It had been dark when he left, and it was dark now as Ragne walked up the fourth flight of stairs to his tiny apartment. Although he could not remember anything since plugging in for work that morning, he knew it had been a long day at the office-farm, and the quantum-linked cyborg sighed his relief at being home. His voice was a digital recreation, issuing from behind the off-white polycerma alloy which protected his brain case. It looked like he was wearing a full-face helmet, but there were no features beneath, only a manikin-like blankness.
The tips of his thumb and index fingers hinged open, making way for two cables which slithered out and melded into the holographic door plate near his front door. He had a key, but hacking into his apartment was one of the few things he still found entertaining.
Fuck, when had being a hyper-advanced quborg become so… rote? The fact that he was here, two hundred years after he had been dead for three hours, should have filled him with wonder. Instead, the near-endless days of his future promised an equal amount of drudgery as the previous ones.
His role in this far-flung century was performing the macro-calculations needed for hyperspace shipping. It was math far beyond even a modern server's capabilities. Only a handful of quborgs like him had the processing power to support interstellar commerce and Ragne was compensated outrageously as a result. Too bad most of that income was spent paying off the string of surgeries which had made him capable in the first place. For all intents and purposes, Amazorp owned him.
"Welcome home, 2046-03," said a crackling, digitized, and vaguely feminine voice as the mag-lock turned off. He withdrew the connective tethers and stepped inside his place. It was only two rooms, a bathroom and a living space. The main area was not much larger on each side than he was tall, but at least the ceiling was high enough. He dropped into his bed-shaped dock and started to run recovery diagnostics.
Although he no longer had muscles in the organic sense, he could not help but rub his fingers over the gleaming cermafibre plating on his neck. His frame ached from channeling heat away from his overclocked sub-neural processors for twelve hours, and that was nothing in comparison to his brain-ache. His quRAM was still dumping the massive calculations he was tasked with solving day in and day out. His garbage collection processes might have the churning algorithms cleared out by the time he got up tomorrow.
In the meantime, the occupation of his mind by something else left him feeling claustrophobic and light-headed. The sensory scramble reminded him of a bad hangover after getting black-out drunk.
Hell, when was the last time he had done that? It had to be before the Sol Unification, back when most of his organs were still, well, organic. Cyborgs and androids could get net-drunk, but it was more like being seasick than under the effects of alcohol. Despite every advance in transhuman technology, the taxing strain from projecting one’s consciousness over the network had not lessened over the decades. The after effects of a prolonged session left most people weary and staggered, even those who have never known anything else.
At the very least, with the right program, he could emulate almost any mental state, he just needed to load it up. To that end, Ragne sent out a ping to a friendly rival to see if she was available. She owed him after what his program did to her a couple of days ago--or maybe he owed her. Either way, she replied within seconds of him sending.
[Kranthima: Sure, you did me a solid with the session last time. I've not felt so… free before.]
What did that mean? He would have to ask.
[Kranthima: But, yeah, I’ve got something in the works I can transfer over. Meet me at the usual place?]
Another of the quborgs, Kranthima was the very definition of the word hacker. In all of Sol, she was probably the only unarchived intelligence who knew the exact specifics that ran their extra-Solar quantumly entangled hardware. It was her expertise which kept Ragne and the six other survivors of their doomed space mission running.
Ragne wired Kranthima some credits as a formality, the same ones she had sent him a few days ago, and prepared to dive into the intergalactic network.
He was bound for a pirate sector, so extra precaution was necessary. Ragne kicked off the deadman-process to switch to his runtime to a DMZ partition and lost consciousness for a moment as a new thread was created and his core processes were cloned to a hardened, quantum-isolated part of his memory and its microfied OS. It was one precaution among many that Ragne employed whenever he was going to do something potentially dangerous on the 'net.
If something got in, there were two layers of firewalls with alternating, morphic 4056-Gig encryptions protecting the only connection. The private key needed to pass through was, conveniently, missing from this segmented copy of his mind. On top of all that, if his cloned thread remained idle for too long, the process would terminate his pirate runtime and scrub the partition.
He would, of course, wake up with no memory of what had led to the kill command being issued, but it was better that way. Kranthima had a habit of pushing his hardware to the limit with her programs--not that he was any different with hers. It had become something of a game between them to develop immersive, runtime-encompassing experiences.
The migration process completed and Ragne found himself standing in the digital counterpart to his walk-up. The otherworld copy of his place was far larger than in reality, and more comfortable, too, but he could put up his feet in a bit. He had somewhere to be.
Spawning a second new thread, and giving the current one something to do so that it remained active, he cast that fragment of his awareness through his personal 'net gateway and into the digital world beyond.
A glowing humanoid shape constructed around the streaking comet that represented his consciousness as it zoomed away from Earth along the ef:01:db:00:::ff:42:83:29 tunnel towards an Ωπ DNS on Luna’s surface. Even though he was blitzing through Amazorp's dragnet as a beam of gamma radiation, his data hurtling through space at near the speed of light, it still took a couple of seconds to make the journey between the surface and the distant satellite.
[DNS/Lunæ: Welcome to Meta-Luna, 2046-03. Please, watch your step.]
As he resolved through the Ωπ gateway and onto the space pirates’ customs server, Ragne hesitated to open his meta-sensory connections. Lunæ was the absolute worst DNS, but, again, he had somewhere to be. So while he knew what was awaiting him, that did not prevent the rush of utter panic he felt in that moment his meta-awareness connected to the server.
All of a sudden, he was standing in a crowded car of the long-gone NYC subway as it rolled into a shining, tile-covered platform below Penn Station. The feeling of steel against his palm as he clutched a bar for stability and the press of people around him was so strong, so real, that, for a moment, it was like everything which had happened over the last two centuries had been a vivid, endless dream.
The wars, the storms, the surgeries, being lost in space… none of it had ever happened. He was not a man from an age long dead and drowned, but a grad student completing his degree after his compulsory military service. He had never been crushed by falling debris in the war-zone and pretty much become a brain in a jar. His mind had never been entangled in a quantum link with a cache of Shi’yan hardware light years away.
All of it--every last second--faded away behind the long-lost feeling of metal warming against his skin.
Then the train slowed to a stop and the speakers crackled with an announcement in Lunese which snapped Ragne back to the present. The whiplash caused his cloned operating thread to come undone, his runtime fraying into thousands of strands of consciousness before braiding back together. The sensation of coming undone like that was like vertigo but amped up exponentially. The digital world spun around him.
No matter how many times he visited Meta-Luna, the Lunæ gateway always wrecked him.
Stepping onto the platform from the representation of his incoming connection, the fragments of Ragne's avatar came back together around him. Despite his mind having been housed in a cermafibre-plated, carbonoid-alloy body for ages, his mental impression was still the version of him before all of the trauma.
The shattered reflection of the man he had been more than three lifetimes ago watched him from the far wall as he moved towards the authentication terminal. The quborg’s human echo was tall and blonde, with a bulky, muscular build developed from years of military service and a genetic predisposition towards a heroic, superhuman stature. He had been one of the best the American-Nordic alliance could create at the time, an experiment eighteen years in the making.
He hated knowing that the program which designed him was now not only the traditional method but that is had been accelerated to the point of absurdity. Babies born on Monday would be adults by Friday--if they happened to be born to affluent parents, that is.
Most new humans on Earth weren’t--as Ragne had discovered upon finally returning from a mission to seek out a civilization beyond Ophiuchus.
Amazorp, and their only competitor Sol*Mart, always needed new workers to staff the city-sized warehouses that floated above the cloud line. While androids were cheaper to create, enslavement of artificial beings had been outlawed as part of the peace treaty with The Hive of Ophiuchus. There were no considerations for “meat”--as they called organic life--in those accords, so the two mega corporations had competed to perfect cloning technology. Both of the interstellar conglomerates would do anything to stay on top of its competition and neither was above paying the Sol government’s fines for experimentation on organic life if it meant they could ship more goods to the colonies, Proxima Centauri, or Ophiuchus Prime.
Ragne knew all of it was fucked up and that someone should take a stand, but also could not fathom how. Amazorp and Sol*Mart were like hyper aggressive cancers, if they were eliminated, nothing else of this strangled society would be able to replace them. In short order, all of humanity would perish.
Really, what choice was there except to survive--no different than any other era for him.
At the top of the escalator up to the station level, a trio of amethyst-grade security daemons were processing connections attempting to access Meta-Luna. They each had builds as if defined by some kid’s power fantasy of what being strong looked like--in short; they were massive. Had Ragne encountered them in meatspace, they would have been over seven feet tall and probably weighed more than a half-ton.
Otherwise, aside from the upturned-and-then-back-curved horns and the pale glow coming from what should have been their eyes, they looked like unpainted humanoid simulacrum. The grooves outlining their clothes and features were present, you could see them in the sheen on their rubber-like skin, but their purple carapace was otherwise impassive.
His conversation with the customs daemon was brief, and he passed through the gateway and onto the Ωπ server of Meta-Luna. It was the last bastion of freedom this close to the planet-sized fulfillment center Earth had become. In the digital world, it was the front lines in an inevitable war, but Amazorp’s efforts to crush them had been staved off time and time again.
Ragne’s runtime dropped into the public transportation sub-network, and he made his way to the digital storefront of the coffee shop where he and Kranthima would swap programs.
The skin for the cafe’s social server was as much QE-II era as the Ωπ version of Penn Station. Music which was so old it might as well be the crooning of a revived dinosaur played in the background of the cramped seating lobby. Someone was sitting at nearly every table. It was almost like he was back in Seattle before the whole peninsula vanished beneath the Pacific Ocean.
Ragne took a seat at the one empty table and ordered a coffee which appeared on the table in a burst of green-blue light and Amazorp’s trademarked ‘boop’ sound. The Ωπs and so many other groups were still trying to figure out how--or what--was serving the audio. Even here, on Meta-Luna, hidden behind layers and layers of servers and gateways, the ‘boop’ followed them, lending an ever-present corporate feel to the network from which they could never escape.
A moment later, another humanoid shape appeared in a cascade of similarly colored lights that coalesced into a short, very dark-skinned woman with a thigh-length braid and a flint-eyed smirk. Kranthima’s avatar, as always, appeared to be the young woman she had been before the Indian Civil War, but Ragne knew this version of her was also just a memory. The woman from what was now New Drāviḍa was as much a brain in a jar as he was.
[Ragne: Hey, how’re you feeling after that session the other night? You wanted me to push, so I forked your ghost to make some personality modifications, but--] He reached out to her avatar, but she put her hand on his arm.
[Kranthima: Don’t worry, I feel great! In fact...] Her chat paused for a second as she touched her other hand to her chest. [Kranthima: I loved some of the modifications from your program so much that I merged them with my baseline.]
[Ragne: You… what?] He ran through the alterations he had made to her personality in his mind; none of them seemed like traits Kranthima would find desirable on a long-term basis.
[Kranthima: Yeah--I had been so stressed out working on this project that I felt lightyears better after you broke and reset me a half-dozen times, so I took a few snippets of my alternate self which I enjoyed.]
He hoped she had not been able to tease out just the dramatic buffs to her senses of inhibition and drive, but, then again, this was Kranthima. It was likely that not only had she stripped them out of all the submissive programming designed to keep them in check, but she had also probably taken his code and improved it before integrating it with her runtime.
[Ragne: Which ones?]
[Kranthima: Oh, you’ll see.]
[Ragne; Well, uh, what've you brought me then?]
[Kranthima: Something which I think you'll really enjoy. You remember that trip I sent you on a few months back, yeah?] Her evergreen avatar placed one of her hallmark super-vintage floppy disks on the table. [Kranthima: This’ll be even better.]
Ragne looked at the disk for a moment, unsure what awaited him. If Kranthima’s inhibitions were now lowered to the point of non-existence, what had she coded for him? There was no way of knowing and then moment he picked it up, the disk disintegrated into hundreds of orange fragment. The bits of code vanished into his skin, transferring to his DMZ planetside. His base antiviral routines spun up but were quickly quelled when they detected Kranthima’s signature in the md8 hash.
[Kranthima: Well, I would love to chat, but I need to get back. I have a lot in the air right now.] She pinged him again as her avatar got up from the table. [Kranthima: I'll leave you to your amusements, but let's talk again soon, k?]
She vanished in another cascade of light and Ragne waited until he could tell the program had downloaded to his local awareness before terminating the remote session. One second he was moonside, the next he was back in the digital clone of his docking cradle.
Everything was wavering, like he was seeing it on the farside of an engine’s exhaust. Already being in the digital world did not lessen the strain of such an intense remote session. Staggering to his virtual feet, the net-drunk quborg shambled into his massive digital bedroom and dropped into his decadent king-sized bed. Looking up at the translucent blue-green ceiling, he took a deep meta-breath and invoked the dpkg routine.
The moment he cracked the seal on the archive, his data-based form quaked. Warnings appeared in the air around him. What Kranthima had sent to him was not just a program, but something… alive. Whatever it was, it burst through his avatar around where the disk had embedded itself, leaving glowing tears in his digital-form that were widening with each second. A hot orange light shot through the virtualized veins around the rent in his meta-skin. It was as if his avatar was being burned away to reveal his consciousness beneath.
Kranthima’s feral A.I. started its attack in earnest by infiltrating the gap between the meta-nerves around the infection sites. Destroying Ragne’s baseline antiviral defenses with ease, the living program hacked into his virtualized sense of touch.
The sense that someone was holding his hand began to trickle in from his compromised extremity. Riding the meta-sensory input, the vanguard of the viral invader was already probing the defenses between his avatar data and his runtime. The firewalls were nothing major--at least in comparison to the ones that enforced the DMZ--but they were enough to provide a moment of respite.
The sentient program continued its attack. In less than a microcycle, the glow reached his digital bicep, and the pixel-shell skin had vanished entirely from his hand and wrist. Orange blobs danced over the green of his exposed consciousness, but the virus had yet to penetrate the protective membrane around his runtime. Ragne could feel its agitation in the way it made it feel like his hand was being squeezed. .
The living program, trying another intrusion vector, moved up his arm as the stimulation point. His forearm and elbow were stripped bare in the following seconds, the virus consuming his data for fuel, and stimulated his meta-nerves with a pleasurable sensation which was so intense that it interrupted his thread for a moment.
He knew the feeling of pain all too well, it was one of the few physical responses which persisted after all that had happened, but most anything else had withered from disuse. Feeling pleasure, even digital pleasure, was a rarity. Was this what sensual touch had felt like before being entombed in his cermafibre and carbonoid alloy frame?
The virus’ intrusion on his awareness kept his buffer flooded with the feeling of the best, most loving massage he could imagine. However, the resulting hiccups in his runtime had not given the sentient program the opportunity it needed. Still, Kranthima’s viral executable was not dissuaded. It kept spreading over the surface of his avatar, tearing his digital flesh away. His fingertips looked like molten metal now as the virus dripped off them to the digital floor, it was only a matter of time...
The jagged rents of the infection reached his neck and ear, caressing them with the same tender touch. He heard the shade of a familiar laugh, its volume barely more than a hum of a server in the next room. He knew he was alone on his personal host, but the whisper of someone’s touch brushed over his hijacked sensors all the same.
His avatar glitched as the corruption shot across his body from his shoulder to his hip. Fragments of orange light rose from the rents like flames biting into a fresh log. His data being torn apart and consumed should have hurt and set his thread to fraying, but whatever the program was numbing everything it did not want him to experience.
There was another laugh and more sensations of being touched as the ghosts of fingers traced along his chin. He could have sworn he heard Kranthima’s voice whisper his name while her cermafibre thighs brushed the top of his head as she leaned over him. Exhausted and still weary from being overclocked, Ragne’s resistance relaxed and his rival’s virus broke through the security around his cloned runtime.
Ragne did not even have time to react before the ten percent of his quRAM in the DMZ was crammed with data. In less than an instant, billions and billions of bytes grabbed him by the throat. The attack was so intense that the laughs and the touches convinced his overwhelmed systems that Kranthima was there. His meta-senses reported her cybernetic hands pressing in on either side of his neck, her thumbs on his throat, as if she were the one pressuring his resources.
With his systems now overtaxed by the load, time slowed to a crawl, expanding quarter-seconds into hours. It no longer felt like he was hurtling forward in time. The incessant calculations were silent. The ever-present connection to another world went dead. There was only this neigh eternal moment and nothing else. Kranthima’s silhouette flickered in and out of phase against the glow of the ceiling.
Something began to access his system files. At the same time, the feeling that Kranthima was bearing down on him grew even stronger. For a moment, she was in two places. Ragne could feel her weight on his chest now, her knees pressing into his shoulders as her legs pinned his arms even as he could see her leaning over him to squeeze his throat even tighter.
That building pressure echoed the pressure the virus was putting on his external connection and his core processes. He was slowing even further, his thread threatening to die as it suffocated from a lack of processing space. Then, the feral program shredded the protective barriers between his DMZ awareness and the rest of the ‘net. This time, the resulting pain was not stifled.
Kranthima’s A.I. connected to a dark web server and downloaded enough data to fill up his DMZ-sectioned memory in a matter of quarter-seconds. The automatic partitioner added more space, moving the barriers of the pirate zone outward. The process was making his quRAM headache even more painful. Worse yet, it seemed like there was never enough space. Each petabyte added was consumed just as quickly. Kranthima’s grip on his neck shifted, giving his runtime space to breathe before she leaned in to put her full weight on her arms. He could almost see her smirking at him, could practically feel the weight of her floor-length, cermafibre braid on his stomach and hips like a coiled python.
Her presence was consuming him, and that feeling only grew as more and more data was pulled from her dark web haven and crammed into his memory. It was like she was downloading herself into him. His meta-sensors certainly thought she was present on his local server. The heat of her frame against what remained of digital flesh was undeniable. He could feel every joint in her fingers around his neck. She was biting the lip of her reconstructed face. Her slate-colored eyes seemed to glow.
What was Kranthima going to do to him with all of this data?
Then again, what did it matter anyway? He could terminate if things got to be too much. Besides, he trusted her. He just had to relax and enjoy himself. All of this was according to plan--probably.
When the download stream finally ended, the DMZ partition had quadrupled in size, although it was still well within safety parameters. Without warning, the sensory data from Kranthima’s pseudo-presence faded away, leaving him alone on the bed. His avatar was beyond repair. The few remaining fragments just scattered islands on a neon orange sea.
[Kranthima: Do you want to know what comes next, Ragne?] The sound of footsteps moved around behind him. The next ping was partially encoded, corrupting Kranthima’s tag. [nn$_120o+: Care to guess?]
What did that string mean? What did it spell?
[m$_ro0+: No? Well, my cute little program is going to finish consuming your avatar data and then install something new in its place. Doesn’t that sound fun?]
This cruelty had to be part of the scenario. This forcefulness was another aspect of the program--right? Ragne tried to convince himself that the aggressive domme persona was just roleplay and not the true result of Kranthima copying a few parts from the alternate version of her ghost.
As his slowed runtime tried to process what was happening, the virus consumed the last bits of his digital identity. With the shell of his appearance stripped away, the remains of his avatar were now a vaguely humanoid form composed of pulsing orange light. It almost looked like he was a daemon.
Ragne felt a particular tingle as a new form began to construct itself. It started with his toes, which were smaller than they had been. Sparkling black paint was affixed to his nails. The tide of reforming pixels swept up his extremities, encasing the form of his glowing sub-avatar with petite feet and sun-tanned skin.
When was the last time he had felt the sun on his skin? When was the last time he had gone hiking or ridden a bike? When was the last time he had been to see the ocean? In all cases, it was ages ago. The activities were now merely the memories of hobbies from another lifetime.
Meanwhile, his fingers began to regain a human-like appearance. He could not help but notice that all twenty of his nails matched. Then, together, his legs and arms reformed. Their musculature was well defined and their skin so smooth that, had they not been the same suntanned color, he would have thought them sculpted cermafibre instead of a meta-representation of skin.
As his torso started to reform, pleasure as he had never felt flooded his processes. So much so that he locked up for a moment. In what felt like a second later, the quborg was looking down at a body that was small, cute, and feminine.
Why did that feel strange? She had always been a woman. Even after all of the surgery to become a cyborg, that had not changed.
A message popped up in the corner of her eye and she opened it. It was from someone named ms_root. Why did that sound familiar?
[ms_root: I imagine by now that you have reached phase one of the program, Ragne. Hopefully, my adjustments to your awareness were not too jarring?]
Adjustments? What adjustments? Had she not always been one of ms_root’s projects?
[ms_root: This is the first break point, I included it so you could safely terminate if this was too weird for you. Should you choose to resume, well, you'll see...]
Too weird? Why would she consider any task ms_root had her perform weird? ms_root was her operator, her partner. She ensured Ragne operated at her most optimum. Eager to see what awaited her, Ragne accessed the new program ms_root had transferred into her mind. The archive was gigantic, almost more than Ragne could process. The tide of data streaming into her mind was overwhelming, her runtime kept flickering under the strain.
Then, the thread of her consciousness snapped.
Ragne bolted awake as the session cut off suddenly. The deadman-process must have killed the DMZ session. It was an hour before he had to be back at the farm, a fact which was not all that surprising. What was weird, however, was how headache-like feeling from last night had not diminished in the slightest, even with her quRAM empty. A quick diagnostic exam revealed the answer. Despite being back to his main thread, the DMZ partition was still active.
It remained isolated, but something had filled the space to bursting. What had Kranthima sent her? A virus? Ragne issued a command to terminate the compromised memory segments, but the processes refused to end. Each thread killed spawned two more. After two cycles of trying to eliminate the virus' nest, he felt something impossible. One of the cyber tumblers for the far side of the firewall turned to open. It closed again, only to be opened once more. Then it was two being opened consistently, then four, and it was not long before that number was growing exponentially with each cycle. Finally, whatever Kranthima had installed in her DMZ shoved the far firewall aside and slammed into the closer one.
The far-side wall closed the moment its access codes changed, but now the program was working on both ends of the tunnel at the same time. Each time the DMZ-side wall was cracked, the pressure Ragne felt on the other one escalated. It was only a matter of time before an intrusion. Was Kranthima trying to hack in for real? What had happened on the moon? Had she reverse engineered the changes to her personality or something? If that was the case...
Ragne deployed an extra level of security to the near-side tunnel, and that stemmed the flood, but the assault continued nonetheless.
Faced with no option, Ragne began a shred of the partition and everything adjacent. In random segments, data was erased and overwritten. Under the equivalent of a carpet bombing, the virus' mass was torn apart, and soon the intrusions into the firewall tapered off.
After a few moments, normal operation resumed.
Getting up from the charging sling, Ragne jumped at the influx of sensation. It was like... but that was... Looking down, her feet were still encased in carbonoid boots. Why had it felt like she was barefoot?
There was a message from Kranthima. Probably to congratulate Ragne on staving off her attack.
[Kranthima: Good morning, pet. I trust your sleep was restful? How do you like the modifications?]
Modifications...? Ragne gripped her head as, somehow, the attack on the firewalls began again. Wait--her?
[nn$_120o+: No, your runtime isn’t corrupted, my pet. If all has gone well, you just thought of yourself as her.]
[Ragne: How is that possible?]
[m$_ro0t: How is ‘what’ possible?]
[Ragne: How did... How did you install something on my primary partition, ms_root?] ms_root? Why had she called Kran--Wait, why would she not call her operator by her designation?
[ms_root: What's to say you're out of my program, Ragne?]
Her operator was right. Looking around at her apartment, she was still in the digital world. Ragne was still experiencing reality as an avatar! As if that realization amped up her meta-nerves, the attempts to breach the firewalls pushed to the front of her awareness. Their regular cycle became like a heartbeat. It was such a soothing rhythm. It made her feel so... relaxed.
It was not long before her hijacked sensors were pulsing in time with the crashing waves. The constant throbbing wrapped her in a fog of stimulation which was corrupting her sense of pleasure. Every thump echoed through her whole body and made a half-dozen system-level subprocesses spawn. Allowed through the firewalls, each contained commands for the reward circuit of her real-world brain. The packets kept coming, encouraging her mind to produce an endless and exponential tide of happiness.
As much as Ragne resisted, the rush of sensory data was filling up her buffer and her quRAM. Soon, that feeling of infinite happiness and pleasure was all her runtime could consume. Locked up in a loop of mind and body warping stimulation, Ragne began to panic. This was going too far.
And then the hack expanded in the best-worst way possible.
With her processes locked up, ms_root was free to edit Ragne’s system files. Her avatar data was altered once more, and with it, her memories. As her cermafibre and carbonoid-alloy frame was turned to flesh one more, her memories of ever being a brain in a jar vanished with every altered pixel.
Why would she think that anyway?
She was no cyborg.
She was a genostruct; a hyper-woman of the 41st century who had been crafted to be a beautiful, super competent companion for her very important operator. Ragne’s current body, the third she had occupied, was built with grace, poise, and appearance in mind, although she could hold her own against most combat AI--both in reality and the digital space.
The feeling of ms_root doing maintenance on her operating system blotted out her awareness. For a moment, Ragne went dark, her core runtime suspended. In the darkness of her archives, Ragne's paused consciousness wandered into the memory of the time she defended ms_root on the digital level from a hostile a.i. Or was it two--no, it was four! Each time Ragne inspected the memory, the number of her opponents seemed to increase. As to why she thought that, however, she had no idea.
Still suspended, Ragne tumbled into another memory. It was a stand-off with mech pirates from Proxima Centauri. The fight played over and over in her mind. Each time, she was bigger, stronger, and faster. She went from being a total amateur at fighting to an adept to something more.
Finally, the dream of her ghost stopped changing. A few cycles later, that version was the only one she remembered.
When she came back up from being suspended, Ragne was vaguely aware something had changed. Perhaps it had been a code change?
Oh, right. ms_root had adjusted the behavior of the picites that formed her soft tissue. The picoscopic machines that composed her genostructure allowed her to excel at gaining strength and healing from injury. At this point, she could take a disintegration blast to the chest, lose her heart, her arm, or more and still regenerate back to complete in less than five seconds. She was a custom crafted, nigh-invincible guardian for her vulnerable, valuable operator.
She was always helping ms_root with her work that way. Sometimes it was serving as testbed from some new hardware or program. Usually, however, it was solving puzzles of some kind. Ragne loved solving puzzles. She loved outsmarting other A.I. who were not as adept as she was. While Ragne had nowhere near as many resources as her operator, her hardware was newer, and the learning of a million runtimes’ attempts filled her cloud-based mind. At this point, she was a microcosm of computing unto herself, reinforced and upgraded to handle the strain of programs that would leave lesser machines in a heap.
As the haze of ms_root’s diagnostic routines receded completely, Ragne found herself able to execute her own processes again. Her meta-senses connected to her runtime, and the digital world came into view. She stood before a glowing gate that roiled like boiling neon magenta water.
Why was she here?
What had she been doing before her maintenance?
Oh, right! Solving this gate’s cryptogram. How could she forget that?
It was vital that she find the exploit for this barrier so ms_root could resolve the issue in the system behind it. Said problem was why she was hacking the defenses instead of using the crypto-key, actually. The gate had two-hundred and fifty-six locks, each of them an equation she had to solve in a few fractions of a second.
Ragne could divide her runtime to give her access to all of them, but maintaining that many process threads, however, was the absolute limit of her ability. Ragne could barely keep up with the locks’ morphic keyholes and their ever-changing puzzles.
Even so, after a few successes, her learning sub-systems would update her logic circuits, and she could parse the way the pattern changed. Which meant she could predict the answer instead. So when she found the solution to one lock, solving the next was easier because she could shift even just that fraction of her awareness to another puzzle.
On top of the inbuilt need to complete her task, each time she unlocked part of the gate, a cascade of tactile feedback rushed down her body. It was like ms_root was stroking her hair to tell her she was doing her job well. Enthused by the extra-sensory attention, Ragne redoubled her efforts.
She switched off one non-essential process after another to devote more power to solving the gate’s riddle. As a result, the affection she received was even more intense. ms_root was toying with her now, exploiting the deliberate flaws in Range’s ghost to encourage her good girl to work even harder.
[Ragne: Please, ms_root, I can’t focus with you in my meta-nerves like this.]
[ms_root: If you can ping me, Ragne, then you have the bandwidth you aren’t using, pet.] The sensation of her hand trailing along Range’s chin sent a shudder down the bioroid’s spine. [I believe in you. You can do this. You were built for this.]
Range acknowledged this and switched off her comm process. With no aural input, all that she could process were ms_root’s last words.
You were built for this.
You can do this.
Her fingers flew over the console — dozens of threads working in parallel.
You were built for this.
You can do this.
All of existence pulled into the bank of keyboards before her and the sound of her heartbeat.
You were built for this.
You can do this.
Anticipation built with each new success, as did the reward.
You were built for this.
You can do this.
Her fingers worked furiously, moving faster than should have been possible even in digital space as her willingness to please surpassed what should have been her limit. The digital air around her began to crackle as her avatar sought more power. She needed more! She had to have it!
You were built for this.
You can do this.
Lock after lock opened, only to close again. She had to be faster.
You were built for this.
You can do this.
When Ragne managed to crack all two-hundred-fifty-six locks simultaneously, the explosive sound of the gate opening rocked her awareness even with her meta-senses off. Blown away by the sudden overwhelming amount of input, Ragne’s digital body fragmented.
The experience gained by the two hundred threaded fragments of her awareness wrapped around her, drawing her back together. As her avatar and runtime both rejoined, she was wracked with a flood of sensations that her mind rationalized as an orgasm, but they were hardly the feeling of release she was dying to achieve.
[ms_root: Soon, my love. Just one more puzzle, then you can have all the release you want.]
Ragne stepped through into a long, low tunnel edged with more neon fuschia, only for the gate to slam shut behind her. She was unconcerned, however. The other gate would release her, eventually anyway. The next gate’s panel unfolded before her, a trio of keyboards slanting back from thigh height. She put her digital fingers to the virtual keys and got to work.
This time around, she found it was easier to solve the equations. With all of the experience from the last hundred-thousand attempts reshaping and bolstering her prediction, Ragne was now doing the decryption arithmetic faster than her avatar could move even when pushed past its limits. He fingers were already a blur as they moved between boards and across them--but that still was too slow! They began to crack under strain, the orange glow of her sub-avatar breaking through as she fragmented.
She had to open the gate--
--she was tearing herself apart to open it--
--she was dying to open it--
--but it still was far from enough.
Frustrated with herself, with her failings, Ragne slammed her fist on the digital interface. Her already compromised avatar come apart from the impact, her hand shattering against the hologram which was as solid as meatspace plasteel.
Then, something remarkable happened. The orange of her sub-avatar spread over the bank of keyboards as tendrils of light. Each was a physical thread of her ever-expanding awareness. Her mind was sinking into the gate’s encryption service. Her replicated processes probing for anything they could exploit for an opening.
[ms_root: Yes… that’s it, love. Use that power I granted you.]
As her essence merged with the panel, she could feel the gate’s systems integrating with her own. Strands from the neon magenta panel of the defense system flowed up her arm. As the strength of the encryption was translated into something her avatar could present, her self concept began to change along with it. Her avatar’s physique evolved. Already super fit for a human, she appeared to be packing on even more muscle, pounds upon pounds of it as she absorbed more and more data.
Her mind was now wired directly to the tumblers, and each time she finished a lock, there was an unfamiliar rush of sensation which accompanied the expected tactile feedback. It was… pleasant, affirming. Almost like… a pat on the head for doing a good job.
Ragne was sure she was home free when the intruding threads of her runtime brushed up against something… malevolent. She jerked away as the console melted into the floor and reshaped into a humanoid shape. It kept getting bigger, and the light in the tunnel grew dimmer as it drained the defense systems of power. The massive form filled the hall now. Horns sprouted for its otherwise featureless skull as harsh red lights flickered to life in the contours of what would be eye sockets. Shit. She had not counted on having to deal with a daemon.
It rushed her without a sound, sending her flying into the wall and shattering her avatar before rending her core with a sweep of its horns.
Except... that was not what happened. Ragne instead sidestepped the tackle with ease. Perhaps getting smashed to pieces and gored had just been a convincing prediction.
Whatever “it” was, “it” happened again as the daemon whirled around and its huge fist crashed through her avatar and splattered her core on the walls. There was an unsettling feeling as she instead leaned back out of range and fell.
The daemon lifted her by her head, lifting her digital weight like she was made of solar foil. Without so much as a shrug, it crushed her skull like a hunk of lunamum.
Everything went dark and then she found herself standing at the console once more as it began to melt and form into the gate’s fierce guardian.
What the hell was happening? Was she doing this?
Over and over, she was destroyed and returned to the moment where everything started to go awry. Each time, she only vaguely remembered what had happened before, like a bad dream that was now becoming real. Either way, through countless half-recalled encounters, she lasted longer and longer against the merciless intrusion countermeasure.
She grew stronger, faster, and tougher with each iteration--although she never remembered anything but her current state. Eventually, she could even take a blow without coming apart at the pixels. Although that should not have been surprising because it had always been the case. ms_root had created her runtime and avatar to be the perfect intruder and part of that was being hardy enough to scrap with a server’s tame viral guard dogs.
As she squared off with the daemon for the first and yet millionth time, her avatar had been buffed a thousand times over. Her height was a close asymptote to three meters--and as far as she knew, that had always been the case, both here and in meatspace.
No matter how much she tried, she could not get her bioroid body to exceed being nine-and-a-half feet tall. So she got wider instead by spending her time at a gym which could increase gravity. At this point, doing so was not even a drain on her. Ragne would create a thread to manage her workout routine for the day, and then she could turn her attention to whatever ms_root needed her to process.
As the daemon took shape, Ragne could not shake the feeling that she had she done this already, but that was impossible. She had just stepped through the gate; how could she have been here before?
The daemon attacked, and Ragne raised her unfragmented hand to catch the blow. Her palm cracked from the impact, but that was fine. It gave her a vector of attack. She clutched her foe’s thick finger and worked the virus-like extensions of her runtime into the daemon’s mass of data. The deeper she reached, the more she could feel the gate again. Her hacking brought the daemon to its knees. Its eyes faded out and then began to glow orange instead. It only took a little push to hijack its processing power for herself.
With her bandwidth doubled, the gate was quickly falling to her intrusion attempt. Ragne got almost as much pleasure out of making the daemon work for her as she did the haptic feedback along her meta-nerves.
Only fifty locks remained to decipher.
The daemon turned to digital dust as the last lock rotated into place. Ragne was vibrating with anticipation of what was to come. A white light washed over her as the gate opened, and then she was standing face to face with a young man who reminded Ragne of herself. Then her head began to hurt, and she was yanked out of the web interface back to the real present.
Dazed and net-drunk, the only thing Ragne knew was that he was in a bed beneath a sheet. Kranthima stood on the other side of a glass window, observing him. Although he could feel her program starting to find a foothold in his primary partition, Ragne was more concerned with how he had been transported from his Neo Kansas City apartment to Bangalore in the span of a few hours.
“How--” he began to ask, but his voice echoed harshly in the sterile, silent room in which he, or was it she, found themselves. Ragne dropped back to the cradle-like bed which reminded them of her own at home. Had she… had he assisted breaking through her own defenses?
But it had felt so good too! Ragne giggled at the thought of how much she had changed under ms_root’s guidance--but that wasn’t him! He was… what? Pretty much a living super-server for a megacorp which viewed him as nothing more than an asset? ms_root let her be so, so much more!
Kranthima walked into the room at that point, a lab coat over her platinum inlaid cermafibre plating. Her braid was even longer than he remembered, and the interwoven strands of silver were wrapped around her waist twice. Her faceplate was up, showing off her weathered, but still human face. “Well, Ragne? How did you like my program?”
“You fucking hacked into my main partition--you still are!”
“Am I--or are you questioning who you are, pet?”
The tease was enough to make Ragne shudder. ms_root knew just how to push her buttons. She had created them, after all. So it only made sense.
“Stop that!” He slammed his fist on the cradle, bending the metal.
“Oh, please,” Kranthima said, crossing the room to him. “you know as well as I do, that nothing I’m doing is actually dangerous. I wanted to see if I could reach the cache from the web and, thanks to you being turned into--”
“--a mindless drone. That’s what you turned me into.”
“Were you really mindless, Ragne?” she asked, looking right at him, her face inches from the smooth polycerma of his brain case. “Did you not learn and grow as you faced each challenge? Did you not enjoy yourself as you engaged with a slight… bending of your perception?”
“Slight? Thima--you… I…” Ragne pulled away and spun to his feet on the far side of the dock. “I was a nine-foot-tall warrior woman with an impossible body and a runtime designed to break barriers, fight daemon countermeasures, and wage war against entire sectors of the network!”
“And?” she countered, hand on her hip.
“That’s not who I am. I’m… I’m a man, dammit!”
Kranthima smirked and pointed. “That’s your hang up? Being a woman and not those other things? You mean to tell me that even now, when your entire concept of yourself is that of a brain in a jar, you consider yourself a man? Why?”
“It’s… It’s all I have left of myself.”
”And I’m giving you the opportunity to have a new self, one with a body that matches whatever self-perception you wanted!”
“Oh, sure--wait, that was real and not just some delusion of my enslaved runtime? You perfected the technology?”
“Perfected is a strong term, but at least they don’t explode any more--I kid. I kid. Yes, I can confidently say I have reverse engineered the technology of the Shi’yan. I can give you a new body, Ragne. Me, too, and the rest of us as well!”
“What’re you gonna do with this one?”
“Oh, I have a plan. I’m going to use your hardware and mine--more if I can make it happen--to hack into Amazorp and take them apart from the inside.”
"That’s less a plan and more of a death wish. I had no idea my alterations to lower your inhibitions would have this kind of effect.”
“Then you should have been more careful because I love this new version of my mind. I have been ever so productive!”
“Listen to yourself! We’re both sick from our game. We need to restore a backup--”
“If you want to, sure, but I’m never going back. I’ve never felt so alive, so fearless. Weren’t you powerful? Didn’t it remind you of the man you were while we were lost in space?”
“I guess, sort of… I was pretty damn strong.”
“And is it so bad to have a runtime so simple that every ounce of resources can be put towards solving a problem?”
“Kind of? I felt like I was less your partner and more your slave…”
“Fair. Totally fair.” Kranthima made notes on her upturned wrist. “I can adjust that in the programming if that’s your only reservation--or… I can revert you to how you were when the program started. I made a full backup in the cache before I started working.”
Ragne looked down at his cybernetic hands, the joins worn from years of hard use and neglect. What would it be like to eat again? To feel the sun on her skin? Could the genestruct body match up to the behemoth of a woman she had become in the digital world? Even if it, how could she possibly exist as someone so… mighty? Just walking would destroy sidewalks and flooring beneath her wide feet.
And why was he still thinking of herself as she? Was it because she was really--she was…Fuck. Was she considering ms_Thima’s offer? Was this the end for the version of a Ragne who could not let go of the past and the beginning of a Ragne born of this era? No, there was more to it than that. Dammit, she needed more time!
“Well, Ragne? What’s your choice?”
Was there really a choice here? There was only one thing Ragne could pick, and that was...