“I guess it’s possible,” Benni said, shifting thoughtfully in hans chair. Ne brought hans hand to hans chin. Benni had actually come to visit physically, which was a rarity. Ne usually preferred a holo-call.
“I don’t know what else it could be,” Adrick said. “It’s driving me nuts, Benni.”
“Maybe you’re already nuts,” Benni said with a smirk.
Benni may have been in physical attendance, but ne occupied the digital space more fully than most other people Adrick knew. Not that Adrick knew a lot of people — he tried to avoid them when he could. Benni constantly employed an open projection that altered hans physical appearance even further toward androgyny, assisting the makeup and fashion choices Benni already made.
“Trust me,” Adrick said darkly. “I’ve considered that possibility.”
“So, have you given out passes to anyone to edit your space?” Benni asked. “Or let anyone copy your passcode data?”
“Not intentionally,” Adrick said. “Just you, I guess.” He narrowed his eyes. “It wasn’t you, was it?”
Benni laughed. They both knew it hadn’t been han, or if it had, that Benni wouldn’t have been able to keep the secret from the instant Adrick had contacted han. “Can you think of anyone else?”
“I don’t really know anyone else with programming knowledge,” Adrick said.
“Well, not anyone who knows me well enough to want to pull a prank on me.”
Benni and Adrick sometimes worked together on projects that required artistic talent alongside programming. They had even developed a few simple games together, although they had never made a splash in that department. Neither of them had dedicated enough energy to the projects for that. They only did it for their own amusement.
“You don’t have to know someone all that well to want to prank them,” Benni said. “Some people just like messing with everyone to get their jollies.”
Adrick shrugged. “I guess. The point remains: I haven’t shared access to my space to anyone but you. And you said you scrubbed my passcode data from your system.”
“Well, I didn’t,” Benni said.
Ne made a series of gestures, which told Adrick ne was cycling through system menus. By default, other lens users couldn’t see what you were doing. Benni flicked hans eyes toward Adrick. With another quick set of gestures, ne opened hans system screens up so that Adrick could see them, too, projected in the space in front of Benni.
Adrick’s menus were set up to look like they had been taken from the displays of old physical screens. They took the form of glowing words and lines and circles, like light given form and function.
Benni had set hans up to look much more physical, as though they were carved into and out of wood and marble. They looked as much a part of the room as the real chair in which Benni sat, other than the fact that they defied the notion of gravity.
Benni typed upon a dark keyboard of lacquered wood, with keys of polished white-and-grey marble. Adrick stood and moved to stand behind Benni, where he could watch Benni’s illusory screen, bordered by a frame of wood and displaying text as carved into a thin sheet of the same marble that formed hans keyboard. When it needed to display images, it opened small viewing windows next to the marble tablet.
“I don’t see anything abnormal,” Benni said after several minutes of combing through menus so quickly that Adrick couldn’t quite follow what ne was doing. The fact that their displays were so different made it even harder to track what Benni was looking at. “I see where you’ve changed your wall colors and added the bedroom, and how you’ve set the lighting systems…”
Benni trailed off as ne kept coming through the settings. Adrick grew bored enough to interrupt han. “Why didn’t you delete my passcodes?”
“Because I knew you’d have me over here again trying to fix something,” Benni said distractedly. “I never clear out my access from anyone’s systems. Everyone always calls me back eventually. You don’t even want to know how often I have to fix something for my mom.”
“At least she uses a lens,” Adrick said. “It’s hard to even get my parents to put theirs on.”
“True enough. She does try,” Benni said.
Now Benni transferred to the access terminal. Lines of code extended across the marble tablet. The false screen extended outward to accommodate more information. Adrick knew enough only to recognize that much. Systems were programmed using their own set of symbols and their own linguistic framework, and Adrick could only pick out one or two such glyphs as recognizable.
“Hmm,” Benni said. “This isn’t going to work this way. I’m going to have to switch to a different interface.” Ne glanced at Adrick. Benni had a habit of talking aloud when working on something, but it didn’t mean ne was actually speaking to whoever was present. “Do you want to keep watching? I know you don’t really get this stuff.”
“Might as well,” Adrick said. “If you find something you’re going to have to try to explain it. Even if I’m not following along I’d rather at least see what you’re seeing so I can pretend.
“Alright. Pull up a chair.”
Benni hanself moved from one of the dining chairs to Adrick’s large bowl chair. Adrick dragged his own chair over behind it to watch. When Benni had made hanself comfortable, ne flicked through his menus. A small marble tab appeared in Benni’s hand. Ne handed it to Adrick, who inserted it into the flat hard-light port his own lens opened up to interface.
There were no immediate changes, but Benni had just passed Adrick temporary access to hans closed projections, and Adrick had in turn given han even deeper access to his system. Benni toggled a switch on the side of hans keyboard. It shifted from the language Adrick knew to the glyphs featured in programming, and grew longer as more buttons populated it.
Benni typed in a command string. The marble screen shrunk down, curling in on itself until it became a sphere, which, pulsing with blue light, expanded until it surrounded the two of them. It transformed Adrick’s loft into its own miniature universe, darkening the lighting to midnight levels and filling the air with floating spheres of code, each glowing with golden-white light like that of an ideal star.
Lines snaked between all of the code spheres. Adrick knew that each sphere represented a program or a function or other, similar things that he didn’t quite understand. The largest one, to which all of the others connected and around which most of them seemed to orbit, was the code sphere of the operating system itself.
“This looks normal to me,” Adrick joked. It was a drastic evolution from the two-dimensional command systems they had introduced in elementary school, like the one Benni had first accessed. Those were more like flat maps that reminded him, vaguely, of two dimensional projections of the planet. He knew that this system was an evolution of that one, and that they had been built on the same basic language, but he remembered so little of what he had learned that it all seemed entirely unfamiliar.
“Yeah,” Benni said, distractedly. Ne gestured, and the whole universe of code moved around them, rotating to offer a different view.
From behind, Adrick couldn’t see Benni’s face, but something about the set of hans shoulders and the tense movement of hans hand spoke of a concern hans voice did not.
“What’s wrong?” Adrick asked.
“Nothing,” Benni said. “Well, not nothing, really. I don’t know.”
“Is it nothing or isn’t it?” Adrick asked.
“It’s not nothing,” Benni said. “I just don’t know if it’s something yet.”
Benni kept rotating through the code spheres, occasionally pulling or pushing to zoom in and out. Sometimes he slid the whole universe sideways or up or down rather than spinning it about.
“Care to elaborate?” Adrick asked.
Benni pointed at one of the lines that spider-webbed throughout the system of code spheres. “You see how these reference lines connect the spheres?”
“Yeah,” Adrick said.
Benni zoomed in on one of them. “The ones that appear thicker are actually just several connections running between different spheres,” ne said. “You can see that when I pull the view up close.”
Ne pulled their perspective in close to one of the smaller spheres, which, from afar, had seemed to be connected to a very thick reference line. “When we close in, you can see where this braid of lines splits up and actually connects to many different parts of the code sphere.”
“Okay,” Adrick said. “I’m following so far.”
“So, look at this line,” Benni said. Ne pointed at a reference line which passed the sphere ne’d just pointed out. “Where does it go?”
The line speared off into the distance, out of the realm of what could be projected inside the loft at this level of zoom. “I’m not sure,” Adrick said.
“Me either,” Benni said. Ne gestured, and the view zoomed back out. Ne poked at the reference line. Benni shook his “That should have highlighted it, to make it easier to follow, but it didn’t.”
Ne pointed at several of the other lines that wove through the code spheres. “I don’t know where any of those other lines connect, either. Well, sometimes I can find one end to them.”
Ne swept hans hand to the side, and the view moved back to the large code sphere which represented the OS. “Here, I can see several lines connected which go off to… somewhere else. I just can’t figure out where somewhere else is.”
“They’re all connected to the OS sphere?” Adrick asked. He understood, at base, what Benni was explaining, though he couldn’t pretend to comprehend the implications.
“Not all of them, no,” Benni said. Ne pointed out two others, both of which were connected to a sphere orbiting the OS. “I don’t think these go anywhere, either. I mean obviously they go somewhere, because reference lines have to go somewhere. I just haven’t figured out where that is yet.”
“If they’re all going to the same place, shouldn’t they be… grouped? Into a thick line, like you said earlier?”
“Absolutely,” Benni said. “And that’s part of the weird thing. If the reference lines are all leading to the same place, they should be grouped. That’s not even just a feature of the visual interface. That’s just… it’s just how it works, you know?”
“Not really,” Adrick said. “But I think I get what you’re saying.”
“I guess we don’t know that they’re all leading to the same place,” Benni said. “If you really do have a foreign actor in your system, though, it should be represented by a single code sphere.”
“Oh?” Adrick said. “I though more complex AIs had their own little code sphere universes.”
Benni laughed softly. “That’s not… I mean, yeah, I guess they do. But that depends on how complex they are. Simple ones like you see in a shoe store only have the one sphere, and it handles all of their functions. Look at it this way.”
Ne pointed at a sphere. It didn’t seem remarkable when Adrick compared it to any of the others. “This is your word processing program. It has a lot of different functions, though all of them are interrelated. It’s all coded into one single sphere. Simple AIs are like that. They exist as a single sphere, functioning within an operating system.
“If you’re talking really complex AIs, like maybe you’ve read some articles about, then yeah, sure. They might have their own little systems of code spheres within the ‘universe,’ as you called it. But there’s no reason for one of those to be in your system. Those are, like, way to advanced to be showing up as some sort of prank. I’ve never even worked with one. I couldn’t dream of programming one myself, and I’m not a bad programmer.”
“So where do the lines lead?” Adrick asked.
Benni shrugged. “I guess we pick one, follow it, and find out.”
Ne chose one of the reference lines that fed into the OS. The system still wouldn’t let han highlight it, which ne insisted was highly irregular — this was programming only one level up from its base, and a single program shouldn’t have been able to resist that sort of manipulation at this level. Pushing, pulling, and rotating, ne followed the trail of the reference line through the cloud of code spheres.
“This is bizarre,” Benni said, after nearly ten minutes had passed. “Reference lines are supposed to take the most direct route possible. This is looping through your system like a poorly planned country road.”
“Zoom in there,” Adrick said on a hunch. He pointed to a place where the reference line they’d been following passed close to a code sphere without stopping at it.
“Might as well,” Benni said. “This isn’t getting us anywhere fast.”
Benni pulled in on the visuals until the reference line dominated the space in front of them. The glowing band passed through the center of the room like a river of light.
“What the fuck,” Benni said.
From the one side of the reference line, splitting off like a tree branch, was a short, thin, glowing line. Even at this level of zoom, it displayed as barely thicker than a particularly bulky thread of yarn.
“That is so weird,” Benni said. “That’s… that’s just not how reference lines work. They make one connection. They draw one line, between two spheres or inside of one sphere. Just… what?”
Ne pulled the view out, retracing hans path back along the line until ne came to another sphere past which this reference line passed. There, ne and Adrick met with the same condition. A thin branch came out from the reference line, connecting with that sphere as well. Ne repeated the process four more times, with the same results.
“What’s going on?” Adrick said. “This is weird, right?” He already knew it was weird, from Benni’s reaction, but he wanted some kind of comforting confirmation.
“This is beyond weird,” Benni said. “This is leagues and leagues beyond weird.”
For another thirty minutes, Benni followed the reference line through the spheres. Every time it passed close to one, it connected to it with that same faint branch. When they finally reached the line’s destination, Adrick heard Benni’s breath catch in hans chest.
“What is that?” Adrick asked.
In front of them, the line connected with a flat circle of code. Other lines joined with it as it passed through the circle. Rather than emerging on the other side, they ended there just as though they had met with a code sphere.
“It’s a gate,” Benni said, quietly, as though he lacked the breath to support anything louder than a whisper. Ne pointed to several points around the gate: symbols, in the coding language, which Adrick didn’t recognize.
“I don’t know what those mean,” Adrick said, frustrated.
“Neither do I,” Benni said. “They’re not… They’re not from the coding language.”
“What?” Adrick said. “And what’s a gate, anyway?”
“It’s a place to pass through a partition,” Benni said. “Like if, for some reason, you’re running two different operating systems. But you’re not. Are you?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Adrick said.
“I’ve never seen those symbols before,” Benni said. Ne turned, and Adrick saw hans face for the first time since they’d begun their search. Ne always straddled the line between beautiful and handsome, with expertly applied makeup and a fine, strong jawline that was neither masculine or feminine. Now, however, a look of worry and awe that Adrick had never seen upon han marred hans face.
“How is that possible?” Adrick asked.
“There used to be different coding languages,” Benni explained. “Or I guess it would be more accurate to say that all the parts of what we use now were discovered independently before we realized how to put them together as one.”
“Right,” Adrick said. “I remember that from school.”
“Well, that’s the whole point of what I’m saying,” Benni continued. “There’s only one coding language. I know it. You can’t code well without knowing the whole thing.” Ne pointed at those same symbols again. Ne emphasized every word.“I don’t know those symbols!”
Benni’s demeanor frightened Adrick. He had never seen his friend so agitated about anything, yet here ne was, on the verge of crying or shouting or both.
“Can we go through the gate?” Adrick asked. He didn’t know what else to suggest. He couldn’t even fully comprehend why Benni was so bothered by this.
“Yes,” Benni said.
Ne turned away from Adrick so swiftly that it startled him. With a twist of his hands, both of them acting in concert, he drew their view into and through the game.
Adrick didn’t know what to expect on the other side, but if he’d known enough to even hazard a guess, it wouldn’t have been what they saw. All around them, their lenses showed them code spheres. It was a system of them, more tightly knit that the one they had just thoroughly explored, with an array of small spheres orbiting around a large one. Different, to be sure, but at the same time, nearly indistinguishable to Adrick.
Benni, however, was shaking.
“Benni?” Adrick asked. He leaned forward, placing a hand on Benni’s shoulder. Han shivered like he’d be locked outside in the winter without a jacket.
“What is this?” Benni whispered. Benni’s eyes were wide and unblinking. “What is this, Adrick? Are you playing some sort of trick on me?”
“What? No,” Adrick said, shocked “You know I wouldn’t know how to do that.”
Finger trembling, Benni pointed at the spheres. “The language. Look at the symbols. Look at them.”
“I am,” Adrick said. He didn’t recognize them, but of course he didn’t. If he really stared, yes, they looked off, but he just didn’t know enough to understand.
“They’re different,” Benni. “Adrick, this is a whole different system inside yours, in an entirely different language.”
“Is that what’s causing all of this?” Adrick said.
Benni did not get the chance to reply immediately, because the whole AR projection flashed. Adrick and Benni both lurched as, without warning, the display in front of them launched away into the distance. Adrick felt an instant vertigo. The haptics in his gloves, and the ones inside his lens that he never turned on because they made him sick, vibrated without pattern or meaning. A wave of dizziness, caused by the lurching lens haptics, almost brought him out of his chair.
When Adrick opened his eyes — he didn’t even remember closing them, but at some point, he had — they were back to a view he recognized: the opening view of his system, where they had first begun exploring.
“It kicked me out!” Benni said. The tone of hans voice hovered somewhere between terror and, to Adrick’s surprise, excitement. “Whatever that was, it kicked us out! It didn’t want us there.”
“What was it?” Adrick asked. He sat back in his chair.
Benni turned off the projection, returning both of them to the normal, if still digitally altered, version of Adrick’s loft. “I don’t know, but I sure as shit want to find out.” Ne turned around completely in the bowl chair. “And yes, to answer your question, yes. I absolutely think that’s what’s behind this.”