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Story by Lordess Foudre
Art by @Hitrisisters and Lordess Foudre
This episode is rated INTERNET-18 for harsh language and adult situations
PREVIOUSLY ON 404EVER: Echo Lunaris traveled across the city and physically reconnected with Halo, the mysterious and beautiful Social Influencer from the g00gol Republic. As they shared a potent drink, Echo tried to phish for info and discover why Halo lured her to that filthy alley. Turns out, she has a premium job offer for Echo. But before she could give the details, they were interrupted by Halo’s followers. Two armed Community Guideline Enforcers, to be exact. So they decided to upscale, to log-in to an Upper Level chat club to finish their conversation in a secure location. And so, with Halo’s elevated social status, Echo is finally able to return to the Private Partition for the first time since she got ejected 2 years ago…
I fold my arms around Halo’s waist, basically hiding behind her while we wait to sign-on to our private booth. She tilts her head up and takes my wrists, pulling me close against her. I feel her stomach muscles tighten and soften beneath my arms as she breathes, and I begin to sync to her calm rhythm. Like she’s transferring my tension into her body to delete it. Slowly my senses return, and I become aware of the Hotlink lobby again. The parties of premium users, the music, the chatter, the ice cold AC blowing kisses on the back of my neck. I take a deep breath and rest my cheek on Halo’s shoulder, enjoying the warm texture of her suit against my skin. Is this what it feels like to get suckered and simped out by a Social Influencer? She loosens her posture, arching her back enough for her lips to reach my ear:
“This feels good, doesn’t it?”
For all the mystery Halo represents, she’s strangely earnest. And more honest than I’m gonna be. I nuzzle her neck, mostly to keep any soft words from coming out of my mouth. Have to keep reminding myself that I barely know this girl, that she’s from the gRP, that she obviously wants something from me. Something she hasn’t told me about yet. Considering all that, I can’t really explain why I’m acting like this. Why it’s been so easy for me to get close to her, why it feels natural. So until I can explain it, I really should be more guarded. And if I weren’t so tired and drugged up, I probably would be.
“See? Told you there was nothing to worry about.”
She’s right, at least so far. Despite my worries, our trip through the Private Partition had been short and painless, just like she promised it’d be. By the time our elevator docked up here, the morning sun was on full brightness, and the streets were saturated with that horrible orange fog. Forgot how much I used to hate it. Almost made me miss the Sky Stream and the eternal night of the Public Access Zone. Almost. Anyway, there were no random encounters on the way to Hotlink, as any premium users I might know would be logged-in to their club of choice or bluescreened by now. But I was still feeling pretty jittery, and Halo could tell. So she kept me distracted with stories, filling empty slots in my memory with the dirty details of our short adventure last night. All the unforgettable moments the chems made me forget. And after a while, she actually managed to get me laughing, which kept the edge off until we got here…
Peering over Halo’s shoulder, I browse this once-familiar environment. Despite its embarrassing, slum-chic theme, Hotlink is one of the nicest clubs in Geo City One. Even so, Halo is still obviously over-leveled, and pops-up like an error message. She’s just too good for this place, too good for the whole city, and the pixel-hungry users at the bar have noticed. They’ve been clicking around and trying to establish a connection with her from the moment we logged-in. The more elegant, experienced Dedicated Servers have also targeted Halo, but they would never approach a potential client. Not without receiving a direct request first. So they just lurk from the VIP lounge, discreetly editing their avatars to better match their appearance to Halo’s romantic preferences. Damn. I forgot how much I used to love watching true professionals work…
Unfortunately, it’s a group of amateur-level Dedicated Servers who catch us staring. They exit the bar and scroll through the dimly lit lobby, their features enhanced by hi-res Persona Suits. Back in my Mode Seven days, I casually ran with way too many users to remember them all; but I’m pretty sure I don’t know these girls. Then again, my memory is shit and they could be anyone under those avatars… Thankfully, they pretty much ignore me, focusing their attention and seductive animation routines on Halo. Smart play. They lock-on to her, their hips riding the bending notes of lo-fi jazz as they circle around us, physically advertising their availability. Have to admit, they’re not bad for amateurs. They’ve got decent form, and have clearly put a lot of effort into their custom renders. I just think they’re way too serious about it all. ‘Dedicated Server’ is a job class you should role play, not role work, you know?
Halo reaches out and rubs the empty air with her fingers, as if she can feel the invisible streams of Digital Space flowing into their Persona Suits. “Fantastic…” she says, with wonder in her voice.
“These girls? They’re just average…”
“You were better?”
Halo rolls her head back, her lips brushing against my forehead as she says, “I believe you”. I take the opportunity and kiss her, glaring at the servers until they get the hint. They backspace and re-post at the crowded bar, wirelessly charging their suits on the stools while they order drinks. Halo remarks:
“They must be using up a lot of bandwidth with all those filters. I hope Hotlink has a strong connection speed…”
“It does” I reply, relieved to have avoided an awkward encounter with those girls. I tighten my arms around Halo’s waist. “Stop looking at them or they’ll just keep bothering us.”
“They’re not bothering me. You think they’re trying too hard, huh?”
“Yeah, because they are. The new ones always do. I mean, this is a really competitive environment, so it’s normal to over-compensate at first. They’ll figure it out eventually.” Speaking from personal experience.
“Hey, I have an idea. Maybe we could rent a few of these bottom-tier servers for our booth… Take them to a secure room after we’re finished here. You can give them some tutorials. Help them upgrade their game. How about it?” Halo laughs, locking eyes with a drunken amateur who’s climbed on top of a Pixel-Token Exchange Terminal.
“First off, You don’t rent Dedicated Servers, you buy trial sessions.”I duck my head lower into Halo’s back, obscuring my face from view. “Second, it’s against the rules to go offline with a client, it’s gross. And third, fuck no. I don’t want them anywhere near me. Don’t we have important business to discuss?” I surreptitiously watch the hostess slide down the terminal monitor, clutching a huge bottle between her legs. She signals at Halo, desperate to establish a connection.
“Relax, Echo, relax. I’m joking. Are you always this uptight when you’re sober?” Halo bows her head and waves ‘no thanks’ at the girl with an unnecessarily apologetic hand gesture.
“Please. I was already fucked up when we met, and I haven’t been sober since.”
I guess the girl was too drunk to understand Halo’s rejection, because she’s wobbling over to us with that expensive bottle of Onyx Supreme. She’s got herself rendered as a beautiful, burnt-out slumrunner with faded eyes and a sly smirk. And she’s got the brightness cranked up so high she practically glows in the fucking dark. Come on… Where in the hell is that host with our private booth?
Halo squeezes my wrists and DM’s into my ear:
My anxiety won’t make sense to you, unless you’ve been a part of the ruthless Private Partition social hierarchy. I have, so I know exactly how much smug satisfaction it would give this girl if she knew my history. If she could see my vast collection of deleted achievements and figure out how I lost my premium life. She’d probably treat me as badly I would be treating her right now, if I were still an elite Dedicated Server. Oh, the dirty games we played with amateurs like her… Used to love going out to less popular sites like this one, logging-in late with the crew from Mode Seven. We’d come in corrupted and just fucking raid the place, throwing pixels and drinks around. Dominate the lower status girls and snipe their precious clients just for fun. I was so petty back then…
The amateur wobbles to a stop on her stilt-like boots, pointing at us with the bottle as she shouts over the quiet music. “I fucking love your avatar… Looks so authenticated!”
It takes me a moment to realize she’s chatting at me. “Stop merging with your client for a sec! C’mon, I wanna see your render!” Her high voice is piercing, and tainted with a terrible Public Access accent. I can feel Halo’s stomach twitching, she’s trying not to audibly laugh. She did this shit on purpose. I grit my teeth and pinch her ribs hard, so she quickly unlinks my arms and sidesteps; leaving me totally exposed. Fine. Sneering, I open my arms wide, presenting my haggard suit to the sloppy hostess.
“It’s not a Persona render” I tell her.
She staggers closer, the hourglass spinning in her brain. “Aw, sign off… No way…”
“Yep. Genuine Synth Suit. Straight out of the Public Access Zone sewers.” I expect her to finally get it, to realize she’s been sucking-up to an actual slumbag. To cringe from the embarrassment and backspace away before anyone notices. But the opposite happens instead. She bites the rim of the bottle and runs a hand up my leg, rubbing the material, impressed by the very real softwear. “Wow, damn…” she mutters, with glass between her teeth. My suit hisses and hardens into a thin armor when she squeezes my hip, as the blood rushes to my face.
“I love it, bitch. Where do you normally log-in for work?” She gives Halo the side-eye and moves in close, awkwardly dropping out of character to quietly real chat with me. “Hey, sorry, love… I’m not trying to copy your game or anything, honest.” There’s no trace of chems on her breath. “But I have to know, how’d you tag such a high level client?”
“Actually, I tagged her” Halo loudly replies, startling the amateur server. I just shrug. Mercifully, the lobby host storms over and seizes the girl by her skinny arm, his hand phasing through her avatar as he pulls her away. He keeps bowing his head and apologizing to Halo, pointing us towards an open booth at the back of the club.
Finally. I drop into the seat, feeling real fucking scuffed. Feeling like if I closed my eyes, I would just clip right through the floor and fall forever through the black abyss. Halo stays standing, bracing herself on the table, leaning in to study the deep dark circles under my eyes.
“g0g damn… You’re crashing bad, Echo.”
Pshh. Can’t imagine why. The targeted advertisements in her Promo Suit suddenly come online, preying on my exhausted status. I read the contradictory messages for insomnia treatments and hardcore stimulants as they rain down her body in glowing red streaks. She runs her fingers through my coarse, tangled hair and sighs.
“I’ll go get some stims. Just don’t disappear on me again, OK?” She steps away from the booth and pauses. “OK?” She asks again, waiting for confirmation. I nod, and smile reassuringly.
“How much revenue do you get per ad with that suit?”
She sticks her tongue out, posing like a softwear model. “They would de-monetize me if I told you.” I know she’s playing, but it’s probably true. She waves and saunters away, diving into the pulsing mobs of premium users. Fuck it. I give up and close my eyes, sinking deeper into the seat. My Synth Suit responds and loosens its vice grip on my body. Feels almost like a warm, rubbery blanket wrapped around me. “Thank you…” I whisper into the sagging suit collar. Well, Echo, you’ve finally made it. You’re back on top of the top page. How’s it feel? I lower my head onto the cool, lacquered tabletop. The sounds of ’Search History’ by EVE fall like tears from the speakers embedded in the ceiling…
♫ ♪ … And I love the way you look when I see myself
As a reflection in your eyes while you look at yourself
Inside me while you search for someone else
You know you can always click on me for help… ♪ ♫
As I sit here now, 2 years removed from the action and drama of Upper Levels society, I start to think about why I used to visit sites like Hotlink. Why I would try and LARP as some ‘sexy but deadly dialpunk with nothing to lose’ character. Why I wanted to separate myself from the other vapid servers, to pretend, to temporarily escape the processed vanity of this lifestyle. Heh. Guess you eventually ended up getting what you wanted, huh? And got what was coming to you, too. With super-user effort, I pick my head up off the table and browse the glamorized chaos unfolding in the club… It’s just the same as it always was. Each night a copy of the one that came before it. A stagnant, sustained loop of shallow delights. Just consume the content and let it consume you…
♫ ♪ … Searching for meaning in our deleted history
How did our past become this painful mystery
When a dream dies it becomes reality
And then ‘We’ becomes ‘you without me’… ♪ ♫
The random anons, perverted guests, faceless NPC’s. Predator servers stalking the herds of naive visitors. The powerful clients and… g00gol Republic rent-a-mods? Shit, I don’t remember those guys being here before. They stomp past my booth, dragging some rich brat who’s had one too many plug-ins. He’s spewing threats, screaming about the tacky Scanner_Boi 99 tracksuit that’s been ripped down to his waist. He blew a lot of pixels to look like absolute gutter trash. Blood runs from his nose and mixes with the temporary gang tattoo on his chest, leaving a messy trail from one end of the club to the other. His glitched girlfriend follows close behind, her heels sliding on the wet marble as she attacks the Rental Moderators with her inventory bag. Their echoing shrieks and thuds fade into the laughter and cheers of the crowd, into EVE’s sorrowful melody:
♫ ♪ … And now we stay in touch but we never touch
You dial me up soft and shut me me down rough
The line is connected but we can’t connect
I let you inside and then you hit eject
You can dodge my call but I’m too slow
To escape your auto texts and all-too hollow
Pre-recorded promises of better tomorrows
But I’ll hang on till you hang up
I’ll hold on till you let go… ♪ ♫