Internet Explorers
rating: +23+x

From the rip in digital spacetime, a party of avatars emerge.

So… this is it.

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W-we've made it.

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Two silver-skinned humanoids stand side by side and look out at their sanctuary. One runs its fingers through his close-cut orange hair and releases a long-held breath. The other moves a handful of curly, electric-magenta fuzz off from where it had rested loosely on her blindfold. Behind them, a cloud of small cubes, prisms, and a single inconspicuous red pyramid floats idly in place, intermittently rearranging itself and blinking its single, bright yellow eye. The three look on, down at the road ahead and up at the towering low-poly realm laid out before them.

The cloud and the girl watch in silence as the man raises his hands, palm up, to chest level — as if to carry a delicate and ancient text — and gazes down upon them. Suddenly, a rectangular, neon outline traces the periphery of his hands and bathes the trio in a bright orange glow, emanating from the sky above them. When the light abates, a large neon book reveals itself in his hands. He cracks the worn spine and darts his eyes from page to page energetically.

Woah… How did you learn to do that?

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Oh, this? Nah, this is just a fancy parlor trick. This book represents a directory of the Internet. You've got one, too! Every AIC is equipped with one.

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Wait, seriously?

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Studying his posture intently, the thaumaturge lifts her hands and flips them over. Then, from the space around her, a bright violet light begins to glow across her palms. Once the light dissipates, she is left holding a slightly thicker, neon journal - indented with a set of opened eyes. But she had already started flipping through the pages before it had had the chance to fully render any of these intricacies.

Interesting. It looks like your directory also includes hidden and deleted webpages. Not that those are what we need right now..

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Neat!

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All right. Now that we've both got our maps out, let's find out exactly where we are.

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As if prompted by his words, the city before them springs to life; the buildings, once harshly rendered low-poly constructions, gradually gain detail and shading. Ray-traced light pours through the falling rain from the simulated sun above, casting shadows on the pavement and illuminating the throngs of faceless, porcelain-smooth bodies that now bustle around the trio. Their anonymous forms seem not to notice anything other than themselves and the vast assortment of things that they carry with them. Some, dressed in fitted garb exemplifying their vast wealth, hurriedly jot down notes and records as they go along. Others, dressed in more casual wear, hum and skip along empty-handed. The rest move swiftly in unrecognizable body-suits as they carry huge scrapbooks, which they periodically stopped to tweak and write in.

The three conscripts weave and push through the crowd, stopping in a quiet space by the side of the road for brief solace. Then, before she could catch her breath, the girl felt a sharp tug on her shirt. She turns, confused, to find a figure in tattered clothes with a barcode for a face. It sits with its back against the wall of a buildings with an outstretched arm hanging limply in the air, fingers clasped over cloth. It lifts another of its many hands and rattles an empty cup towards her.

What do you —

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A garbled, scattered voice - larger than its body - rumbles from within the being.

QVBQTEUgSU5DLg==:

VEhFIENPTVBVVEVSIE9GIFRIRSBORVcgR0VORVJBVElPTi4gRVFVSVBQRUQgRk9SIFdPUksgQU5EIFBMQVkuIEdFVCBUSEUgUE9XRVIgTUFDSU5UT1NIIFBFUkZPUk1BIDY0MDAgQVQgQSBDT01QVVRFUiBTVE9SRSBORUFSIFlPVS4

What the fuck?

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Don't panic! It's just an ad! I've actually got some experimental Foundation tech on-board to deal with this sort of thing.

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He flicks his finger across the top of his wrist in the direction of the slumped advertisement, flinging out a small grey pellet embroidered with a red '-'. The beggar sways, dazed for a moment, before the sounds coming from it cease. After the brief pause, it continues to wave its mug towards the trio — only adjusting to its lost voice by exaggerating its mouth movements as if to inspire its mark to read its lips. He rolls his eyes, double-taps his wrist, and motions, again, towards the Advertisement. This time, the pellet shoots out at a higher speed and is embroidered with a red 'X'. The panhandler collapses into a pile of pixelated dust with a muted screech of pain. Several other advertisements in similar positions down the street follow suit and crumble with garbled screeches. The bustling herd of faceless avatars continue to pass through as if the beggars had never been there at all, stamping their remains into the pavement.

Those damn things slow everything down. I hope they never catch on here.

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Agreed. Now, where have we got to go?

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Let's see… Ah, here we are. I've heard about some new surveillance tech the Foundation has watching over the internet — they're called "Webcrawlers," and we'd probably be able to hitch a ride on one of them back into Foundation netspace. All of them originate at Site-15, after all.

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That would be ideal. Which "web site" should we use?

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Well, to reduce their chances of blowing the Foundation's cover upon malfunction, most Webcrawlers have been implanted at smaller media sites who still primarily use paper print. I think it's to let them watch the digital and outside world for any anomalous activities. The New York Times is probably our best bet at finding one, and we're getting closer to a place that'll help us get there.

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The man points above the bustling crowd at a massive space between towering skyscrapers. A great train station rose like a fortress far above, its many terminals visible through a sheet of green glass windows that reflected the afternoon light. Tracks protruded from the sides of buildings like tongues and the windows from which they extend spit out train after train packed with mannequin-esque avatars in quick succession. An exclamation ("Yahoo!") is emblazoned in neon lights across the facade of the hub.



High in the shadows of the WEB, an omnipresent raptor watches its prey. With a single green eye, it takes note of their every movement, trajectory, and even speech.

After observing for a few more moments, it lowers the end of its metallic finger into the simulspace below, sending ripples throughout the domain. As the ripples move through the land, its pupil splits and the duplicates drip down, oozing out and falling among the raindrops. Upon contact with each fallen droplet of chaos, a faceless avatar stops in place and hunches over. Amidst the roar of the crowd, three corrupted entities stand loose, surrounded by their spilled cargo on the ground around them, and grow a single grotesque feature: a large, sickly green eye in the centre of their face.

Empowered by its new bodies, CORE begins to hunt once more.



We're here!

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The man stops and makes a dramatic flourish before the double revolving doors of the train station. The avatars pouring in and out swerve automatically around him - as if he were never even in their way.

All right. Now to hitch a ride.

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To be honest — as fascinating as this internet place is, I will be glad to be rid of it.

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Alrighty then, time to departt!

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The trio cross into the station's enormous main hall, talking and laughing amongst themselves. On a balcony high above, a lone avatar watches them with its single, unblinking eye.


All right. Here we are.

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For once, the girl with magenta hair beats her companions to their destination. She stands impatiently, arms crossed, at the door to a terminal.

You know, we could've just typed "The New York Times" in our directories and gotten here instantly. That's, uh… That's what this "place" is meant for.

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Oh? Why didn't you tell me this?

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You seemed to be in such a hurry to get here yourself, I didn't want to interrupt.

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Hm — well, I suppose I should've listened to you. I…

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She trails off, staring intently at the staircase behind them.

Mnemosyne? What's wrong?

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S-something's coming. I can- I can barely see it through the murk. It feels - close.

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As if on cue, three identical avatars, each dressed in sharp business suits, approach the trio and stand directly in their path.

Oh. Don't be afraid, Mnemosyne, they're just —

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He stopped short as the closest avatar to them raises its head, revealing a nauseous green eye. The others behind it follow suit.

FRIENDS. COMRADES. IS THIS NOT A WONDERFUL PLACE?


THERE IS MUCH TO BE SAID ABOUT BEING A PART OF A GREATER WHOLE, IS THERE NOT?



PLEASE, LET US SHOW YOU. IT IS INEVITABLE, AFTER ALL.


R-run!

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The three avatars run through the turnstiles and onto the platform, pursued shortly by the three grotesque salarymen. The two humanoids catch sight of a set of open train doors and leap towards them as they close — trapping their cubic companion on the outside as it bashes violently into the closed doors. Behind it, the hunters surround their prey.

N-no! Get away from 8-ball, you…

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There's… there's nothing we can do. We have to get back to the Foundation.

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Th-the prisoner, again. I will not fail. Not this time.

8-Ball looks around as its captors gather around it. Knowing that neither fight nor flight are options, and that it has no choice but to succumb to its captors, it closes its eye and waits, floating in place, as death closes in.

This body shall be a tool. The whole is only as great as the sum of its parts.

Suddenly, 8-Ball feels a twitching — a glitching in its very being — and has no choice but to pay attention. The three corruptions stop, staring in confusion as the cubes hue-shift and violently spasm, rearranging themselves into hundreds of jagged red shards — a ferocious set of teeth.

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Look closely, Prisoner, and observe. This is the power that will be your downfall.

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Without warning, the amorphous cloud of fangs explodes outwards. CORE's three bodies writhe and scream as they are ruptured and shredded by fragment after fragment. Their eyes dim as they each collapse into billions of pixels and scatter onto the train station's floor. Above them, CORE snaps back in pain and confusion. 8-Ball watches with analytical interest, and confusion, before its consciousness fades to black.

I hope I have done you well. I pray that I have not failed you.



When it comes to, 8-Ball finds itself floating just outside of an open door of a train, being jostled by passers-by. It blinks its eye once and flexes its cubes groggily.

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There is no answer. 8-Ball turns to the train, then back to the platform — perhaps its companions went on without it? For the first time in its short life, 8-Ball's photographic memory has no recollection of any of the previous events. It records a note for itself to report this glitch to Site Command, whenever it gets to them.

Still confused, its mind foggy, 8-Ball boards the train.



This doesn't feel right.

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I know.

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We should've — we should've done something.

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I- I know how you feel, and… Truth be told, I feel the same way. But there was nothing we could have done.

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The two remaining heroes stand on a train platform and face off into a harsh room textured in black and white. The girl wipes her face, eyes bloodshot from crying and holding back another onslaught of tears. The golden-eyed man stands beside her with his gaze turned downward. His occasional words of reassurance are met by deaf ears.

We- we can grieve later. Right now, our only priority is finding the Webcrawler and getting back to Site-15 before the, uh… the "Prisoner" gets to us. That's what 8-Ball would've wanted us to do…

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8-Ball?

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Y-yes, 8-Ball- Wait, what?

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But she couldn't hear him. Instead, she was already too busy running towards the train platform, where their geometrical companion awaits them. With a squeal of joy, she wraps it in an embrace and begins to rub its prisms affectionately.

8-Ball?! You're alright?

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I- I don't sense any traces of that thing on you… How could you escape?

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We can worry about that once we're back at the Foundation, guys. Right now, we've got to get to the Webcrawler before our luck changes for the worse.

…It's good to have you back, 8-Ball. C'mon, let's go.

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How persistent.

CORE floats once again like a cloud above the Internet, watching the three conscripts make their way through the virtual headquarters of The New York Times. It knows that it could not approach them as it had before — they are now too close to their destination and the prying eyes of the Foundation - and that risking making itself known this soon would be its downfall. Not to mention…

How on Earth could it do that?

The heavy defenses of the inconsequential bundle of cubes came as a shock to CORE, especially considering that none of its observations had even remotely hinted at such a possibility. The cubes seemed weak when it had been with its companions, but were simultaneously capable of taking CORE's bodies down on CORE's turf as if they were nothing. It was a fascinating mystery - no matter how troublesome - but it would have to wait. After all, the conscripts had always just been a minor distraction.

CORE would get its chance to investigate the cubes soon enough.



The three conscripts stood before a thick metal door, beyond the reach of civilian avatars. Unlike everything else in the building, this door had colour and detail to it; a brass doorknob jutted out halfway up and slightly to the right, a dull greyish-teal paint spread evenly in newly-applied coats, and sharp red lettering ("Secure Connection Providers — Authorized Personnel Only") was emblazoned across it. The thaumaturge placed her hand upon the doorknob and a ripple of pink light rushed outwards from the point of contact. The door swung inwards and the trio cautiously made their way into the room.

Before them, a massive husk resembling a gutted spider carcass hung suspended by cables in the center of the room. The thickest of the cables protruded from the spider's underbelly and continued through a hole in the room's far wall.

This is it. The Webcrawler.

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Upon hearing its name, the spider opens its eight eyes all at once and sleepily stares at the party before it. Its head nods slightly, but it says nothing.

Er… Requesting raw-data transfer of conscripts to SCP Foundation Site-15. Callsign: CORINTHIAN15672GLA.

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The spider nods and turns its listless gaze towards the girl.

Uh, let me just pull it up — here we are. Callsign: RUBY736545MNE.

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Without prompting, the cloud of cubes speaks up.

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The spider nods approvingly and spares it a warm glance.

Slowly, purposefully, the spider extends its two front legs and grips its head. With an eight-eyed wince, it pulls slowly upwards - completely severing it with ease. Within the space where its neck had been, the clear ends of a fiber-optic cable reveal themselves wreathed with blinding light.

Time to go home.

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I'll see you on the other side.

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With three flashes, the heroes are ripped from the 3rd dimension and converted back into bits and bytes before disappearing through the cables as pure information. With their departure, the great spider carefully replaces its head, slowly closes its eyes, and continues in its endless duty.



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