Previously on 404EVER: Echo Lunaris is booted out of sleep mode by her badly corrupted memories of last night. Drinks, chems, adult chat clubs; it was a wild scroll through the city with a beautiful, mysterious girl from the g00gol Republic. Feeling the bruises, the bite mark on her neck, she’s sure they both had an unforgettable time. She just wishes she could remember it now. Equipping her softwear Synth Suit, she logs back in to The Public Access Zone to find out more. After getting kicked off the bus by a scam driver, she runs into T-Kai outside his bar. He gives her some helpful reminders, plus the memory card the gRP girl left behind. Echo inserts it into her Mapper, and decides to follow the directions towards a secluded, private meetup spot…
Story and UI Art/Animation by Lordess Foudre - Character Art by @Hitrisisters
This episode is rated INTERNET-18 for harsh language and adult situations
On a derelict linkway near the sprawling Pegasus Multi Shop, I drag and drop my ass against a paywall; overheated and out of energy. My Mapper says I’m close to the meetup destination, but my body says I’m even closer to passing out. I pop open the bottle of Aqua-Nutrix I swiped off some random vendor earlier, and suck out the viscous fruit jelly. Exhaling the cold nitrous vapor, I press my fingertips into my sternum. The Synth Suit reacts, relaxing and loosening the strands enough for me to reach in and swipe away the stream of sweat between my breasts. I stare into my own tired, distorted eyes, reflected in the mirrored surface of the bottle. This is the first time I’ve paused since I left ZeD-XXX chat club earlier, and the corroding effects of another endless Geo-City night are starting to show…
I had been fast-forwarding for over an hour, moving through a mutating labyrinth of lurkers, scammers, creepers, and servers; trying to make it to the gRP girl before she times out and disconnects from the city. The Public Access Zone was rebooting, and as usual, the dregs were logging back on in droves; clogging the main linkways. As I scrolled, the unfolding mystery of last night’s events began to merge with the fear of being close to the Private Partition again, and it got me fire-wired. I clipped through fences, barriers, boundaries. Took every shortcut I could, speedrunning some of the worst areas of Geo-City One. The memory card the girl left behind plotted a safe, slow path to her, but I didn’t want to play it safe. After a while I was ignoring my Mapper altogether, letting my instincts guide me through. And for the first time, I felt like I truly understood how the vulgar algorithm of the slums functions. I was automatically connecting to unlisted linkways and secret nodes, in perfect sync with the wild, fluctuating BPM of the city.
But at some point along the way, the overclocked atmosphere of the Public Access Zone faded into the quiet squalor of the obsolete districts, and I had faded with it. Alone and isolated, I suddenly began to feel every hour of sleep I didn’t get last night. I hunch down and rub my aching legs, cursing myself, reflexively imagining all the different ways I could just quit and backspace home. Starting with my thighs, I trace the jagged line of small bruises leading to my hips, to my ribs, across my chest. All the way up to the shape of her mouth on my neck. I sigh and take several more gulps of Aqua-Nutrix, offsetting the electric heat radiating out of the animated gifs against my back. Waiting for me on the other side of this busted paywall is the reason I couldn’t sleep, why I signed back on and came all this way. Trouble is, she’s waiting for me in the last place I would want to go back to.
After I got perma-kicked, I vowed to never go anywhere fucking near the restricted Private Partition. At least, not until I find a way to become a premium user again. When I first got down here, I figured I could just quickly scam or brute force my way back into the Upper Levels. It took a few months, some failed omega-brain schemes, and several severe beatings to convince me that I was really going to be stuck down here for a while. After that harsh tutorial sequence, I fell in with some veteran slum users over in the ports who helped me wipe my search history and start over. Built a completely clean GC1 bio and switched my status to ‘offline’ to help me maintain a low profile until I can figure out how to get re-uploaded. Lately, that project has started to feel more and more like vaporware…
I drop the bottle and swipe the wet hair off my forehead, breathing in the faint trails of swirling colors shimmering in the oxidized air. Shielding my eyes with both hands, I tilt my face upwards, allowing the iridescent beams to project between carefully separated fingers. I squint, trapping the beautiful lights between my eyelashes, stopping them from getting fully inside. But I can almost feel them touching my face as they mix into the sweat and slide down my cheeks, searching for another way in. I follow the streaming images down my body, watch the beautiful reflections of ugly scenes smear across the slick surface of my Synth Suit; begging me to look up.
“There’s nothing for you up there”, I tell myself, kicking the empty bottle across the filthy linkway street. “Just the useless, expired promises of a ghost.”
You see, high above the entire Public Access Zone, stuttering and buffering eternally, is the Sky Stream. Powerful, ancient holographic tech, the undying wraith of the old world. In The Paz, it quickly becomes second nature to just ignore the beast, to never look up for too long. To never hope for more than what you can see right in front of you. Every user down here has to learn that lesson one way or another, and the g0g damn Sky Stream is what taught it to me… It was back when I first got kicked into the slums and was having trouble adjusting to the lower settings. I was scrolling to the bottom of a long and ugly thread, the kind of night that makes you want to slit your cords and log-off for good. The kind you eventually get used to. It was then that the Sky Stream chose to call out to me, and I was depressed enough to take the bait. What happened next is something I will never forget.
I looked up and it got inside through my desperate eyes, felt like it accessed my desires and opened a backdoor into my mind. And then I saw a glorified version of myself swimming in the flow of lights above, staring down at me from within the Sky Stream. Her gentle face… And that radiant, haunting smile. She was truly happy, in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever been. When she reached out, I opened myself up to her completely. And in that moment I wanted nothing more than to be fully uploaded into those lights, to become a part of that world. So I joined her, or more like I became her, and began non-consensually promoting obsolete content for megacorps that no longer exist. Everything from bizarre old-world tech, to memory loans, to disgusting peer-to-peer services. I was advertising myself to every other idiot in the slums who was dumb enough to look up and become my consumer, to merge with me. And I was good at it, too. Thinking about it now, of course, it was a terrifying experience. But while it was happening, I never wanted it to stop. I wanted to exist forever as that supreme, objectified version of myself. I felt like a god.
Thankfully, I was finally hard booted out of the nightmare by some random bum thief tugging on my inventory. I woke up stiff and crumpled on the side of some forsaken linkway, mugged and drooling all over myself. I had been staring up at the Sky Stream for something like 12 hours, and if not for the bastard, I might’ve just remained there until my health drained to zero. I vowed to never make that mistake again and I haven’t, but in some ways it doesn’t even matter. Because, now that I know she’s up there, I can feel her calling to me; especially in quiet moments like these. That happy, hollow, commodified version of myself will be watching always. Forever smiling, forever tracking me with those beautiful, beaming eyes; as I trudge through this hell for the rest of my life.
And if you really care, I could give you the deep lore on that horrendous thing, for what little it’s worth. Any 8-bit sucker in this city will tell you they’ve got the unaltered data on where the Sky Stream really came from, but I promise you; no one knows for sure. The secret origin of the Sky Stream, like every other Geo-City history file, is just Lower Levels legend and chat club mythology. Look, we know so little about the fucking thing that we can’t even figure out how to turn it off. That’s why the premium users went through all that trouble to build the Private Partition on top of it. Escape, as always in this city, is the best available option.
Gripping the edges of the paywall, I kick and stab my foot into some stray bullet holes to hoist myself up; carefully springing over the gnarled coils of barbed wire. I drop down onto the other side, landing in an abandoned node that links directly to the Private Partition elevators. My heels scrape the rough asphalt, drawing unwanted attention from the cluster of old e-beggars using the alley as their hidden lounge. Dragging and bouncing their clunky inventory sacks, they shuffle around me to execute their pre-programmed routines. They moan for help and wave their old generation Net-Ex mobiles in my face, trying to blind me with the massive screens. One surprisingly agile user gets in close and coughs out a pitiful request, the rancid spray duster she’s been huffing still on her breath:
“Please, girl… Please! You have to help me with my mobile! I can’t seem to unlock this damn thing, just hold on a minute…”
Out-of-date scams from out-of-date slumbags, or genuine old timers in need of help? Who can say for sure. It’s better to play it on protected mode, to keep your distance and regard them as a potential source of danger; no matter how bad it might make you feel. You’ve all read the grisly NEWS-NET stories, seen the image files of deleted tourists who tried to do good deeds for bad GC1 users. And I’m sure you’ve heard the disturbing, midnight chat room tales… Of naive rogues who got the bright idea to loot old content crates in the obsolete districts, only to find dry-iced limbs and organs marked for transport to The Land Lines. Nope. Not gonna happen to me. Not tonight, not ever.
Sensing the danger I’m forcing myself to feel, the muscles of my Synth Suit harden and flex; momentarily stunning the elderly users. They separate and back away from me, remaining quiet as I forcibly scroll through their lair. These old cretins still understand the timeless language of violence, I see… Like parting rotten curtains, I push my body between the e-beggar tents and hop the back wall, logging-in to the Private Partition Connection Point. While my suit reverts to its default shape, I stretch the sore spots out of my legs and fix my hair, uncontrollably elated from the surge of dopamine hitting my brain. It’s shitty, I know, but whenever I encounter or defeat users who are worse off than me, it always improves my confidence. A nasty trait I picked up in the Upper Levels, but hey. If there’s something that can make me feel superior to these other losers, I’ll take it. Even if it only exists in my mind.
I keep my head down as I scroll by the heavily guarded Authentication Checkpoint, but one of the Community Guideline Enforcers barks at me anyway; calling out in a robotic filtered voice:
“SIGN OFF, RAT.”
It’s hard to believe my stats look so weak that a dumbass enforcer can tell I belong in the slums without even having to check my registration. 2 years ago, these guards would have happily paid 3,000 pixels an hour to chat with me after their shifts ended. And who knows, maybe they did. Guideline enforcers, moderators, guards; they were some of the best-paying low class clients. Used to see dozens of them queued up in the Mode Seven Heaven lobby, scuffed helmets between their knees, patiently sucking down drinks while they waited for their turn to log on. Hah. They probably wouldn’t even recognize me now. I guess I should be feeling pretty demoralized, but honestly, I just can’t bother to give a shit. I’ve finally reached the meetup destination, and the possibilities attached to this rendezvous have me feeling fire-wired all over again.
Last night, this gRP girl and I had obviously established some kind of physical connection. And while I can’t remember how it happened, I have to assume she’s the one who initiated it. I may not know much about the g00gol Republic, but I know high level girls like her don’t come all this way for low level reasons. If she just wanted to get hooked-up or hardwired, she wouldn’t drop down and do it with some random slum girl. That, plus the fact that she left a memory card to lead me here, means she wants something more. More than just another random sexual encounter, I’m sure of it. Could be, she wants to partner up and pull an easy job together. Like some kind of sexy raid that requires a rogue like me, one with hidden techniques and a dirty skillset. Now that I think about it, this girl could be the ultimate license key. To unlocking pixels, status, rare items… You know, she could probably even get me re-authenticated and re-uploaded into the Private Partition for good. The way the balance of power has shifted up there, a Person from the gRP would easily have the leverage to do it…
But as I circle back around the small area for the third time and still find no trace of the gRP girl, reality begins to load. Maybe she logged off hours ago, back to the g00gol Republic. Or maybe she totally forgot about me, and never even came to the meetup. Or maybe… I turn and gaze over the domed plastech heads of the guards in the distance, up the escalators, at the row of elevators on the platform above them. I watch a small room shoot upwards along one of the mechanical columns, scaling higher and higher until it disappears beyond the flowing veil of the Sky Stream; re-connecting to the Private Partition. What if she’s waiting for you up there? What if she doesn’t even know you’ve been perma-kicked, and can’t get through the checkpoint? Didn’t think of that, huh? As a pit opens in my stomach, I realize that I had yet again made the novice mistake of getting my hopes up; and it had quietly infected my thinking process.
Just as I’m about to quit and exit, I notice something moving in the darkness; swaying against a battered corner on the far side of the Connection Point. Scrolling closer, I realize it’s just some old ‘Under Construction’ caution tape, blowing around beneath a chugging radiator vent. But behind it, what I thought was a large grease stain, is actually an opening in the wall. An entrance to an out-of-use shortcut. I stomp on the caution tape to stop it from flailing around my legs as I peer inside. It’s narrow, looking more like a hallway than an alley, colored in the 2-tone red and black style that was popular in a much earlier version of the city. And against the back wall, piercing through the darkness, is what looks like the chrome frame of an expensive Solo Cycle. But before my eyes can fully adjust, the old gifs surrounding the entrance activate and strobe; signaling for me to log-in. Well that’s real fucking ominous…
I take short steps and scroll slowly, carefully avoiding the noisy packets of junk and discarded items littering the old shortcut. I sense someone. I can feel their eyes on me, watching from within the darkness. Some kind of monitor…Searching, browsing, bookmarking me. And inside myself, I’m pushed by this aching, raw type of emotion. Mysterious as anything hiding in this alley. It’s something primal, like an unavoidable link, pulling me further down the path. When I get to the dead end, I pause and reach out, feeling the sleek, cold metal nose of the Solo Cycle. I run my hands up the central console to the controller, and grip the dual shock-absorbing joysticks. Suddenly, a black-clad anon girl slithers out of the thick mass of shadows; her slender legs parting as she slides across the bike. I take a step back and right on cue, the dysfunctional gif behind her explodes online, crackling and spitting hot neon; its flames licking every contour of her body as she stands. Black night swaying beneath red light beams…
She swings her leg in a wide arc over the seat and slinks towards me. I suck in a breath and clench my fists, but my Synth Suit relaxes; becoming oddly receptive. Is it responding to my personal preferences or hers? Mimicking the softwear, I try to decompress, exhaling the tension in my stomach. Of course, the instant I drop my guard, she thrusts forward and violently throws her arms around my waist. Shimmering waves of long black hair splash onto my wrist as I press my palm into her chest, to stop her from getting any closer. Unfazed, she gracefully reaches up and slides her fingers between mine, pulling me into her. Her face, illuminated by the vanity ring light collar spiraling around her neck, is absolutely flawless. She paces backwards, tilting her head towards the harsh red neon still crackling above us, her eyes narrowing into crescent slivers of reflected light as she smiles. She’s dragging me deeper into the void and I guess I’m just gonna let her do it. But I swear, I’m still 100% ready to right click and blue screen this bitch if she tries anything weird.
Stopping us next to the Solo Cycle, she crosses her arms over my shoulders, keeping me from completely losing my balance. I hold onto her, feeling the high collar of my Synth Suit rippling to the rhythm of her breath, as it pounds into the bruise she posted on my neck last night. She vibrates, arching her back as I slide my fingers all the way up her spine. I stare into the burning coils of light behind her, tracing the sharp angles of her shoulder blades with my hands as I browse for something clever to say. The anon girl then drops her arms and squeezes my hips, I don’t know, maybe to shut me up before I ruin the moment? She presses our bodies together and I shudder, shivering from the contradictory sensations of her warmth against the cold sweat trapped inside my suit. Our foreheads touching, she looks into my eyes and slides her tongue across the wet layer of pink gloss, unsealing her lips. And with a coldly detached, rehearsed confidence, she finally speaks:
“Hey. Before we get started, I just wanted to give a quick shoutout to XO-Eden Cosmetics for supporting me and what I do here. You know how important- -”
Oh shit, no way… She’s a jump-cutter?? A fucking g00gol Republic Social Influencer… The absolute worst of the worst job class you could ever run into. Highly trained, highly seductive paid users who pop up to perform live ads, spew propaganda, and give sponsored shoutouts to fund their original content; which is somehow always shittier than their promotional content. I really can’t believe this. They almost never come to GC1, and when they do they stick to the affluent districts. So why is she down here in The Paz toggling around with me? The fuck was I thinking last night… I’ve never interacted with a Social Influencer, not even when I was up in the Private Partition, where it’s considered somewhat normal. This is a new low, Echo. Even for you. If you really scrolled all night just to get baited by some desperate gRP jump-cutter, you might as well just delete yourself now…
She playfully continues the rehearsed advertisement for HGH facial moisturizer while my mind struggles to justify the choices that’ve lead me to this point. With dead eyes, I stare into the digital brand logos swimming through her monetized Promo Suit. She must be in pretty deep with the gRP to be able to equip high level gear like this… Glancing back and forth at our bodies, my softwear looks obviously flimsy and embarrassing by comparison. She grips my chin and pushes my face back up to hers, lurching forward. The sudden pressure from her chest forces me to take a sharp, shallow breath, and she speaks directly into my mouth, finishing her promo:
“Make sure to dial-in using promo code XO-Halo to save 5% on your subscription. That’s spelled capital X-O dash-capital H, lowercase a - l - o”.
“Halo…” My lips shake as her words vibrate along my tongue like an electric current, and I can taste the top page Diazehol she was drinking last night. She laughs. Maybe at me, maybe at the expression I’m failing to properly mask. I know it’s part of a jump-cutter’s role to be beautiful and almost hypnotically sensual, but this goes way beyond anything I’ve ever felt before. If she’s really this good at her job class, then she’s too good to be wasting time on a low level user like me. A gRP Influencer should be able to unlock my private stats and see that I’m practically broke, meaning I don’t have enough pixels to give a decent tip. So why put in all this time and effort? She raises her leg and hooks the high-spike of her heel behind my knee, tightening her hold. I whisper into the soft skin of her cheek:
“Alright, Halo… That’s enough of the pre-roll ad. What do you want from me?”
The words flow out of my mouth and evaporate against her lips as she kisses me. I guess that answers my question, but damn. It’s highly unusual for a Social Influencer to make any kind of sexual contact with a viewer, especially without an audience or donations enabled. And to be clear, fucking around with a gRP shill in some disgusting alley isn’t exactly a typical experience for me, either. But somehow, with her, this all feels natural; maybe even familiar. I cradle her face with both hands, and we lose our balance as she staggers backwards into the side of the bike. I try to let go but she tugs the matted hair on the back of my head, biting my lip to prevent me from disconnecting. I hear the emotion engines inside our softwear suits hiss and moan favorably in reaction to our mutual preferences; to each other’s touch. She whispers:
“Want to reload your progress from last night?”
ECHO & HALO will continue their secure connection in Episode 1.3 - Coming next week