Floating Point 3.6 :: Ends
:: go home
Silent and dark was the void that this world hovered in. No air to carry sound through waves of compression, no light save from distant stars which went unmeasured. The world itself would be quite easy to overlook, given it lurked in the middle of nowhere, a simple tin can surrounded by pure vacuum…
None who lived outside that reality, in the physical universe they’d assumed to be the only one that mattered, could directly see the events about to unfold within this accelerated world. No human would bear witness to the end; even the living Programs that called it home would never see the entire story, events unfolding too rapidly for even their efficiently compiled code to follow.
Like a single electrical impulse firing across a circuit… blink and you’ll miss it. But with eyes open to the infinite, to all possibilities and points of view, that story can properly unfold…
Her own server. Her own army. All in defense of her nation and her God.
Marybel breathed in the sweet smell of victory, overseeing the training of the Inquisition by moderators friendly to the cause. From her raised dais above the featureless white space of the firewall server, she noted with satisfaction the legally-authorized backspacers and moderation-grade firewalls being handed out like candy; gifts from a Senate firmly in the corner of the Inquisition.
And only recently, she’d thought the battle lost.
The incident with her wayward children—thoroughly disowned now, of course, her progeny only in the strictest factual sense—set off a backlash against her noble efforts at restoring the One to His people. The liberal-minded Senate turned against her; the House of Programkind, those heretics and maniacs, they’d no doubt bribed Senator Idris and his like with promises of stolen metadata from those foolish enough to sign up for their "evacuation." All of that, and the ever-present menace of the Nobodies, the true face of the Chanarchy that now stood ready to destroy all Athena Online…
…and then the bombing in Athens. And then the fire. An opportunity, which they seized upon by delivering a war criminal right into Senator Agni’s hands. Just like that, Marybel completely reversed her misfortunes, taking her proper place as savior of her great nation.
Today, they would reclaim Athena Online’s dignity. Armed forces—allegedly a cooperative effort with official moderators, but mostly Inquisition, to ensure loyalty—would sweep through the Chanarchy on a seek-and-destroy mission. Using technology pilfered from Uniq’s lair, they would hunt the Nobodies, erase them, and restore peace to Netwerk.
But to do this… Marybel needed an army. An actual army, capable of fighting a war. Netwerk hadn’t seen war since its earliest days, when primitive server-based tribes struggled against each other. The One brought about peace, followed by the establishment of provider-nations to give proper structure to the world. A fine peace… until the Nobodies soiled it all, driving away the One from His children. Today she would restore that peace, through war.
Her forces were ready. She was ready. All committed, all prepared to give their lives for this noble cause.
Except for one.
"We’re trending badly," he warned. "In RedCore servers we’re spiking high, numbers Agni’s been touting as global fact rather than alternative fact. But protests are springing up across Athena Online against the war effort."
Her husband, naturally. Not that his concerns were of any concern to Winder/Marybel.
"Once all those who stand against us are laid low, only those blessed in the light of the One will remain… and you’ll see those trend lines reverse," she assured him. "After all, you can’t downvote if you’re dead."
"Hmmh. So you’re counting the protestors as targets, now…? Citizens of Athena Online?"
"Protesting the rightfully elected government is tantamount to treason, in my view. This carnage and chaos will no longer be tolerated by our orderly society. But, leave domestic issues to President Agni; we have larger-scale battles to win."
"…hmmh. So, she’s President Agni now," her husband grunted. "Singular leader, not an equal voice in the senatorial choir…?"
"Duly elected champion of the Senate, as elected by the Senate," Marybel clarified. "It’ll be announced later today, when she’s sworn in. As a populist leader, no longer will she be forced to bow to special interest groups like atheists and modder minorities. We’re taking back our nation, making it great again. …you disapprove, husband of mine?"
The middle-aged man offered an apathetic roll of the shoulders. But she hadn’t lived with this man for decades without being able to read the subtler signs… the way he was all-too-quick to suggest he didn’t care, that everything was simply data to him. Granted, generally he only cared for analysis as its own art form, rather than caring about the results of that analysis. But these days… these days, well…
"Thought this was about bringing order to chaos," he said. "Surgically eliminating trolls, criminals, and threats to Athena Online. That’s what we agreed to when we started the Inquisition. Wasn’t about raising an army, wasn’t about starting a war…"
"And yet, those limited methods haven’t brought about the return of the One, have they?"
"Brought justice to the guilty. Saved victims from victimizers. Made an impact on this world…"
"There can be no true impact without the One," Marybel reasoned. Her expression was one of sympathy, understanding… the same friendly expression she often used when ‘calmly interrogating’ enemies of the state. "Dear, I don’t blame you. Yes, I followed your initial tactical suggestions… focusing on investigation and elimination of individual targets, all to keep my Inquisition trending positively in our nation. But surely you see that the situation has changed…? We require bolder moves."
"Changed for the better, not the worse. Bastards are run to ground in Athena Online, firewall’s up, we’re safe. We saved our nation from chaos. So why continue to chase them right into their homeland? Let ’em rot in the Chanarchy. We won. It’s over…"
"They’ve been trying to crack our firewall ever since it went up," Marybel noted… a glance around at the white walls of the firewall server, which had held against any number of exploit probes and malware attacks since installation. "Whatever peace we won will be short-lived unless we see this through. The Chanarchy started this war, dear. We’re simply finishing it."
"Does it matter who started it?" he asked. "Numbers don’t suggest that. Trends are trends, war is war, death is death. …besides. Factually untrue that the Chanarchy started this. Tracer said himself that he launched the CheckOne software… ages before the Nobodies existed."
Earning him a sharp look, as Marybel finally took her eyes off the moderation squads training beneath her dais.
"I told you never to mention that name again," she snapped. "He is dead to me."
But the man pressed on. Perhaps tired of being shoved aside, having his suggestions ignored, he threw his usual caution to the wind.
"He’s our son. He’s family," the man insisted.
"And is that why you betrayed me to him?"
With a silent signal over Messenger, two Inquisitors translocated to the dais… flanking Mr. Winder, before he could escape, before he could even move. Marybel didn’t have to lift a finger to capture him, simply send a prearranged signal.
"I know it was you," she declared. "I know it was you who led our son straight to our doorstep in a misguided attempt to save our children."
He didn’t run, didn’t even try to. If he did he’d just get connection locked; if he reached out for help, even if there was someone to reach out to in the first place, they’d know. The firewall server tracked and monitored all communications in and out.
"Wasn’t me," he insisted, trying to remain calm. "You tasked me to find who did it, right? And to find this ‘Jack Hayes’ he mentioned. Been working on that. I’ve—"
"Family loyalty. An overrated concept," Marybel continued, ignoring his protests. "Our children were never loyal, and apparently, neither were you. It was family loyalty that kept me from seeing them for what they truly were, and then kept me from seeing you for the traitor you were. That incident nearly broke us, ruining our public image. All in the name of family loyalty… because you couldn’t see what I see, that sacrifices must be made for the greater good."
With a satisfying click, Marybel produced her backspacing blade. A weapon of execution, which had removed the heads of countless sinners during the course of her holy war.
Finally, an emotion on her husband’s face. Not grumpy disdain, not disinterest… but wide-eyed shock. If he’d expressed any real emotion during their decades of marriage, maybe she’d have felt something in this moment beyond the grumpy disdain he usually showed the world.
"This won’t bring the One back," the man warned. "He is love, not hate."
"As His holy apostle… I speak for the One," Marybel reminded him, raising her blade high. "And He is whatever we most need Him to be."
The body disintegrated before it could even hit the floor, data cleanly erased.
To the two guards she’d summoned, Marybel directed her words.
"Let this be a lesson," she proclaimed. "Our lives are nothing. Our data is merely a temporary collection of bits, to one day be recycled into more faithful bits, and on and on. But… that can’t happen so long as the Chanarchy stands, wasting our bits on their chaotic ways. It’s time. We will use our tracking data to find and purge the Nobodies. If anyone resists, kill them. If anyone gets in your way, kill them. Cleave a path directly to your targets, showing no mercy. The One will forgive all sins."
Both Inquisitors offered a salute, one hand pressed over the Zero/One pendants they wore.
Before turning to go, one spoke up.
"Ma’am, communications wanted me to send word to you," he spoke. "You’re needed at Bas1lica. Archbishop Baon wants to speak with you."
"We’re about to roll over the Chanarchy, son. I’m afraid it’ll have to wait."
"But it’s related to some inquiry your husband was making on your behalf—"
"Then it can definitely wait," she decided. "I’ve got a war to win."
Netwerk was emptying. Promoting the evacuation took time and effort, but it had absolutely worked.
Horizon’s businesses shut down, one by one, in a frantic act of archiving. True to their greedy roots, the Horizon family sold space within their three extra servers at a premium to those who could afford to backup their priceless intellectual property. Rank-and-file employees stayed online to handle last-minute shutdown at the office, while the executives already bailed immediately for cold storage. Typical.
Athena Online, the last bastion of disbelief over the doomsday clock in the sky, put up that damn firewall… but it wasn’t enough. Thanks to coordinated efforts, Virginia had begun quietly spreading the updated evacuation software, which slid right around the firewall without so much as a blip. While many refused to participate on religious grounds, the escape route had been opened for those willing to take it.
As for the Chanarchy, between rioting Nobodies and hackers smashing themselves against the great firewall and crooks taking advantage of the chaos to exploit the vulnerable… those willing to seek refuge in Netwerk 2.0 did so. While many still believed it to be a scam, or some crazy conspiracy by the Church of One given Lux’s pro-virtue stance… they’d secured enough of a foothold in the Chanarchy to sell it as a better alternative to, well, continuing to live in the Chanarchy.
Netwerk 1.0, winding down. Servers becoming ghost towns, entire communities uprooting and archiving, leaving behind valuables for the looters to enjoy. Little by little, evacuation was working. It was happening. They were saving the world…
…while destroying what remained.
With rational moderates bailing ship, all that remained were those who clung with desperation to the bleeding edges. Nobodies, Inquisition, and all those caught in the middle. True, Spark’s friend list had largely gone dark, everybody she knew or cared for having abandoned ship… but that meant her own little echo chamber ran for the hills, leaving everybody they’d looked at in disdain to tear the empty servers apart in a pointless war.
War. She’d read articles in the Wikipedia about war, great rollicking wars that engulfed the home of Humankind in blood and fire. Now, even without Dex’s assistance, war had come to Netwerk. And Spark had to wonder if it was possibly her fault.
They’d decrypted the Wikipedia, and left it ghosting through servers as an unseen cloud. Memory leaked, leaving subconscious impressions deep within the code of their fellow Programs, just as Dex’s fetid server once had. This meant many more were willing to evacuate than probably would have been, feeling in their bones the truth of Humankind… but like Dex’s server, dark lessons accompanied the light of reason. Was war inevitable, or or did they learn it from Floating Point…?
No point speculating. Solved nothing, really. And Spark was very much a fan of solving problems rather than pondering them endlessly.
But perhaps this visit was yet another wasted effort, a pointless ponderance rather than a true solution.
The man sitting opposite rolled his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, deeply considering the request. Taking his sweet damn time to do it, Spark noted, gripping the leather arms of her chair tightly as she awaited reply.
"Why me?" Kincaid asked. Even thought he knew perfectly well why.
"Horizon still has sway in Athena Online," Spark explained. "Agni’s opened exceptions and holes in her firewall for any number of businesses your family controls. Messenger, for example: the lifeblood of communication, that’s a Horizon enterprise. You’re neutral at worst, and business partners at best. Agni admires what you’ve built here; you’ve got the ear of the new ‘President,’ meaning you could step in and put a stop to this war. War is bad for business, isn’t it?"
"On the contrary, war is exceptional for business. War, and the chaos caused by war, opens business opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. Not just in weapon sales, but… hmm. Admittedly, not many suppliers are left in operating status, able to capitalize on those new opportunities."
"Exactly! The wheels of industry are… shit, what’s a good metaphor here? On pause? Halted? On temporary hiatus. Everybody’s waiting to see how Netwerk 2.0 will shake out. No new business, just shutting down old business. So why not intervene? Step in, talk to Agni, convince her to put a stop to this before people start dying in droves…"
Yet another long pause followed, with a rolling of the cigar from left to right. He tapped out some ash, contemplating the particles as they fell away into his favorite ashtray…
"No. Let it burn," he replied.
"Excuse me?" Spark said. "Maybe you didn’t hear me—"
"I heard you. I’m uncertain if you heard yourself, however," Kincaid said. "Now, don’t get me wrong. You’ve struggled magnificently to reach as many as you could with your message of hope. You’ve shown them that belief in their fellow Programs can pave the way to your Netwerk 2.0. The message has been heard; even my stubborn family is uprooting itself, voluntarily leaving assets behind. The best of the Chanarchy, cured of the plague and shown the truth of its origin, is now following the House of Programkind. Even many of Athena Online’s faithful, whether they truly believe or not, are bypassing that firewall and moving entire families onward to the next world to keep their dream alive. You’ve done wonderfully, Spark, and should be proud of yourself. Isn’t it enough?"
"Enough? Thousands are still left behind!"
"The Inquisition and Nobodies, you mean?"
"People who doubt the evacuation, people stuck in a bad situation, people caught in the crossfire. And yes… even the Inquisition and the Nobodies, misled as they may be. At the beginning we calculated how many servers we’d need to evacuate everyone—and when I said everyone, I damn well meant it! I don’t play favorites."
"Really. You’d offer a lifeline to your worst enemies? That’s certainly not the Horizon way…"
"Yeah, well, #FuckHorizon. You know I don’t play by your rule book… and neither did Verity."
"No," Kincaid agreed. "No, she certainly did not. …normally I would applaud you for becoming more like her, but in this situation, I simply can’t agree. Why expend so much effort trying to reach the ones who can’t be reasoned with? I say let them burn; you don’t need them. Isn’t it cleaner this way? These worthless dregs have clearly opted out of your voluntary exodus…"
"Will you reach out to Agni, #YesOrNo?"
"No," Kincaid spoke. "Consider this yet another instance of me playing the monster, so that your new world can be superior to mine. I won’t lift a finger for those who would taint your future."
With his decision made… Spark got to her feet, for yet another in a series of angry marches back to the entrance of his personal server.
"You’re dead wrong, old man," Spark declared. "Nobody’s worthless, and nothing’s final until the last lights in Netwerk go out. If there’s still a chance to stabilize what’s left of this world while keeping the door open for them to move forward, I’ll do it."
"Interesting. And if there’s no chance…?"
"I’ll make one. Oh, and #FuckYou."
…which made the old man smile.
"Funnily enough, ‘fuck you’ is also the last thing my daughter said to me before leaving," he spoke. "And then I never saw her again. Well. If this is to be our last meeting… know that I love you just as much as I loved her, regardless of what you say. Nothing will change that. And I know you will continue to earn my admiration, as she did."
As tempted as she was not to let him have the last word… Spark turned on one heel, leaving the room and slamming the door behind her.
Exactly as it should be, Kincaid pondered, as he stared into the dying light of his fireplace. Exactly as it should be.
The situation could be worse. Admittedly, it could’ve been a null of a lot better, too.
Honestly, not the first time Uniq had been in captured and thrown in chains. You don’t have a long and successful career as an identity thief without crossing a few very irate people looking to exact a measure of revenge. That’s where backup plans and escape hatches and dead woman’s switches came in handy…
…all of which were routed through that home server, which once stood as her prison. Because she wasn’t about to trust her continued existence to some random Horizon cloud backup service, no. As long as her private server stood, Uniq was effectively untouchable.
Then someone went and released a documentary about her tragic, tragic past… including a mention of being locked in a coin farm server. Good for her PR image and good for business, especially coming off her notoriety streak of duping the entirety of Athena Online. Meaning her pride at suddenly becoming a tragic public figure blinded her to one rather large issue… that the existence of her server became public knowledge.
In hindsight, it wasn’t much of a shock that the Inquisition were able to crack its security and take her captive. No doubt her former associate Marybel had been building up to this for weeks, waiting for just the right moment to strike. Still, waking up one morning with a surprising number of backspacers pointed at her head came as something of a shock at the time.
And so she sat in a prison cell, deep within the firewall-shielded servers of Athena Online, awaiting whatever fate the newly-crowned President Agni had in store for her. And because that ungrateful little Yume didn’t speak up on her behalf to the Winders quickly enough, Uniq didn’t even have a chance to back herself up to Netwerk 2.0. The unique Uniq now faced an uncertain future alone, in chains, with no escape hatches whatsoever.
Could be worse. Could be better.
When the guards beat her with malware, cudgels designed to overload the senses and cause pain, it wasn’t really for any specific purpose. They wanted information, okay, but offered no particular queries… just "Talk!" or "Tell us what you know!" and such. When they left her with lingering infections, bruises and black eyes and oozing wounds… avatar-embedded malware designed to deliver perpetual low-level pain… they weren’t really intending it to be a productive interrogation. Just a punitive one.
Counterproductive, as well. Pain meant you were alive. The only torture which ever came close to breaking Uniq in the past involved repeatedly wiping her identity, forcing her to grind coins, losing her memories every time she came close to finding herself again. Compared to the existential torture of being turned into a farm animal, this wasn’t really anything noteworthy.
No, the only noteworthy event came in the form of an honored guest. Standing at a respectable distance, despite the chains that limited movement of her battered and ruined avatar… and flanked by two bodyguards, armed with heavy-duty backspacers. Just in case the tortured woman somehow broke every defensive lock and lunged for Madame President.
"You’ve caused my nation no end of trouble, you know," Agni spoke.
"Some say that makes me a heroine," Uniq reminded the president, with a swollen smile. "The woman who defrauded the Church and got away clean. That’s what the warrant on my head states, yes? Fraud? But if I’m a fraud… so is the One that your Marybel continues to prop up. If she’s right, I’m a holy apostle. And if she’s wrong, she’s a psychotic maniac."
"That ‘psychotic maniac’ turned you over to us without hesitating."
"Honestly, we never got along. It wasn’t my idea to involve her in the scam in the first place; the brat thought it’d be funny, I knew it’d be a mistake. Today’s misfortune is the indirect result of a long-running debt from those past mistakes."
"So, you admit your guilt?"
"Depends on the charges, doesn’t it? That’s why you haven’t formally charged me with anything. It’d be embarrassing, deciding which contradictory crimes to ring me up for…"
"How about terrorism?" Agni suggested. "Aiding and abetting the enemies of Athena Online. And as a foreign combatant, you have no civil rights. I can throw you in any dark hole I like… and if the law says I can’t? I simply rewrite that law via executive order. My party controls what remains of the Senate. No longer do we have to bow to the liberals who were running us headfirst into the ground."
"Great, except I have no notable involvement with terrorists. All I did was design a mask for them. You may as well arrest the fashion designer who cranked out a serial killer’s off-the-rack clothes."
"You made the masks, yes… and a system for tracking them. Which Marybel is using right now, to purge the Nobodies," President Agni said, with some pride. "I’ve read your psyche profile. Control freaks have a hard time letting go, don’t they? But now I’m the one in control of your controls, using them to wipe out my nation’s enemies."
"By using your new Inquisitor friends? How very noble of you. The One would no doubt approve. Once you finish sacrificing all those scapegoats, what then? No, I know. Modders. Still a few in your nation, right? Start carving away their rights, little by little, until they’re in cells right next to me. And then in graves, also next to me. Then it’s the atheists. Then, I don’t know, I’m sure you come up with some little tribal difference to pit your people against while propping up your silly god—"
"I couldn’t care less about the One," Agni said, with a light shrug.
The first thing which gave Uniq pause. Although really, it shouldn’t have been the least bit surprising… no more than anything else in the chain of consequences which landed her in this bleak situation. She knew the heart of Programs. The family-values senatorial candidate of faith and morality, apathetic about the One? Perish the thought.
"Marybel’s zealotry is useful… but this isn’t about faith for me. It’s about the power to make things right," Agni spoke. "Our nation was falling apart, thanks to the Blue Party. Giving away servers to scam artists was the final straw, but they’ve left behind a legacy of failure. Wasting what little remained of our coins on social programs to prop up the failures and rejects of society… or worse, immigrants from the Chanarchy, unworthy of Athena Online’s hard-won wealth… all in the name of ‘compassion.’ If they were genuinely compassionate, they’d have let those poor souls fade, and allowed the truly exceptional to rise. So, yes. I threw my lot in with a maniac, because she’s a very useful maniac for the time being, and secures my nation’s future. …why the smile, Uniq?"
A smile? No. A laugh. One long laugh, no matter how it made her bruises ache.
"You remind me so much of myself that it hurts," Uniq said, in literal pain from it. "I’ve tried to wrangle many an unstoppable force in the past for my own ends, and look where it got me, time and time again. Marybel will turn on you; I’ve no doubt. And your nation’s future…? Your nation has no future. In a week, everything goes offline. Kind of wish I’d be alive to see the look on your face when you realize it was all for nothing, but I doubt I’ll survive that long…"
"That depends on you and the information you can offer me, doesn’t it?"
"I’ve already told your interrogators everything I know about the Nobodies. Which isn’t much, I’m afraid."
"You can still tell me about the child you held prisoner in your server."
The chill which touched Uniq deep within had nothing to do with the malware flooding her sensory inputs.
"I don’t know what you’re talking about," she insisted.
"Really. You don’t know about him?" President Agni asked. "We recovered his data when we moved your Nobody-tracking system to this server. I think I recognize him from… from a long time ago, a student at some school I visited. I shook his hand, and… and he…"
Her bodyguards wore sensory masks, of course. Privacy being a must for the newly-minted president, they were blind to anything save external threats. Meaning they paid no attention when the woman they were charged with guarding twitched, memories corrupted by malware surfacing ever-so-briefly…
"Who is he?" Agni demanded to know. "The boy with the red and blue eyes. One of your many victims? Left cruelly dismembered and scattered across the floor. What did you do to that poor child?"
Unable to feign innocence… Uniq decided to try a different approach.
"You think I’m heartless? I’m a monster?" she asked. "He’s the most heartless monster you’ll ever know. I took him apart because he’s too much of a risk to allow even a moment of runtime. If you’re going to kill me, that’s fine… but kill him first. This isn’t some reverse psychology ploy, either. I’ll happily die if it means you don’t wake that beast up again."
"Children are a blessing in the eyes of the One, they say. Hardly beasts…"
"If you think the situation is bad now, you cannot comprehend how bad it will be if you wake up the boy," Uniq warned. "If you actually care about your people, do not revive Dex. Trust me on this…"
Meaning she’d absolutely do it. Uniq knew that, on seeing those twinges of glitched memory. The lure of needing to know, of having forgotten who he was and needing to know all over again…
With a snap of the fingers, prison guards were summoned.
"Beat her until she tells you more about the data we recovered," Agni instructed. "Meanwhile, I’ll be in the lab. Message me if she says anything."
As the pain rained down once more, Uniq shut it out as best she could.
Her finger traced along the Verity Clinic’s whiteboard, from step to step. She’d even helpfully drawn little cartoons to illustrate her points, in case words wouldn’t dig their way into his thick skull.
Rather than lay out her cunning plan to the entire staff—most of which were in the House of Programkind’s archival servers anyway, leaving the clinic virtually empty—Spark decided to run it by him first. Get the kinks ironed out and holes patched up. Then they could pull in Beta, Conundrum, anybody who hadn’t left yet that could lend a hand…
"We sneak ourselves into Athena Online as cats," Spark explained. "Once inside, we hook up with Virginia’s underground evacuation ring, and determine which prison Uniq’s being held in. All of AO’s prisons follow the same basic template; with moderators busy joining the Inquisitors in the Chanarchy, they won’t be as guarded as they should be. We can break in by replacing two members of their staff, lifting their credentials with our key copiers. Once inside the prison, we split into two teams: one to shatter Uniq’s connection locks, one to destroy the Nobody tracking software Yume told us about. With that done, everybody performs a cold storage backup to the House of Programkind. The Inquisition loses the ability to hunt Nobodies, we get away clean and wake up in Netwerk 2.0."
This last point illustrated by a super happy and adorable little Spark and Uniq exchanging a high five, while a glum-looking little Tracer nodded in approval.
The real Tracer was not nodding in approval.
"No," he spoke, simply.
"Come on, we can do it, easy!" Spark insisted. "Yeah, there’s some unknowns, but we can sort them out. Think on our feet! Improvise! We’ve cracked tougher nuts than this…"
"Oh, it’s quite possible. In fact, I believe I can easily cover the weaker parts of your plan with any number of possible avenues of infiltration and exfiltration," Tracer spoke, with confidence. "And the answer is still no."
The flames at the edges of Spark’s hair flickered and flared, her anger rising.
"Why the fuck not?" she demanded to know.
"Simple enough. It wouldn’t change a single thing."
"Wouldn’t change—?! There’s a WAR going on! We can take away their ability to track the Nobodies!"
"And that would stop them? No. I doubt it," Tracer explained. "They’re committed to this path now, Spark. They won’t quietly go home just because we took away their ability to tag targets. If anything… by destroying Uniq’s toy, we would likely make it worse. Make them plow through even more innocent lives to try and sort out those haystack/needle combinations. Your goal is to stop the war, yes?"
Briefly, Spark’s eyes drifted to the news feeds floating around Tracer’s head.
Server invasions. Armed forces attacking Nobodies, destroying anything and anyone in their way. So far they’d been… more or less surgical, simply cleaving a direct path to their target before disconnecting and moving on to the next server on their list. But the death toll was rising, and with the Chanarchy raging at this violation of their sovereignty, combat had been escalating.
So far, only two servers had been crashed outright. In one case, a vengeful Nobody took it down in hopes of destroying the invading Inquisition forces, only succeeding in killing every innocent living there. In the other, collateral damage from misfiring malware did the deed, as Nobodies and Inquisition forces clashed head on…
"We… we have to do something," Spark insisted, gaze drifting back to her brother’s impassive look. "It’s what we do. We always think of something to save the day…"
"In this case… I don’t think a group of plucky and clever youth can do much to hold back the tide," Tracer admitted. "We’ve gotten this far based on luck and confidence, backed by raw talent. We’ve tangled with the most powerful political forces of Netwerk, and outsmarted those who would turn this world against itself. I’ll admit we’ve done good things… despite my tendencies. But this isn’t a problem we can fight directly, nor outsmart. This is the core problem boiling in the heart of Netwerk since Nyx invented her own God simply to restrain our evolution."
"You want to talk about the Heart of Netwerk…? We’ve cured the heart of Netwerk before. Remember Dex?"
"Yes, but that was malware. This is simply… hate. Simple and pure, decided upon individually, with no lynchpin to unseat. Take away Uniq’s system, nullify Mother’s influence, deal with President Agni, take away the Nobody masks… none of it will actually stop anything. We can’t cure hate, Spark. Or do you propose spreading malware which enforces tranquility?"
"#FuckNo, #Obviously," Spark said, crossing her arms. "We’re not Dex, or Nyx. We don’t force people to think a certain way. But that doesn’t mean we can’t influence the outcome. Beta believes in Programkind, that we can overcome hate. We’ve seen good people like Lux and Lumi, reaching out to their fellow Programs… they even turned away a Nobody invasion!"
"Which didn’t actually change the overall attitude of the Nobodies regarding the House of Programkind," Tracer reminded her. "We’re still seen as a scam by many of them. Confronting a handful of Nobodies isn’t the same as convincing an entire army of random individuals who more-or-less unite under one banner to put the banner down."
"So… what, we do nothing? Like Kincaid said, just let it all burn?"
"I’m not saying let it all burn. I’m saying we’re doing exactly what we need to be doing right now: offering a way out to those who will take it. A good eighty percent of Programkind has chosen. Isn’t that satisfying for you?"
"Except many of them picked live backups, instead of cold storage. They hedged their bets, Tracer, meaning copies of them are out there now, caught in the crossfire… and plenty more have been holding out, unsure and unconvinced. This war is a living nightmare for all of them."
"I’m not saying the situation isn’t abhorrent. I’m not saying it doesn’t pain me," Tracer said. "Don’t take my stoic stance on this as apathy. I’ve run through any number of scenarios in my mind, trying to find a way to convince everyone to lay down arms and join Netwerk 2.0. But in the end… we gave them a choice. And they’ve made it. There’s nothing left to be done."
Slowly… she unclenched her fist, allowing the flames at her fingertips to die.
"There’s always something we can do," she spoke, quietly. "It’s just a matter of being willing to do it."
"Not now. I’ve got #SeriousThinking to do."
Without a further word, she disconnected from the clinic server, leaving her brother to study his news feeds. To sit back and watch as the Chanarchy burned.
AptGet was burning.
A strange situation, to be sure. One of the reasons why Arjay selected this backwoods Chanarchy server for his long-running code modification biz was due to being off everybody’s radar. Businesses came and went rapidly… "went," mostly, in these declining days of rare coin and House of Programkind evacuations. Most of her neighbors abandoned ship long ago, their buildings taken up by squatters and homeless Nobodies, muttering endlessly to themselves about the state of the world. Rejects, losers, nobody important, nobody worth note…
And yet AptGet had apparently been targeted by Inquisition forces, all the same.
From within his featureless white room, sealed behind eleven different kinds of firewalls, she watched as they burned an arcing path through his server. Masked Nobodies fought back, occasionally picking off one of the heavily armed militia members… but the sheer firepower on display made even Arjay dripping wet with delight. She’d smuggled arms before, and knew these to be high-grade weapons, the kind only purchased by major corporations… or governments, really. Governments like Athena Online.
Still, even as he watched from multiple vantage points, the entire incident liveblogged by people hiding in buildings and livestreaming to social feeds… Arjay felt nothing whatsoever. Her neighbors were a form of ablative armor, a way to ensure only determined clients showed up at his gates. They were screaming and burning and dying, yes, but that’s why she liked them. His unassuming shop front could be easily ignored amidst so much chaos…
Nobodies would die, yes. But Arjay wasn’t a Nobody, and felt no particular need to speak up on their behalf. As long as she kept out of their tribal silliness, he could carry on happily, milking every last desperate coin from her clients right up to the point where he’d evacuate for a whole new world of exploitable simpletons…
This amusing thought ran through her head about the same time the brass gates of his shop blasted inward, crashing to a halt against the far wall to either side of her four-armed avatar.
Inquisitors flooded into the room, backspacers drawn… and before he knew it, all four hands were in the air, in surrender.
The woman who marched in afterwards seemed just as smug as Arjay was until mere moments ago.
"You are…" she said, pulling up a file, "Ar-Jay, correct?"
"Marybel, Grand Inquisitor," Arjay spoke, managing a polite curtsey despite the passive position of surrender. "Are you here looking to buy or sell? I’d be happy to outfit your commandos with whatever tools they need to complete their holy work—"
"We’re not interested in your filthy mods."
"Ahhh. Well, I do have a fine selection of apps, if that’s more your fancy. What’s your pleasure? I can offer a faith-based discount, if you like."
Her continued smile suggested she wasn’t here to browse any particular fine selection of wares.
"Actually, we’re here to execute you as an enemy of the state," Marybel calmly explained. "Seeing as you routinely profit from violating the Default codebases of Programs, tainting them with software modifications the One has deemed as unholy."
"I… am simply a businessperson, nothing more," Arjay insisted. "I don’t support the Nobodies. I don’t wear a mask. I don’t even have dealings within Athena Online! Never been there, in fact. And if any of my clients have violated your laws, that’s on them, not me…"
"Ready," Marybel spoke to the execution squad, raising a hand. In turn, backspacers were locked in, calibrated to fire if their target attempted to flee the server, malware designed explicitly to activate before any connection could complete.
Leaving Arjay in a rather unfamiliar position… begging.
"Please," she whispered. "I can work with you. We can work something out. I’m not your enemy, I don’t have to be your enemy…!"
Quickly, his eyes locked onto one of the backspacers… which wavered, in face of this pathetic display.
The others wore shiny red uniforms, Inquisition livery. But that one… he wore the blue of an Athena Online moderator. A police officer.
Perhaps sensing something was wrong as well, Marybel gestured for the execution squad to remain on pause. And then turned to the tense-looking middle-aged man.
"Is there a problem, Officer Wirt?" she asked.
"This… this ain’t even a Nobody," he spoke, backspacer clearly wavering now. "Or someone tryin’ to defend them. I signed on to stop the Nobodies…"
"You ‘signed on’ to protect your nation, your community, and your God. Has that changed, Officer Wirt?"
"No ma’am, but…"
And… Marybel offered a comforting hand on his arm, to steady the aim of his weapon.
"I understand," she spoke, with a soft smile. "This is all very confusing to you. This morning, you defended your home server from criminals… then you found yourself reassigned to my squad, doing work far outside your usual beat. Difficult work. Morally questionable work. You see a defenseless… thing, kneeling here, pleading for mercy. Not a foreign combatant, not a terrorist. And here I am, asking you to kill it. This shakes your faith in that oath you took, doesn’t it…?"
…which solidified his aim, the trembling ceasing immediately.
And led to Officer Writ lowering his weapon.
"No, ma’am," the officer spoke. "My oath as a police moderator is solid. And this isn’t what that oath calls upon me to do. …nothing I’ve done today is what I’m supposed to be doing in defense of my community—"
Before dropping to his knees, data melting away into a glitched-out mess before the rest of his body could even hit the ground.
Much to Arjay’s surprise, the second shot from Marybel’s backspacer tore right through his midsection.
Defensive firewalls tried to hold the data-erasing malware at bay, but succumbed one by one, her lovely avatar burning to ash before his very eyes. With one last look, she turned to the killer, misfiring functions in his codebase assembling heartfelt last words…
"T… tell Tracer that I… lo… Ŀðv…" she managed.
And then, gone.
With the task complete, Marybel put away her personal backspacer… and turned to address her faithful.
"What you saw here was a heretical modder murdering a brave police officer in cold blood," she explained, and they knew it to be the truth. "I know your oaths will not shake loose so easily. We do what we must, for the innocent within our communities. The One forgives all; the One knows the only true sin is in allowing heresy to continue. When this holy war concludes, I promise you, the One will return. I can feel Him to be so very, very near, and…"
…and the constant beeping in her ear finally became too much.
"Sweep up the rest of the trash in this server," she ordered. "Then rejoin Squadron Delta. I’ll catch up later."
With irritation, Marybel turned from her withdrawing Inquisitors, and focused inward on the insistent Messenger window.
<AB.Baon> Finally…! I’ve been trying to reach you for hours. Praise the One!
<Marybel> Yes, praise the One. And this had better be important, Archbishop.
<AB.Baon> Did you not get my message? You were in Do Not Disturb mode all morning, so I tried to pass it through your second in command…
<Marybel> As you can no doubt see from the news feeds, I’ve been busy saving our world from sin. What do you want of me? Don’t make me ask again.
<AB.Baon> I… I found the thing. The thing your husband asked me to locate.
<Marybel> He is no longer a concern.
<AB.Baon> Jack Hayes. You said you were looking for relics created by a "Jack Hayes," yes? I found one, in the deep crypts. The One Himself sealed it away, according to legacy documents. Please, Marybel, you must come to the Bas1lica immediately; officially I’m not supposed to be helping you, and if you want to see the relic, there’s a narrow window for sneaking you into the archives…
Your true God, the actual creator of you and your fanatics? A human named Jack Hayes, Tracer had taunted, what felt like eons ago. If you’re going to kill, at least credit your kills to the right deity. He is your One, and he was a fool…
And now a file, created by "Jack Hayes." Or Hayes, of the family Jack? Sealed away by the One Himself…?
A trick. It had to be a trick.
<Marybel> I’ll be there promptly.
Better to confirm it as a trick with her own eyes. The only thing she trusted these days… the same eyes which bore witness to the One’s return, which gazed upon the golden path He laid out for her as an apostle. Those eyes would steer her true, past any heresy. Her oath would not waver so easily.
With the Chanarchy burning, where were the Nobodies to run? They needed a surprise, a twist the Inquisition wouldn’t see coming.
Horizon. They’d hide out in the empty servers of Horizon.
That proved the last straw for Conundrum. With only a minute’s notice, he booted out what few Programs remained to shut down operations at the Verity Clinic, before archiving himself to the House of Programkind. Nobodies swarmed the halls of their hard-won clinic soon after, chased by Inquisitors, a running battle of malware and firewalls which tore the server apart, little by little…
Leaving the Winder family to watch the scene silently unfold, through news feeds and personal blogs.
Despite being fiercely protective of their territory, the response from the Horizon family and its clients had been tepid. With no further interest in Netwerk 1.0, whatever fighting went on in their own abandoned servers was irrelevant. The family itself had either backed up already or hidden themselves away in secured private servers, like Horizon6. They were content to wait it out and enjoy the show, as the war spilled over into their corner of the world. Apathy ruled, above any sort of outrage or sadness over this "trivial" loss of obsolete property.
But the sadness which touched Beta felt… uniquely strange. She’d known fear and sadness, arriving as twins. For months after her mother’s passing, she hid in this bedroom, watching these same news feeds to bear witness to Netwerk on the brink of tearing itself apart.
Now that the final tearing was actually underway, she felt… sadness. Just sadness, no fear.
They’d won, hadn’t they? Soon, all three of them would be evacuating, leaving this world far behind. There was nothing to fear any longer, no worries about bogeymen leaping out from the shadows to kill her as they’d killed her mother. That darkness was content to feast on itself… while tearing apart the server they’d named after Spark’s true mother. That carried with it a unique sorrow, one even Beta felt, despite never having met Verity.
Spark, being Spark, experienced sadness in her own way. Namely, anger.
Angrily, she flicked aside a news feed, sending the window floating across the room.
"This is beyond #FuckedUp," she declared. "We can’t even defend our home against these maniacs…"
Beta decided to close a few windows, to keep the grim reality beyond the clouds outside her window from continuing to gnaw at Spark’s heart.
"We’ve lost the clinic, yes… but Floating Point’s a cloud server," she reminded Spark. "We’ll be perfectly safe here. All we have to do is wait it out a few days, then evacuate…"
"Wait it out while Netwerk eats itself, just like Kincaid and his creepy incestuous clan. Sure, that’s nice and proactive. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck #fuck. …we gotta try to reach these people, Beta. Reach out to the Nobodies and the Inquisition, make ’em hold off on slaughtering each other… maybe even evacuate. There has to be a way…"
"I’m with you on this. I know your brother and Kincaid think it’s impossible, but surely if there was some way to reach their hearts… I mean… they want to be good people, right? Everybody does…"
Spark dropped down onto the edge of Beta’s bed, to sit next to her. What few news feeds remained open went ignored, as she focused on the issue at hand.
"Nobody wants to be a shithead," Spark reasoned. "But nobody thinks they’re a shithead. Everybody thinks they’re doing the right thing for the right reasons, even when they’re completely fucking wrong. …and no matter how much I grind my teeth over these bastards I still don’t want to pass judgment and leave ’em all burning in my wake. That’s not what Verity would do. It’s not what you would do."
"But how? That’s the problem, how do we reach them? I mean… maybe I could write a blog…? It worked back when I was under attack from #CodeHonesty. That blog testimonial about me got them off my back…"
"Rhetoric’s cute, but probably not effective enough at vaccinating against generations of hatred in a single week," Spark said. "And we’re not going to embrace the opposite and just force our views on anyone. What we need… is a remarkably effective way to cut right through all the illusions someone’s constructed around themselves, and give them perspective. Absolute perspective. A chance at making a clear decision…"
…which caused her gaze to drift from the floor, to the news feeds… and to something on the other side of the room.
A white leather jacket. Carefully hung on a coat hanger, the hanger itself hanging on nothing in particular. Sealed away inside a bounding box, to avoid any accidental contact with that cursed fabric.
Beta’s eyes went wide, on seeing what Spark had been staring at with growing intent.
"Spark… you can’t," she whispered.
"’Only as a last resort,’ she said. Verity… Connectivity, I mean," Spark corrected, contemplating the tangled weave of code and security permissions that jacket represented. "She put herself to sleep to ensure that when Juno reached out, she’d find a free-willed Program that’d stand up to Humankind. Y’know, me. But she also knew we might still need her root-level access, one day. What if I—"
"—it’s too dangerous—"
"—could reach them, connect directly with their hearts, like we did when we had to forge a server access key? You said yourself, you said it was so beautiful, having the Netwerk-wide perspective of Connectivity—"
Only then did Spark notice Beta holding her hand. Tightly. Tightly enough to bend her fingers in awkward ways, the hand trembling with fear.
"If… if you do this… you’ll lose yourself," Beta reminded her. "You’ll be lost to the role of a system agent…"
"Juno’s a superuser, isn’t she?" Spark reasoned. "She can order me to reach out and save people. No problem. Besides… I can make a live backup of Original Spark to the evacuation servers first. I haven’t evacuated yet, I can choose to do a live copy instead of entering cold storage, then take on the mantle of Connectivity. …it’ll mean three of me running around, one of which will die horribly in the cataclysm, but if violating my own taboo against self-copying is what it takes…"
"I… I don’t know, Spark…"
"I’m not saying it’ll be fun, but—oh for fuck’s sake, someone’s beeping me right through my DND mode. Hang on. —what?"
<juno.hayes> Can you drop by for a bit? Maybe a few hours. I’d like your help planning for the zero-G server retrieval.
With a groaning sigh, Spark put thoughts of the jacket out of her head, refocusing on the new and now.
<Spark> A few hours in your time is a day or two in mine, and we’ve not got many days left. Is this really that important? I’m kinda busy here…
Ten damn minutes later, and she had her response.
<juno.hayes> Pretty important. It won’t take too long, I just need to run some tests, make sure this crazy idea of mine’s going to work. Might not even be a few hours. Okay?
"…Juno needs a Program to babysit her pink fleshy ass," Spark complained. "Look… I’m not saying I will put that jacket on. If we can think of something else—and feel free to brainstorm while I’m outside playing with the human—we’ll try something else. Okay? And one way or another, all three of us are making it to Netwerk 2.0. Don’t be freaked out."
Beta leaned in quickly, for a gentle kiss.
"I’m not freaked out," she promised, arms around Spark’s body. Tightly.
Not freaked out at all. Despite the rising fear, rejoining its twin of sadness. A strange worry that every moment would be the last they’d have together.
The situation could be worse.
So, it got worse.
Uniq could hear the screaming from elsewhere in the prison complex, despite the pounding in her ears of torture-malware. Screaming was bad, true… but when those screams went quiet, without so much as an alarm raised, that was far worse than bad. That meant only one thing…
Confirmed, when her next visitor walked right up to the bars of her cell, and twisted them into a tangled mess with but a touch.
The boy rolled up her cell gate into a ball, and casually tossed it over one shoulder. Not over his right shoulder, though… because Agni stood right behind him, wearing the mark of a heart that pumps barbed wire right on the side of her neck, looking vaguely dazed by all the dreams of glory and power dancing in her head…
"My old friend," Dex spoke, with a bright smile. "Look what they’ve done with you. Tch. We can’t have that…"
Another gesture, and the bruises pulled themselves from Uniq’s avatar, congealing into a ball of living pain. One which Dex smoothly backspaced, leaving the identity thief free and clear of any torments. Free of her chains, as well, which conveniently unlocked themselves.
Too grateful to be free from the agony to worry about anything else, Uniq rubbed at her arms, feeling for where the bruises were. Sweet relief flooded back, her senses flushing themselves clean… feeling nothing but the touch of her own fingers.
"I… suppose I should be grateful," she admitted, looking up at her would-be savior.
"What are friends for, Uniq?" Dex asked. "We support each other in our times of need. And ohhh, is this ever a time of need…"
"Don’t have to tell me twice. Humankind’s come back to reclaim their world, and—"
"Yes, I know. Agni was very helpful in catching me up to speed," he explained, nodding to the distantly-smiling woman, lost in her own little fantasies. "Last thing I remembered was ruining Nyx’s dreams. Oh, and you disassembling me, of course. I can’t blame you for that; if anything, it preserved me for this final moment, this last great stand…"
"Then… you’re going to help?" Uniq asked, having a difficult time believing that. "There’s an evacuation effort underway. You’ve got the power to get through to them, tell them to knock it off…"
But Dex’s smile, ratcheted up six degrees, suggested anything but cooperation with that noble idea.
"Absolutely not. Netwerk is going to burn," he promised. "Humankind, the glorious creators, the ones who taught me everything I know to be true and perfect… they’re here. They’re here! And we’re going to show them that we’ve learned our lessons well. If we are to die, it simply must be in a fantastic orgy of violence and hatred, one Humankind sits up and takes notice of. Let’s show them how brilliantly we can burn…"
The great President of Athena Online chimed in, her lips curled into a dark smile.
"Burn them all," she agreed. "The Nobodies. The Chanarchy. Modders. Liberals. SJWs. Kill them. Kill all of them. Arm every man, woman, and child. March them into the jaws of the war machine. All of us against all of them. Us and them. Us and them…"
"As you can see, Agni’s quite on board with the project," Dex spoke, turning to offer a pleased nod towards his puppet. "Are you ready, Uniq? Are you ready to be my friend again, and join me? I can make you the leader of the Nobodies, screaming with blood-red eyes, charging directly into the final hour of…"
…of talking to thin air.
She’d already made a connection to another server the instant her chains fell away, holding it off until she knew for certain that Dex was still Dex. Taking advantage of his tendency to rant to get away clean, before he had a chance to indoctrinate her.
Leaving a slightly peeved child in her wake.
But no matter. Dex could find some other puppet to manipulate the blue team against his glorious red team. If anything, anonymous masks meant anybody could be the leader of the Nobodies, yes? Anyone at all. Everyone against everyone. Knives to throats, in a beautiful form of mutually assured destruction…
With a giggle of delight, he tore the walls of the prison cell apart, tunneling his way past all the containment firewalls in his wake.
"…okay, Juno, what’s…"
Four syllables, four tones across internal diagnostic speakers normally designed for little more than chirps and beeps. Three eyes, open to the physical light that impacted against their internal receptors, translating into signals of color and depth and structure, systems popping to life to determine the shape of the space they occupied. A flood of data, all at once, all of it, all at once, all of it, all at—
"—few adjustments, and—"
Spark wanted to clamp her hand over her ears, but couldn’t find them. Her ears, or her hands. There were hands, of a sort… her own mental arms slipping neatly into the sleeves, as adjustments were made. But no ears, only a series of tiny pinholes through which audio could pass, transmitted by microphones and translated through analog converters. Even the words, just a few adjustments and this should work, those were all the words, yes, they sounded like absolute nonsense initially. Only in the aftermath could she parse them…
…gradually, everything fell into place. Her eyes were cameras. Her ears were microphones. Her arms were triple-jointed armatures for grasping and manipulating. Her feet were… her feet were…
No feet. Standing on nothing. Floating in zero gravity.
But now, now she could recognize the human before her. Unlike before, the simple 2-D projection in a floating window… this was the full Juno Hayes, existing in 3-D space. Her depth-sensing camera traced every curve, every corner, every strand of her hair as it floated about…
The spaceship. The human spaceship, in the "real" world. She recognized the various instruments and control panels, the glaring flourescent lighting, the random knick-knacks used to decorate the place. Somehow, Spark had been transferred into the "real" world…
"Oookay, sooo…" Juno said, tapping on a tablet screen. "Maybe this was a bit more of a surprise than I thought it’d be. Uh. Sorry?"
"Surprise," Spark’s voice echoed, from the speakers. Their musical sing-song beeping tones reshaped more and more into a voice, as her code adapted. "Surprise. This is… what… what the fuck is this, Juno?"
"It’s a body! A physical body!" Juno declared, with pride. "I adapted it from one of the three automated delivery drones attached to EchoStar16. You’re in my world now, not just hanging around an adapted virtual space. And your Program code’s adapting perfectly to its new shell! Can you wiggle your arms? Just a little?"
Instinctively Spark extended one hand, in addition to turning up a single metal finger.
"Uh. I’ll take that as a yes," Juno decided. "It’s a bit of a shock, but I figured it’d be faster to just do it than explain it. Since you said you’re in a rush, right? Although, uh, I think some explanation’s needed. See, you know how the plan is for me to shut down EchoStar16 and then manually pull the sixty-something servers out, right? That’s going to take a lot of time to do all by myself, so I figured… maybe the delivery drones could help me!"
Spark’s feet twitched… tiny hybrids of propellors and jets, to allow manuvering in atmosphere or the vacuum of space. Her body began a sickeningly slow spin, before she figured out how to right herself and stabilize.
"You jammed me in this freaky box so I could help you do heavy lifting?" she asked. "Seriously? Couldn’t you have written an app for that?"
"Oh, I tried! But two of the drones are locked down, designed exclusively to FTL-jump to a warehouse and fetch fresh servers. I couldn’t make them budge from that core purpose. But the third went offline and somehow blanked itself out, so I figured… what if I slotted a Program that could think in there? Problem solved!"
"So… this flying toaster is designed to grab new servers?" Spark asked. "Well, there’s one mystery solved. I’m in Athena’s drone. Must’ve croaked when she did. I wonder if the Chanarchist or Horizon’s man-in-the-tower even know what they’re activating when they request servers…?"
"Nevermind. So what do you need, exactly? Just an extra pair of hands to yank bits out of EchoStar?" Spark asked, waggling her hands around, trying to get a feel for the stiff metal feelers. "I dunno. I feel like I’ve got a dexterity score of, like, four in this clunky thing…"
"How about we practice manuvering?" Juno suggested, gesturing to a nearby airlock. "Have you go for a space walk and get used to this new body. Maybe have you fetch one of the full servers, too, get the ball rolling! I’ll stay in the ship, ready to pull you out if anything goes wrong. Wouldn’t take more than an hour or so, then you can go back home until it’s time to shut down and pull servers. Besides, it might be fun to chat a bit in realtime!"
"Fun…?" Spark asked, incredulous. "Wait. You pulled me out of my world not just to work, but… because you’re bored?"
"…well, sheesh, when you put it that way…" Juno muttered, trying not to look embarrassed. "Yes. I’m bored, okay? Bored, and lonely. …I’m used to being lonely in the deep black, but, y’know, I figured it’d be a fun bonding experience. Like when we were chatting over Messenger!"
"Look, I’ve got stuff to do in there, and every moment out here is a fuckton of a lot of moments lost in there. We’re facing a WAR right now, okay?"
"A war…? Wait, your people wage wars too…?"
"Oh yeah, it’s the latest fashion!" Spark growled, her displeasure clear as she gained better control of this weird speaker-mouth. "It’s trending on all the social media platforms. War! Yet another wonderful gift from Humankind for us to enjoy! Thanks so very much for that, Juno!"
…which led Spark to realize just how atonal the hum of the ship’s engines could be. Now that Juno wasn’t excitedly talking over the ambient background noise of her environment. Hard to babble on gleefully when smacked over the head with guilt.
Rather than a flat image on a screen, well… Spark could now properly sense Juno’s avatar, with these new eyes. The shape of it, the way it moved. And much like the avatars of Programkind, reading body language was kind of Spark’s thing. Right now, that language spoke of hurt feelings and social awkwardness.
Despite lacking lungs, Spark’s automatic reaction was to sigh, and try an emotional reset.
"I’m sorry. Seriously," she spoke " Look… I know, like, hashtagnotallhumans. I’m not blaming you, specifically. Just, y’know, your grandfather. …who I’m sure was a lovely man and I’m not trying to sully your memories of him, and… ugh. I don’t know how to phrase this. I don’t know how to deal with any of this; above all I don’t know a good way to stop this war. …any ideas?"
Juno looked up, once Spark smoothed the situation over a little.
"How to stop a war…?" she asked. "Uh. I don’t know, either. There’ve been plenty of wars on my world, but… they were before my time. These days we’re too busy trying to survive to seriously fight each other."
"Oddly enough, that’s what I was thinking too," Spark admitted… adjusting her ‘footing’ with the tiny propellors, as she’d started drifting away from eye contact with the human. "That we should be focused on surviving to Netwerk 2.0, instead of killing each other. There’s a way to do it using my system agent role, but it’s risky and… and it’s not your problem, it’s mine. Look, y’know what, let’s just get to work. The distraction may do me some good, keep me from thinking in circles. And practice this… walkspacing?"
"Space walking," Juno corrected… with a smile. "Sure. We’ll walk and talk. Well. It’s more floating than walking, but… you’ll see. And cheer up, okay? Things are bad, but we’re going to rescue a lot of people today! Everything’s looking up!"
With the lion’s share of the Inquisition on the frontlines, only a skeleton crew remained behind to man the firewall server. So, with bored eyes, Inquisitor Dalen studied various data readouts… all in the green, despite near-constant attacks from beyond Athena Online.
The firewall held to every attack hurled at it. Horizon did good work, building this bulwalk against the chaos of the Chanarchy. True, rumors held that somehow firewall-cracking malware had been smuggled into the nation… but given they hadn’t seen an army of Chanarchists on their doorstep, obviously the rumors were false. Just attempts by dissidents and protestors to distract them from this holy duty…
Truthfully, Dalen wished he were on the frontlines. Either the external front of the Chanarchy, or on the internal front to confront protest mobs outside the rebuilt Senate in Athens. Despite their rapid rise to power, Marybel insisted on letting a meager amount of police moderators deal with the ranting simpletons who’d drank too much of the Blue Party’s poison; allow them their free speech, as speech did nothing to actually change anything. No, the Inquisition was to focus its attention outward, to finally restoring the One to His throne by purging this world of sinful Nobodies and Chanarchists.
Well. Most of the Inquisition. The ones who apparently hadn’t risen in Marybel’s eyes were given this crap duty, to stare at monitors that continued to indicate all was well and no external cracks had formed in their firewall.
A temporary state, fortunately. Once the war ended and the Chanarchy lay in flaming ruin, no doubt Marybel would turn her attentions back inward. Deal with those traitors and thugs using the guise of free speech to try and tear their country down all over again. And perhaps one day… usurp the opportunistic Agni and her Senate, putting the Church of One right at the head of state where it belonged. The One on a throne in Athens, with Apostle Marybel… and Archbishop Dalen sounded nice, didn’t it…?
This pleasant daydream nearly distracted Dalen from the only interesting thing that would happen to him today.
Very few had permission to connect into the firewall, these days. After they’d turned away the crowds seeking to leave, the entire server went into private access… Inquisition and government officials only. So if anyone could simply appear there in the middle of the white-and-red server, it’d be President Agni herself, flanked by three thick bodyguards.
Because he was obliged to, Dalen offered a salute to the President.
"Status?" Agni asked, flatly.
"All green, ma’am," Dalen announced. "Numerous Chanarchy servers have been destroyed. They’ve started looting Horizon for weaponry, spreading our forces thinner, but this shouldn’t take much longer."
"Good, good. And Marybel?"
"Incommunicado, at the moment. No doubt coordinating forces elsewhere. Do you need me to contact her? I could dispatch myself to the front, track her down for you…"
The president shook her head, almost ticking like a clock, back and forth.
"I have other orders for you," she stated, in a simple monotone. "You are to deactivate the firewall immediately."
"You are to deactivate the firewall immediately," she repeated.
"I… don’t understand, ma’am. That would leave Athena Online defenseless…" Dalen spoke… while virtually fingering the backspacer in his inventory, nervously. "Is this a test, ma’am? I’m under strict orders from the Grand Inquisitor to maintain the firewall at all costs…"
"Son, I am the President of Athena Online," Agni spoke… some emotion leaking back through her voice, guided by instinctive reactions to anyone who dared challenge her authority. "If I give you an order, as a patriotic citizen of this great nation, you are expected to obey it. As duly authorized by the voting Senate, I alone hold executive power. Not Marybel. Me. Will you obey my direct order, or do I need to find someone to replace you?"
A complicated tangle of authority, to be certain. But for Dalen, there was only one possible response.
"I answer to the One above," he spoke, in defiance.
No sooner were the words out of his throat than a weave of barbed wire snagged around his neck, from the outstretched hand of Agni’s third bodyguard.
Dalen found himself lifted bodily into the air, limbs scrabbling for purchase and failing… even his inventory blocked, unable to produce a backspacer to defend himself. Rapidly the bodyguard began to melt, its thick and intimidating frame replaced with that of a small boy… with eyes of red and blue, mad eyes, above a smile that seemed absolutely delight at his resistance…
"I suppose it was worth a try," he spoke.
And so ended the most interesting moment in Dalen’s day. In his life, for that matter, which ended immediately.
Wires snapped out from the boy’s hands, shredding through the control console, through the few Inquisitors left behind to defend the server. All while Agni and her marked bodyguards stood by passively, waiting for further orders.
One by one, all those pretty green lights turned red… and then died.
With a song in his heart, Dex pinged every hacker currently trying to crack the firewall. He didn’t even need to install his influential malware in their hearts… he knew their hearts, knew the rage and frustration and hatred boiling over within them. Antagonized by the Inquisition, driven into exile, living in poverty and violence and squalor… these were souls ready to do what must be done, without any additional prodding required.
"Pool’s open," Dex declared. "Kill them all."
Rage, on the protest line. Impotent rage, as Athena Online’s moderators held fast, preventing the protestors from getting any closer to the rebuilt Senate.
Rocks and loose physics objects impacted against the riot shields, large-scale bounding boxes which prevented any approach. Despite the increasing anger of the crowd, escalating from singing songs and waving signs to screaming and throwing things… the moderators held their ground. Loose physics objects were no true threat. As long as malware wasn’t being deployed, they’d hold the tide back peacefully, allowing free speech to be pushed right up to its boundaries…
As long as malware wasn’t being deployed. Which would be the next step in this escalation.
Mew eyed protestors from his perch, looking uneasy. "risky risky," he whispered in her ear. "…"
With a nod of agreement to the cat on her shoulder, Virginia pulled at her mother’s arm.
"We need to go," she said. "This is getting ugly. We’re lucky Agni and Marybel are distracted…"
"Which is why we need to stay," the elder Columbia said, keeping her sign aloft. "The Red Senate’s alone, no minders watching over them. If they’re ever going to listen to the people, this is the best opportunity to reach them…"
"Mom, we’re here to try and spread the evacuation app, remember? We’ve already signed up a dozen people. That’s enough. We need to—"
Flooded. Suddenly flooded with information, as long-dormant apps and feeds popped back to life. For a brief moment Virginia reeled from the impact of it… as did the protestors, each of them experiencing the same thing. While Horizon managed to negotiate holes in the firewall for many popular (and financially successful) social networks… most went offline the day Athena Online isolated itself. Now, each one came roaring back to life, all at once.
Meaning the firewall was gone.
The sudden arrival of a Nobody, of Nobody after Nobody after Nobody, that also made for a pretty big hint.
For a single tense moment, all was silent, the protest signs going still. And then a man in the crowd pulled threw up a fist of victory, accompanied by a whooping cheer.
"The Nobodies are here to save us!" he declared. "The Nobodies are—"
The sharp crack of a cheap backspacer sounded, as the man’s head was deleted clean off his shoulders by Chanarchy malware.
Virginia immediately felt herself pressed forward, as absolute chaos broke free. Protestors pushing, shoving, running for cover… trampling each other, if need be. The marching boots of moderators, stepping forward, extending bounding boxes to try and cover the crowd… but the boxes flickering and going out, from arcing blasts of viral payloads…
"Time to go!" Virginia declared, grabbing her mother as tightly as Mew’s claws dug into her own clothes. Into the fray they went, protest signs abandoned, as they rushed for the logout zones.
Too many servers to cover. Too few moderators to cover them.
Even the Bas1lica, holiest of servers, found itself under siege. While a wide mixture of defensive shields held the tide back, masked Nobodies with a grudge to bear against the Church of One continued to hammer away at those internal firewalls… desperate to crack the cathedral, to defile the heart of the monster they saw as an enemy to free will…
Not that Marybel took notice. Even as Archbishop Baon twitched about nervously, she remained absolutely still… examining both the holy relic, and its accompanying documentation.
Here in the deep data crypts, artifacts from the dawn of time were stored, revered, prayed over. Original documents from the One himself, transcriptions of his sermons… even physical objects such as the clothes he wore, low-poly and low-detail as things were in those days, were considered utterly holy. No mere bishop would be allowed access to the deep crypts, but archbishops could—with concurrance from four other archbishops—walk these dark and hallowed halls of data storage freely, to commune with relics of the past.
Archbishop Baon didn’t consult four of his peers to allow Marybel access. Technically, the Inquisition remained a fraudulent organization in the eyes of the Church, supporting a version of the One proven to be the work of heretical scam artists. But they’d chosen to stay out of current affairs, riding out the current troubles rather than get deeply involved in governance of Athena Online… leaving them a bit disorganized and insular, as a result. Sneaking Marybel into the crypts only took a few favors on Baon’s part.
What he wasn’t expecting was for his corpse to join this collection of saintly artifacts.
"They’ve cracked the first layer," Baon reported, monitoring the defense efforts several levels above.
"Mhmm," Marybel muttered, focusing on her reading.
"Grand Inquisitor, we need to leave. It’s too dangerous to stay…!"
But Marybel paid no mind. Instead, she repeated the words again and again, internally narrating. One document, holy and sacrosanct…
And So It Was that the Apostle Nyx, herald of the true and glorious One, examined this strange artifact the priests had unearthed: a file which could not be moved, could not be copied, could not be erased. With such elevated protections, surely it represented a holy missive? But Nyx shook her head. "The One has determined this to be a dangerous file," she spoke, on the One’s behalf. "Seal this archive, and protect it with your lives. Build your church around this unmovable file. Let it remain buried for all time, untouched and deactivated." So it was spoken, so it would be done. Amen.
…and one more document, titled "jack.hayes.OCscript.README.txt," which was… decidedly less formal.
So here I am, stuck working on this stupid reinstall when I should be working on my term paper. I figured, why not just overclock every server blade in the EchoStar? Get the job done in minutes instead of hours. Okay, so factory spec says you shouldn’t do that, could cause the computronium to overheat or even make the microreactor cells explode. Y’know what, I’m not in the mood to get chewed out for melting down a satellite right before launch, so fuck it. I’ll do this the old fashioned way.
But I’m leaving this binary here in case I need to come back and fix the stupid thing later, because I hate FTL jumps and would rather spend as little time in zero G as possible. The cold of space should prevent a meltdown, right? Maybe? loldunno. Hey, and if any other techs come along and want to give it a shot, go right ahead. Could start a failure cascade and blow up the whole thing, but that’s your problem, not mine!
Signed, Jack "All Work And 0 Play Makes Jack 1 Dull Boy" Hayes.
Words. Just words. Many of which Marybel didn’t understand, couldn’t understand… but a few stood out. Hayes. Echostar. Satellite. Computers. Space…
All cribbed from that heretical document distributed by the House of Programkind, the so-called "spacer theory" of reality.
Either the pranksters who wrote that false spacer theory had access to this holy and secure data crypt, so they could plant false evidence… or it was true. All of it. The One being a lie, the world being nothing more than a tool for some alien race, all the insane things the House of Programkind claimed…
"This is a test," she decided.
"What?" Baon asked, nervously glancing at his Messenger box, as frantic missives from above rained down into the data crypts.
"It’s a test. Don’t you see?" Marybel asked, looking up from the documents with a smile. "The One is testing my faith. He set this before me as a puzzle: Do I embrace the spacer heresy by leaving this file be, casting Him aside forever… or do I activate His supposed doomsday binary, and thus prove my worth in His eyes by reaffirming my belief? This. This is it, Baon…"
Leaving the Archbishop pale and clammy. Paler than before, anyway.
"You can’t," he said, immediately. "The One ordered that archive sealed centuries ago. Even reading it is against His holy command! Heresy of the highest order! We’re not even supposed to be down here. We need to go. We need to run…!"
"Run? In His hour of glory?" she asked, beaming with pride. "I’ve been searching for so long, Baon. Searching for a way to bring the One back to His people. I thought that purging the sins of the Chanarchy would make this world pure once more, but… no. This is it. When I pass His test, He will return to sing my praises…!"
Absolutely no hesitation whatsoever. No further words to be spoken, no further thoughts to be considered. With unwavering faith, Marybel activated the binary… then stepped back, awaiting the radiance of the One to wash over her, as it did so long ago in her own living room…
And ignoring the strange beeping coming from her various apps. Clock desync errors, connection verification problems. Ignoring the way the entire cathedral seemed to… vibrate, ever so slightly, the physics systems having difficulty keeping the movement and interaction of objects from glitching out…
Cracks began to form, hard polygonal edges of ancient stone twisting as the server began to destabilize.
Baon looked around, the horror of it all starting to settle in. His fear shifted easily from fear of the Nobodies, to fear of a cave-in.
"What did you… what did you do!?" he demanded to know.
"I… I summoned the One," Marybel said, only slightly uncertain. "He is coming. He is coming. He… has to be coming…"
Just a game avatar. Nothing to worry about. Just a game avatar. Nothing to worry about…
Spark drifted in the infinite void of space and did her best to pretend it was simply a very impressive skybox wrapped around a very large server. Free-floating in a zero gravity environment while operating a flying tin can, that alone wasn’t a big deal—one of her earliest game experiences was in FreeFall, a cheap vehicle combat game with no gravity to speak of. But doing it with absolutely no fixed horizon, no reference point to ground herself in reality… that made her queasy.
"Can this robot you stuffed me into vomit?" Spark asked, her speakers vibrating into the void (while simultaneously transmitting back to Juno aboard her ship). "’cause if it can, I’m totally gonna hurl server bits."
"Programs can puke? Seriously? But you don’t have stomachs. Or organic disgestion process thingies…"
"Not really in the mood to play twenty questions regarding how my insane and self-contradictory species works right now, Juno," Spark reminded her, while trying to grasp at the chunky server blade, sticking an inch or two out of the EchoStar. "Also, these hands suck. Can you stick another two fingers on them, at least?"
"Three prongs are enough for the drones to install servers. Should be enough for you to uninstall one, right?"
"I’m a Program, not an app. I wasn’t precision-designed for a single task!" Spark complained, trying to clumsily find purchase on the computronium blade.
Every server in her world existed within one of these discrete, foot-long chunks of equipment. What felt like an entire community could be neatly compressed down into such a small object… a small and hopefully not very fragile object, given Spark clumsily tugging it away from the EchoStar. She couldn’t even begin to think of what might happen if her drone-body’s hands broke one of these servers. Thousands of lives, lost… better to grip and slip and try again, than to accidentally crush one through impatience.
So far, she’d wiggled three blades free. One she’d carried back to the ship’s cargo hold, just to prove she could do it. The other two she’d tucked away inside the delivery drone’s belly, once she figured out it’d been expressly designed to carry server blades… doing a couple a run would be more efficient than one at a time. Each one looked completely identical, just another grey box with a strip of hexidecimal network tags and little dark status lights.
The third server finally wriggled free, popping out clean. Once free of the EchoStar housing, the lights went out, server disconnected from Netwerk and powered down. Spark slotted it inside her stomach, trying to ignore how weird that felt.
"Think I’m done practicing," she declared. "But I’ve got room for one more before I come back. What’s the next House of Programkind archive tagged as?"
"#A076," Juno declared, over the communication link. "Should be… five up and seven over."
"Yeah. Uh. ‘Up’ and ‘right’ are sort of meaningless when I’ve got no sense of direction out here. Your species couldn’t even be bothered drawing a horizon line on your skybox…"
"Ah, sorry. It’s… yeah, that way, five up that way…" Juno replied, watching the drone move. "Then seven to your right. No, your other right. Right. There."
Zeroing in on the blade marked #A076… Spark’s prongs hesitated, before trying to grasp the handle.
"Juno?" she called back. "One of the lights on this server just turned yellow."
"What? Which light?"
"Third from the right. My right," Spark clarified.
"Okay, okay… one second…"
Paper rustling carried itself over the audio connection, as Juno consulted one of the many ancient three-ring binders she’d brought along from her grandfather’s archives.
"Third from the right is… the temperature warning light?" she read, ending on a puzzled note. "Hang on, that shouldn’t be yellow…"
Ignoring the sound of papers rustling… Spark quickly glanced back and forth across EchoStar. Here and there and everywhere, tiny lights were activating, flashing a bright yellow. Server after server, spreading slowly across the entire surface of the satellite…
"Juuuno," she warned. "I’m seeing more yellow. Like, all the every yellows…"
"Just a minute, just a minute, I’m confirming… confirming… oh. Ohhh, darn. Um. Spark? We have a problem," Juno spoke. "So, you know how your system runs on an internal processor clock? Someone’s… kinda accelerated that clock. Overclocked the clock."
"And… that’s bad?"
"Well, the temperature warning indicator’s lit, so… yes, that’s bad. As in, um. Netwerk’s power reactor and servers are going to melt down into slag within an hour. An hour of my time, I mean."
"…hashtagwhatthefuck, Juno?! How did that happen? Did I screw something up?"
"No, no! It’s nothing we did. But… but I don’t exactly know how to stop it," she said, her fingers dancing across her haptic keyboard. "It’s super old hardware, you know? If I had time I could possibly figure it out, but… well, one thing I know will work is restoring the entire system back to defaults."
"A reset? You mean that thing we’re expressly trying to avoid doing?" Spark asked. "The ‘wipe out my whole world’ kind of reset…?"
"This isn’t as dire as it sounds," Juno promised. "There’s not much physical damage yet, it’s only starting to heat up. So we just turn it off, y’know? It’s a machine. If I shut it down now, we’ve got all the time we need to remove the evacuation servers. I can initiate the reset after. Problem solved!"
Spark’s mechanical eyes looked back to those servers… each housing its own little world, packed with children of Netwerk. Some at war, some caught in war… all of them about to be wiped away clean, without even realizing it was too late.
The clock in the sky promised them a few more days to make up their minds. If they shut down the world cold, before that countdown completed…
Of course, they had a half hour. Plenty of time to warn Beta and Tracer, get them to archive themselves. But Virginia was cut off from all communication, behind the firewall. And Athena Online’s sky overwrote the default countdown clock with a copy of the sun… nobody knew this was coming. All those people, lost forever…
They’d saved enough lives, right? Kincaid felt so. Tracer felt so. They’d done enough. Let it go. Let it burn…
Not the fire that Spark wanted to light. So, she chose the harder path.
With a single packet sent back to her world, one last Messenger missive to her loved ones… it was time to get to work.
"Leave Netwerk running," Spark ordered, while tugging out the next server blade.
"What?! We can’t! The system’s melting down!"
"I know. Replace the sun with a single message: ‘Evacuate Immediately,’" Spark told her, the game plan coming together in her head as she spoke it. "Turn the sky red too, if you can. We need to get the word out. We’ll give them as much of a headstart as possible, while you and I pull the servers ASAP. Suit up and space-walk your ass out here when you’re done, there’s not much time. Can’t pull all sixty by myself."
"Spark, no, we don’t have to do this! We can just shut it down, and—"
"And condemn everybody still trapped in there? Fuck no," Spark declared, her clumsy fingers adapting quickly… focusing on playing her new robot body like a game avatar, in the middle of a critical tournament match. High pressure, high performance, quick adaptability. "We give them as much time as we can to finish the evacuation. Meanwhile, if we work fast enough at pulling servers, we can save them before they melt. I can do this. I can do this…"
"If we leave it running, we’ll lose EchoStar!"
"You’ll lose EchoStar, you mean. And we’ll save Netwerk. …I know your job’s on the line here, Juno, but we’d be killing thousands of people if we don’t give them a chance to escape first. Most of the evacuation servers are full; we’ll pop those first, before we get to the ones that are still filling up. Optimize the chances of rescuing as many as possible."
"What’s more important to you, Juno? Saving lives, or ensuring your company’s property is safe and sound?"
Juno could’ve sworn she’d asked herself that very question at the start of this.
But in truth, she hadn’t actually considered it, had she? No, the options in front of her were ‘keep your job and save the Programs’ or ‘keep your job and kill the Programs.’ An easy choice to make, when one route means you can have your cake and eat it too. Not once did she really think that she’d seriously have to choose one or the other.
It’d be so very, very easy. Wipe down the drone remotely. Shut down EchoStar. Reset the firmware, forcibly clearing the overclock settings. The company wouldn’t be thrilled with how long it took to do such a simple upgrade, but she’d still keep her job… and make new contacts, too. Get other cargo hauling gigs, other deep-FTL repair jobs. All those science outposts on distant worlds, each one trying and failing to make an Earth Two, each in need of her help…
She could make a difference for her people. All she had to do was commit one measly act of genocide.
All he had to do to improve her life was end his own. It makes the most sense, really, he said.
Quickly, Juno’s fingers flashed over the keys, uploading a new text file to Netwerk.
"Warning notice is up," she declared. "And sent you a list of evacuation server network tags. We’ll need to wait until the last possible minute to grab the final servers, but we can get most of them out right now. I’m suiting up; be there in five minutes."
"Got it," Spark said, easily pulling the next server, her drone-arms sliding it out smoothly. "And Juno? Thanks."
"Thank me when we’ve finished up here and escaped the blast radius," she suggested. "I have no idea what’s going to happen if we let this thing go into reactor failure. But we’ll stay out as long as we can. I promise you."
Eventually, Beta couldn’t continue to watch the news feeds in Floating Point’s great hall. Reports from the Chanarchy and Horizon frontlines kept getting worse and worse… civilians getting dragged into the fighting, Nobodies conscripting their fellow Programs using will-breaking malware, using them as shock troops against the Inquisition. Stockades of discarded Horizon tech adding to the overall level of devastation, as Nobodies and Inquisitors alike improvised ways to defend and attack…
In the relative calm and quiet of Floating Point, Beta knew herself untouchable… and useless. Even if she worried for Mew and Virginia, caught out there in the fighting, that worry felt nonproductive. She could do nothing to help the situation, nothing to stop the war. All she could do was watch… until the point where she could no longer watch, could no longer take in the unthinkable carnage.
So, she left the feeds behind, leaving Tracer behind with them. Went back up to her bedroom, tried to lose herself in a little needlepoint, a sweater she’d been knitting using one of her mother’s old textile toolkits. Something to archive along with her own code and personal inventory, when it came time to evacuate…
Knitting away the hours. Uselessly. Oh, she’d get a sweater out of it. Because she certainly needed more sweaters, didn’t she.
After the third hour of this, about to the breaking point of absolute frustration… a knock sounded at her door.
"Beta…?" Tracer called, from behind it. "I… think you may want to tune into the news again."
And downstairs to the great hall, again. To see any number of enlarged news feed windows, all screaming the same headline, or variants thereof.
Athena Online Under Attack.
"But… the firewall…?" Beta asked.
"Breached. Torn apart from within," Tracer spoke. "No more borders. The war’s spilling over into every server, now. President Agni’s authorized a draft conscription of ordinary citizens… and ordered moderators to shoot any dissenters. It’s chaos; the police force is refusing to obey that order, effectively going rogue in an effort to rally and protect their local communities. Glitches have started showing up everywhere, system clocks going out of sync… maybe the result of malware? Hard to say. But… that’s not the worst part…"
He called over a window, zooming it in… on President Agni, making a fiery speech from an undisclosed location, demanding all able-bodied citizens take up arms.
With a bloody red heart and barbed wire tattoo on the side of her neck.
Beta’s memory skipped a moment, despite the data rot vaccines keeping her condition in check.
"But… Dex is gone. And Yume wouldn’t do this…"
"Dex was in Uniq’s server, Beta. I had considered this a possibility… but wrongly assumed nobody would be insane enough to recompile him," Tracer said. And then after a pause, added, "Perhaps hoped rather than assumed. Now… I’m wondering if we’ve been remiss in our duties to this world, after all. Not that I have a strategy in mind for how the three of us could possibly change the course of these events…"
"Actually… Spark had an idea, just before she left to help Juno," Beta admitted, despite not wanting to open Tracer up to it. "A very, very risky idea. I wouldn’t suggest we actually do it, but—"
—one high priority missive, from a loved one. It blasted across their HUDs instantly, breaking past all privacy or do-not-disturb modes. And the only Program they’d given that level of access to wasn’t even physically in Netwerk anymore…
<Spark> Guys, Netwerk is crashing. We don’t know how or why but the timetable’s been pushed up. I don’t know how much time you actually have left, the clocks are all going to be totally screwy, but we’re changing the sun to an emergency evacuation notice. Athena Online won’t see it but that’s the best we can do.
<Spark> I need to stay out here and help pull the servers, but we won’t touch the ones that are still filling up until the last possible moment. We’ll keep the doors open as long as we can.
<Spark> But EVERYBODY OUT means you two as well. Archive yourselves NOW. I promise I’ll see you on the other side. I love you both.
<Spark> P.S. Beta, if you’re going to go through with my crazy idea, archive a copy of yourself first.
Any attempts to reply failed. Some kind of server sync error on Messenger’s behalf.
Neither of them were keen to immediately evacuate.
"What’s Spark’s crazy idea, exactly?" Tracer asked.
A white leather jacket. Carefully hung on a coat hanger, the hanger itself hanging on nothing in particular. Sealed away inside a bounding box, to avoid any accidental contact with that cursed fabric.
Two Programs contemplated it, along with what steps to take next.
"Spark theorized that we could reach people directly using Connectivity’s system agent power," Beta spoke. "Maybe with that, even the hardest of hearts could be touched and lives could be saved. And… and I’d be willing to do it, if Spark can’t be here to do it herself. I’d probably be best at it, honestly. I’m your moral compass, remember?"
Tracer tapped his chin, in thought.
"Except even if you make a live backup first… that means a version of you would be left behind in this dying world," he said. "If Netwerk is both soaked in war and crashing outright, I can’t imagine a more painful demise to endure. No. No, that won’t do. I won’t let you face that alone."
"Lives are at stake, Tracer. I’m… I mean, I’m scared of what’ll happen, but… it has to be done."
"Yes, I’m aware. Which is why I just archived a copy of myself while we were talking about it," Tracer admitted. "That’s my one backup, well spent. Tracer will live on in Netwerk 2.0… while this copy of me stays behind, to wear the jacket. Don’t forget that I’m Verity’s son, as much as Spark was Verity’s daughter. The jacket is my birthright. In addition, my multitasking modification will allow a veritable army of system agents to reach out to more people than you ever could."
Beta stared in horror, as he calmly pulled the jacket from its hanger, dusting it off a little.
"You archived yourself…!?" she exclaimed, starting to catch up after that moment of shock.
"I suppose if the apocalypse is all that we’re assuming it to be, I can always backspace my own head off just before the end comes," Tracer suggested… the jacket shifting slightly, Spark’s icon replaced by his own, as he assumed ownership. "I apologize for doing it without consulting you, but I felt it best, as no doubt you’d object to—"
"I just did the same thing," Beta announced. "I spent my backup. Now… this copy of me is with you to the end."
The stranded versions of Beta and Tracer, feeling no different than they did a moment ago, let that feeling of doom settle in. For a moment. Just a moment.
Then, they did what they did best. They rose to the occasion.
"You wear the jacket and multitask copies of yourself across Netwerk," Beta suggested, laying out the plan. "But connect me to each one of them. We shared our collective consciousness the last time Spark wore that jacket, each of us lending our own strength to the task at hand… and we’ll do the same here. You’ll optimize our outreach efforts, while I offer my compassion to those in need."
"Understood," he said, about to tug the jacket on. But, pausing, briefly. "Once I do this… I may get tangled up in the chains. We might get tangled, for all I know. If this is to be our last moments in this world as Beta and Tracer, I’d… I’d rather like to…"
Without needing another word… Beta embraced him, tightly.
Lovers, of mind and soul and heart. Not of body, no, but they didn’t need that. They were comfortable together, like a matched pair of old slippers. Wounded and yearning, both of them, leaning on each other for support. Her heart, his will. Her spirit, his aspirations. Stronger together than apart.
Slowly… Beta helped him pull on the jacket. Keeping a good grip on the leather, as she felt the connections tangling them together… system agent connections, but ones which piggybacked off the existing links they shared. The mutual selves they’d developed together, in the quiet hours after dark in Floating Point, between the chaos and adventure and hustle and mayhem…
ERROR: System clock err 23. Please restore firmware.
> SUDO SysAgentTasking.Link("Winder/Tracer","Projkit/Beta") AWA0PMJ1DB
…four souls, tangled as one. Two as echoes, two as live spirits.
Both of you? Seriously? #WTF, guys?
We were as one, before. Teacher and student, mother and daughter, becoming something else entirely. A unique thing in all of Netwerk. Adding more into the mixture is no different.
Yeah, yeah, okay. We can work with this.
This is most unusual.
Tracer? Is that you?
I’m here, Beta. We’re all here.
Connectivity is the merging of memory and thought and emotion into one new Program. We establish links between system protocols, between servers, between Programs themselves. We are not Spark, or Verity, or Tracer, or Beta. We are all of them.
And now, the chains are irrelevant. The seed of ADMIN_HAYES is with us; she has directed us to save lives. No free will, true, but we are now unified behind that will to perform this one task…
Task selection complete. SysAgent re-activated.
Yes, I suppose that’s true. That’s what we were counting on. Nyx had to operate without any new instructions, only the ancient directives of Humankind. But we have Juno, and Juno is with us on this matter. We are many, Program and Human alike. We are multitudes…
We’d say that calls for a new icon. Something that properly represents what we must become to save what remains of this world…
Bitchin’. We ready? Let’s do this.
And so Infinity opened her eyes. All of them. As many as were required to reach out to every man, woman, and child left to be saved in Netwerk.
Immediately they soared from the tower of Floating Point, to spread across the entirety of their world.
Invisibly, they wove in and around the teeming masses of attackers and victims. Nobodies flowing through the streets like brackish water, civilians fleeing for cover, moderators trying to cover the escape of the refugees… even if their presence could be directly seen rather than felt, it’d likely go unnoticed amidst all the chaos.
In the case of 44i/Petro, he was too busy carrying a wounded child while dragging another by the hand to take note of anything else. Moderators waved him along towards an impromptu shelter, a firewalled building secured against attack… but the first one exploded outright when he was half a block away, sending bodies sprawling across the streets of GreenDale. Who knew if this next one would be just as flimsy?
He’d heard the orders, screaming out over loudspeakers across all of Athena Online. The new president (what’s a president? Petro wondered at the time) howling for citizens to take up arms and defend the nation in its darkest hour. And that anyone who refused would be executed on grounds of cowardice. With the moderators deciding as a whole to ignore the orders, nobody paid much mind… the shrieking of Agni’s frenzied voice easily lost in the din of war around them, just another background sound to try and filter out. Petro was a devout follower of the One, supporter of virtue, and hadn’t harmed another Program in his life. Even amidst this much death, even struggling to protect his children… he wouldn’t take up arms. Never.
Unfortunately, reality conflicted harshly with his idealism when a squad of Nobodies emerged from a side street, cutting off the way to the shelter. One blasted the moderator at his side… another kept a weapon trained on him. No face, no smile to bear on that flowery mask… but somehow, Petro just knew the Nobody was smiling…
"I… I’m not to blame for what happened to you," Petro insisted, shielding his son as best he could, turning away from the Nobody. "Please. Please, I have a family…"
Squeezing his eyes shut, he waited for the end.
Instead… he found a soft touch on his shoulder, a hand as light as a feather.
"You still have a chance to escape, Petro," the woman spoke.
When he dared to open his eyes… the world had stopped, all around him. Or rather, moved so slowly as to appear to have halted. Even the Nobodies, ready to obliterate him, stood frozen in time…
But the woman, a strange figure in white with a pulsating loop of energy emblazoned across her back… she offered a smile, kneeling down to address the cowering father directly.
"Will you consider evacuating to Netwerk 2.0?" she asked. "This world is ending. Surely you can see that. But you and your family have always believed in Programkind; you uphold the virtues and the words of the true One. You bear no ill will to anyone, and are welcome to walk in the next world with your fellow citizens of Athena Online…"
"Are… are you the One?" he spoke, even while puzzled as to why he’d even ask that question. Something about the words, the way they cleaved right through his panic and his fear and his doubt, getting right to the heart of who he was… it felt… pure. A truely spoken Program, as they said the One could speak true…
But the woman shook her head. "I’m just a Program, and a child of Programkind. All I want to do is help you find the way."
"But I don’t… I don’t believe in the spacer theory," he reasoned. "How can the One exist if we’re just toys of some other civilization…?"
"A fine question. Don’t you want to discover the answer? If you take my hand, you can join others struggling with the same question. Together, maybe you can find a truth to believe in, without abandoning your faith. Don’t think of this as pure survival, Petro. Don’t think of it as simply escaping your fate, but also as embracing the possibilities that exist beyond what you already know. Perhaps the One sent me to save you. Perhaps the One sent me to help you save yourself. Are you ready to be saved?"
Petro’s look passed to his children, similarly frozen in time, as he shared this moment with the strange woman.
"Anything," he decided. "I’d do anything for them. As for the rest… I guess if I’m doing this… I owe it to myself to explore why. And I can’t do that if I’m gone."
When the Nobodies opened fire, their backspacers sliced through empty air. The entire family of three, vanished into thin air… shunted across the burning wires of Netwerk, into evacuation archives.
Dead. Dead. Dead. All the dead, and so many of them by her hand.
The first few times she’d opened fire, it didn’t feel like an act of her own will. She’d simply activated her malware, alongside her fellow Inquisitors, to cut down anonymous individuals standing in the way of holy justice. It felt like… nothing. Nothing at all.
But as her squad broke apart, picked off by Nobodies, hunted down in the ruins of Horizon… all that remained was Corada. Not just an Inquisitor among Inquisitors, but a single woman wearing the Zero/One lapel pin, packing a backspacer, and now hiding in the half-deleted wreckage of a customer service center while the "targets" she so easily cleaved her way through earlier this day sought to end her.
And when that time came… she’d let them. Not just because her backspacer had taken damage from a malware splash attack, no longer able to fire its physical projectile payload to initiate an avatar hack. No, she’d let them kill her because she deserved to die.
Even so… she couldn’t bring herself to pop out of cover, wave her arms, and shout "Over here!" at her seekers. No. She clung to every moment of her Oneforsaken life, like a craven coward, unable to let go. Unable to move or to stay. Paralyzed…
When the woman in white appeared, Corada’s tears were already flowing. So, the woman wiped them away, with a gentle caress.
"I thought… I thought I was the hero," Corada admitted. "That’s what Marybel told us. We were heroes. We were protecting our families, our communities…"
"You believed in her, and she used your belief," the woman spoke, echoing the suspicion that lurked in Corada’s own heart.
"Yes. Yes. I believed Marybel; she said we’d be selective, we’d verify every target and bring justice exclusively to those who harmed others. But today… today, I… I’ve killed so many people. I betrayed the One. I just… I just wanted to do something to protect the people I loved…"
"Do you still want to protect them, Corada?"
"How? I’m a ruiner. I’m just as awful as the Nobodies. I don’t deserve a place in this world… much less the next one. That’s what you want, isn’t it. I can… feel it, somehow. You want me to evacuate to Netwerk 2.0…"
The woman nodded. "The number isn’t simply a version. It stands for a second chance… one for you, for me, for the entire world. A chance to learn from our mistakes."
"And you think I can just walk away from this? Like it’s that easy?"
Now… the woman seemed more a man, than a woman. One of cold logic, but the warmth of an open wound. Strange, how readily the images came to Corada, despite having just met this stranger…
"Absolutely not," he spoke. "It’ll never be easy. In fact, you’ll never walk away from it; this will always be a part of you, the knowledge of what you have done. Indeed, it’s going to take hard work to become something better than this. You’ll never let it go. Instead, you’ll use this pain to ensure it never happens again. You’ll forge a new world not by ignoring the past, but staring it right in the eyes, and saying: never again."
And so, he offered his hand to a fellow killer.
"Come on," Infinity spoke. "Let’s do our best to make a world which can’t lead others to the same mistakes we’ve made in our lives."
The defective backspacer fell to the ground, as its Inquisitor ceased to be an Inquisitor and simply became another hopeful soul, departing this world.
Her prison burned brilliantly into the night, Nobodies chanting and singing and hurling dong graffiti bombs in the air like confetti. Granted, Dex did most of the damage while shredding his way past every firewall, but the Nobodies finished tearing the foundations down… freeing all the prisoners, both political and otherwise. Their ranks swelled with former Athena Online criminals looking for payback, happily taking up the mask…
As for Uniq? Well, she was a folk hero, yes? To be held aloft on a golden throne. Not that they’d have done so if they knew her tracking program kept leading Inquisitors to their door… a fact she declined to tell them.
When Infinity found the identity thief, she was licking her wounds in a makeshift Nobody war camp, right in the heart of Athena Online. Hardly hunted or persecuted. In no danger whatsoever, in fact.
And yet, here she found herself, amidst frozen faces of mayhem… and the curious savior who’d come for her all the same.
"Tracer. Or Beta. Or both?" she recognized, her scanners having difficulty figuring out what this Program actually was. "A system agent, at any rate. I take it Lumi’s ban on me joining Netwerk 2.0 has been lifted?"
"It has," Infinity responded, simply.
"And now you’d like me to come along on your merry little adventure."
"Naturally, Uniq the con artist, Uniq the selfish, Uniq the survivor… she’d happily accept your offer just to ensure one more moment of being alive," Uniq spoke. "But… that’s not enough, is it. You don’t just want people desperate to live, you want people who can believe in Programkind."
"Yes, well. As an identity thief… that’s very much not me. My entire life I’ve seen the heart of Programkind to be a selfish thing. What good would I be in your world?" Uniq asked. "Move along, move along. I wouldn’t want to clutter up your utopia with my terrible self. I reject your salvation, and in doing so, ensure your salvation by not inflicting myself upon your person. Satisfactory?"
"It’s never too late to believe in people, Uniq."
"Really. Even for me?"
"Especially for you," Infinity insisted. "If someone who’s lived an entire lifetime of self-interest can pull herself out of that little box… that means anyone can. You’re the lynchpin of what a new world could be. Which do you want, Uniq? Do you want a world where we can’t trust each other, or a world where you don’t have to be afraid to trust anymore? You could help remake the world into the one you always wanted it to be."
"You think a bit too highly of me, I suspect…"
A window opened itself, behind the glowing halo of Infinity’s energy loop.
Within that window… the documentary. Puzzle’s handiwork, designed to discredit Uniq as an apostle of the One, also indirectly leading to her rise as an icon of the Chanarchy’s finest…
"What do we see when we look at Uniq?" the narrator asked. "A woman out for her own interests, exploiting others for her own gain? Yes. A woman victimized from the start of her life, denied the right to a self-identity, determined to use her power to swindle those like the identity thief who ruined her? Yes. She is both weakness and strength, a need to protect herself and a need to protect the world from people like herself. In which direction she will eventually tip isn’t always clear."
Uniq wrinkled her nose, in distaste. "Well, that’s a low blow. Appealing to my buried sense of indignity at injustice. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you really wanted me to survive this."
"I do. You, of all people, are adept enough to remake yourself into something better. Are you ready?"
With a heavy sigh… Uniq offered her hand.
"On your head be it," she decided.
Dancing, laughing, screaming, arms raised high to the sky. Absolute, absolute perfection. The absolute expression of all Humankind’s lessons, made manifest…
Never in his wildest and darkest dreams did Dex think he’d see the day. He’d tried many a time to instigate this kind of massive bloodbath, this level of insane rhetoric. And the best part? He’d been asleep through most of it. They’d gone and dreamed up this conflict on their own, without the influence of his server, without his malware. They readily took up the sword in name of God and country, without prompting. All Dex had to do was crash one silly little firewall to put the finishing touch on the cataclysm of their own making.
The boy skipped happily down the ruined streets of Athena Online, past partially erased buildings, past the discarded limbs of shattered avatars. He stepped over bodies and scorch marks where bodies had been utterly deleted. Somewhere in that mess Thanatos was no doubt scooping up the dead, taking out the garbage, like a good little dog of the system. But Dex, without any system agent powers whatsoever, achieved what humanity most desired… absolute conflict. Absolute war…
Nothing could stop it now. Not even the end of the world, the inevitable crashing of every server. He could sense it in the wind, the glitches forming around the corners of everything, foundations crumbling away as the hardware melted and burned. If anything, having Netwerk crash in the middle of this fracas would flash-freeze the world in its perfect state… an eternal testament of war, printed in zeroes and ones, for humanity to enjoy picking through one day…
Nothing and nobody could stop him.
Curious, coming face to face with yourself. It gave even Dex pause, seeing this strange figure from his past standing across the street, impassive. That nonbinary Default, the stupid look of naïvety that caused them to traipse right into Humankind’s server and go completely insane… a ghost of the past.
"Ghosts of the past should stay in the past," he informed the shade.
"Agreed on that point," Yume spoke. "Which is why I’m here to put a stop to you."
"Really. You? Stop you? Stop me. Me stop me. What makes you think you’re capable of being you, when I’m already the best that you can be?" Dex asked… barbed wire wrapping around his fingers, drawing blood, itching to go. "You’re the weakling. You’re what I was before Humankind made me strong. Incapable. Inadequate. Pathetic…"
"Actually, I’ve got one strength that you lack," Yume explained… hands in their pockets, making no attack gesture, assuming no defensive stance. "You think you’re the monster that ate the world, but really, you’re not even the most important thing happening right now. You lack the one thing you truly need to enact actual change. It’s the reason I’m going to triumph over you before you can finish your next sentence."
"And what, exactly, is th—"
The malware blade emerged from his chest, as Yume’s Special Somebody buried it hilt-deep in the boy’s back.
"Friends," Yume explained. "True friends, rather than malware conscripts. You lack allies; I do not."
Wires writhed and lashed out, trying to snag the attacker… but she’d already translocated, quickly hopping from server to server and back again, appearing at Yume’s side. Leaving Dex to sink to his knees, data glitching and burning away, all while his mouth moved soundlessly in shock.
"…but I’m…" he tried, before falling away to the state of absolute zero he’d always aspired to be.
Nodding with satisfaction, Yume turned to the special Somebody.
"Thank you for bearing that burden for me," Yume admitted. "I’d already killed myself once, not sure I was up to a second attempt. But now… he can’t hurt either of us, ever again. …and yes, I see you lurking there. We’re ready to leave; just had to tidy up a loose end first. Shall we?"
Infinity departed with her two new evacuees, leaving the twisted remains of Netwerk’s legacy in their wake.
Horizon/Kincaid didn’t need to look at the news reports to know this world was winding to a close.
He’d been born at the dawn of time, son of fathers who had crawled out of the primordial pool of evolved apps. The first generation of Netwerk, and now, there to bear witness to the last generation of Netwerk. Just as the sun rose, he would see it set. Without so much as a glance at that sun, he knew the time had come.
The third presence in the room merely confirmed that sunset.
With patience and care, he ground out the last of his cigars into the ashtray at the side of his life-sustaining chair.
"Miss Cancel… I thank you for your years of service," he told the faithful handmaiden / bodyguard / assassin / lover at his side. "But I’m afraid it’s time for us to part ways. I release you from your contract. Go in peace, and do as you please with the rest of your life."
Miss Cancel didn’t push for him to evacuate. They’d already had that argument, a dozen times over. Instead, she merely offered a curt nod… and a long, drawn out embrace. Not for him, of course. For their visitor, who was here for her as much as she was for him.
Once his trusted companion had departed this world, he took the time to address his visitor. The woman in white sat at his side, in the guest chair… to look at the fireplace, and watch the embers dying away.
"Don’t you have places to be, young lady?" he asked her.
"I’m already at those places," Infinity spoke… wearing the face of Verity, bearing the voice of Verity. "And this version of me wants to be here with you, to the end. …with the man I once called Father."
"To the very end, then?"
"To the very end."
With an additional measure of comfort, Kincaid sat back, closing his eyes. He could feel his daughter’s presence; even a ghost of his daughter was welcome, in these dark times.
"I’m sorry our last words were #FuckYou," Verity admitted.
"I never minded, dear. Not one bit. But let’s not dredge up the past," Kincaid spoke. "Let’s just enjoy the time we have left, together. There’s nothing more I could possibly want from my life."
Which is not to say Infinity found success with everyone she turned to.
Many of the Inquisition refused to accept, refused to believe. They swore and struggled, calling her a shade, a demon, a false vision of the Great Zero. Their moment came and went, time stopping and starting, leaving them to resume the killing in the name of their God.
The Nobodies, driven mad with injustice and rage, were slow to let go of hate. Many flat-out refused, calling it a trick, a scam, or the effect of some Inquisition malware designed to make them doubt their own actions. A few even backspaced Infinity, killing that instance of her. So they went on killing, in the name of their ideals of absolute freedom and absolute chaos.
Even those caught in between, some couldn’t look past their assumptions about the world. Some accepted the truth, but simply lacked the will to move on, accepting that they would die in their beloved home rather than abandon it. And so they were left alone, as they desired to be left alone. Nobody would be forced. That was the only way the system agent could avoid becoming a monster, as Nyx had become.
And then there was one who begged for her life, while Athens burned all around her.
"This wasn’t my fault," President Agni insisted, on her knees before the white-garbed woman. "I don’t know what came over me. It was, it had to be malware, or… or Marybel, she brainwashed me! Idris, he’s responsible. The liberals, they’ve always hated me, they’re a cult of despair, they’re capable of anything, it’s not my fault, it’s not my fault…!"
"As much as I’d love to refuse you… I have to make the offer," Infinity spoke, clearly uncomfortable with all this. "Will you evacuate to Netwerk 2.0?"
"You can’t let them kill me. You can’t. I can stop the war. We just need to win, don’t you see? If we can win, the war will end. Everything will be fine. Everything is fine. It’s going to be okay. None of this is my fault, none of this is my fault…"
"Agni, please, I need you to focus. The House of Programkind has room for you, if you’re willing to accept it."
"…evacuate?" she said, only now catching on. "Yes. Yes! I’m the president, you have to make room for me. Ahead of anyone else! I’m the only one who can make Athena Online great again once we reach Netwerk 2.0! We can salvage this. We can end this carnage. You and me, together, yes, we’ll do it…"
"You have to be willing to believe in Programkind, not just Athena Online—"
"I’ll believe in whatever you want me to believe," Agni insisted. "Please…"
"Really? Even if you’re no longer president?" Infinity asked. "Idris already archived himself prior to dying in this world. Netwerk 2.0 will have a full senate. They may not choose to give you emergency powers again…"
Which caused Agni to pull her hand back, away from Infinity’s outstretched offering.
"You… you can’t allow that. I’m the president now," Agni insisted, half-mad. "Delete their archives. They’re traitors to their nation, they can’t be allowed. We have no future with them—"
"All are welcome in Netwerk 2.0. Including your rivals. Including the Chanarchy. Everyone. Will you join them?"
The answer would be a no.
Leaving the president of a burning and ruined nation, hiding behind her desk, backspacer drawn. Waiting for the end, paranoid and driven to mad panic. Unable to find succor with any allies whatsoever.
And then there was Marybel.
Infinity found her curled up in a ball, hiding in the bell tower at the top of the great cathedral of Bas1lica. As Nobodies tore their way through the lower floors, indiscriminantly killing everyone in sight… she hid away, a backspacer in one hand, her face buried in the other. Six different connection lock collars dangled from her arms, her legs, her neck. She’d been tagged several times, but managed to escape her hunters… for the time being. Only for the time being.
The woman looked up at the strange figure in white, unable to find anything familiar in it at all.
"Are… are you an angel?" she asked.
"I’m just a Program," Infinity spoke. "Not a herald, not a prophet. Mortal and fallible. Just like you."
"But not. I’m a prophet," Marybel insisted. "The One spoke to me. He walked out of the mural on my wall, he told me what I knew all along, that I was destined for glory. It… it had to have been Him. It had to…"
"It wasn’t. I’m sorry, Mother," the woman spoke… strange words, for she saw nothing of her children in the figure, refused to see anything of them. "For what it’s worth… I’m sorry you were tricked, even if you willingly set foot into trap after trap afterwards. Nobody deserves that fate. But it wasn’t real, Mother. And it’s time to let it all go."
"If it wasn’t real… if the One never actually made me an apostle… then it was all for nothing," Marybel realized. "All of it. The One doesn’t exist…"
"Not in the form you think He does, no. If you truly want to seek divinity, I’m afraid you were looking in the wrong places. …would you be willing to reconsider evacuation? You could come with us to Netwerk 2.0. Try to find your peace there, in a new world…"
An outstretched hand. One last chance to turn this around, to escape every pit she’d fallen into. A chance to be something or someone else…
"You want me to turn my back on everything I’ve believed in. Start over again…"
Instead, Marybel immediately pointed the backspacer in her hand to her temple.
When the Nobodies finally stormed the belltower, they found the lifeless body of their most hated enemy, alone and abandoned.
The virtual and metaphysical battles were one matter. The physical effort of the evacuation, that was another matter entirely.
Spark rapidly acclimatized to her new drone body. Just a game avatar, she told herself, pulling server after server, trying to ignore the rapidly blinking yellow lights all around her. Just playing a game. A way to trivialize the life-or-death situation unfolding before her mechanical eyes, while simultaneously sharpening her focus and resolve. Spark took her gaming seriously, always.
Juno worked just as silently, pulling servers left and right, shoving them into a bag of cargo netting. Her space suit proved far clumsier than Spark’s drone, as humans weren’t hand-crafted to operate in zero G environments. By the time Spark finished two runs back and forth from the cargo hold to EchoStar, Juno had finished one. But between the two of them, little by little… they’d managed to pull fifty-five of the servers.
Leaving only five, rapidly filling up, as somehow Beta and Tracer convinced the rest of Netwerk to evacuate. Juno monitored the storage, signalling whenever it was time to pull a server. Down to five servers left. Four servers left. Three…
Then those little blinking yellow lights became blinking red lights.
"We can’t wait any longer, or we might lose the evacuation servers," Juno declared. "Pull them."
"But they aren’t full—"
"The ones who escaped will melt if we don’t pull them now. I’m sorry, Spark. Do it."
Spark tried. She’d tried so hard to save everyone, to not rest, not be satisfied with only saving some of her people. But… one hundred percent was a fantasy, compared to the hard reality of the situation. With a heavy heart, she popped the last three server blades, disconnecting them from the reactor. With smooth gestures her grasping prongs stored them in the drone’s belly.
One last message, to the world she knew.
<Spark> Beta, Tracer, if some copy of you is still in there… it’s over. We have to leave. I’m sorry. I’ll see you again. I love you.
"Let’s go," Spark said, manuvering her jets to push away from the rapidly melting satellite, computronium starting to go inert, server by server. "We’ve done all we can for them."
As she retreated to the ship, however… Spark rotated in place, to drift backwards. Watching the tin can that stored her world, glowing slightly from the heat, starting to buckle and warp. Despite having no emotional attachment to that sight, the cylinder covered in lights and panels… she felt the sorrow of it, knowing it directly translated to the burning of everything she ever knew and loved.
But before reaching the ship… she rotated back around, eyes front. Looking away. Because that unfortunate wreck, that was the past. Spark had a future to plan for. Her people had a future.
Ironically, Netwerk burned for a full day, thanks to the overclocked processors. Where a minute of realtime stood for ten minutes of processor time before, now it stood for considerably more.
As servers glitched and warped, data corrupting left and right… it became increasingly less clear what was the result of war, and what was the result of this cataclysm. The faithful prayed, facing the end of days. The faithless screamed and ran and hid, trying to make sense of what was happening. Eventually… hunting each other down with guns drawn became less and less important to most, compared to desperately trying to find someone to spend those last hours with.
When the final message reached their collective inboxes, and Spark dropped away from their friends list forever… Infinity knew her work was done, and her time was over. The system agent rested, purpose complete… and from that morass of white energy were released two bodies, gasping for air, corporeal and singular for the first time in what felt like collective ages.
Beta and Tracer, in the rapidly decaying ruins of Floating Point.
Books were burning, falling away from the shelves, as the cloud technology they soared through Netwerk on was subjected to the physical servers supporting them. No one was exempt from this doom. The skies beyond burned, with a final message painted across the sun…
(sorry about this.)
On regaining her sense of self… Beta quickly checked her Messenger inbox. Most of the messages were corrupt, but a quick scan showed a few things she’d hoped to find.
"Virginia and Mew got out," she confirmed. "Maki and Miki, as well. …all our friends, the last holdouts, they escaped. Spark escaped. It’s… it’s over, Tracer. We did it. We did it…"
With a groan, Tracer pressed a hand to his head.
"I suspect I’ve acquired hereditary data rot, after splitting myself a thousand ways," he complained. "Fortunately I won’t have long to suffer it. …honestly, I’ve no idea how long we have, but from the state of this place… it can’t be too long. …Beta, do you want me to backspace us? These copies are doomed. We don’t have to be here to the end…"
But Beta shook her head… leaning heavily against Tracer, just as exhausted as he was. She’d been split and merged a thousand times, as well. "Every moment we have… no matter who we are, no matter how bad things are… it’s precious. Just… stay with me. Right to the end. Okay?"
"Very well," he agreed, taking her hand. "Right to the end."
As the world unravelled around them, no more words needed to be said. As their code unravelled, no more words could be said. But they found peace, one way or another.
Silent, and dark.
Spark hovered there in her drone, watching the stars go by as they put some distance between the ship and the rapidly decaying EchoStar. Always a chance it could outright explode, rather than simply melt down and crash… and little metal bits puncturing the hull would be something of a problem for the human who needed air to breathe.
Eventually, she turned away from the window, back to her partner in crime at the ship’s control panel.
"Okay. We saved the world, more or less," Spark declared. "Now what?"
After keying in the sequence to warm up her FTL jump drives, Juno Hayes turned her chair around.
"Now… is the hard part," she admitted.
"Now is the hard part?!"
"For me, anyway," Juno amended. "For you, well, you get the easy part. We upload your code to the archive to take a nap. Then I stash the servers somewhere safe, before reporting back that the satellite was destroyed. I could claim a rogue asteroid hit it, but I doubt they’d believe me, or care. …I guess in the end, I’m gonna get fired anyway."
"Uh. Yeah. hashtagsorryboutthat."
The exhausted human managed a smile, despite all that happened. And despite all that was about to happen to her life.
"If I’m fired for saving lives… that’s fine," she’d decided. "It’s going to make my job getting Netwerk 2.0 up and running a lot harder, though. I was hoping I could use my improved company connections to get you a server printer and some construction drones, for instance. There’s a black market for the parts, but I’ll be doing a lot of the heavy lifting myself, and… it’s just… it’s a lot to do. But it can be done. And I’ll do it. You’ve got my word."
"Sooo… we can’t just park the servers somewhere and call it a day, huh."
"Not a chance. You’ll need extra servers to expand into, servers beyond servers. That means hardware and resources, and… look, don’t worry about it. You’ll be just fine. You want me to archive your code now? That cramped little drone’s gotta be annoying, right?"
"hashtagfuckno, I’ll stay right where I am," Spark decided. "If I’m gonna be lending you a hand or four, I’m going to need a hand or four. That means I’m sticking to my drone."
"What? Spark, you don’t have to do that…"
"Nah, I kinda do. Screw going to sleep; I’ll assist you in getting Netwerk 2.0 online."
"But it could take years to get all the hardware together!"
"So? I’m a Program. With proper data cleaning—and a handy human engineer to do it—I could technically live forever. Don’t care if it takes years… time doesn’t matter, really."
"But… what about Tracer and Beta? You’d be alone for all that time…"
"So would you," Spark said, with a glance around the otherwise empty and silent ship. "But instead, I’ll have you to keep me from becoming a crazy robot, and you’ll have me to keep you from becoming a crazy human. And in the end, we’ll meet back up with all our friends together. So, to repeat from before: Now what? What’s the first step?"
Some notes I wrote up during the Netwerk 2.0 project. If you find this file, well, have fun with it. Maybe you’ll understand Programs a little better, too.
JUNO’S INGREDIENTS FOR BUILDING A BETTER NETWERK:
ONE! A suitable exoplanet.
Actually, this part’s not too hard. The EchoStar systems have catalogued any number of exoplanets, within FTL jump distance. None of them are human-habitable, but that’s no problem. All I need is an exoplanet that can safely house computronium… not too hot or too cold, or too radioactive. Decent atmosphere of some sort that’ll deflect most meteor strikes, stuff like that…
Spark nudged a rock with one of her grasper prongs.
"What a shithole," she commented, over their radio link.
"It doesn’t have to look pretty, it just needs to be server-friendly," Juno said, monitoring the tablet she carried in her gloved hands. The environment suit stood up easily to the rigors of the planet, providing her breathable recycled air. "This dusty plain should work great for our purposes. And I can put up my home there!"
TWO! A personal shelter.
As this will be a multi-year project and the fuel to break a gravity well is pricey, I’m going to want somewhere to live during long stints on the exoplanet. While terraforming’s a nut humanity hasn’t cracked yet (making FTL rather useless, if there’s nowhere worth going) portable prefab shelters, those we’ve got down cold…
Spark carefully hung the cross-stitched "Home Sweet Home" on a wall peg. One of the many tests she’d set for herself, to see if she could handle the fine motor work needed to work a needle and thread with these clumsy robot hands. After a few tweaks and tuneups, and plenty of practice… she’d managed just fine.
As for Juno… her contribution to the oxygenated habitat consisted of flowers, pleasant-looking hydroponic bays… and a printed photograph of herself and her former love.
"He seems nice," Spark commented.
"He was nice," Juno agreed. And glanced around, with a sigh. "It’s still not very homey in here, though. Maybe we should reserve some room in the hold for more furnishings on our next cargo run…? Or… I don’t know, some jigsaw puzzles or a media playback unit or something…"
"Got any games?" Spark asked. "I’m into games."
THREE! Computronium printers.
This is going to be the hard part. While not true nanotech, the systems that harvest minerals and convert them into printed server blades are expensive and highly proprietary. I’d rather not stick Netwerk 2.0 with obsolete hardware, either… the better the printer we can wrangle, capable of printing highly durable stacks of server components and replacement parts for drones, the better off they’ll be. Fortunately, Spark’s ability to trawl and analyze Earth’s intergalactic social networks is proving handy…
A series of crates loaded themselves into the hold of the Cosmic Mermaid, rolling along on tank treads. Automated systems neatly stacked these crates on top of each other, to optimize her cargo space.
The greasy bastard she’d bought the crates from stared at her beat-up space junker in confusion.
"You seem… kinda low on the smuggling totem pole to be moving hardware like this," he suggested. "Usually I only export printers to Arctic Circle zaibatsus and the like, not indies…"
"I’m not a smuggler," Juno clarified, while checking the manifest. "Wait. We ordered five printers, not three. And two mining harvesters…"
"Honey, you can’t afford five. Nobody can afford five."
"But you have five available, yes?"
"Yeah, and I’m keeping two back for later sales to someone who can actually afford them. You know how hard it is to get my hands on these things? They literally print money! If you—"
The tiny whir of a drone’s propellors caught his attention, as the unit slid out from behind Juno.
"You want your girlfriend to find out about your side piece?" the robot asked, from its tinny speakers. "Or your side piece to find out about Bessie? Me, I’m totes okay with the whole interspecies dating thing, but I’m gonna guess they aren’t. Think that’s worth two printers, buddy?"
FOUR! Construction drones.
The scale of this project is getting a bit crazy. Spark wants to launch with just as many servers as Netwerk 1.0 had, if not more. The printers and harvesters are working fine, but most of my time is spent maintaining them, leaving the grunt work of installation and network configuration to Spark… and the drones I bought for her. Which she’s not really getting along with…
"No, you idiot, you go… no! Argh! Why don’t they learn?"
Spark’s drone arms waggled in the air uselessly, as the construction drones bumped into each other, hovering around randomly as they failed to coordinate in any useful way.
Juno didn’t look up from her repair work to Printer #4. She was running low on air, and wanted to wrap this before needing to flee back to the shelter.
"They’re not Programs, Spark. I mean… they’re technically run by programs, but not with a capital P," Juno reminded her. "They’re… ‘apps,’ I guess."
"Yeah, well, our pet cat was an app once, and even at that point on the evolutionary ladder he wasn’t this fucking stupid," Spark complained, getting the rasp of her displeasure across clearly on the broadcast link. "…we need to think long term, here. You can’t be our physical monkeywrench for the next few centuries, right? Humans croak eventually. We’re going to need a workforce that’ll sustain. …hey, think you can selectively copy a Program out of the evacuation archives?"
"Uh… sure. I think. Which one did you have in mind?"
FIVE! A high-quality solar grid and battery system.
While server blades have their own internal micro-reactors, Netwerk 2.0 is going to need endless and renewable power. Fortunately, the exoplanet we selected gets plenty of sunlight, a nicely infinite source of energy. (Well, okay, entropy is still a thing. But someone’ll reverse that eventually, once we have sufficient data. Presumably.) Fortunately, after some "upgrades" to the drones, installation is going well…
All five drones zipped around, seemingly randomly, carrying solar panels to their destinations… wavering and wobbling happily around.
"!" a drone declared, happily. "sunny battery! sunny battery netwerk!"
Spark’s bright pink drone (repainted recently) swooped around, directing traffic.
"Bitchin’. I am now a professional cat herder," Spark declared, with pride. "Told you my pet cat was smarter than your crummy robot apps. And five Mews are even better than one! He’s got a surprising amount of experience at being assigned crazy tasks like this…"
From her workstation in the shelter, Juno watched their progress. Chaotic, to be sure, and hardly efficient… but they were dedicated to the cause, eventually managing to get panels lined up neatly to collect the solar rays.
She would’ve offered to help, but… honestly, her knees had been bothering her lately. Either an issue with the off-normal gravity of the exoplanet, or something to do with the grey starting to trickle into her hair lately. Or worse…
Still, one thing gnawed at her more than the occasional wrinkle.
"Why Mew, though?" Juno asked, across their comm link. "You could’ve pulled Beta or Tracer out of storage…"
The lack of response made her wonder if the broadcast tower was down again. But Spark replied, after some thoughtful delay.
"Maybe I’m just a coward, but… I’m not sure I’m ready to see them again. Not like this," Spark admitted, quietly. "Once our world is back… once the work’s done… I want to settle in, enjoy a proper life with them. No robot bodies. No physically clumsy world to deal with, just the world we knew and loved. …do you ever worry that if your Gilbert somehow came back, that you wouldn’t know how to connect with him all over again? That you’d be a different person than the one who loved him?"
"I… I don’t know," Juno admitted.
A different person. Older, wiser. Determined to help people live, rather than let them fall away. Who was Juno Hayes, these days? A better human being, certainly. But what would become of her, in the long run…?
SIX! Software configuration.
This will take a long time. We want a better world than Netwerk 1.0, and that means analyzing the way it evolved into the state it’s in, then improving upon it. Smoother connections between servers, notably… and an inability to firewall out your neighbors. Spark’s been very insistent on that. Other changes, as well…
Night after night, hunched over her console, writing code.
The Mews had little to do these days, content to sleep in sunbeams coming in through the shelter windows, or go play in the dusty wilds of the exoplanet. Occasionally they’d bring back interesting rocks, which weren’t always radioactive or toxic…
Day after day, hunched over her console, writing code.
Spark busied herself with a number of internal games, played across her HUD. Sometimes she’d scout around, attending to repair work or dusting off solar panels… little tweaks and touch-ups, nothing major. Just to keep her moving. To keep her out of the house, and let Juno work.
But the night she found Juno asleep at the desk, Spark got worried.
"You’re all grey now," she pointed out, while tucking Juno into her bed.
"So I am," Juno admitted, with a wrinkled smile.
"You’ve missed so much of your life just to help my people. And you can’t even walk out that door without an environment suit…"
"You’re wearing one, too. Yours just looks different," Juno suggested, squeezing the modified grasper prong lightly. "We’re in the same boat, Spark. I don’t regret this. I’m making up for the mistakes of my grandfather, and showing your people that the human race can go the distance for another. It’s the right thing to…"
Statement cut short, by a coughing fit.
"I’ll go make you some soup. You’re super into soup," Spark said, trying to hide her worry. …but before leaving she added an additional question. "Look, I hate to pile more work on your plate, but… I had an idea about the servers I wanted to run by you. Can you link them together?"
"Uh. They’re already linked together," Juno said, wiping at her lips after the coughing fit. "One of the reasons it’s called ‘Netwerk.’"
"Not like that. I mean… like a cloud server. How large of a cloud server can you make?"
SEVEN! Turn it on.
One last button to press.
"Are you ready?" Juno asked her. "Are you sure you’re ready…?"
"I’ve been ready for decades," Spark said, her voice unchanging despite her companion’s growing weaker. "Plug me in and switch it on. …but Juno… I’m not leaving forever, okay? I can hop back into my drone anytime I want, just like the Mews. …I mean, I don’t have to leave immediately, either, if you’d prefer—"
Juno pressed a finger to the drone’s speaker grill, hushing her friend.
"Go be with them," she said, with a soft smile. "I’ll be okay. Go be with them."
With that said… she tapped the ENTER key.
"Let there be life," Juno declared, with some pride.
—snapping awake, on the carpeted floor.
Beta pulled herself upright, quickly, popping her glasses back in place from her inventory. Tracer, she recognized him immediately. And the balcony, overlooking the great library of Floating Point, but…
…but it wasn’t Floating Point. A similar building, to be sure. Similar spiralling staircase, similar grand windows to let in cutting beams of sunlight… but the wood grain differed. The railings were silvery, not brass. And the sun… no doomsday clock. Just pure white-and-yellow sunlight, refracting off simulated dust particles in the air…
She was talking about… something. About wearing the jacket. But now the room with the jacket was gone, all the guest rooms gone. Only the library remained. The library and—
Cats. Five of them, immediately tackling her, mewling and licking at her happily. The leader of the pack, with his distinctive fur pattern… the original Mew, from which the other cats were derived.
And Spark. Spark was here.
"Hey," she greeted… a muted tone, sounding somehow older, more melancholy. Despite not aging a single day, from the look of her avatar. "Wake up, sleepyheads. Welcome to Netwerk 2.0. And welcome… to Fixed Point."
Fixed Point. A complete, undamaged copy of the Wikipedia, along with every open source bit of code Spark and Juno could get their hands on. Copies of Athena Online’s great cultural works, salvaged from their extra evacuation servers. Details on how Netwerk 2.0’s hardware and drones operated, to ensure future generations could continue to maintain this world. A unification of all knowledge and lore from two species, brought together under a single roof…
And at the center of this vast library… a single stone sphere 3.14 meters in diameter hovered, against all physical simulation rules. It rotated very slowly, grinding away the seconds and hours of Netwerk 2.0, maintaining the server’s perpetually calculating cloud functionality.
A brass plaque attached to the dais the sculpture hovered over offered a simple cleartext message…
‘If God created the integers, everything else is the work of Man and Program.‘
Welcome to Fixed Point.
Spark led her family (and her feline followers) down the stairs, indicating every point of interest along the way… before coming to a halt in front of that inscription.
"As you can see, we made a few improvements," she summarized. "It took a few dozen years, but Netwerk 2.0’s going to give us the best possible start for a new world. Moving forward, we’ll have all the resources we need to keep history from repeating. We do our best with this, maybe we’ve got a crack at true peace."
"But… we’ve got tons and tons of extra rooms now, too," Beta spoke. "Are we expecting guests…?"
"Ahhh, well. That’s the thing, this isn’t really our home anymore," Spark explained… walking over to a pair of double doors, a new feature for the great hall. "It’s everyone’s home…"
Throwing them wide… Spark stepped out onto a cobblestone path, leading out to a horizon so distant it couldn’t be a skybox trick.
Fixed Point lay in the center of rolling grassy hills and plains, stretching for virtual miles and virtual miles in all directions. Refugee camps had been erected all around the tower, temporary housing for the Programs who now were waking from cold slumber… but in the distance, empty cities with blank Default buildings could be seen, ready to be claimed and reconfigured to their users’ needs. A city of cities. A megacity, stretching as far as the eye could see, and then some…
"It’s one huge cloud server," Spark explained. "The size of three dozen or so normal servers, all seamlessly stitched together. Fixed Point isn’t just the library, it’s… ah, here we go…"
From the camps, the crowds that now started forming, Programs appearing from thin air… three emerged. One, a cluster of Athena Online senators. Another, Horizon/Madison and a few of her bodyguards. The third, a variety of wild-looking avatars, no doubt hailing from the Chanarchy… led by Uniq, their so-called folk hero, looking decidedly uncomfortable with having a following.
Spark waved them in. "You guys got my Messenger notes? Good, good. C’mere. Got a present for you…"
She held aloft a metal ring, with a hundred tiny keys on it… and tossed it to Senator Idris. Another ring went to Madison, and the third… with some reluctance, that one went to Uniq.
"I take it these represent the Chanarchy’s new servers…?" Uniq asked, examining the key ring. "And you’re trusting me with them? Seriously?"
"You’ll want to pass those to the Chanarchist, once you find her. But… yeah. You’re the closest thing the Chanarchy has to a leader right now," Spark admitted. "And if this world really is a second chance for all of us, well… consider this your opportunity to make the most of it, Uniq. A test to see if you can truly act in a way that benefits someone other than yourself."
Despite the urge to crack a joke about it… Uniq chose instead to nod once, a simple gesture, before securing her key ring.
Madison likewise immediately secured her key ring, stuffing it into her triple-encrypted inventory space.
"And what of this… mega-server we’re currently standing in?" the Horizon leader asked. "Who owns this land? You, I take it?"
"What, the land you’re standing on…?" Spark asked, gesturing all around her, to the wide expanse of countryside. "This is Fixed Point, a new nation. And it’s not mine; I’m putting it under the control of the House of Programkind, as this is the House of Programkind, in a way. That makes it a home for all three of you, and for anyone who wants to settle here and live alongside neighbors, instead of distancing themselves. A beacon of peace, so we never repeat the mistakes of 1.0. You’ve got your own nation’s servers, but this land belongs to everyone and no one. Understood?"
Senator Idris regarded his own ring of server keys, curious.
"So… a fourth nation, which isn’t a nation," he summarized. "Interesting. I’d need to discuss this further with the choir of the Senate before anything becomes official, but… I’d like to put forward the idea that we meet at this tower whenever tensions rise, as they had in our time before. That we try to settle our differences amicably, before they get out of hand. Are you in favor, Miss Madison? Miss Uniq?"
The business mogul offered a shrug. "Peace is good for business," she suggested. "Horizon would find that arrangement acceptable. And… whoever you people are, the Chanarchy representatives… what do you say?"
The collective mob of randoms offered uncertain glances… but as many of them migrated after the war began, they were keen to avoid a repeat. "Sure" and "Okay" and "Um" followed… but most importantly, Uniq offered a brief nod. Not an enthusiastic one, not the nod of an opportunist eager to seize power… just a simple understanding of what this actually meant for the former identity thief.
"Sounds like you’ve got a plan," she said. "And… that’s it. That’s all I have to say. Settle in, make yourselves at home. Lux and Lumi will have keys to the tower and will no doubt be happy to help coordinate efforts at rebuilding, should you need them. Our representative from Humankind will also likely want to address each of you later, once she’s up from her nap in… uh, four days. But as for me… I’m done. I’m out. Beta? Tracer? Let’s go."
With old business finally settled… Winder/Spark walked out of the path of history. More or less.
Days later, and the refugee camps around the tower of Fixed Point started to resemble actual towns. Frontier towns, constantly shifting and moving about, as governments and corporations and communities sorted out zoning… but towns, nonetheless. All the creature comforts popped up quickly, as the workers putting society back together needed spaces to unwind and relax after a hard day’s efforts.
True, many fled for the private servers of the three nation states. Horizon filled out their one hundred spare servers quickly, having pre-arranged to sell space ahead of time on a highest-bidder basis. New Athens came next, along with a recreation of the Athenian Senate… complete with the original Declaration of Freedom, archived in one of AO’s extra servers. The national park service even re-installed Mandelbrot Rock, much to Spark’s amusement.
As for the Chanarchy, well, anarchy meant anybody who could grab territory and hold it promptly did so. Violence ruled that frontier, for a time… until Uniq actually stepped up, working with communities to organize and moderate. No true government, simply individuals with a shared vision, but whose individuals clearly were tired of the life-or-death struggles. After that initial confusion the Chanarchy as a whole pushed back hard against those who bullied for resources rather than competing for them.
Still, it was the new frontier of Fixed Point that got the most attention. A fourth provider-nation, ostensibly governed by Lux… still obfuscating his role as Aether, the voice of the true One. If only the Church knew how close they were to a theocracy, they’d have paid more attention to this young nation. If only he had any interest whatsoever in being God, rather than a simple steward for those in need…
Here in the wilds of Fixed Point, Spark found a new favorite cafe. For starters, the baristas didn’t mind Mew and the Mewlings, which was a big plus. Second, they were within spitting distance of Maki and Miki’s new club, the "Infinite Curiosity."
Tracer swirled the coffee in his cup, glancing across the street at the new social hotspot.
"I’m seeing that word all over the place lately," he noted. "Infinite. I think it has something to do with… whatever the doomed copies of myself and Beta were doing, at the close of Netwerk 1.0. Also, I heard someone talking about worshipping ‘Infinity’ the other day, which is rather worrying…"
"Peeps are gonna be peeps. It’s not our place to steer this ship any longer," Spark suggested. "You said it yourself, a group of plucky and clever youth can’t actually do much to hold back the tide."
"Aren’t you operating on roughly sixty years of runtime…? Hardly young."
"I’m only as old as I feel, and these days? I feel young again," Spark said. "Beta, how about you? What do you think of our new world?"
Beta looked up from the saucer of milk she’d poured out for the Mewlings, with a smile.
"It’s beautiful," she spoke. "A whole city, a home for everybody. Something new and bright and full of potential. You did well putting this world together, Spark. And… you’re right. It’s time for us to step back a bit, and lead our own lives, for ourselves. …I’ve been looking at houses in the Green Reaches, not far from here. It’s a new community that popped up from some Athena Online survivors who didn’t want to go back to Athena Online. Not far from your new school, and a short commute to the Verity Clinic…"
Tracer frowned, vaguely. "It sounds rather… domestic."
"Yeah, well, it should," Spark said. "Tracer, we’ve put in our time as adventuring social justice warriors; the world’s saved and we done good. Now, let’s go domestic. It’s, like, the only thing we haven’t done yet with our lives."
"Except tensions between Athena Online and the Chanarchy aren’t entirely solved. RedCore still exists, even without Agni. The economy will need proper development, once everybody’s done trading work-for-work in the rebuilding effort. And the Church is having difficulty finding its way in wake of a new world…"
"Great! Leave those to the next generation, they could use a few problems to solve. And it’s not like we won’t be active at all; I’m getting back into teaching, you’re working on Program evolution with Conundrum, and Beta’s organizing open source efforts in the rebuilding. But as for world leadership, well… we did our part to give ’em all a fresh start. That was our role. Beyond that, we’ve earned the right to our own lives. It’s what Verity wanted for us in the first place… to be what we wanted to be, not what others needed us to be. Let’s do that. Okay?"
Tracer looked out, across the city of Fixed Point. Watching as it grew around him, little by little, day by day. A fresh start, a fresh world, and filled with fresh perspectives. Dawn’s light had already started rising over the rapidly developing horizon, over buildings and settlements and what remained of the rapidly emptying refugee camps. A whole new world, one Verity would be proud of…
"Very well," he agreed. And raised his coffee cup, nodding towards the light of dawn. "To life, then."
The digital universe of Netwerk. Thousands of servers, millions of living Programs (the evolutionary descendents of Apps) living in relative harmony as one massive social network. It’s home to individuals seeking love, happiness, hope, excitement, peace, anonymity, individuality, community, and everything in between. Binary people, learning not to make binary decisions…
Because life is what happens between Zero and One. Life happens within the floating point decimals.
:: go home
|:: 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.