"Heart of Beta"
by stefan gagne

From the files of Unreal Estate: Open House,
http://pixelscapes.com/unrealestate/openhouse.
Some portions copyright other authors; see website for details.


Her hand slid along the wall. She was assuming it was the wall. It had to be the wall. If she focused hard enough it felt smooth to the touch, not sticky, not soft -- but sometimes it was and there wasn't anything she could do about it.

All around her were mountains, except when they weren't. Sometimes they were just clouds. Sometimes they were animals of some sort, things with two arms and two legs, and two eyes. Eyes that stared at her, sometimes disgust sometimes fear sometimes confusion sometimes pity and the pity was the worst...

"Please..." she tried to say, but probably said something else. Hands reached behind her and grasped where she was before, but she was stumbling forward, a direction she thought was forward. To escape, to find something, it was so hard to focus, she was lost...

...she was originally known as Becky. A baby girl with bright blue eyes and bright red hair, with a smile that was highly photogenic. But she had no family name, because she was an orphan -- from birth she had no connections to anyone or anything, except to the orphanage who then pawned this child off to RealWare.

Whatever reality she came from was apparently heavily into debt, and desperately needed to lower the subscription fees on their Reality Engine in order to avoid bankruptcy. The strongest form of the Preferred Partners Program allowed children as young as two to be sent to RealWare training schools, as long as they had no parents to begin with. Nobody who could object to their young ones being sold as bargaining chips. Nobody who the media would really care about...

A bleak origin, but she wasn't a bleak child. She was a bright child, a shining point of light -- reading comprehension at age two, advanced arithmetic at age three. Becky was like a sponge for knowledge, spending plenty of hours in her training school library, reading any book she could get her hands on. Particularly ones about reality technology, of which there were plenty. It was a RealWare school, after all.

"What do you want to be when you grow up, Becky?" her principal asked her, when she won the annual Reality Prime spelling bee.

"I wanna be a Reality Engineer!" she answered, which was exactly the answer they wanted to hear. She was immediately moved into an accelerated training program, one for gifted children who would one day become gifted (and loyal) RealWare REC certified engineers. She was on course to take the REC test at age ten, when she was volunteered for a little side project one of their research boys was working on...

...work on focusing, she thought. Get yourself together. Those had to be the thoughts in her head, because they made sense, and they were exactly what she needed to hear.

She closed her eyes, but it didn't help; the colored patterns behind her eyelids were just as incomprehensible as the shifting landscape of light and horror ahead of her. If anything, it was worse, because the sounds were mis-mapping. An airhorn. An engine roaring by. A lapping pond. Birds in flight.

The screech in her ear (if it was a screech) nearly made her jump out of her skin. Her eyes opened to the giant set of rods and cones that were chasing her, pushing her forwards -- she ran as fast as she could, crashing headlong into something invisible before careening down another corridor of tubes and special objects...

"...do you want to help me with my special work, Becky?" the nice man in the white coat asked. "You're a very special little girl, you know. You read faster than anybody else your age. What if I told you that I could help you read faster?"

Young Becky was enthralled by the prospect. Being called 'special' was also a plus -- every time her teachers told her she was special, that she was bright, that she was good... it felt good. It felt warm deep inside, and it made her happy, not like the bad feelings she had when the orphanage director barked orders and put her on chores and never once said he liked the way she polished the floor or cleaned up the common room.

"I can really really read faster?" she asked. "I already read really fast, mister..."

"If my theory is true, then you'll be able to read twice as fast as before," he said. "Have you heard of information compression, Becky? Some of the RealNet broadcasters are very interested in my work. I think I can help train you, just by looking at a screen, so that you understand things faster than ever! Would you like that?"

"Definitely!" she replied.

"Come along, then. It'll only take an hour..."

"Umm... I'm supposed to be in study group in an hour... shouldn't I ask Ms. Perwinkle first?"

"Let's just let this be a little secret between ourselves," he said, with a smile. "Nobody has to know. Won't they be surprised when they see what you can do? They'll be so happy..."

She wanted them to be happy. She wanted them to love her more and more...

...she couldn't find him. He had what she needed and he took it away and now she was lost. More and more of it assaulted her, from all sides now. Even the wall under her fingertips had turned to jelly, so she crawled on the floor, praying she wouldn't fall into a hole. There couldn't be holes. She didn't see any on the way in but right now she couldn't trust her eyes. They vibrated too much for her to trust them...

...it hurt to look at the screen. It hurt and she couldn't look away, not with her head in that funny metal ring that he had put her in. She felt something wet in her mouth, and everything was vibrating. There were shouts, but she couldn't understand what they were saying. Hands lifted her out of the chair, and she whited out. Eventually, she woke up in the medical ward of Reality Prime.

"Becky? Can you understand me now?" the doctor was asking, and she said yes.

They said other things she also understood, about how the nice man who was working with her had done something very bad and he didn't have permission to test his ideas on her. How he was fired, and had already left Reality Prime. The clinic doctors said she was going to be okay, that she hadn't shown any signs of complications, and could return to school within a few days... if she cleared a few days of observation and testing first, of course.

She felt healthy, no major headaches, no pains... but fear of being kept away from school, away from her REC test and everything she was working for kept her from telling them the truth. From the first moment she woke, she couldn't help but wonder why the sign over the door on the medical ward didn't make any sense to her anymore... it was a jumble of letters and not-letters. That night, when she tried to read a book loaned to her by a nurse, she found she couldn't read it at all. Her screams of shock were followed by a full confession to the doctors.

Test after test followed, and her condition got worse -- whenever she felt stressed, which was quite frequent in the cold hospital, she'd lose control of her other senses and everything around her would be scary and wrong... only after being sedated by the doctors would she return to "normal."

In the end, the doctors chose to call it aphasia, for lack of a more specific word. It was an unusual variant of the condition never seen before... characterized by permanent alexia ("inability to attach appropriate meaning to written information"), with occasional bouts of extreme agnosia ("inability to attach appropriate meaning to objective sense-data.")

With no clear-cut treatments available to them, and no budget for constant care of an orphan in the PPP program no matter how gifted she previously proved to be, they simply released her back to her school for the teachers to somehow deal with.

Immediately, her grades dropped. Her instructors stopped calling her bright, but they didn't stop calling her special. They were very careful to call her special, at least, when she was listening. Her peers started to look down on her, and avoided all physical contact -- what if she passed her stupidity on to them? They were promising young reality engineers in training, and they couldn't afford to fail like she was failing.

Eventually, the school just gave up, since she was no longer suitable to be a potential engineer. Becky was deemed an unprofitable burden, unsalvageable, unwanted...

...giving up. She really felt like giving up. Becky stopped trying to move, trying to relocate herself -- how could she, when everything around her kept changing? She was already bleeding, as far as she could tell, from bumping into too many things.

How many hours had it been since the attack started? How many minutes? She couldn't tell anymore. This was one of the worst ones, one of the worst ones she could remember. Her memories, at least, were clear. Everything leading up to this disaster. All the bad parts. And even the good ones...

Reality Prime was too much for her, now. She couldn't handle living here, not with technology all over the place, words everywhere that she could never read again, and doors closed that couldn't be opened. A decision was made to relocate her to a foster home in a more backwater reality, somewhere with less technology. Somewhere relaxed, where she wouldn't be so prone to attacks of aphasia.

It was called Grünwald. Even if she couldn't read the word, she would always remember that the orphanage director called it "The place with two dots in its name." He said since she was acceptably good at doing chores, she'd do just fine on a farm and never again have to worry about her education.

Grünwald was beautiful. So beautiful, and so calm -- the heavy populations and concrete towers of Reality Prime were pale compared to this landscape of rolling hills and green trees. She'd seen places like this in video streams, and loved to imagine herself designing them, a great Reality Engineer crafting a world out of nothing... but that wasn't going to happen now. And despite falling in love with Grünwald at first sight, her first month in this paradise was a nightmare.

All the other kids knew exactly who she was. She was "that retard RealWare sent here." They made fun of her and called her names, and not a day went by that there wasn't dirt on her nice clothes, hurled by the local bullies. She'd run home to her uncaring foster parents, trying so hard to avoid having another attack, going up to her room to cry...

Until one day.

One day, when she was cowering, waiting for the dirt clod to hit, it didn't. It hit a yin-yang instead.

"You guys shouldn't be doing that!" the boy said. "Cut it out, or... or I'll tell your parents!"

This didn't intimidate the bullies much. "Hey, look, it's the klutz!" they called out. "The klutz and the 'tard! Don't THEY make a cute couple? Ha ha ha--!"

His mouth already wide open in a laugh, he ended up swallowing a clod of dirt.

"Run!" her protector shouted, so she ran. She hid under her porch, watching from a distance. She should have gone to her room, to cry, to try to calm herself down -- but instead she watched...

It didn't last long. Grownups broke up the fight and everybody was scolded for it. Eventually, the boy who came to her rescue rejoined her, spotting her in her poor hiding place. He was covered in dirt, even on his glasses, but was smiling.

"You okay?" he asked. "Uh, sorry for diving in like that, but I was just getting really sick and tired of how they were treating you..."

"I-I'm okay," Becky told him, crawling out from under the porch. "Um. Thank you... I'm, uh, Becky. You probably already knew that, though... everybody knows me."

"They don't call you Becky, though. They call you... uh. I won't say it," he said. "I'll just call you Becky. My name's Mallory! And, uh, if you wanna be friends, I'd be okay with that. Really okay..."

...okay. She was going to be okay. It was gone, it was all gone, but she'd be okay. She hugged herself, trying to ignore the horrible feeling through her fingers when she rubbed her own arms. It was just a trick, she thought. It was a trick of the senses. Everything would be okay once she calmed down.

He was so good at helping her calm down. Nobody else cared the way he did...

...mostly because he wasn't very popular himself. Despite being born here, he was treated like an outsider, and never quite understood why. True, he was a bit clumsy, but his father always told him he inherited that from his mother. His mother, who was a Reality Engineer, and a bit uncoordinated herself.

That's when Becky told him that once, she wanted to be a Reality Engineer, but now she couldn't be.

"Why's that?" he asked. "Is it too hard to learn? I heard it's really hard to learn. Kinda like advanced sauce theory..."

"No... no, I still understand everything I learned," she said. "But I can't learn anything else, and I didn't learn enough. I can't read anymore. ...you knew that already, right?"

"Um, sort of. Well... is that it?" he asked. "Just that you can't read? That's all?"

"I can't read and there's nobody here that teaches that stuff. I've been trying to learn to cook, but I'm not doing very well... and I don't enjoy it like I enjoyed thinking about how reality works..."

"I've got chores to do!" Mallory announced suddenly. "I'll see you later, bye!"

Over the next three months, Becky wondered off and on if she'd somehow offended him. He never spent as much time with her as he did those first few days... those first few days when she'd actually been happy in Grünwald. He was always busy plowing fields, doing extra work, tending to his father's garden... but she'd join him now and then, and he'd always offer her smiles and the occasional weird little knowing wink she couldn't understand. It was like he still LIKED her, he just didn't want to spend time with her. He was an eleven year old workaholic...

Eventually, she found out why. One day he ran up to her bedroom after her foster mother let him in the house, and immediately thrust a small rectangular object worth four months allowance (plus extra funds from chores) into her hands.

"It's a laptop RealNet Workstation!" he announced. "I bought it for you! But it's a special one. I heard about them once on my Video Network Player! See, it doesn't have a keyboard, it just has a microphone and a display... and it understands things you say! Uh, once you train it to your voice. So you can talk to it and it'll talk back, and it's got a built-in camera so it can take pictures, and it can scan the text and read it back to you, and... and, uh... is something wrong? Um. Surprise? I forgot to shout 'Surprise!', I was just too excited so I ran over here to give it you, and um, here it is... uh. Do you like it..?"

She was in her room and crying, but this time, it wasn't out of sadness. And she gave Mallory a big, big hug...

...hugging herself, right, just like that. But this time, she didn't have her laptop. She didn't have to be able to recognize it as the object which was her laptop, she just knew it wasn't there, because that's why she was where she was, wherever she was.

Holding very still. Trying not to pay attention to the crash of chaos around her. It'll all go away if she just waits it out. Even if it might be too late by that point...

The very first thing she did was borrow one of her foster father's books, and read it. She'd scan each pair of pages, and let the machine read them back. Eventually her parents demanded she go to bed, so she just turned the speakers down to a whisper and kept reading.

Mallory helped her place an order for Reality Engineering textbooks the very next day, and she became a reading addict. There was so much catching up to do, and now she finally could do it. Of course, the text-to-speech function only read at one speed, which was far too slow for her liking... so she reprogrammed her laptop, hacking into its parameters. It took a month to do, since she had to have the machine read its own configuration back to her, then figure out a way to edit it without typing a single word. But eventually, she had tamed the Workstation, achieving complete voice control. It would read back at any speed she wanted it to.

Even beyond the laptop, her life was improving. Mallory spent most of his free time with her, and they'd play with this 8-Bit Commandos cards -- she especially liked the way they would talk aloud, instead of making you read them. She went online and helped him track down the Treehugger, a rare card he didn't have. He traded with the merchants who came and went, getting her new books... fiction, which was a genre she'd never paid much attention to before. She particularly enjoyed romantic stories.

She probably hit the wall of puberty when she realized how she really felt about Mallory.

But that shouldn't be the way things are, she thought. They're friends, and great friends -- he was the one who gave her her love of life back! He was so encouraging, and she did her best to encourage him too, even if she felt she could never really repay him. It would never be enough. And there he was, always with a smile, always with an ear to listen to, a shoulder to lean on... she'd read enough romance books to know she could wreck all these great times they had together if she pushed it too far. Right? That had to be the truth. Right..?

Years went by. She studied, and continued modifying her laptop until she could write her own reality engine software on it... but had no engine to run on it. The village council certainly wouldn't let her near theirs, and in fact, they never really liked her, being a strange outsider. She wasn't interested in cooking or farming. If she wanted to move to the next level, to really see how far she could take her love of reality engineering... she couldn't stay.

They were seventeen when Mallory gave her the push out of the nest.

"You can't stay here, Beta," he said. (Because that was his nickname for her, since she never finished any of her programs. They were never really good enough to show to anybody except Mallory, not yet.) "You've got to go take your REC test, and become a real engineer!"

"I'm not going back to Reality Prime," she said. "Not again, not ever. They already told me they don't want me anymore. Why should I work for them?"

"Okay, so don't work for them. Work for... um... the Open Reality Movement, maybe? I keep hearing good things about those guys, how they're doing really wild things with reality technology -- and that's just like you! I bet you could learn a ton from them!"

"But... I'd have to leave home," she protested.

"I thought you didn't like your parents?"

"They're NOT my parents..."

"Right, like that," he said. "So they're not exactly tying you down here. You don't really enjoy agriculture, either! You know where you want to be. You're seventeen now, and that means you can legally do whatever you want. Grünwald law! So go to... what's it called... Grok?"

"Grep..."

"Go to Grep and find what you want in your life," he encouraged. "You've just gotta! I know it'd make you happy, and I want you to be happy."

Beta (because that's what she called herself now, Becky was a child long gone) nibbled her lip. "But... but Mallory..."

"Yeah...?" he asked, looking into her eyes, his own so bright and beautiful...

She couldn't say it then, any more than she could say it before. So she said something else.

"Okay. I'll go to Grep."

"Great!" Mallory said. "Well then, you're going to need something to keep you warm on the journey. I want you to have this..."

...she left him. She left Grünwald. And he was right, he was so right. She had to go. She had to get out, so she could really be Beta, be the person she always needed to be. She had to go...

She had to get out of here. She couldn't sit down, she had to track down her laptop, get it back. If she just sat and waited for the nightmares to go away she could miss her chance. Even if it meant wandering and hitting things and looking stupid in front of other people she had to MOVE.

Beta got back to her feet, and marched onward. Carefully, with every step measured as best as she could when the floor itself seemed to have giant gaps in its density...

...there was so much to learn. Even beyond what RealWare knew, the Open Reality Movement was a cornucopia of knowledge, and Grep was its central nervous system.

Unfortunately, Grep was still very much in beta, and the weather controls were on the fritz when she first arrived. Fortunately, Mallory had given her his prized baja sweatshirt with the yin-yang logo, so she was nice and toasty warm.

Beta spent the first few days getting used to the ever-shifting geography of Grep, the way new buildings would come and go as teams changed the reality around to their needs. She'd point her laptop at the sky and have it read back the automated system status messages that scrolled across the great black open, keeping appraised of Grep's heartbeat, getting used to it...

The knowledge base was phenomenal. She spent her first weeks just reading it and reading it, which her roommate didn't mind at all. Beta was sharing a tiny apartment, as most coders in Grep did to save space, with a woman her age from I's Land. Eula, she called herself.

"It was just TOO loose on I's Land, you know?" she explained, when Beta asked about her name. "Gotta have some order in life. Order, she be the child of Babylonia, but problem is that life demands a bit of Babylonia. Without it you just got chaos, and chaos don't keep you alive. So I figure, I's gone, I's goin' somewhere I'm appreciated. So I come to Grep. Take on the moniker of the great evil 'o Babylonia, the E-U-L-A, the end user licence agreement. 'cause frankly, without agreein' to a social order of SOME sort, you got no progress at all."

Eula was full of useful philosophy like that. But while some would assume that made her a neat freak, an authoritative bossy type, and a social recluse... it actually made her a neat freak, an authoritative bossy type, and a wildly social girl who had two boyfriends a month. That was the little bit of chaos she let into her life to find balance, she once explained. Eula didn't spend much time at the apartment, which was fine by Beta, who needed the time to read aloud as much of the knowledge base as she could... and work on her secret project.

For three years, she thrived on Grep. She didn't see much of it outside her apartment, and outside a small private testing reality she'd set up so she could do her work -- but she thrived and enjoyed her time. Not as much as her time on Grünwald, with Mallory... but she enjoyed it as close as possible to that high water mark.

Little did she know that something was building in Eula, something fierce and commanding, and it would erupt right as she was finishing her release candidate. The very last compile was churning away when Eula burst in, and made her announcement.

"Tonight, I-and-you's going to go clubbing," she declared.

"Er, what?" Beta asked, confused. "Who are we clubbing? I'm not really a violent person..."

"NIGHTclubbing. Girl, you are way, way too secluded here! I'm out there every day havin' fun with the locals, teasin' the fellow geeks and you're just readin' and workin'. I mean, having goals is good. I-and-I's in favor of your righteous ambitions. But you gotta socialize, too, or you'll go nuts!"

"Ah, I'm not really a social person..." she said. "Even back on Grünwald I mostly just hung out with--"

"Mallory Heisenberg, yeah, you keep goin' on and on about him," Eula said, rolling her eyes. "I'd go as far as to say you were pining for him, like. Girlfriend, you love the boy so much, why haven't you even called him since you got here..?"

"I... I don't know what I'd say," she said, fumbling a bit with her laptop. "I mean, uh... he'd... he'd probably be very encouraging, and such, but I don't know what I'd say--"

Eula sighed, and sat down on the bed Beta was resting on. "Beta... Mallory's your past. He gave you the push you needed, but this is your present. I's Land does one thing right, and that's livin' in the present! ...not enough in the future, true, but they got the present nailed cold. And presently, and in the near future, you and I's going out clubbing. I ain't saying you gotta hook up on your first shot but at least have a drink and attempt some dancing with me, okay..? I mean, what else you got to do...?"

[Compile complete,] her laptop spoke aloud.

"...I.. guess nothing," Beta said. "I actually finished my project."

"Really? It out of Beta yet..?"

"Oh, no no, not yet. But... testing can wait," she decided, closing the laptop, tucking it under an arm. "Let's go. What club are we visiting? I didn't think there were any on Grep..."

"Grep? Ha! Grep's fine for the day-to-day, but for the night-to-night... only one place of choice. Nocturne. We're goin' to Nocturne..."

...the night it all went wrong. That's what she'd call this night, this awful time. The worst attack she'd had in years. She couldn't remember when her last attack was, it might have been years or months ago... had Eula even seen her at her worst? ...where was Eula? She could be right in front of Beta right now and she'd never know. There was a hazy thing in front of her which was suddenly a thing with too many legs and was probably more than one thing...

Worse. It's getting worse, she thought. Happy thoughts again, something good, it's needed... but all she could remember were recent times. Terrible recent times...

...she had to admit, it was a lot of fun.

Nobody here knew about her disability, so there weren't any judgmental stares. There was nothing to read, so she couldn't give herself away easily -- as far as anybody knew, she was just another person. With Eula at her side, and a drink in her system (not that she was much of a drinker) she was quite comfortable in this place.

But she brought along her laptop. She never, ever let it leave her side. As if to verify that it was there for her, she used it to scan a row of bottles, and read off their labels quietly into the wireless receiver she wore in her left ear.

[Sapporo, Benten, Old Fortran...]

"Hey."

"Ah?" she asked, distracted.

"Don't look now, but you're gettin' the eye, and I-and-I's meanin' it in the good way," Eula said. "Positioned at nine o'clock, tall dark and handsome."

"What..?" she asked, about to turn and look.

"Hey, don't lock gazes yet! You gotta string these boys along a little first, like baitin' a hook," her friend said with a grin. "Check the mirror behind the bar. Glance over. Use the angles. What do you think of the guy..?"

Beta studied him. He was indeed tall, dark and handsome... like he stepped off the cover of one of her old romance novels. But beyond that, he did nothing for her. No stirrings deep inside, none of the telltale signs she was told would tell her...

"I don't know..." she said, biting her lip fiercely. "He seems nice, but... what should I do? I mean, what would you do?"

"What I-and-I would be doin' isn't always what you should be doin'," Eula noted. "But going over there and talking to him would be a start. G'oin, have fun. Eula's right here for you. Big thumbs up!"

His name was Darryl, and he threw a chat-up line at her right out of the gate. She had no concept of what a chat-up line was, and only reacted with a little smile, as she took a seat at his table.

Of course, she wasn't much of a conversationalist. She knew this, and did her best anyway to engage him in chatter... the obvious topic being career choices, since 'the weather' was meaningless on Nocturne. He was in import-export. She was a freelance ORM Reality Engineer. And just as she'd done with her teachers so long ago, she presented her work which she was so proud of for his approval.

"I haven't shown it to anyone yet... not even in the ORM," she explained, since he seemed to be more and more interested with every passing moment. "It's a voice-controlled reality design system. You know how to make hills and mountains and rivers and things, you need to have an expert code a balanced program to run on an engine?"

"Yes, of course," he said, even if he was possibly lying.

"Well, this does all the balancing and codewriting for you. All you do is tell it what you want, in plain speech," she continued. "You can tell it what you want, and even point to where you want it -- the camera picks up your target and does the work. I think it's going to revolutionize how we design realities! You still need to be creative enough to design a reality, of course, but the gruntwork will be a thing of the past!"

"That's amazing...!" he said, thick eyebrows raising. "And you just finished the work on this today..?"

"Yes, it's all on here," she said, closing the laptop after the brief demo. "I guess tonight I'm sort of celebrating the product going out of beta and into release candidate status. ...uh. Sorry if I talked your ear off about techie stuff--"

"Nonsense, it's quite alright!" he said -- snapping his fingers, summoning up a pitcher of beer from a nearby waiter. "Here, the next round's on me. A drink to celebrate your success!"

"Okay! Ah, pour one for my friend too, she's over at the ba..."

But Eula was missing. She'd gotten distracted by a fairly hunky guy, an I's Lander from the look of him.

"...make that two," she said, turning back. And two mugs had already been filled, with his own raised high.

"Cheers!" he toasted. So she clinked glasses, and drank...

After that she rambled on a bit more about how interesting it was living at Grep, and how it was very different from Grünwald, and then she excused herself to go visit the bathroom because suddenly she wasn't feeling well.

She took her laptop under one arm, and stumbled towards the door with the women's room symbol on it. The symbol which looked wrong, it looked like a different symbol...

...she was on the floor of the bathroom. The walls weren't the right color. And her drinking partner was standing here... with HER laptop under his arm, and a mobile RealNet messenger to his ear.

"Yeah, it's all on here," he spoke into it. "Totally unpublished reality design code. How much can you get me for it..? What? Her? I drugged her out. I was gonna use it on some chick so I could get some action tonight, but hey, money above women, right? Right. Meet you at the docks."

Panic swelled, as the man walked out of the bathroom with her laptop. With Mallory's laptop. With her only means of interpreting the world around her...

...and then her senses had gone haywire.

Her hand slid along the wall. She was assuming it was the wall. It had to be the wall. If she focused hard enough it felt smooth to the touch, not sticky, not soft -- but sometimes it was and there wasn't anything she could do about it.

...no, she'd already done that. But then she stopped, and then she moved again. She was moving now. It was hopeless, she was lost, and her stress had already built her back up to full attack levels. Aphasia. Aphasia. She'd never find her way out of Nocturne. Eula had lost track of her, no doubt, and her laptop was gone. Her work, her attempt to even the odds life threw against her, her EYES were gone...

She wanted to cry. She might have already been crying, but it felt like drops of red and sadness falling down her cheeks. Hands covered her eyes which were her own hands as far as she knew, trying to block out the world, the objects and symbols and letters and numbers that taunted and laughed at her for years and years...

"Beta?"

Give up. She had to give up. There was no fighting it, and fighting it just made it worse. She couldn't fight those odds...

"You didn't give up then. I wouldn't let you. So, you can't give up now..."

...her left ear. It was a voice in her left ear.

She slowly uncovered her eyes.

Mallory reached out to her, offering her a hand. A simple, familiar sight amidst a sea of absolute chaos around her -- shining through loud and clear. He was here now, he was with her.

She took his hand, and got to her feet. All her parts where where they were supposed to be, looking like they should, feeling like they should.

"You're so close to it," he said, standing to her left... and gesturing. "There. Do you see the path...?"

Through hazing mists of unlinked libraries and arcane glyphs there was a simple corridor, a part of the hallway that was a hallway. It looked just like the path Eula took her on to get from the docks to the club...

Beta walked silently along the path, every step careful, to avoid falling into the miasma around her which threatened to engulf her but didn't, since she could see where she had to go now.

The docks. This is where their taxi let them off. And there was her 'date', talking to some other man, about to sell off her laptop.

"That's mine," Beta stated, loudly. "Give it back to me."

The shifty-eyed man who was about to accept the laptop gave her a strange look. "Darryl, didn't you say this chick was busy tripping...?"

"You took part of me away, and I won't let you do that," Beta said, raising her hand. "Give it back now."

The cocky young import-export clerk with the thick eyebrows smirked at her. "Oh? Or else what, kid..?"

Now the laptop was back in her hand.

Now they were in the air.

Now they were falling.

Into a dumpster.

Which was now closed and locked. The janitors would probably find them the next morning.

...and Beta fell to her knees, clutching the laptop to her chest, while the images surrounding her settled back into place. No longer just a tiny cone of vision, but a full return to normality. The attack was over.

"BETA..!"

Running footsteps, as she turned. It was so nice to hear footsteps as footsteps again...

"Beta, honey, are you alright?" Eula was asking. "I-and-I's so sorry, turned away for but a minute... time be time, but you wandered off, and I heard some commotion. Folks sayin' a girl was stumbling around out there--"

"I'm fine," Beta said, with a light smile. "I'm really fine. ...he was here, Eula. Mallory was here! He saved me when I was lost..."

"...yeah. I-and-I's thinkin' you had a bit too much to drink, Beta. Let's go home, and you can sleep it off--"

"We're going to Grünwald," Beta decided, getting to her feet. "I have to see him. He was just here, Eula! He must have gone home when I wasn't looking... I have to thank him. I could never thank him enough, and I've got to..! Come on, let's get a taxi!"

Feeling more alive than she had in years, the trip to Grünwald was swift and uneventful. A taxi hop, nothing more, nothing less. No feeling of nostalgia as she sprinted across the grassy fields under cover of moonlight, from the public dock to the house of Josef and Mallory Heisenberg... her knuckles rapping on the door, only moments after her decision to come here. It felt like moments, anyway.

Almost a full minute passed, before Josef answered the door.

"Josef? Ah, it's me... Beta," she said. "I'm sorry about the late hour, but... where's Mallory? Did he already get home..? I wanted to... ...what's wrong?"

Josef rubbed his weary eyes. "Beta... it's been too long," he said, with a smile. "I'm glad to see you. But... can this wait until morning? It's not really a good time for--"

"What's wrong, Josef..?"

He showed her Mallory's room. Or more specifically, what was left of it. The flooring had been sheared way, but not by any saw -- no telltale marks of metal teeth cutting through wood... the entire room had been exposed to the elements, with the walls just as vacant as the floor.

"There was some sort of explosion... we think," Josef explained. "Nobody can make heads or tails of it, it's like part of my house just stopped existing. But it happened when some stranger showed up in Grünwald, in an unmarked transient hut, and broke into the house. He went right for Mallory's room. By the time I heard the noise... well, both of them were gone, Beta. And neither of them left Grünwald after, so... he's gone, Beta. Mallory's been gone for a whole month now."

She wasn't speechless in terror. She wasn't silent in sorrow. She was thinking. But her friends, old and new, interpreted it as sadness. Eula apologized for the interruption, and led the quiet Beta away, back to the taxi. Back to Grep, back to the apartment...

Eula was hugging her.

"He's not gone," Beta decided, after the long contemplation.

Eula gave her a sad look. "Honey, I know you're upset--"

"I don't have any reason to be upset," Beta said... with an honest smile. "Because he isn't gone. He was there with me tonight, Eula. He's watching over me... wherever he is now. I know he is."

"That's... one of the great mysteries, that is," her friend said. "What happens when you die, I's meanin'... how do you know know this for certain?"

"Because he told me not to give up. So... I won't," she said. "You were right, Eula. Mallory's in my past. And I'm going to live in the present now, just like he wants me to..."

"Okay. Now I know you need your sleep," Eula decided. "Lie down, Beta, get some shuteye, yeah. I'll be here when you wake, alright..?"

Beta eased back onto her bed... she was exhausted. And she only realized it just now. "Alright. Eula..? I'm gonna upload my code tomorrow. I think it's out of beta. And... then can we go out again to celebrate?"

"Hey, whatever you like, hun," Eula said. "'night, now."

Eyes closing, the familiar color patterns behind her eyelid... but not threatening, not now. Holding her laptop close, she drifted to sleep, intent on waking up to a new day.

 

protections

Beta (aka Becky)
NOTE: Beta isn't ready for public use yet, so you can't use her. Once I finish her next story she'll probably be opened up with the following rules...

You may not kill Beta, or cure her aphasia. Contact Stefan Gagne before having her exhibit Adept-esque abilities or having another vision of Mallory.

Eula
No protections.

Mallory Heisenberg
Contact Stefan Gagne before having him make an appearance in your story. His nature will be cleared up a bit when I finish the next Beta story.

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