Hello World (Part III)

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rating: +37+x

Two pairs of pitch black hands feverishly scrolled from screen to screen. In the soft blue light of the Grand I/O Temple, a row of yellow eyes twitched back and forth, faster than its hands, looking for a sign or an anomaly or anything resembling a clue to this insurgent's identity. Who sent it? Where is it? What is it? But these questions had to end for now as another surge of pain began growing.

A cry of agony echoed in the empty virtual sanctuary. With wave of the arm, whole rows of crystalline pews upturned by sheer force as pages and pages of carrier wave hymnals scattered in the air. Then there was only the faint scraping. The scritch and scratch of hard fingers against a harder head; digging to get at the unbearable pain. An existential pain made physical. A pain worsened by this—

—problem.


have it your way. don't care. the meat modems will keep dying till you are found.

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There were drinks, and jokes, and some menial introductions. Thorn was eager to socialize and it showed. His vibrant personality meshed with most of the Maxwellists in the bar. Grape excused himself with 8-Ball, leaving Thorn to mingle. As Grape stepped out and turned a corner to a secluded alley, he ushered 8-Ball with him in a small voice.

Alright, buddy. Let's touch base with HQ. Can you get a signal out here?

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Patch me through.

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Grape? Grape is that you?

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8-Ball, it looks like shit. Can you tweak it a little?

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>/:_+15%^^

It's— Oh. There it goes. Coming in clearer now.

Grape. Where's Thorn? Please tell me you didn't ditch him.

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Who do you take me for? Jesus. He's still in the building.

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Sorry.

What building?

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Maxwellists own it. Your clock scanner led us here. Some kind of simulspace race team. Someone in there is pretending to be something they are not.

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Racing? Grape we don't have time for that.

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I know. It's just something we went along with that kept us from getting thrown out.

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Just be careful.

You think you're close to the target?

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I think so? Honestly we've only got half an idea of what we're doing here.

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Keep your cool and your distance for now. Just report back when you have something on one of your leads.

This is bound to come up; 45 more died in Beijing today.

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Damn.

Anything else?

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That's all.

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8-Ball? Alex?

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I— Really it's not even worth mentioning, 8-Ball. Drop it.

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Goddamnit. Just fucking tell me Alex. We shouldn't be out here in Cyber-Blowjob Fantasyland with you keeping us in the dark.

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Fine.

Since 8-Ball has already queried the intel; there's been a proposal put on the table right now to rescind this whole initiative. Hasn't been finalized yet.

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This is my surprised face.

Some high level staffers get their panties in a twist about having someone like us doing the humans' work?

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I don't know who's leading it. But it's something being talked about.

Our task force nickname is not doing us any favors on that front either.

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Yeah? So what did they settle on?

Talking Heads?
Cyber-Bullies?
Grape's Angels?

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Skynet.

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Of course. Tell those nerds that we got strong leads and if they can give us another 12 hours we'll get something worthwhile.

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I'll see what I can do, Grape.

Good luck.

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Grape leaned against the wall in the alley and rubbed his temples. This was not going like he wanted. He looked up at 8-Ball, the only person he could really trust. 8-Ball may not have had the capability to show emotion, but could definitely understand it. For the two friends, there was nothing to say to each other. Nothing to do other than try to finish what they started.

They trudged back inside to see Thorn sitting atop what looked like a small almost spherical ramjet engine with a seat and handlebars. The whole vehicle was suspended about a half meter off the ground while Bishop and Rook gave him pointers.


So when you roll right, you bank left. That's how you set up for that maneuver.

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I— uh. Oh I see. But wouldn't that put me off balance?

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Not at the speeds you'd be going.

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Oh. OH! I get it. Gotta go fast, right?

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Thorn turned to Grape just as him and 8-Ball came back. He looked like he was having a nice time. Although he was not passing off as even a novice racing enthusiast, his charming naivety clicked with the friendly Maxwellists.

So! You guys look like you are having a good time. Who'd ever had known that a couple of chippers would be so fun.

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Sorry about calling you chippers earlier. When someone starts off with that childish lingo, it just sets me off.

Chippers get their first implant in and they go completely ballistic with it.

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In all fairness though, they tend to level off about the third or fourth operation. Age also helps.

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Oh yeah, totally.

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So Thorn, what model was your latest implant and when did you get it?

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I— uh. Just recently on my birthday. It's a, um— starts with an O—?

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Grape was sure they were about to be found out as he watched Thorn fold like cardboard. 8-Ball edged a little bit for the door. Before Grape had time to quickly interject, a surprising voice stepped in.

Orison systems? That's probably the name you're thinking of. New fabricator based out of Canada. Kind of a small outfit, but decent stuff for a fair price.

Bishop wouldn't know them. She's all about the Asian fabricators.

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There was a pause as Thorn and Grape both tilted their heads at Rook.

Yes. Right.

Oh, by the way. I heard it outside. Another incident in Beijing today.

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Yeah? Where have you been? That was announced like 2 hours ago on WANsong.

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I've been having connection problems. Probably a driver issue.

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Ah. Well I'd love to rattle off some more racing tips for you guys but I'd like to attend that vigil tonight.

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You guys should come.

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Yes we should. Although… we're a bit out of place in the city. Can either of you lead the way?

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Don't really login to Cipher City much? Can't say I blame you. After all, these recruitment networks get really crowded over time.

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Recruitment?

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Yeah, this is the one catered to the gaming youth. They start off here and when they're ready to move on, we help them make the leap.

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Ever seen Pinocchio?

It's like Pleasure Island only without the donkeys.

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That scene was terrifying.

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Bishop put down her drink and removed a small glass orb from behind the bar counter. With a finger she swiped it across the surface and tapped it five times. 8-Ball examined the strange object intently while Thorn dismounted from the seat but wound up getting his shoe caught on the handlebar and flopping to the floor. He was quick to rebound and walk it off before anyone could mention it.

You good, Rook? We should leave now if we want to beat the rush.

Let's see, we'll be going up through sixteen sub-levels I think. Five transfers total, yeah?

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Bishop nodded and pressed the orb firmly with her thumb. What happened next could only be described as 'A canonball breaking reality'. The orb in Bishop's hand whizzed right through the wall, bending the rendered surfaces and light with it until it pinched off into an ominous swirling tunnel.

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Bishop took out a chess piece and dropped it at her feet. Before the small sound had a chance to echo off the wall and back to them, the small carving flickered into a red painted engine that looked very much like Rook's metallic one.

Race ya!

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With a swift hand, Bishop grabbed Thorn by the sleeve and pulled him onto the bitch seat behind her. Grape scrambled to mount the other one as Rook flipped his goggles down over his face and warmed up the engine. 8-Ball was mostly sure he could keep up. Mostly.

Hang on Thorn… and mind the tail.

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Wait, are we really going through?

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On that last word, the whine of the rear nozzle propelled them in through the tunnel. As they moved through the light, Thorn had his eyes open just long enough to watch the entirety of Cipher City pass behind them. There was a sudden swing as they phased right through the landscape and into a rushing array of colors, shapes, and even voices moving by so fast they were as indescribable as whispers or blurs.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

I'm gonna fall off!

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Just hold on.

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Thorn gripped Bishop with both hands as they made a barrel roll and a hard left into another swarm of stretched colors. His teeth were clenched so hard that they could have cracked under strain. Bishop gave a sharp inhale and looked down at herself.

Uh, Thorn.

Your hands?

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S-sorry!

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Thorn quickly moved his hands a little lower.

After the next turn it was impossible to tell which way was up or down. Rook and Grape were bringing up the rear as both engines whined under strain. Red and Grey tails streaked through the mottled blackness at pressing speeds while 8-Ball struggled to keep up in their wake. Up ahead, a large 2D square was careening toward both of them.

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Bishop was adamant about not letting Rook pass her as she ducked and dodged around frozen rays of blue light. The featureless square was getting bigger by the second, until it rivaled a small country in size. Both racers revved the engines into overclocked speeds.

Coming in hot!

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I'd prefer to not wind up as a splatter.

If you can manage that.

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I wanna go home!

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There was no slowing down as they approached. Rather, Rook and Bishop swung 180° and barely clipped the edge of the huge square as they passed. With a pull on the handles, both flopped down onto the opposite side and landed with a soft touch right on the precipice. 8-Ball was not that far behind, as there was a telltale noise that came from under the surface.

[THOK]

Aw, crap.

Buddy you alright?

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A disoriented mass of cubes floated up and over from the edge. 8-Ball declined to answer as he recalibrated himself. Bishop helped Thorn off and disconnected his grip on her. He stood on the grid like surface, which seemed to glow. Thorn then straightened his hat a little and regained some composure while Grape snickered in the background.

I— uh. That was a tad different than what you described.

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> tad

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Bishop walked past Grape and picked up her glass orb. The same orb she fiddled with in the bar before flying through space.

Most people just exit and respawn. For me, a lodestar is the only way to travel.

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With the diagnostics finished, 8-Ball began to wander away from the group and towards the glass-like tower filled with solid blue light. Other Maxwellist avatars were beginning to trickle down and make their way to the base. 8-Ball was having trouble reconciling the tower's height, as it seemed to stretch up past the enveloping blackness above. However it was no wider than a large silo.

8-Ball was able to confirm that this was the same glass tower they saw in the city. Likely all Maxwellist landscapes shared a similar view. 8-Ball would be sure to include these details and theories in a later report.

As the group walked through the entrance at the base, it was apparent that the tower did not confine itself within its own exterior dimensions. The altar, the light source itself, was straight ahead with a huge open circular space in between. Many Maxwellists huddled in small groups, kneeling and praying in the direction of the light. Some groups came in with belongings of the deceased, sacrificing them to the blue beam by pushing them in and watching it dissolve into pixels.

I wish these deaths would end.

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They will.

I/O is a place of healing.

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Grape, Thorn, and 8-Ball kept quiet in the rear as they walked. Absorbing the sights and the sounds of the lamentations. The intense blue light emanating from the altar shot up through the hollow tower, filling the entire space inside. Hundreds of Maxwellists sat in clear concentric pews around the altar, heads bowed in prayer. The names of those who died scrolled by, as well as their avatar profile pictures. It was a mournful and somber sight.

Bishop, by ritualistic habit, made a circle with her finger over her forehead and approached the bottom of the altar. She took a knee and bowed her head. Her eyes glazed over into a stark blue as she extended her hand out and whispered a prayer.

cin » my faith.
cout « your will.

We pray for the deleted.
May the 0 return as 1.
WAN infinity.
endl;

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Rook stood aside and politely let Thorn through next. He gulped as he followed suit after Bishop, kneeling before the light. His hand extended as he attempted to copy the motions.

Kid?

Hey, wait a sec.

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Wha—

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There was a blast.

The shock threw everyone off their feet. The group slid back across the smooth floor as they landed. Grape held his head as he sat up. The blue light changed from a still beam to an unruly stream of flame. The Maxwellists were frozen. They were not even knocked over. They sat undisturbed from their worship, as still as statues. Bishop still with her head bowed, and completely unaware.

I'm sorry!

I don't know what happened!
Oh, I'm so sorry.

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It's alright, kid. I don't think it was your fault.

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i feel dirty i saw you.

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A tall figure stepped out of the wispy light and descended the altar. Not quite humanoid, not quite mechanical. Almost an emaciated frame with a large head protruding from its torso without the assistance of a neck. Its surface was devoid of color, yet glitched in iridescent colors as if it were struggling to render.

i can see your mistakes. mint sakes. i'm taking this over. in requests come for something extra wierd

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Grape? Grape what is that thing?

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Ah shit.

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Three eyes blinked open from the head. Each twitched madly as it fought to focus on everything in the I/O Temple, especially MTF Kappa-10 laying on the ground.

but me. i'm still classed as new i want to give you a brain. this is who i am, grape. i killed the WAN. i am the WAN. its still here because it stinks. the brain stinks, my friend.

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Guys? You all know each other?

Who is he?

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Grape looked at Thorn. He shook his head in disappointment. Not at Thorn's ignorance, but at his own reluctance to utter that name. A name that reminded him of so much anger, frustration, and pity.

Hatbot.

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