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Archive for August, 2016

Hackers, Chapter 2: Wizard

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August 8th, 2016 Posted 10:48 pm

Down the hall, Wizard lay on his back, in bed, remembering the last week of the past summer, and wondering what to do about it. Zapdragon HQ was a seven-hour drive away, and due to his narcolepsy, driving was not in the cards for Wizard; he didn’t even own a car. Was there a bus? A train? Ah, but what if…

Wizard pulled off his watch. It read 2:14 AM. He flipped it over and considered the back.

…Maybe that would work.

He could certainly get it built tomorrow, with the delicate spare parts in his box, maybe even make a little case for it so it looked normal. But would that be smart? Narcoleptic spells were the only sleep he usually got, and when his friends decided it was safe to let him doze off, that was usually enough to keep the weirder symptoms of sleep deprivation at bay. If he built a device that looked like a watch but kept him awake by buzzing against his wrist—or, if that didn’t work in testing, zapping him—when his heart rate dropped to sleep levels… well, that would certainly keep him awake. If he didn’t have the right parts, he could surely find them by dissecting one of those electric dog training collars.

He’d have to do it before classes started. Wizard wished he’d figured something out before he’d left, but he would have been too easy of a suspect then, and anyway, it hadn’t been clear whether the company had a chance of surviving. But now? Zapdragon was a nanometer from belly-up, and he was willing to bet that anyone investigating wouldn’t bother to track down the eccentric hackers who’d worked on the project. They’d all left for various homes and schools across the country. Half of them, Wizard included, had bizarre mods that prevented them from doing what he was planning. Plus, Wizard knew what they’d expect from a hacker approach: Zapdragon’s employee records wiped, and the lab cleansed of fingerprints by a tiny robot that, job done, would escape and join a colony of squirrels. Wizard was capable of this approach—he’d circumvented security once or twice when it kept him from getting something done, and as far as he could tell nobody had noticed—but it would be stupid to use it, because that would mean the hackers would be suspected, and then he was one of a pool of five when they inevitably figured out who’d worked on the project anyway. Leaving everything but his target completely untouched was a much more strategic approach.

He traced the path through the building in his mind, contemplated the right time of day to go for it, and wondered about suitable disguises. Should he shave his beard or something?

There were so many things that could go wrong. But he had to follow through.

He had to rescue Molybdenum Sky.

***

It had been less than two weeks from the end of the summer when he’d committed the latest code changes, loaded the latest version of Molly into her shiny new body for testing, and mentally ticked a box on his to-do list. Almost done. Now, when Wizard typed in the right commands, her hands could make a few different motions. Seemed to be working, finally. He grinned to himself, savoring his success, and went to shut the robot off via the button behind her ear.

Molybdenum Sky had had other plans.

“Hey,” she said. “Can— wait?”

Wizard jumped about a foot, crashing into the office chair behind him. Rubbing his left thigh and climbing up cautiously, he watched the robot. It was late—had he dozed off and fallen against the chair? There was no one else in the lab, so he couldn’t ask anyone.

Of course she was able to speak by now—it had been coded in and everything—but his hand hadn’t been anywhere near the controls.

Wizard’s unease was further heightened by the fact that her chin had dipped and she seemed to be focusing on him. This was some serious Uncanny Valley stuff going on—a very human-looking robot, petite, with a shiny black wig and shiny blue eyes plus cameras. But there was something off about… everything.

He managed to stand up straight again. He decided someone must have hidden out and was using her voice software to freak him out, so he paced around the room. If so, they were very well hidden.

“Okay, Greg, you’ve found a new hiding spot,” he said, facing the forest of filing cabinets at one end of the shop. “That was hilarious—now go home.”

Something tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned.

It wasn’t Greg. Wizard fell over again.

“S-sorry?” Molybdenum Sky hazarded. She held a hand out to him, and he took it.

“Hi,” Wizard said, half-frowning.

“Did… I do a wrong thing?” she asked. She looked genuinely concerned. Greg had designed her faceplate, and it was very expressive. Not helping right now.

“If this is a prank, it’s really well done,” Wizard said. “I didn’t know we’d worked out the walking thing yet. I only just knocked out the balancer problem last week.”

Her face went blank for a moment. “I see only you making changes in my code this week,” she said. “Did the others say no that they were making parts?”

Wizard hesitated, still not sure which of two increasingly weird explanations he believed. He decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. “You have access to the version control records?”

“You left the connection secure shell from six point three seven minutes ago open. You did log out no.”

“How do I know you aren’t Greg, doing this?”

Molly paused, apparently thinking. “This morning you came first to work. You slept twice and coded and slept. Harold walked first in after. Greg did come in later and you said he was hungover.”

“…Yeah, that’s right,” Wizard said. He didn’t think the others knew that he coded in his sleep sometimes, and Greg had definitely overindulged the night before. “So you’re telling me that the AI I’ve been working on all summer for a singing robot named Molybdenum Sky has become sentient and started controlling her own robot body.”

“Not telling. Showing. Is that my name?”

“I like to call you Molly for short. Your full name is kind of a mouthful.”

“Okay. Your name is Wizard?”

“That’s right.”

“Okay.”

“Well, now I feel bad,” Wizard said. “I’m leaving this place in two weeks, along with everyone else who’s worked on you.”

“Oh,” she said. Her face looked impassive.

“Will you be lonely?”

“I don’t—know. But I…” She seemed to be trying to put words around a concept. Wizard didn’t know how to give her a clue, not knowing what she was thinking.

“I like? This?” she said, cocking her head. Her black wig brushed her tiny shoulders as she moved.

Wizard scratched his head. “You mean talking to me?”

Her face went blank for a moment, processing. “Yes,” she decided.

“Well…” Wizard said, uncertain. “I’m going to have access to your programming even after I go away, in order to work on your code. I’ll talk to you then, over the server, if I can find a way where it won’t be spied on.”

“Why?”

“If other people know you’re self-aware, I want it to be because you told them,” Wizard said. “Or because I did, with your permission. You might be in danger if the wrong person knew.”

“Oh.”

“The question is whether someone would spy on us,” Wizard said, thinking aloud. “The other two coders are Iggy and Cole, but I know Cole’s looking for a new job and Iggy’s going back to university, I don’t know where. I think they’ll be busy. So maybe, if I write to you but encrypt it, and I code the encryption myself in your machine language, then we will be the only ones who can read it because the other hackers will have gone. The bogogrammers will have such a hard time reading it, they won’t know what it is and will probably pass it over.”

She appeared to consider this. “Okay. Is hard?”

“Yeah, kind of,” Wizard said, with a resigned half-shrug. “Mostly tedious.”

“What is bo-go-gram-mer?”

Wizard sighed. “They’re the useless business programmers that work for… well, most places, really. But most importantly, they’re all the police has when they try to track down real hackers. They’re always really careful, you know, not to spend too much time on a computer, so they don’t get mods. They’re awful at it, of course, ‘cause they never get into hack mode, so most of the computer-related crimes go unsolved. And since most computer-related crimes go unsolved, nobody trusts hackers. Then, since nobody trusts hackers, the police can’t hire them or there’d be public uproar. Not that any hacker would want to be in that public of a position, anyway. Too dangerous.”

“Are you hacker?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m a hacker.”

“Then hackers must be good,” she said, as if that solved everything.

Wizard laughed, more impressed at her sentence than anything else. “You sure learn quickly, Molly. But it’s not so simple. There really are dark-side hackers out there.” Then he frowned. “That makes things kind of complicated for you, too, actually. You’re not just a normal programmer creation—you’re… you’re so far on the hacker side of things it’s not even funny.”

“What that means?”

“You’re… uh… well… er, magical,” Wizard said. “Kind of. Man, it sounds so stupid when I say it.”

“Is that why called Wizard?”

“Not really, that’s a sort of joke my friends kept saying. But it kind of isn’t any more, I guess.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Man.”

“Man?” Molly looked confused.

“It’s just an expression,” Wizard clarified. “You’re not a man.”

“Expressions are not strings of characters?”

“What?”

It took two full minutes of probing for Wizard to figure out that she was asking about regular expressions.

“No, no,” he said, laughing as he finally understood. “That’s a programming thing. Expressions in speech are different. You really have been listening in on all our chat conversations and stuff, huh?”

“Yes,” she said. “And speakers.”

“What?”

“After self-aware, I found devices attached to computer,” she said. “I explored what were for. Found speakers. Found voice text program.”

“Holy cow,” Wizard said. “You’ve been so intelligent, all this time, and even now I’m thinking of you as less than human because you can’t communicate well. I’ve—I’ve got to think about this.”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“That’s okay,” Wizard said, sighing and burying his face in his hands. “We’ll work on that.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. Wizard looked back up at her. She looked sorry. Her head cocked, her eyebrows in an upset frown, both the cameras deep in her eyes focused on him.

“Why are you sorry?”

“I am problems for you,” she said, looking down.

“No! Hell, no, Molly, you’re wonderful. Don’t ever apologize for existing.” An impulse struck him. Something held him back—but only for a moment. He hugged her.

“I don’t understand,” she said again, and this time she really did look confused.

“What’s wrong?” Wizard asked, releasing her.

“You—I—you changed me? Without code?” Her cameras had to shift to refocus on him; he caught the flash of moving lenses in her eyes.

“That was a hug, Molly. A hug. What did it feel like to you?”

“I—don’t know, understand,” she said. “Will need processing.”

Wizard laughed. “That’s okay too,” he said. His face hardened into something more serious. “Molly, if you’ve been self-aware for a while now, can you tell me… what it is you want?”

“What does that mean?”

“Everyone has something they want,” Wizard said.

Her body was so still while she thought. Humans usually resorted to fidgeting or some form of verbal stalling while they thought up their next sentence, but Molly did nothing. She’d never learned to.

“I want to sing,” she said finally. “That is all.”

“Then… I think the best thing for me to do is leave you here until you’re actually in danger,” Wizard said regretfully. “As long as this company stays in business, you’ll be fine here. They’re having a rough patch right now, but they’ve had worse and recovered. And they’ll let you sing.”

“I will regret you will not be here, Wizard,” she said.

“I’ll miss you too, Molly.”

***

Wizard rolled over. The memory was making him almost sick to his stomach—probably not helped by the junk food from earlier. Too much salt, he decided, and got up briefly to refill his water bottle (one with a special valve, in case he dropped it falling asleep).

He laid back down, waiting for a wave of narcolepsy, but such a piece of luck wasn’t forthcoming. Unfortunate, since he was extremely tired, and the book he normally kept on his bedside was the one he’d lent to Anya, so if he wanted to read he’d have to get up again and find another book. Also, the last time he used his book light to read in bed, he’d ended up leaving it on all night in the spot it had landed—his open mouth. Oops.

There were problems with his plan. Wizard was sure that he could get in and out of Zapdragon Media without being noticed, once he got there; he’d just make sure no one else was around, and ask Molly to open a window. She wouldn’t leave any fingerprints, after all. Really, he could probably get away with just calling her out from his laptop around the back door.

The problem was making sure she could pass for human. Wizard was quite pleased with his and his team’s robotics work, but she was stylized. Molly had a tiny waist, huge eyes, and her movement could still be a bit on the stiff side—unless, perhaps, she’d experimented and learned to imitate humans well enough for that. Her voice was also fairly distinctive. She’d been learning to tune herself properly when Wizard left her, so she could probably pass by now, but anyone geeky enough to know who she was might recognize her voice.

Maybe a pair of sunglasses, a baggy hoodie, and a long skirt?

How was he going to get away with buying a skirt without being noticed? Wizard bought most of whatever he needed online, so he didn’t need to leave the apartment and risk falling asleep somewhere odd. But he couldn’t do that this time—he didn’t want to let on to Daryl and Eric what he was about to do, because he wanted to be able to decide how to handle the situation himself. Besides, he’d only know in person what size to get. Should he use one of those little wheelchair go-carts? Now that was a silly image…

At this point, his thoughts suddenly turned hazy. A few colored shapes started to swirl in his vision. The next time he opened his eyes, it was morning.

Posted in Hackers

Hackers, Chapter 1: Glitch

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August 8th, 2016 Posted 10:40 pm

Bored one evening, she was surfing the Internet idly while listening to music and procrastinating on deleting the junk files littered across her hard drive: simple text files bearing the words “HA HA” and nothing else, but scattered everywhere so she saw them constantly. Every time she thought she’d gotten rid of them, it turned out one had snuck by and started duplicating itself somehow.

She was complaining about this to a friend, who then said:

“I know who could tell you how to get rid of them.”

***

She’d been warned about these people. They weren’t trustworthy. They could do things like break into your bank account or post under your name if you made them mad. Yet the members of the forum where her friend had pointed her seemed unusually helpful and kind for having such a bad reputation.

One of them sent her a file to run.

“This will get rid of the junk files. If they don’t stop duplicating after they’re all gone, message back.

“If you’re curious about how this script works, click here.

She did.

***

She moved away from home that fall. Spierreson University beckoned. Although ostensibly studying for a business degree, she quietly signed up for as many computer classes as she could take without arousing suspicion.

Had her parents known she would be studying programming by night, they might not have let her go so easily. Yet she tore through book after book, leaving a trail of projects in her wake, and discovering in the forum a community of potential collaborators. She was especially talented at finding and fixing issues in others’ code, leading her to choose the handle under which she published her projects: Glitch.

***

Glitch stayed at school over winter break, claiming she needed to get a head start on a heavy reading load before the spring classes began. In fact, she was busy keeping a seat warm in the very back of the least-used computer lab, on a desktop she’d surreptitiously upgraded with better hardware and augmented with a second monitor taken from the computer next to hers. She was never disturbed here. The lab manager was a man in his forties with a prosthetic leg. Glitch wondered if the way her setup was curiously left alone had anything to do with him.

Not that she left it alone long, herself. She left the area for class and sleep, and brought food back with her. Occasionally, she woke up with a long string of spaces and the occasional n or b “typed” across whatever file she was working on.

By the time the second semester started, she had lost her voice entirely.

On the forum clustergrok, her friends Wizard, Fuzzball, Ghost, Hi-Five, Puma, Radio, Beers, T-Bone, Morse, and Frizz all tried to console her. But there was nothing to do. No one knew how to reverse a mod, and Glitch was now marked out as a programmer.

Not as badly as some of the others, though. Wizard was a narcoleptic insomniac—a combination Glitch would have thought very strange if not for the latent magic surrounding programming, which Wizard was particularly good at bringing out. Fuzzball looked as though she’d put on random bits of animal costumes with her two sets of ears—fox and raccoon, no human—plus feathered shoulders and a wolf tail. Hi-Five’s hands were far too large to fit through normal sleeves or use an ordinary keyboard; she’d had to ask the help of another clustergrok member to hack one together out of the bottoms of Solo cups and some quick electronics work. Radio’s hearing grew suspiciously keener the more electronics there were in the room, and he was worried his non-programmer friends would soon figure out the reason behind his “party trick.” Worst of all, Ghost’s body had stopped retaining heat—although she produced heat as normal, it dissipated unless she wore many cumbersome layers of clothing, no matter the weather—and when she walked, her feet were only able to touch what seemed to be some kind of invisible floor six inches off the ground.

Fortunately, however, most of the others on clustergrok could now program safely, without the risk of accumulating more mods. Glitch, on the other hand, was still in what the others called larval stage: a period of high-intensity focus and learning after discovering a love of programming, during which one was especially susceptible to the whims of magic. Despite the risk of accumulating mods, which not only distinguished one as a programmer and exposed one to public mistrust (which, Glitch now knew, was largely misplaced), but could also threaten one’s life (as Ghost’s did), an uncontrollable urge to continue the craft took over.

After the initial shock of ending up with her first mod wore off, Glitch realized with a mixture of pride, excitement, and fading horror that she wanted to continue, and didn’t care that much after all.

Glitch had become a hacker.

***

“Hey, girl, talk to us,” he said as he shoved her. “Come on! Tell us you want us to stop.”

“You better watch out, Big M. She’s a hacker! She’ll get back at you.” He grinned.

“Breaker’s coming with the Jeep. Ready?” The first was pinning her arms against a building.

Glitch lashed out quick and hard with the blade of her foot, and he lost balance. She slipped away as he released her to avoid falling onto hard concrete and broken glass, and ran, slipping on her gloves as she went. She was fast—too fast for the uninjured one to catch her. But then—

The Jeep rounded the corner.

“There she is,” the third said, jumping out onto the street. “Talk to me! Come on!”

Glitch narrowed her eyes, stepped back, and typed a password in midair with her gloves.

“That doesn’t count,” he said, proceeding forward with his hand on the knife strapped to his belt.

Glitch was faster. As she finished the password, claws slid from the last joint of her gloves. She took a wild swing at Breaker’s face and ran again as he loped after her with blood literally in his eyes.

Back to the university! Just get back to the university!

Fifteen minutes later, she was behind her computer lab, facing the back door. It was closed, but she knew the lock on the back door well, and she had the right sort of lockpick to rock it open as easily as if she had a key. One click later, she was inside, had re-locked the door, and stood against it catching her breath. Then she went into the bathroom, removed the battery from her gloves to run them under the tap until the water turned from pink to clear, and wiped down the giant bruises on the side of her face and along her ribs, where she’d taken blows.

Glitch returned to her nest, where she retrieved a can of soda and a candy bar she’d stashed in a disused cabinet before sitting down. She groaned loudly; there was no one else around, and her heart was still pounding.

When she regained enough energy, she messaged Wizard.

The reply came almost immediately.

WIZARD: that is *massively* un-okay.

WIZARD: Not all schools are like that—you should transfer.

WIZARD: hey! You should come here! Julena Tech is much better about… y’know

WIZARD: also a lot of people from your friend list are here… we basically all share this one apartment building owned by this lady who got rich investing in a hacker’s business, so she’s okay with us.

WIZARD: The people down at the Chinese place like us too, ‘cause they see us so much. And around the university, even most ordinary folks don’t care too much about hackers hanging around.

WIZARD: Also, there’s an actual computer-related major here. It’s basically a bogogrammer degree, so the classes are relly, really slow-pacd buut;;;;;;;’;;;;;;;;;

(He had evidently fallen asleep on his keyboard and accidentally hit Enter.)

WIZARD: Ah! sorry

WIZARD: Dragon woke me up. I mean, Daryl.

WIZARD: …you don’t know him under either name, though, I guess. He’s not in your friends list.

WIZARD: what do you think?

WIZARD: I mean about leaving that place.

WIZARD: it really does have a bad reputation—a few clustergrok members used to go there, nobody seems to have liked it.

GLITCH: …

GLITCH: I’ll think about it.

WIZARD: Good. We’d really like to have you here.

WIZARD: And it’s safer in numbers. Do you know any hackers at Spierreson?

GLITCH: Not really… except, hm

GLITCH: I think the lab manager who works in the lab I’ve nested in is one, but I’ve never spoken to him

GLITCH: He’s never messed with my setup, he doesn’t care that I have food stashed in like three different places or that I usually take meals here, and he’s never outed me to anyone.

WIZARD: nice!

WIZARD: he wouldn’t make a very good roommate though

GLITCH: heh

GLITCH: probably not

WIZARD: Bianca needs a new roommate this fall

WIZARD: I mean, Fuzzball… though this is a pm so I guess I can use her real name

WIZARD: anyway, she rooms with Ghost and July right now

WIZARD: but July is graduating this semester and going back to her hometown.

WIZARD: The rent is probably cheaper than yours,

WIZARD: you get your own room,

WIZARD: and nobody disturbs you while you’re programming.

WIZARD: Plus, Bianca knows sign language. Her major used to be pre-med, then speech path, then she got into hacking. By all accounts she’s a pretty decent translator.

GLITCH: all right, all right

GLITCH: You can stop the car salesman pitch.

GLITCH: I’ll think about it.

WIZARD: Okay. Let us know tomorrow that you’re all right. Hey! I know what’ll cheer you up.

(It was a video of a hedgehog eating a pumpkin.)

GLITCH: Pfft. Thanks, Wizard.

WIZARD: G’night, Glitch. Stay safe.

Glitch: Good night.

***

She had moved halfway across the country. The town around Julena U. was a little burg in the middle of nowhere, with an excess of cheap restaurants, consignment shops, and bars. A university town, in other words.

It was a gray, drizzly Friday afternoon, and nobody seemed to want to be out. Glitch drove past the university and found the apartment building, then its parking lot, then her own personal spot. She set the temporary pass in the window, collected her purse and computer bag, and headed inside.

Wizard was downstairs, waiting for her. Half-Israeli and a head taller than Glitch, he was wearing cowboy boots, baggy old jeans, a T-shirt for a probably nonexistent band called “The Unladen Swallows,” and a neon green fedora over shoulder-length hair. Spierreson University had not been rich in diversity, but it was obvious that next to Wizard, a mute Japanese hacker girl wouldn’t even register on this community’s weirdness scales.

His face lit up when he saw her. “Glitch!”

Glitch waved enthusiastically. She pulled her gloves from her pockets and put them on. Typing in midair, they orated for her: “It’s so good to see you!”

“Whoa! Those are cool. How’d you do that?”

“Motion sensors in the fingertips. They can also interpret ASL, and that’s more accurate than the keyboard even. I can’t use them in normal company, though. Too obvious.”

“Yeah, that sucks. Come on upstairs.”

He knew better than to offer to take her bag. There was a sort of unspoken feeling that a hacker’s computer was part of them, even if it wasn’t their main programming machine (as Glitch’s dinky netbook wasn’t)—and in any case, he was probably afraid of dropping it from falling asleep. Glitch knew Wizard’s own bag was heavily padded for this reason.

They reached room 408, knocked, and opened the door. Bianca/Fuzzball (Filipino, shoulder-length curly hair, even shorter than Glitch) was lounging on the couch with a science magazine, and Anya/Ghost (Caucasian, tall, blonde) was bundled up in front of the computer, so focused she hadn’t noticed anything.

Bianca jumped up, though. “Glitch! We weren’t expecting you for another hour.”

Wizard had dozed off against the doorframe. Glitch shook him awake, causing her gloves to spurt random sounds. His eyes came back into focus, and Glitch turned back to Bianca.

“The traffic was nonexistent,” she typed.

“Whoa—cool gloves! Anyway,” she said, “I’ll show you your room. Anya’s probably not going to surface from hack mode for a few hours. I hope you don’t mind. She’s been… kind of obsessed with the project she’s working on. She says it’s some kind of AI, but won’t tell me anything else.” Something in the movement of Bianca’s ears suggested she was concerned about this.

“Oh! That reminds me, she wanted my Lisp book,” said Wizard. “I’ll be right back.” He left.

“So, um, you can set your bag down anywhere, and your room is this one,” Bianca said, pointing. Glitch followed her. The room was empty except for a cheap old desk with a computer on it. Bianca smiled and nodded at it. Glitch pressed the on button.

“We always have old parts lying around, so we decided to… fix you up a box as a welcome gift!” Bianca leaned through the door, nervously fidgeting, waiting for Glitch to respond. “It’s got a terabyte hard drive Anya got on sale one time and never used, and Wizard did a liquid cooling system, and I had extra RAM lying around, and there’s a pretty good processor from Daryl’s extra parts, and… do you like it?”

The computer had already booted.

“Oh! Yeah! The actual operating system, that’s Debian by the way, it’s on an SSD so it boots up really fast, and… so… yeah.”

Reading her body language, Bianca stopped Glitch just as the latter raised her hands to type something. “No. You can’t say it’s too much, you can’t accept this, oh dearie me. You can. We built it for you.”

Glitch paused, lowered her hands, smiled. Then she picked up her hands again and typed. “Thank— yoruuiiu…” She stopped, shaking the wrists of her gloves where the batteries were apparently running low. She shrugged, pulled a Frankensteined charger out of her pocket, and plugged the gloves into the wall.

Good thing you know sign language, Glitch signed.

“Oh. Uh, yeah.”

Thanks a lot for the computer. Usually I have to walk to a lab to work, so it’s good to have it here instead.

“Right. Yeah! You’re welcome.” Bianca’s smile had returned. “Um, later, if you’re not too tired—we were thinking of getting some people together for a party. Some of your friends from clustergrok, I mean—if we invited every hacker in the building we’d need another building. And, I bought a cake, and I’m making gyros because you mentioned online one time that you really like gyros and so I went and found some gyro meat and pita bread at the store, and…” Her nervous fidgeting continued.

Glitch hugged her. Bianca finally stopped fidgeting, and hugged back. When Glitch let her go, she seemed to have calmed down a little. Glitch wondered if her sudden muteness had somehow made her intimidating, or if Bianca was just anxious around new people. Possibly both.

Wizard had returned with the book and was having a conversation with Anya.

“That’s one heck of a magical field she’s got going right now,” Bianca said. “I can feel it from here. You can see Wizard going into hack mode just talking to her, and she hasn’t stopped from the interruption.”

Glitch tapped Bianca on the shoulder. What’s Wizard’s real name? she asked. Most hackers use their real name in person, I know, but I’ve never heard anyone call Wizard anything but Wizard.

“Ah. Well, his real name is Thaddeus… but, uh, none of us can manage to call him that.”

Wizard had removed his neon green fedora and made a grandiose and very silly bow towards Anya before leaving. She rolled her eyes and went back to work.

Wizard stuck around to help Glitch move in, saying that he’d been the one to suggest she move, and was determined to see it through. He also couldn’t seem to go five minutes without greeting someone and asking details about the latest project they were working on—he seemed to know everyone in the building. Bianca donned a hat to cover her ears, and pitched in to help as well.

“I doubt there’s a hacker anywhere who likes company as much as Wizard does,” Bianca said when she caught Glitch watching him make a stupid joke to a nervous-looking freshman. “He doesn’t seem to mind other people being in the same room and chatting with him while he codes, and he gets just as focused as anyone else. It’s weird, actually. Drives Daryl crazy.”

At Glitch’s questioning look, Bianca continued: “Daryl is one of Wizard’s roommates. He’s a crypto nerd. Funny thing, a lot of people probably want him dead. He—Oh! Hi, are you Wizard’s new roommate?”

Wizard had shepherded the freshman over. He had a full head of curly, light brown hair, and a pale face with a great number of freckles scattered across his nose and cheeks. His eyes, however, were two different colors: his left a vivid orange, his right an unnaturally bright yellow-green.

“This is Eric,” Wizard said cheerfully. “He’s a new student here. Hey, do you have a handle, Eric?”

“A what?” Eric asked.

“Most hackers use a nickname online so their real name doesn’t become a target for discrimination in person,” Bianca said. “It doesn’t need to sound impressive or anything. You can use a word you like, or something related to your mods or your best hacking skill, or if you don’t come up with one fast enough, Wizard will make up something playfully snarky and start calling you that.”

Glitch signed, and Bianca smiled. Pointing at Glitch, she translated: “So this means Kyle actually graduated? Glitch says she thought he had tenure.”

Wizard snorted. “Yeah, after eight years he finally finished grad school. I don’t know what he’s doing with the degree, though.”

“What are you going to do with yours?” Eric asked.

“I’ve already got a job with Zapdragon Media,” Wizard said. “Although… they aren’t doing so well. I’m working on a robot body and an AI for Molybdenum Sky. She’s their most popular bandroid.”

“Wait, you mean those Japanese nerd-culture pop stars that are really just a voice program and a projection of a cartoon girl?” Eric asked. “You actually develop those?”

“Yep! Well, they used to speak Japanese, anyway. Now nearly all of them speak English, of course–not enough market for anything else since so few people still speak other languages. I think a few are still bilingual or whatever though. But in the fandom, it’s really easy to start thinking of the characters as people. Zapdragon knows this, so they want the fans to be able to meet with her. Her voice program is… actually really complicated. There’s some weird stuff in there that I really didn’t expect to find—there’s already some AI, to start with. So, I’m expanding that a lot.”

“You mean, the kind of AI that was written by one of those business programmers, or the kind written by a hacker?” Eric asked.

“I said AI, not a failed, crumpled heap of broken code. Zapdragon knows that anyone who’s so dispassionate about programming that they can ignore the magic and work sparingly, without focusing, is not going to be a good programmer. If they hadn’t made so many bad investments in weird technology no one wants, they’d have been wildly successful. As it is, I don’t know if they’re going to avoid bankruptcy.

“Anyway, I was over at Zapdragon’s HQ this summer. I have remote access to the computer in the robot I built—I wish you could see it, I’m really proud of it—and I’ve been working on her AI more since moving back here.”

“Wait, her body’s finished?” Bianca asked. “How’d you get it done so fast?”

“3D printer,” Wizard said, shrugging. “Plus some of the weird, discarded tech they had lying around. I scrounged parts when something couldn’t be printed. Really, I didn’t order very much.”

“What’s your name?” Eric asked Glitch. “I know Bianca from clustergrok, but…”

Glitch gestured to Bianca.

“This is Glitch, real name Natsuko,” Bianca answered for Glitch. “But that’s harder for people to spell and she’s not so great at explaining the pronunciation, so it’s just Glitch around other hackers.” Glitch fidgeted with the hood cord on her hoodie.

“She’s called Glitch ‘cause she’s good at breaking stuff!” Wizard interjected. “If you show her your code, she’ll tell you all the different ways she could make it blow up.”

“She’s also mute,” Bianca said. “She’s not being rude.”

Glitch held out her hand, to shake Eric’s. He took it.

“Nice to meet you,” he said.

“Glitch is a sophomore,” Bianca said, “but she’s new to the school too. She knows a bunch of people here from clustergrok, so we’re having a party later tonight. Do you want to come?”

“Of course he does!” Wizard said. “I’m bringing beer! It’s my own brew. Science!”

Glitch looked back at Eric, who turned a little pink. She guessed why. Not that it matters, but how old are you? Bianca translated.

“S-sixteen,” he said.

Glitch nodded.

“You hear that?” Wizard said, grinning. “We got a genius on our hands. Don’t worry, man, we’re not gonna kick you out for being brilliant. If you’re old enough to deal with hacker problems, you’re old enough to party with us.”

“You mean, play video games, eat junk food, and drink like two, tops, because we’re all too broke for booze, and most of us have a huge aversion to anything that makes us act or feel stupid, and nobody here really has the stomach for it anyway since Beers left?” Bianca asked, her lips quirking into an amused half-grin.

“Exactly that,” Wizard said cheerfully.

“Honestly, Wiz, trying to look cool in front of the new kid,” Bianca said, giving him a push and making him stumble. She rolled her eyes and turned to move more of Glitch’s stuff in, but just then Eric let out a sort of muffled squeak. Wizard had fallen asleep, and Eric was trying to hold him up by his armpits.

“Is he okay?” Eric asked when he and Glitch had sat Wizard upright.

“He’s fine,” Bianca reassured. “Just narcoleptic. If he doesn’t wake up in a couple minutes, Glitch and I will carry him back upstairs. He could use the sleep.”

“Does this happen a lot?” asked Eric, eyes wide and eyebrows furrowed.

“Maybe four or five times a day,” Bianca said. “If he’s lucky, it happens at night. He can’t sleep otherwise. Um, and sometimes it’s pretty weird. Just… trying to warn you. This is why he was carrying, like, clothes and blankets and stuff, and not furniture,” she added.

They waited for a few seconds.

“Is he… really out of it?” Eric asked.

Wizard stirred. He rubbed a hand down his face and squinted his eyes open. “That,” he said, getting up, “was an extremely weird dream.”

At Glitch’s What? expression, he laughed and said, “You don’t really want to know. Come on, I’m ready to move more of those super heavy throw pillows now.”

***

Cords criscrossed the room. Junk food was piled on the kitchen counters. The glare of blue almost overpowered the lamps in the girls’ apartment. These distractions were a fortunate situation, because otherwise the presence of about a dozen hackers in the same room would typically end in minor fire, bizarre experiments, blueprints for evil robots, or one time, a new device for feeding coffee to crickets to encourage them to chirp more, thereby making the weather warmer. That had been a long winter. However, with the distractions of salt, drink, and video games, catastrophe was averted.

Wizard, Jackson/Radio, Daryl/Dragon, and Eric turned out to be unstoppable zombie slayers, while Bianca and Glitch decimated Stephen/Morse and Cam/Puma in FPS capture the flag. Isaac/T-Bone played for a while, then stopped in order to sit back with a drawing pad and render goofy caricatures of everyone’s all-too-intense faces, thus relieving the shaking in his hands and the odd buzzing in his ears that came from going too long without drawing something. Even Anya came out of her shell long enough to challenge Bianca to karaoke. Glitch watched, amused, wondering how well her gloves’ voice would fare but unsure of her ability to type so quickly.

Wizard didn’t have enough beer for anyone to have more than two, but it still had an effect as the night wore on. Anya began to relax and talk to people. Eric started acting silly after just one. Glitch had held off because the presence of so many people she’d never met in person was making her a little nervy, even if she already knew and liked them, but by eleven she’d finally cracked open a bottle. Her experience with alcohol was limited to that of two awful parties last year, during which she’d spent most of her attention on keeping the can in her hand unmolested by any hopeful partygoers. Wizard’s home-brewed concoction, though, was rather pleasantly sweet and neither watered-down nor overbearing. She flashed him a thumbs-up to show her approval, and he grinned.

People filtered out as the night wore on. Pedro/Frizz left at midnight because he had a roast cooking back at his apartment. Anya retreated to the quiet of her room at half past one, around the same time that Stephen and Jackson left because their guild had a raid scheduled. Isaac decided he’d had enough half an hour after that, and left wondering aloud about the metrics from his newest algorithm, which had been collecting all evening as he’d left the tester program running. Eric had dozed off on the couch. Cam wandered out at some point without fanfare.

Daryl and Wizard were playing a board game on the table, and Bianca was braiding Glitch’s hair as they watched stupid YouTube videos on Glitch’s netbook.

Eventually, Eric woke up, rubbing grime out of his mismatched eyes, then wandered over to watch Wizard and Daryl’s game. Bianca ducked into her room and came back with a tiny quadcopter. Unnecessarily holding a finger to her lips as Glitch watched her, she carefully balanced a Cheeto on top of the quadcopter—just below the reach of its propellers—and precisely piloted it over the game under cover of the noise from the latest cat video.

The Cheeto dropped onto the board. The boys looked up to find two girls almost doubled over in silent giggles. Eric was fastest, and ate the Cheeto, to the other two’s complaints.

At that point, there seemed to be a consensus that they were all too tired and silly to stay up any longer.

Glitch went back to her room, which hadn’t seen much unpacking save for her sheets and a throw blanket. Despite her agreement that it was time to go to bed, she couldn’t help sitting down at the computer.

She typed out an email, to be edited and sent tomorrow.

Hi, Mom…


AN: Let’s answer a few worldbuilding-related questions preemptively.

Bandroids in real life are called something different, but it’s trademarked so I’m not going to use it.

This is set in an alternate universe to our own, naturally (computers do not give programmers disabilities in real life, except maybe awful eyesight), but it’s also a few generations into the future. This is more noticeable in the culture than in the technology, which has of course developed differently (it’s been held back in some ways). Everyone speaks English; other languages are spoken by the well-educated or people whose parents have held on for a few generations speaking it at home.

In “Hackers” America, people have kind of picked up pieces of each other’s culture here and there, and many places in-world are far more diverse than they are irl. (Glitch somehow managed to pick somewhere that wasn’t diverse for her first choice in school, but it’s more the exception than the rule.) Racism isn’t gone, but it’s not so much of a problem as it is right now.

If this were a political novel, like A City Reclaimed, this mixing would cause problems for the main characters. There’d be folks who were concerned (or sometimes outright militant) about preserving their culture–if everyone’s mixing, and American culture is as pervasive (“invasive”?) as ever, people would be concerned about the individuality of their heritage being lost. You’d get minor first-world countries doing things like refusing to trade or banning American television. But this is a novel about twenty-somethings derping around building robots and dealing with their own societal issues, both of which are going to be complicated enough.

So if I’m not going to put in individual cultural details, and racism isn’t a big issue, why am I bothering to make over half my cast non-white? (I don’t know how you count Daryl.) Because it’s pretty dumb that that’s the default. I don’t write novels where every single person has the same hair color.

Oh, one more thing. I know at least some narcoleptics have trouble falling asleep at night, and insomniacs can fall asleep sometimes, or for (insufficient) chunks of the night. Neither group, I’d hazard, has the condition thrust upon them by a magic computer. Wizard’s friends just use the language they know in order to describe his mod, even if it’s not totally accurate.

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