Beginning: Möbius rose
When I was lucid again, I tried desperately to contact her. Her dorm room was vacant. Evidently she had never even moved into it. I had no idea who her friends were, and in any case I was sure she would have warned them about her junkie thought-he-was-an-uncle already. In the real world she tread invisibly. It was amidst the wires that she left her footprints.
She was moving quickly. She already had ins on the major illegal bulletin board systems, but it was hard for me to read their dynamics. I was used to hunting out magical keys under garbage can lids unlocking a door in mid air to open a massive Enclave before my eyes; not reading through line after line of text in a chat room archive. I found myself stumbling into a delicate, triggerstring web. Follow her too closely and I risked bumping directly into her. I could barely keep pace with her surreptitiously, let alone if she was trying to shake me.
Neither could I chance too much attention from anyone else who might be looking. I took up old habits, moving between friends' or relatives' homes and ratty motels in a schizophrenic game of hide-and-go-seek. Even if I wasn't a target, I might serve as a bright neon sign pointing right at Naomi. She was delving deep and greedily, tempting an onslaught of wiretaps and search warrants. I had to find her before anyone else did.
I slammed my laptop shut and let out a shameless, frustrated sob. Falling back on the floor of a vague acquaintance's kitchen and musing on the lovely mold patterns across the ceiling, I tried to calm myself. Her brilliance left me wrenched between immense fatherly pride and despairing rage. For every weakness in her approach, she compensated. The trip of a firewall disguised by a system error on a box thousands of hops away, conveniently misconnecting at precisely the moment she had fumbled. Dozens of accounts stolen, manipulated, invented, deleted. The right words at the right moments to get exactly what she wanted from the neurotically paranoid regulars at the deepest subterranean boards. I had stumbled upon an entire hidden intranet that she must have social engineered, impossibly, into a brief connection with the general net. That I was aware of her presence at all took every trick I knew and a few I hadn't, but it was a hopeless endeavor. I was hitting brick walls headfirst at every fork in the path, losing her amidst the stunted noise of a cloistered, cowed replica of the world I had once perched atop.
But there, curled up on the linoleum, I realized my mistake. So focused on her footsteps, I couldn't see what direction she was taking. Looking over my notes, the pieces fell together. I felt like an idiot. She was tracing every individual in the local area who might be up to something illegitimate, narrowing them down one by one until there was only one. Shikai. And she was having some trouble. Trying to find her was like trying to find a single fly across an entire city by listening for its buzz. But Shikai was the putrid, wafting smell of rancid meat dragging her onward. If I followed him, I could keep up with her, at least until she made a mistake that gave me a glimpse out from the network into the real world. It was hard to resolve the idea in my mind, but I ruthlessly refocused my concentration. I would follow Shikai, or this person she thought was Shikai, and hope he led me to Naomi.
After about four weeks, the break came. While her target was precise as ever, she herself was growing sloppy. One of her alternate accounts had left a traceroute record on an insecure relay between borough 24 and the central city processing registry. It was a stupid mistake, one she seemed to be making in escalating haste. The traffic she was generating was too noticeable, even from the limited perspective of my own corner of the network. From a government bureau, it would be blatantly obvious to anyone of competence casting a glance in her direction. Trying to resist the temptation to bump my shoddy used car another ten or so miles above the speed limit, I drew blanks on every possible way to get her to talk to me, listen for a bit, understand the danger she was putting herself in. Most importantly, accept my apology. I had kept myself on the bare minimum of kep necessary to function. Hellish, but the only way I could prove to myself that this goose-chase was in earnest. I could not bear for Naomi to believe that I cared more about an unwieldy organic molecule than I cared about her.
She was hunkered down in the hacker equivalent of a bombshelter. I parked my car about a block away, grabbed a backpack from the trunk with my laptop in stow, and headed toward the Aittakallio Museum of Modern Art. Soaring upward in parallel, a pair of curved wings meticulously mirroring the spread of a bird's sheltered a pyramidal ribbed glass exhibition hall that fronted and arched over the main building. They were continually moving, slowly tracing curves through the air, ruffling, hugging close to the glass and splaying out again according to their own rhythm, once a matter of subtle, slow temperature calibration, now the erratic whims of a ghost.
Completed only a year before the Schism by private donations from the CEO of Transis Pharmaceuticals, it had been at the forefront at a new generation of 'intelligent' buildings. They had cleaned themselves, powered themselves, repaired themselves, and in the case of the AMMA, guarded themselves. The foremost in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology had made for spaces that felt so organic you could almost hear them breathe. Available only by the multibillion dollar beneficence of the world's keiretsu, chaebol, and megacorporations, physical embodiments of their power and limitless potential, they had been beautiful in a disquieting, vaguely menacing way.
And now they were the fallout zones of the post-Schism world. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, there were no more blueprints, no records, no instructions. Every compendium of modern construction theory disintegrated into randomized bits in the course of a few days. The buildings themselves went mad, every system misfiring. Some eventually ground to a halt, smothered under their own bloated deadweight. Others kept going; psychopathic, lurching monuments to the crushing of humanity's pride. Those that could not be stopped or dismantled were walled off, left as a festering haunting ground for spiteful cyberwraiths.
The AMMA was like any other urban ruin, save for a freak act of grace that had kept its network connection protocols and subsystems stable; bursting with stories to tell for anyone who knew the language. When I had followed Naomi to its little hollow in the most obscure portions of the network, I found it had responded to only eight lonely pings in the last decade. Hers was the final call to this sanctum of the dead. From within it, she would be almost entirely free to pursue any lead she chose. It was a temptation she couldn't possibly resist. Her footprints in the dirt of traceroutes, masked accounts, back-door connections and bulletin-board murmurs ended there.
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