Isidore RAM barely notices the time pass as she packs her things and meets Qathren at the lift at the end of her hallways. Within her war both excitement and terror, and she is not sure which she wants to win. Sister YiB is not as boyant when Isidore meets her. Her face is dark and brooding, and she looks as if she is going to a funeral rather than on an adventure.
“Are we truly going to leave the Sanctuary Sister?” Isidore asks, unable to contain the question.
Qathren looks up, her eyes focusing on Isidore with an unnerving amount of intensity. “Your first time I take it?”
Isidore nods, “I was born here, or rather,” she says as they step onto the lift, “my life began within these sacred walls.” She reaches out a tentative hand to touch the smooth metal walls that encase them as the lift shoots up through the ground toward the surface.
Qathren watches the floor numbers flicker on the display above the door. “As did all our lives, child,” she says almost absently. Silence stretches between them, and then the older monk speaks again, her tone professorial. “The outside world is a barbaric place, with many people heading their biological drives rather than what Blessed Technology has planned for them.”
When the lift doors open, Qathren strides into a corridor lined with moving walkways. Isidore follows her as closely as she can so she doesn’t miss what her mentor is saying.
“You will need to be cautious lest they infect you with their philosophies.” Qathren steps onto one of the moving walkways, and turns to face Isidore, her eyes serious. “Remember: The organic ruled itself once, and only pain and suffering was the result.”
“I will remember, Sister.”
“Let us hope,” says Qathren, turning her back on Isidore to face the direction of foot traffic, “that the Circuit sees fit to make this a simple investigation, and that our time away from the Sanctuary is short.
Isidore feels the terror winning ground against the excitement in the battle within her, and for a moment is quelled. That is until the walkway pushes up an incline and breaks the surface. Suddenly she is standing in a room made of light and she is temporarily blinded by the brilliance. Once her eyes adjust and her head stops throbbing, she realizes that the room she stands in is actually just lined with windows. The space is several stories tall, all domed glass and gleaming metal reflecting the sunlight outside. Dozens of people mill about the interior, and as they step off the walkway Qathren takes Isidore’s hand in an iron grip.
“Is the organic world always so bright?” Isidore asks, unable to take her eyes off the bright blue sky showing through the windows above them.
“Sadly yes,” Qathren replies, leading Isidore through the crowd toward a set of double doors on the opposite wall. “This planet is still ruled by the flawed nature of the celestial heavens. Take care that you are not seduced by the warmth of the sun. It is an abomination child, there to distract you from all the Circuit Wraught.”
As they step out of the Sanctuary doors, Isidore cannot help but think, But if something is that beautiful, how can it be evil?
The water walkers are particularly slow that day, so by the time it is their turn to ride the auto-stair up to the passenger deck Isidore’s hair is already damp from the morning fog. In her left hand she carries a small suitcase filled with two sets of clothing and an emergency hexing headset should she be required to jump onto the Grid at any point during their journey. She feels comfort at the pull of the added weight of the gear, despite how tired her elbow and shoulder are already getting from holding the bag.
Isidore does her best not to stare at the crowd milling around them, and when she does sneak a look at a bespeckled man to her right, she sees he is staring at her with his mouth slightly agape, and so ducks her head to continue her scrutiny of the pavement. The crowd, with Qathren and Isidore suspended inside, moves as one mass onto the auto-stair, allowing the hydrolic motors to carry them up the three flights up the side of the water walker designated for travel to the East Bay. At the top of the stair, Isidore followed Qathren into a cramp seating area wreathed in windows. As she slid into a seat next to her mentor, Isidore watched the fog roll languidly over the water.
She had been here, on the bay numerous times, but it had only been when she was a small child. She remembers the damp, salty air and the soaring of seagulls above the water, and not much else. Just like her first trip on a water walker when she was three years old, Isidore takes a deep breath, filling her lungs with sea air as the doors close, sealing them inside. She feels the pressure change in her eardrums, and pops them by wiggling her jaw. Inside her is a wiggling of entirely different nature. She cannot help but contain her excitement. She is really doing. She is really outside.
“Sister Ramses,” Qathren says quietly beside her, “please still your body.” She gestures down to Isidore’s ankle which has begun to jitter against the corrugated metal of the suitcase on the floor between Isidore’s legs.
Nodding Isidore stops her leg from shaking, instead choosing to calm her anxiety by reciting an ancient prayer. “Ready,” she whispers, “100, color A asterisk 21. 110, for B equals zero to ten. 120, for plot 36, 15 asterisk A plus 15 plus B.”
This is her favored method of devotion, a prayer inspired by the ancient Code itself and delivered to a supplicant known as Atari. She keeps her hands clasped together, hidden in the sleeves of her coat, her eyes pointed toward the metal grates under her feet. She can feel Qathren’s eyes upon her, but she doesn’t look up until she’s finished the prayer with “1000 go to 1000. May the code replicate eternal.” By now her nerves are calm as they always are after devotion, and her limbs no longer feel like they will jitter out of their sockets. The water walker begins to move, the cabin housing the passengers -- and below that the crew -- sliding smoothly through the air as the great machine’s long hinged legs churn through the water. The motion reminds her of swaying in the water of her Grid rig, and Isidore watches the world slip past them outside the windows, shrouded in mist.
Lulled by the motion of their travel, Isidore closes her eyes, dosing for just a moment. When she opens her eyes again, it is because Qathren is shaking her shoulder. The people around them are shuffling in a mass out the door, down the ramp and into the sunlit afternoon. Unstrapping herself from her seat, Isidore picks up her suitcase, nodding blearily at Qathren to lead on. Her mentor doesn’t speak, instead turning on one heel and stepping into the waiting throng of passengers.
When it is their time to reach the bottom of the ramp, they encounter a quartet of guards, resplendent in their white armor. The men fall into step beside Qathren and Isidore as they walk across the crowded transit hub, providing a human boundary between the monks and the crowd around them. Isidore walks along in her little bubble, feeling her anxiety and excitement tempered by the familiar safety of the Church Guard. Everything was so new, so organic outside of the cloister, it was comforting to know even here the Motherboard was protecting them from the corrosion of the outside world.
They move as one across the square, moving from the water walker terminal toward the Cradle of the Code hyperloop station. With their guard escort, Qathren and Isidore float through the waiting crowd and directly into the station proper, heading toward the forward most section of the boarding platform. While the rest of the passengers would be filing into a standard cabin, members of the Church of Technology are blessed with the opportunity to ride next to the engines. While the uninitiated crowd would watch the world speed by and 750 miles per hour, the monks would be able to meditate on the wonders of technology with a view of the magnetic mechanism itself.
When the doors to the hyperloop open, the guards do not step inside. Qathren nods a dismissal to them as she steps on board, and Isidore follows her with a strange sense of disappointment growing within her.
“They will not accompany us?” Isidore asks as she steps into the dimly lit cabin. Half a dozen austere seats are featured here, each placed so it has a clear view of the cabin’s glass floor. Below them Isidore can see the rails the train will glide on, and one set of the vehicles enormous magnets floating in a constant struggle of attraction. They are the only two passengers in the Church’s cabin, so when Qathren takes her place in a center seat, Isidore can see her shake her head even in the dim light reflected from the mechanisms below.
“The guard remain in the Cradle. From this point on, we will be on our own.” Qathren’s voice carries both an admonition and a warning.
Isidore takes her seat, her eyes drifting down to the view below. The gullwing doors drop closed, sealing them inside the cabin, and a set of pale blue lights around their seats click on so that they do not have to sit in complete darkness. Isidore wonders idylly what the standard passengers are seeing, and then immediately dismisses the thought. Whatever deceptive beauty the outside world provides, it pales in comparison to the wonder of Technology’s mechanisms.
A moment later, the pull of gravity tugs Isidore into her seat as the hyperloop begins to speed along its twin rails, hurdling south toward El-Ay. She closes her eyes and prepares to pray her Atari mantra, when Qathren breaks her concentration.
“We are heading into a very dangerous situation, child,” Sister YiB says, her voice as hard as the steel around them. “Tell me, what do you remember of the organic world?”
Isidore is surprised by the deeply personal nature of the question. There are unspoken rules about speaking about a sister’s past before the Church. Sisters are ashamed of their flawed pasts, and rightly so. One does not simply bring up such painful memories about their time before the Church. Unless I am being tested, thinks Isidore.
Sitting up a little straighter, Isidore says, “I was very young when I was saved by the Sisters of the Circuit. I am fortunate to remember very little of the time before.” She looks up to see Qathren’s reaction, but her mentor shows none.
“And your mother?” Qathren presses. “Do you not remember her who gave you life? Her who loved you before all others?”
“Why, the Code gave me life, Sister. My mother was merely the host used to transmit the data.”
A darkness Isidore does not understand clouds Qathren’s eyes when she hears this. Is that...disappointment? Isidore thinks, then immediately dismisses the thought. That would make no sense. So instead of jumping to wild, unfounded conclusions, she waits to hear her mentor’s response.
A long silence stretches where Qathren merely watches her. Then she says, “Of course. I can see you are completely devoted to the Circuit.” There it is again, the tinge of regret is hard to ignore, but Isidore does not know how to react. Why would my devotion be regrettable?
“There may come a time when that devotion is tested,” Qathren says unexpectedly. “Remember the skills you have been taught as a hexer. Read your surroundings, notice the discrepancies, react to preserve all that is right and true. This will serve you well off the Grid as well as on it.”
Isidore nods solemnly, but she is troubled. Qathren has quoted one of the prime precepts of hexing, but for the first time she has changed the words. Her entire life Isidore has heard these rules repeated: ‘Read the code, notice the discrepancies, react to preserve all the code has wrought.’ The change is deliberate, of that she is certain, but she cannot understand why. This must be to prepare me for the outside world. How barbaric it must be out there! But is it barbaric enough to make Qathren change the first precept?
Isidore spends the rest of the hyperloop journey lost in her own thoughts. Thirty minutes pass and she feels the forward momentum of the train begin to slow around her. She takes a few minutes to watch the mechanism beneath the floor glass, cementing its glowing magnetic workings into her memory for future contemplation. Food for future meditation. After all, I might not see any more machinery out in the barbaric world.
When the train’s vibration stops completely and the gullwing doors raise open Isidore steels herself, retrieves her suitcase and follows Qathren into the hyperloop station. The platform is identical to the one in the Cradle of the Code, and for a moment Isidore feels a rush of relief wash over her.
“I thought we would be stepping into a wasteland,” she says to her mentor as they make their way toward the exit elevators. Qathren tosses her a mysterious look, and when they step into the waiting elevator says “We are. We just haven’t gotten to the heathen Ohsee yet.”
Outside the hyperloop station, Qathren hails an autocab and they slide into the back seat.
Isidore cannot help but smile. “The Circuit certainly smiles upon us. Three vehicles in one day. Why, we are almost entirely surrounded by machinery on this journey!”
Qathren looks at her apprentice and her hard eyes soften. “I envy your purity child. It is a precious thing, so treasure it, and protect it as much as you can. It may be what saves you from calamity.” She turns and inputs their destination on the touchpad on the door.
There is no driver’s seat in this car, since it will never be driven by a human. Instead the cabin is open, spacious, and wreathed with windows that provide Isidore an unobstructed view. Before them in the distance stands the crumbling spires of El-Ay, remaining as a grim reminder of how the organic world has failed to govern itself. As the autocab rushed forward along the mag-lev highway, Isidore can’t help but wonder if just travelling past the ruined former metropolis would infect them with the same contagion that had wiped out the city. She breathes easier when they put El-Ay behind them and angled toward the coast.
Isidore is jarred from her reverie by the chiming bell of an incoming vidcall. Before she can reach for the console on her side of the cabin, Qathren thumbs the answer button on her touch pad and sighs. The face of a woman made of circuits appears on the screen that flips down from the autocab’s ceiling. Her features are indistinct as the image crackles with fractals and patterns that remind Isidore of the Grid. Curious, she looks to Qathren, who shoots her a look filled with resignation and regret.
“Qathren…”says the woman on the screen, her voice sounding more digital than human, “There must be another way.”
Qathren shakes her head slightly, “Lady, you yourself brought us here.”
A wave of patterns washes over the woman’s face and for a moment she is completely obscurred. When she reappears, her eyes look sad. “The time for answers has come, but you approach the precipice with darkness in your heart.”
Qathren straightens slightly in her seat. Isidore recognizes this posture as her mentor’s stubborn streak showing. “Sometimes darkness is required to promote the light.”
The image on the screen fractures into a myriad of triangles. When it returns she says in a voice coated in distortion. “I cannot condone this. Turn back now or you will go alone.”
Qathren looks visibly pained at this, yet says “So be it. You must be protected at all cost.”
“This cost is too great.” The image vanishes in a snap of static.
Isidore looks pointedly out the window, allowing her mentor time to collect herself after the upsetting vidcall. As the hills of Oh-See rush past, she replays the conversation in her mind.
Who was that? And what is this cost she speaks of?
Something tells her that there is more going on than she may ever know.
The autotaxi speeds along the coastline, the clear blue sky turning gray as fog from the water envelops them. There are no other vehicles on the highway, so Isidore begins to feel insulated in their vehicle, the world outside indistinct and blurry. What buildings she can see are mostly ruins. The Great Subduction was not kind to Oh-See. The devastation left very little above water, and the rest in rubble and dust. Because of this shift in landscape between the Ancient World and the new, the autotaxi doesn’t take them directly to the address Isidore saw on the Grid. Instead it drops them off at a small fishing village called Turtle Rock.
“Stay silent Isidore,” Qathren cautions as she leads the way into a small storefront that overlooks the New Newport Bay. The building is cobbled together from other pieces of construction, a cracked tile roof hovers precariously over the walls of what look to be a former seafood shop. They enter through a faded red dutch door that bears the words “Mamacita’s Tratoria” in cracked yellow script.
“Welcome to Mamacita’s,” coughs an elderly man behind the counter. He wears a faded leather vest covered in overfilled pockets over a shirtless chest covered in even more faded tattoos. A set of infared goggles perch atop his receding forehead, and as he wipes the spittle from his mouth, he extends a hand and his thin lips stretch in a wan smile. He does not seem welcoming.
“We need to rent a hoverboat,” Qathren begins without preamble. She extends her wrist as she approaches him, showing the barcode inscribed there that everyone in the Church’s domain use for identification and payment. Isidore scratches her own, suddenly nervous. She feels very exposed standing in her monk’s coat as the shopkeeper’s eyes slide over her, but after a moment he turns his attention back to Qathren, and nods.
“It’s been a long while since I’ve seen a pair of monks in Oh-See. On official business are you?” He sits back in his creaking three wheeled chair, evidently determined to make small talk.
“We are on mission from the Motherboard herself,” Qathren responds cooly, thrusting her right wrist forward a second time. “And the Church will not appreciate delays of any kind.”
The threat in her words never reaches her voice, but the message is clear enough to change the man’s posture. He pushes forward in his chair, nodding, and from behind him pulls a tablet from a hook on the wall without looking. “I have two watercraft available at the moment. For Sisters of the Circuit, of course, there will be a steep discount.” He flicks through screens on the tablet, then holds it so that Qathren can see.
“Whichever is more seaworthy,” Qathren says, her eyes watching him intensely.
“Out for an ocean voyage is it?” he asks casually, typing rapidly on the tablet. He swipes a few more screens, then shows the leasing contract to Qathren, who presents her barcode to the reader on the tablet without answering.
Shrugging at her lack of response, he leads them around the side of the building to a small rickety dock. There are indeed two hoverboats tied here, bobbing in the greenish brown water of the bay. One is a small, single-seater model clearly designed for short trips around the bay. The other is larger, older, and resembles nothing less than an worn-out metal shoe slumped there against the dock. The shopkeeper turns and lifts a rusted metal ladder from where it stands against the building, then drops it down the side of the dock in front of the older hoverboat, sliding two hooks into notches cut into the dock.
Without a word, Qathren swings down onto the ladder, her coat flapping around her, and she makes her way down onto the deck of the hoverboat. She reaches up and Isidore hands her suitcase down, then turns to also descend the ladder. Before she does however, a gnarled hand snatches her elbow, making her lift her eyes in surprise.
“Enjoy yourself girl out there on the water, no matter how dour your partner there may be. There is beauty around you, you just have to see it.” Then he releases her arm, and turns to walk away.
Isidore blinks, then descends the ladder where Qathren waits with a steadying arm. Guilt and confusion battle within her as Qathren untethers the hoverboat and starts up the engine by pressing her barcode to the console. He mentioned beauty. But the organic world is profane, barbaric, evil. Why then have I been enjoying myself so much on this journey? Could he tell?
The hoverboat rumbles to life, and Qathren navigates out into open water before turning the craft around southward, toward the open ocean. The fog is heavy here down on the water, and the mist dampens Isidore’s cheeks and hair. Troubled by her warring emotions, she keeps her eyes on the scuffed floor of the hoverboat, lest her eyes wander over the landscape and be infected further by her surroundings.
“We’re nearly there,” Qathren says after several minutes, and Isidore raises her head to see the remains of an ancient wooden sign peaking out of the water. Most of the letters have washed away, leaving a cryptic smattering of warped black letters staggered across the cracked paint.
“Elcobosan?” Isidore sounds them out hesitantly.
Qathren nods. “This was once Ancient Balboa, before the Subduction left most of this area underwater. The sign is helpful however. Our destination is just a ways straight past here.” She points out to sea, the horizon past the leaning sign unbroken by neither building or debris.
“Why would an anomaly from the Grid lead us out to the middle of open water?” Isidore asks, confused.
Qathren didn’t answer, driving the hoverboat slowly through the misty evening. The sun was beginning to kiss the horizon, painting the fog with a strange orange light. Suddenly she cuts the engine and turns to Isidore.
“We’re here.” She shrugs out of her monks coat, folds it into a neat pile on the side of the hoverboat, and pulls off her boots leaving her feet bare. “Bring me your suitcase.”
Frowning, Isidore obeys, pulling the suitcase from where she had stashed it during their travel down the bay. “Do you need some clothing, Sister YiB?” Qathren did look a little chilled standing on the deck of the hoverboat in only her underthings.
Qathren takes the suitcase, upending it so that Isidore’s clothes and headset tumble onto the stained hoverboat floor. Then she reaches into the lining of the case, ripping it free to reveal several small devices hidden there. The first Isidore recognizes as a rebreather for diving deep underwater. The other four are small rectangular mechanisms with small blocks of some gray material attached to their backs.
Qathren stands up, looking at Isidore as if almost about to say something. Then she shakes herself a bit and says “stay here, I’m going down below.” With that she clamps her teeth around the rebreather, gathers up the other devices, and dives into the churning gray water.
Isidore stands where she is, too shocked to move. Why did Sister YiB hide machinery in her suitcase? she thinks. And when did she do it?
Minutes pass, and Isidore begins to slowly pace down the center of the boat, her symbol of the Circuit’s Core clutched in one hand. Whatever they were meant to find is obviously down in the water, and Qathren is probably handling it herself. The mechanisms she hid in Isidore’s case were most likely stashed there for convenience. As to the when Qathren would have access to Isidore’s possessions, that was a question with only troubling answers so Isidore left it where it lay at the back of her mind. She trusted her mentor, and she would let trust be enough.
Kneeling in the bottom of the hoverboat, Isidore closes her eyes and begins to pray. “100, color A asterisk…” She lets her belief in the Code and the Circuit fill her, pushing the nagging doubt to the back of her mind. When the boat underneath her begins to shake, she barely recognizes the movement, and it takes a blast of cold, damp air for her to break her concentration on her prayer.
She looks up, seeing several dark shadows staining the water around her little boat. The shadows grow darker, and then shapes being to coalesce out of the mist, blocking out the orange haze from the setting sun. Shocked, Isidore watches as several machines drop out of the sky to hover just above the surface of the water. She blinks. My prayers have been answered! she thinks, astonished. Thank the Code!
Four massive machines surround her, each with two legs and a central cockpit. They land in the water, evidently finding support on submerged structures under the water. To her right the trapezoidal cockpit window of a red machine hisses open, revealing a man inside. His dark angular features are clouded over with an anger he isn’t trying to hide, an anger he clearly is focusing down on Isidore.
“Dammit, they beat us to it. Umbre!” he barks, climbing out to stand on the nose of his vehicle.
A second vehicle cracks open, this one larger and crisscrossed with yellow hatch marks along its side. The man who stands up from within it is larger than the first, but clearly the subordinate in the relationship despite his imposing stature. “The intel was perfect, I swear,” he says, and Isidore sees he wears a set of mechanogoggles strapped to his face. “I heard no chatter about another crew.”
The first man turns to the second, looking disgusted. “It wasn’t exactly perfect,” he growls, throwing a hand out to point at Isidore. “Just look at her.”
The large man smiles, climbing out of the cockpit of his vehicle so that he too is standing on its nose. He squats down, leering with a toothy grin down at Isidore. “I did. Very tasty.”
By this time a third vehicle, a sleeker one with a blue sheen to its metal, has slid open. A woman stands atop it, her purple hair braided into a knot at the the back of her head. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, little man,” She says. “Something tells me she’s a handful.”
The fourth vehicle and the largest doesn’t open at all. Evidently its occupant doesn’t feel in a talking mood.
The first man sighs, wiping a hand down his face. Isidore notices that the side of his head glitters with embedded circuitry. “You alone missy?” he asks her.
Isidore shakes her head, finally remembering to get to her feet. “No, YiB is down there.” She points down into the water.
“Down there?” he asks incredulously. “With the artifact?”
His answer comes in the form of Qathren bursting out of the water. She pulls herself into the boat, spitting out her rebreather. “It is begun.”
“Well that’s not good,” the first man says. “No one ever uses the word “begun” for something pleasant.”
Isidore turns to help Qathren stand, handing her the folded coat. Qathren takes it, but rather than putting it on, she uses it to wipe her face.
“Sister? What is happening?” Isidore asks, unable to contain the growing fear spreading through her belly. This is no time to go all organic! she internally chides herself.
Not raising her eyes to the people around her, Qathren says looking down at the rumpled coat in her hands, “So long hiding who I am, burying the truth until only the lie remains.” She shakes her head, closing her eyes and letting the coat drop to the deck of the hoverboat. “I thought the mission was worth anything. But now I’ve lose the one thing I was fighting to protect. Nothing is worth that.”
Opening her eyes, she looks down at a confused Isidore. For not the first time, Isidore finds herself envying her mentor’s additional height. Qathren takes her by the shoulders, continuing her confusing monolog. “It’s not too late to turn back.” Then she looks up at the people on their vehicles. “It never is.” She locks eyes with Isidore. “Tell the Lady ‘I’m sorry’.” And then she dives back into the water.
Five heartbeats later the explosion goes off.
A great plume of water shoots up from underneath the hoverboat, sending Isidore flying face first into the water. As seawater rains down around her, the vehicles shake and begin to rise out of the water their pilots scrambling for purchase.
“Hold on!” Says the first man, as the submerged buildings begin to rise out of the water for the first time in centuries. “Crap, she’s activated the artifact!”
Structures all around them were lifting out of their sunken graves. Most of them seemed to be strangely well preserved for having spent so long in the sea. The preservation didn’t extend to the strength of the buildings with giant machines on them however. The building underneath the big man’s vehicle began to lurch and crumble, sending large chunks of cracked masonry down in Isidore’s direction.
Isidore might have been able to swim out of the way, if the water was still underneath her. Unfortunately, the ancient intersection at 100 Onyx is now steadily rising from the water, and although she is able to roll away from the first section of the wall as it came crashing down, she doesn’t see the section of red tiled roof she had rolled into the path of on its way toward the street, and when it impacted against her skull she doesn’t see anything but the blackness of the void.