Benni, to hans disappointment, had to leave to attend a meeting with a client. This left Adrick alone in his loft with his system, with only the knowledge that there was something inside of it that neither of them understood. Adrick thought he might actually be less bothered by the situation than Benni, who had worried Adrick as ne left. Ne’d been acting almost as though he’d taken a strong blow to the head.
Ne had promised ne would be back the next morning, that ne would clear hans schedule for the day so that ne could spend as much time as possible trying to understand what they had seen. Adrick wanted to understand, too, but Benni had an almost desperate quality to han. Ne had a sort of fervency Adrick had only seen before in fictional depictions of religious zealotry.
But, like Adrick, ne still had to make money in order to survive. Adrick had some sort of shadow inside his system, but he still needed to work on the art for the illustrated edition of the novel he was working on. Now that he knew that the shadow he’d been seeing resided in his system, and thus could interact with him only through his lens, he felt less worried about his personal wellbeing.
Adrick got himself a snack, settled into his chair, and began to work. The difference between the plain code and the AR it produced in his loft astounded him even more now than it had before. He would never understand how the system interpreted those strings and cores of symbols into such convincing and elegant visuals.
He also didn’t understand why coding required its own language, full of symbols and words which expressed not meaning in the sense to which Adrick was accustomed, but instead instructed the processes and visualizations created by the computer systems.
He had learned in school that very old systems of coding had used the languages and numerical systems of their coders. They had discovered, with time, that a different set of symbols provided more efficient and effective code. In a process Adrick didn’t understand, this had been discovered independently throughout the world by different people, who had come together later to find that they had found intersecting but novel parts of the same system. It was almost as if the language system used for coding had been discovered rather than developed by human minds.
Why did giving code its own novel language work better than any existing linguistic system? Where had that language truly come from, if humanity hadn’t designed it? If Benni was right, and those code spheres beyond the gate had been written with a set of symbols entirely foreign to him, did that really mean it was a different language, or was it simply an expansion of the language Benni already knew?
That he had thought of that last question surprised him. Adrick sent a quick message to Benni to ask whether that was a possibility, then he muted his messages and calls so that his system would only show him incoming communications marked “urgent.”
The piece he was working on depicted a young girl brought before a king. She was not a human girl, though, but a half-dragon, with hard black scales instead of flesh. The challenge of illustrating came entirely from the necessity to make her seem vulnerable and sympathetic while both maintaining the level of realism the author and the publisher had requested and making her seem like a viable threat to those around her.
He could have rounded and dulled her edges and widened her eyes, giving her a more childlike, cartoony aesthetic to help the reader sympathize with her, but he couldn’t go too far in that direction, or the reader might unconsciously question why those around her saw her kind as a threat. He also couldn’t make her seem too frightening or alien, because then the reader wouldn’t relate to her as well.
Adrick worked along anyway, filling in details on the other characters, who challenged him less. He had already depicted the girl in several other pieces, but even looking back at them, he felt he hadn’t gotten her quite right. He suspected that even after he’d brought all of the illustrations to a state in which he thought he could turn them over, he would feel the desire to go back to them and try to get the girl right.
His illustration, projected on the air in front of him, took up the majority of his view. Various paint palettes, brushes, and other tools took up more of it, leaving him with little visibility of the room beyond. When he noticed the shadow standing in the corner, just visible through a crack between two of his displays, he couldn’t be sure how long it had been there before he had noted its presence.
His heart rate increased, but this time he tried not to react visibly to its presence. Instead, he kept a discreet watch on it from the corner of his eye. It didn’t seem to notice his observation. It stayed in the corner, unmoving.
Even just flicking his eyes to it now and again, he was able to learn more of its appearance than he had in any previous encounter. He knew that his lens wouldn’t record its presence, so he opened up a new canvas and began to paint it. He quickly sketched out the space in which it stood, his familiarity with the appearance of the loft lending ease to his pen.
Then he began to draw the shadow in more detail. He found it more difficult than he had expected, and not just because he was afraid to show it his full attention. For the first time, he realized that it was more than just a shadowed human figure brought into darkness by some error with the system’s lighting. Only the human shape itself was cast in shadow, with the wall behind it lit as though the figure was not standing there.
Indeed, not only did the figure not seem to be interacting properly with its environment, digital or otherwise, but as Adrick strained to see enough of it to illustrate its likeness, he realize that it didn’t seem to be fully rendered. It grew fuzzy at its edges and borders. Adrick couldn’t make out facial features or individual digits, or even tell whether or not it was wearing clothes.
The one detail Adrick’s mind kept picking out were the figure’s eyes. From time to time, they almost caught the light of the room enough to render them visible. They didn’t glow, as a cat’s might, but they shone just enough for Adrick to make them out, which was more than he could say of any of the figure’s other features.
Adrick frowned at his illustration when he had finished, because it did not resemble his mental picture of the shadowy figure. He’d exaggerated the shine of the eyes, making them seem far too bright, as though they were a light source of their own. He hadn’t even done it intentionally. The figure’s silhouette, in his illustration, was ragged and undefined. It looked more like a splotch than a person.
With the illustration complete — or at least, as complete as he felt it needed to be, for his purposes — Adrick looked at the figure full-on. He spun the painting around to face it, make it publically viewable.
“Do you like it?” he said, because through illustrating the shadow he’d grown more comfortable with it. He’d begun to see it as less threatening.
The shadow didn’t answer. It seemed to shrink away from him, as though it was collapsing in on itself. No, as though it were retreating into the distance, even though there was a solid wall behind it.
“I tried to draw a picture of you,” Adrick said. “I’m afraid it didn’t turn out very well. I couldn’t get a good look at you.”
The shadow shrank further away. Adrick had the distinct impression he was making it uncomfortable. Defying the physical wall behind it, it receded. Well, it was an AR projection. Programmers strove to have them obey the physical limits of their space, but they didn’t have to, just as Adrick could easily walk through the illusions that were his bedroom walls.
“It’s alright,” Adrick said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m also not going to make you stay, if you don’t want to.”
It wasn’t like he had a choice. He had no idea how to interact with the shadow at all. He wasn’t even sure if it could hear his voice. From its actions, all he really felt sure of was that it saw the painting.
Its retreat seemed to accelerate with each passing moment, until it passed out of sight entirely into some unknown distance. Adrick hadn’t learned anything, not really, but he felt like he had. More importantly, he would have more to share when Benni returned.
Next: Shadows, Part 5