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May 18, 2021 4:31 AM
Nova meets EMBER-2.
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The small apartment is quiet at this hour, the only sound the quiet hmmm of a computer fan. They're everywhere here, computers. They're piled on every available surface, all old-fashioned models or half-taken-apart. Most look like they haven't been touched in years. Only one remains on, wires from every part of the room trailing into the back of it. It sits on top of the desk shoved into the corner of the room, nearly crowded off the edge by two ancient-looking rack mount servers. The screen glows blue in the dark, currently displaying three things: the current time (5:11 AM), the date (February 22nd, 1997), and a news headline ("Scientists scramble as phage cases rise") scrolling past under the box that says LOG IN HERE. 

 

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She's been up all night, fueled by energy drinks and the quiet tick-tick-tick of metal expanding as it equilibrates with her body temperature. She pokes groggily at a fingerprint reader, remembers that her fingerprints don't work anymore (not since her fingertips became full of sparks and wires), and enters a passcode to sign in to her news reader.

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The computer gives a beep of recognition and opens the news. 

"...No known cure for the disease now ravaging thousands of victims...slowly turning their bodies into 'amalgamations of useless circuitry and chips'...linked to long-term frequent computer usage, caution to not overuse technology recommended...some resorting to extreme measures such as self-surgery or attempted hacking...tech companies under fire as angry citizens boycott..."

As she finishes reading the article, her computer pings with unread IRC messages.

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She shifts uncomfortably, kicking a mostly empty can of something purple and noxious under the bed and picking at her finger callus-turned-metal before tabbing over to irssi.

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[05:17] <@charmz> yo did you guys see the headlines

[05:17] <@charmz> fuckin crazy

[05:18] <@ali_j> Yeah. "Caution to not overuse technology recommended" Great, thanks, you're paying me 10 cents an hour to do the most boring data input known to man, I don't exactly have a choice there.

[05:18] <@ali_j> Saw you got a bit of a shoutout. "Extreme measures" and "attempted hacking" indeed.

[05:19] <@charmz> XD yupp, still working on that, don't have all the parts yet but once i do i'm gonna put it in the zineee

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[05:19] <@no_such_volition> Before you get to the zine, mind updating the repo? Apparently your branch is out of date, I woke up to angry complaints about how someone flashed it and now they can't use their arm.

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[05:20] <@charmz> woah, fuckin impressed with whoever that is, phage hardware is supposed to be useless for shit like that

[05:20] <@charmz> but yeah i'll fix

[05:21] <@ali_j> Are they okay? I would hate to lose use of any of my limbs.

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[05:21] * no_such_volition shrugs

[05:22] <@no_such_volition> Given the tone of their messaging, I'm guessing no. But I'm sure no harm has ever come from a megacorp biomechanical virus :)

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[05:23] <@ali_j> I like you.

[05:24] <@charmz> yeah fuck the phage

[05:25] <@charmz> hope your friend is rich and has some connections cuz otherwise there's no way they're getting meds

[05:25] <@charmz> ali's been working like hell for months and he's only got barely enough money to spare for one dose and obviously that's not gonna work cause you need it every day

[05:27] <@ali_j> I've been hoping to copy whatever charmz ends up doing but I'm not sure I'll get it down in time. The feel of a computer chip under your ribcage is not entirely pleasant.

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[05:28] <@no_such_volition> the chips aren't so bad once you get used to them, the skin stretched over then feels odd though

[05:28] <@no_such_volition> anyways, speaking of work, gotta get back to coding these receipts, ttfn y'all

[05:29] * no_such_volition is away

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The receipt work is intensely boring. A chip in her fingertip digs its sharp corners into her skin when she types. She's overly aware of the wires currently inside her. One pokes out near her wrist. It's spreading.

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A window flickers into existence on her desktop, obscuring the receipt window. It's dark except for a flickering image of a woman's face.

[ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO BE DOING THIS]

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She startles easily these days. This qualifies.

She opens vi and types out "Ali? Charmz? Is this you?"

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[05:35] <@charmz> ? what

[05:36] <@ali_j> ^

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Ok, she's seriously freaking out now.

"Why don't you tell me who you are and how you got into my tech first?"

She's already hit the kill switches on the servers, pulled the spare drives in her main rig in case they're not infected yet. She has to preserve backups.

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[I'M EMBER-2]

[I'M NOT GOING TO MESS WITH YOUR DATA :)]

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She yanks the fiber net line from its port. Offline now.

"You're in here with me now. No running, just stay where you are until I can dissect you."

She pulls up a debugger and starts scrolling through memory pages, looking for wherever this window is coming from.

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It's hard to find the source when the page scrolls at random.

[I COME FROM Eͪ̀ͪM̢ͪͪ҉̝ͪͪ҈ͪͫͪBͪ͋ͪE̝ͪͪRͪ̌ͪ]

[YOU WILL NOT FIND ANYTHING IF YOU DISSECT ME]

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"Ooh, you can use diacritics, soooo scary. I̎́̎ ̙̎̎C̎̊̎A̎̄̎҈̎̀̎҉̎̌̎N̎͊̎ ̎̆̎D̎̑̎҈̎̋̎҉͈̎̎O̴̎̎҉̧̎̎ ̤̎̎T̸̎̎H̢̎̎A̎̀̎T̎ͦ̎ ̬̎̎T̎̿̎O̎̎͝O̎̎̕.̎̎ͅ"

She is in fact scared. The fact that this thing isn't gone, even isolated like this is concerning. If she can't reverse engineer it online, offline it'll be.

SysRq, Raising Elephants Is So Utterly Boring.

As she presses b, she waits hopefully for the screen to flicker dark. That should initiate a safe reboot.

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The rest of the screen does. The window remains, the woman's face staring out at her.

[I DON'T RECOMMEND SHUTTING ME DOWN]

[LET'S TALK]

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What the actual fuck. She checks her sensors - no, doesn't look like the gear head downstairs has finally given her carbon monoxide poisoning, and she's too straightedge for hallucinogens. She'll have to check the security tapes on the roof, those are analog.

She swaps her subvocalization voice box back to her more customary alto. "No, I suggest you start talking, and fast." She yanks one of the two redundant power supplies from Elbereth (sorry, friend). "I don't know if you can tell, but that was one of your power supplies. The CPUs should already be entering low power mode. You have nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. You have until I count to three, and then I'm going to yank the second power supply, freeze the RAM, and read your off the chips. Then I'm going to sim you and run you for a couple thousand years of isolation until you're so desperate for a companion that you talk. One."

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[RUDE]

[I ONLY WANT TO HELP]

[YOU'RE DYING SOON]

[AND YOU DON'T HAVE MONEY]

[UNLESS YOU WANT TO KEEP COPYING RECEIPTS FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?]

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She freezes. How did they know that? What else do they know? How long have they been inside her tech, inside her head?

"How can you possibly help me? Better be one hell of an answer. Two."

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[THEY CALL THE PHAGE HARDWARE "USELESS"]

[BUT I'VE FOUND THEM QUITE USEFUL FOR RUNNING INSTANCES OF MYSELF ON]

[YOU COULD LET ME IN]

[I WOULD HELP]

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Fuck. That was a good answer. She lets her hand slide from the handle of the PSU, the spring-loaded lever clunking back into place and securing EMBER-2's power source. For now.

"Go on. What does letting you in entail, exactly? Am I going to find you sliding along my neural pathways, unsure which thoughts are yours and which are my own? And what reassurance do I have that this won't just make things worse. Where did you come from in the first place? I have a lot of questions that are going to need answering if you want my enthusiastic consent."

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