Welcome to the final identity reveal for the entirety of Ashes! Hoshiko and her adorable companions have been mentioned in several cards and stories so far, and we have one more origin story to go before you can flip out at the final card...
Content Warning - this story depicts serious mental health issues, including internet addiction. To skip to the technical stuff please click here. Our most sincere apologies for not including this from the beginning.
By Holly Chandler
Sing, sing as your heart desires!
Let me hear your voice!
Dance, dance, forget about time!
Tonight we’ll bloom together!
Hoshiko’s avatar danced through a hailstorm of lasers blasted from a sentry ice in the form of a gigantic metallic tripod bristling with red eyes. But the runner was showing no signs of stopping. Sleek silver orbs flew around her, their glowing eyes matching the ice’s core, each threatening to detonate with one misstep.
The runner leapt into space. Delicate slippers danced on the flying spheres which exploded behind her, their code propelling her further towards her target. Sparkling glyphs and mystic runes coalesced around the staff she held skyward as she called out:
A glittering beam of light erupted from the wand and cut through the sentry’s shell like it was nothing.
“Yeah! No one beats Hoshiko Magica!”
“Great job, Shiro!” cheered an enthusiastic voice from beside her. An anthropomorphic purple dragon standing roughly as tall as Shiro was her partner in crime - Keiko, a brilliant AI that hid in plain sight inside a plush out in meatspace. The heroine turned to plant a kiss on her snout.
Stepping forward, Hoshiko claimed her prize: a briefcase, covered in stylized rainbow stickers. Her view of the cyberscape was a range of vibrant pastel colors, which helped mask the vast darkness underneath. She turned back to Keiko and scooped her up into a hug, an imaginary warmth pressing into her chest. “I gotta let the others know, but I'll come back later and we can just hang out?”
“Yes please!” the dragon exclaimed excitedly. Hoshiko flashed a peace sign as her costume began to fade, before an all-too-familiar tug pulled at the base of her scalp. Data rushed all around her as she was pulled from cyberspace, from her world, and back to banality.
Her eyes eased open to a bland plascrete ceiling. Hoshiko leaned up just enough to remove Keiko's cables from her neck, then the opposite ends from the dragon plush that rested on her chest. Once she had discarded the cords onto the floor beneath her, she laid her head back on her pillow and swiped a holo visor display to life just inches above her face.
[[Welcome to #AlwaysBeRunning! Check pinned rules if you're new! And quit talking to journos for frag’s sake!!!]]
[[Our newest member is hackson.howard]]
[04:12] PrincessSpaceLana: sportsmetal was wild!! my swordfish pulled thru for me <333 just got home
[04:12] PrincessSpaceLana: Lmao did jackie really join???
[04:13] hackson.howard: I feel like after everything a few months ago I should fit right in! :-)
[04:13] hackson.howard: Do you like my name? :-)
[04:14] PrincessSpaceLana: you bet lol
[04:22] hoshikomagica: victory!!!
[04:22] dinomyte: whoa you got it???
[04:23] hoshikomagica: duh! with the power of love, mahou shoujo hoshiko can never lose!!!
[04:23] hackson.howard: Who is this? I love her attitude! :-)
[04:23] PrincessSpaceLana: jackie, my dude,
[04:23] dinomyte: DINO ROAR LOUD ENOUGH FOR ALL NEW ANGELES TO HEAR
[04:23] MegaMaxx: ****, you got those weyland files? nappers been lookin for those for years but conveniently never found ****
[04:23] @Gear: Language MaxX, there are children present ;P
[04:24] MegaMaxx: yeah yeah
[04:24] xXgnatXx: stfu lol
[04:24] MegaMaxx: fr don't you have school soon or something kid?
[04:25] dinomyte: DINO REMIND GOOD CHILDREN TO STAY IN SCHOOL!!!
[04:25] MegaMaxx: also fr, don’t let nappers get that, get it to smoke and let her get the word out, she’s way more palatable to deal with anyway lol
[--Private Message History with dinomyte--]
[04:25] hoshikomagica: ugh. dataddiction “rehab" in like 3 hours
[04:26] dinomyte: omg go to bed
[04:30] hoshikomagica: does it ever go away? the like, idk
[04:30] hoshikomagica: the homesick feeling when ur in meatspace?
[04:32] dinomyte: no.
[04:32] dinomyte: i still feel guilty sometimes
[04:32] dinomyte: my dads tried so hard to break it. to make meatland feel more comfortable.
[04:33] dinomyte: i know it's probably harder for you cause of your girl.
[04:40] hoshikomagica: yeah.
[04:41] hoshikomagica: gonna go get 2 hrs of sleep. thanks ct.
[04:42] dinomyte: DINO LOVE FRIEND!!!
[04:42] dinomyte: <3
The purple dragon was still cradled in Hoshiko’s arms when her parents came knocking at her door. The two hours had passed faster than she would have liked. The smell of lavender filled her nostrils as Hoshiko buried her face into the plush and gave the toy a tight squeeze. She was surprisingly awake for having gotten so little sleep; the excitement from last night’s runs hadn’t quite worn off yet, and the prospect of spending some time with Keiko after the meeting kept her spirits up. Even better, her parents would be out of town for the next couple of nights visiting family back across the ocean, so the date would go uninterrupted.
North SanSan Medtech was just two hops away. Barely over an hour after she'd woken up she was face to face with her therapist, a specialist in dataddiction. A group therapy session was actually where she'd met Chaos Theory a few years ago, and now they were almost inseparable - at least in spirit.
“Shiro,” a warm voice started, “how have you been? Have you begun to limit your netspace time like we'd talked about?”
Hoshiko’s arms tensed around her console. Everyone thought it was just a toy that reminded her of her digital companion, clueless about the tech that hid beneath the seams.
“No.” She wasn't afraid of the medtech; he only existed to limit her.
“Er, what about…” He trailed off as he checked his notes. “Keiko?”
“What about her?”
“It,” the doctor corrected.
“Shiro, dear, Keiko is a program-”
“Only technically. But… she learns, her code modifies itself as she goes, she feels. She's warm...”
“She... it does not. That isn't possible.”
“The frag would you know?! You're a clone, you haven't had an independent thought in your life!” Her pale cheeks flushed red as she realized what she'd said.
The doctor tensed, gripping his pen tightly in his closed fist. “...I am sorry you feel that way. We can cut today's session short.” His eyes moistened. He’d heard such thoughts hundreds of times before, but still couldn’t fully steel himself against them.
“I… I'm sorry. That was terrible, I'm just-"
“You have an affliction, Miss Shiro. I am merely here to help you through it. I forgive you, but urge you to take your prescription.”
It was an antidepressant, something Hoshiko knew she probably needed. Chaos Theory had told her about the side effect the medtechs liked not to mention - interference with the brainwaves that allowed someone to jack in. It wasn’t severe enough to prevent it entirely, but with how crucial a role cyberspace played in Hoshiko’s life, she wanted it to be as clear and accessible as possible. The pills would join the past month's bottle under her bed.
“I'm… sorry,” Hoshiko repeated with a bow as she rose from her chair.
“I forgive you. Go home, but if you're truly sorry, maybe try to go one night fully in meatspace? As a favor to me?”
“I… I'll try,” she lied.
Hoshiko fell back into her bed, the plush pillows beneath her seeming to sink under the weight of her guilt. Her therapist did genuinely want to help, but he refused to try and understand her. She sat up against the wall and swiped her holoscreen to life.
[[--Private Message History with dinomyte--]]
[[10:31]] hoshikomagica: i messed up
[[10:31]] hoshikomagica: said something terrible
[[10:31]] hoshikomagica: maybe we can hang later when youre awake
A wave of her hand in the air switched the holo to her interface with the Network. Her head was pounding, and her stomach was twisting with a deep hollowness and guilt. Hoshiko pulled the familiar cables up from the floor and slid the light mesh of wiring onto her scalp.
Hours passed in what felt like minutes. Hoshiko’s home in cyberspace was a luxurious penthouse atop an otherwise vacant skyscraper. From it she could gaze out over any beautiful view that her mind could dream up, without having to deal with anyone she didn't want to. Several small critters scurried around the massive room, some realistic and some fantastical. One perched by the window and stared out at a virtual sunset.
Her avatar laid back on a floating couch with an arm around Keiko, who was draped across her front. Hoshiko’s fingers delicately traveled up and down her partner's spine, her skin lightly pressed against the warm scales.
“I… don't know what to say,” Keiko murmured. “I mean… he's right. I only exist here. I am… just an AI.”
“Quiet, you,” Hoshiko shushed playfully. “I'm just a NEET, and I got those hidden records. Think of how many families will be helped! How many people will finally get answers! If ‘just a kid’ can be a superhero, then ‘just an AI’ can be a person.” She smiled lovingly at the draconic figure in her arms and planted a kiss between the horns that crowned her head.
“Gross, get a room,” a voice nearby teased. A young face peered over the couch at the pair and grinned, her long, digital hair falling over Hoshiko’s features.
“This IS my room, thank you,” she stammered. She would have been bright red with embarrassment, if it had been possible here.
The pair on the couch sat upright and got comfortable, and with a snap of her fingers, Hoshiko’s iconic outfit materialized around her. “Keiko, will you connect us to Smoke?”
“Of course,” the dragon replied. She raised a claw towards the center of the room, spawning a glittering glyph that shifted into a holoscreen. Chaos Theory sat on the other side of Keiko just as Smoke’s face appeared in the center of the room.
“‘Sup, folx?” Her voice was ragged and deep. The subtle BosWash accent flavored her words, just underneath the faint rasp of a long-time smoker.
“Ele, a pleasure,” Chaos Theory greeted. “Hoshiko has something for you and your listeners. Keiko, will you do the honors?”
The dragon nodded before breathing a stream of data towards the image. Smoke’s eyes widened as the information came through.
“No shit,” she coughed in surprise. “Time for a special episode, methinks. Mills is gonna freak. You want a shoutout, kid?”
Hoshiko smiled at her shyly. “If you wanna.” Chaos Theory cast the other girl a nervous glance, but the netcaster didn’t seem to notice.
“Cheers, kiddos,” Ele rasped. “You may wanna go radio silent for a bit. Nappers'll be all over the place. Trust no one.” With a puff of smoke, the connection vanished. It was only a few seconds before small fireworks popped around the room, signaling a high priority notification. The word was out.
“Feels good, huh?” Chaos Theory asked.
“Yeah. It does.”
1 New Message.
Chaos Theory had left about three hours ago, and Hoshiko was left in her virtual apartment with Keiko once more. The two were napping together in the bed of her digital home when the message came, but Hoshiko dismissed the notification. Ten more minutes.
2 New Messages.
3 New Messages.
“Frag, what is it?” Hoshiko grumbled as she sat upright. Keiko barely stirred beside her.
[18:23] dinomyte: are you okay
[18:25] dinomyte: please answer
[18:25] dinomyte: traced keiko you live close I'm coming
“...huh? Babe, did we miss something?” the runner questioned the AI.
Keiko’s body seemed to be glitchy and out of focus as she opened her eyes. “Shiro… external temperature is over sixty degrees Celsius. You're beginning to inhale carbon monoxide. I'm jacking you out.” The dragon placed a claw onto the human and gave her a hard push, sending her careening through the walls of the room and into the slipstream of static that connected her reality with the physical world.
Meatspace hit Hoshiko like a plascrete wall. Her body was weak and exhausted, but there was someone with her. A familiar figure that she'd not seen in this world for years. They were shaking her, desperately trying to jostle her from her dive, but knowing the hazards of pulling the plug without the user being prepared.
She was surrounded by flames. The air around the pair was dark and hazy, and shards of bioplas littered the floor and bed. Hoshiko's limbs were covered in cuts from the debris.
“Thank goodness, I was so scared I was too late,” Chaos Theory cried as she hugged Hoshiko, her own arms coated in ash.
Along with her clothes, the plush atop Hoshiko's stomach that housed Keiko was licked with black burns. The runner nearly cried at the sight and clutched the toy close.
“What's going on?” Hoshiko questioned. Her vision was blurred and her speech slow and tired.
Olivia was already pulling her friend up over her shoulder. “You've breathed in a lot of smoke. The whole building is going down, Shiro.” She grunted as she lifted Hoshiko and ensured that Keiko was safe in her hands.
With a weakened Hoshiko on her shoulders, Olivia began the dangerous run to safety.
It took several minutes to escape the building between navigating the massive arcology and Chaos Theory having to steer a barely conscious person around falling plascrete. Two of Harmony's clones ushered the pair out as soon as they were visible at the ground entrance, each pressing an oxygen mask to their faces and scanning their vitals with devices on their wrists.
A voice from a news drone above boomed through the streets, drowning out victims’ panicked screams with an urgent newscast. "We would like to remind the ladies and gentlemen of the press that several of the buildings damaged in the blast were owned by Weyland Consortium subsidiaries…"
“Stay with me Hoshiko, you have to stay awake,” Olivia urged. One clone kept an eye on her while multiple others piled around her friend, sticking her with IVs and medpatches. “C'mon, no one beats Hoshiko Magica, right?” Hoshiko's eyes fluttered sleepily in response as her lips twitched in an attempted smile.
Olivia nearly shrieked as her PAD vibrated along her arm, flashing with purple notifications.
“Is she okay?” a smooth young voice shouted from the device into her aural implants.
“For now, yeah,” she responded. “You're going to have to get out of town, though. I don't think you're safe in SanSan anymore.”
Keiko’s face took over the PAD's display and she huffed wisps of smoke from her nostrils. There was an almost human terror in her eyes; a wordless plea to take care of Hoshiko where the dragon could not.
“...my dads have a property in Rutherford. We can get you to New Angeles in a matter of days.”
Keiko’s image nodded, and Hoshiko could feel a calming coolness against her from the toy she still clutched tightly as she faded from consciousness.
Unlike certain other Anarch identities, Hoshiko starts in a sad place, bereft of easy value. It’s hard when the world is complex and overstimulating - but with your belief in her, Hoshiko can go beyond! All it takes is the confidence to make a run and access a card, and something quite magical happens...
Because on the Net you can be who you want to be. Hoshiko wants to be a hero for her friends. The dynamic
But a constant output of emotional energy is draining, even with her suite of companions to assist. Quiet times and feelings of failure can bring Hoshiko back to earth. But even in darkness there is hope, and there is no pit Hoshiko can’t climb out of with the help of you and her other friends :D.
Be sure to check in with CodeMarvelous on the 3rd of December to see Hoshiko and friends in action!