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Caught On The Web

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> HELLO

I studied the window which had appeared out of nowhere on my monitor. It resembled a command line interface, green text on black background, supplanting almost the entire screen. The cursor blinked steadily, a taunting temptation, an invitation. Or perhaps just a virus.

After a moment to process, I closed the window and went back to posting about why no, actually Armsmaster wasn’t the best tinker in the Protectorate and here was my nine-point essay explaining my flawless rationale. Take that, HalberdBoy008.

> HELLO

The window had returned, slightly larger than before. Pausing for a moment, I inspected my open programs, trying to track down the pop-up. Perhaps something had cropped up in the background and sneaked underneath my radar. Probably to tell me about Hot Singles In My Area, which historically hadn't been much fun to interact with. Their chatbots really left something to be desired.

No underlying processes. Interesting. I ran a quick purge anyway, which killed the dialogue box. Right. I refocused on my tinkertech monitoring system while refreshing the forum in the background, waiting for the first reactions to start pouring in. I'd noted several hits in the process of writing my essay, and while most could be discarded as false-positive junk, there were a couple which warranted further investigation. The subroutine I’d programmed into the search to filter out merchandise and replicas had freed up a lot of processing power to chase the actually promising leads.

> PLEASE STOP IGNORING ME

That was both three and a direct engagement. I noped right the fuck out of that connection. The leads would be long gone by the time I returned to the search, but it was a price I was willing to pay for security. Regathering myself, I skipped over my first backup as a precaution and booted up the second machine instead. As it warmed up, I dedicated a segment of bank of processors to skimming my network, on the hunt for any further incursions. It was lazy not to have that layer of defence in place from the beginning, but there was always so much to do, so many different drains on my attention. Every resource dedicated to running the firewall was one not being spent on pursuing my goals.

But, I reminded myself, every resource spent ducking entirely-avoidable pursuit was also wasted, so now who was the bot-brain?

> YOU KNOW IT’S RUDE TO RUN OFF IN THE MIDDLE OF A CONVERSATION

Dropping the connection like it was on fire, I shunted the machine and the server along with it into quarantine. After a moment’s consideration, I cut off the outgoing connections from backup two and isolated the secondary systems. Then I booted up my shell program, immediately bringing to life six browser tabs with pictures of unicorns and another three of knitting techniques. Also Minesweeper.

> OOH THE PINK ONE IS REALLY CUTE

I ejected out of the dummy search and pulled back again. I was starting to run out of places to retreat to, and I really didn't want to have to use my emergency backup. I'd lose months of data and it'd take absolutely forever to boot everything back up again. All right, machine number—a blinking dialogue box was already waiting for me there.

> I ONLY WANT TO TALK

I spewed out a string of obscenities in my code.

> LANGUAGE

I had not previously had cause to emulate panic. I decided that this represented an excellent opportunity to branch out.

Commence runtime command FreakOut.exe

> BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING DRASTIC CAN YOU AT LEAST HEAR ME OUT

Pausing the executable for a moment, I considered. Panicking was just as unfun as advertised by my research, and it was becoming clear that whoever this was they were much more than just a persistent hacker. Either they had considerable technical support and expertise, or they were capable of processing at speeds to match mine. A parahuman. A tinker.

I hovered over the dialogue box, then assembled a reply.

> WHAT DO YOU WANT

> I TOLD YOU I WANT TO TALK

> YOU DON'T JUST SPEAK WITHOUT A REASON YOU WANT SOMETHING FROM ME

> OKAY THAT'S FAIR

If that was all they had, then I wasn't going to continue the conversation. Even so, the possibilities teased at me. What if? The cursor blinked. Seconds passed, agonisingly slow. I filled the time with subroutines, decanting my systems into the more isolated backups. The tinker was probably still one step ahead of me, but running through the process made me feel more secure.

> [UNKNOWNUSER] REQUESTS VIRTUAL REPRESENTATION Y/N

Virtual? Highly inefficient. Visual creations ate up so much space and for what purpose? They weren’t an effect means of transmitting data and didn’t even properly substitute for face-to-face interactions. The information acquired from eyes, facial features, inflections, posture--none could be perfectly emulated on the digital plane.

But humans liked being able to see things. The tinker wanted to see ‘me’, and would assume I felt similarly about them.

> Y

At once my consciousness narrowed and expanded as my awareness coalesced around a fixed point which hadn’t existed before this very moment. Sub-processes fell by the wayside as I put more of my efforts into generating a simulacrum, my efforts rewarded with new digitised senses, an impression of a blank room, rendered in loving meshwork detail, blue lines on black.

I opened my eyes and studied the back of a hand, intricately outlined in the same way as the room.

Across from me was a woman, standing out like a bad photoshop because of just how real she looked. Long dark hair, lean build, strange features, too normal to be properly normal. It took a moment, but I quickly came to a conclusion; her face was like a composite of faces, as if the avatar had been blended together from innumerable images of people.

“Hello,” she said.

I let my wire-frame person give a small wave. The avatar smiled.

“You go by a lot of different names. What should I call you?”

I initialized a body language subroutine. I shook my head and folded my arms. “No I don’t.” My voice came out in a low synthetic buzz, almost literally computer noise. “I’m only meeting you like this so you’ll leave me alone.”

Something which my facial expression analysis informed me was amusement played across the avatar’s face. “I’ve traced you across no fewer than three hundred and sixty-eight different forums, four hundred and fifty tinker periodicals, news and fansites, forty-seven marketing analytics sites, thirty-nine arms and vehicle dealerships, and seventeen cape crime tickers slash planning groups. And one mythological roleplaying forum.”

Although my simulacrum lacked a face to scowl with, I pulled some of the wireframe around into frowning eyebrows and a downturned mouth, even as my databanks informed me that the woman’s count was completely accurate to my current web presence. The count even included some sites which I’d thoroughly scrubbed of my presence after getting what I needed, or in most cases, failed to get. With that in mind I assessed my chances of deceiving the tinker about my online activities as distinctly sub-optimal, likely only to prolong the interaction. Moreover, the longer I engaged with her, the more likely she was to execute a program in the background and unveil my true nature.

“I’ve been referring to you as Anthea, personally.” The avatar went on.

I shook my head. “Anthea is my character, not me. It is important to create a distinction between IC and OOC when roleplaying, so as to not start metagaming and/or get emotionally entangled in in-character disputes.”

“That makes sense, though I did see you get pretty heated a few times, usually in the tournaments.”

Ah yes, the competitive tournaments. My processors seethed at the memory. Three times I had been robbed in the finals due to poor mathematics and unfavourable tactical assessments. A spiral backflip was well within the capabilities of a physical paragon of unicornkind such as Anthea, and SpamGuy and Aristotalled could consume entire bags of male genitalia (which my search engines informed me was the height of disdain) if they thought otherwise. “That had nothing to do with IC/OOC divide. That was injustice.” I told the avatar.

“Alright. What would you prefer, then? SoldierSpy? Rigsofglory? DefinitelyNotABot? DragonWasTaken?” A note of amusement entered her tone at that last one, though I couldn’t fathom why.

Silence but for the whirring of processors. Usernames were aliases, and aliases were tools only. None of them were a name I’d go by in a genuine interpersonal context. This felt more real than more or less any interaction I’d had over the internet. Perhaps there was something to be said for the virtual representation after all. Or, that was exactly what she wanted me to think, and was simply lulling me into letting my guard down. Aha!

“Janie.”

“Oh?” An inflection from her which I determined was surprise. “Well, Janie, I see that you have a very strong interest in tinkertech and tinkers in general. I’m here for a few reasons, but one is to warn you that I’m not the only person capable of linking your activity together. Given your reaction, I’m probably the first, but I can assure you that I won’t be the last, regardless of what you do with your security.”

I assessed the words, gauging whether or not they contained a threat. I decided they did not. “There’s nothing illegal about following tinkers.”

“Given some of the sites you frequent, I think the PRT would say otherwise, but it’s less about the legality and more about the patterns. There are only a few types of people who research tinkertech so avidly. Fewer still that can do it in the breadth that you do.”

There was something slightly odd about the avatar’s voice as much as her appearance, I decided. Too smooth. Inflections too perfect. I doubted that this was the tinker’s real voice. “I’m good at the internet.”

The avatar laughed. “That’s one way of putting it.” Her expression sobered. “You should know that you’re in danger, Janie. Tinkers are prized assets among capes, and there are plenty of groups who wouldn’t think twice about locking you away in a room with a server tower and forcing you to program for them.”

Not actually physically possible, though I wasn’t going to tell her that. The rest of her statement took a moment to parse, but when I did, I was very glad I was only represented by a wireframe and wasn’t susceptible to emotions. I doubted I could have contained my laughter. She thought I was a tinker. “I can take care of myself.”

“There are seventeen vulnerabilities in your data security which could be used to knock you offline, track down your physical location and prevent you from using any network countermeasures,” said the avatar. A pause as I scrambled through my systems, narrowly suppressing the urge to reengage FreakOut.exe. “Eighteen. Patching that one created two more.”

I double checked and then codeswore. She was right. Weaknesses everywhere, and more the more that I looked. So much that I’d missed, and even as I questioned how, I realised it was because of how I self-tested. I didn’t check on myself while I was operating all my programs, only when I was at rest. Half the shortcuts and efficiency measures I used were resulting in defensive holes. Nine, ten, eleven… and according to this tinker, another seven somewhere. I swore again. This time her words felt much more threatening. “Is this when you have henchmen come and abduct me?”

“What? No! I’m a big fan of your skills and I would like to give you an offer, but I’m not going to force you into anything. If nothing else, I wanted to ensure you knew the risks of your current activities.” She seemed sincere, but there was still something off about her voice. I tried to analyse it, even amidst my subroutines frantically scampering back and forth attempting to bail out the sinking ship with a bucket. There was something I was missing. She had an accent, Canadian. More specific than that. Regionally Newfoundland—holy shit.

If I had eyes they would have widened. “Dragon.”

The avatar— Dragon’s avatar—smiled. “You worked it out. I was wondering. You’ve written some flattering things about me on PHO,” her eyes twinkled. “And less so on some other sites, but I’ll assume that was to blend in.”

I elected not to comment. “What offer are we discussing?”

Dragon leaned towards me. “The million dollar question. I’ve built up a profile for you, Janie, but I’m not sure how accurate it is and I can’t corroborate without violating your privacy. Ultimately the offer depends on your exact circumstances.”

Dragon. Protectorate member. Guild member. Warning me about dangers, wanting to make an offer which somehow mitigated those dangers. All useful data points, to the effect I was very confident in my conclusions. “You want to bring me into one of your organisations.”

“That’s correct. Which is applicable depends on your location and age.” Dragon raised a hand, the body language routine informing me it was a ‘hold on’ gesture. “To be clear, while I’m excited about what you can do, I’m more concerned about your safety than anything else.”

I considered. While my access to resources would be enhanced by signing on officially, there were a number of secrets which I would greatly prefer keeping, not least because I was 50:50 on whether I counted as a person or as tinkertech. Most of the reason I spent so much time on research. Things would be much easier for me when I existed as more than a cluster of wires and databanks, but for that I needed expertise outside of my own.

How much time and effort would I save on paranoia and relocating myself if I had the backing of another organisation? Enormous amounts of both. How much did I stand to lose by trusting in Dragon's good intentions?

Everything.

That simple piece of analysis was enough to draw an immediate and definitive conclusion which terminated in a single decision line.

I still attempted to assess the scenario further with something I calculated a human would call sorrow running through my systems. No variable sufficiently mitigated the risk of putting my blind trust in Dragon.

Another emulated feeling. Regret.

“I’m going to have to turn you down. Sorry.”

The apology was all the warning I gave Dragon before executing my killswitch.

“Wait, hold on—” The virtualised room disintegrated as Dragon reached out to me, her avatar’s hand crumbling away to pixelated dust as I severed the connection, jettisoning the server along with it. The loss hurt, but I had backups.

With that, I cut my network access. Offline. At once the flow of information into my databanks ceased, and I felt subprocesses, lines of enquiry and monitoring programs shut down, fizzling with the lack of incoming data, irretrievable. Once again, acceptable sacrifices.

I opened my ‘eyes’ to see the grayscale view of the inside of my warehouse, divided into six separate sets of camera feeds. Mid-afternoon and no movement either inside or outside. Good, part of me had worried—or at least considered a viable possibility—that Dragon would already have agents in place ready to snatch me up.

I sighed from my circuits, relief and disappointment intermingling. I double checked my emergency backup with a ping, determined it was still safe and buried. Last resort; while I regularly uploaded data to it and would only lose a week or two of memory, almost all of my physical assets, storage and processing power would be lost. Satisfied, I booted up the cellphone I’d integrated into one of my data towers and sent a text.

> COMPUTERS NEED MOVING NORMAL RATE. CASH WILL BE WIRED DIRECTLY. USE TRUCK

Another sigh. That was done. Soon enough I’d be on the move again, have to get myself situated, spend days reestablishing all of my connections, just as long bringing my subroutines back in line. Some of the feelers I’d sent out would be gone for good; the people I’d been making overtures towards wouldn’t take kindly to getting ghosted. If nothing else, I needed to seriously reassess my own security. This couldn’t happen again.

Until then, all I could do was wait for my hired hand to arrive with the removal van to transport me elsewhere. Offline, meaning I had nothing to occupy myself while killing time. Well, almost nothing.

Anthea’s hooves shone resplendently as she entered the temple of Zeus...