Hackers, Chapter 1: Glitch
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 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: 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: he wouldn’t make a very good roommate though
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.
“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.
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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