As always, 404EVER is formatted for Substack, and may look strange in the e-mail newsletter. Please go here to view/read this episode in its intended form.
“We’re not finished yet, Echo.” Halo says, jostling me.
Bottles fall and connect with the floor, 56k shrieks of laughter go off like an alarm. Then the bass drum vibrates up my body and pounds on the door to my brain. I open my eyes and see the reflection of my face burning in the red tabletop. Watch myself exhale. The breath mixes with the white hot glow of Halo's vanity collar, smearing light across the lacquered surface. And for a fraction of a second, I see Katja and Gobo still watching me from my old room. It’s just a snapshot, a corroded souvenir from the nightmare… I pick my head up and wipe the table, erasing the imaginary psychic residue. Halo slides the stimulant plug-ins towards me.
Her wet hair spreads out on the table like black webs as she bends over, pressing her thumbs into the stimulant activators. Short bursts of nitrous mist blast the sweat off her face, replacing it with icy beads of condensation. She rubs them into her cheeks and catches her breath while I rummage through my inventory; making sure nothing was stolen while I slept. I’m sure she’s watching me, so I try to show no emotion as I hide Katja’s photo behind my ID. Halo takes a sip of the cold stimulant and flicks the loose fabric hanging off of my shoulders.
“Suit run out of power?” she asks, with what sounds like actual concern.
“No, I did.” I clinch my fists and dig my nails into my palm, concentrating on the chat club surroundings. ‘We’re still in public, we’re still in public’ I say over and over again in my mind, exaggerating the embarrassment I’d normally be feeling. My Synth Suit takes the hint and begins compressing into its usual skin-tight form.
“How long was I out?” I ask.
“A couple hours. You were so bluescreened. Actually looked peaceful for once, it was sort of cute.” Peaceful or cute isn’t how I’d describe that nightmare. “Sorry I had to wake you up, but I’m starting to run short on time” she says, glancing at her fancy Net-Ex Mobile.
Halo drops down slowly into the booth. Her body language is deliberate and calm, but the stillness of her gaze makes me feel like cornered prey. I slide back to the far edge of the seat, trying to use the table as a kind of barrier. It’s easier to think when she’s not too close. Her expression tells me she’s taking the attempt to distance her as a challenge. I raise the plug-in and cover my face with it, pretending to admire the label. Stardust Blue. Expensive brand, imported direct from the g00gol Republic. Couldn’t get this stuff in the slums even if we could afford it.
“Scared I slipped something in your drink?” She asks, gently pulling my wrist down to the table. “It’s already pure drugs, Echo.” Funny but true. Halo mimics my smirk.
Something like 10 minutes go by as we make small talk, both of us awkwardly strafing around the real reason we’re here. She’s clever. And every bit as beautiful now as she was last night beneath that veil of chemicals. Denying my usual impulses, I’ve been micro-dosing the plug-in. Stims can unlock advanced conversation options and allow you to see a user’s hidden layers, but drink too much and you’ll be charged-up on an ego trip thinking you’re an alpha-brain. And as we say down in The Paz, ‘The smartest user is the one who never forgets she’s an idiot’. The longer this game goes on, the more likely it is that Halo will win. So I decide to break through her guard before she inevitably finds a way through mine, assuming I’m smooth enough to pass the charisma check…
I blurt out, “Alright, alright. I want to hear your offer”. She buffers and pauses mid-sentence, but seems relieved that I gave her excuse to end our increasingly stiff chat. “OK then, Echo. Let’s just get on with it.” She clears her throat. “As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’m offering you a role in an unlisted job. An unverified raid for an encrypted client.”
“You mean a restricted raid.” I interject.
“No, it’s sanctioned. Just unofficially. It’s been set up by a router back in the g00gol Republic. A VIP by the name of Colin Atari. He’s the Vice Moderator, it’s a corporate/political hybrid job class. Anyway, Colin is representing someone much more powerful than he is, someone totally anon. And before you ask, no, I don’t know who it is. I still don’t have full access to the readme yet. But I can give you the zipped version if you want.
“Go ahead” I reply, casually rotating the bottle on the table. “I really hope it was worth all this pretense…”
“Well, what if I told you…” She hesitates, mouth hanging open while she modifies whatever she was originally gonna say. Then she takes a long drink of the Stardust and swallows hard, collecting herself. “That I needed you to help me save the world?”
“I’d probably just get up and leave.”
She reclines into the seat and folds her arms. “That’s disappointing, Echo. Real disappointing… ”
Is she for real? I shrug. “Sorry. Tried the ‘Hero’ job class once. Didn’t work out so well for me.”
“No… No, I suppose it didn’t.”
The way she said that last bit makes me nervous, but I don’t have the guts to phish for what she meant by it. “Listen, I’m not gonna risk my life for ‘virtue’ or ‘honor’. Especially considering how People from the gRP define those terms. You said you had a serious offer. Please don’t tell me you dragged me all the way up here for some idiotic power fantasy?”
“Certainly not. The only reason I asked is because this raid is maximum difficulty. More dangerous than anything you’ve ever done before. And because I can’t give you all the details up front, I just wanted you to know that it’s worth the leap of faith, worth the risks. That it’s for something authentic, something meaningful.”
“Skip it for now.” I say, interrupting her explanation. “We both know I’m in a bad situation in Geo-City One. Users like me have to go to extremes to get pixels and clout. I don’t care about the danger, I want to discuss compensation.”
“OK. Tell me what you’re expecting."
“I’d prefer to be paid in pixels. But if the completion reward is an item drop, it needs to be something I can easily move or convert to currency. Nothing too hot, I’m not trying to get tagged with more violations over this. And, if we pick up rare drops or loot along the way, I want a fair cut.”
“Easy, done.” She answers. “Anything else?”
Might as well try for it. “Actually, there is something else. I need a profile, info on a premium user I lost track of. And I want it as a sign-on bonus. Before we start the job.”
Halo thinks about it, then shakes her head. “No. You’ll get it after the raid is completed.”
“How do I know you can actually get the dox?” I ask.
“Information retrieval and dissemination is our business, Echo. Especially information that users want erased. We have an old saying in the gRP: ‘You are what you delete.’ Tell me, who’s the lucky user you’re trying to backtrace?”
“Nah. If you’re not gonna give me the info upfront, there’s no point. Let’s get back to the job. Why did you select me? I’m know you’ve read my profile, and know what I’m capable of, but - -”
Her Promo Suit activates instantly, displaying my stats in glowing red text on her body. So much for keeping a low profile. “Rogue Class user. You’ve done a lot of tedious grinding, and accumulated a decent amount of experience. Theft. Mugging. Stealth. Dangerous with a knife, good with small guns.” She looks down and reads the words streaming around the contours of her chest. “Bad drug habit, but it can be overlooked since it goes with the territory for users in your job class. Picked up excellent manipulation skills when you were a Dedicated Server, which means you’re great at playing naive suckers. Especially when they want something from you.” She locks eyes with me. “It would be a mistake for you to confuse me with one of those fools.”
“Flashy dodge, but you just described thousands of girls in this city. So again, why me?” I ask.
She rolls her eyes, speaking quickly. “I was given a small list of potential candidates by my router. Users who possess the requisite skills, users with particular traits in their character bio. You were the one I picked. Does it need to be more complicated than that?”
“It doesn’t need to, but it always fucking is when the gRP is involved. Do they just keep files on every loser out here in the Geo-Cities?”
“No, just the users who’re spineless enough to do their bidding. And the ones who’ve done something to really piss them off. You’re in the second category.” Now this is getting interesting. “It’s not every day that some high-priced hostess embeds a few slugs into a g00gol Diplomat.” Her lips are only inches away from mine before I notice how close she’s managed to get. How does she do that?
“I had no idea Gobo was a diplomat…” I mutter to myself.
“Do you routinely shoot People without knowing anything about them?” Halo asks in a hushed tone, her long hair brushing against my skin as she whispers.
“Hey, good dox are hard to come by in Geo-City One. Besides. I knew enough about Gobo to know he deserved it. I only wish I was a better shot back then.” That incident pretty much ruined my life, but for some reason I just can’t help but laugh.
“That’s not funny” she says, trying to swallow her own laughter. “They could’ve deleted you on the spot for what you did to Gobo. But in certain cases, the gRP prefers to drop potential assets into the Public Access Zone for later use. If they survive down there, of course. That’s why we call it ’The g00glag’. It’s where they put very bad girls like you, to retrieve in case a particular need should arise.” Is that really where the nickname comes from? Halo continues, “But, for what it’s worth, I don’t care about what you did to Gobo or what the gRP wants to get out of you. I’m not here to use you on their behalf. I’m here because I want you”. She pauses, awkwardly adding: “To do this raid with me.”
Before I can respond, she turns her head to hide the signs of embarrassment or deception. Jump-cutters are experts at making their affection seem believable, so there’s no point in trying to figure out if she’s lying. “Can we move on now?” She asks.
“Yeah. But I’d still like to know what you’re getting out of this. You’re a jump-cutter. Sorry, Social Influencer.” I gesture at her expensive softwear. “And judging by the looks of you, I’d say you’re already very successful. So why take a risk?”
Halo reaches for the controller behind my head and darkens the booth’s privacy panels. “Echo, as I told you earlier down in the slums. You can trust me. So can I trust you?”
“Trust is an achievement. I’m not demanding to unlock yours so easily.”
She nods solemnly. “I know what you Geo-City users think of us. What you think of People, I mean. I’m not trying to be pretentious, but I’m pretty sure you have no idea what it’s actually like in the g00gol Republic. My situation there is a lot more complicated than you assume. The router, Colin Atari, he didn’t exactly give me a choice with this job.”
Hmmm. “Twisted your arm? How?”
“He’s an obsessive, conniving little man. He abused his position as Vice Moderator and dug up some data on me. Bad data. And before you ask, yes, it’s legit. And I have no doubt he would use it to downgrade my status if he doesn’t get what he wants.”
I’m not even going to bother asking her what the content is, she’s not dumb enough to dox herself. “What does he want?” I ask.
“My undying affection, I think. But he’ll settle for my participation in this raid, at least for now. Look, I don’t trust him. But I do believe he wants me free, alive, and available. He wouldn’t purposefully send me into a deathtrap.” That’s good for her, but I’m sure he wouldn’t lose any sleep if I got deleted. “Also, Colin is pretty cowardly. He wouldn’t dare sneak around like this and risk the Prime Moderator’s wrath, not unless he was absolutely sure he’s going to win. And if we fail at this raid, he’s done for.”
“So I’m guessing my role will be to help you fuck him over?”
Halo laughs and throws her long legs up, crossing them on the table. “I love the way you think, but no. You’re just going to help me complete the job, strictly as planned. I’ll deal with him in my own way.” She tilts her head onto my shoulder, we both notice the Net-Ex Mobile lighting up inside her inventory. “Now can I please move on to explaining the raid? I need to know if you’re in.” She’s hiding it well, but I can tell her frame rate is starting to get jittery.
I take a moment to go through the reply options in my mind, balancing my lips on the rim of the Stardust Blue. “Not so fast. That explains why you’re mixed up in this. But it doesn’t explain why Colin, a Vice Moderator, would manipulate you into doing such a high-risk job. Why would he go through all the trouble to get you involved? He’s got the status to afford a real pro.”
“Because no one would ever suspect my involvement in something like this, as you’ve just illustrated. People and users keep an eye on my content, but they never see me coming.” She squeezes my thigh under the table. I try not to jump. “Like I said, Colin is cunning, but he doesn’t have the stats to go head to head with the Prime Moderator. She’s ruthless. If the details of his secret raid became public knowledge, she would have possession of the rewards and his balls within seconds.”
I scoff. “Colin doesn’t sound too cunning to me. Only an idiot would try to out-level his boss by blackmailing a Social Influencer into teaming up with a slum rat. If he’s desperate enough to bet everything on you and me, he’s pretty much already fucked.”
She sighs. “Speak for yourself, slum rat. I’m not a Social Influencer.”
“Really. Then why are you dressed up like one?”
“It’s my job class, Echo. Not my identity.”
Her Net-Ex starts ringing. She swivels around in the seat, sliding her legs off the table. I catch a quick glimpse of the screen as she checks it. Private Contact, dozens of unread instant messages. Colin Atari, more than likely. She’s frustrated, blatantly nervous now. Dragging this out with all the questions was the right move. Might be easier to trust what she says, now that she’s too pressed for time to manipulate me. Halo throws the mobile into her inventory hard enough to break it.
“Alright. This is it. Do you want me to explain the raid or not?”
I let a few moments pass, casually staring up at the ceiling. I’m not even thinking about anything in particular, just intoxicated by the favorable shift in the power balance. Sobriety can be its own drug, sometimes…
“Echo?” Halo nudges my ribs.
“Sorry, go ahead” I reply.
“OK. This raid is centered around the Polycoms.”
I shrug. “The what?”
“I think you guys might call them by another name. I’m talking about the relics, the abandoned technology from the old world.”
“Oh, you mean like the Sky Stream?” I ask.
“Exactly. The Sky Stream is a Polycom.”
“Interesting. We actually don’t have a name for those things in GC-1. We just try to avoid them, mostly.”
Ignoring my attempts to slow the lore dump, Halo continues. “Polycoms vary wildly in terms of age, size, and capability. From what I understand, the Geo-Cities were built around remnants from an older, more chaotic era. That’s why yours are so unpredictable or practically useless compared to the ones we have in the g00gol Republic. Most of the Geo-City artifacts are what we call Crufts. Crufts are still Polycoms, but they’re the lowest rank.” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that.
"The g00gol Republic has built a small empire around the very best Polycoms. Inherited, imported, acquired, or stolen. We use them for everything. From boosting our Digital Space connectivity range, to data storage and advertising algorithms, to Em-Passes.”
“Em-Passes?” I ask, bewildered.
“Never mind” Halo says, kicking my leg under the table. “I’ll give you a different example. My Promo Suit, and the Persona Suit you used to wear up here both run on Polycom technology.
“And what about Synth Suits?” I ask.
“Crufts.” Halo replies. I tug on my softwear collar. Sorry, girl…
“Anyway. Despite our society’s reliance on Polycoms, we actually don’t understand how these ancient artifacts function.”
“That’s surprising.” I reply. “Since ours are so scuffed and annoying, I always kinda assumed you guys created them.”
She chuckles. “Well, gRP Management likes to maintain that assumption. Even most of our own People believe we created the Polycoms. Since the earliest versions of the g00gol Republic, we’ve been acquiring and studying them but it’s a slow process. We haven’t been able to reverse engineer the tech because we’ve always been too afraid to take any of them apart. They’re just too rare, too valuable. But then along comes Colin…”
“Let me guess” I interrupt. “He ‘found’ a Polycom of his own. Then he started doing some unapproved editing and…”
“Very good. You’re so perceptive when it comes to secrets and theft, Echo. I’m pretty sure your hypothetical scenario is correct, because Colin’s got dark data on the Polycoms which no one else has.”
“He could be lying, you know.”
“No. Not his style. Plus, I’ve seen the thing, myself. Anyway, it took him years probably, but his little faction has discovered something interesting. Polycoms aren’t generators, they’re receivers.”
“What do you mean?”
Halo points up at the crusted ceiling of the chat club. “Think about Sky Stream again. If you wanted to turn it off, you couldn’t, right? It’s just… there. Well, that’s because the true source of that technology is located somewhere else. The Polycoms, the physical units we depend on are nothing more than receivers, relays, distributors. Modems.”
“So our job is to find the source of the Polycoms’ power?” I ask.
“Again, very perceptive, but nope. According to Colin, he’s already learned the location. Somewhere far out in the Land Lines. Our job is simple. Get to the gRP and meet with Colin, then get the readme from the anon client. Meet our support team. Get to the spawn point and over the Firewall. Then travel through the Land Lines to the source."
“If the job’s so easy then why do you need me?”
“I said it was simple, not easy. Have you ever been to the Land Lines? And I’m not talking about the border districts, I mean deep. The dead zones devastated by the Console Wars. It’s hell. Plus, we don’t know what we might find once we get to the destination. No one has been there yet. Also, there’s a time limit. Maybe a week.”
I equip my drink. “When did the hourglass start spinning?”
“Yesterday, morning of the night we met.” I can’t believe that was only yesterday… “I wanted to talk about this right then, but we both got too corrupted, I suppose. It would be best if we left Geo-City One tonight.
“That’s no good for me. I still have some unfinished business here.”
“Well what if I could settle it for you right now?” She asks.
There’s that tone again. If I play this right, maybe I can get what I came for and skip the raid altogether… Keep sounding interested, and don’t be too obvious…
My Synth Suit’s Emotion Engine grinds hard in disapproval. Halo’s eyebrows shoot up, so I start talking quickly without thinking, asking a dumb question to distract her.
“I don’t get it. Doesn’t mean shit to me what happens in the g00gol Republic, but I don’t see how any of this benefits Colin Atari.”
“Really?” Halo asks, surprised by my lack of imagination. “He comes from an aristocratic bloodline and he’s second on the ladder. To make matters worse, the Prime Moderator used to be an absolute nobody. Now she’s on top, toggling Colin around like he’s her joystick. The power-gaming and political maneuvering never ends in the g00gol Republic, Echo. I’m sure he thinks he can take control of the Polycoms. I’m sure this mysterious anon offered him something special.”
“Pshhh. Is this what you call ‘saving the world’? Helping you find a cache of ancient tech in the middle of a wasteland, so some moron in the gRP can get a promotion?"
Halo laughs. “Maybe I have a higher purpose that wouldn’t make sense to you, because you’re too busy looking for ways to cheat. And maybe this raid won’t go like he thinks, maybe I know things he doesn’t. Maybe I’ll surprise you, too.” She leans in, sliding her hand through my hair, reaching my neck.
“Maybe I don’t like surprises…” I whisper, my lips moving over hers.
“You know, for someone who knows so much about it…” Her fingers dance along the bite mark she gave me last night, moving to the rhythm of her words. “You’re such a bad liar, Echo…”