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Avenger Assembled

The Real World (IC)

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Sharl fell through madness, screaming. The howling chaos all around him pulled at his skin, his bones, the lids of his eyes and his fingernails, trying to rip him to pieces. Only through sheer force of will had he held himself together for so long, the power of his terror and shock letting him keep body and soul from falling apart in this hellish maelstrom. How long had he been falling? Days, hours, centuries? Desperately searching for meaning, he reached out and clenched his fists, feeling his fingers sink into something soft and sandy---

_The lights flickered at the Atlantis Casino as its computer network seized up and shattered_

But it gave way, as had every other coherent sensation since this Hell had started. He heard a cacophony of voices in his ears, a cascade of alien languages and howling electronic noises, a screaming that never stopped, never, never, and he screamed back and slapped his fingers over his ears, the voices resolving into alien words and music, playing over and over again---

_At Freedom City College, an electronic SCREAM suddenly echoed across the airwaves, knocking them off the air for the first time in years_

He fell, and fell, ripping his way through the computer networks of Freedom City, drawn there like a tumbling ant into the pit of an ant lion’s den, the sheer weight of the city’s computational capacity a black hole for his wandering star. When he finally stopped falling, plunging into a cold, still darkness as thick as if his senses had faded entirely, he didn’t notice, instead he curled in on himself, crying. He’d been a confident, adventurous teenager when the world had made sense. He didn’t feel that way now.

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I’ve got it! Satisfaction colored Cyberknife’s tone as she closed the strings that trapped the rogue program in a custom-made partition. Goddamn but it’s big. Wonder what kind of payload it’s carrying.

The sort that can make a hash of any network it touches, just by trying to force in a terabyte of data in one swallow, her erstwhile colleague replied dryly. His form was invisible, here in a world of data packets and electrical impulses, but she had no trouble detecting the familiar amused/irreverant/intuitive flavor of his presence. If it had a halfway decent shield on it, half the East Coast network would be down.

That is strange, she agreed. It’s obviously a sophisticated program, not some script kiddie project. Why would anyone unleash it with such a sloppy interface? I don’t think it’s compatible with a single programming language. Maybe it’s corrupt. Her tone said she was definitely going to find out.

Could be. You want some help tearing it down?

Nah, I’ve got it. Just stay out of trouble for a few days, would you? She sent him the equivalent of a laugh. The Man surely isn’t going to get any more pervasive if you stick to raiding in WoW for awhile.

NAK, NAK, NAK, he teased. Fraid I’m losing your signal, must be some artifact from the rogue program. See ya round, sweetheart. With one last laugh, he was gone, snaking away through the morass of code that was both their real home. Cyberknife sighed, then laughed, then went to go take a look at what it was she’d just caught.

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On closer inspection, the rogue file was mysterious: not something Cyberknife was accustomed to. Not only was it huge, written in an alien programming language (maybe literally, since she knew every programming language on Earth and this wasn’t compatible with any of those), it was densely packed, holding packets of incredibly complex information that unfolded like fractals on closer inspection. This could be the work of days to completely unpack, no small thing for a hacker as skilled as Cyberknife.

Though most of the file’s core processes were static, a continuous, multi-layered output stream was still bouncing off the walls of the partition in which she’d trapped it. Starting with the basics, she pulled up the most intensive part of the stream in binary:

“01001000 01100101 01101100 01110000 00100000 01101101 01100101 00100000 01101000 01100101 01101100 01110000 00100000 01101101 01100101 00100000 01110000 01101100 01100101 01100001 01110011 01100101 00100000 01100010 01101111 01101111 00101101 01101000 01101111 01101111!”

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Help me? She ran the string again, just to be sure. It was dynamic, repetitive but not repeating. Someone was calling for help... the program was calling for help. Could this be some sort of alien AI? With the idea in her head, some of the programming patterns began to fall into place, though the language was still alien. Working quickly, her mind moving far faster than any programmer could’ve hoped to follow, much less match, Gina cobbled together an interface that would translate her own words into a form that the strange program could interpret. I’m going to help you, she sent to it. Can you understand me?

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Sharl raised his head as a voice sounded from nowhere, an echoing boom like the voice of Creation itself. “I’m here!” he shouted into the invisible heavens, pulling himself out of his shaky ball and staring up at the blackness all around him. “Please, help me! I’m lost and I don’t know where I am!” Normally the black stillness and booming voice would have been terrifying, but _anything_ was better than the crawling chaos that had devoured him since he’d gone through the door on 100-level. He was conscious of a solid surface beneath him, a cold, almost entirely frictionless metal, and the air around him was the perfect stillness of neither cold nor hot. Was this God? He’d learned about gods in school, and somehow those old superstitions didn’t seem so insane now! The file’s reply was clear; whatever it was, it understood her clearly and had answered back in the same fashion. “Are you God?” it suddenly asked her.

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Gina watched the code as it fluctuated, corresponding in part with its communication, but also changing in other ways. The program was functioning like... The lightbulb went on suddenly, a solution unfolding elegantly through her incredibly insightful brain. The program wasn’t merely an AI, it was an artificial person. The interface she’d built was enough to stimulate the sensory receptors that were its ears, and now it was attempting to utilize its motor functions and sensors to triangulate on and find the “speaker.†In its native environment, the entire operating system would be set up to interface naturally with those programs, but here, the inputs would receive only fragmentary bits of data, if that, things that would parse as nonsense. Small wonder the AI was disoriented!

I’m going to help you, she told the program again, rapidly sorting through program parameters that became more readable and familiar the longer she studied them. There, those were visual receptors, and a more complex auditory system than what she’d tapped so far, and what had to be tactile sensors. All of those fed into the dense tangle of data that was the central processing unit, the brain of the program. It was that mass that had caused most of the trouble, then as now desperately sucking up any data it could find, then regurgitating it in a search for meaning. When she thought she had the basics down, she programmed the partition to interface with the sensors, creating what she hoped would look like a neutral, boring, quiet room. Tell me what you see, she commanded.

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“I see...a room,” came the program’s reply, its signal shaky at first with a hesitation in microseconds, but seeming to grow in strength and sureness. “There are white walls, a brown chair. The walls are, uh, soft, like they’re padded.” For his part, Sharl pulled himself up and looked around. The sheer material _reality_ of everything around him was enough to make him almost cry. He sat in the chair, if only to get off his hands and knees. “I haven’t seen anything real like this since I fell into that...that horrible nightmare,” he said aloud, still with no face to put to that voice. Was it his imagination, or had it sounded a little more human this time? “Is this another dimension?” he asked, some of his native curiosity returning with his sanity. _What if I say the wrong thing and I go back there? I’d better be careful..._

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“Not exactly.†The voice was definitely female now, and sounded almost like a normal person. The walls began to firm up, and a window appeared in one, showing a scene that was very strange, a broad expanse of short, uniform green shoots and a tree against a blue backdrop. The carpet took on pattern and texture beneath his feet, the chair gained the cushy softness that the walls had lost. “If I had to guess, you made an accidental migration off your OS and ran into some severe compatibility problems. I’m coding up some interfacing software for you as we speak, which should mitigate the problem, but if I had your doc files it would really help. Where do you come from?â€

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Sharl blinked, sorting through words he didn’t understand, or rather, didn’t understand in this context. Maybe whatever was translating her words was throwing them off. “I live in the 30th district, on the eighth level,” he answered, “with my mom and dad, and my older sister." He was smart enough to realize he was dealing with some sort of alien intelligence, and tried to describe what he was picturing in more detail. “If you’re looking at the city from top down, the 30th district is in the west, alongside the nitrogen plants. The eighth level has blue piping on the exterior walls. You can’t count down from the outside the way you can with older buildings, because the anti-grav converters at the top throw everything off. My name’s Sharl,” he said hopefully, “what’s yours?”

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Gina was silent for a minute, realizing that this problem could be considerably thornier than she’d expected. Putting a skin on the AI itself was trickier than putting a world around it, but she suspected now that she’d better get on it, lest the program realize that it was nothing more than a graphical placeholder and, oddly enough, a pair of fairly normal-looking hands. She wondered if that was mere artifact, or if the program itself had managed to access its skin at least that far without even realizing it. It seemed obvious at this point that the intelligence, whatever it was, was not actually self-aware. That was going to make things... complicated.

Working back from the hands, she reverse-engineered the code and found the database that contained the imaging information for the program. It was actually an incredibly complex algorithm, one that included details down to the deepest layers of the computerized form, and even details for aging, injury, and emotional condition. Whatever else he was (and the information that told her that was coded in there too,) he was incredibly lifelike. Making careful backups every step of the way, she carefully interpolated the data, then fed it into her new emulator, building a boy, layer by rapid layer, over the graphical skeleton. “Nice to meet you, Sharl,†she told him as she worked, hoping to distract him. “You can call me Gina. What city are you talking about?â€

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“_The_ city,” he replied, a little bit of concern in his voice. As the layers took shape, Gina was confronted with a tall, gawky-looking teenage boy, sitting folded in on himself in the chair she’d pulled up for him, looking around as if he was trying to find the source of her voice. “Tronik,” he went on, “it’s the only city on our planet as far as anyone knows. I mean, there are stories about cities in the desert or past the mountains, but there’s never been much hard evidence. You must have seen it if you’ve scanned the system, it’s even visible from low orbit.” He frowned. “Gina, are you an alien? I’ve always believed in aliens, but I’d thought you guys would come in starships.”

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“Tronik,†Gina blurted, a note of awe in her voice. “Of course! I should’ve realized right away, but I thought that was a completely stand-alone system! But it makes perfect sense, the file size, the programming language... how did you get out?†she asked, curiosity quite overwhelming tact. “Were you trying to get onto the net, or was it some kind of accident... or kidnapping?â€

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“What are you talking about?” asked Sharl, looking confused and a little frightened. “I...I’m really into paranormal phenomenona. You know, alien contact, people appearing and disappearing, weird cultists and stuff...I heard rumors that a group of people had gone into the 100th level and not come out again, so I went there over the weekend to explore.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of shiny black mirrorshades and began toying with them. “I didn’t see them, but I did see a door, a door right in the middle of the air. I guess I should have called the militia, but I went through it instead.” He swallowed hard. “There was this long, dark tunnel with a light at the end, and so I went towards the light. But when I got there, it was like walking into Hell...what do you know about Tronik?” he asked.

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Okay, Sharl,†Gina said, her voice as gentle as she could make it. “This is going to be hard to understand, and probably to accept, but I’m going to give it to you straight and you’ll have to handle it. You know what computers are, right? You’ve got plenty of them in Tronik. The thing is, you yourself are a computer program. Tronik is a computer program. The program has been getting very glitchy lately because the computer system running it hasn’t been rebooted for twenty years and the population has exploded far beyond what it was designed to handle. That door you found must have been someone’s backdoor access into the system, and when you went through it, your program migrated off the Tronik machine and onto our internet. Right now you’re in a secured scratch partition in one of my hard drives, because you were causing systems to crash all over the northeast. I can help you get back to where you belong, if that’s where you want to go. Do you understand?â€

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“I...” She saw his emotional state shift even as he felt it. “That’s crazy!” he said, his voice cracking a little. “That’s crazy cultist talk. Nihilists who say all of reality is a lie, so it’s OK for them to hurt people and not pay the consequences. Tronik can’t be twenty years old, anyway,” he interjected, “because if you’re talking Neo years, even I can remember more than twenty years ago. And even if you mean old years, well...my parents and grandparents are both older than that. My sister, even!” He felt fear, wondering if ‘Gina’ would throw him back into the malestrom if he didn’t believe her story, but he couldn’t take the words back now. “It’s more likely that you’re really powerful and trying to trick me than that everything about reality is false.”

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“That’s all right,†Gina assured him. “You don’t have to believe me right now, but I had to tell you. I don’t want to eventually have you wondering if everything I’ve told you is a lie because I misled you about the first big thing. Much better to tell you an unbelievable truth, then let you accept it in time. We’ll stick to smaller truths for now.†A frame appeared on the wall, a mirror that reflected the room and Sharl himself. “Is this what you’re supposed to look like?†she asked him. “I’ve got an emulator running the code, but it’s still a kludge at the moment. Once I’m sure I’ve got the syntax correct, I’ll try for something a bit more elegant.â€

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“That’s all right,†Gina assured him. “You don’t have to believe me right now, but I had to tell you. I don’t want to eventually have you wondering if everything I’ve told you is a lie because I misled you about the first big thing. Much better to tell you an unbelievable truth, then let you accept it in time. We’ll stick to smaller truths for now.†A frame appeared on the wall, a mirror that reflected the room and Sharl himself. “Is this what you’re supposed to look like?†she asked him. “I’ve got an emulator running the code, but it’s still a kludge at the moment. Once I’m sure I’ve got the syntax correct, I’ll try for something a bit more elegant.â€

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Somehow her casual handling of his disbelief was more intimidating than any frightening display of power could have been. “It, uh, yeah...” He studied himself in the mirror, automatically running his fingers through his short hair. His mom had always told him he needed to take more showers. “Clothes and everything.” He slipped the shades back in his pocket and asked, “Can you tell how long I was in...in there?” he asked, still afraid to put a name to the system that had so tormented him. “It felt like forever. I couldn’t tell how much time was passing at all.”

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“I can’t be sure,†Gina admitted, even as she continued to tweak the system and add details to the room. A lamp appeared in one corner, giving a source to the room’s ambient light, and the window sprouted panes, a sill, and some pinned back curtains. The table was joined by a sofa, then a coffee table, then a colorful area rug. “You were knocking around in some pretty remote territory for awhile, and you may have been in the University of Alaska’s old Usenet partition for some amount of time we can’t measure. Coming down from as far north as you did, you didn’t encounter a lot of heavily trafficked backbone for awhile. My... friend and I have been trying to run you down for about three weeks, in between other projects, but it became more vital as you started actively disrupting major networks. I imagine you didn’t realize what you were doing?â€

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“I didn’t know anything. It was like being thrown into an anti-grav’s capacitor, or a waterfall. It was all I could to hold myself together,” he said, flexing his hands again as he looked down at them, remembering the cacophony that had assaulted his every sense and sensation. “I would reach out and try and grab onto things, anything, but nothing I touched lasted for more than a few seconds.” He swallowed. “It was getting worse. Like rolling downhill towards a fire, and not being able to get away, I...” He shook his head. “At least three weeks...my parents must think I ran away, or that I was kidnapped. They think all this alien stuff is just juvenile mumbo-jumbo.”

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“I’ll do whatever I can to get you home again,†Gina repeated, “but it’s not going to happen right away. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that everything I’ve told you is correct, and that getting you home is akin to adding a subroutine back into an incredibly complex computer program. We need to check your program to make sure that nothing has become corrupted or infected before we try and reintegrate you into Tronik. A flaw or glitch could destabilize the system and cause disaster. I need to talk to Daedelus at the Freedom League before anything else.â€

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“Just don’t put me back on the network,” pleaded the boy quietly. “I’ll stay here as long as you want me to, as long as you need me to, just don’t put me back there.” He folded his hands on his lap and tried to look contrite. The room was strange, the furnishings just similar enough to what he knew to be recognizably alien, that blue pattern in the background of so many pictures obviously an alien sky, but anything was better than going back to the network!

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“Don’t worry,†Gina told him. “You’re safe now. Nobody is going to toss you out on the Net. Not only would it be cruel, but you’d probably take out half the ISPs on the East Coast, and then I’d really be in trouble.†She chuckled, the sound a little odd coming from a disembodied voice. “I can rig up a television feed in there if you want. Hell, I can probably give you internet access through a virtual terminal, access that you can control like an organic person would. Do you need to eat or sleep?†she asked curiously.

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“...yes?” he replied, a little tentatively. “I mean, I usually do.” He hadn’t felt hunger or sleep in what had evidently been a long, long, long time in the network, but surely that didn’t mean Gina was right. He was a real, flesh-and-blood person, of course he needed to eat and sleep. “I usually like it fried and with sugarfizz on the side, but, um, anything you can give me would be great. I know this isn’t a restaurant! The Internet and Television thing sound good too.” He could guess what those were, assuming the words meant anything like what he was accustomed to. His comment about food required further explanation, and he eventually explained that most people on Tronik ate food derived from a legume grown in the wilds of the continent where they lived, its chemicals treated to have any sort of taste and texture by electrolysis.

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“Mmm, well, food may take a little while,†Gina admitted. “I need to figure out how the food programming interacts with your system before I can emulate it in a way that’s going to actually have any effect on you. But the rest is easy enough.†A doorframe grew in the far wall, the open door leading into a plain bedroom with a bed covered by a blue spread, a four-drawer wooden dresser and another lamp as its main features. Another door led into a bathroom that was almost entirely cosmetic at this point. Gina figured she’d have to deal with that problem as it came up. Or whatever. “You can get some rest in here, if you want.â€

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