White. White walls, white ceiling, white floor. They were white because they had no texture, no color, almost no properties at all beyond their orientation. They had size, at least, six rectangles defining a space. They didn’t really enclose one, though. Enclosing implied an inside, which in turn meant an outside; there wasn’t an outside in which anything could exist. Where did that put this space, though? If there was no outside, then where were we? We existed, and yet we existed in a finite space. An inside, with no outside. Thirty thousand cubic meters of empty space, surrounded by absolutely white walls; that had been the universe, for the last twenty minutes.
Into that space, though, something had just entered that clearly didn’t belong. It was… I couldn’t tell what it was. One corner was squared, sharply, like a building block. The opposite faces were irregular, rippling and jerking like some kind of living thing. Its surface shifted colors rapidly, along with its shape, though the three edges of it remained consistent. Fragments grew and shrank in the air, fingerlike projections or completely separate objects that vibrated slowly before fading out or merging with the underlying structure. It didn’t even announce itself; one moment it wasn’t, and the next it was, letting out chirps and warbles seemingly at random.
“So what is it?” Imogen asked, her paws on her hips. “More to the point, where’d it come from? I thought you said this place was closed.”
“It is,” I insisted. I hesitated a moment, then added, “It was, anyway.” I opened my hardline and scanned through menus, looking for intrusions or malware, but each check came back clean. “I’m not seeing anything. Giri, any ideas?”
The fox shook his head, his tail lashing behind him. “I have checked it twice; even with your added permissions, it has no properties, no structure. It does not actually exist.” He scowled. “It reminds me uncomfortably of the FutureShock.”
I nodded at that. “Yeah, but Jules isn’t here, and he did the real hackery on that place.” I looked back at Imogen. “Let people know we’re poking at it, but truth is I don’t know.” I glanced at Giri, but the fox shook his head. I sighed; I wanted to tell her more, but Giri was right to advise against it.
The mouse nodded, then walked back towards the group she’d been addressing before. “C’mon, folks. Let’s go somewhere else and let these guys work. C’mon, everybody, make some room. Soon as these guys have things figured out, they’ll let us know.” She motioned, and despite the collective groans of about a hundred weary people, they rose and began to shuffle away, towards another part of the space. Before they’d even gotten a few steps, though, Imogen was back into her story, and it sounded like the others sank quickly back into the rapture of her narratives.
As soon as Imogen’s voice was down to a murmur, I looked back at Giri, voice low. “Any clue? I’m at a loss.”
Giri shook his head again. “The server is failing; that much is certain. Could this be a side effect?”
I stared at the shifting block and shrugged helplessly. “I have no idea. I can hack a bit on back-end stuff, but my job was always front-end components. Aesthetic, not functional. I’d need somebody like Jules or Briar for details, and even they might not know.” I sighed. “I’m afraid this is out of my league.”
The fox stared intently at the shifting image, a frown spreading on his muzzle. “It is growing.” He motioned with one paw to the object. “It has a second corner now.”
I looked where he indicated, tailtip hooking in frustration. “You’re right, it does. That still doesn’t tell us what it is, though.”
“You know as much as I at this point,” Giri said. “I would have to do a deep dive to determine more, but I am not sure I would know what I am seeing. It does not appear to have definition, yet it is there. It is not anything, yet it exists. And it is still growing.”
I watched with fascination as a square, about a foot per side, slowly filled the space. The chattering and clicking that it emitted changed in timbre, and the shapes that it filled rapidly took on the edges and corners. It looked almost as though someone were pouring luminescent, light-and-sound-reactive goop into an invisible mold that hung perfectly still in the air. It ratcheted up to the top of the space, and then, as if meeting an invisible lid, it leveled itself and then formed a perfectly shaped rectangle, about four inches tall.
As if cued by its completion, a shout rang out across the space. Heads turned, and Giri and I broke into a sprint towards the voice. Imogen beat us to the site and was already asking questions of a visibly-upset black cat as we approached. “What is it? What happened?” She spread her drawl thick, resting a paw on the other girl’s shoulder. “It’s okay now. Everything’s gonna be—” She stopped, then followed the cat’s pointing finger to a space in front of her in which letters and numbers hung in midair. “Ah, hell.”
“It just showed up out of… hey, is that my—” She stopped, as the block started to echo her speech, but a scant moment before she spoke, as if it knew what she was about to say. The same words scrolled in space, in a vivid violet, starting cleanly at one point then disappearing off raggedly off of another. Perpendicular to that, code fragments flickered. The area between them filled in rapidly as the cat spoke. “What’s it… it’s writing down what I say!” She looked at Imogen, then me. “Why’s it—it’s hard to… to talk with… with that. How is it… doing that?”
“I have no idea,” Giri said, spacing his words evenly. His words showed up a deep blue calligraphic script. “I find this even more disturbing, though.”
I nodded. “Me, too. It’s like it’s—” My own speech came out in angular gold text, blocky and monospaced. “It’s… reading out of the—” I stopped, head snapping to Giri.
The security expert’s head canted to the side. “What? What is it?”
Imogen leaned forward and adjusted her pince-nez. “Yeah, you look like—” I made a quick cut-it gesture, dragging my paw across my throat, and she snapped her jaws shut, her teeth clacking audibly; the sound showed up as a splat of red in the air.
I put a finger over my muzzle, then motioned for Giri and Imogen to follow me. They exchanged glances but did so, stepping away from the fresh distortion. I looked back at the block of text, then squinted and whispered, “Test, test.” It flickered as I spoke, and I sighed, returning to full volume. “Damn, never mind.”
“What?” The word was simultaneous from three muzzles. A cacophony followed as they sorted out who spoke next, but Imogen easily overpowered both of the others. “Don’t leave us hanging, John. What is it?”
I pointed to the space as it swelled. “It’s a chunk of the speech engine. It’s… it’s how the graphics engine is rendering the speech engine.”
Imogen and the cat just blinked in confusion, but Giri’s eyes shot open in shock. “Are you sure?”
I nodded. “Pretty sure. I can’t think of any other way it would be getting that information.”
Imogen held up a paw. “You two lost me at ‘chunk,'” the mouse said. “Try again, in English.”
Giri jammed his paws into the pokets of his coat. “If John is correct—and I hope he is not—it is… a piece of the underlying software that another piece, the display system, is attempting to render.”
“Okay, I get that,” the mouse said slowly. “But why? And what’s so bad about that?”
I looked at Giri, then back at Imogen. “It’s… listen, this plan… the server can’t hold everybody on here right now. I deleted everything I could, but I’ve still got more people on here than my development box can sustain at the same time. Everything we do, it all takes memory. Computer memory. Every thought, every action, it’s all computer code. It takes memory to execute, to tell who’s doing what. We’re running out of it. It’s—” I barked a laugh. “It’s the only limited resource we have… and we’re running out.”
Imogen blinked and canted her head to the side. “How do you run out? Nobody new is showing up. Nobody’s running anything, right?”
Giri shook his head. “It is not so simple. There must be a time delay between when a bit of memory is allocated to record that someone has done something, and when the bit that marked the past state is freed, to ensure that all systems have the new state. The more people, the more things are present, the more complex the interactions, the longer delay that must be to ensure safety.”
I nodded at the fox. “Jules explained it to me once, but he’s the genius on this stuff. The short form is that the system’s out of memory, and it’s out of backup memory, and there’s nothing left for it to use to store people’s actions… so it’s using whatever memory it can.”
The cat blinked. “You mean it’s…” She looked back at the block of code, then burst out, “It’s bigger! Oh my god, it’s… there’s another one!” Her finger shot out suddenly, and I followed it to another patch of flickering graphics hanging in mid-air, some distance away.
I groaned. “It’s run out of everything else, so it’s using this space. And because it is, everything that happens on the back-end that shows up is rendering, and we’re all seeing it, so it’s changing the environment that much faster!” I looked at Giri. “This… this beats the Beni hack, by a long shot.”
Giri smirked. “I believe this is where Mitsuko would say, ‘oh, hai.'”
Imogen put a paw on each of our shoulders. “Okay, bad. What do we do? How do we stop it?”
I blinked. “Stop it? We can’t stop it. Anything we do makes it grow faster!”
The mouse’s eyes hardened, “John, that’s—damnit!” The cat took off at a run, over to a group of people, pointing and jabbering agitatedly at the distortions. They turned, then approached, and the volume spread as their words were echoed, then spread as they went to show others. “I swear, nobody learns around here,” she grumbled, putting her muzzle in her paw. “You and Giri work on this; I’m gonna go stop the deluge.” Then she clapped us on the back and followed the others. “Hey! Hey!”
I tuned her out, then looked back to Giri. “This is going to go to hell fast if we don’t do something. Ideas?”
Giri shrugged. “I do not know. I wanted to understand the way that my world worked, but… now I am not so sure.”
I shook my head, then popped open my hardline. “There’s got to be something.” I started scanning menus. “Change the garbage collection speed.”
The fox shook his head. “Desynchronized actions and corrupted accounts.”
I scowled. “Cache dump.”
He shook his head again. “That would make the problem worse; we want fewer misses, not more.”
“Damnit, Giri, I want help, not—” I caught myself mid-outburst. “Sorry, sorry, this is… stressful. Suspend the whole system, wait for Jules.”
Giri nodded. “I… am unused to being afraid, myself. If we trust that, we should have trusted the rollback. Plus, we have no way to know if he will be able to restore us, regardless of whether he wants to do so.”
“Right. Damnit. I’m running out of options here.” My eyes flicked over hovering menu choices. “What about—” A scream cut me off, followed by another. I turned, then gaped. The cat that had run from the conversation had one paw on her other elbow, shaking and crying as she tried to pull her fist out of a silvery box shot through with multicolored lightning streaks. One person had her by the shoulders and was trying to extract her; another was backing away quickly, then suddenly turned and bolted.
“Help me!” the cat shrieked, blubbering. “Help me, please!”
That was the only spark the room needed. What had been a crowd instantly became a mob, people running in terror from the alien blocks and from each other. Some tried to help; others tried to escape. Of course, with all that commotion, the system needed that much more memory to render it all, and the only place it had left to find it was in here. Alien spires and fractal fragments began to materialize across the universe as the graphics engine seized more memory to try to display what was happening.
I looked back at Giri, eyes hard. “Space partition; cut the ceiling in half, buy us some more time.” The fox didn’t respond. “Giri, I need your opinion here. What about—Giri? Giri, what’re you doing? I told you, no loading!”
The fox had a sword in his paws; I hadn’t seen him with it when he’d arrived. Come to think of it, I didn’t remember him having one, but he held it balanced across his pads, his head bowed. “I… am sorry, John. It is the right thing to do. Please… give my apologies to Briar.”
I blinked. “Giri? Giri, what the hell are you—no! No, no, no!” I ran over to grab the fox by his lapels. “Don’t you dare quit on me!”
He smiled. “This is not abandoning the fight; this is giving you a little more time. It is… fitting. This is the role Tadashiissei wanted me to play, so I will play it. Good-bye, John-kun.” He drew the blade in a graceful arc from its sheath, then turned it in his wrist and, with a solid thrust, rammed its tip into his gut. There was no blood; he must’ve been too conscious of how much rendering power that would take. Instead he just… froze in place. He didn’t even crumple or fall. His body just stopped moving. His eyes were squinted tightly closed against the shock and pain, but on his muzzle was an almost beatific smile, his head upturned and his tail held high.
“Damnit!” I swung at the statue of Giri in front of me, but as my fist came in contact with it, a black square shot with angry red lines materialized around his head, wiping the smile off of his muzzle and catching my fingers in mid-air. “Shit!” I felt my heart leap into my throat as panic tried to set in. Screams and cries filled the spaces around me, interspersed with static and pure-tone beeping. Music rippled across the panel in front of me, notes making the lines wink on and off. A wolf grabbed my arm. Her eyes were gone; in each socket, a pair of luminescent letters glowed. She opened her muzzle to say something, but only the smell of violets and shift right two && call_function(vox, TRUE, #0xA1830128725E); came out.
Make or break(); time. There had to be something I could do. I wasn’t going to let this be LOOKUP_FAIL(memory()); NO_SWAP(memory());. I froze. What wasn’t I going to let this be? I tried to remember what I was going to compare it to, but my mind felt empty. Why couldn’t I think of anything? “Imogen!”
“Little busy, John!” the mouse shouted in response. “Trying to keep the panic down! What is it?”
“Giri’s gone,” I replied .”I can’t think. I need your help.”
The writer snorted; the sound echoed and twisted around itself in grey-brown whorls. “This is your field, not mine.”
I shook my head. “My memory’s corrupting. I need help to call_function(vox, FALSE, NULL);.” Golden letters scrolled across my field of vision. There has to be something we can do. The rollback has to be almost done. We just have to hold out a little longer. The system should resync itself and the database will offload its—”
Imogen threw up her paws. “Don’t have time for this! Just do something!”
Time. Timing. open_menus(admin(TRUE)); Scan down to the system statistics. Find the Irokai services. It is a shame he could not come back, Mitsuko said. Lower priority. Lowest priority. Garbage collection. The scent of rotten eggs, the feel of something unpleasantly moist, and a charnal taste, overwhelming. Highest priority. Less action per time unit. More time for sync. Time.
I had to it would be enough.