Isidore RAM? She’s the best we have. Young, intuitive, bright. As a hexer, her code manipulation is flawless. She can break into a locked down system in 3000 cycles, 2000 if she’s having a good day. She is truly blessed with Technology’s Gift.
She’s hexing as we speak, otherwise I would introduce you. We dare not disturb the Sisters while they are doing the Circuit’s Work. You understand. Concentration is paramount.
On the Grid Isidore RAM can be anything, be anywhere. Speed is her skin, and hacking her bones.
She can choose any assignment she likes, but she comes here, nine times out of ten. There is just something about Ancient New York that haunts her, and so here she is, standing in what they called Harlem, only this is the Grid, so it still exists.
She passes the burned out husk of a ‘57 Buick Riviera, flames still licking the dashboard. The brick buildings lining the street are filled with dark shadows and covered with the graffiti of gangs long since forgotten, long since dead. Garbage litters the streets, rats scamper along the curb down West 125th street -- this is definitely not the sort of place that a woman should be walking alone at night.
Sure this section of the Grid was seedy, but that was part of its charm. That’s what made it interesting. Under the corruption the streets look as if they each had a story. Harlem. Even the name sounds mysterious and compelling. No, it wasn’t the grunge that drew here here, it was the history. This place felt ancient.
She stands on beneath a blinking streetlight, two perpendicular signs sprouting from the side of the light pole, their cracked, faded white text barely readable against the rusted green metal, but she knew what they said. "Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard", announced the one, “W. 125th” whispered the other in reply. Down the street stands an abandoned theater, the letters “A,” “P”, “L” and “O” hanging unlit at dangerous angles.
She reaches out a hand and flattens her palm against the signpost, feeling the code ripple in response, tickling along her flexion creases. For three cycles she stands there, talking to the code, listening to the gossip between the bits, waiting for what they tell her is just around the corner.
Behind her the buildings began to vibrate in response to some unheard sound. As in real life, you felt a hovercar in the Grid before you heard it. The air pressure rises around her, and then, only when she had begun to feel her ear drums pop does she actually hear them.
It is the sound of cracking glass and whizzing bullets, it is the whomp of base from poorly made synthrock blasting through virtual speakers. It is the sound of a crime spree and it is the sign that corruption is entering the Grid.
Time to get to work.
Turning Isidore walks into the center of the ancient intersection, just as a sleak pale green hovercar turns a corner, coming into view. The passengers carry old world semiautos and are spraying bullets into the darkened windows down W. 125th street. The driver grips the steering wheel as he sees her, his face vacant except for a pair of staring, unblinking eyes. He adjusts the trajectory of the hovercar, aiming straight for her.
Sloppy and lazy, she thinks. Cheap hackers never take the time to generate faces on their attack scripts. It is a rooky move on the part of whoever hired them, since they aren’t even trying to blend in with the real users of the Grid.
Isidore waits placidly. In the four cycles it takes for the hovercar to reach her, she lifts her hand, palm out, fingers splayed wide enough that she can see the the driver between her middle and her ring. She locks eyes with the soulless eyes of the driver, tilts her head to one side, and just before the decklid makes contact with her kneecaps, she smiles.
Then she closes her fingers and the car stops, hovering in front of her. She twists her hand, and the car flips over, landing on its domed roof. The passengers, not programmed for anything but destruction, continue to shoot out the side windows, hanging upside down inside the hovercar. The inverted driver is still trying in vain to navigate his hovercar, even as its maglev suspension system points uselessly up at the virtual sky.
Isidore watches the flipped hovercar and its inverted occupants dissolve into pixels and vanish on the chilly autumn breeze, and with the brush of the cool wind across her face comes the feeling of satisfaction wrapped in adrenaline that always accompanies a successful hex. Some say The Grid has no law -- that you can get away with anything in the virtual world. They are wrong. In here, hexers are the law, the strongest line of defense against those that would tear the virtual world apart. Without hubris, Isidore RAM knows she is the best. There has been no worm, no virus, no cyb-ter threat she has not been able to thwart. In the fight to keep the Grid code pure, she is its strongest protector. On the Grid she has all the power.
Behind her the street lights gutter and go out, one by one, until the entirety of W. 125th is lost in darkness. For the first time in a long while, doubt creeps into Isidore’s mind.
Or does she?
The darkness wasn’t her doing. Kneeling she places her palm on the cracked asphault, reaching out to the code, looking for answers. She finds none.
All at once the streetlights illuminate once more, but the Harlem streets around her are no longer degraded with decades of neglect. The signs on the street are now freshly painted and brightly lit. A Model T sits parked on the road where the burnt out car was, and a dapper black gentleman walks down the opposite sidewalk with a flapper on each arm. They are laughing gaily. Down the street, where once random letters hung from a derelict theater, a bright, almost gleeful theater stands, light flooding into the street from its open doors. The sound of music and laughter wafts from inside, and above it all stands a blinking sign reading "The HURTIG & SEAMON VAUDVILLE AND BURLESQUE."
This is more than the work of second rate hackers. This was even beyond the abilities of the hexers. It would take a hundred hexers more than a year of code rebuilding to transform a sections of the grid like this.
It’s like the code has been...perfected.
Moving toward where the hacker’s hovercar had stood, Isidore sees a small shop who’s window glows brightly in the dark. A Victrolla record player sits in the display window, a Duke Ellington record sleeve propped up against it. Behind the record player a poster is tacked to a red velvet wall which reads “Come see Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club! June 1923.”
Bewildered, Isidore looks up at the shop. Above the glass windowed door the address reads “100 Onyx, Balboa Island.”
“Island?!” She says to herself, startled to hear her own voice sound so strained. Around her the addresses on the buildings all change to read “100 Onyx.” Looking back toward the burlesque theater, she sees that that sign too has shifted to read “100 ONYX, BALBOA ISLAND.”
Isidore does the only thing she can do in a situation like this: she ejects.
Isidore RAM awakes in her stasis pool, the ambient light from the trifold monitor above her head the only source of illumination in the room. She slogs to the edge of the pool, rolls herself exhaustedly over the edge, and then disconnects the dozen or so cords that connect her to her Grid rig. With a sigh she peels out of her Gridsuit, drops it on the floor, and then steps into her hygiene room.
The hygiene room is little more than a corner notched into the side of her rig room, where sits a toilet, a sink, and a small standing tub to bathe in. Stepping into the tub she wipes away the exertion of her last Grid shift, towels off quickly and then opens the wardrobe. Inside hangs a long, blue floor-length coat with circuitry embroidered into the collar and enormous bells sleeves. This is the coat of the sisters of the Circuit, and it isn’t until she slips it on and fastens it around her that she feels safe again. After the events of her last hex run, her belly has been shaking, her equilibrium feeling off center. Now, though, she had her ritual to ground her.
“What in the Circuit was that?” she allows herself to ask as she slips a intricately angular pendant around her neck. With the symbol of her order lying over her robe, Isidore RAM thinks it’s time to get some help.
As is the nature of every sister in the cloister, Isidore RAM lives a very isolated life, one devoted entirely to her work policing the Grid. She has little contact with the other novitiates, seeing them only at meals, and speaking to them only when required to by duty. The one exception to this is her mentor, her teacher, the sister to whom she is apprenticed -- Qathren YOBIBYTE.
It is to Qathren that Isidore goes, the knowledge of her strange experience on the Grid churning her stomach with anxiety. Sister Yib, as she is known on the Grid, lives in a small room three levels above Isidore’s own room. As she walks down the arching hallway that follows the path of the circular shape of the cloister, she can hear the hum of the servers one level above her. It is a great honor to live so close to a Server Room, and Isidore can only hope that one day she will be housed on this very floor. She stops in front of a plain, unassuming door and knocks three times with the knuckles on her right hand.
“Approach,” calls a voice from within, and Isidore opens the door and steps into a dimly lit room. This room is the same size as her own, but in addition to the Grid Rig standing in the center of the space, a small desk and chair occupy the opposite corner from the Hygene Room. The added furniture give the room a cramped feeling that always sets Isidore’s nerves on edge. She would much rather be wandering the open spaces of the Grid, not be standing in a crowded cloister room attending her mentor. But then she remembers her shift in ancient Harlem, and the message she must relay to Sister YiB.
Qathren YOBIBYTE sits at her desk, close cropped blond head bent over a tablet. When Isidore enters she does not raise her head, but instead continues to type furiously onto the keyboard projected onto her desk. She is most likely in her mid 40s, but with her high cheekbones and square jaw is the sort of woman who always manages to look ten years younger than her actual age. For several minutes more she continues to type, her fingers flying over the pale blue squares, her fingertips turn intermittently blue whenever the touch the desk.
Isidore watches her mentor work, marvelling at the speed of her fingers. It is only when Sister YiB straightens up from her work, swivels her chair to face the door, that Isidore steps up to speak. “Sister YiB, I need your council.”
“Sister Ramses, may the Code replicate eternal. I am happy to see you,” says Qathren YOBIBYTE, her grey eyes sparkling as she smiles. “What can I help you with?”
Isidore bites her lip, trying to think of where to start. “I encountered something strange on the Grid this evening,” she says hesitantly and then unravels the tale of her encounter in virtual Harlem. The attack script in their hovercar. The sudden darkness. The time period change. The signs changing. The repeating phrase “100 Onyx.” She leaves nothing out, and when she stops she waits in silence for her mentor’s reply.
Sister Yib stares at her apprentice, her expression unreadable. Then she says six words Isidore has never heard before. “We must go see the Motherboard.”
Isidore RAM is headed to the Stacks, and her heart can barely contain her excitement. From that first moment when she stepped into the Cloister, all those years ago, she had dreamed of walking along the server-lined corridor, hearing the hum of the Grid around her, seeing the Circuit’s work in physical form. On rare occasions when she has allowed herself to daydream, Isidore sometimes pretends she is the Motherboard, matriarch of the Church of Technology, with her fingers on the pulse of the Grid. She imagines holding court in the Stacks, guiding the enlightened of the world with words of wisdom whispered directly from the Circuit itself.
The mystery surrounding their all-seeing leader has only been deepened from the fact that the Motherboard never leaves the stacks. She communicates with her children via the Grid, during great virtual conclaves where the hundreds of sisters gather to hear her edicts. Isidore thinks that the Motherboard must have such important work that she cannot leave her post -- ever. But now she is getting a chance to stand in the presence of their leader, and she is terrified.
What if I say something wrong? She thinks, trying not to fidget as she stands before the guarded entrance to the Stacks. Sister YiB is watching Isidore out of the corner of her eye, and with a flick of her wrist commands Isidore to stand still. Isidore is not used to standing still.
What if I am blamed for what happened in Old Harlem? A gnawing panic begins to flood her mind. What if I’m banished from the Order? To keep her hands from shaking, Isidore curls her hands into fists inside the sleeves of her monk’s coat.
A minute passes, and then two, and then the left-hand guard, resplendent in the white armor that marks him as a member of the Sacred Arm of the Code, nods his head slightly. As he does so, Isidore notices the Grid implant that wraps from the side of his head into his ear. How marvellous to always be connected to the Circuit! She thinks, mild jealousy mixing with her panic to create a sour taste in the back of her throat. The combination of emotions confuses her, but before she can reach out to Qathren for reassurance, the doors open, and they step inside.
It takes a moment for Isidore’s eyes to adjust to the darkness, but once they do she sees they are standing amongst monoliths. Rows upon rows of towering server stacks line each side of the room, black faces glinting with blinking LED lights light stars in the night sky. As she follows Sister YiB through the room, Isidore tries to count the stacks, but gives up once the number reaches the triple digits. On the other side of the room is a back of fifteen monitors, their reflected light the only illumination in the room. Once the two monks pass the stacks, they stop before a figure in white kneeling on the bare concrete floor. Palms thrown wide, pale hair cut ruthlessly short around her ears, her body facing the flickering images on the monitors -- surveillance feeds of various points on the Grid.
Qathren lays on the concrete floor and wordlessly Isidore follows suit. They press their cheeks to the cold unforgiving surface and wait for the Motherboard to finish her devotion. It is several moments until Isidore hears Qathren speak, and so she assumes the Motherboard must have moved although she is unable to see her directly from where she lays.
“Motherboard, we seek your assistance,” Qathren says, her voice almost a whisper. “This humble daughter has found evidence of tampering with our most Holy Grid.”
“Rise,” intones a voice above them, and Isidore pulls herself onto her knees, her head bent. She watches Qathren out of the corner of her eye, although she really wants to see what the Motherboard looks like in person. From her periphery, Isidore sees a delicately bones hand rest upon her mentor’s head.
“If The Grid is indeed in peril you were right to come to me,” says the voice, closer now than before. “Speak Sister Qathren, and I shall listen.”
Instead of obeying the Motherboard’s command, Qathren reaches a hand out to push Isidore forward. Isidore nearly falls over, and has to pull a leg out to steady herself. When she looks over at her mentor and friend, Qathren nods encouragingly, a strange light in her eyes.
Unsure how to act, Isidore stands. The woman before her is shorter than she imagined, with high arched cheekbones and a wide mouth. The heavy monk’s coat she wears is of the same cut as Isidore’s, but it is white instead of black, and the holy symbol around her neck skitters with numbers and symbols as if it were made from the Code itself. The Motherboard nods her permission for Isidore to speak.
“With your permission, Motherboard. It is easier to show you.”
The older woman steps aside and waves her hand toward the terminal. “Go ahead.”
Isidore approaches what looks to be an ancient computer terminal before the era of gel liquid interfaces. a panel of keys sits on a long metal desk, and at first Isidore hesitates to touch what is obviously a hallowed artifact of the Code. Then, with a thrill in her nerves, she makes a series of lightning quick key inputs, and all fifteen screens flash with video from the Old Harlem sector.
Isidore doesn’t watch the screens as the video plays. She turns instead to watch the Motherboard, to see the reaction the evidence has on her. Behind their leader, Qathren watches the video, her face clouding with what Isidore thought was surprise, but realized after a moment that she was wrong. No, Qathren is not surprised at all and neither is the Motherboard.
“Distressing,” says the older woman, sounding not the least bit distressed. “ And this is the first time you have witnessed such a thing?”
“Isidore ducks her head, keeping her eyes on the concrete beneath her boots. “Yes Mother.”
“I see,” says the Motherboard, reaching out a hand to Isidore. Isidore immediately kneels and kisses her knuckles. “We must know what this location means. Qathren?”
Qathren approaches so that she too may kiss the Motherboard’s hand. “Mother, I am at your service.”
“Take our daughter here and search this 100 Onyx. Find out all you can and report back to me. Only me. May the code replicate eternal.”
“May the code replicate eternal.”
As the two monks make their way back through the stacks of the Server Room, a figure steps from the shadows to stand beside the Motherboard. He is tall and dark, while she is small and white, but it is evident that she is the one who holds the power. He bows his head, dropping to his knees before her.
“Watch them, Brother,” she says, her voice barely a whisper. “This situation requires… redundant routines.”
With a nod, he takes her outstretched hand in his and lightly brushes her fingers with his lips. “May the code replicate eternal.”