Heading back to my pod I ran into a team of tech support monks heading the opposite way, gliding along in their long black hooded robes with the lead guy waving a censer back and forth and all of them mumbling in SQL. I caught the eye of the last one on the line as I pressed up against the wall with my coffee to get out of their way. He looked to be about my age, early twenties or so but much more on-focus than me, cleaner-cut, with eyes that said I may be the ass-end novice but I've got myself more together than a corporate IT pod-puke like you.
Which I took pretty bad, it being only my first week on the job and all.
It wasn't like I was some grunt right out of a nine-week state training class or something. I had a real degree, from a real school. Sure, it was in biology, but who cares what you studied, just so long as you made it out in four and kept your alumni association tithes current. It was the connections that really counted in the long run, the old boy network promised, and I believed them. Three years in pharma later I got smart, kissed a few asses like they told me to and soft-landed in pod 43A2 north, Magnamech HQ, next to another new guy named Karl and a crew of cute uniformed Asian accounting temps who wouldn't give me the time of day.
"Man, they spook me out," Karl said for the thousandth time that week. It hadn’t taken me long to figure out he wasn't a big fan of Cores and support rituals, and the fact that Magnamech had one didn't sit well with him. I nodded a few times and sipped my coffee. My dad told me to shut up and listen, people always say more than they should.
"I mean, look at them, all secret and freaky,” he said, a little louder once the monks had turned the corner toward the elevators. "Give me a good Clone on weekly refresh and an open line out and I'll get some real work done, man."
”Karl, let’s say the Troll found you with a Clone,” I said, settling into my chair. “He'd probably kill and eat you, burn down both the box and your pod, and chalk it all up to standards management.”
“Then he’d get you for not reporting it.”
“You don’t mess with the Troll. You wouldn’t even get it in the building, much less out of the box.”
“Damn shame, too.”
I spun around in my chair, powered up my station and winked a couple of times into the authentication strobe until it recognized me and let me in. Karl was still talking--it took me a few seconds to realize he was still talking to me.
"What the hell are you doing, Mike? You're going nowhere, all lines to the Core are flat down until those Dominican techs get done with whatever it is that they do upstairs.”
The numbers across the top of my station agreed - nothing but naks as my machine reached out for the Core and found nothing, over and over again. Network down.
Karl leaned over the low wall separating our pods. “Fennewald says it was an actual Hazard got in past the filters sometime during the night. He says the Troll won’t open up until he gets clearance from the monks, and that’s gonna take some time.”
I took another pull on my coffee and leaned back as far as my chair would let me go. Like every other low-echelon intelligence poddie on the floor, I was dead in the water without a clear line to the Core. And if a Hazard got in, the Core wasn't going to be listening for a while.
“You want a slice of the paper?” Karl said.
“No, I’ll just poke around and see what’s what.”
“Suit yourself.” Karl vanished behind the wall of his pod, whistling to himself and rustling the newspaper.
True to his word, every query phrase I tried came back with that annoying Access Denied bell tone. Even our syndicated web image was offline. I tried word processing, mail, nothing was up. Just for fun I keyed some Latin one of my professors taught me into the command queue on the off-chance one of the monks would notice and put in a good word for me with the Troll. I needed all the help I could get with the load of work I had to get through before lights out.
I had just started to page through the orientation manual when my Access Granted tone rang out three times.
“We're up,” I said, racing to get my first job loaded up into the queue.
“What are you talking about?”
I looked over my shoulder to see Karl leaning against the wall of his pod with a smear of powdered sugar on his lips.
“We’re up. And I’m first dog on the queue, sucker,” I said, slapping the Enter key.
“Must be a mistake, I’m still out. Midori-chan, did you get the go tone?”
The cute bottle blonde accounting temp across the aisle shook her head without turning it or even raising her eyes from the chess magazine she was reading.
Karl wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. “I’ll just go down to the basement and open a helpdesk case then. Meantime, if we go up while I'm gone, try and leave something for the unwashed and don’t suck down all the cycles? I’m looking at the same load you are.”
I was too busy grinning and stuffing the queue to notice how pissed he was. Oh well.
My scorecard flashed with an updated cycle limit for my session. It was a surprisingly large number, enough to last me the entire day if I didn’t do something stupid like run a Cartesian product or scan every big table a few times. I downed what was left of my coffee and got down to the task of loading the rest of my first job into the run queue.
“Did you meet our friends the Dominicans this morning, Mr. Ryan?”
I nodded. “Are all the Core support teams Dominicans?”
“The Dominicans have the field engineering franchise in perpetuity for Boberg and the two Koji lines that haven’t been end-of-lifed and spun off to salvage integrators. You can research the other monastic vendor associations for our next discussion.”
Fennewald had been dismantling a fish platter with surgical precision for the last five minutes, but hadn’t taken a bite yet. I had figured out our introductory lunches together over the last week were just fronts for impromptu lectures and assignments; I hadn’t seen him eat once. He just dissected his food, the shoulders of his tweed jacket popping up and down with each cut like they were pulled by strings.
“The smaller Perch/Prism and Pandaemonium Cores do not require the same level of intimate maintenance that our top-of-class Boberg does,” he said, separating the bones from the flesh in orderly rows. “We are very lucky to have a monastery nearby for those occasions when immediate assistance is needed. We are also very lucky that our Director is vigilant too all potential disruptions.”
The Troll was vigilant, all right. I doubted he ever slept.
With my third full job grinding away after lunch and some down-time before I had to worry about working the result set, I looked for and found a chapter in the orientation manual about some of the bad things that could happen to a Core. Whoever had written the manual probably put it in to bulk it out as there was pretty much nothing I or anyone on the floor could do to actually bring down a production Boberg Core. After all, the powers-that-be had figured out how to eliminate operator error as a cause of system failure years before I was born. You could still nail a Core with a pile of work and maybe score a bit of a performance hit, sure, but crash the whole show? No way.
But Cores were still machines, and while they weren’t exposed to the live grid image the same way Clones and consumer pads needed to be, they could still get sick sometimes. But not just anything could make a Core sick, it seemed. Old-school virus? A sniffle. File sharing daemon? Maybe a short fever. Meme pooling? Bad case of the trots.
A full-blown Hazard? Someting nasty and big cooked up by a third-world government spam blackmailer or nutjob keiretsu? That was walking pneumonia for a Core, and it wouldn't know how sick it was until it started coughing up blood. Lucky the Troll spotted it, and luckier still there was a monastery nearby to send a team so quickly to clean it up.
I was just about to try and make eye contact with Midori-chan to brag about my good fortune when the overhead lights flickered and all the stations went dark, mine included. The sound of so many machines powering down simutaneously was like a hovercraft shutting off. Even the air conditioning went down.
But a few seconds later, with the sound of some huge distant mechanical lever turning over, everything came back on to a huge chorus of Access Granted tones and sarcastic cheers filtering in from all over the floor.
“The Troll cycled the Core!” Karl said. “We’re back in business, boys and girls!”
I'd have forgotten the whole thing if it weren’t for the fact the entire team of monks stared at me as they filed past my pod on their way out an hour later. The last one, the guy who caught my eye briefly that morning, he had a big red welt on his cheek and the start of a black eye as he mouthed "you're welcome."
Over time I began to piece things together from lunches with Fennewald and trade mags. It's weird that I never realized this stuff before I started at Magnamech, but folks on the “outside” had no real reason to give it a second thought. Life was pretty simple; regular folks had a pad and an access subscription from one of the big media companies, and that was that. Pay your bill each month and pick up the new pad each Christmas and you were set. The only problem was if you had buddies who used another media brand, then you couldn’t swap mail or anything. It led to some interesting decision-making around who you assocaited with. Are you Sony or BMG? Disney? Man, sorry, can't hang with you.
Rich folks didn’t have this problem, since they could buy their own access and non-subsidized pads. From what I knew their only problem was keeping their filters current. A rich kid at school went a week without updating his filters and bang, he got whacked by a few of those wacky Japanese Turing viruses that lock up your pad’s main memory for God-knows-what. Man was he pissed. When he got it fixed, it took him hours to dig through the junk mail and kill all the prefbots that set up shop on his pad.
Anyway, I figured out that things worked differently “inside”. Companies like ours didn’t want to deal with anything that wasn’t rock-solid with binding warranties. Privacy, consistency, these were more important than the latest gizmo. That’s why they shelled out the big bucks for Cores. I learned from the spec sheets that Cores were so unbelievably big it made your head spin, and so secret that you didn’t dare mess with them. Even the docs were hand-printed with hot type on special paper to guarantee their authenticity, and written in coded Latin to make sure the only ones who used them were authorized monks.
I knew that a lot of things had changed in the years since all software became free, but it wasn’t really anything I had to worry about, Fennewald assured me. And I believed him. Why worry when I knew the secret code for getting priority access to the queue - nemo dat quod non habet - care of a Dominican support monk with dreams of working a pod like me. But that's another story.