Beginning: Möbius rose
She said nothing when I opened the door. Just gazed, still, one hand resting across her tote and the other at her chest, thumb hooked beneath the strap. Her hair was shorter than I remembered it, spiked all about with an asymmetric sweep of bangs across the one side of her face, their counterpart on the opposite side held back with a barrette. She was in vaguely formal clothing, but nothing too serious. Frivolity better became Naomi's figure. She laughed, still girlish, still with the airy note of perpetual good spirits. I shook my head, letting a grin slide across my face as I nudged the door the rest of the way open. "Happy birthday Nomi," I greeted, making eye contact. It was important not to seem withdrawn. She cocked her head slightly, then with a sudden burst of movement she tackled me in a tight hug, exclaiming with delight, "I missed you Benji!" I oofed and returned the hug awkwardly, as I was off balance. I wasn't a fan of touching, but I wasn't going to begrudge her a hug after three months without having seen me. "Missed you too Nomi."
"I'm gonna drop my tote on the couch, then we can head out, 'k?" she explained as she resumed movement. I gazed after her, mentioning with an odd amount of nervousness, "I... umm.. got the flowers already. Roses like normal. They're in the kitchen."
"Where?" she shot back from out of view, "it's such a mess in here!"
"Oh... right, sorry, on.. on the table. Near the pile of books."
There was the sound of swishing pants and soft humming. The tune halted with a startled declaration. "Ara!" She swished back into the hallway, holding the bouquet before her. "Benjiiii... there's four of them! It's bad luck!" She balanced her whine with just the right tone of irony to prevent me from being irritated. I rubbed my elbow and looked away like a thirteen year-old boy caught out doing something he didn't know was embarrassing. That I was more than twice the appropriate age for such red-faced silliness didn't help. "Err... two for each?" Giggling, she plucked one and presented it to me with a flourish. "How about one for you, the rest for them? Then we're all set." She glided past, leaving me with a rose in hand. Sighing, I set it aside and followed her out.
We said nothing to or from the graveyard. Once, grief had choked words away, but now it was merely custom. Neither of us feared the silence anymore. It had mellowed through the course of a decade, tame and docile. Nothing compared to the fierce, vicious silence of the Schism that had snarled across the world like a beast unleashed. The silence of a nine-year-old girl waiting for her parents to come home so she could blow out her birthday candles. Wondering why the computers weren't working and the appliances were going haywire. Why the cars had all run into each other outside the window and the power had gone out. Why her dolls weren't singing to her anymore and her books were all devoid of words.
She had knocked on my door, not with childish curiosity and admiration now, but with terror. Over and over again, "Benji, are Mom and Dad coming home soon?" while I tottered on the brink of a panic attack, unable to connect, totally severed from the stream of information that had defined my existence in every waking moment. News of the subway crashes came slowly; blind, dumb momentum having guided their travel instead of the omnipresent, omniscient network that had kept them so perfectly timed. Bodies were never recovered. 'Uncle Benji' suddenly had to live up to his namesake.
"So how was the first day of class?" I asked when we had settled to a table at her favorite Thai restaurant. "Meh," she replied disinterestedly, draping a napkin over her lap. "I honestly don't understand their policies. After a year of perfect grades, I can't skip up a few course numbers, but they toss in some kid my own age to teach?" She fussed with her hair irritably. I chuckled. There was a softness to her voice that suggested a gentler sentiment lurking beneath. "Hmmm. Which class?"
"Geh, doesn't matter! He was fifteen minutes late," she began, proceeding to explain in excruciating detail every miniscule fault in his appearance and teaching style she could muster. Many of the complaints sounded more like grudging compliments. I fought hard to spare myself her ire by holding back a grin. She got a whiff of my thoughts in any case. "...and no, I do not have a crush on him or something juvenile like that, and anyway I'm sworn off guys for a while yet. Not worth the trouble they cause. Wipe that look off your face."
"Yes Nomi," I replied in a sarcastically obedient tone. "In any case, does your Compsci coursework look better this year?" She shook her head, twirling chopsticks between deft fingers. "It's bullshit. Again. A total waste of time. You probably know the entire curriculum at least three or four times over." I grumbled vaguely that this was an overestimation, but she plowed on. "Even the diploma itself couldn't offer me any better job than I could get right now." She paused, looking up. "I'm thinking of dropping."
I felt my neck muscles tightening slightly. 'Job' meant something entirely different in our personal vocabulary. It wasn't as though I didn't know exactly how she felt. I hadn't even made it to the end of high school. Back then, a drop-out with enough talent could manage extremely well on the wrong side of the law. I had been pretty damn good at what I did. Money laundering operations, IP theft, back door installations; well-paid if not exactly admirable.
When the first true networks came into being, they were the realm of cowboys; cloistered coders building the piecemeal foundations of a new universe. In time the networks' power was harnessed and pacified, brought under the control of the world's governments and corporations to divide into fiefdoms of their choosing. But the coming of full wireless connectivity and nanotechnology made patrolling and regulating an exercise in futility. An explosive Renaissance took place as anything and everything was connected to the network. It was like wandering a fruit orchard that had sprung up across an entire continent. It was the age of gods.
For every action, however, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Things were different now. The risks were exponentially greater, and the rewards almost negligible. I had jumped off the train of legitimacy into a land of milk and honey. She was about to jump into a briar patch.
"Nomi, I know things are a lot tamer now. And I know you probably have good reason to be bored. I mean, hell, you're incredible. Right now you could blow away anything I was capable of at your age. It took a lot of effort to check over the code you were sending me last year; the intricacy and elegance of it was just... unbelievable. I can't imagine what your work is like now. And I know you've probably taken a few stabs at straying out-of-bounds." She began to stammer an objection, which I halted with a raised hand. My turn to plow onward. "Don't even. As if that packet amplification utility you cooked up for your final just happened to be perfectly, gorgeously suited to disguising simultaneous account use?"
At this she couldn't help but give in a little to her sense of pride. She liked her ego stroked, just like anyone else. "Really? Well... I guess... I was pretty happy with that, yeah. And it works smooth as silk... entirely hypothetically, of course," she added with a cat's tricky grin. "Of course," I replied congenially, "but what are you going to do with it? What's the point? There is no 'underground network', Nomi. Believe me. I've checked. Nobody wants the skills you're honing. That age is over. All those stories I told you, all the reminiscences; they amount to nothing now. It's over."
I was lying, of course. I knew perfectly well that in the dark, hidden places of the network, the cracks and cubbyholes of a kingdom that had crumbled in on itself, there were still some free spirits left. And something else. But it wasn't a game anymore. It wasn't a playground. If she wandered too far, she would simply disappear. I had seen it happen too many times to too many old buddies to let her fall to the same fate.
"No, it is not over," she muttered with a hint of anger in her voice, twirling the chopsticks faster. "You know, just because you can't get over the past doesn't mean you have to hold me back. Plenty of people still need hackers."
"Who?" I shot back. She dropped them, hissing an expletive as she bent down to snatch the chopsticks from the floor. As she set them back on the table, she looked straight at me.
"I know you miss the old networks Benji, but there's something big happening right now. I can't exactly say what, but we're on the edge of something new. There are all sorts of rumors around." I reached for my glass of water and took a sip. She averted her eyes. "They say Shikai Hitasura is back."
I choked. She might as well have said, "by the way, Hitler rose from the grave yesterday; he's throwing a little reunion party with Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Jamalah Mavraputra." Setting down my glass and coughing a bit, I replied hoarsely, "Nomi, that's not funny. Even if that motherfucker survived the Schism, nobody except a couple government spooks would really have a clue. You know those sorts of rumors are pure bullshit."
She shook her head. "I'm not sure they are. In any case, that's not the point. I just don't see any reason why I should stay in college. I'm gonna follow in your footsteps Benji, whether you want me to or not."
I rolled my eyes. "Oh, so being thrown in prison for at least a few decades isn't reason enough, then? I'm sure Kangwon would love to hear about your new career aspirations." My hand was starting to tremble as the morning's hit wore off. I thrust it beneath my napkin and tried to ignore the oncoming headache.
"I broke up with Kangwon a month ago," Naomi replied heatedly, "but I suppose taking a minor interest in my life only extends so far as making sure misery has company, huh? I'd hoped you might be proud, instead of being such an asshole about it."
I rubbed my temple wearily and sighed. "Look, could we just change the subject, please? Neither one of us is enjoying this." We finished the rest of the dinner with a tense stop-and-start spatter of meaningless chatter.
Previous: Möbius rose
Next: Flying high on busted wings