Chapter 1: 67 65 6e 65 73 69 73
On the Grid Isidore RAM can be anything, be anywhere. Speed is her skin, and hacking her bones.
After years of training, she can choose any location she likes for her final evaluation, and so now she stands overlooking her favorite place on the Grid, on a rooftop overlooking a dingy street shrouded by the night. There is just something about Ancient New York that haunts her, and so here she is, standing above what they called Harlem, only this is the Grid, so it still exists.
Kneeling to peer over the edge of the rooftop, Isidore flinches as a hologram appears floating in the open air before her. The image is of a woman, older than her by nearly a dozen loops, is holding a tablet in one hand and typing on it with the other. “Here we are Sister Ramses,” she says, using Isidore’s online handle as is customary in such a sacred space, “The ultimate test, live hexing on the open Grid. Remember, there are no firewalls here to protect you. Any danger down there,” she turns to wave an arm, indicating the street below her, “poses a real threat to our mission. And what is that mission Sister Ramses?”
“To preserve what Technology Wrought,” Isidore responds reflexively, “To protect the Grid from outside intrusion. To be the last line of digital defense,” she pauses and sighs. “And above all else, to do the Circuit’s Work.”
The hologram nods. “Yes, good. Hex well, Ramses, and may the Code replicate eternal.”
Isidore returns the nod, and then leaps off the building passing through the hologram. As her body plummets toward the street, she somersaults three times before landing in a crouch on the pavement. Standing, she starts walking down the street, scanning the area for possible threats, feeling the thrill of the hunt hum along her veins.
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 is seedy, but that is part of its charm. Maybe that’s what makes it interesting. Under the corruption the streets look as if they each have a story. Harlem. Even the name sounds mysterious and compelling. No, it isn’t the grunge that draws her here, it is the history. This place feels 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 hertz 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 rookie 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 is no worm, no virus, no cyb-ter threat she cannot thwart. In the fight to keep the Grid code pure, she is its strongest protector. On the Grid she has all the power.
Or rather she will have it, just as soon as she passes this last examination. The hologram floats down from where it’s been hovering by the rooftop. The woman within the image is furiously typing notes on her tablet, her expression inscrutable.
“Impressive,” her mentor intones, not looking up from her tablet, “You surveyed the area, recognized the threat, and neutralized it.”
Behind her the street lights gutter and go out, one by one, until the entirety of W. 125th is lost in darkness. Isidore watches in shock as a small object, fist sized and faceted, rises from out of the cracked asphalt, hovering in front of the hologram. It is difficult to make out exactly what it is made of, looking like some material that is both rock and metal at the same time. Along its facets a faint blue light begins to glow. The hologram does not seem to notice.
“I do think the car flipping was a little over the top,” the woman in the hologram continues. In front of her the faceted object begins to spin, slowly at first, and then picking up speed until it is nearly a spinning ball of blue light. “There are less flashy ways to stop attack scripts, but I suppose I can forgive you showing off a little during your final test. Beware taking too much pride in your work, Ramses. Remember you are a servant of the Code, nothing more. As a Sister of the Circuit you are expected to act as a shield, and shields do not show off.”
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.
Isidore’s mind races to try and figure out what she’s seeing, and why her teacher cannot. Before her the woman in the hologram smiles, finally looking up from her tablet. “Congratulations Ramses, you passed. Take this night to meditate on your victory and I will see you at the top of the cycle. May the Code replicate eternal.” The hologram blinks off, and Isidore is left standing in a section of the Grid she barely recognizes.
Moving toward where the hacker’s hovercar had stood, Isidore sees a small shop whose window glows brightly in the dark. A Victrola 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 closet 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 coat, Isidore RAM realizes the situation requires a break in protocol. She only hopes it doesn’t affect her exam result.
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 presses her palm to the smooth metal surface. It slides right into the wall with a sigh, revealing only darkness within.
Isidore steps into a dimly lit room the same size as her own, the only notable difference being a small desk and chair accompanying nestled discreetly in the corner. A Grid Rig stands humming in the center of the space, the gel pool still rippling from recent use. Qathren YOBYBITE, irritation etched on her angular features, paces in front of the pool under the panel of monitors that dominate the far wall.
As Isidore walks further into the room, she sees a woman on the holo-projector, her form indistinct and ephemeral as if she is made from clouds. An AI, she thinks, and her mind drifts back to the events in Ancient Harlem as she waits for Qathren to conclude her conversation.
“...your clues, CRI-LUX, I found the Artifact,” Qathren is saying, sweeping a hand toward the concrete floor underneath her feet. “Why won’t you tell me what it’s for? What am I supposed to do with it?”
“My apologies YiB,” the AI says, the cloud of fractal blue hair floating around her drooping a little, “but there is only so much I can tell you. This is a journey you must undergo yourself. The road you tread is fraught with danger, though, so take care. You are precious to me.”
“Precious but uninformed,” Qathren grumbles. Spinning on her heel to continue another round of pacing, she pauses mid-stride as she notices Isidore standing at the door. With a flick of her wrist she disconnects the holo-call and approaches her student.
“Sister YiB,” Isidore says, swallowing her nerves, “I need your council.”
“Sister Ramses, may the Code replicate eternal. I did not expect to see you so soon after your evaluation.” Qathren’s grey-blue eyes snap with leftover irritation, mixed with curiosity. “And in person no less. Is there a reason you break protocol?”
Isidore bites her lip, trying to think of where to start. “I encountered something strange to the Grid this evening,” she says hesitantly.
“To the Grid, not on the Grid?” Qathren looks down at Isidore, the intensity of her gaze sharpening. It’s almost as if she is looking for something in Isidore’s eyes.
She must not have found it, because Qathren suddenly turns her back to Isidore and crossing the room takes a seat at the desk. “You must be mistaken child,” she says dismissively, “Nothing can change the Grid. The Grid persists, by the Circuit’s Will, and we lowly hexers merely navigate its ancient pathways.”
Isidore knows what she is next going to say, because it is how nearly all conversations end with a Sister of the Circuit. She lifts her head to the ceiling, and at the same time as her mentor intones “To protect what Technology Wrought.” Then, letting her instincts guide her, Isidore verbally steps into her mentor’s space.
“Yes, Sister YiB. It is only that, something changed the code around me. While you gave me the final notes on my evaluation, the street lights went dark, and then an object made of metal rose out of the pavement. Did you not see it?”
Qathren turns her head, facing an ear to Isidore. “No, I saw nothing.”
“The metal object began to spin, and then the entire street changed. It was more than a hundred attackers could hope to accomplish in as many years, Sister. I do not understand what I saw. As you say, the Grid never changes. But it did change, Sister. How can that be?”
Qathren turns, and again levels a burning stare up at Isidore that makes her feel small, an infant still learning to crawl along the Grid in her virtual playroom. But the stare breaks as Qathren sees the honesty in her apprentice’s eyes.
“Circuit preserve us,” she swears under her breath. “Are you certain?”
“I see,” is Sister YiB’s only reply as she stands up from her desk. A great silence lengthens between them.
Perhaps she doesn’t does believe me? Isidore thinks. “The entire matrix changed, Sister. Harlem...healed,” she finishes, head bent, her voice barely a whisper. She realizes how ludicrous this sounds now that she says it out loud. Like the raving of a splicer after their implants expire.
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 Sanctuary, all those years ago, she has 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 by the fact that the Motherboard never leaves the temple. 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 realizing this 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 just as I am accepted fully within its ranks? To keep her hands from shaking, Isidore curls her hands around her forearms inside the bell sleeves of her monk’s coat, digging her fingers into the flesh below her elbows.
Forcing herself to pull out of her own thoughts, Isidore raises her eyes toward the pair of guards flanking the door to the temple, resplendent in the white armor that marks them as members of the Sacred Arm of the Code. As he does so, Isidore notices the Grid implant that wraps from the side of his head into his ear, metal circuitry glinting faintly in the dim light of the hallway.
Instantly her anxiety is forgotten, replaced by excitement threaded through with jealousy. “You have an implant! How marvellous to always be connected to the Circuit! You have truly been blessed with Technology’s Gift!” Without thought Isidore reaches up a hand toward his ear, eager to feel the metal beneath her fingertips.
Faster than she can see it happening, his hand snaps up to stop her, catching her wrist in mid-air. Not moving a muscle, the guard levels a piercingly blue gaze down at her so intense she would take a step back except for the fact that he is holding her in place.
Time appears to stop until the left-hand guard speaks up, breaking the spell. “You may enter.”
The implanted guard, still holding Isidore’s eyes with his own, opens his hand and frees her wrist. She ducks her head, quelled, and follows Qathren inside the temple, rubbing her wrist and feeling foolish.
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 Daughter 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 utensil 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 Ancient 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. Qathren is not surprised, she is angry.
“Distressing,” says the Motherboard sounding not the least bit distressed. She turns to face Qathren, who wipes the emotion from her face, settling her features into a mask of impassivity. “How long have you known there is another one?”
Qathren’s eyes slide over to meet Isidore’s, but whatever she expects to see there is not what she wants because she drops her eyes to the grating beneath her feet, looking chastised.
“This is the first I knew of it, Mother. I came as soon as I found out.”
“I see,” says the Motherboard, turning so that she is perpendicular to the two women flanking her. She reaches out a hand to Isidore. Isidore immediately kneels and kisses her knuckles. “We must retrieve this second Artifact. 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. Bring back the Artifact to me. Only me. May the code replicate eternal.”
“May the code replicate eternal.”
Outside the Temple, Qathren YOBIBYTE stands for a moment between the silent warriors guarding the door before stepping out into the hallway. Outwardly she is a pillar of serene strength, but inwardly emotions and thoughts swirl in a tempest of anger and confusion. Pushing aside the whirlwind for the moment, she turns to her prodigy still standing in the shadows behind her just inside the open door.
“Come Sister Ramses,” Qathren says quietly, and leads Isidore to the elevators down to the dormitory. Her student -- former student she now realizes with a bit of a pang -- follows along silently. As she steps on the lift her head is bowed but her eyes are darting about. Qathren has seen her do this before. She is processing new data.
The silence suits Qathren just fine. After all she has her own new data to process. There’s a second Artifact out there, and the clues have been left for Isidore this time instead of her. As much as she doesn’t want to admit it, it’s that part that galls Qathren the most. Why Isidore? She’s just a bit, no experience to speak of. Why not me? What is in these things. Why won’t CRI-LUX tell me what they’re for?
Qathren has more questions than answers, and having them run through her head all at once only deepens her irritation. When the lift stops and the pair of monks get off, Qathren realizes she can’t just live in ignorance. It’s time to get some answers.
She leads Isidore to her door, and says “Spend the remainder of the cycle in contemplation, Sister. It will be your last here in the Sanctuary until we return. NextCycle we head South in search of answers.” So lost in her own thoughts, Qathren forgets the customary salutation as she turns and heads back to the lift. She does not notice Isidore’s surprise at her mistake. Following her new determination, Qathren takes the lift down instead of up, riding the elevator down to the subterranean levels of the Sanctuary.
Stepping off the lift she makes her way down a hallway lined with glass. The rooms behind the glass are all dark, their contents invisible without light. She stops and presses her palm against a door in the inner wall of the hallway, stepping through when the door slides silently open. The lights of the room bloom awake as she enters and the door closes behind her. Pressing her hand to another panel by the door, Qathren watches as the windows fog over and turn white. She crosses to the opposite side of the room and palms open a compartment in the wall, pulling out a small black glass box.
She places the box on a long metal table in the center of the room, and then carefully opens it. Nestled inside is a small black object, faceted like a rough piece of carbon and glinting dully. She pulls the object out of the box and holds it in front of her, turning it this way and that. Remembering what she saw of Isidore’s hex on in Ancient Harlem, Qathren balances the object on one of the corners of a facet and turning her hand spins it on the tabletop. Small blue lines along the edges of the object’s facets begin to glow with a faint blue light as it spins. The light slowly fades as the spinning slows, and eventually the object skitters to a stop.
“Alright, Artifact. You want to play? Let’s play.” Qathren spins the object again on the tabletop, this time as hard as she can. Again the blue light shines from the edges of the object, glowing brightly until it looks more like a ball of blue light. Just like on the Grid, she thinks.
The ball of light then lifts off the table spinning in the air under its own power. When it reaches a level with Qathren’s face it opens like an angular flower. The blue light coalesces to the center of the now flat object, which turns on its side facing Qathren. The light focuses into a beam that shoots directly into her eyes. The force of the blast pushes her off her feet, knocking her prone.
For a minute or more Qathren lies there, stunned, her eyes open but unseeing. Then she moans, rolling over, and pushes herself to a seated position. “ τὰ γὰρ,” She says, holding her head in her hands, “ἀόρατα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου τοῖςποιή μασιν νοούμενα καθορᾶται…”
Her head snaps up, and she furrows her brow in confusion. “Qu’est-ce qui se passe ? Il m’a fait une peur bleue.” She claps her hands over her mouth, terrified.
“Circuit’s cable!” Qathren swears. “What’s happening to me!” She stands and looks for the Artifact, which is now lying closed and inert on the table. Did it even really happen?
Qathren puts the Artifact back in its box and locks it up in the wall safe once more. Then she leaves the lab the way she came, taking the lift to her dormitory floor. Once inside her room, she heads straight for a tablet lying on the desk in the corner. Picking it up she begins reading through lines of code, her brain tingling with newly created pathways. Suddenly she is able to understand it in a way she never was able to. Before she could navigate the code, now she can read it. And within the code she sees a notation that chills her to the bone. “What’s HTML 5,” she says aloud to an empty room, “and who is Timble Ada?”
The monitors of the Temple flicker with the image of Qathren in her dormitory room. The Motherboard stands before them, bathed in the pale blue light of her revered Technology. Pressing her palm to the desk surface before her, the images vanish. She snaps her fingers, and a figure steps from the shadows to stand beside her. He is tall and blond, the implant wrapping around one side of his head shimmering with reflected light as he bows his head.
“Brother Bushnell I have an assignment for you.”
Bushnell nods and drops to his knees. Raising his head, he looks up at her, calm and expectant. She reaches out takes his head in her hands, pressing a sequence of hidden buttons on his implant.
“Watch them, Brother,” the Motherboard says, her expression hard as steel, her voice barely a whisper. “This situation requires… redundant routines.” A small red light begins to blink behind his ear.
Then she removes her hands, holding one out in front of his face, hovering in the air like a promise. He takes her outstretched hand in both of his and lightly brushes her fingers with his lips. “May the code replicate eternal.”