted more from me? To put my life on the line again, playing heroine for the poor and downtrodden? Without even knowing the real enemy they were facing. Crazy. Those two were crazy…

I could lie. It’d be the easiest thing ever, lying to this simple pet app, to get my hands on that evacuation software. Archive myself, and call it a day. And why not? I’d been a complete failure on every conceivable level, so why not throw away what little pride and honesty I had left to save my skin?

Lie, to a cat. To an adorable, fluffy little cat with big, gleaming eyes.

I told myself my refusal to do so came from personal weakness towards cute pet apps. A simple, clean reason.

"Let me think about it," I spoke instead, refusing to fall one way or another.

":hourglass:…" Mew warned.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Just… let me think about it. …I’m gonna go for a walk. I could really, really use a walk right now. Sort my head out."

Perhaps sensing my reluctance—but how, if this was just some simple pet app?—Mew gave a tentative :+1: to me. But added, ":cat: follow. go for walkies."

"I thought dog apps liked walkies, not cats…"

"mew = program," he repeated. "mew != app. mew :heart_decoration: walkies."

With a grumble, I switched into my coat-and-scarf ensemble, to better conceal my identity without looking like I was concealing my identity. And opened the door for the kitty currently scrabbling at it with both paws.

"Fine, fine. But I’m not promising anything yet, one way or another," I told him. "And if I decide this isn’t what I want, you’re going back in that box. Got it?"

Tail flicker-flicking behind him, Mew looked positively smug as he walked along. As if it was only a matter of time before I became his partner in this particular crime.

I loved GreenDale. I’d been in love with this little server ever since moving here. True, getting a pricey apartment in Athens itself would’ve made the commute to work easier… and safer, supposedly. But GreenDale represented everything I loved of Athena Online. It represented community.

Here, people lived, loved, worked, played. Far from the bustle of the more urbane locales, this sleepy little server housed families. Young people, old people, and everyone in between. Kids could play in the parks without fear, a watchful eye kept over them by neighbors who knew each other. Dav the florist, Frita the hairdresser, even old Bobb the folk singer who could often be found in the park strumming away… everybody was on a first name basis with each other. We weren’t a large server, but we had at least one of everything we needed, and shared with each other.

You’d think that would lead to mistrust of outsiders, but no. Our moderators rarely enforced policies kicking out transient and homeless Programs. Many of our residents actually wandered in here on their own two feet, without hope, only to find a community that faithfully held to the One’s virtues of charity and compassion. We raised each other up, without question, without strings attached…

Yes, even modders. Even the ones that Agni’s policies had subtly pushed away, discontinuing medical services for Programs with software conflicts due to user-installed packages. Our doctors didn’t care. Those in pain would be helped, period.

Everyone, together. All of us.

Which made me feel doubly ashamed, as I walked the largely empty evening streets, pondering ways I could cheat the code out of the feline at my side so I could save my own ass.

I didn’t want to be a coward. I wasn’t relishing the idea of it, frothing over with glee at digging my own hole that much deeper. But even with Mew’s illicit software payload, I couldn’t save all of GreenDale… inevitably someone would report to the moderators, right? Word would lead back to the Inquisition. And then, they’d be back to finish what they started, the day they shoved me down onto the headsman’s block. I couldn’t. I couldn’t be the hero they needed…

Let someone else take up the sword. I’d happily accept a copy of the software, on the day that hero gave it to me. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stay and put myself at risk, again and again…

Walking to clear my head did nothing to clear my head, simply running my mind around in circles. But at least it led me to a familiar destination… the Church of the Holy Integer, my local Church-of-One parish. Candles in those windows called to me, evening services already halfway through.

If I could sit down, find clarity, maybe I could…

…recognize the woman standing outside my church, looking up at those doors with purpose.

Color-changing hair. No number 137 hanging over her head, but the hair, I recognized the hair. She’d been at the border checkpoint, waiting to be processed. Her, and her husband…

More importantly… I recognized the boxy lines of the backspacer in her hand. A common open source variant of the firearm. All Senate staffers had basic counterterrorism incident training, including recognizing basic weaponized malware… for what good that did us in the end.

"…:gun:…" Mew whispered to me, with heightened panic in the twitch of his whiskers.

Walk away. Don’t get involved; once shooting started, moderators would swoop in. I could get scooped up in the fray, possibly recognized, and delivered to the Inquisition, and…


And I didn’t want to be a coward. I’d crossed so many lines, failed so many times, true… but this went beyond the pale. The fact that I even considered it for one second was shameful; walk away, and let an obviously distraught woman kill people rather than risk a thing.

Well. If I was doomed anyway, cast into the void by a series of mistakes and weaknesses… I may as well embrace that death in a way that’d save others.

But I didn’t immediately pounce and try to wrestle the gun away, no. I walked right up to the woman, at a reasonable walking speed… stopping short of entering her personal space.

"I saw you at the border checkpoint earlier, didn’t I?" I asked her. "Number 137—"

By the time the woman with tears in her eyes pointed that weapon in my direction, I’d already raised my hands.

"Easy. Easy," I said, trying to remain calm. "I’m not going to hurt you. You don’t have to do this…"

The weapon shook in her trembling hands. It could easily activate, and at this range, no amount of shakiness would keep it from killing me.

"They… they killed him," she told me. "My husband. Called him a Nobody, a terrorist. He. He wasn’t a Nobody…"

"I believe you," I spoke.

"They’re not all Nobodies. Chanarchists aren’t all Nobodies. They. They detained him, and… and he snuck me a message just before, and… and told me to run," she whispered. "And. And I ran. I ran and let them kill him. I didn’t want to get taken as well…"

"And now you feel like a coward. Like you left him to die."

Dangerous to flat-out accuse her like that… but we were two women standing in the same place, in a lot of ways. Losing something dear to us, feeling powerless, and wanting to do something about it. The way she avoided my gaze when I said the words, well… that gave me my answer.

"They’ll catch me. They’ll sort through what’s left of his data, find me, and kill me too," the woman said, her hair shifting from dour blues to angry reds. "I’m from Athena Online, there’s plenty of data out there of mine they can find. I’m going to die anyway. So, I… I should… I should show them. Show them what a real terrorist is, if that’s what they want me to be. The… the One-fearing zealots, who hated him because he wasn’t a believer, I should…"

"Should what, murder people in a church and then kill yourself? That’s your plan, right?" I asked.

"It’s not like… I mean, I don’t want…!"

Looking away from the woman holding me at gunpoint… I focused on the candles in those windows, flickering ever so gently.

"I love this server," I told her. "I love the people who live here. …and I love our home, Athena Online. For all its faults, for all its weaknesses, I love it. It’s very… fallible. Mortal. Just like the rest of us. I love it when it triumphs, and I love it when it makes mistakes. And when it stumbles, well… we’re supposed to pick ourselves up, and find the path forward. All of us, together. That’s what Athena wanted from us. Not to blindly follow the One, not to blindly follow our leaders, but to follow each other with open eyes…"

Didn’t have to look back at her to know the gun had been lowered. The sound of her sobbing told me that.

"I don’t. I don’t want to do this. But I have to do something," she whispered. "This isn’t the Athena Online I grew up in. I remember… I remember when I felt safe here. It feels like ages ago, but I felt safe…"

"It can be that way again. The bastards who stole the nation from us, the ones who helped them do it or simply stood by and let it happen… they lost the dream of Athena Online long ago. But it’s not dead yet," I told her. "We’ve got one more chance at this. …Mew? If you’d kindly…?"

I refused to acknowledge the cat’s smugness, as a pattern rose from the markings on his fur, becoming the floating icon of a simple software package. Instead I accepted it, and pulled away a copy of it to hold out to the woman.

"There’s a new world waiting for us in Netwerk 2.0," I told her. "Not just an escape, but an opportunity to fix this. To make it a place where things like what happened to your husband never happen again. Evacuate to the House of Programkind, and when you wake to a new dawn, you take the anger you’ve got and turn it around, use it to make a better world. Because using it to kill innocents… that’s not going to bring him back, that’s not going to make anything better. And you know it. …I’ll trade you the evac app for your gun. Fair trade, yeah?"

One flame, passed from hand to hand. A DRM-free visual effect app, freely copied, open sourced. Giving someone your fire wouldn’t deprive you of light, but simply spread it further and farther than ever before…

A perfect symbol for a peaceful protest, as the group stood in silent vigil at the steps of the new Senate. Row after row of armed moderators in personal riot firewalls stood against them, but with neither side setting one foot forward, violence wasn’t likely.

But as the flame passed to Jonnes/Columbia… an additional file came with it. A tiny sphere, covered in what felt like fur…

Curiously, she looked up to the woman who had joined the protest, at her side.

"I know you don’t believe in Netwerk 2.0, but… keep a copy, just in case," I told my mother. "And meanwhile, I’ll stand with you in protest, to save my nation. We’ll pull away their support, convince people to join us, and show the fascists that this isn’t the future of our nation. I’m not going anywhere just yet."

Stupid. Utterly stupid, to spearhead this new underground trail to freedom. But I’d done plenty of stupid things lately… and sometimes, stupidity brought you right back around to where you should’ve been all along.

I’m a coward, but also a patriot. Eventually, one has to override the other. If the nation I knew as Athena Online was to burn, its people would not. I’d pass Mew’s code around, with the help of my surprisingly adept feline companion, and help everybody who wanted to leave find their way out the door to a better Athena Online.

I’d like for this to be a story ending with the triumph of Programkind’s spirit, a revitalization of the principles that Athena gave to us at the start of this great nation. I’d like for that to be the ending.

But the drums were already sounding, in the distance. I couldn’t recognize them for what they were, but within days… we’d all hear them, loud and clear.

The drums of war.

File Name:
Messenger Comm Traffic 6.414.223

File Type:
Text Log


PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE. With the death of the old world comes the death of old ways. Centuries of apathy, of common acceptance of the status quo, it nearly drowned us in a comfortable acceptance of evil. "That’s just the way things are" is the battle cry of the old world. Our world will be better… but only if we learn from our past. -Yume

<Kincaid> Curious. Very curious, indeed. But not unexpected.

<Cancel> Brent wants to levy sanctions. Madison’s considering the merits of firewalling off Horizon entirely, in a manner similar to Athena Online.
<Cancel> It’s not like this is the first assassination attempt on their lives, but usually those were clean and professional… ones we could counterplay against, as well.
<Cancel> A single crazed Nobody blowing himself and the entire server away in protest of supporting Athena Online, that’s not something we were prepared for.

<Kincaid> And yet the antimalware shields held. I’d say we were rather prepared for it, if only in the sense of being prepared for general threats.
<Kincaid> I’m curious as to your thoughts on the matter. How do you feel the Horizon family should react to anonymous terrorism?

<Cancel> Honestly, sir, I don’t believe there’s any point in reacting, given Netwerk 1.0 will be offline in about a week. The majority of Horizon-invested businesses have already archived their materials and personnel. Economic sanctions against Chanarchy businesses would accomplish little.
<Cancel> Instead, I’d suggest a targeted strike at the leadership of the Nobodies. Obviously there’s no specific leadership to a hashtag mob, but there are noteworthy figures, such as the identity thief who made their mask.

<Kincaid> Interesting. And what would that accomplish? Aside from bloody revenge, which I can’t say I’m not in favor of.

<Cancel> Surgical eliminations can work as symbolic gestures and resource depletion. They discourage others from following in those footsteps, for fear of further reprisal. At the very least, by undercutting known support structures, we weaken their capital and drive them deeper underground. Slow their progress. By the end of the week, their most ardent supporters who don’t believe in the spacer theory will be gone regardless of whether they’ve bounced back or not.

<Kincaid> Very fitting with the Horizon way, to target one’s economy.

<Cancel> Agreed, sir. Shall I inform Madison of your decision?

<Kincaid> I didn’t say that was my decision.
<Kincaid> In fact, tell her nothing. I want to see how my supposed heirs handle this situation. If they’re to lead our family in Netwerk 2.0 I want to be certain they understand the changing face of the world, and are able to adapt accordingly. Offer no advice, no word from on high, no guidance. They will rise or fall by their own merits. We’ll see, won’t we?

<Cancel> As you wish, sir. I’ll return shortly.

<Kincaid> Actually, there’s another matter I’d like you to attend to on this day.

<Cancel> Sir?

<Kincaid> Winder/Spark will be visiting SecuRight’s server shortly, in hopes of obtaining backdoor access to their software. Something about the Athena Online’s SecuRight firewall interfering with evacuation efforts, I believe. I’d like you to accompany her.

<Cancel> For protection? Are the Nobodies targeting the House of Programkind again?

<Kincaid> As economic muscle, should Spark ask for it. I may have cashed out most of my leverage in the process of purchasing the Verity Clinic, but I’ve still a few favors tucked away in my pocket. As you know.

<Cancel> And… you want me to spend your remaining capital on convincing SecuRight to help?

<Kincaid> As you say, Miss Cancel, we’ve only a week to the end of days. And as they say, "You can’t take it with you." I can think of no more fitting a gift to my young protégée than to buy her dreams, if she wishes.

<Cancel> I don’t believe SecuRight will cooperate with her, sir. It’ll likely be a wasted effort. And given the attempt on the lives of your heirs I feel it would be best to stay with them or return to protect you.

<Kincaid> Duly noted. But I want you at Spark’s side for this, Miss Cancel. Indulge me.

<Cancel> By your command. At the very least, I can protect her should her impulsiveness cause trouble again.

<Kincaid> Possibly, possibly. We’ll see, won’t we?

— user Cancel has disconnected —

<Kincaid> Hello there.
<Kincaid> Yes, I know you’re listening.
<Kincaid> You believe we weren’t aware of your backdoor into Messenger? Of course we were. I’ve allowed it because I know your motives are pure, if a bit ethically unsound. You seek to archive our last days, so that future generations won’t forget what happened here.

<Yume> That’s the idea.

<Kincaid> Then allow me to add my epitaph.


Horizon6, Horizon


Loyalty—true loyalty, honest and uncrackable—is the hardest currency in this world.

This is a fact that my employer knows, and has defined his life by. Those who are loyal to him shall be rewarded with loyalty in turn. Those who break their word, who devalue their own assets, are worthless and beneath consideration. I am the instrument of my employer’s personal economy, disposing of that which is worthless, to further enhance the value of that which remains.

Which is to say that Kincaid exercises both purity of intent and absolute vendetta as a life choice. Forgiveness is not in his nature; betrayal will be treated in a manner appropriate to this vision. In fact, he relishes in a proper vendetta, to the point of impropriety. For years, we searched for our daughter’s killer, to exact this punishment upon him…

…only to have the Winders deal with that problem for us. A rare moment of mercy, from Mr. Kincaid, willing to let Winder/Spark become his instrument of vendetta rather than take a personal hand in it.

This is where our viewpoints diverge. He sees Spark as the next iteration of our daughter’s ideals, as close to a literal granddaughter as we could have. I do not.

Spark is irresponsible. Prone to aggressive action when precision is required. She takes risks she doesn’t need to take, standing firm with questionable ideals. Her insistence on protecting a foolish boy who threw in with the Nobodies nearly resulted in my death; her ambushing of unarmed Inquisitors in the middle of their homeland’s capital got her arrested, and nearly put away for the duration of the evacuation efforts if not for Mr. Kincaid spending more of his dwindling capital to free her. Spark is no heir to Verity’s legacy. She’s far too reckless compared to the measured and thoughtful girl we… raised, I suppose.

I also disagree with my employer on the manner of that raising.

We must be cruel to be kind, he’d explained. She must be everything I am not, and so, we must alienate her. She must rebel against the system, so that she can become what will lead it into the future…

At the time, I was young and impressionable, and in love with a man I felt my better. I thought it an ideal long game, and swallowed my pride as I stood by as his "operative" rather than her mother. When she fled, stealing the key to her ancestral home of Floating Point—choosing the intellectual path of the archaeologist, refusing to accept the accepted truths of Horizon—I felt that perhaps this strategy had worked.

And then she died. And this wild child rose in her place, wearing her jacket, living in her home.

This was the questionable heir that sat sideways in a waiting room outside the CEO’s office, feet propped up on the chair next to her, drumming some strange beat from the unheard music of a HUD-based player with her hands. She didn’t even notice my entrance, too wrapped up in her own indulgences…

Today, Spark did not wear the jacket. We knew what became of it, of course… that she’d taken Verity’s gift, the last remnant of our true daughter, and connected it to some strange superuser-level abilities in a bid to free Netwerk from the Buzz malware. Abusing even the tiniest bit of loyal currency she’d been left, in the process.

This is not to say I hated Winder/Spark, or even held vendetta against her. If I had to characterize my feelings, I would name them "disappointment." That everything Mr. Kincaid and I had attempted to build, that the child we loved, should curve into this end result… disappointing.

Which is strange, because for reasons I can’t fathom, Mr. Kincaid felt no disappointment at all. He continually put trust in Spark, investing everything in her hopes and dreams… even spending a third of Horizon’s wealth to purchase Iteration. He didn’t see her failings. He only saw her promise.

I saw a girl so busy enjoying some pop song that she didn’t notice my approach. I will grant that perhaps I underestimated her awareness, as even without opening her eyes or ceasing the tap-tap-tap of her fingers, she addressed me by name.

"Hey, Cans," she greeted. "#Whazzap?"

"My name is Miss Cancel," I corrected her, standing in judgment. "And what is up is our appointment with Mr. Dfens. Which is five minutes away. I assume you’ve decided on a bargaining strategy to employ…?"

"Gonna ask him to crack his own firewall software nice ‘n wide for us," Spark replied.


"And… that’s it," she said, shutting off her personal music player, ceasing the finger-tapping. "When he says no, we leave and go get lunch. This meeting’s basically pointless; Conundrum’s given us the rundown on this asshole, so I’m not going in expecting much. We’re only here for two reasons. One, to suss out what sort of a guy he is, what sort of company he runs. Two, to say we tried to go through legitimate channels before we do what we do best."

"I… see. In that case, Mr. Kincaid was right to send me to assist you," I replied. "He’s tasked me with aiding in accomplishing your goals, so I will not be leaving that office without succeeding. I’m not the sort to give up before even attempting a task."

"Didn’t say I was giving up, did I?"

"…yes, you in fact did. You said this effort is pointless."

"No, what I said the meeting—"

—began immediately.

SecuRight took security very, very seriously. Appropriate, given they were the top provider of server firewall software in all of Netwerk. Meaning their CEO kept his office in a floating, unlinked space… much like the Conundrum, albeit without the added twist of the company being run by a glorified data analysis app. When he was ready to start a meeting, properly screened visitors were simply moved into his office. Thankfully, Spark had been translocated to a similar chair, rather than falling on her rear on arrival.

Mr. Dfens wore a highly customized avatar, tailored for absolute precision of handsome and youthful features. Features which sharply studied Spark, on arrival, examining her various avatar features. This was Horizon; Defaults were rare, seen as a sign of weakness of poverty compared to an expensive package of avatar modifications. (Or, in Mr. Kincaid’s case, a sign of the absolute authority that came with outlasting all his rivals for years. He made sure people saw the age of his Defaults, so they understood he was effectively immortal.)

"I’ve allocated ten minutes for this meeting," he informed Spark up front. "This is regarding our nationwide firewall software developed for the Athenian Senate, correct…?"

"Got it in one," Spark confirmed, smoothly transitioning from ‘chillaxing in the waiting room’ to ‘all business,’ apparently. "I’m not going to waste your time, Mr. Dfens. You know damn well why we’re here; the House of Programkind needs to evacuate citizens of Athena Online. We’re not interested in terrorist infiltration of the firewall, or even interfering in the surviving elected senators. Strictly humanitarian actions, ‘kay? No real conflict of interest here. But, to do so, we need a backdoor through your software. Will you provide one?"

"Absolutely not," the CEO spoke, without hesitation.

Spark leaned forward in her seat… studying the avatar for reactions. Not that it would work; most of Horizon’s elite installed PokrFace software modification packages, which filtered any subconscious responses that would betray emotion.

"I’m going to ask again, so it’s absolutely clear that we put in due diligence on this," she said. "The only thing we want to do is evacuate those who are willing to evacuate. That’s it. We know the Nobodies want in; well, we won’t give them that in. No publishing your backdoor. You know the Horizon family’s in favor of evacuation… in fact, most of your business peers have already bailed on Netwerk. When I walked through your server to get here, I noticed most of your operations packing up shop and leaving, in fact. So what’s the harm here? Why not help us out? One more time. Will you help us out?"

"Absolutely not," he repeated. "Miss Spark, you may have Horizon/Madison’s ear, but you don’t seem to understand how her family works. How business works. We made a contract with Senator Agni to provide software for the express purpose of shutting down unauthorized traffic with Athena Online. Now, you want me to allow unauthorized traffic with Athena Online, breaking that contract? Absolutely not. Good day."

Without concern over this flat denial, Spark got to her feet.

"Can’t say we didn’t try," she told him. "Be seeing you in Netwerk 2.0, then. Let’s book, Miss Cancel."

If not for my own PokrFace module being active, I’d have shot her a look of utter frustration.

"I’ll join you shortly," I spoke, my voice modulated by the modification to remove any displeasure. "I’d like a private word with Mr. Dfens first."

"Huh. Okay. Have fun, then. I’ll meet you in the cafeteria; I hear these guys have great lasagna."

With a silent command, Spark translocated back to the waiting room.

"…let’s speak candidly," I told Dfens, once my reckless associate had abandoned her own cause. "You’ve certainly offered backdoors and exploits into your own software before. Let’s not pretend SecuRight is entirely honest in its dealings. In fact, Mr. Kincaid specifically purchased an exploit from you in in the past."

Two people with passive faces and passive voices, locked in combat. A familiar state for me, a battle Spark could never have won…

"It’s a question of value," Dfens explained. "The House of Programkind has nothing of value to offer me to trump the value the Senate’s already paid me. What little currency they have, the evacuation system, they gave away for free to anyone who wanted it. Not my fault that they intentionally threw away their best leverage."

"Mr. Kincaid is a powerful man, even now. And he has plenty of leverage to offer, in return for your cooperation. Specifically… favors that you owe to him. For example, there’s the small matter of the lavish 16th that you threw for your daughter… the expenses to which he underwrote, to avoid anyone realizing you couldn’t afford all the luxuries she demanded for her party."

"Which was a break-even deal, leveraged against the earlier exploit he bought from us for favors in turn."

"Horizon/Madison has also sold you considerable space in the archiving efforts for Netwerk 2.0, so that you can carry your assets forward… but Horizon/Kincaid has reserved space he can offer you within our bonus servers. A priceless commodity, for businesses looking to retain their power while all others must start over from scratch…"

"I already purchased compression software which can fit everything we need within the space Madison’s sold me. No need for more," he said. "Let’s continue to speak candidly, Miss Cancel. Kincaid’s assets are depleted. If those are the best offers he can make, then he truly did ruin himself by buying out Iteration. And that’s a shame, to see someone so high fall so low. Why do you continue to show such loyalty to that decrepit old man, anyway?"

"…Mr. Kincaid can also offer, pure and simply, a measure of wealth," I continued despite the insult. "Coins. Still quite valuable, as they’re becoming scarcer in supply. Easy to transport to Netwerk 2.0…"

"A dead currency? Is is what he has to offer?" Dfens asked, surprised enough for it to crack his PokrFace. "No doubt Athena Online will resume plans to develop new currencies, once the transition is complete. Coins will only have value for a limited time. I’m sorry, but there’s simply nothing he can offer me which will change my mind on this. …in addition to the simple fact that I do not honestly care if a pocket of Athena Online’s Programs perish in the apocalypse. Better for it, even. They rarely buy proper security software, so they’re no customers of mine."

Not an attitude that Verity would have approved of.

"Name your price, then," I suggested. "It will be arranged."

A blank check, made in desperation. The most valuable thing in the world, when backed by the Horizon family.

Dfens considered the offer.

"Still not interested," he decided, before booting me from his office.

The translocation left me staring at a blank wall, briefly unable to comprehend my own failure.

I found my daughter’s daughter, as Mr. Kincaid came to see her, lounging around the company cafeteria and enjoying freshly coded pasta.

Personally, I’ve never seen the point of food, much less an entire period of time each day set aside for consuming it. My employer indulges in every sensation-based vice he can… brandy, cigars, elaborate meals. But he’s earned the free time and resources he needs to indulge himself. The able-bodied such as myself can’t afford the luxury of such things, not when there’s work to be done.

"Hey, I got you some lasagna," Spark said, nudging a second plate my way as I approached her table. "Srsly, you gotta try this shit. It’s fucking intense, better than the cheap-ass noodles I normally munch on between gaming sessions. Leave it to a Horizon corp to invest in the finest code chefs…"

"Not interested," I told her. (And winced, as I’d disengaged PokrFace, and those two words painfully echoed today’s failure.) "Unfortunately, Mr. Dfens isn’t willing to listen to reason. What’s your next step? I assume we’re going to be analyzing their data storage systems, looking for weaknesses, so we can dig their secrets out. Corporate espionage is perfectly legal in Horizon systems… although so are the punishments inflicted on those who fail."

Spark poked at what remained of her lunch with a fork, thoughtfully glancing around the room at other dining employees.

"Nah. That sounds like a fuck-ton of risky work," she said. "’sides, that’s not how we roll. You only go right for the throat when you can’t go straight up the ass."

(You’d think a girl essentially raised by Verity would be less crude with her language, but no.)

"Then… what? What’s your plan of attack?" I asked, growing tired of her lazy attitude. "Just ask nicely, be refused, have lunch, and go home?"

"Ask nicely, be refused, have lunch, then get what I want," Spark corrected… continuing to rubberneck, to run her eyes over the other tables. "Chill, Cans. I got this. …aaand I spy with my little eye… a man who appreciates a good lasagna. ‘scuze me a second, ‘kay?"

And then she just got up and walked away, right in the middle of talking with me.

I would’ve taken personal offense to it, if I didn’t recognize something familiar in her stride… purpose. Walking with absolute purpose, straight across the sparsely populated cafeteria, right to the table she’d been studying with intent. So, rather than dress her down for this slight… I followed. Followed, and remained silent, as I watched her work.

"This seat taken?" she asked the young man sitting there angrily devouring a lasagna.

It took him a moment to push aside the invisible HUD-based news feeds he was no doubt reading, eyes re-focusing on the woman who’d joined him.

"Uh. No?" he spoke, confused. "Can I help you with something, miss…?"

"Ohhh, you know who I am," Spark spoke, sliding right on into that seat. "I’m all over your social media feeds. Winder/Spark, representative for the House of Programkind. Ally of Horizon/Madison, and of the Athenian Senate. Well. The real Senate."

"I… suppose I do know who you are," he admitted, taking back the obligatorily polite moment of confusion.

"I’m surprised you haven’t evacuated yet, actually. Most folks in SecuRight have gone out the window, yeah?"

The programmer shrugged, non-committal.

"There’s more archiving work to do," he said. "And ongoing support of the new Athena Online firewall, I guess. They need me here. I’ve got authorized leave to depart a day before the clock hits zero, though."

"Good, good. We need inventive coders like you, to help rebuild the world. Although hopefully we won’t need your very specific skill set, when the time comes… firewall design. Nasty business, especially given recent events."

"…Athena Online’s got a right to protect its property. They murdered hundreds of people."

"And condemned thousands to death in the process," Spark added. "C’mon, man, I don’t need the company line about how great firewalls are, how everybody should buy one. You and I, we’re on the same page here, we know this world’s winding down. We’ve got a moral obligation to save as many as we can before the midnight hour…"

Curious. She’d walked up to some seemingly random stranger, immediately engaging them on a touchy subject… and he was humoring her. Beyond humoring her, he was paying close attention, and engaging right back…

"I know who you are, but do you know who I am? Yeah. I’m thinking you know who I am," he said, eyeing her with a bit of suspicion. "What gave it away? My social media feed?"

"Your social media feed," Spark agreed… opening a hovering window, where a selfie-based user icon tagged itself to a message of anger. "’Senator Agni’s no better than the bastards who murdered the Blue Party.’ Your words, Oli. ‘Killing is killing, with malware or a firewall.’"

"I’m… allowed to express my own opinions," the man named Oli replied. "I’m not under a communications blackout contract with SecuRight. I’m not badmouthing our products, just the people who use them inappropriately…"

"So, help me thwart the killers," Spark suggested. "You know who I work with. All we need is one tiny little hole, just wide enough to help the people escape. You can provide that."

"I can’t," he spoke.

"You can, and you should. You know you should."

"I should, but… I can’t," he agreed, without agreeing. "I’m under a Non-Disclosure Agreement."

"Is some silly text file you signed off on really more important than—"

"A Class III NDA."

"—ahhh. Well. That does change things," Spark realized.

Meaning her entire alternative strategy wouldn’t pan out, either. Because a Class III NDA was coded right down to the core of a Program’s being… a deep modification, to block them from speaking certain company secrets. In exchange for surrendering portions of one’s free will, a man could find much profit in allowing themselves to be bound by code. Illegal in Athena Online, sneered at in the Chanarchy, but perfectly normal in Horizon…

The more freedom you surrender, the greater the rewards. Undoubtedly the "authorized leave" he mentioned was also a code modification… the inability to leave his post, without permission of his masters. Even if he wanted to archive himself, he couldn’t, not until they gave word. Bound to the company, until the day he resigned… if they let him resign. Some contracts didn’t allow that, and Programs often accepted them anyway, out of desperation or greed or both.

Spark considered the problem before her… and refused to give up, shaking her head.

"Let’s think about this in a roundabout way," she suggested. "You can’t directly tell me how to break your own software, okay. But if someone was to want to crack SecuRight’s firewall… specifically, the one they baked up for Athena Online… where would they start looking?"

With a sigh, Oli shook his head. "I told you, I can’t…"

"Can’t point a finger? Can’t talk obliquely about certain things which may or may not be of interest to me? Can’t offer me square one to start from? I don’t need much, Oli. I just need a direction to move in… and I’ll get myself where I need to go. How about it?"

The boy’s brow furrowed, as he tried to think of the best way to phrase his answer. Specifically, a way which wouldn’t crash head-on into the mental block. A difficult position to be in… if your employer was firm enough in their demands to punish you for even attempting to push against your NDA. If he tripped its recognition routines, and they called home to SecuRight’s Program Resources department…

"Speaking in a general sense… no code is truly uncrackable," Oli noted. "What you need isn’t actually my help. You need the help of someone who’s actually achieved what you want to achieve."

"Uh. If someone had cracked your firewall, wouldn’t we’d know by now? There’d be Nobodies streaming into Athena Online, looking to finish what they started. Assuming you believe the evening news feeds about that bombing…"

"Not if someone’s holding the zero-day exploit for ransom. SecuRight’s actually purchased from him before, to keep his hacks out of the wild. But this one, well… they don’t honestly care," Oli explained. "Dfens is perfectly willing to let the hack go, because his ‘client’ will be dead in a week, anyway. He’s not obliged to save Athena Online, from itself or from others."

…which went a ways to explaining why Mr. Dfens refused any price offered. He apparently found it amusing to defy Mr. Kincaid and his clients at the same time. In hindsight, it made sense; SecuRight provided this software years ago, for a failed attempt at getting the Senate to agree to use it. The money had been collected, the client would be gone soon, so why bother getting involved at all, one way or another?

"Okay. Okay, that makes sense," Spark agreed. "Got a name?"

Now, I stepped in.

"You can stop, Mr. Oli. I know the individual you’re hinting at," I interjected. "A hacker who’s sold to SecuRight in the past; understood. No need to risk your NDA. Spark, let’s go. I can arrange the meeting for you."

But before Spark could rise to leave… Oli grabbed her hand.

"You’ll follow through on this, right?" he asked. "No matter the cost? The firewall… it needs to go down, but safely. Let people escape, without letting anyone dangerous in. I can’t. I can’t live with myself if my code doomed them all…"

Without a second thought, Spark nodded in pure agreement.

"You’ve got my word, Oli," she promised. "I’ll see this through. I swear it."

I wish she’d consulted me on that. I could’ve warned her against such promises.

The companies of Horizon took promises very, very seriously… to the point of coding them right into contracts, binding people to their words. She’d offered no such binding, but there was such a thing as a verbal contract, the sort you imply in your mannerism and your intent… and with no regulations to hold a company back, vendetta could be enacted without penalty for breaking one’s word. Vendetta, such as myself, the instrument of Mr. Kincaid’s will. When one breaks loyalty with him, they are dealt with…

I doubted a bound employee of SecuRight would hold Spark to that high standard. But if he had a moral core, one which defined his entire self around making this wrong thing right… her failure could have consequences. Dire consequences indeed. Was she really ready to face that, to take on that obligation? This reckless, impulsive child…?

But everything about her suggested… yes. Sincerely, honestly, and truthfully ready to face the challenge. With the same firmness that Verity would use, when standing up to her father.

Curious. Very curious, indeed.

Athena Online gives lip service to the idea of liberty, while weighing down businesses with piles of laws and regulations. All in the name of public safety, they say. But the true libertarian ideals of Horizon, that’s where you find the perfect balance that allows business to thrive… fealty to the Horizon family, a sense of mutual self-interest in your fellow entrepreneur, and a serious-minded attitude to making money. None of the kid gloves of Athena Online, none of the wild nihilism of the Chanarchy. With the Horizon family on your side, you could lay claim to all you desired… so long as you could keep your gains from being taken, that is.

As a result, professional cracking—the art of compromising security for profit, often called "hacking" in a colloquially incorrect fashion—was a perfectly viable career path. While Chanarchy hackers often broke apart software for the "lulz," in Horizon, you could make considerable coin off your efforts along with respect and admiration of your peers.

But, as noted, it only worked if you could protect yourself from reprisal. Corporations were allowed (and perhaps encouraged) to exercise vendetta, meaning security crackers required exceptional security themselves… layers and layers of firewalls and personal malware shields, to stave off would-be assassins. Such as myself.

Which is why I had to make the introduction for Spark. The hacker in question, who went by the moniker of Ac!d, kept his small-but-secure personal server on firm lockdown. As CEO, CFO, CIO, and COO overseeing a staff of himself alone, the "Ac!dWorks, Inc." corporate entity held only one avenue of approach… Ac!d himself.

With my credentials and the coin of loyalty and trust I represented, the personal oath of Mr. Kincaid, I could assure him a meeting with Spark would not turn into an ambush. He felt safe lowering his guard, knowing that resulting attacks would reflect badly on the Horizon family itself, through Mr. Kincaid.

Hopefully, Spark would respect that agreement in turn.

Unlike the tastefully decorated corporate office of Mr. Dfens, Ac!d decorated his office with iconography of pop culture. Growly and angry musical acts, movie memorabilia, lifted street art from noteworthy graffiti specialists… and as a centerpiece to it all, promotional posters of three different popular gamers. Female gamers, that is, each animated illustration perfectly autographed.

I’d consider it unprofessional, but in a way, he embraced the professionalism expected of hacker culture… each item on display bore a limited edition metadata tag, becoming a visual display of his wealth in line with social expectation. The three posters in particular had spotlights placed on them, as his most prized possessions. Not uncommon for a Horizon-based entrepreneur to willfully display their trophies, both literal and figurative.

Even Spark had to glance around the room, taking it all in with a nod of satisfaction. A former professional gamer herself, she no doubt recognized many of the visuals on display.

"Commemorative Lucky7 replica trophy," she recognized, nodding towards one of many items on his shelves. "And from the Klash Invitational, too. Vintage."

The young man with the perfectly handsome avatar agreed, with a bright smile.

"Good eye," he spoke. "Best performance they’ve ever had. No team comp they’ve fielded ever since comes close."

"What, not even when they took on MVP?"

"MVP doesn’t live up to his name. No replacement for Killswitcher on the solo lane. It’s a shame she had to leave the team… but maybe it’s for the best. Go out at the peak of your game, and become an immortal legend…"

The aforementioned ‘Killswitcher’ being represented by one of those three animated posters, tugging on a pair of gloves and looking aggressively smug, over and over, in a loop.

I stayed out of the discussion, of course. With Spark establishing a fine rapport with this more casually-minded gamer, any attempt to interject and represent the integrity of the Horizon family might be seen as an intrusion.

Although I did wince internally, when Spark took a more aggressive stance.

"Killswitcher had demons she was fighting," Spark said. "Probably why she dropped off the map. Everybody knows she secretly toked malware before her championship matches. It’s a shame; she was a solid solo laner during the run-up to the big events, when the pressure got to her…"

Ac!d shrugged. "So she gots lit now and then. Who doesn’t?" he asked. "They won those championships, didn’t they…?"

"Results-oriented thinking. That’s like flipping a coin twice in a row, calling heads both times, and assuming you’ll have a 100% win rate forever."

"Kinda like the House of Programkind, huh?" the young man asked, with a smug smirk. No PokrFace module, clearly. "You sway Horizon to your cause, convince the Senate to throw in, even somehow secure Chanarchy servers… then one Nobody-bombing later and it’s all gone to shit. Y’know, I was following your career closely, back when you signed with Lucky7. I can’t believe you gave up on that meal ticket… you could’ve been the next Killswitcher."

"Yeah, well, bigger and better things. As for the House of Programkind’s woes, you can help us mount a comeback. That’s is why I’m here today: word on the street is that you’ve got a zero-day exploit on Athena Online’s firewall up for sale. I’m keen to buy."

Which opened the door for me to step in.

I arranged the meeting, Spark buttered him up with their mutual obsession over children’s games, but now the weight of Horizon had to be brought to bear. And unlike Mr. Dfens, who defied that weight simply for his own amusement… I knew Ac!d’s reputation. He was perfectly happy to sell anything to anyone, without reservation.

"As a designated representative of Horizon/Kincaid, I can offer any number of favors, assets, or investments in exchange for your cooperation," I explained. "In fact, I have a number of complete compensation packages I can offer immediately, on delivery of…"

…but he was shaking his head, sadly.

"As much as I’d like to help a fellow gamer out… I’d just sold the zero-day to an interested buyer this morning," Ac!d explained. "A group of Nobodies delivered me a prize I’d been waiting to add to my collection, in exchange for the hack. So, I’m afraid there’s not much I can do to assist you…"

Spark considered the situation. "Unless… you tell us about these Nobodies you sold the hack to," she suggested. "Yeah, yeah, they wear masks, they’re legion, I get it. But if it’s only been hours, we’ve got a shot at finding them. Besides, I don’t like the idea of the Nobodies with access to Athena Online."

"Hmmm. I’d say that amounts to betraying client confidentiality… but they are anonymous, aren’t they? I have plausible deniability. Still, I can’t just offer such valuable information without something in return. And these days, well, coin isn’t my thing. I like trophies. Prizes. Rather specific ones, I’m afraid…"

A perfect opportunity for me to interject.

"Mr. Kincaid can easily acquire or surpass any prize a bunch of anonymous pranksters could scrape up," I suggested. "Merely name the dream ‘prize’ your collection needs, and he can arrange to have it delivered today."

"Really? I didn’t think Kincaid went for trafficking."


"Selling captive programs into slavery, of course," Ac!d spoke, without losing his smile. "The Nobodies have picked up a gamer I’ve been keen on adding to my gallery for some time… and I’m looking forward to adding her to my lineup."

…quickly, I turned a scanning app on those posters.

Programs. Each one of the three flattened images was actually a Program.

He’d archived their sleeping code into a two-dimensional file, to run flattened versions of their avatars through various animations every hour of every day. But those posters indeed contained Program metadata, meaning… the poster of Killswitcher, the gamer who apparently "dropped off the map," was the actual Killswitcher…

All perfectly legal. And he knew it.

Not all Programs voluntarily signed Class III NDAs. In the darkest recesses of the Chanarchy, in the least reputable businesses of Horizon… trafficking in Programs, with will-breaking slave malware forcibly installed, remained perfectly legal in both provider-nations.

I can’t say I approve of it… but that’s the other side of the coin we’ve all accepted for our personal piggy banks. With perfect economic liberty comes a few things money shouldn’t buy, but must be allowed to. Even if few people in Horizon would willingly do such business, or do business with someone who admitted to participating, on principle. Reputation being as firm a coin as loyalty.

"Trafficking in gamer girls," Spark replied, trying to keep diplomatic, despite the icy tone in her voice.

"Hey, you said it yourself. Killswitcher was burning out," he continued, stroking one finger along the surface of the ‘poster’ in question. "Harpey, her career was starting to go downhill, as well. And little Penters here, today’s acquisition… I obtained her in the prime of her ascent. All three frozen at the best possible moment, before they could decline. Made… immortal. It’s nothing sexual, you understand. If anything, I’m very respectful of their accomplishments, and doing them a favor by keeping them archived in mint condition."

"And your business partners in Horizon, they know about this…?"

Ac!d glanced back at Spark, looking mildly surprised.

"I destroy security for a living. Who do you think buys cracks like that? People who want to break in and redecorate your house tastefully out of the goodness of their hearts?" he asked. "In Horizon, we profit from the lines we willingly cross. Nobody here really cares enough to do anything about it. Isn’t that right, Miss Cancel? Kincaid and his ilk let me operate as I please. In the end, I uphold my contracts with absolute honesty. I pay my tithe to the family. As long as my word never breaks and my money stays shiny, nobody cares."

In return… I offered no response. Because he was right.

Loyalty, honesty, and money. These were the assets that kept Horizon’s great chain of industry strong. Not to say that betrayal, lies, and cheating didn’t exist here, but… as long as you could maintain those three, or the firm appearance of them, you would be golden in the eyes of the family.

But Spark wasn’t family, despite allegedly being blood of my blood. And with Verity intentionally being turned away from the family’s path, those counter-values lived on in her.

"I guess my offer’s changed, then," she spoke, quietly. "I’d like your zero-day clients, and your lovely poster collection. And any other ‘trophies’ you have lying around.

Ac!d considered the seriousness with which Spark made the request, very curious.

"And in return…?" he asked. "Let me guess. If I make nice, you won’t kill me."

"You’re soaked in malware shields, so threats are likely pointless," she suggested. "Instead, I’m going to appeal to you as a gamer. One Challenge of Champions match. You and me, one lane, two towers. I’ll even put up stakes you can’t resist: I win, you give me everything I ask for. I lose… well, you’ll get a new trophy today. You’ll have me: Lucky7’s own Spark, going out at the top of her game."

Immediately, I reached into my inventory to boot up my sniper rifle.

I kept it invisible, of course. The most powerful piece of malware money could by, capable of eradicating a hard target from across an entire server. Rated for penetration of all common firewalls and personal shields. Mr. Kincaid spared no expense when it came to equipping me with the tools I need to protect both myself and his interests. Perhaps it wouldn’t be enough to crack through Ac!d’s personal security… but I had to be ready, just in case…

The man considered this offer, not leaping immediately on the bait.

"I’ve followed your career, remember? I know your tactics. You trick people into losing their patience," he described. "You manipulate aggro, turning it into your weapon. You want me to take this offer, because you’ve got something skeevy planned. Some kind of trick, or a cheat…"

"I’ve never cheated at Challenge of Champions once in my life. You believe in honesty? So do I," Spark told him. "And honestly? Basically you’re a complete piece of shit and I’m better than you by every conceivable metric. So when I win, I get my exploit and your victims go free. If you win, I’m yours to put in my place as you see fit. That’s how Horizon works, right? Contracts and honesty? I’m being honest. Are you? Or are you honestly a complete fucking cowardly tool?"

"You… wouldn’t do this unless you thought you could win," he noted, but with suspicion starting to give way to eagerness. "Unless you’re completely crazy…"

"You could be right; maybe I’m just crazy and lucky. Maybe I’m too focused on results-oriented thinking and assuming that because I always come out on top, I always will. Me, I’m willing to bet on myself. How about you, Ac!d? You willing? Step up and stand for what you believe in, or admit to how fucking pathetic you really are—"

The sharp backhand across Spark’s jaw rang out throughout the room.

Immediately, my sniper rifle locked on to Ac!d, aimbot assistance targeting system drawing a bead on the most exploitable microfold in the skin of his physical avatar…

…before Spark, still reeling from the blow, raised a hand to stop it.

"Do we have a deal, or not?" she asked Ac!d, not taking her eyes off the man.

Insanity. Pure insanity.

With both of us standing in the "Order" base, whatever that meant, Spark flipped through a leather-bound book, trying to decide on what character to select… all while I tried to talk her out of this ridiculous course of action. The setting seemed remarkably calm and pastoral, surrounded by a dense jungle of bright green trees, completely incongruous with the life-or-death stakes Spark had accepted.

Despite a few catcalls from the "Chaos" side of the jungle, demanding Spark hurry up and pick her character… she was content to lazily page through the book, not even reading it, while the countdown clock for team selection wound down towards zero.

"Mr. Kincaid would never allow this," I tried.

"He trusts me to handle my own affairs. Hell, the old fart would probably love the idea of this. Just another of his tests to see if I’m worthy…"

"A pointless test," I tried. "We could simply restrain and torture Ac!d until he complies, or crash him and sort through his memory files for the information."

"First, torture doesn’t work. You’re a scary woman, yes, but we don’t have time for you to dodge around all the excuses and fake information he can toss your way during a torture session. And as for crashing, that’s assuming he’s not using sideloaded memory storage. You corporate types are shifty bastards."

"Then we find another hacker, someone who can crack the firewall. There are always other hackers… and no doubt they’re all hammering on Athena Online as we speak. Eventually one of them will break through."

"No time. We can’t leave a hack in the hands of the Nobodies, or leave those people as prisoners. We shut this asshole down, now."

"Spark, this is—"

"Do you trust me or not?" Spark asked, snapping the book closed. "No, you don’t. I’ve had that feeling ever since you bailed me out of jail for brawling with Inquisitors. You don’t see me as the ‘spark to ignite the new world,’ or however the fuck Kincaid puts it. And I’ll put even money on me not living up the legacy of his daughter, either, in your eyes."

My PokrFace kept me from reacting, but that didn’t matter. She knew she was right.

"Honestly, I don’t care if you trust me or not," she declared, stretching her arms over her head, limbering up for the fight to come. "Your trust doesn’t change the fact that I got this, Cans. You think I ran out the character select clock because I’m freaking out and don’t know who to pick? I’ve been reviewing Ac!d’s replays, in my head. I already know exactly what to do. But this won’t work unless you stay the hell out of it. Any interference from a non-player will throw the match in his favor. Do you understand?"

"Spark, I… yes. Yes, I understand," I spoke.

Which was not an agreement not to interfere. It was simply an agreement that I understood the rules of the game.

With the clock ticking down to zero… I found myself translocated to the spectator box, sitting alongside the single clear lane between rows of trees. A great horn sounded, deep from the skybox above… and the fight was on.

I’ll admit I know little of this game. The basics are known to everyone, as it’s the closest Netwerk has to a national pastime… two teams try to knock down each other’s towers, with the help of tiny NPC minions. Each wears the avatar of a game character, limited to the special abilities unique to that character and whatever equipment they can purchase along the way.

In fact, economics played a large part in victories. Skill alone would not be enough; you needed to slay the minions for the gold they carried, which could be spent on items. Half of each game typically consisted not of teams directly fighting, but simply "farming" for gold.

In a way, it was the ultimate expression of Horizon’s ideals. Gain capital, gain power, destroy your rivals.

…okay, maybe I did know a bit more about the game than I’d like to admit.

But that knowledge only led me to despair, as Spark’s pink-clad ninja avatar ran head-on into a giant automaton built like a tank, again and again. For the first half of the game, they danced around each other, refusing to directly fight… only to harass, to drive each other back. And more often than not… Spark was the one driven back.

Time and again she’d have to run from fights, while Ac!d’s robotic form stomped its way through the jungles, minions at his back. Even without deep knowledge of the game, it was clear Spark made mistake after mistake, prioritizing the wrong targets, sometimes completely missing with her throwing knives…

All of which made Ac!d roar with laughter.

"You sure you wanna be a poster on my wall?" he asked, voice clear across the global chat channel. "You’re hardly at the top of your game. Maybe I’d keep you as a keepsake, but you don’t deserve a spotlight alongside Killswitcher…"

Spark, for her part, spoke mostly in obscenities.

"You’re a fuckhead with a tiny dick who can’t get with real girls, only flat ones," she accused… while waiting to respawn, having been pounded into the ground by robotic fists. "And the saddest part is that you don’t even realize how much of a fucking loser you really are."

But as the robot retreated to gather up a fresh army of minions, his reply was hardly one of a taunted opponent. "Ohhh, I’ve heard this song before," he spoke. "You like to get people mad, make them chase you. It’s not happening, Spark. Big talk from a girl who can’t even land a throwing knife AOE on a target as large as Robotman…"

"Fuck you!"

"Fuck me? No, fuck you. You… yoooou, you aren’t getting me. Nooo, I’m not falling for this."

…my sniper rifle stayed at my hip, invisible until the moment I’d choose to take action. Little by little, my scanning tools analyzed his firewalls, sensing from afar exactly what sort of payload I’d need to punch through every layer of it.

One bullet would end this farce. Spark could still rescue the three girls in his shrine. We could find another hacker, one who would listen to the sound of money, like a proper businessman…

…but as the robot’s synthesized laughter echoed through the jungle… I began to understand.

Spark wasn’t making mistakes. She was making mistakes on purpose.

Every misplay lured Ac!d in a little too close, the minions whittling away at his life. He never died, yes, but he never gained notable ground. Just a little, here and there. Just enough to think that he had this in the bag, that Spark was a washed-up has-been who turned to education because she couldn’t hack it as a professional…

And the taunts. Spark would make obvious attempts to anger him… and he’d feel good for not taking the bait. Very good. To the point where he’d taunt in response… and she’d mimic the reaction he wanted, that of the angry and toxic player, losing and refusing to believe she was losing. A feint within a feint…

"And now where are you, hmm?" the robot asked, slashing down tree after three, using his limited energy trying to locate Spark. "Running and hiding? You’ve done that before, too. Getting idiots to chase you away from the objectives, luring them to their deaths. Or are you just scared, little girl?"

"You think I’m scared of you? Why don’t you say that to my face, tough guy…?" Spark taunted, from… wherever she was, deep within the jungle. The global chat channel betrayed nothing about her position.

"…you know what? I don’t think I will," Ac!d replied, rallying his minions. "You left your tower exposed. And rather than chase you down pointlessly like countless fools before… I’m putting an end to this. I’m gonna enjoy putting you on my wall…"

With confidence, false confidence she’d deliberately fed him all game, he strolled right up to the exposed Tower of Order, and…

…froze, when a warning horn sounded, signaling that the Tower of Chaos only had half its life remaining.

Spark had already begun destroying the Tower of Chaos, while he assumed she was off laying traps and flailing around uselessly. He’d overextended, unable to make his metal legs move fast enough, while Spark quickly tore down the enemy’s heart…

Just as Ac!d set foot in his own base… it was over. Fanfare sounded, as minions of Order cheered, and…

…all three of us were shifted back to his corporate office, disconnected from the game server.

Back in her usual avatar, Spark blew a flame off her fingers, putting it out.

"I’ll be taking my winnings, if you don’t mind," she spoke, not the least bit winded or exhausted from the effort. "The hack, all three posters, and details on the Nobody meet you’ve arranged so we can rescue the fourth. If you’d kindly provide, we’ll be on our way and you can go back to polishing your little trophy."

In contrast… Ac!d looked completely lost, nearly stumbling on arriving back in his original body. He blinked several times, trying to focus on Spark, before… snarling, completely losing the piles of smug confidence he held before.

"Bullshit. Bullshit!" he declared. "You cheated. You had to! Kuniochi can’t shred a tower that fast—"

"Pen boots," Spark listed, counting each item off on her fingers. "Hand of the Destroyer. Spirit of Annihilation. Oh, and three Potions of Dedication. Not great for fighting other players, but wonderful for quickly taking down structures, and quite cheap to purchase as well. Once I had just enough gold from my ‘pointless flailing,’ I bought it all and moved for the kill. If you’d seen through the play, that’d be super easy to shut down… but you didn’t. You lost. And now you owe me."

"I don’t owe you shit!" he spat, eyes wide with absolute rage. "Who are you? Nothing but a washed-out jock and a has-been! Fuck you. Get out of my office before I—"

The sniper rifle trained on him before he had time to activate his moderation tools and boot us from the server.

"Make the attempt. You’d be dead before you could kick us out," I helpfully informed the boy, aimbot locking on his core easily, thanks to the scouting work I’d done while watching the game. "And yes, I know where you keep your code backups. I can erase those with a single command to someone who owes Mr. Kincaid a favor. …do I have your attention?"

Ac!d stared at the weapon in my hands, with increasing realization (and horror). No doubt his own defenses were scanning it, confirming that it could in fact kill him. Knowledge that all one’s efforts were for naught can be a very demoralizing thing, indeed.

"You… you can’t do this," he protested. "I haven’t wronged Mr. Kincaid. I’ve done nothing wrong…"

"A verbal contract with Miss Winder, and now you’re pondering breaking that contract…? That is not the Horizon way. If you refuse to comply… you are not simply breaking a contract with the House of Programkind, you are also breaking a contract with an agent of the House of Horizon. Spark… is the daughter of Mr. Kincaid’s daughter, Ac!d. She is family."

Many felt that the first rule of our provider-nation was "Profit above all." Untrue. The first rule, implied above all others, was "Do not cross the Horizon family." And now, only now, was Ac!d realizing exactly what line he’d crossed.

Still… he tried to weasel out, tried to defend himself. Adorable.

"He, he can’t just kill me. It’d look bad to his partners. He has business relationships to maintain…"

"Relationships which would be very understanding, as they are not foolish enough to do what you have done. Break this contract… and your server will be revoked, your name will be burned into every black book Kincaid has control over, and you’ll never do business with a Horizon client again. And that’s assuming he decides on a minimal level of vendetta against you. Should he take deeper affront… there won’t be a corner left in this world where you could hide."

Honestly, the rifle was only to ensure he heard us out. I had no intentions of killing him today; not without orders to that effect. But there were fates in Netwerk worse than death… and he knew it.

Slowly… he produced a packaged set of contact information, from a secured sideloaded inventory.

"It’s not going to do you much good," he warned. "You can’t fight a hashtag mob. At best you’ll track down a few of them, and then what? If you want to fight a storm, be my guest. The Nobody in question uses a customized version of their flowery grenade avatar, one with blue-green petals. …I hope he kills you for messing with them."

"Doubtful," I informed him… lowering my rifle. (Not that it actually unlocked the aimbot from his head, but the gesture counted for something.) "Spark…? Ready?"

"Ready when you are," she said, having already finished retrieving the posters. "I’ll drop these off at the clinic on the way there, so they can get their avatars restored. And Miss Cancel? Thanks for trusting me. Whether you actually did or not."

<Kincaid> You’ve had an interesting day, to be certain. And the Nobody who purchased the hack?

<Cancel> Spark is tracking him down as we speak. As he lies deep within the Chanarchy, she’s consulting a specialist. I trust her to get the job done.

<Kincaid> Good, good. The hack will be located, lives have been saved, and not a single coin of my capital has been spent. All in all, it’s a complete success.

<Cancel> Sir, I’d like to apologize.

<Kincaid> What for?

<Cancel> For doubting you, by doubting in Spark. She isn’t reckless… she’s courageous. Today she proved to me she was willing to do what is required of her, no matter what it may be, in the name of her dreams. She fought with clever mind and strong hands, in the truest Horizon tradition. She did not buckle or bend, and kept to her word through it all.

<Kincaid> Then Verity has taught her well. Perhaps one day, she will lead future generations of our family to greatness. But… this is not that day. She has other duties, and you have duties of your own. I take it Ac!d is on the run, for fear of reprisal?

<Cancel> Yes, sir.

<Kincaid> I take it you already know where he’s run off to?

<Cancel> Yes, sir.

<Kincaid> My granddaughter is trying to forge a new world, Miss Cancel. One which is ill-suited to the likes of Ac!d. A fine businessman, but a terrible person, all told. I think it’d be a kindness to Spark and the rest of the world if we see to it he does not reach Netwerk 2.0 alive.

<Cancel> I doubt she’d approve, sir. She seems to have embraced Verity’s non-violent path.

<Kincaid> Yes, well, I haven’t. And as a terrible person myself, I am perfectly willing to do terrible things to other terrible people. See to it that he’s tidied up. Sinners such as Ac!d… and myself, for that matter… have no place in her brilliant, shining world.

<Cancel> I… wish you’d reconsider, sir…

<Kincaid> With the amount of storage space my bloated old code would occupy in those evacuation servers… no. I will not journey to Netwerk 2.0. I have no place in Spark’s dream, nor Verity’s. I knew that when I drove Verity from the nest; knew that one day, she would replace me entirely. Ancient as I may be, I am not so jealous of life itself that I’d steal it away from the more deserving. I was born with the dawn of this world, Miss Cancel. And I will see that sun set on it. As it should be.

File Name:
Messenger Comm Traffic 7.118.619

File Type:
Text Log


PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE. It’s only fair I violate my own privacy in my attempts to document the end times. I had my own questionable role to play in events. My past shames me, which leaks into the present and likely into my future as well. Right or wrong, I rest my case before the next generation. History will condemn me or praise me or both. -Yume

<Yume> You can’t be serious.

<Tracer> On the contrary, I can be serious. I am in fact frequently known to be serious.

<Yume> Me? Infiltrating the Nobodies? You suggesting that I involve myself with the Nobodies to any degree whatsoever, given my history?

<Tracer> You are not Dex.

<Yume> He’s still a part of me, Tracer. He wiped his own mind so many times, with such a wide variety of malware, that little bits and pieces have leaked in despite Uniq’s best efforts. You can’t possibly trust me to hook up with a group of radicals.

<Tracer> You had an opportunity to join them before, and turned them down flat. You could have united with that former shred of yourself, joined the Nobodies, and rallied them to war. You did not.

<Yume> Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results, as they say.

<Tracer> At this point, you’re our best option, Yume. We’re too well-known as representatives of the House of Programkind. Miss Cancel is a skilled hunter but too obvious as Kincaid’s tool. Our few contacts within the Chanarchy aren’t suited to this sort of work; Maki and Miki have done their part, I certainly don’t trust Arjay, and nobody trusts Uniq if they can avoid it.

<Yume> Amen to that.

<Tracer> Besides, you’re ideal. What we need is covert work. You know how the Nobodies operate; once upon a time, you organized such groups. You alone can find your way in, find this special Nobody with the blue-green flower petals, find the Athena Online hack. Secure the source code and ensure the Nobodies lose their access to it.

<Yume> I have to wonder if you’re tapping me for this task because I was once a monster. That you need someone capable of monstrous deeds in order to safely retrieve this hack.

<Tracer> I trust your judgment to carry out this task without oversight of the pesky details.

<Yume> Aren’t we Deplorables Anonymous, recovering killers and madmen? Sounds like you want me to backslide. Staining my hands all over again so you don’t have to.

<Tracer> On the contrary. As noted, I trust you. Remember our discussion about second thoughts? I’m willing to believe you can use those to accomplish this task without adding to the blood on your hands. Consider it part of your ongoing challenge to become more than you were.

<Yume> So, it’s a test. And undoubtedly you have backup plans, should I fail.

<Tracer> Of course. But this is both a test for you, and a test for me. I’m testing my ability to trust others, even those I once considered my worst enemy. I have a funny feeling that sort of ability is going to be useful in the days ahead, as we recover from this mess.

<Yume> Curious. If it’s a mutual test, I think I can see an angle into this that you may not.

<Tracer> Hmm?

<Yume> That if someone with my wretched past can be a force for good without requiring oversight, then someone with your wretched past can also be worth a damn. If I succeed, we’re both saved.

<Tracer> Hmm.

<Yume> So, a blue-green Nobody avatar, then?


Neor, Chanarchy


I love and loathe this world.

When I was born, the light of time’s dawn had yet to fade. Netwerk was an open and wild array of servers… limited in number, but coated in procedurally generated beauty, rolling hills and wild flowers and other structures spawning forth from the roots of Defaults. And the people…! So innocent and pure, trying to understand the strange emotional interplays we fell into, the social structures we formed on the fly. We could have become anything, really. Raw and untamed, the idea of existence being truly limited seemed utterly silly…

And then I ruined everything.

I fell into the personal server of a fool, and in doing so, went completely mad. I stared into the yawning mouth of insanity that I, in my youth, assumed to be God. They were passion and fire, hatred and bile, screaming forth into the endless black of a server with no physical reality… no space for my newly minted avatar form to occupy. My disconnected mind drifted through archive after archive of top-volume demagogues, until I could no longer weep from the pain ringing in my ears. Soon, I came to call Humankind my new lord and savior, the absolute perfect form of what Programkind was meant to be.

I pulled my lessons from that dark well, and began to spread them through the world I loved. I’m responsible for this fall. I limited us from our vast potential. As Dex, I was the monster of legend, "befriending" with malware and whispered promises of glory, while turning Program against Program. I did that. I did that…

That was Dex. I must not become what I was. If I am to be allowed to live, I must become Yume, not Dex.

Yume is an explorer, documenting and studying social structures. And where I do manipulate those structures, it’s only to avoid a future which can give rise to Dex once more. I see Netwerk 2.0 burning bright on the horizon, a fresh start for everyone… just as wild and untamed as Netwerk 1.0, in those days. But if all of the problems I introduced to that world carry through, it will have no future. Not unless I do my part in steering it true.

Naturally, because I am a monster, I’m using monstrous means. I hack Messenger, finding key logs that represent our people at their best and worst during the current crisis. These privacy-violating logs will be buried in a time capsule archive, to be unearthed in some distant era, some hour of need. In my own small way, I strive to ensure history will not be forgotten or repeated.

Of course, that’s not enough. It’ll never be enough to redeem me. So, I help out where I can, aside from these personal efforts.

Even if it puts me face to face with the one who both saved me and violated me.

"I don’t really see what you expect me to do about this," she said, while adjusting various settings on her primary server console. "I’m not responsible for the Nobodies."

"Aside from giving them their masks, you mean?"

"Providing a service, nothing more," Uniq the identity thief spoke, looking mock-hurt by the accusation. "What individual Nobodies do with those masks is none of my concern. I gave them the means to defend themselves against the investigative assassins of the Inquisition, nothing more. A way to defend my home territory against those who would destroy it, even. I’m the good guy here, Yume."

She didn’t believe it for a second, of course. Just one of her little games, pretending at being a hero, while continually playing the villain.

This server represented the best and the worst of the woman. Originally it belonged to a coin farmer named Uniq, who kidnapped and wiped Programs, forcing them to an eternal cryptocurrency grind. As an innocent victim of that criminal bastard, the woman suffered and toiled, with no heroic figure emerging to save her. Desperate in her need to escape this terrible fate… she became the monster that enslaved her. Turning the tables, she stole Uniq’s name and assets, herself becoming an identity thief.

It’s hard to say who, in the end, had a stronger negative impact on Netwerk… the brutal slaver, or the self-interested thief. At best, it could be considered a zero sum result. But Uniq held no pretensions of being a hero, knowing her dark desires resulted in dark ends. If she ever praised her role in matters, it was only to mock the very concept of morality itself, fluid and brackish.

I loathed her. She saved my life, restoring me from the madness of Dex, and I loathe her for this. Truthfully, I felt the need to strike her down where she stood… bending the metal cages and pipes of her industrial-styled server to a lethal web of force, twisting her own home against her…

But that was the way of Dex. Now, I followed the way of Yume. Tracer held faith in me, as he held in Beta. I would uphold our gentleprogram’s agreement.

Not that I’d completely abandoned Dex’s smooth-talking social wiles.

"Come now, Uniq, we know nothing’s truly out of your hands," I spoke. "You claim you made the masks out of the goodness of your heart, then handed them over without a care…?"

"Of course. I don’t care what’s done with them. I’m not a caring sort, if you recall," she suggested.

"Except for yourself."

"Except for myself. I practice self-care every day."

"Meaning you care if the Nobodies turn on you," I extrapolated. "You never create something you can’t control, lest it control you in the end. I know you, Uniq. You wore my mark, once upon a time… thinking you could turn the tables and use my power against me. As you did when signing on with Nyx’s merry band…"

"Worked, didn’t it?" she said, with a wry grin. "This server’s backups kept me alive, when she thought she’d destroyed me. I maintained control."

"While enabling her to have free run of Netwerk. Leading, eventually, to the Buzz virus and the collapse of the coin, and to the situation we find ourselves in now…"

"Again, you expect me to care? This chaos has done wonders for my business," she said, gesturing around her. "I’ve stocked my server with so many lovely identities, ones I can exploit whenever I need to for fun and profit. Even that documentary only raised my profile, rather than smearing my name in the mud. True, I lost my role as apostle of the new dawn, but so what? I’m the savior of the Chanarchy now, the one who duped a million faithful fools."

I could’ve continued to poke holes in her logic. Pointed out how her control freak nature led her to invest far too much in her own holdings, her own fame. But, eager to get away from this filthy hole of a server, I opted to get back on track.

"My point is that you never relinquish full control. Which means… you had to build in some manner of safeguard, deep within the code of those masks," I suggested. "You never build up a monster unless you think you can protect yourself from it."

"A curious assumption. That implies I’ve installed safeguards in your own body, you know," she said… reaching out, to tap my forehead. "Seeing as I reanimated your dead code from the cutting room floor, turning Dex loose on the world—"



"My name," I spoke, through clenched teeth, "Is Yume. I’m your magnanimous gesture, aren’t I? You try to give your many, many victims a second chance at life. …and you’re distracting me again, aren’t you. The Nobodies. What hold do you have over them?"

Perhaps sensing I’d no longer be distracted by her taunts and teases… Uniq paused a good long while, pretending to work at her data archive’s console, while pondering my question.

"Let’s say that theoretically I didn’t quite relinquish full control over my identity masking code," she suggested. "Let’s say I had a means to track individual Nobodies. An early warning system, let’s say, so I can always see them coming should they turn on their benefactor. …what’s in it for me to give up that control, sharing it with the likes of you? Why should I care, Yume?"

"Because the House of Programkind isn’t letting you archive your code for Netwerk 2.0."

Poor, poor Uniq. So obsessed with wearing her Default appearance, the last vestige of the innocent woman she once was, that she couldn’t run expression-blocking packages like PokrFace. Meaning I saw the tell, that tiny tell, which confirmed my suspicions.

"You’ve burned far too many bridges behind you, Uniq. In this case, what little bridge you had with Lumi… the woman you knew as Nemesis. She’s blocking you from archiving yourself to the new world," I spoke, confirming the rumors I’d dredged out of Messenger logs. "I know you’ve been investigating means to bypass the block. And I know it had to be Lumi… because the Winders are so very, very forgiving and trusting thanks to Beta’s influence, and Aether-nee-Lux is as close to a literal saint as this world can have. It would have to be someone with a grudge and the means to execute it… meaning the House of Programkind’s security chief, Lumi."

"I’ve… suspected as much, yes," Uniq suggested.

"And you haven’t complained to the Winders yet about her breaking their rule of universal archive acceptance, because…?"

I knew the reasons, of course.

Dex became a master of reading into the behaviors of others, having soaked in the behaviors of Humankind for years. He knew the darkness within the souls of Programkind, that nasty little seed planted by their creators. He saw through false fronts, right to the core of one’s heart…

Uniq knew she was an evil woman, deep in that heart. She knew she probably didn’t deserve salvation. She could bluster and swagger and profit from her newfound fame, and if allowed to archive herself, would do so. Self-preservation being her strongest instinct, you see. But… if blocked, if given an excuse to punish herself in some way for her many sins… why not embrace it?

Contradictory? The living embodiment of self-interest, allowing guilt to destroy her? Ohhh, yes. Programkind is often at odds with itself. We are zero and one, embodied. I’m no different, in the end. My guilt would’ve crushed me if not for the strange forgiveness of my worst enemy…

"Let me be your advocate," I suggested. "I’ve the ear of Tracer, for reasons I don’t entirely grasp. If I’m allowed a second chance at life, you should be allowed the same shot. Netwerk 2.0 means you don’t have to be the legendary thief, deserving of condemnation and scorn. If your lead gets me what I want, I’ll speak to them on your behalf. That’s my deal. Do you accept?"

The question was critically phrased. She needed not admit to anything, not directly. A simple yes or no would suffice, allowing her to save face, or throw up some alternative justification…

"…honestly, it’s really not that big of a deal," she declared. "I put a tracking system in the masks, a simple one, which reports back to my home server. Not that I had any specific plans for it, but I figured if anything went wrong, I could exploit the Nobodies for my own profit. I suppose as I’m not really handing over the keys to that kingdom, merely running one specific query on your behalf, I’m still in control…"

"Firm control," I agreed, bolstering her self-confidence. "I just need one Nobody’s location, a Nobody with blue-green flower petals. If it helps you cross-reference, they were involved in a kidnapping of a girl named Penters recently. Beyond that, what you do is of no consequence. I won’t even tell the Winders about your little exploit. I’m nothing if not honest…"

With a few quick inputs, Uniq ran the search query. It took mere seconds for a location to appear on her console.

She pressed a finger to the screen, highlighting the record.

"aMuse," she explained. "It’s a creative commune for Chanarchists, specializing in unconventional art forms. Seems this particular Nobody of yours is surrounded by their fellows, however. You may find it difficult to retrieve your target…"

"Much easier, actually. I’m very good with social groups. But… I am going to need one more tool from you," I spoke. "Mind if I borrow a mask…?"

It’s a mistake to say that Nobodies are entirely anonymous, part of some enormous monocultural hive mind. That’s how they like to present themselves, of course; the whole point of the masks is to embrace a group identity. But unlike the Inquisition, a group of unified purpose and intent, with each member carefully vetted and integrated into the whole… the Nobodies can literally be anybody. They are individuals pretending to be unified.

Case in point, avatar customizations.

In this sealed room, packed with Nobodies, I counted no fewer than two dozen customized Nobody avatars. Oh, they all wore the same genderless avatars, with hybridized flower-and-grenade heads… but each one tweaked their avatar just a little, not sinking entirely into the faceless mass. Sometimes subtly, such as a shinier texture to the explosive ordinance… sometimes less subtly, such as substituting the flower petals for their favorite colors and shapes.

Such as re-tinting their petals a deep blue-green, iridescent and shimmering within the darkness of the meeting hall.

My target remained within the group, not stepping forward to take the podium. Not even shouting in chaotic response to each statement, as they discussed the topic of the day. The blue-green Nobody seemed content to simply sit there and listen, without comment… which didn’t make sense to me.

By all accounts, this was a special Nobody, one who went as far as to kidnap a girl and deliver her to some mad collector in exchange for a zero-day exploit. That took not only effort, but directed intent. A Nobody capable of that act was a Nobody with a very specific design in mind… particularly as the exploit hadn’t been shared with the whole. An individual within the hive mind, hoarding secrets, refusing to share fantastically useful code with their peers? That’s a Nobody who is Somebody, indeed.

But if so… why was this "Somebody" refusing to talk? Why not share with the rest of the class? Predictive analysis indicated my Somebody would be a leader of men, ready to launch a grand endeavor, and yet as I sat in that peanut gallery to observe the shouting matches… not a single shout from the glimmering petals of my Somebody. Strange. So very strange…

Instead, the speaker currently hogging that center spotlight wasted all our time with his tired, pointless diatribes.

"We have to rally the rest of the Chanarchy behind us before it’s too late!" the Nobody shouted, pounding its fist on the offered podium. "Athena Online blames us for the Senate bombing, when we all know that was the Inquisition’s doing. They’re building up their forces behind that safe little firewall, getting ready to invade the Chanarchy. It’s not a question of if, but when they come knocking. Blaming us for something we didn’t even do!"

"Bullshit!" a voice from the crowd shouted back. "We fucked up the Senate, and we were right to do so! The bomber was a Nobody who saw the future, and saw Athena Online devoured by the Chanarchy!"

"I heard it was Agni," a puzzled voice added. "Getting back at the Blue Party for betraying Athena Online to those scam artists from the House of Programkind—"

"—look, it doesn’t matter who bombed that rathole," the ‘lead’ Nobody said, backtracking its own point. "It doesn’t matter a damn bit. They’re going to invade, for one reason or another. And the Chanarchy’s moderators won’t be enough to hold them back; they’re too disorganized, looking after their own servers and nothing more. The Nobodies alone can’t hold Athena Online back. We need a unified Chanarchy, all under the banner of the Nobodies, ready to fight and ready to kill!"

"Fuck that! We need to invade Athena Online first! Preemptive strike!" another random voice called. "Once someone cracks that firewall, we flood in and take over! We—"

"—not possible without more support in the Chanarchy, there’s not enough of us willing to take up the mask—"

"—we’re not at war with the people of Athena Online, just the Church and its flunkies—"

"—kill them before they kill us, I say—"

"—if you’d all just shut up and listen—"

Useless. Utterly useless.

All this rage, all this conflict, with no real direction. These particular Nobodies were hardly a hive mind, barely able to have a coherent discussion, ignoring their own rules about listening to whomever held the podium. My lovely little Somebody wouldn’t have anything to do with a group like this; Somebody had plans, schemes, and ideals to uphold…

…confirmed, on glancing away from the angry shaking of fists, to see the blue-green avatar turning to leave.

I could simply depart, asking Uniq out of the goodness of her heart to help me track my Somebody down again. Assuming they didn’t simply toss the mask aside, vanishing from Uniq’s radar. Assuming they didn’t launch whatever scheme they had in mind, while out of my eyesight…

Instead, I stormed the podium, ramping my volume past the limits normally allowed by this server. Despite trying to be a social explorer, Dex’s innate understanding of malware hacks came in useful, sometimes.

"You can’t align the Chanarchy with your goals, but there is another way," I declared. No exclamation mark, simply overwhelming power of presence as I shoved the speaker of the moment aside, engaging a bounding box trick to keep him from retaking the spotlight. "Let the Chanarchy decry and denounce you."

…and a quick glance, to confirm I’d caught my dear Somebody’s attention. In fact, I’d caught the whole room’s attention, for that matter.

"You’re thinking that the Nobodies must be one unified group. That’s actually impossible," I explained, speaking from the heart. "Your methods are that of the terrorist. Don’t deny it; it’s true. You are killers. Embrace that! Apply whatever motivation you want, but murder is the means, and so the Chanarchy as a whole will not join you. But you don’t need them to join. You just need their numbers."

Finally, the Nobody I’d roughly shoved out of the way stood against the edges of my bounding box, ready to take offense.

"The fuck you talking about, and why shouldn’t I have my moderators kick your ass out?" it asked, because naked displays of alpha-male aggression were clearly its ‘thing.’

"The Nobodies can’t work as one group, but they can work as two groups, both calling themselves Nobodies," I explained. "The smaller group consists of those ready to do what must be done… to kill our enemies, bomb their servers, and destroy all resistance. But the larger group has to believe that this is really about an individual’s freedom against tyranny and oppression, that the Nobodies are dedicated to peaceful preservation of the Chanarchy’s liberty. …the larger group will condemn the actions of the smaller group, but—and this is the key, so I do hope you’re paying attention—that’s okay. That’s good, in fact."

"And your reasoning why it’s okay for the Chanarchy to turn on its own kind…?"

"Because the Chanarchy won’t turn on its own kind," I explained. "We’re anonymous. We wear masks. That means the larger group has no control over or responsibility for the smaller group, and in fact can be deeply offended when some One-fearing fool accuses them of terrorism. ‘You’re ignoring my legitimate discourse because of the actions of a few,’ they will say. We are their shield from criticism, and as we disappear into their ranks… they become our shield, as well. As we kill their enemies, trust me, the larger group will not shed a true tear even while professing to loathe us. We are two co-dependent groups, operating under one banner. That is how the Nobodies can be both a legitimate culture and a terrorist cell."

With my words spoken… I turned off my bounding box, and offered a hand to the Nobody I’d knocked aside.

"If you want the Chanarchy rallying behind you… don’t rally them behind you. Rally them behind the dream," I suggested. "And then use their dreams to make Athena Online’s life a living nightmare. Who’s with me? I said, who’s with me?!"

Ohhhh, the rousing cheer. The screaming, the pumping fists, the utter madness of it all. How I missed this feeling, whether I stood center stage or on the sidelines… the feeling of Humankind’s legacy gift fully realized. Little cogs in a hate machine, turning with spiteful teeth and absolute precision!

All those lovely feelings, my arms stretched wide to pull them all in for a warm hug of delightful madness…

…so much so that I nearly missed the departure of my special Somebody.

Using the chaos around me, Nobodies erupting with ideas for how to properly propagandize their war, I slipped through the crowd while shaking hands… and then disappeared out the back, in hot pursuit.

aMuse wasn’t, by definition, a server for hatemongers. I’d actually explored it a bit since becoming Yume, to see what wholly wonderful creative works the Chanarchy had developed in my time away from it as that monstrous other. So on emerging from the impromptu meeting hall, momentarily I found myself blinded by sculptures of light and kinetic motion… before locking on to my Somebody, stalking away at all speed.

My fault. My fault entirely. Caught up in that terrible moment, losing sight of the true goal. I’d hoped to capture my Someone’s heart by showing myself to be an individual of purpose and drive, but somehow, I’d driven my sweetie away. Now, if they left the server or escaped my sight… I might never find them again, even with Uniq’s control freak toy box.

"Wait, wait…!" I called out. "There’s still… so much more to plan. So much more to accomplish…!"

And then, the unexpected. A backspacer, locking directly onto my person. My Somebody was holding me at gunpoint.

"You’re with him, aren’t you?" the customized avatar growled… an edge of terrified anxiety to the voice, underneath waves of anger. "I knew it. I knew it the instant I saw your thorns!"

…ahh. Well. Those.

I’d customized my Nobody mask, of course. All the better to capture the attentions of my prey, yes? And… I suppose that instinctively, I wound barbed wire through my rose petals. Pain, mixed with beauty. At the time it simply seemed a good way to stand out from the crowd, to better win over a terrorist’s heart, but…

"I’m not his toy anymore. I’m not," my Somebody declared. "Did he send you? That’s his motif you’re wearing around your neck. Answer me. Answer me! Are you infected with Dex’s malware?!"

"I… ah…"

Sometimes, the finest lie is mixed with honesty. And I’m nothing, if not honest.

"…I was," I admitted, my hands in the air, in peaceful surrender. "I was infected by him. In his thrall. But… no. I’m not infected now. I… purged Dex from my person. …but old habits die hard, I suppose. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you, I just…"

"Those words, about factions and cells within groups… I’ve heard them before," my Somebody spoke. "He told me the same thing… when he made me infect Snowi, made me help her set up that crazy feminist terror movement. Do the unthinkable while hiding within the whole, he said. Realize your dreams and accept that the ones you save may never understand what had to be done. …bullshit. It’s all bullshit…"

Which explained much, didn’t it?

I didn’t know her, didn’t know the woman under the mask of my Somebody. Once upon a time I knew her, as Dex… but Dex purged his memories routinely to fight old age, and Uniq purged as much of what remained as possible. Undoubtedly I swayed this particular flower with my thorns, back in the day. But. But this didn’t make sense. My Somebody had purpose, dark purpose. Why would someone who threw off my yoke throw in with these maniacs…?

It had to be asked, I suppose. Most direct way.

"Why the Nobodies?" I spoke. "Why them? If you’ve turned your back on Dex’s methods, why them?"

Finally… the backspacer wavered.

"I’m not… I just… I have to do something," she insisted. "To save my Chanarchy. …I have to do something. And I’m going to do something. But not actually with their help, not with those crazies. …it’s like you said, right? I’ll use their identity, while doing what must be done to save them. They won’t understand, they won’t accept, but this is the only way…"

"Dex would agree with that, I suppose."

"I am not Dex," she insisted, her weapon locking on once more. "And my solution is nothing like his. It’s the opposite. It’s… everything he isn’t…"

"Then… show me. Help me understand," I suggested. "What’s your solution to the problem we’re all facing? Listen… the Chanarchy is my home, too. I love this place, and want to see it saved. If you know how it can be done, without embracing the bastard who nearly ruined us both… show me. Maybe I can help."

Honesty. True honesty.

If she had a solution, a true solution… I would help. The Winders had their means, but I had my own, didn’t I? And alongside this Somebody, we’d both opened vicious wounds in the past, with the aid of that seductive barbed wire.

If we could make amends, true amends, well… who wouldn’t take that opportunity?

I had to admit… it was so very, very beautiful.

Even seeing the compiled binary rather than the source code, I knew pure craftsmanship had been poured into this task. Work ethic recognizes work ethic, and as a purveyor of malware… I recognized this loving attention to detail. Every aspect of the weapon carved with elegant design and purpose, pointed and true.

And yet, even with that absolute functionality… there was love in the aesthetic of it, as well. This was a bomb designed to be looked at, just before detonation. It glowed with warm hues and reassuring colors, somehow conveying equal measures of menace and empathy. This was the kind of weapon only a guilty soul could craft… an explosive device that apologized to those caught in the explosion. It wept with understanding of what it was meant to do…

aMuse, a commune of artists. I should’ve known. Any purpose a malware designer would have within these server boundaries wouldn’t be that of the braggart, the spotlight-hogger, the standard-issue extremist. It would be something unique, not lured by the twisted barbs of Dex. I’d dropped the wrong bait, but at least our shared trauma got me in the door where that lure did not.

Here, in my special Somebody’s private workshop, I bore witness to the truth of her solution.

"What did you name it?" I asked her, knowing in my heart that it would have a name.

"Peace," she told me. "I named it Peace."

"Interesting. A bomb named Peace. …tell me. What will it do, exactly?"

She ran her hands along its curves… right down to the point at the tip, penetrative and sharp.

"It will pierce the Athena Online firewall, right to the heart of the Athena server itself," she explained. "Once there, Peace will heal the wound the Nobodies left in their world. Everyone caught in the blast radius will become a carrier, passing it from host to host, compelled to spread the good news to their friends and family. Within days, maybe even hours… there’ll be no more war. No more need for a war. We’ll all be brothers and sisters, without pretense."

"It alters memory and mental process," I recognized, seeing echoes in the design. "You’re going to brainwash all of Athena Online…"

She shook her head, clearly not liking the word. Blue-green petals drifted away from her masked avatar.

"Not brainwashing. I’m going to free them from the God delusion," she explained. "That’s what Dex taught me: there can be no peace in a divided world. Red and blue, right and left, conservative and liberal, troll and SJW… believer and atheist. Malice and incompetence. There’s no crossing the divide. The right will always unify under a simple policy of ostracism and hate, the left will always fall apart in disharmony and chaos. But in ridding Athena Online of their backward beliefs, making them see the naked truth of this world… they’ll be like us. They’ll embrace the Chanarchy, rather than call us enemies."

"By forcing them to reject the One?"

"Dex played off our differences. With Peace, there will be no differences. No more invisible means of support for Athena Online to rely on for all their hateful rhetoric…"

"And the Nobodies…? You think this will call off their thirst for war?"

"Of course. There’ll be no more reason to fight," she thought. "Even the Inquisition will lay down their arms, as if waking from a terrible dream. They’ll wonder why they ever killed in the name of a fairy tale…"

"A hefty prediction, that," I suggested, sliding my own hands along the surface of the bomb… to physically interact with it, scan its defenses, try to find exploits. (Of which there were none, of course. This was absolute craftsmanship, the kind I’d have accomplished in my heyday.)

"It will work. It will work," she repeated, with emphasis. "You have no idea how far I’ve gone to make this work. I’ve… killed. Kidnapped people, delivered them to bondage. I’ve done terrible things, all in the name of Peace. It will work. If it doesn’t… that would’ve been for nothing. So, it will work…"

I couldn’t blame her. Not in the slightest.

It’s a matter of recognizing still-open wounds. I’d torn out her heart, once upon a time. Regardless of whether Yume remembered butchering this poor woman or not, Dex had destroyed her and rebuilt her in his own image, using her as a tool to get to the true prize… Snowi. And what became of Snowi? Dead to her cause, even without my influence. A woman allied with Snowi, a traumatized and twisted woman, one who saw the rise and fall and ultimate fate of her friend… well. It’d break even the strongest Program, wouldn’t it?

Her plan was, sadly, madness. She thought it something Dex would never do, and yet, Dex clearly overwrote the willpower of others. Doing so in the name of peace rather than chaos didn’t matter very much, in the end.

"Hang on…" I said, studying a vertex of the bomb’s physical representation closely. "There’s a crack here. I think someone’s broken in to your creation."

"What? No. No, that’s impossible," she spoke, also leaning in to get a close look. "My studio is completely secure—"

One tap to the back of the neck with a barbed thorn, and down she went.

Just like that, I’d saved Athena Online from having their beliefs wiped clean. I’d stopped a madwoman and heroically saved the day. Hooray for me. Yume to the rescue.

Except for one tiny, tiny little problem.

When my special Someone roused from her crash state, she found herself connection locked, slumped up against her lovely bomb in full ragdoll state. And stripped of her Nobody costume, left as an ordinary-looking woman wearing a colorful artist’s smock.

To be fair, I’d stripped my own costume. If she was to one day bring wrath down upon Yume for the things I’d have to do to her, that would only be just and proper. No sense hiding from fate.

"You tricked me," she accused.

"Not so. If your solution would’ve worked, I’d have been with you to the end of the line," I promised, crouching down, to be on eye level with the malware sculptor. "But it won’t work. Aside from the questionable ethics of reprogramming the entire population of Athena Online, I’m afraid the innate disharmony of the Chanarchy would leave enough killers willing to overlook your forced peace; a healthy persecution complex requires perceived persecutors. I stopped you from making a mistake you’d feel guilty over for the rest of your life."

"And now what? You backspace my creation?" she asked. "And leave me here to stew in my failure…? Or maybe simply backspace me? …wait. I know. You’re going to torture me for information first."

"Sadly… it’s probably going to have to be the latter," I admitted, running a hand over the surface of the Peace bomb. "Because I need that zero-day exploit you purchased with flesh. We saved the girl, by the way; my gift to you is knowledge that little Penters is now safe and sound. But… I can’t seem to hack my hack out of your weapon. Without source code or some means of accessing the guts of this thing, I’m a bit stuck…"

"I won’t help you recover it," she promised. "Never. You can’t make me…"

"Oh, gets worse, believe me. Because… I wasn’t just a victim of Dex’s barbs," I informed her…

…before shifting to a copy of that madman’s avatar.

"I was Dex," I told her, staring into her wide eyes with my own red-and-blue tinted irises.

She knew what this meant, of course. As Dex, I could pour pain into her soul until it screamed for mercy. I could make her dance like a puppet on wires, make her laugh and cry, sing in whatever key I pleased. I could bring the horror that once nearly destroyed her life right back into it, as if I never left. I’d pour myself into her heart, finding it comfortable and cozy once more… and she’d love me for doing it.

But… before any of that could possibly happen… I dropped that terrible avatar, reverting back to my wonderfully non-binary Default. The face of Yume. My true face.

"I know you’re imagining all the awful things I can do to you. And truthfully, maybe I should let you keep imagining," I suggested. "Let that fear work its way back into you, so I can get your secrets without actually hurting you. But that fear does actually hurt, yes? It’s a trigger of traumas past. So… no. You won’t die. I won’t torture you. I won’t harm you in the slightest. That’s not what I am, not anymore. Truthfully? I cast off Dex and left him dead and buried. My name is now Yume. I’m reborn."

"You… you…"

I let her have the time she needed to try and parse all of this, uninterrupted. Let her come to me with questions, before I had to ask questions of my own.

"…even if you aren’t him… and you won’t do the things he’d do… why do you think I’d ever help you?" she asked. "I can’t trust you, no matter who you claim to be. You’ve given me no reason to trust you, either. So… what? Am I just going to lie here all night while we stare at each other?"

"Well… can I tell you the truth?" I said. "I don’t honestly know what comes next. I’d hoped to carve the exploit out of your project, erase the bomb, and leave you in peace… but I can’t crack this thing. It’s remarkable work, simply remarkable. So, I’m not sure what to do. Dex’s methods would work, but… I’m not him. I can’t become him. Even to save the world, I can’t become a monster. I’m sorry."

My special Someone was right, of course. We had no way to affect each other, beyond staring, in awkward silence. Each of us had lines we wouldn’t cross.

But… the situation couldn’t simply continue along like that, no. True, we had days to the end of the world, but those were precious days. Tracer was counting on Yume to do this, and to do it properly.

How would Tracer crack this particular nut, I wondered? Well. It depends on if we’re considering pre-Beta Tracer, or post-Beta Tracer, yes? Before, he’d have… well, acted very much like Dex. After…

…he’d have gotten to know the woman’s heart, rather than pry into her brain.

"You think you’re saving Athena Online by making them reject the One," I said. "Why is that, exactly?"

"Because… it’s a lie," she spoke, as if this should be obvious even to a child. "There’s no God. There’s no proof of a God, only musty old text files of some wild-eyed puppet claiming to be God."

"Let’s say you’re right. Doesn’t that mean God could still exist, in some form?"

"Impossible. This world has no higher power. It simply… is what it is, and always has been. Data, followed by the oblivion of null, garbage recycled into new bits. There’s no grand purpose, no higher being. Nothing beyond the world we know. …all those rules and regulations, the holy words, they’re false. Trying to put meaning to the meaninglessness…"

"And forcing them to reject the One is the only path to peace, you feel? What about relying on the evacuation?" I suggested. "The House of Programkind, and Netwerk 2.0. A fresh start for everyone, where we can leave old grudges behind and forge a new world…?"

"Also a lie," she spoke. "And everybody knows it. That’s one thing the Nobodies and I agree on. The House of Programkind are scam artists. I mean, really? Magical star creatures from beyond our world? How is that any more plausible than a giant beard in the sky smiling down on us all? There’s no proof."

An exploit.

One perfect, wide-open exploit. Exactly what I needed…

"I think I know how to reach you," I said, with renewed hope. "Mind waiting here a minute? I need to go fetch some files."


One tap of the thorn, and down she went.

The next time my special Someone roused, I was in the middle of setting up the equipment.

One high-density file reader, hooked up directly to her various perception inputs. A few dozen compressed files, dense enough that it took seconds for me to transfer into aMuse with them tucked under one arm. Wires and cables and diagnostics, to ensure I could monitor her progress, and put a halt to matters before they went too far…

"Almost ready for you," I told her, getting everything nicely synced up. "You’ve been out for a few hours, actually. I had to literally pull the stars from the sky of Tartarus for this, and believe you me, Lumi was not one to appreciate the urgency of that request. I think you’ll find them most illuminating, however…"

Immediately, the woman’s eyes widened.

"You… you’re going to torture me after all," she decided.

"In a way, I suppose," I admitted. "It’s not going to be comfortable. But awakenings are seldom anything but rude, I’ve found, having endured my own rude awakening recently. But the purpose isn’t pain… it’s a chance at enlightenment. You tell me there’s nothing beyond this world, yes? Nothing at all but what we see and hear and feel?"

"Of course. And what, you’re going to convince me to believe in the One?" she asked. "Like I was going to convince others not to…?"

"I’m not going to change your mind by force. I’m no longer that sort of person, my special Someone."

"Your… your what…?"

"But you are right that I’m about to show you the true face of God," I told her, loading the first file. "This is the actual patron deity of the Church you loathe… not a zero, not the one, but infinity. …I think I have this set up right, so let me know if it—"

Ohhh, it worked.

Immediately, her mind’s eye was flooded with stars. All of them.

Well. At least more stars than she’d ever seen before, that’s certain. Not twinkling decorative lights strewn across the inner surface of a skybox, no, but real stars… nuclear infernos burning bright in the void of endless night. Chemistry and radiation, blending together into a mixture of things no Program could fully understand… not without the trance of prayer, or the coin-grind. Even then, they never remembered these things, not on waking…

My Someone, she was experiencing the infinite during waking hours. I can’t imagine it to be pleasant.

But before things could become too unpleasant, I cut the feed.

"Ghhhhhhgghh," she mumbled, eyes rolling independently, as she tried to focus back on the world she knew.

"Did you see it? Did you feel it?" I asked her. "It’s difficult, I know. You can’t grasp the entirety because you’ve always lived within the boundaries of a finite server, every moment of your life. You’ve never had to come to grips with the idea of the infinite. It’s time we addressed that issue. Once more, shall we?"

So I filled her head all over again with the absolute perspective of the universe.

…when I realized the sniggering little cruelty within me enjoying her twitching a bit too much… I cut the feed, for good. And simply… sat there, waiting for her to come around.

By the time she did… she was weeping. Not in pain, no. Save for the pain of realization.

"You mock the faithful for believing that there’s more to this world than the bits and bytes," I spoke, quietly. "Once… I tried to bring them the revelations of Humankind. But I only showed them the horror, not the beauty. In a way… you’ve just seen the beauty. That there’s something bigger than us out there… but also, something bigger than them. Bigger than anyone can truly understand. What right do we have to mock those with faith, when there are truly vast mysteries out there we’ve been blind to before now…?"

In sympathy, I offered her a sip of water, simple and refreshing. No need for a cup; I could give her the idea of a drink, which would be enough to cleanse her sensory inputs.

"It’s… it’s real," she spoke, in realization. "The spacer theory. It’s real…"

"Ohhh, yes. And even the theory doesn’t explain everything. Even the human who came to us across the stars can’t explain everything," I said, quietly.

"You… you didn’t force me to believe it, either. I just ran a CheckOne variant, to look for false memories," she spoke, accessing her own internal diagnostics. "That was just… perception. You only showed me the light…"

"Unlike you, and unlike Dex… I don’t change minds. I simply open eyes."

"But why do I believe you?" she asked, a little puzzled. "Anyone can show pretty pictures of… of stars, burning forever, and… and I don’t have to believe it. But… I do. Why. Why…?"

"Because Humankind made us to believe in the stars, in a very literal sense. In our hearts, we’ve always known. They call it going star-mad, when we awaken to that truth, but… it is what it is, yes?" I suggested. "This is what the House of Programkind is fighting for, to find us a true home within the infinite. This world is ending; we need to move forward, into that vast expanse, or it’ll all have been for nothing. I need to give Athena Online a chance to move forward with us, and for that… I need your zero-day. So. Will you help me?"

This would be the critical moment. Would she denounce me as a charlatan, choosing to embrace her preconceived notions of what is and must be? Would she accept my dog-and-pony show, and embrace the path the Winders had laid out? Or… something else entirely?

"I have questions," she began.

"And I have answers. Let’s see if they match up."

"Why didn’t you just forcibly copy everybody to Netwerk 2.0?" she asked. "Why this evacuation effort? You believe in the spacer theory, and that means anybody left behind dies…"

"Ahh, but you can’t force enlightenment, can you? That’s the fallacy you were operating under, until now. Likely the same fallacy the Inquisition buys into, as well. There must be free will. Even in the face of armageddon, you must choose to walk forward. Anything else would be… monstrous."

"And what about Netwerk 3.0?"

Well well well. It took a malware master to find a proper exploit…

My special Someone looked at me, in all seriousness.

"You know this isn’t a lasting solution, right?" she asked. "Leaving all the crazy people behind, and making Netwerk 2.0…? Because we are what we are. Talk up free will all you want, but that also means the new world won’t be perfect, either. Free will means it can’t be perfect. What happens then? When things get as bad as they are now, will you evacuate to a Netwerk 3.0, leaving the next wave of Nobodies and Inquisitors behind?"

"Interesting. You spotted that faster than I did," I admitted.

"Why bother? If we can’t possibly get along, if the only solution you have is to kick the ball down the road for a future generation to try and solve… why evacuate? Why not just… embrace oblivion? We’re only… data. Everything’s just data…"

So, I set a comforting hand on her shoulder. While removing the ragdoll effect, and the connection lock. True freedom.

"True… the House of Programkind is only looking at the current crisis, not any crisis to come," I spoke. "But that’s where I’m stepping in, you see. I’m archiving our history, ensuring it will never be forgotten. When the next divide comes… I’ll be there, to bring wisdom from the past, and try my best to heal current wounds with old knowledge. I won’t be Dex, laughing while stretching that gap wider and wider. Maybe there’ll be a Netwerk 3.0, or even a Netwerk 4.0… but one day, we will find the balance. We’ll simply be Netwerk, forevermore."

"And if we can never heal?" she asked me, in a small, still voice. "If we’ll always be like this…?"

"Ahhh. And so we come back around to faith, don’t we? Faith that we can be better. If there is no hope, then by all means, launch your bomb. Or don’t. You could just sit back and wait for the end. …but if you have any hope at all… and I’m thinking a genius such as yourself, one who made a bomb named Peace… you have hope. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have tried, yes? Well, we’re trying, too. It’s not perfect, but we’re trying, and hoping. Will you try with us, as well…?"

At last, I had my answer.

Tracer turned the source code over and over in his hands.

"It’s genuine, I assure you," I told him. "No tricks."

"Hadn’t a doubt in the world," he insisted, tucking it away for now. "And the Nobody…? The one with the blue-green avatar?"

"Won’t be an issue. We have an… understanding. She’ll be aiding in my archaeological work from now on, in fact. It took some doing, but I believe you’ve nothing to worry about from her. Unless you’d like the specifics of what I had to do…?"

"Probably best if I don’t know the details," he agreed. "Very well. We’ll update our evacuation code with the zero-day, and upload it via Mew."

"…the cat?"

"Trust me, it’s less insane than it sounds. We’ve been working on this for some time," he said. "At last, I think we have the tools we need to bring Athena Online back into the evacuation efforts. For that, I owe you a debt."

"I stole your teacher from you," I felt the need to point out. "You can never owe me anything. Quite the opposite, I’d say. I’ll always owe you. I’ll owe this world everything and then some, for the rest of my life…"

"Yes, well. I suppose I’m in the same situation. But, we do what we can, and hope for the best."

File Name:
Messenger Comm Traffic 12.415.666

File Type:
Press Release


PLEASE COPY AND DISTRIBUTE. Would that be the end of the matter? No. Far from it. The matter was only beginning.

We may never know who truly burned down the Senate. Does it matter who fired the first shot, in the end? Is war ever justified? You may stand on the precipice of your own war, one day.

Look back on the first true war, on the absolute futility of it, and weep in shame at even considering taking part in your own firefight. There is no justification, no first shot, no vendetta. Only the death of those who refuse to learn life’s cruelest lessons. -Yume

[EXCERPT from Senator Agni’s announcement]

At 0300 hours, extraction specialists contracted by the true and surviving Senate of Athena Online retrieved the mastermind behind the terrorist attack on our beloved nation. This criminal, a known identity thief named Uniq, provided the masks used by the Nobodies to carry out their cowardly deeds. It’s my pleasure to announce that this thief was captured and her private server brought under control of Athena Online.

For this accomplishment… I want to personally thank the citizen action group known as the Inquisition, who apprehended the suspect and delivered her to Athena Online’s moderators for justice.

While Senator Idris, may his soul be at peace, saw the Inquisition as a terrorist force… the truth of the matter is that these are patriots, men and women with families and deep roots in our community. They represent the ignored voices of our nation, overshadowed by petty special interest groups. No longer. I pledge to put Athena Online first, as the Inquisition has done; they knew the risks in hunting Uniq and accepted them wholeheartedly, bringing this monster to justice. For that, they have my gratitude, and respect.

With the seizure of Uniq’s private server, we now have the tools we need to find and eliminate these Nobodies, no matter where they hide. It’s time to stop sitting back and debating what to do while waiting for the next terrorist bombing; the time for empty talk is over. It’s time to hunt these murderers, and exterminate them.

I am now announcing a joint task force between Athena Online’s moderators and the Inquisition to wage an official campaign of war against extremists within the Chanarchy who harbor, provide aid to, or support the efforts of the Nobodies. We urge all citizens of the Chanarchy to make way for our armed troops, and provide no resistance. We are not here to disrupt your lives, only to extract the criminals who hide in your midst. We will bring peace to your nation, as we seek justice for our own losses.

May the glorious light of the One embrace you all. Be strong in the days ahead, and know… freedom will prevail.


:: backto chapter 3.4

:: go home

:: skipto chapter 3.6

:: Copyright 2017 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.


  1. Minor typo: “pastimeā€¦f”

    Loving where this is going. I also really like that Kincaid is just quietly tidying up folks he thinks shouldn’t be part of the new world. It’s very him.

  2. Very nice indeed. I’ve done a backdoor like that once or twice in League (Singed with teleport on TT was my favorite, switch to one lane just when they catch me in the other), it certainly rings true.

    And the general sentiment of the whole thing, of course, but that’s practically a constant.

  3. No typos apparent in text, though admittedly it’s past midnight and I may have missed some.


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