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We live in the Sparkbomb Mansion. This is our story.

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Shattered Rift

Nebiros' wall was covered in pictures and sticky notes. She had dredged up posts, conversations, and role plays that had previously been long forgotten. She had found old pictures and screenshots, including some of her ancient drawings that hadn't been properly destroyed. Years of working alongside Rift had given her insight into things no one else knew. She understood better than anyone the significance of the number three to Sparkbomb's design. She had gleaned details about the Sparkverse that no one but Rift knew. More than these things, she knew the person Rift had been over a decade ago, and she understood how he had changed throughout the years to become the person that was rebuilding the Sparkbomb Mansion now. If there was any insight into Rift's way of thinking, she had it somewhere on the wall in front of her, and she would find the Relics before anyone could so much as say Shaft.

Compiling the data on the wall had taken most of the night, but she couldn't sleep now. A quiet beep from her tablet reminded her that the Random Chat forum would be opening soon. That would be the event of the morning, with everyone rushing into the newly opened room to search for a Relic. Before that, however, Nebiros wanted to test a theory in the parlor.

The stained glass window was beautiful with the sun shining directly on it, but Nebiros spared only a moment to enjoy it herself, letting SparkCam take in its beauty for her. She could enjoy it tomorrow morning. Right now, she was looking for a clue. The night before, she had checked on the Door to Nowhere—that's what she was calling the door in the window of the southeast tower—to see if the time of night or position of the moon had any effect on it. Liz had had the same idea, and the two of them had politely noticed each other in the same way they had before the announcement. Nebiros had considered offering to work together, but she had no idea what the two of them could try that one couldn't do alone. She was sure there would be something, and whoever thought of it would contact the other.

For now, she thought that sunrise might cause something to change in the parlor. She wasn't sure what she expected. Maybe sunlight would focus through the stained glass and onto the dais, or maybe it would reflect off of the dais. The dais was positioned at an angle, curving up from the floor, and Nebiros' eyes darted to the walls and ceiling. If the light was going to reflect off of it, it would light up a part of the wall somewhere above where most people would think to look. However, neither the wall surrounding the stained glass, nor the side of the room opposite her, nor the wall above the elevator, nor the wall behind her gave any indication of a change.

She moved to stand in front of the elevator door. This was the view of the parlor that Rift would have had most often, coming down from the Staff Room, and it was the view that the rest of the community would have least often. Nebiros scanned the walls again, but nothing struck her from this angle either. Slowly, taking each step down the stairs one at a time and pausing, she reassessed her surroundings. Yet each step revealed nothing special, and nothing changed that she could recognize. Once she reached the base of the stairs, she walked over to the dais and looked up at the stained glass.

It truly was beautiful, each piece of glass illuminated by the sunrise. The effort that she and Rift had put into creating it had made her certain, along with the grandeur of the parlor, that a Relic was hidden here. Turning away from it, she looked back at the room. The right side of the room, under the balcony, had a few couches gathered in a semi-circle, and the left side of the room had an open doorway leading into Random Chat. The new forum was open already, and she was late. Taking one last glance down at dais and making a mental note to return to the parlor at noon when the sun would be directly overhead, Nebiros made her way into Random Chat.

Empty booths stood on either side of her, but the sound of gossip indicated that others were out of sight just around the corner. Random Chat was labeled as a cafeteria on the map, but seeing the booths wrapping around its outer edge made Nebiros think of it as a diner. The booths on her right ceased, and the center of the room was filled with a bar. Cel, Kirby, Humming, and Liz had all taken seats at the bar. Behind them, Traj and Star were sitting together in a booth. Bed and Sinical had taken a corner booth on the far end of the room. At first, everything seemed normal, but the fact that no one was searching made it clear that she was even later than she had thought.

The three different groups in the room made it clear that no one had found a Relic. It was no surprise to her, and she couldn't identify anything about the room that was special. No, that wasn't true. Liz was sitting at the corner of the bar, and she was watching something that Nebiros couldn't see. The room formed a U-shape, and Nebiros made her way past the bar to see the last leg of the U. She found Blackjak, fumbling around at a booth that was separated from the others, hidden in the corner of the room beneath the staircase. Nebiros approached him slowly, not meaning to sneak up on him but not wanting to disturb him either.

“I am the wind,” Blacjak said, turning around abruptly and rushing past Nebiros. She stepped sideways to get out of his way, bumping open a door that led to the room behind the bar. Her momentum should have carried her inside, but an invisible force stopped her. Wasting only a moment to wonder what Blacjak had meant, she quickly turned her attention to the door and gave it a push. She could get it to open, to reveal what appeared to be a combination kitchen and stock room, but an invisible force kept her from entering it. In the corner of the room was another door labeled Broom Closet. That triggered something in her memory, some inside joke from a few years prior that she wasn't privy to, but she didn't know what it meant. More importantly, she couldn't get to it to check.

She turned around and investigated the booth Blacjak had been looking at. Nothing appeared to be special about it except for the picture above it and the fact that the booth was separated from the rest of Random Chat. She recognized the picture of two people sitting on a park bench and knew that it was a role play setting. It probably just meant that Random Chat was a place where people could gather and meet. The other possibility, the less likely one, was that Random Chat was much bigger than it appeared.

“When I find a Relic, I'll wish for the Mansion to go boom,” Sinical said with a slight slur, lifting his hands in the air to mimic an explosion. Bed looked at him nervously, and he flinched when Sinical threw his arm out and pointed at him. “Or you know what? Bacon! Bacon's good too.”

Nebiros wondered if she should get involved. Bed certainly looked uncomfortable, and Sinical was being more than a little loud, but the situation didn't seem to be out of hand. She looked around the rest of the room to see if anyone else seemed concerned, and she nearly doubled over with laughter when she noticed Sparkbot behind the bar. It wasn't Sparkbot himself that made her laugh so much as what he was wearing. He had an apron draped over the front of his body, and he was using a towel to clean a glass. Nebiros found herself taking a seat beside Humming.

“What are you doing, Sparkbot?” Nebiros said.

“Mixologybot is taking orders and delivering meals and drinks,” Sparkbot said. Humming laughed and Nebiros giggled.

“He went behind the counter as soon as we got here,” Humming explained. “Nobody had any luck finding Relics, so Sparkbot asked who wanted a meal.”

“There are meals?” Nebiros said.

“Yes!” Celairiel said, seated on Humming's other side. “You can't taste it, but look at how nice these hash browns are.” She held up her plate so Nebiros could see it more clearly. The hasbrowns looked like something out of a commercial advertisement. They also reminded her that she would need to log out and grab breakfast at some point.

“You can order a meal every few hours,” Kirby said, “and you're limited to three drinks with them.” He was holding a simple glass of orange juice. “Everyone tried ordering something different to see if maybe the first person to order a certain meal gets a Relic with it, but so far nothing special has happened.”

“What do you recommend, Mixologybot?” Nebiros said, turning to the robotic bartender.

“Mixologybot's favorite drink is the N.A.T. Oil Shot,” Sparkbot said. “Mixologybot has no preference regarding the meals.”

“The Oil Shot looks scary,” Humming said quietly.

“I'll give it a try,” Nebiros said. Sparkbot set to work, spinning around and grabbing two bottles from the shelf. He pulled out a shot glass from under the bar, and he started by filling it partway with motor oil. Humming and Cel looked horrified, Kirby looked uncertain, and Nebiros simply watched with wonder. Next, Sparkbot cracked an egg and let it fall into the glass. Then he poured from another bottle, adding squid ink to the mix. After a dash of hot sauce, he took a mixing stick and swirled it around the shot glass more quickly than was safe, spilling some of the viscous liquid onto the counter. Finished, he pushed the glass over to Nebiros, who eyed it warily. She passed SparkCam to Humming.

“Here, uh, goes nothing,” she said, taking the glass and downing it in a few gulps. Even though the drink wasn't real, Nebiros couldn't help but wonder what it actually tasted like. Motor oil. Squid ink. Raw egg. Hot sauce. More than all of that, it bothered her how thick it was. How could anyone drink such a thing, even in virtual reality?

Lowering the shot glass back to the table, she waited for some adverse side effect. Perhaps her vision would blur, or perhaps she wouldn't be able to walk straight, or maybe, just maybe, her avatar would pass out on the spot. She waited, and nothing happened. She slowly realized that, repulsive as the drink had been, it hadn't even contained any alcohol.

“Sparkbot, why wasn't there any alcohol in the shot?” she said.

“All of the drinks are non-alcoholic,” Sparkbot said. Nebiros glanced towards the corner booth at Sinical, who certainly appeared to be drunk.

“It seems like the food and drink is just for show,” Kirby said. “It sets the mood.”

“I like it,” Nebiros said, and the other two women nodded in agreement. She swiveled on her bar stool to better face the others, and Humming handed SparkCam back to her. “So nobody's found any Relics yet?”

“Nobody's talking about it if they have,” Kirby said. “We were just discussing how Rift wasn't very clear on what kind of wishes the Relics can grant.”

“If we can get a dance hall, that would be great,” Cel said, looking to the others for agreement. None of them gave a reaction other than polite smiles, and Cel rolled her eyes impatiently. “Controlling the weather would be cool, too. Is it always sunny around here?”

“It always was before,” Nebiros said. She wondered if that would change with the updated software. “What about you guys?” She gestured to Humming and Kirby. “If you could wish for anything, what would you wish for?”

“I'm not really sure,” Humming said. “It's a difficult question, and it probably has to be something that's possible at Sparkbomb.”

“I've never been the wishing sort,” Kirby said. “What about you?”

“No idea,” Nebiros said. “I figure something will come to me if I find a Relic.”

She moved her hand, and a visual interface appeared on the bar. It listed meals and drinks, and Nebiros started scrolling through it. There was a full variety of options: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all available at any time of the day. Thinking of her own stomach, she selected bacon and eggs.

“Nebiros, how would you like your eggs cooked?” Sparkbot said.

“Sunny side up,” she said. Sparkbot went into the back room, but Nebiros could still see him from where she sat.

“I think someone already chose bacon and eggs, if you wanted to try something different,” Kirby said.

“I hear the bacon is good,” Nebiros said. Random Chat was a dead end, at least for now, but she was quickly realizing just how much she missed having the company. Two years away from the Mansion had been too long.

Sparkbot worked quickly, preparing the meal with a speed that was impossible in reality. In under a minute, he had prepared two perfectly cooked strips of bacon and three eggs. He set the plate down in front of her, and she decided that she would take the time to socialize. She needed some time to unwind after thinking about the Relics all night long. While she ate, and as the conversation continued, she couldn't help but feeling that something was going on right behind her. But each time she glanced back, all she could see was Traj and Star eating in silence.

Shattered Rift

The member lounge was filled with couches, giving it a more relaxed atmosphere than even the General Lounge. Nebiros wondered if Rift had designed General Discussion first, creating a more game-oriented atmosphere with tables, relaxed things going into General Lounge, and then gone completely relaxed with the member lounge a floor above it.

A pink wizard's hat stood out from the lighter colors of the room. At first Nebiros mistook the long hair and ponytail beneath the hat as belonging to a female member, but once she could see Bed clearly, faded blue bathrobe and all, she recognized him.

“Decided to go with a new name?” she said.

“Yeah, the old one was getting too popular,” Bed said. His voice was naturally soft, almost too quiet for someone tall, but that didn't bother Nebiros. “I hear you're the official artist now.”

“Something like that,” Nebiros said, wondering once again how she fit into Rift's plan. Maybe he would explain her role during his announcement. “I'm sure Rift wouldn't mind if you wanted to do some drawing from time to time.”

“I don't think so,” Bed said. “Everyone seems kind of critical.”

Nebiros shrugged. She understood that some people felt that way, but she had learned long ago to appreciate drawing for the sake of drawing and for the people that enjoyed what she drew. Except when she saw any of her drawings that were more than a few years old. Those needed to be burned.

“I think the announcement is supposed to be soon,” Bed said. “We should probably head upstairs.” Nebiros nodded her assent, and the two climbed the stairs to the tower. Even though Bed was taller than her, especially so with the several inches the wizard's hat added, his demeanor and slight slouch made him feel shorter than he really was. Both of them felt short inside the tower.

The tower's ceiling rose two stories into the air, and the balcony on the upper half was reminiscent of the parlor. They stood in awe for a moment, Nebiros barely remembering to lift SparkCam to take in the view. Several chairs were set up on the floor of the tower, prepared to seat an audience for the announcement. At the head of the chairs was a podium, no doubt where Rift would give his speech from. Past the podium was the staircase that led to the balcony, and the balcony wove around nearly the full circumference of the tower.

“I've worn this watch since college,” a woman said to Kirby-oh. The two stood talking in the aisle between the chairs. Nebiros could see the woman's name, Celairiel, written in Mansion text in the air above her. Celairiel was someone new, brown hair clipped on the left side of her head and falling just above her shoulders. Her denim jacket covered a black-and-white mottled shirt. Kirby was tall, and his blonde hair and beard were getting long to the point of unwieldy. His gray speckled polo offered a contrast of propriety to his hair, but the pink watch on his arm was so flamboyant that it made Nebiros giggle.

“How's it going, guys?” Nebiros said, walking up and joining the two.

“It's going good,” Kirby said, smiling at Nebiros.

“Hi, I'm Celairiel!” Celairiel said, face beaming as she reached out her hand to Nebiros and Bed. Nebiros hesitated for a second, not at the friendliness but at the way Celairiel had pronounced her name with a K sound. She had misread it a moment before.

“Nebiros,” Nebiros said, shaking Celairiel's hand.

“I'm Bed,” Bed said.

“Right, I can see your names,” Celairiel said, enthusiasm suddenly replaced by uncertainty. “That makes introductions a bit silly, doesn't it?”

“Not at all,” Kirby said. “It's good manners.” Celairiel started beaming again, but her curiosity turned back to Nebiros. “Are you recording us?”

“Yup,” Nebiros said. “Getting everything I can for anyone who joins Sparkbomb later and wonders what things used to be like.” She looked around the room. “Speaking of, I need to be finding somewhere to set up for the announcement. I'll catch you all later.”

The back of the room where she had climbed up the stairs was an option, but there was no knowing how many people might be blocking her view. It seemed like everyone who had come back to Sparkbomb was tall, and while she didn't mind standing to see over the crowd, she thought there must be a better option. A sudden sensation of being watched made her look up to the balcony, and she spotted Liz staring down at the group. The balcony would be perfect. Giving Liz a thumbs up in thanks, she quickly made her way up to the balcony.

Tables were arranged at even intervals along the balcony, hidden from the lower floor of the tower. Nebiros assumed that anyone who planned to listen to the announcement from up here would be standing at the railing, looking down from it the same way Liz was. Before she reached Liz, Nebiros' eyes settled on something odd. The entire outside wall of the Mansion was a window, but at one particular point there was a rectangular impression that looked like a door. The door, if it was a door, led outside into the air! She had to be mistaken, but she couldn't think of what else it might be.

Liz had chosen to observe from the back corner of the balcony, the spot least likely to be noticed by the people below. It was a shame to go unnoticed, Nebiros thought, since her usual sense of style was just as prominent as it had ever been. Liz wore a long black wool coat that flared out like a skirt at the bottom. Like so many others in the Mansion, she too wore jeans, and the dark skin-tight fabric disappeared into ankle-high boots. The silver on the boot buckles stood out against the near-black of the rest of her outfit, matching, in a way, with the three crows circling each other in the pendant she wore on her neck.

The two said nothing to each other. Liz simply noticed both Nebiros and SparkCam before looking back at the gathering crowd below. Nebiros, having already given her thumbs up for the idea of filming from the balcony, had nothing more to say.

Familiar faces made their way into the tower. Blacjak, Humming, and Sinical all entered and took their seats. TheLastStarMaker followed Traj, and she stood out as one of the few people wearing glasses. Her clothes were all black except for the brightly colored, mismatched socks that she was wearing.

Some two dozen members filled up the chairs, and soon all discussion became a clamor of sound. Nebiros took the spare moment to confirm SparkCam's settings. The lighting was good, interior light supplemented by the twilight outside. Her angle captured both the podium and the front row of the audience where Kirby, Celairiel, and Bed had taken seats.

The quieting of the tower told her Rift was coming more surely than the slowly turning heads. Unlike the members, who had climbed the stairs into the tower, he was coming from the hall. When he came into her view, she immediately recognized the tiredness about him. It was something the others might overlook, but she could see it in the way he smiled just a little bit less than usual. His eyes still held determination, however, and she was certain that everyone could see that.

Rather than taking his spot behind the podium, he stopped in front of it, nearly within arm's reach of the front row. He smiled at his friends, letting his gaze slowly sweep across the audience while he captured their attention.

“Welcome to Sparkbomb!” he said simply, spreading his arms out to encompass the audience. “That might sound like an odd thing to say. All but one of you have been here for months, and all but a few of you have been here for years. I called our last era a renaissance, a time of revival and change. The era we enter today is similar in that regard. Like a spectre, Sparkbomb retains a part of what it was. Like a phoenix, Sparkbomb is resurrected from its ashes once again. And like a werewolf, Sparkbomb changes to a new way of living.

“Thank you all for coming.” The sincerity in Rift's tone echoed what Nebiros had heard in the video announcement he had sent out a few days earlier. “And thank you for joining me in this tower. This tower is an example of what Sparkbomb will become. Like the lounges, this tower will be customizable based on your input. There are thirteen lounges and four towers, and I'm certain that all of us will be able to carve out our own niche in the Mansion. All of us will be able to find a place here that we are able to call home.

“In light of this, I hope that you'll be patient as I continue rebuilding.” Rift gave a small incline of his head. “I plan to reopen forum rooms and lounges over time. Likewise, the Mansion grounds are also a part of the reconstruction process. I promise, almost everything else will become accessible with time. The third floor, however, besides the towers, will remain off-limits.

“For now, I will refrain from forming a Staff Team.” Murmurs followed at this. How could Sparkbomb function without its Staff members? “I want all of you to have a voice, and I want all of you to feel that you have a voice. In time, the Staff Team will be reassembled, but that day is not today. Remember, all of you are equal. Explore the Mansion as it reopens. Test new features. Give me your feedback.”

For a moment, Rift became quiet. His eyes glinted and his weight shifted forward ever so slightly. SparkCam zoomed in.

“There's one last thing,” Rift said lightly, trying to make it sound like an afterthought. “A few items—no, not those kind of items; let's call them relics—have been hidden within the Mansion and its grounds. These relics contain the power to grant wishes.”

Nebiros' first thought was of the Mansion being reshaped to look like a pirate ship. SparkCam panned out, catching bits and pieces of others' reactions. Blacjak's eyes glimmered an incredibly vibrant blue. Celairiel's face was uncertain excitement. Humming looked thoughtful. Nebiros couldn't help but wonder what wishes Sparkbomb could grant for them.

“My wish,” Rift said, “is that these relics help us to usher in a new era of Sparkbomb.” He gave a small bow to indicate that his speech was finished. Standing there, he took only a few moments to enjoy the sudden buzz that filled the tower. Having given the announcement, and having left the community with a treasure hunt to fill their time, he quickly disappeared back into the hallway. It took only a couple of minutes before the members were tearing at couch cushions and turning over furniture in their search for the relics.

Shattered Rift

The elevator was cramped with so many spambots in it, but Rift tried to put the discomfort out of his mind. It didn't bother them, and it didn't bother Sparkbot. All that really mattered was the space needed for their fifteen bodies, and Rift had designed the elevator to fit sixteen. He never expected that a day would come when there would be sixteen staff members, let alone a day when sixteen would be in the elevator at the same time, but the question when designing it had been between nine and sixteen. He could imagine a time when there would be nine staff members, and he could picture them all riding the elevator up to the Staff Room together. They might as well be comfortable, so he had prepared enough room for sixteen.

Ignoring the buttons for the three floors, he palmed a hidden panel beneath them and pressed a button to take the elevator down to the basement. No one knew about the basement besides him and now Sparkbot. It was a new addition to the Mansion, moving the Admin Control Panel to its own floor and freeing up space on the third floor for additional staff quarters. He thought it was clever, assuming the staff would think that the administrative powers were contained within his personal quarters or even that they were tied to his very account itself.

Only the floor of the elevator lowered, and invisible barriers served as walls on each side. There was no shaft to contain the elevator in the basement, merely a place where the elevator rested when it finally settled into the floor. Rift let out a small breath, grateful to be free of the confined space. The basement was composed of only a few rooms, and Rift led the way to one of the larger ones, the only one that currently had multiple doors leading into it.

Rift stopped at one of the far doors, and a blue screen sprung into life above the access panel. By resizing rectangles on the screen, he reshaped the Testing Room inside. The Holding Room he was creating for the spambots wouldn't need to be particularly large, but it would need to be separate.

The door opened and he led the way inside, ushering the spambots to the center of the room. Two rows of six faced him, and he directed the thirteenth to stand in front of the others. Red beams lit up, clasping their hands together in front of them, and each stood on a red panel that acted as their cells.

“Shattered Rift, what do you plan to do with the spambots?” Sparkbot said, turning his full attention to Rift for the first time since they had approached the front gate.

“I don't know,” Rift admitted, walking to a console that he had placed in front of the spambots. A few paces separated them, but the distance was an unnecessary precaution. “I'm hoping there's some way to salvage their member IDs.”

“What do you mean?” Sparkbot said.

“Everyone cares about snagging the low user IDs,” Rift said, navigating through the built-in member tools. “All of the members want to obtain the lowest user ID they can. It's a matter of pride to have a lower ID.”

“Sparkbot does not understand human pride,” Sparkbot said. “All member IDs are comparably functional until the potential membership range is exceeded.” Rift smiled. A month ago Sparkbot would have specified exactly how many million possible IDs fell into the 'potential membership range.'

“Member Merger Tool?” Rift said aloud, spotting a new setting. Another tap on the screen brought up an explanation. “This would let me fuse existing members with spambots and reclaim the IDs these spambots stole!” He looked up thoughtfully, but the excitement faded quickly. “But that would still leave thirteen empty IDs.” No other tool provided an answer, and he reluctantly closed the screen.

“Shattered Rift, have you failed to find a solution?” Sparkbot said. Rift nodded, frowning down at the panel. “Sparkbot suggests deleting the spambots.”

“Deleting them?” Rift said. His eyes darted to the spambots. A month ago, before upgrading the Mansion's software, he would have done exactly that. Now, during the first day of the revival, thirteen spambots had managed to successfully register despite the precautions he had in place. Their very existence taunted him, evidence that something had gotten past him. One or two spambots would have been acceptable, but thirteen was a slap in the face. “I'll take that into consideration.”

As he led Sparkbot out of the room, he knew that the suggestion was probably the right one. If the new lock was working then there wouldn't be any more spambots to follow. That was the important thing. There was always the option of reclaiming the member IDs with database queries, but that was a dangerous idea at best. Even if the Mansion looked the same, the program generating it was different, and he was still unfamiliar with it.

The elevator rose back up into the shaft, and this time it stopped at the first floor.

“Sparkbot, go ahead and make your way to General Discussion,” Rift said.

“Is the cafeteria still forbidden to the members?” Sparkbot said, opening a swinging door that was just wide enough to comfortably fit one person through at a time. Only Sparkbot and the staff members knew that the so-called Broom Closet was really a door to the elevator.

“For now,” Rift said. “Part of my announcement tonight will probably need to include when forums and grounds are reopening. But don't worry, I don't have anything for you to pass along to the members right now.”

“Sparkbot understands,” Sparkbot said. “Sparkbot will see Shattered Rift later.”

“Later Sparkbot,” Rift said, and the door swung closed, leaving him alone. Letting out a long breath, he pressed the button for the third floor. Once the elevator reached the second floor, the ceiling receded above, revealing a spacious room. There was no elevator shaft here on the third floor. The platform settled into place to become part of the floor just like in the basement. Rift took a glance at the wall behind him, a one-way view of the parlor below. From the parlor, the wall appeared to be nothing more than a wall, but from the Staff Room it provided yet another impressive view built into the Mansion's design.

The Staff Room was a large rectangular room, and at the center was an oval table with seven chairs. He had meant to create a roundtable feel, but the design of the room fit an oval table better. Rather than having seats of authority reserved for the small ends, Rift's chair was in the center of the far side. It meant that, if the staff team expanded, new chairs at the short ends would unfortunately be the farthest from him. He much preferred the style now with a chair on either side of his and four directly across the table. Perhaps a circular table would be better in the long run, but for now he wondered what the composition of the staff team would even be. Several friends who had sat with him and offered counsel in the past were too busy to do so now. Was the value of their occasional advice, coupled with the privilege of transparency offered to the staff, enough of a reason to keep them on as staff in this new age? It was one question among many that needed to be answered.

Rift made his way to a far corner of the room. Each of the far corners had smaller tables, workstations for individuals or small groups. The rest of the room was empty. Even the walls were bare of the paintings found elsewhere in the Mansion recounting stories of the past.

The past was something else that weighed on Rift's mind. He had succeeded in bringing activity to Sparkbomb twice in the past, activity lasting about two years each time, but this time was different. It wasn't simply activity that was needed. It was community. It was something beyond the walls of the Mansion, beyond the walls of what had been before.

It was only the first day of a new age, and Rift was already tired. He sat at the workstation with his back to the wall, straightened his shoulders, and pulled a screen into the air in front of him. The blue outline shimmered, and after a few moments Coaster's face appeared. His face was strong and square-shaped, and his glasses created a glossy reflection over blue eyes. Most of all, it was the curly brown hair that stood out. It was much shorter than it had been in the past, and it looked strange to Rift without the long curls.

“What's up?” Coaster said.

“Not much,” Rift said automatically. The truth was that there were a dozen things, but as much as he might like to chat with an old friend, he had work to do. “I wanted to check in with you about the hosting.”

“Yeah, I haven't gotten around to it yet,” Coaster said. Rift could hear the nervous, apologetic tone in his voice. “I'll take care of it tonight.”

“Thanks,” Rift said. Coaster nodded, then Rift nodded, and Coaster's face flickered from the screen. Sagging back into his chair, Rift let his body go. Of all the possible delays, he had never expected the hosting to be one of them. It wasn't Coaster's fault. Rift hadn't mentioned much of his timetable. As cordial as their conversations had been over the past month, they had all been business. It had been over three years since they had simply had a good time as friends. Now it felt like they were two people who had gone in different directions. He had already given Coaster a heartfelt thank you, but that still didn't feel like enough. Rift had done most of the work—some would even say all of the work—to make Sparkbomb a success, but he felt that just as much credit was owed to Coaster.

Pulling up a fresh window, he reconfirmed that SparkWiki would be delayed until the hosting transfer was complete. That left SparkComic, the last thing on his to-do list, as the project he would spend the next few hours working on. After that, or more likely when he found a good stopping point, he would need to make a public appearance and give his announcement. There was no time to let his exhaustion overcome him: there was still far too much to do.

Shattered Rift

A gentle breeze crept into Nebiros' quarters through the open window. The sun had risen high enough that it no longer cast its rays directly on the odds and ends lying scattered on the floor, nor did it shine directly on Nebiros herself, who sat in a full-back chair in front of a simple desk. The desk was the only part of the room that she had organized, featuring her tablet in the center, a skull wearing her pirate hat on the left, and her camcorder on the right. A handful of art supplies—stylus, pens and pencils, brushes, and a small assortment of miscellaneous odds and ends—were carefully arranged in a drawer that sat open.

Her black jacket rested on the back of the chair, leaving her in a violet hoodie unzipped far enough to reveal the Sparkbomb logo on the graphic tee beneath. She sat biting her lip, pressing her tongue against her lip ring as she stared down at the tablet. She had work to do: two webcomics, official artwork, and whatever special requests would come as a result of the revival. She wanted to work, perhaps to sketch out her idea for an introduction to the Mansion and its primary residents, but she also had a room to finish decorating, and she was missing her chance to film members as they entered the Mansion.

Unpacking and drawing could wait, she decided. Standing up, she pulled her jacket back on, grabbed the camcorder—which she had now taken to calling SparkCam—and rushed out of her room. Though the hallway stretched to the left, back towards the nearest common room and farther towards the southeast tower, she took the path to her right, walking back into the parlor.

This time, she entered from the second floor, stepping onto one of the balconies. Unlike the first floor where the eyes naturally drifted upward, Nebiros felt free to look where she pleased, either up towards the skylight or from balcony to balcony or down towards the first floor. Looking down at the first floor, her gaze fell upon the dais at the base of the stairs. Sunlight fell from the skylight to illuminate yet another piece featuring the Sparkbomb logo. The wolf head shined a brilliant black—ebony, Nebiros guessed—and the spark bomb in its mouth shined with the brilliance of blue sapphire. It was not so colorful as the stained glass, which could be seen from this side just as plainly as it could from the front of the Mansion, but it held a more subtle majesty.

“I hope most people stick to their old usernames,” Blacjak said, walking into the parlor from outside. He came in with three others: Trajectory, HummingGillz, and Sinical. Nebiros knew Blacjak was referring to Sinical. Each name appeared briefly to her eyes, hovering above each of the members in the hazy blue of Mansion text, but SparkCam wasn't privy to the benefits granted to members. It only saw that a ninja had entered with two men and a woman. The ninja, Blacjak, had only one distinguishing feature besides his ninja attire: he had vibrant blue eyes that seemed to glow with excitement.

The others were dressed more simply. Trajectory had ripped jeans above his bare feet, and his azure shirt sported an aqua colored smilie face above the words “A Cool Chatting Place.” Humming stood well short of the others, noteworthy for her small size and long black hair that fell onto a white, knee-length dress. Sinical's outfit simply consisted of jeans and a red tee, but even at a distance Nebiros could distinguish the subtle difference in color between his eyes, one blue and one green.

“Say cheese, guys!” Nebiros said, zooming in on each of them individually as they stepped onto the dais. Trajectory waved up at her enthusiastically, Humming gave a polite curtsey, and Sinical gave a nod.

“What's with the camera?” Blacjak said curiously, taking the stairs two at a time and leaping over the railing once he reached the top. As if in competition, Trajectory did the same, except that he cartwheeled over the railing. Sinical and Humming followed more casually.

“I thought it'd be cool to have video footage to look back on in a few years,” Nebiros said.

“That's a nice thought,” Humming said. “I'm sure Rift will appreciate it.”

“Where is Rift, anyway?” Sinical said.

“You didn't see him on the way in?” Nebiros said. “Sparkbot said something about spambots at the front gate and they took off.”

“Spambots already?” Sinical said with a small shake of his head.

“Taking the low-end member numbers?” Trajectory added.

“Sorry about that,” Rift called up towards the second floor. A soft clinking followed behind him as he led thirteen robots into the parlor. He didn't stop as he walked, nor did the shuffling spambots, though Sparkbot staggered a bit at the rear. Sparkbot's eyes darted wildly between the spambots as if expecting trouble at any moment, but Rift seemed at ease as he led the prisoners up the stairs. “I made sure to change the locks while I was out there. Hopefully we won't have anymore unwanted guests.”

Stopping at the top of the stairs, he palmed a panel beside the door. It slowly opened to reveal an elevator within, and he ushered the spambots inside one by one.

“Oh dear,” Humming said, looking nearly as nervous as Sparkbot about the spambots.

“Don't worry,” Rift said, following Sparkbot into the elevator and turning back to face his friends. “These guys aren't anything to worry about. Sorry I can't give you all a proper welcome. I probably won't be back down 'til this evening for the next announcement. Have fun.” The elevator door closed, leaving the five members to decide how to fill the next few hours.

“Rift sure loves to make a dramatic entrance,” Trajectory said good-naturedly.

“What do you think the announcement's going to be about?” Blacjak said.

“Probably just an update,” Sinical said. “Right now, I want to see if anything's really changed.”

“He mentioned the lounges and the towers,” Nebiros said, still intent on the elevator door.

“Let's check them out,” Blacjak said, turning to leave but abruptly stopping. “Where, uh, are they?”

“Each corner of the Mansion is a tower now, sort of,” Nebiros said, realizing that she didn't quite remember what the distinction was. “Or maybe each corner is a lounge, and they're towers on the top floor? There are also some lounges on the second floor.”

The group turned to go, heading off in the direction Nebiros had originally entered from. Trajectory turned to look back, noticing that she wasn't following. “Aren't you coming with us?”

“In a minute,” she said absentmindedly. Waiting for the others to leave gave her a moment to wonder what Rift intended her position to be in the new community. She was the official artist, a position separate from but related to the staff team, but did that make her a staff member too? Once she was sure the others were gone, she palmed the panel beside the elevator door. A moment passed before the system threw up an error message. So she wasn't staff yet, if she was even going to be. Her eyes traveled up the door, rising up the wall towards the third floor above. Rift had gone somewhere up there to deal with the spambots. Why hadn't he deleted them, and what did he have planned for them?

Shattered Rift

Sunlight reflected against the stained glass window of the Sparkbomb Mansion. The octagonal piece featuring the wolf head glimmered a dozen colors at once. Rather than clashing with the contrast of so many colors, the prismatic design allowed them to blend together well, making the piece as majestic as the building displaying it.

The Mansion itself stood three stories tall, and towers rose even higher at each of its four corners. Sunlight reflected off of the towers' windows nearly as well as it did from the stained glass, hinting at the view offered from inside. Impressive views also appeared to be offered from the third floor where the windows were the most spacious. Similar windows were only found on the second floor, a third of the way in on each side. The remaining windows of the second floor were smaller, hinting at over a dozen rooms within, and the first floor's were similar to the second's.

Nebiros stopped her inward drooling, and she reached into her jacket to withdraw the camcorder she had brought with her. She wouldn't miss a moment of Sparkbomb's new age, and neither would the generations to follow. The camcorder, a relic from a generation past, captured both Mansion and grounds, taking in the manicured grass and gentle dirt path that led to the double doors. Satisfied with the shot she had gotten, she quickly strolled up the path.

As if on cue the doors opened to reveal the parlor within. It was incredibly spacious, filling the full three stories of the Mansion. A grand staircase filled the center of the room, leading up to the second story balcony, but even that fell short of the ceiling. Open doorways on either side led into familiar looking hallways, but it was the new couches that had been added along the walls that captured Nebiros' attention. Seated on one of those couches, Shattered Rift gave her a smirk.

Nebiros closed her jaw with an audible click. Rather than his usual blue hoodie, Rift was wearing a blue dress shirt featuring a dark blue tie with vibrant blue stripes. The Trinity knot stood out, forming a masterful triangle with the diagonal stripes of the tie meeting in the triangle's center. The camera promptly zoomed in.

“You're focusing on my tie, aren't you?” Rift said with a laugh, standing up and spreading his arms sheepishly.

“Duh,” Nebiros said, reluctantly zooming back out and resting the camcorder on her shoulder. She took the opportunity to look around the parlor with her own eyes. The balcony hung out over their heads, offering the possibility of shade if the light on the wall was turned off. The railing on the staircase, which had once been blocked off by panels, now had gaps that could be seen through, and the railing of the balcony had been changed in the same manner.

“I was thinking that we could bring in a few more couches and do a Karaoke Night in here,” Rift said, gesturing towards the top of the stairs. “This is the only room in the Mansion that's really set up for that kind of fanfare.”

“You didn't add a new forum or something?” Nebiros said.

“I started with the same blueprint as last time,” Rift said. “All that's really changed in the Mansion are the towers and the lounges.”

“Lounges?” Nebiros said.

“Let me take you on the tour,” Rift said, unable to keep from grinning as he led the way into the hallway to the left. Nebiros lifted her camcorder back into position and followed. The sheer length of the hallway hinted at the massive scope of the forum rooms, and where there had once been a corner at the end of the hall there was now an opening that appeared to lead into a new room. “Most of it's still blocked off for renovations,” he explained as they passed by a closed door on the right. Nebiros could still remember the forum that lay behind it. “The only forum that will be open to start with will be General Discussion, at the end to the right.” As they reached the end of the hallway, a new room opened up to their left, boasting couches and tables and spacious windows showing off the Mansion grounds outside. The design allocated as much space as possible to the windows, and at the outer edge of the room a staircase wove its way upstairs.

“The General Discussion Lounge, or maybe General Lounge for short,” Rift announced. He walked along the wall, leading Nebiros towards the staircase. “It's separate from the actual forum.” Gesturing through the open doorway, he motioned Nebiros to take a look inside. Where the lounge had couches the forum had booths, and the tables had a greater prominence in the forum than they did in the lounge. “I just kind of set up something basic and assumed you guys would figure out how you want both of them to look. The idea is that the lounge will be a bit more relaxed, and anything more serious could be done in the forum.” Nebiros nodded approvingly.

“There's a lounge on each floor,” Rift continued, starting again and climbing the stairs, “and all four corners of the Mansion could have their own style. I thought the ones on the ground floor should go with their forums, then the ones on the second floor could be like common rooms, and of course the towers... well, the towers are something special.”

Rift had reached the landing halfway up the staircase as he said this, and with an excited glimmer in his eyes he turned to glance back at Nebiros. As he did so, she saw past him to the flying metal shape above.

“Look out!” she shouted. Rift's head whipped around just in time to see the body that crashed into him, smashing him against the wall with a sickening crunch.

“Shattered Rift, Sparkbot is glad to have found you,” Sparkbot said in a steely monotone that contained none of the gladness he professed. He was apparently unconcerned with the awkwardness of his position as he pressed Rift against the wall. The robot's appearance bore a striking resemblance to Rift's, sharing the messy sandy brown hair and blue eyes of his creator. His face was a cool gray color, and the rest of his body was a combination of metallic blues and grays.

In spite of herself, Nebiros giggled. “How are you doing, Sparkbot?” she said. Rift finally managed to get enough leverage to push Sparkbot off, and Sparkbot took an unsteady step backwards as he regained his balance.

“Nebiros, Sparkbot is doing well,” Sparkbot said, turning briefly to face her, “but Sparkbot has no time to talk. Spambots are attempting to breach the Mansion gates.” He turned back to Rift, evidently waiting for instructions.

“How many have gotten through?” Rift said, resting his weight on the railing as he regained his composure.

“Thirteen,” Sparkbot said.

“Thirteen?” Rift echoed in disbelief. “How far into the Mansion have they gotten?”

“Automated defense systems have successfully disabled all thirteen upon entering the gate,” Sparkbot said. “All spambots are currently in holding.”

“That's something, at least,” Rift said, fully regaining his composure and reassuming his full height. “It looks like the new locks already need to be changed out.” He gave an apologetic look to Nebiros. “I hope you don't mind if we cut the tour short?”

“You've got work to do,” Nebiros said simply. “Where are my new quarters?”

“Up the stairs, head back towards the parlor, farthest room on the right,” Rift said, speaking quickly. “The staff quarters are still being redone.” He gave a parting nod to Nebiros, gestured Sparkbot to follow, and hurried back down the stairs. Nebiros' camcorder captured the scene as Sparkbot tripped again, tumbling down to the General Lounge and landing in a heap. Chuckling to herself—even in this time of change, Sparkbot was the same as ever—she let her gaze drift up the stairs.

At the top, she caught a glimpse of what she would have sworn was a small black cat. She spun the camcorder to face it, but the only thing she caught was a small shuriken spinning like a top where the cat had been. With a soft clink, the shuriken settled on the ground. It was the only evidence that Ninja Cat had ever been there.

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