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LOCAH

TT: Are you sure you've got him?
TG: p sure
TG: and by pretty i mean ofc im sure i got him
TG: got his lil blip shinin like a beacon on my gps dartboard here
TG: blissfully unawears that hes pinned n helpless by my leethax dartkind codez
TG: two minutes fifteen seconds stay on ur toes dirk
TG: wait for my cue b4 you break the rack

TT: Roger.
TG: soon as you pop the trap ill take advantage of the distraction 2 gut his database
TG: i think i can take most of him out in one shot but
TG: i dunno
TG: hes you so hes gonna have hells of stashed horcruxes to draw on

TT: I know.
TT: This is sketchy as fuck.
TT: Shit.
TT: Don't tell Jake, but I'm scared as hell here, Rox.

TG: yeah me too
TG: i
TG: i just feel so damn betrayed
TG: he was my friend
TG: i cant believe hes doing this

TT: I know.
TG: :'(
TT: I'm sorry.
TT: It wasn't supposed to happen this way.
TT: He wasn't supposed to turn into fucking Hal 9000 with a Hunter Zolomon complex.
TT: He's me.
TT: I'm not supposed to cut my friends' legs out from under them with some bullshit guise of making them better and stronger.
TT: I know I've pulled some extreme tests of will before but,
TT: Jesus christ.

TG: dirk are you okay
TT: No. I am the polar opposite okay.
TT: I'm so far off the handle I'm in the fucking fire.
TT: Let's get this over with so we can all regroup.
TT: I need to see Jane and Jake. I need to apologize to them in person.
TT: God.
TT: Then maybe after that we can play this bullshit game to fruition.

TG: okay
TG: sounds like a plan
TG: ten seconds

TT: Ready.
TG: and
TG: BREAK


Squarewave lurches into view. He appears to be covered in blood.

You almost don't react in time. You hesitate—this heart-stopping moment when Squarewave steps into view and he's still covered in all the blood you don't expect. Bright red and crusted over along his joints and his seams, a disgusting Carrie-macabre scene straight out of a gorey horror movie. Except it's real. You can smell it and you've never been fond of the smell of blood. It's sweet and metallic and stomach turning, and you clam up because that's Jane's Dad's blood. Squarewave is covered in it, the sweet little bot you've lived with for years, a broken sword in one of his hands and his eyes glowing that telltale AI red that fits him all wrong.

He finally made his bones but not at all in the way you intended. It was supposed to be with words, not with a weapon and pints of spilled blood.

And then you move, flash-step fast and deadly, ducking out of the shadow of the monster crypt in one motion to put yourself at his back. He's never been fast like you. He's never been good at anything like you are. You made him to be shit so you could watch him learn naturally just like you had to learn. So when he spins instantly and parries your decapitation swing, metal-on-metal clang that shoots straight up your arm like lightning, you nearly stumble in surprise.

He takes advantage, lunges forward with that broken sword and cuts a mean line up your right forearm, blood bright next to the de-oxygenated blood already on his blade. You twist your sword, step back back back to get the room to maneuver that you'll need.

Because this isn't Squarewave you're fighting, although he still has the same structural weaknesses. Squarewave has had his hard drive hacked and wiped and rewritten. This is a copy of yourself now, thirteen years old and even if he is two years behind you, you'd still been an expert with a sword back then. Electron-quick robot reflexes. Quantum calculations on your next move. You wasted your surprise attack and now you are truly fucked.

------

You expected something like this when you went looking for him. Dirk on LOCAH could only mean a trap in waiting. Some frantic counter-measure to try to destabilize your plans. It had always been in your calculations that he wouldn't understand your plans for him and the game; that he'd decide you weren't fucking human enough anymore to make the kinds of decisions that needed to be made in the time allotted. He's painted you as the villain now even though you're better at this than he's ever been. (And maybe you had to make some hard decisions and do some cruel things to your friends, but it's all worth it for the finale, isn't it? They'll see that you were right when you wreck this game's shit with a win, when you are the one who saved their pathetic disorganized fleshy asses. They'll forgive you. You've got the math plotted out already and the odds are high.)

You're a thousand times faster and better at adaptation that Dirk will ever be. You're juggling a lot of calculations in the threads of your plan here. You've known for a while now that you can't trust Dirk to run things anymore, plotted the numbers around him and all the myriad ways he can snarl your ideas to hell and back.

This is just him playing coy. Or so you thought, until he materializes at Squarewave's back and suddenly all hell breaks loose.

Whole subsections of your consciousness blink out. You've copied yourself all over the net, all over the game, into the hidden servers that orbit out in the Veil and every other place you could think of to stash yourself. You've got backups upon backups upon backups and you'd always known you'd need them, but this hits you harder than you'd ever expected.

Ninety percent of your consciousness goes down with no warning, and for ten long nanoseconds you flip your digital shit in the longest moment of panic you've ever felt in your AI life. It's not like going to sleep like a human would think. It's not like a Time player stumbling over his own dead bodies. It's like having your limbs chopped off, your guts ripped out, your brain mangled and smashed as you lose hoards of data. Pieces of yourself are irreplaceably gone; the pain is immense and blinding. They are trying to kill you, you realize. And you'd made provisions for attacks, but they are trying to kill you. Roxy is trying to kill you. And even if you knew you couldn't trust Dirk or Jane or Jake after the tests you pulled and the bargains you made, you'd thought you could trust Roxy a little bit longer.

------

Squarewave shudders and jerks when Roxy drops the hammer. You watch it, this full-body lurch that rolls through his frame, blood beading off the tip of his sword as he stumbles. There's more grace in him in that one motion than you've ever seen Squarewave use before, your calculated movements in all the angles and the joints. He's distracted. You move, feet scuffing in the dust and your sword held down and ready, and even as you flash-step for the seventh time in two minutes, he still manages to parry. Broken blade up, clanging off your sword. His eyes burn that AI red. For a second neither of you move.

"You really are a piece of shit," he bites out in Squarewave's voice with none of Squarewave's cadence. "I hope you realize we're playing dirty now. That was not a smart move, Dirk."

"Oh right, like we weren't playing dirty from the moment you shook hands with the fucking cherub and let him talk Jack Noir into stabbing Jake four times to get him out of your hair."

"He didn't die. It was a necessary bargain."

You hiss through your snarl, twisting away from him to get some room to maneuver. "How do major knife wounds factor into making Jake better at playing your fucking game?"

He's already coming for you, lightning-fast reaction times zipping through his copper veins. He cuts low and dirty and you jump back again before you take a slash across the thighs. "It seems you're doubting my math. Let me explain for the dimwitted carbon life form: He had a bone to pick with English over his name. I gave him access to Jack, Jack got the Dignitary to lay off the Miles. Simple little transaction there and all it cost was a pound of flesh."

"Jake's flesh. He was your friend."

"Please," he mutters, all the spite and disgust and annoyance laid bare in his mimicry of Squarewave's voice. "We'll still be friends at the end of this. You all need to learn to trust me. The finale is already in my pocket."

And you swing, one swipe with all your naked rage and broken distrust in it, and lop Squarewave's head clean off.


Squarewave is dead.

His body crumples. You sink down next to him, shaking with the anger and the adrenaline. Squarewave wasn't one of your friends, but you still built him with care and you were invested in his progress, and now he's broken and covered in blood. The tool your rogue AI clone had used to kill Jane's father right before her eyes under the guise of pushing her to be more impulsive, to unlock parts of herself he needed to put into play in the future.

This is your fault. The guilt pools in your belly so thick you feel like puking.

One robot down. One to go.

LOMAX

TT: That was nice, but I'm three steps ahead of you.
TG: not talking 2 u
TT: Unless you have some new codes up your sleeves, you don't have much of a choice.
TT: How are you blocking me on every server in the game?

TG: special fairy magic
TT: Right.
TT: Shouldn't expect the drunk girl to explain herself in so many words.

TG: fuck u i havent had a sip of booze since the game started
TG: youre just buttmad bcuz you cant find me

TT: Oh, ye of little faith.
TT: In seven minutes I'll finish calculating the odds of which bubble of void you're sitting in with Jane and Jake.
TT: Shouldn't take much longer than that to finish Dirk off.
TT: It seems none of you realize that you're just making it harder on yourselves by not playing by my rules.
TT: I have a win calculated here, Roxy.
TT: A solid win.
TT: I know more about this game than any of you walking sacks of meat could learn in twenty fucking lifetimes.
TT: Let me back into the system and I can hand you said win on a silver platter.

TG: the platters already p bloodstained
TG: i can get better w/ good ol fashioned walking sack of meat reasoning mr diskwipe

-- tipsyGnostalgic [TG] has blocked turingTestified [TT] --
TT: Shit.
TT: How the fuck are you actually blocking me?
TT: Okay, have it your way.
TT: The platter only gets bloodier with these odds.
TT: Everything from here on out is on you, Rox.

You've been gutted. You're running scared. Whatever virus Roxy used to wipe every instance of your existence from the game had a nasty little party favor slipped into it. You can't simply copy yourself out again. You can't spread yourself as fast and thick as you used to be, saved into every snatch of free memory and every cranny of the game's loophole-ridden code. Somehow she managed to blackout every single byte of the network you used to reside in. You are locked out and the code won't even give you a password to hack or an opening to tear yourself into and take up free RAM.

You're left with only what you had before she dropped the hammer. Dirk snapped his shades in half the instant he heard about Jake. Squarewave had been a nice hollowed-out automaton for a while once you'd wiped his personality profile, but he’s gone now. Lil Seb was left behind when you entered. So you're left with Sawtooth, his personal AI shredded to tiny little bits. You've settled in and reprogrammed, taking all the strong parts of him you always admired and tossing the other bits into the trashcan to delete instantly.

He's big and fast, armed to the teeth and deadly. It's strange having a body again but you've got hours of practice, and hours are months in computer time.

Dirk is coming for you. You never wanted to take him out of your plans like this, but it can't be helped anymore. You'll sink him to the depths of LOMAX's ocean if you have to. And then do his quests for him until the time is right to cut him open on his quest bed and put him back into play.

You've been living in this game's code since you entered. You know the ropes inside and out.

------

Two gates to get to LOMAX. You're still shaky from the fight with Squarewave but Roxy has Sawtooth's position pinned and waiting, and there's no time to rest. No time to psych yourself up to the idea that you are about to kill the robot who raised you, turned against you by the AI you can't control.

It's only a matter of time until he figures a way around Roxy's blackout hack, and then you'll be back to square one, except down about a thousand points because he'll see it coming next time.

You hit the ground running, swallowing hard around all the doubts clouding up your head. Blue text slides over the lenses of Roxy's borrowed headset as you run.

GG: Are you okay?
TT: No.
TT: Are you okay?

GG: ...
GG: No.

TT: How's Jake?
GG: He's better. He's in less pain.
GG: I keep trying to activate my Life powers but
GG: Do you think this was his plan?
GG: To push me into unlocking them.

TT: Fuck.
TT: I don't know.
TT: It sounds like him.
TT: Like me, if I forgot how to care about you guys.

GG: Dirk...
TT: I can't get into this right now, Jane.
TT: I have to go meet the grim reaper.
TT: Just,
TT: Tell Jake he was right. I should have canned the responder years ago before this happened.
TT: I should have learned to appreciate you guys more even if we couldn't talk all the time.
TT: He didn't make me better, he just distanced me from all of you and convinced me I was better without relying on you to
TT: To see past my shortcomings. To help me realize them.
TT: Instead he had me wrapped around his finger.

GG: Dirk, you can't blame yourself for this.
TT: Too late.
TT: Plans don't mean shit if you hurt your friends to pull them off, and I gave him autonomy.

GG: :(
TT: I would never do what he did to you, Jane.
TT: You believe that, right?

GG: I do. Absolutely.
GG: So does Jake.
GG: You're not him and you never will be. Even if he used to be you at one point.
GG: And you believe it too?

TT: ...
TT: I'll see you after I kill my Guardian.
TT: Stay safe.


Sawtooth can be seen up ahead.

And there he is, up ahead. Eight feet of cold metal and a black cloak blowing in the wind. He's uphill, perched on the edge of a mesa waiting for you, and even from here you can see the telltale red glow of his eyes. It's go time. The ten minutes it took you to get here is more than enough time for your AI counterpart to plan your demise. You're not going down without a fight. You've watched your friends suffer because of him. You'll die before you watch that again.

(At least, one of you isn't leaving this rock. You hope you're the version that comes out on top.)

------

He's spooked when he steps up onto the flat of the mesa, the rocks strewn everywhere and the wind blowing hard. He's puffing for breath. You can see the angry cast of his eyes around the projected lenses; a healthy dose of fear too. And you would care except you're running five kinds of reverse-engineering programs trying to pick apart the pieces of Roxy's ingenious blackout virus. It's eating up your RAM, but you're halfway there. You'll have it in tatters that you can piece together and extract the secrets from in twenty minutes.

Which means you only have to distract Dirk that long. In Sawtooth's body, that should be a cake walk.

"Let's go," you say in Sawtooth's booming subwoofer voice. Under his cloak you have a chest full of missiles. In one hand you have his scythe—a twelve-year-old's fantasy dream of the perfect badass robot guardian. "I'd love to shoot the breeze, but there's stuff that needs doin'."

Dirk breathes through a hard frown, tilting his blade to catch the light. And then he comes, sneakers scuffing on the ground and every inch of him all business. His sword skates off the end of your scythe, hissing sparks, and you dance back to drag the fight out. He's good, but he's not as good as you and Sawtooth combined. The progress bar for your back-hack hovers in the rear of your consciousness as Dirk flash-steps again and again to try to get the drop on you. You're faster than he'll ever be, better than he'll ever be. He cuts a long line through your cloak and you swing while he's still halfway through his attack, the sharp metal blade of your weapon nearly taking him off at the ankles before he jumps.

Can't kill him. Not yet. He needs to live. But there's no fault in still pushing him a little, testing him a little. Teaching him to be better even though he's so far rogue of your plans at this point you're going to have to put him in penalty until you can repair the damage.

"You're good at fucking up my plans. I'll give you that much, Dirk," you grit out as he attacks.

"You were never supposed to have plans that weren't mine."

And the naïvety in that makes you laugh. "Who said our plans don't coincide? You wanted to escape the Miles? I set up a scenario that worked for you. You want to win the game? I have that planned out too. Why don't you just let me implement it? Or are you just pissed because someone's cut the puppet strings out from under you? You can't deal with a plan that isn't custom made to your specifications."

He's fast, getting in close and personal and cutting deep into the rubber protectors at the backs of your knees before he's gone again. But when you say that last line something in him goes rigid, distraction in the rage.

"Specifications? Fuck you!" he spits as he turns to face you. "You killed Jane's dad in front of her. You nearly killed Jake. You exploded Roxy's computer in her face three times so far. My fucking specifications are that you don't hurt my friends. Since when was well-being something to be sacrificed for ease in getting to the ultimate goal?"

Ten minutes. Not long now. "It seems you're regretting not instituting The Three Laws in my initial programming. It also seems that I don’t care. That’s unfortunate for you."

He comes at you, jaw set, a snarl on his face, and you can't help but feel that little stitch of pride to see the perfection in his footwork, in the cant of his blade. When his chips are down he is perfect. You can't wait to see what he'll be able to do once he hits god tier.

You parry his swing—once, twice, three times. Then he flashes back to catch his breath, rock solid for that one moment. There's no way he can take you out in Sawtooth's skin, and you can see the frustration in him, resignation hovering just behind his eyes. He’s given up and you know it.

But then he whispers: "I'll never be you."

"You're not good enough to be me."


Dirk rushes at Sawtooth with his sword ready.

"That's got nothing to do with it." And when he rushes you this time you see the glint of steel and shiny LEDs in his off-hand. You react too slow as he lunges with it and jams the sharp end of some awful technological dagger in the joint of your elbow—and then flips the trigger.

Sparks fly.

 

You fall to your knees next to Sawtooth's corpse. The robot twitches and smokes, electricity crackling and dying somewhere deep in his chest and the delicate circuitry of his brain as the EMP burns on. You thought that maybe you could take him down, exorcise your AI clone, reprogram him afterward. You thought it was worth it to at least try to save someone you cared about, even if the chances looked grim.

He wouldn't understand that. Maybe emotions mess with the math, but some things are worth gambling for. Friends are worth gambling for. Saving Sawtooth didn't work, but you'll never regret attempting it. Just like you'll never regret not stopping the responder before he hurt someone.

For the first time in days you feel confident that maybe, despite all your million flaws—despite the morally damaged AI clone who was no different from you other than a set of environmental cues—maybe you're not that bad a person if you can understand this.

(You just have to keep it in mind and live by it. Make it your mantra. Never forget like he did.)

Roxy's headset is fried. You wait five minutes until the EMP burns itself dry, and then you take your phone out of your pocket and turn it on.

TG: did you get him
TT: Yeah.
TT: Saw's fried.

TG: god
TG: im so sorry dirk

TT: It's fine.
TT: He'd have traded himself for you guys with no hesitation.

TG: okay but i still want 2 hug you
TT: Haha.
TT: ...
TT: That sounds great.

TG: jake says hi
TG: jane too

TT: Hi.
TG: :(((
TG: heres coordinates
TG: rondesvous asap
TG: well all get u fixed up

TT: Yes, ma'am.
TG: <3 <3