Isidore RAM dreams in code, she always has. In her mind, the world is drawn in numbers and symbols, the digital fabric of the universe rolling out before her as one binary landscape.
In this dream she kneels within a cave carved from snippets of the Grid, but the walls and ceiling press in upon her. She reaches up, attempting to push the chunks of code away, but they are relentless and she knows she will be crushed by that which she loves most.
Before her last moment comes, the ceiling of the cave is shattered, a massive pair of mechanical hands reaching to pull her free. She is lifted up from her prison, cradled in the giant metal palms of a red mech. She reaches out to press her palms to the window of its cockpit, smiles at her savior, then says to the machine, “Thank the Circuit for you.”
When she wakes, Isidore finds herself smiling to herself in the dark. For the first time since she left the Sanctuary she feels safe, protected. Then she moves and the pain begins. Great sheets of it pour over her back and limbs, bright and blinding in its intensity. She grasps the first thing she can reach, trying to steady herself, and her hand snatches at something soft and warm. In her confusion it takes her a moment to put a name to it. It’s a blanket! Where am I that they would waste such effort to warm a worthless human body?
She stands, her head swims, and she sits back down to steady herself. By this time her eyes have adjusted to the low visibility in the room, and by the light leaking underneath a door in the opposite side of the room she can see that she is sitting on a bed covered in a blanket. In fact, this room is lined with a half dozen beds, each topped with a pillow and blanket. Confused and unnerved by this extravagance, Isidore stood and crossed to the door, opening it with a palm press to the jamb.
The space beyond the door is a long corridor, its ceiling open to a set of rafters that curved up and out of sight. She passed two more rooms whose doors were darkened so that she could not see inside, and then the corridor met a hallway to her right. Turning down the hallway, she followed it out into what felt like an outside space. She realized quickly looking up that the room was just gigantic, those same curving rafters forming an arched roof several hundred feet above her head. The size of the room would have frightened her, she who has lived her life in tiny cloister rooms and warrens within the Sanctuary. But this place has something that sets her curiosity aflame and makes her forget her earlier unease. Standing along the center of the building are four mechs, looming like huge metal soldiers awaiting orders. One of them is the red one from her dream. It stands gleaming dully in shadow, not shining as she remembers in her reverie. She hears the sound of clanging metal outside, so Isidore lets her curiosity pull her along toward the giant doors at the end of the building that open to the outside world.
It takes a moment for her to adjust to the brightness of the sunlit morning, but when she does Isidore sees that she is standing on a sandbar about 300 feet from the shoreline. She can smell salt on the air, feel moisture in the breeze that tousles her hair, and feel the warm sand beneath her feet. Down the beach a ways she sees two massive vehicles clashing in a violent struggle on the sand.
A machina is running toward a second, arms raised, churning up sand with each colossal step. It attempts to pound the cockpit glass of his opponent and shatter it. The second machina easily pivots to avoid the attack, spinning the top section around to land a hit on the now vulnerable side of the cockpit. The first machina stumbles sideways from the hit, and as it does so it reaches out to swipe at the second vehicle. Unfortunately the momentum of the second machina’s blow pushes the first off balance and it falls onto the beach face up.
The second machina fires its jump jets and rises high into the air, the leap arching until it is right above its prone enemy. Cutting the power at just the right moment, it comes crashing down on the hydraulic system just below the cockpit, crunching pipes, motors and wires with its massive mechanical feet. Oil and hydraulic lubricant begin to stain the beach sand black. Sparks snap from the shattered mechanism that once allowed the machina to walk.
A roar of rage bellows from the prone machina’s cockpit, and Isidore realizes with surprise that the vehicles must have pilots inside them. The pilot reaches out with his machina’s pincers attempting to claw his way into the undercarriage of the machina currently standing upon his. The metallic fingers just scrape the metal sending more sparks flying, but it is unable to damage the thick outer lining of the engine compartment.
Unharmed, the standing machina lifts one leg to smash down again. The machina wobbles off kilter before it can bring the leg down to do damage, and he is forced to step back off of the damaged machina in order to stabilize himself. As he does this the prone vehicle reaches out to trip the standing machina, but the angle is too difficult to make and it whiffs open air. While the mechanical arm swings by him Dax tries to grab it with his own vehicle’s pincers, but the arm is moving too quickly and the clunky machina can’t move fast enough to make purchase in time.
By this time the first machina is just trying to get on its feet, but the hydraulics that work the legs are beyond useless and will not respond to controls. A scream reverberates loud enough to be heard outside the cockpit and it swings at the standing machina, once again attempting to topple itsopponent.
The second machina pilot fires his jump jets and easily leaps to the other side, out of range of arching mechanical arm. He lifts the arms of his own mech high over the cockpit, momentarily blocking out the sun, and then brings them down to smash toward his enemy sprawled helpless on the sand. He misjudges the distance though and hits the beach instead, sending an explosion of sand into the air.
The prone machina punches toward the knee of its opponent, but with the sudden cloud of sand blocking the pilot’s view he misses. The pilot of the second machina tries a second overhead smash, this time connecting with the engine block, pounding it hard enough to crumble the metal inward. The force of the blow crushes the internal components and the engine sputters and dies. In a final show of prowess, the prevailing machina lifts a hydraulic powered foot to pin the disabled vehicle to the sand.
Two metal men on the beach, one standing over the other, foot on its chest, posturing in mechanical victory. Then the machina open their hatches, revealing their all too human cores. The first man to exit his vehicle is tall, blond and chiseled in a way that speaks of the military. Isidore wonders if he has ever served as a guard for the Church of Technology. She has not seen this man before. He comes rolling out of the defeated machina, landing in a three point stance with his eyes glaring up at the second man. The dark one she had seen at 100 Onyx. He is smirking as he leaps lightly down from the cockpit of his vehicle, and he needs no steadying hand as his opponent did, but there is something very serious in his eyes as he reaches down to help the first man up. They stand side by side now, and Isidore can see that the first man, the even-more-a-stranger stranger, is almost a head taller than the man she has already encountered. She can also see the rage in his cold blue eyes.
“That settled then?” says the second man as he pulls the first to his feet. “Or do we need to discuss it further?”
The blond man spits in the sand. “This is a mistake, and you know it.”
“Might be,” the shorter man says, “but it’s mine to make.”
The first man seethes, his eyes catching Isidore’s for a moment, and she has to look away because of the sheer level of hatred she sees within. Isidore stumbles back in surprise, tripping over her own feet and landing sprawled in the sand. In the next moment the dark eyed man is there, reaching for her in a way that reminds her of her dream.
“Are you alright?” he asks, concerned.
“Yes,” Isidore manages weakly as he pulls her to her feet, “I admit this is all more uneven than I expected.”
“What is?” he asks, gently guiding her toward the huge building she awoke in.
“The outside.” Isidore hears him chuckle and wonders what he finds so funny.
Down on the beach, three figures stand on the sand beside the crashed machina. Smoke swafts away from its engine block down the beach and out to sea.
“The things we do for a fine piece,” Umbre says, cocking his head to watch Isidore walk away.
“I’m a fine piece,” says a green-haired woman beside him as she begins to open a hatch in the side of the broken vehicle, “he never did that for me.”
The third man looms over his companions, cracking his knuckles and grinding his teeth. His blue eyes snap with rage. “He’ll regret this. No one puts a chick above the crew. Not even Dax.”
Back inside the building, the dark-eyed man leads Isidore to a makeshift kitchen. He pours her a cup of coffee and one for himself, then sits down across from her. He watches her over the steam of his beverage but says nothing. He’s waiting for me to speak, Isidore thinks, is that to give me time to collect my thoughts? She takes a sip of the coffee, winces at the bitterness. He laughs, his dark eyes twinkling.
“This tastes bad,” Isidore says, pushing the mug away.
“Yeah, well, Umbre does most of the cooking around here, but it was my turn to make the joe. Never been much good at it,” he says, drinking from his own mug. “I doubt they’ll have me do it again.” Again he smiles as if sharing some secret joke with her.
“Umbre?” Isidore asks, not wanting to be any more rude about her companion’s cooking skills.
“Skinny one,” he says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder to a digital photo projected on the wall. It depicts the four machina riders smiling in front of their vehicles, the massive building behind them. “Likes to stare.”
“And the woman with the green hair?” she stands and crosses to the photo to look at their faces more closely. It feels a little like she is watching strangers travel the Grid during one of her shifts.
“Surge, maven of all things mechanical.”
“And the angry one?”
“That is Crossfire,” Isidore hears to her right, and realizes he’s come to stand behind her. “He’s a bit protective of the crew, and distrusting of others. I would steer clear of him. You’re not his favorite person right now.”
Isidore turned on her heel to face him. She looked up at him, unable to hide her indignance. “Why would he be angry at me? I’m a complete stranger!”
“Well you were trying to steal our artifact,” he says, smiling down at Isidore.
For the first time she can see the implants shining at his temple, a metallic web that ran from his cheekbone up into his hair and out of sight. Like the guard outside the server room at the Sanctuary. She feels a stab of jealousy. Perhaps she can ask for an implant as a reward for her service in this mission. She blinks, suddenly understanding what he is saying.
“Wait, what artifact?” she asks, confused.
“Not ringing a bell? Well then what was the other lady doing fiddling with it down in the water? She obviously knew what was down there. Enough to blow it to splinters.”
“Qathren!” Isidore whispers, feeling the guilt hit her hard enough that she staggers back into the photo. Leaning against the wall, she feels panic choke her. She hadn’t even thought about her mentor since she woke up here! What sort of worthless student would forget the woman who had died only a few short hours before?
Isidore lets out a small sob, letting the projected light from the photo wash over her, unheeded. She is not supposed to mourn the loss of a Sister. After all, they are merely organic beings, tools of the Code, blasphemous in their analog impurity. Why then does her heart ache so?
Above her the man stands, quietly watching her but giving her space. He doesn’t reach for her as he did down on the beach. When at last Isidore looks up at him, the smile is gone from his eyes, and there is something like recognition of loss there in their dark depths. He knows what this feels like, she thinks.
“I’m Isidore RAM, Sister of the Circuit, and I’ve just lost my mentor,” she says in business-like fashion, or as best she can considering the wobble in her voice. “The Circuit led us here, but now she’s gone. And all for some organic nonsense,” she swore, feeling rebellious enough to slip into epithets.
“There’s nothing organic about the artifacts,” he says smiling suddenly crossing to flop back into his chair at the table. “And they are far from nonsense. You saw what happened out there. The land rose out of the water.”
“What are they?” Isidore asks, her curiosity taming her ire.
“Valuable, that’s what they are,” he shrugs, “Beyond that I don’t care what they are. We’ll find them, sell them, and live like kings.”
“Of course, Dax,” says a voice in the shadows beyond the kitchen doorway, “In order to live like kings, we actually have to get the artifact we hunt.”
Daxas takes a nonchalant swig from his coffee mug, only mildly wincing at the taste, “Details.”
From out of the dim light Umbre steps into the kitchen to lean against the counter closest to Isidore. He crosses his arms and smiles down at her, while he continues to speak to Dax.
“Shame it’s one of those details that’s calling asking for his product. He wants to speak with you.” Umbre leans in closer to Isidore, “I shall look at our guest until you return.”
“Don’t you mean ‘look after?’” Isidore asks, looking up at him.
Umbre’s smile spreads into a grin. “Not even slightly.”
Pushing his chair back from the table, Dax stands and pours the rest of his coffee down the sink. He crosses back to the table, reaches between Umbre and Isidore, then grabs her arm, gently lifting her out of her chair.
“She comes with me,” Dax says, his eyes level with Umbre’s.
“You don’t trust me?” Umber pouts, his lower lip protruding like a toddler’s whose ice cream has hit the pavement. “I’m wounded.”
“You will be if you touch her,” Dax says evenly.
Umbre’s smile fades a little, and after a moment he nods acknowledgement, and follows Dax and Isidore out of the room.
The three of them make their way down the hall toward what looks like a communications room. Isidore finds herself relaxing for the first time since she awoke. The far wall is filled with screens of various sizes and ages. All of them seem to be arrayed to one computer, which sits on a long table next to a keyboard, in front of which sit of a pair of rusty chairs, both occupied by members of the crew. Currently the screens collectively show the face of a young man with asian features and black hair, lounging in a red suit on a white sofa. Behind him the wall is blanketed in paintings from before the Collapse, mostly rare California impressionist watercolors, although there are a few oil portraits of long dead European nobility scattered amongst the golden-toned redwood forests and rocky beach scenes. Luxury and power, the room says, and an unhealthy amount of both.
“Mister Piers,” the man asks, his hands idly fingering a golden pocketwatch connected to his vest by a long, silver chain. my artifact is not in my possession. Why is that?”
Dax steps up to stand behind the seated Surge and Crossfire. He leans on the back of their chairs. “Mr. Trang, sir, we have difficulties locating the product. Once we iron out the logistics we will be able to take possession and deliver it to you as promised.”
“LIES!” Shreaks Trang, his face growing red with sudden rage. Even his dark eyes seem to turn red.” “It’s all over the Grid, Daxas you backstabbing scoundrel!” On screen Trang clutches his watch so tightly in his left hand that his knuckles begin to turn white. “You activated my artifact, then try to lie to cover up the mess you made! I should have you hunted down immediately!” He motions to someone off camera, and immediately a pair of leather clad men step into frame.
“There’s no need for that,” Dax says, just quickly enough to sound completely natural. “We have another location, sir. We’ll replace the activated artifact and have the new one in your hands soon.”
Mr Trang sits up, waving his soldiers away. “Not soon, Daxas Piers. Three days. If I don’t have another artifact -- an unsullied one -- in my possession in three days you will not see a fourth.” He snaps his fingers, the feed is cut, and the screens pulse faintly with a green glow before going black, the words “LINK DEAD” scrawled across the screen array. Dax grabs the keyboard and throws it at the wall in frustration.
Isidore gives out a little gasp as if she’s been slapped, and then rushes over to retrieve the fragments. Such violence against the divine! she thinks. What a heathen!
“So that’s it then,” Crossfire says, standing and turning to face Dax. “We’re screwed.”
Daxas, who has begun rubbing his eyes, looks up suddenly, his eyes hard. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Then you’d finally have what you want.”
Crossfire does not correct him. “You’re one paranoid mofo, you know that?” he says instead.
“So you’re telling me,” Dax says, his voice curdled with danger, “the duel really was just about the girl?”
“Yeah, actually it was,” Crossfire says, throwing an arm toward Isidore, where she sits cradling the shattered keyboard in her arms like a wounded bird, “We have important business here, and she’s just taking up space with her crazy.”
“Had business, you mean. Without fresh intel on where we can find more artifacts, we’re toast.”
“I like toast,” says Isidore unhelpfully.
“Oh yeah,” purrs Surge sarcastically as she leans over her chair, “she’s completely normal.”
“Perhaps I’ll go chat up my contacts,” offers Umbre from his place by the door. “Fresh intel will cost though, and are reserves are, alas, dry.”
A thought occurs to Isidore, and so she stands and approaches Daxas. “I can get you fresh intel. No reservation required.”
“Information on an artifact?” Asks Dax, incredulous. “How? You don’t even know what they are? We don’t even know what they are.”
Isidore smiles, finally feeling in her element. “It’s what I do. I am a hexer.”
“You, my lovely have hidden depths,” says Umbre.
“I am not your lovely,” says Isidore over her shoulder. She turns to Dax. “Where’s your surfing rig?”
Dax waves a hand at her arms, laden with the ruined remnants of the keyboard. “You’re looking at it.” His irritated expression melts, and he smiles wistfully. “Not much chall for walking the Grid when you can ride a machina. All the power of the world, right at your fingertips.” He flexes his hands, but whether this is in illustration or in remembrance Isidore cannot tell.
Isidore nods respectfully, then thinks a moment. “Know anyone who doesn’t ride a machina?”
Dax snaps his attention back to the present, and looks down in surprise at Isidore. “As a matter of fact I do. Come on, let’s go. We’ll stop for toast along the way.”
For the fifth time in two days, Isidore RAM is climbing into a strange vehicle. Down on the beach Dax helps her into his red racing machina, handing her into the back seat with surprising strength. It must be his implants, she thinks, too distracted by the cockpit around her to consider it further.
While the front seat is wrapped with screens and controls, the back seat is an insular cocoon wrapping her in machinery. Behind her she can feel him growl of the engine as it grumbles awake, like an angry lion disturbed from a nap on the sand. As the cockpit slides closed Isidore sighs in contentment, recalling her room at the Sanctuary and her cozy little sleeping closet.
“Here we go,” Dax says from the front seat. He thumbs a touchpad above his head and then the hydraulics in the legs underneath them begin to nicker as they propel them down the beach. At first the movement is jarring, but then as they pick up speed and the machina begins to run, the sway of the cabin becomes a sort of dance and the sound of motors, hydraulics, and gears the song they move to.
“Check this out,” Dax calls over the rumble of the engine, and manipulates a set of controls that Isidore can’t see. She can feel the result though, as the engines behind her begin to roar and they lift off the ground. Out of the small sliver of window above her Isidore can see the clouds envelop them.
“We’re flying!” she exclaims, unable to contain her excitement. “What a wonderful machine!”
“Cadigan is a doll, to be sure,” comes Dax’s reply from the from the front seat. “We’re here.”
Isidore feels her body gently fall from the ether, cradled in machinery. She pets the worn leather of the seat in front of her, silently sending thanks to the machina for their journey. When the engine silences, she can feel the absence of the vibration in her skull and it makes her feel slightly lightheaded.
The cockpit window lifts open, and Dax stands and straddles the machina body so that he can turn and help Isidore from her seat. As she follows him down the hand and foot holds divoting the side of the machina, she thinks to ask “You named your machina Cadigan?”
“Sure” Dax says, fingering a sequence into the side of the machina. The cockpit lid drops closed on its whispering hydraulics. “Everything beautiful deserves a name.”
He heads off across the cracked pavement toward a solitary building in the center of what appears to be an island in the bay. It’s a square structure that looks ancient enough to have survived both the Subduction and the Collapse. Over the years the owners apparently felt they needed to occupy the entire back half of the island, and so added on a pair of shoulders and a head to the original building, making it look like nothing less than a lopsided torso rising out of the water. The words “Guppy House” blink around a bright orange fish above the doorway.
Inside Dax says a quick few words in a language Isidore thinks might be Taiwanese to an immaculately dressed woman with golden skin and a shimmering digital tattoo of a dragon wrapping around her neck. She nods and smiles, then leads them to a table against the window facing the parking lot where Cadigan sits shining brightly in the midday sun. “Need to keep an eye on my girl,” Dax says by way of explanation as he sits.
The room they are in is mostly made of glass, either in the windows or in the dozen fish tanks that line the walls. Most of the light come from the aquariums themselves, so it is a space that is both eerie and colorful, like an otherworldly church with moving stained glass. Wherever there is a spot for it, long vines trail down the walls, across the ceiling, and even over a few of the tables.
A young girl approaches, perhaps twelve or thirteen to take their order. Dax immediately rattles off another smattering of Taiwanese, and she hurries away to the kitchens. They sit in silence, Isidore openly stares at the patrons around them, and Dax casually keeps an eye on her and his machina outside. A few minutes later the young waitress returns with a tray laden with a teapot, two small handless mugs, a bowl of some battered food and a large square of bread smothered in dark chocolate. She unloads her tray on the table, bobs a curtsy and vanishes the way she came.
Dax pushes the bread toward Isidore with a smirk. “Dig in.”
“This isn’t like any toast I’ve ever had,” Isidore wonders aloud. When she bites into it she is assaulted with tastes both bitter and sweet, contrasting surprisingly well with the warm, crusty bread. For a moment she is overwhelmed with guilt, knowing she is spending far too much time pampering her physical body. Then her stomach growls, demanding more food, and she relents.
“Yeah,” Dax says, smiling as she devours her food. He pours her a cup of tea, then one for himself. “We do things a little differently than where you come from. By the way, where did you come from?”
He eats his meal quietly waiting for an answer, dipping pieces of battered meat into a yellow sauce that smells almost as sweet as Isidore’s toast. Isidore waits until she has finished her toast to respond.
“The Cradle of the Code. I live at the Sanctuary,” she says proudly lifting her chin. “I am a Sister of the Circuit.”
While she was eating her holy symbol has fallen onto the table. Dax reaches out to take hold of it, swirling his thumb across the intersecting hexagons and polygons. “I’ve never met a Sister before.”
“I’ve never met a machina rider before,” Isidore says smiling up at him. The circuits in his skin glint in the reflected light from the aquarium across from their table. She takes his hand in her own, looking at the metal lines embedded in his wrist and fingers. “Do they hurt?”
He self-consciously pulls his hand away, running it absently through his dark hair where metal meets scalp. “They did going in,” he admits with a sheepish smile, “But when you ride a machina you need every edge you can get. You think they’re strange, don’t you?”
“I think they look glorious,” Isidore says reverently. “You must truly feel honored to be marked by the Circuit so completely.”
Dax guffaws a little too loudly for a restaurant setting. “Honored? Hell no. They’re too expensive for that. Why do you think we do all these side jobs for Trang?”
Isidore gestures with her teacup toward the machina outside the window. It’s shadow stretches toward Dax as if reaching for him. “For the privilege of serving the Circuit of course. May the code replicate eternal.”
“You think stealing artifacts for a two bit mob boss is a privilege sister?” Dax pauses, looking at her. “How much time have you spent out in the real world, anyway?”
“Depends,” Isidore asks, sipping her tea. “How long was I out?”
“About ten hours I’d say,” Dax says, standing. He motions for the waitress to bring him a tablet, and he presses his thumb to the screen, paying their bill. Isidore follows him outside after taking one last swig of tea.
“Then it’s been fourteen,” she says as they step outside.
Something strange passes across Dax’s eyes, then he smiles, sweeps his arm in a gesture that encompasses everything around them, and says “Welcome to the real world, kid. Hope it’s all you thought it would be.”
It is a complete surprise when the machina transforms into a car. Isidore can’t see exactly what is happening to the vehicle from her cocoon of technology in the backseat, but she can feel the motors and hydraulics whirring furiously underneath her. In 30 seconds they have dropped nearly four feet and are now hunkered down on the ground, the machina’s height only slightly more than the other autocars parked in the lot outside the Guppy House.
The Code has provided so many marvellous wonders to people outside the Sanctuary! Isidore thinks, biting her lip happily.
Dax pilots their autocar-shaped machina out of the parking lot, down a narrow single-lane bridge that connects the Guppy House island to the main shoreline, and heads West. They drive down a series of cracked roads, passing by ruined neighborhoods and shopping centers. Isidore can tell from the opulence of the homes that this used to be an affluent area before the Subduction. Now it is filled the ruined husks of homes, most of them burnt beyond recognition.
They pull up to a massive set of buildings in the middle of what once was a shopping district. Dax pulls up to a crowded asphault parking lot and parks the machina in the middle of an aisle rather than in a parking spot. The walk over a small empty street into a building emblazoned with the letters “SCP”. Isidore takes a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dim light inside, and when she does she sees they are in a shopping center, only the shops have all been converted into apartments. Most of the signs have been removed above the doorways, but little else has been done to change the glass-fronted shops into homes. Distrusting faces peek out from behind curtains and cardboard tacked up on the inside of shop windows, and occasionally she can hear the slamming down of overhead gates as they approach. It is clear they are not welcome here.
Dax doesn’t stop at any of the half dozen apartments they pass, but instead crosses the building, climbs a set of metal stairs that look like they once moved, and exits through a door on the other side. Here a wide bridge lined with trash-filled planters connects the building they were in with a much larger one. As they make their way across the sky begins to redden behind them and the light starts to falter hinting at the approaching sunset.
Isidore imagines the bridge planted with luxurious flowers, couples strolling along the railing under an unblemished glass canopy. She smiles to herself until she sees Dax is watching her. Settling her face into a mask of passivity, she silently begins to recite the Atari Prayer to calm her nerves.
She follows Dax through another set of broken glass doors into the larger building, which also houses apartments. Before she can proceed further though, he throws up an arm to block her progress.
“We’re going to see someone,” Dax says, his voice echoing off the filthy marble hallway they stand in, “and she’s a bit...jumpy, especially where hexers are concerned. This is going to take a little persuasion, so let me talk and try to stay out of the way.”
Isidore nods solemnly and follows as Dax turns right. The room they are in is cavernous, with two levels of shops facing a grand open area in the middle. At the next intersection Dax crosses to the south side of the building and heads left along the railing. At the end of the passage sits an abandoned carousel, horses long ago stolen. The faded striped canopy leans to one side, almost in defeat. From their vantage above it looking down from the second floor it looks as if it is kneeling.
I hope that’s a sign of welcome, Isidore thinks.
Dax stops in front a store on the corner. Here the windows have been completed blacked out with paint and the door has been reinforced with steel plates. The metal gate is down and there is no sign of life within. He wraps on the gate with the back of his fist, the shaking sounding incredibly loud in contrast with the silence. After a moment the steel door opens and a woman peeks out. Isidore gets the impression of coffee colored skin and a hard expression, but she can’t see much else through the metal gratings. Luckily she doesn’t have to.
“No,” says the woman within in a voice filled with honey-coated gravel. “Go away.”
Dax lays an open palm on the grate, “You told me you owed me one.”
“Not today I don’t.” But the door doesn’t slam shut as Isidore expects it too.
“Come on Clover. At least hear me out. You owe me that much.”
Silence, then a deep sigh, “Right.” She opens the steel door, approaches the gate and then notices Isidore. “Who’s the puppy?”
“A stray I picked up. She’s the reason I’m here.”
“Of course she is,” Clover says, kneeling down to unlock the gate. She pushes it up halfway so that Dax and Isidore must stoop to get under it, and then quickly slams it down to lock it again. “In here.”
They enter a dimly lit space devoid of furniture. Broken shelves left over from the original storefront line the walls on both sides, and at the back the word “ZARA” hangs on the wall over the remains of a counter, glowing in faint white light. Must be the name of the shop, Isidore thinks.
“Okay speak,” says a voice behind her, and she turns to see the owner of the apartment. Almost as tall as Dax, she stands with arms crossed clad head to toe in black leather. Mistrust is painted across her oval face, set in her square jaw and dark eyes. Her black hair is cropped into a short mohawk that somehow makes her look even more menacing.
“We need to borrow Samson.” Dax says, throwing a cautionary look at Isidore. Isidore for her part folds her hands behind her and tries to blend in with the scenery.
“No. What that all you had to ask? You shouldn’t have bothered.” Clover turns on her heel, heading back to the door.
“You know you wouldn’t have him if it weren’t for me,” Dax says to the back of Clover, his voice even. “Just give me what, an hour?” He looks questioningly at Isidore.
“30 minutes,” Isidore says, almost whispering.
“30 minutes,” Dax repeats. “Then we’ll be out of your hair. I promise you won’t see my face again.”
“Well I know that’s a lie,” Clover says, turning to face them. “And what do you think you’ll be able to do in 30 minutes? You barely know how to use him.”
“Not me, her,” Dax says, throwing a thumb at Isidore. Isidore blushes under Clover’s sudden and intense gaze.
Clover says nothing for a moment, then sees confirmation in Isidore’s eyes. “Defrag me, she’s a hexer! Well in that case, follow me,” and she walks through door in the back wall of the apartment.
They enter what was once the stockroom of the store, still lined with rusting metal shelves. The three of them walk down an aisleway covered in strange machinery and other ephemera Isidore cannot identify, and come to an open space at the back of the room.
Isidore feels her heart instantly begin to pound and adrenaline rushes to through her in a torrent. “Hello Samson,” she says lovingly to the most elaborate surfing rig she has ever seen.
It takes a moment for Isidore to reorient herself to the Grid. The Gridsuit she is borrowing from Clover is loose on her in places, making the connections to her skin act strangely. Sometimes when she lifts an arm it’s not where she expects it to be. After a minute or two of recalibration, Isidore looks around her and only then does she realize it is raining. Rain on the Grid falls in snippets of code, ones and zeroes that bounce of her skin and the environment. She has often wondered that the Grid has a weather system at all, because should assumed something like rain was a completely organic aberration of the profane outside world. But here on the Grid, the feel of the code as it his her skin is calming, and she reaches out her hands to absorb some of the code, letting it permeate her, preparing for what is to come.
She stands on a terrace in the middle of a city. The night sky twinkles above her in defiance of the rain falling from it, and scanning the skyline she recognizes that she is in ancient Los Angeles. Before her stretches a series of pools that step up the center of a marble courtyard. In front of her she can see her target, the Central Archive, represented on the Grid at the Los Angeles Central Library. Walking up the steps alongside the pools of water, she watches the code fall from the sky to splash into the water. For a moment she thinks she sees a face in the patterns made on the water, but dismisses it.
I need to keep my imagination in check in here, she thinks. Daydreams can be deadly here on the Grid.
Beyond the last pool of water and the last set of stairs lies a field of broken glass pointing up toward the dark night sky, blocking entrance to the library. The code rains down upon the shards, falling in a thousand digital waterfalls before her.
The first firewall. Impressive security.
Isidore takes a few steps back, crouches low, and then readies herself. Like a tiger lunging from the underbrush she launches herself into the air, spinning over the shards of glass, snippets of code spinning all around her. As she arcs through the air a taller piece of glass slices her arm where she didn’t expect it to be, and she feels a burning pain that moves up and down her arm like hot goosebumps. I’ll need to be more careful, she thinks, and compensate for the larger Gridsuit. I will be no use to Qathren if I get killed before I learn anything about the artifacts.
Landing with one arm out to balance her, Isidore looks up at the arch above the entrance. The ornate art deco carving of two figures stand guard over the library, looking mighty and ancient with their carved faces and impassive expressions. To the left of the doorway, the words “Wisdom of the east” are carved below the bust of a man holding a staff. Under this phrase are a list of names, only a few of which Isidore recognizes -- the rest have been lost to time. Below the list is a rising sun peaking over a mountain range, and the name “Phosphor.” By contrast, the figure depicted on the right side of the entryway holds his tablet against his body with a strongly muscled arm. “Wisdom of the West” it proclaims, above a list of equally forgotten names. The sun at his feet is setting into ocean waves, and his name is indicated as “Hesper.”
As Isidore takes a step forward though Phospor and Hesper wrench away from the building with a great cracking of stone. Small fissures snake their way down the lower half of their respective tablets, splitting them in two. The two statues launch themselves from the building and land with a massive duel crash on their newly created feet, cracking the asphalt with the impact of their fall. Phospor raises his staff for a mighty swing at Isidore’s head which she just manages to dodge as instinct takes over and she rolls out of the way.
“Oh, okay, well that’s...unexpected,” she says to them. “Architectural security? What a relief.” She smiles to herself, her eyes glinting as Hesper’s massive stone fist comes punching down toward her. It lands, knocking her prone on the ground, and she hits her head on the street. “Ouch! Okay, not so funny after all.”
This is the Grid, Isidore remembers, where she is the most alive. This is her kingdom, and anyone else is merely trespassing. Nothing will keep her from her goal, not even stone men ripped from the edifice of a building.
And so remembering this she flips over backwards, landing lightly on her feet, digital rain dripping from her hair, running off her fingertips. When Hesper steps forward with his square cracked feet she is ready for his second swing and spins out of the way, landing her own punch against the unforgiving concrete that is his face. She follows up the punch with a series of elbows and undercuts, each of with hits the statue with little effect.
By this time Phosphor is stepping up and taking his staff in both of his hands, he slams it down on the asphalt, where is creates a great crack along the street that speeds along toward Isidore. Distracted by Hesper she doesn’t see it in time, and is again knocked off her feet as the asphalt cracks underneath her. Rolling into a crouch she reaches out to Hesper’s makeshift leg and wraps her fingers around the jagged edge where an ankle might have been. Isidore begins a hack into his code, disassembling him from within.
She concentrates, speaking to the code under the surface of the stone, willing the leg to separate from the body. It takes several moments, and meanwhile Hesper is swinging a massive hewn fist toward the top of her head. Looking up at him from the top of her eyes she sees the blow headed straight for her, and throws herself out of the way just in time.
The momentum of his attempted attack on her pulls Hesper forward, and as he steps to catch himself, his left leg separates from the rest of his form and he lurches forward. As a stone carving he is elegant, but far from mobile, and so he falls forward attempting to catch himself with his arms, the great weight of his form crushing his arms under him with a shattering of stone. Pieces fly out in all directions, and one slices Isidore’s cheek as it whizzes by. Hesper lies still, just a lifeless block of stone on the street in front of the library.
Smiling Isidore stands, touching her fingers to the slice on her face and pulling them away to see blood. She feels a burning sensation on the back of her right hand, and raises it to see the number 35 glowing red against her skin. She shakes it, but the number does not fade, though the pain lessens to a dull ache.
Out of the corner of her eye she sees Phospor advancing, stepping on top of the fallen Hesper. He raises his staff above his head. The words “Wisdom of the East” glow faintly in the night, and then the names on the tablet glow white hot and shoot out toward Isidore, the letters slicing through the digital rain like knives. Isidore reaches out a hand and stops them in mid flight, focusing on the code that propels them through the air. The spinning letters hover, melt into binary ones and zeros, the lifeblood of the Grid. Isidore flicks her wrist, and the numbers they fly back toward Phosphor who looks down impassively as the code slices into his neck, removing the elegantly carved head from it’s neck. Immediately his movement halts, and he remains frozen, eternally raising his staff above the vacant cavity where his head used to be.
Isidore’s right wrist burns, and as she pulls it toward her to look, she sees the number 39 bloom into visibility from underneath the leather of her catsuit, as if being branded from below. The two numbers glow along her hand and wrist, a code for her to decipher. But in order for her to figure out what it means, she must find the other pieces.
“Time to find out what’s inside,” she says, and opening the doors, steps into the Archive.