Kyva rode into town on the Equinox, rounding on the throughway just as Milan finished deconjuring the holospirits. He’d pulled apart each line of code methodically, to ensure no malware could spawn in their wake, and the shimmering whales and bears and wyverns floating over emptied streets had blown away like handfuls of sand. Their soft green light had vanished into the night.
Milan greeted her warmly, invited her back to his yurt for a drink. She agreed, but it soon became clear she hadn’t ridden all this way for pleasantries.
“Come with me, Mil,” Kyva said. “Don’t you want to see the Stream one more time before it goes?”
The Firewall nearly spanned the entire Continent — the Shards were the only unprotected Realm remaining. She wanted him to join her, to journey southwest and close off the Stream for good, together. A fitting end to their story, if not a happy one.
Years ago, during their time modding for the Crown, Kyva had made a similar request.
They had been called north to chase off a pesky botnet, and upon completion, to extend the Firewall. The malware was stronger than Milan had expected and gummed up his connection, but Kyva tracked down the herder and broke its hold on the network with a well-placed bullet.
That night, they made their camp on the pebbled shore of an alpine pond and roasted a few fresh trout over a low bed of coals. Afterward, as the sky deepened to violet, Milan stepped forward to build the Firewall and block off the Stream.
As he raised his hands, a herd of holocaribou, born from errant code collisions in the
Stream, came loping across the sky, antlers streaming bright bits.
“Milan, wait,” Kyva said quietly, taking him by the forearm. “Please, not tonight.”
Milan had honored that request. He nodded, wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her in. Overhead, the caribou shattered, and code swirled free on the fading dusk.
Both requests were born from a love of the Stream, and tonight it had never been more obvious what a selfish love it was. Tonight, years after retiring to the soporific role of a smalltown sheriff, Milan would deny her.
“No,” he said. “I’ve made my peace with it. As should you.”
When they began modding together, there had been no Firewall. All the Crown’s Realms had maintained a raw connection to the Stream’s astral torrent of code, vulnerable to whatever malware spawned in the tumble above. A few, datamancers like Milan and Kyva, could reach into the Stream, handle the wild code and bend it into script-spells. Milan had developed the initial script to raise the Firewall, to separate the Stream and malware from the humans below. The Crown first promised limited use of the spell — to protect cities and highways — but reneged once Milan delivered his complex program. He could either help them execute their plan to cover the Continent, or he could watch their progress from prison.
He had nearly chosen prison.
It wasn’t just malware the Firewall would block. There were once natural holospirits nearly every night, ones that dwarfed the handful Milan conjured for the town’s children from the trace bits trapped below the Firewall. Wild fractals had once appeared alongside sunrise, and data-storms had gathered on the western plains, intricate algorithms mounting within their dark clouds. The Stream brought pain to the world through its malware, but it brought beauty too, if you knew where to look.
After the caribou, a holodragon had formed in the sky, so large its light stung their eyes. When it burst, the sky filled with spirits — wolves, elk, minotaur, songbirds — scattered across the stars.
“Not tonight,” Milan said, voice hardly above a whisper. Later, they made love beneath the menagerie with passion that bordered on desperate.
In the morning, it was done. Milan woke before Kyva, a rare occurrence, and wrought the spell. With stony patience, he dipped into the Stream and filtered through the passing code, grabbing what he needed, cobbling together his script, line by line. When it was finished, he released, and the Firewall expanded overhead. The Stream went silent, dark.
Kyva sat up as soon as he lowered his hands and silently got to work preparing breakfast.
“We should pick up more bacon in town,” she had said.
After Milan’s rejection, Kyva paused on the threshold. “You know, all these years I thought I still loved you.”
Milan appraised her with weary eyes. “If you’d still loved me, you would’ve known not to ask me to join you.”
Kyva nodded, dug out her mittens from a pocket, and left. Through a foggy window, he watched her ride out against thickening flakes, and for a moment wished she would stay.
But it wouldn’t have worked. Together, they knew nothing but a searing ache for a lost world. Together, they could never set aside that burden. Modding, they had staved it off, surging ahead into new Realms and back into the Stream, trying to forget the quiet they left behind. But there was no ignoring it now, no final night to lay beneath the stars and spirits. This time, the only respite was to finish the task, to put down the well-loved dog for the chance to see it one last time.
But Kyva didn’t want to go without Milan, because her love of the Stream wasn’t complete without him. And painfully, the driving force behind Milan’s quasi-exile, without the Stream neither was her love for him.
He knew because he felt no differently. There was no untangling that knot — you could claw at it until your fingers bled, until you had pried off all ten nails, or, he had learned, you could walk away and keep walking until it ceased to hurt.
Months later, news came that Kyva had died fighting in the Shards. It seemed, Milan realized with hollow resignation, there was a third option.