“Welcome, Children,” the Magister says. “I’ve created separate sub-servers for each of you. This is not a group exam. This will be a solo effort with each of you working within your own nodes.” We look at each other. The Magister controls this node, so he sets the rules of reality. We’re all dressed in the same non-descript white attire, a simple long-sleeved shirt and pants. We’re sitting around a white table in a white room, and I think to myself, “It must be State-approved, all this white.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s easier to pretend it is than to imagine that this is really what the Magister’s mind is like: cold and clean and the same all throughout. I can’t really even imagine a mind like that. I don’t really want to.
The Magister goes on about the point of the exercise and what we can expect and what he expects of us, but most of us don’t pay him too much attention. He already told us that we’re doing Network security, and it’s not like there’s one of us who hasn’t already run a few smash-and-grabs or counter-denial of services already. The State requires all umbras to start training in this kind of stuff as soon as we started secondary. He’s not the first Magister to teach us, after all.
“Alright, then. Let’s begin,” he finally says. For a second, I wonder if I should have been paying attention, then decide it wasn’t worth it. Worst case scenario, he makes me stay late so he can slowly, painfully explain to me where I went wrong. It’s not like I can be failed at being an umbra.
All around me, my classmates begin to disappear. The clean white walls of the Magister’s node shimmer and fade. I close my eyes and when I open them again, everyone else is gone and I’m in an endless grassy field. The sky is blue and clear, and the sun shines down upon me. Instead of that stupid white uniform, I’m wearing the clothes I always wear: faded jeans, a t-shirt with the logo of the Penumbras across the chest, and a tattered black hooded sweatshirt. It’s warm. It’s nice.
I’ve always heard that, believe it or not, the Interface was originally intended to be a toy for the rich. When they got bored with being able to buy whatever they wanted or eat whatever they wanted or whatever it is the rich do, they could always turn to the virtual reality the Interface offered them. Within the comfort of their own nodes, they could do anything, be anything. It was only after the Singularity, they say, that the Interface stopped being a toy, a luxury, a status symbol, and instead became a necessary evil. A curse even, if you like. But sometimes, when I’m alone in my node and I don’t have the Magister’s words booming in my head like the voice of God, when it’s just me and my thoughts alone in this world I’ve created for myself, I can almost believe that once upon a time people actually wanted the Interface implanted in them.
I look around my node and I frown. It’s a little sad to think that I’ve never been to an open field. I don’t know what it’s like, not really. All I have is this recreation I’ve made. The grass, the sky, the sun, the warmth, that’s all standardized stuff available to anyone. Any umbra can choose these settings and skin their node to look the way I’ve made mine.
What I really want the Magister to do is teach us how to to make changes to our nodes beyond picking and choosing from the standard options. Now that would be useful. I’ve made a few little alterations here and there, tried changing the rules that govern the node, but nothing big.
But then, most of the other umbras don’t seem to mind. I’ve visited some of my classmates’ nodes, of course. Pretty much no one else picks the outdoors settings. Most people pick the skyscrapers, the penthouses, rooms decorated with steel and glass. They’re emulating Sky City, in other words. I don’t really understand why. The truth of the matter is that probably none of us will ever live in Sky City. Even if we made it up there, we’d never really be accepted. We’ve all seen the vids, heard the stories. There’s no place for anyone who’s been modded the way we have up there. If umbras are freaks in Undercity, at least they’re people. In Sky City, an umbra is nothing but a tool to be used up and replaced.
“Miss Demetrio!” the Magister’s voice echoes in my head. “Are you going to begin your exam or are you going to sit there wasting your time and thinking about nothing?”
I don’t say a word. I just stand up, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and will the exam to start. I open my eyes again and my beautiful field is gone. Instead, I am surrounded by data. It washes over me as fast as I can take it in, a thousand different inputs competing for the attention of my Interface-augmented brain.
The first thing to do is to filter out the noise. There’s always noise in systems like this, and the Magister has spent the entire school year so far drilling it into our heads that we can’t work with distractions.
I focus. The data simplifies, rearranges itself. It’s much better now, easier to understand. Now I can figure out what it is the Magister actually wants me to do here. I sigh. It’s just a simple denial of service attack, with countless automated programs trying to access the sub-server to shut it down. I change the sub-server’s address, and instead of overwhelming the sub-server with requests for access, the bots beat their fists against a gate that no longer goes anywhere. I’m pleased with myself for having passed the test so easily, but then I realize nothing’s happened. The Magister hasn’t spoken to me. There’s been no automatic notification of my success. Everything was simple, too simple. I must have missed something else in the data.
I pull back and look at the stream of numbers and letters and characters. What am I missing? Everything seems to be normal. There are a lot of duplicate files, it looks like, but that’s not necessarily anything unusual. And then I see more duplicates being created, duplicates being deleted. I look at the incoming and outgoing data, and with a gasp, I realize that the attack on the sub-server was just a distraction. There’s a program somewhere inside the sub-server that’s been copying files and sending them out. I look through the code for anything that doesn’t belong, but there’s nothing unusual. Still, every few seconds, something gets copied and the copy disappears. Whatever’s doing this is beyond my abilities to stop.
Maybe that’s the point. The Magister seemed so eager, so pleased with himself at the beginning of the exercise. Maybe it was all meant to teach us to recognize when we’re in over our heads.
I grin. Well, I’ve never been one for humility.
There’s a program that I work on sometimes when I’m bored. I make games sometimes, skins and themes for my node. The green field is my favorite, but sometimes my node is a castle and I’m a queen, or its a smoky bar and I’m a secret agent. If you get clever with the settings, you can mix and match. That’s what I’m doing now.
The data resolves itself into rows upon rows of men and women sitting quietly in chairs, their hands folded in their laps, bland and smiling faces all looking up at me. Whatever this program is that’s copying them and sending them off should appear differently from the rest. A figure clad from head to toe in black, sneaking about from shadow to shadow. But I don’t see this figure anywhere in the data.
“It’s disguised to look like the rest of the data,” I say to no one. “Of course it is.” I frown. This is beyond me. The only thing I can do at this point is to cut the sub-server’s access to the Network and go through all of the data on my own, examining it as closely as possible to see if I can determine what malignant little bit of code is causing all the trouble.
Assuming the damn thing doesn’t delete itself once it detects that it’s no longer connected to the network. Being on the defense when it comes to security issues like this isn’t nearly as much fun as being on the offense.
I’m just about to sever the connection to the Network when the Magister’s voice echoes through my head like the voice of an angry god. “Demetrio, stop!” he shouts, and it sets my teeth to grinding, my eyes wincing. Before I can even think to ask him, “Stop what?” he shouts at me, “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Taking your stupid test!”
“What was that program you just executed?” It takes me a second to understand what he’s asking, my head still ringing from the sudden burst of feedback when he screamed at my brain. He doesn’t appreciate the hesitation. “Explain yourself,” he says, his voice as cold as ice.
“The program? The alternate skin, you mean?”
“Yes. Where did you find a program like that to do your work for you?”
My jaw drops in shock. I have never been accused of not doing my own work before, and I’m certainly not going to let the Magister, this puppet of the State, this man without a shred of empathy for other umbras, without sympathy for teens that don’t know how to deal with the burden dumped on them like he must have been once accuse me of it.
“The program wasn’t ‘doing my work for me,’” I say, the anger flowing from me like steam from a cracked pipe. “It was just giving me a different lens through which to view the work that had to be done. Something a little easier to understand and interpret then a bunch of numbers and letters!” I take a deep breath and try to calm myself. It doesn’t work. “And even if it was ‘doing my work for me,’ I wrote the damn program, so it was still my work!”
And then something unexpected happens. I’m back in the field, and the Magister is there, robes and sour expression and all. I’ve never heard any of the other umbras mention him stepping into their nodes before. Instead, he always draws us into his own. My stomach turns a little bit. I have no idea what he’s doing.
He looks around my node, sniffs, shakes his head. Even though I’m standing right in front of him, he seems more concerned with inspecting the environment than talking to or looking at me. Finally, he looks me in the eyes, and for the first time in my life, he doesn’t have that same bored, neutral expression on his face. I don’t have a word for the way he’s looking at me. It’s like he’s angry and afraid and uncertain all at once.
“Do you mean to tell me that you, an untrained child, wrote a program that alters the data in your node?”
I suddenly feel very small. Getting into an argument with a Magister was already stupid, but I don’t know what to expect from him at all now that I’ve admitted to writing a program. I might as well have told him that I drank blood and sacrificed babies to gain dark power. At best, he’s going to give me a lecture about the dangers of the machine. At worst… I can’t even imagine the worst thing the Magisters could do to me. I stand there, staring at him, too scared to speak.
“It was laziness, Miss Demetrio,” he says, “that nearly doomed us all. It was a willingness to let our machines do all of our work for us that led to the creation of a machine that decided we as a species were extraneous. It was the hubris of our ancestors that led them to develop and utilize amoral technology, and I won’t let anyone make the same mistakes under my watch.” He snorts. “We are damned by the circumstances of our birth, anyway. Afflicted with these evil machines. I won’t let a girl who doesn’t know any better make our lives even worse.”
I don’t say anything. My anger is still there, but there’s a sadness there too now. Damned. Afflicted. I’ve never heard anyone talk like that before. I look down at the ground. “If the tech we use is evil,” I say, “then aren’t we evil, too? Aren’t we our own tech, what with the Interfaces and accessing the Network and all of us having our own personal node? Are you saying that we’re evil, all of us?”
Once more the Magister’s face returned to it’s usual impenetrable neutrality. I look up at him and he looks at me with that inscrutable look of his. The two of us just stare at each other in silence. I take a deep breath and try to be strong and show him I’m not afraid. He’s trying to show me he doesn’t care in the slightest.
“Aren’t we?” he says, and then he fades from my node, leaving me alone with my sky and my field and my tree stump.