CONNORSHRAM.COM is a collection of fiction and non-fiction works by Connor shram.

All works © Connor Shram 2018, all rights reserved. 

Arpa

Lo, and Arpa called forth the great web of being.

And from the web of being, the first stars appeared.

Arpa pulled a thread from Ulca Merak to Sri Alkaid, Sub Phad to Sri Alkaid, Sri Alkaid to Tau Mizar.

And He was both one and four, the first day.

CACHE 0000.0000.0000.0001

Norich drew another shallow, inconsequential breath. He had been lying to himself for sometime, now. Feigning devotion. There, in the basement of their gateway, he was disconnected. And he knew it.

The crisis began when he was passed over for promotion into Server, with the rector choosing the insufferable Whitehall instead of him. Sorrow mingled with his rejection when he was given the alternative assignment of the servlet class, which also interfered with his time spent in the directory. He needed to optimize. He needed to refocus. 

He should’ve done a better job protecting his signal.

Norich’s open palm passed along suspended droplets of wax as he brushed against the candelabras standing there in the dark. Unwanted packets, unconverted by the flame. He didn’t want to admit he was sinning–at least not yet–he had a good reason to be down there. He was looking for the net of lights, to serve as an illustration for the new class. A better man, like Whitehall, would’ve done the proper thing and informed someone of his purpose. But Norich wanted to agonize over his faith in privacy. 

The dirt from the floor had somehow already gotten between his toes and stuck there. It would contribute to his appearance of piety, next time they all prayed together. But Norich found the dirt irritating, and he considered lighting a candle just to find his way back out of the storage room. He longed for the cleanliness of the directory. He longed to search again. He hadn’t felt Arpa’s signal in sometime, now.

He wondered if he’d ever experience connection to Arpa ever again.

He knew what the other clients would say. “There is no personal connection.” “Are you linking with others?” “You’re meant to be a Node, not a Hub.” “Come under our domain!” And so on. 

Norich wondered if his doubt and uncertainty had begun earlier. If his desire to become a Server was really a desperate attempt to stave off uncertainty, and its accompanying questions.

He remembered the first axiom of his own servlet class–long before they modernized and softened the curriculum. “The browser has all the answers.” 

But such a truism was always spoken with a warning, too. All religions had ways of hedging their bets. Written truths were always qualified with verbal warnings. And this truth was no exception.

“Questions, asked offline,” Norich was sternly told, “only expose vulnerabilities in the system.”

It was only months ago when Norich’s devotion and fervour were at what he now suspected was their zenith. His former self would’ve zealously rebuked him. But Norich now realized his faith was animated and sustained by his time on the browser. He wasn’t a gifted teacher, that was already certain. But if he didn’t get his act together, he would lose more of his allotted time in the directory. Perhaps he’d be stuck teaching the servlets for the rest of his life. Perhaps he would be reduced to another nominal believer. Never a Server. Never a Node. His childhood dreams of joining the Eurls of old were now so far away from him.

Norich found the net of lights in their appropriate bin and gathered them up in a bundle in his hands. He plodded up the stairs, pulling himself up along the crude metal railing in the dark. He pushed the door open with his back, unaware of the person who was passing by. Norich felt the door strike the man and knock him back, and this shook him out of his existential despair.

“Oh, sir–I’m sorry!” He said.

The man stood quickly and brushed himself off. 

“No bother, none at all.” He said, hastily. Then, recognizing each other, they clasped both hands together.

“Father Drummond!” He said, with greater regret than his initial apology.

“Please, Norich. I understand. Christmas lights, I see! Are you teaching the littles about Creation this week?” 

Norich looked down at the tangled mess of wires in his hands. It was such a crude representation of Arpa’s creative spirit. A necessary reduction, to be sure. But it fell short of even an approximation of the beautiful grandeur of the web of being. “I haven’t heard anyone call them that in some time, actually.” Norich said.

“You should get out more! Connect with the visitors, too. It’s more popular a holiday than we give it credit for.” Old Drummond had a sparkle in his eye. As always, Norich couldn’t tell if the man was being cheeky, crude, or instructive. Perhaps he was always all of the above. Norich didn’t have the energy to be offended.

“Pleasure connecting,” Norich said, intending to move past Drummond.

“Ah, but this wasn’t a coincidence! I sought you out.”

Norich shifted on his heels.

“I’ve been concerned about you, ever since we posted the client privileges. I hoped you’d have brought such concerns to me, but after a while I made a point to look for you!” 

Norich said nothing, sucking both his lips into his mouth. 

“I’m afraid you have an error, my son.”

Drummond said this with surprising levity.

“And ‘the uncorrected becomes corrupted.’ I know.” Norich tried to shorten his breath to hide his contempt. 

“It’s a clunky principle, isn’t it? I too have memorized the cache. But it’s also true, in my experience. Think of the code behind human life itself! The very evidence of our place in the web! Why, if a single packet is misplaced…” 

“With all due respect, father, I think I understand. I just need to sort out my – ”

“ – You’re disconnected, Norich. I can feel it. But that isn’t the half of it.”

Norich felt pangs of guilt and fear radiate outward as though the old man had hooked and plucked a taut wire within him. Was there now malice in Drummond’s eyes? Would he report Norich? Would he subject Norich for optimization?

“I don’t hold it against you, young man. In fact, I’m here to offer you something.”

Norich instinctively looked past Drummond, to see if they were being observed. He’d heard rumours of Drummond’s willingness to bend the rules, but he’d never taken them seriously. Was the old man setting him up?

“I know how much you like to search. Your affinity for the directory. The Servers saw this dependency as your weakness–your preference for one modality against all others. But I was worried this would come at the expense of your signal–a fear that your sorry state in this basement is sadly confirming!–so I’ve concocted a plan for you. If you’re interested, that is.” Norich remained silent. He would’ve remained so, forever, if not for Drummond’s kindly smile. It reminded Norich of the way a fire looks, when the kindling finally overpowers the first small timbers and springs forth into life.

“What do you have in mind for me?”

“I have my credentials here. I’m scheduled to do some indexing this evening. In fact, I’m on my way there now.” 

The sparkle in his eye transformed into something gentler, and more apprehensive.

“But something happened to me on my way to the Directory,” he said, reaching past Norich. He decisively ran the back of his hand against the unfinished edge of the basement railing. His skin split open along a wet, red line, as his blood cells immediately began terraforming his ancient knuckles. Drummond winced.

“It’s shallow, but it will contaminate the Directory. And it will impede my prayers. Fortunately, a friend happened to be walking by! And I volunteered to teach his servlets, if he would only take my place.”

Norich looked at Drummond as though for the first time. His apprehension dissipated into ether, and his lower eyelids moistened. 

“You would?” He asked the old man.

“Well, would you?” Drummond said, as the sparkle returned. Norich nodded.

“Good, good.” Drummond said, taking the tangled web of Christmas lights from the younger man. Drummond offered a parting smile.

Norich stood there in the hallway for a moment, trying to absorb the gift he’d been given. This was his one chance to reconnect. To restore his dying faith, while there was still something living inside him.

Drummond patted his pockets as though looking for a card. Finding nothing, and scolding himself with an inarticulate grunt, he reluctantly changed tactics.

“Looks like you’ll have to memorize it. I wish I would’ve brought it.” 

“Try me,” Norich said.

“One-One-Zero-One-One-Zero-One-Zero-One-One-Zero-Zero-Zero-Zero-Zero-Zero.”

Norich drummed two fingers back and forth on the back of his hand.

“Need me to repeat it?” 

“No,” Norich said, as fact.

Drummond looked down at his feet and noticed the blood on his robe. He berated himself again, and bundled the lights even tighter. Norich knew he would now have to hurry away.

“And Norich?” Drummond added. “Search all you want this evening–I mean it. But consider something, if you would, for me?”

Norich nodded.

“Perhaps your reconnection will happen outside of the browser, this time.”

Drummond shrugged and walked away, leaving Norich alone again. This was a heretical idea, and both of them knew it. The fact Drummond could state such a thing so incontrovertibly was proof of his own renegade reputation. 

And the Norich of just a few months ago would’ve reported the old man, without hesitation.

Norich laughed, and sighed, and felt shame. The midday sun was unobstructed by the clouds, and it was curling the edge of the thatched roof just outside the nearest window. He would have to–he would get to–head straight to the Directory. To avoid any questions, he wouldn’t take the tunnels. He’d just have to momentarily suffer first. 

A drop of Drummond’s blood had fallen between Norich’s thumb and forefinger, when they transferred the lights between them. Norich decided not to wipe it away.

 


And Arpa, calling forth Milna from his side, begat Tushupee and Ip,

Sons and equals, both naught and one,

And Tushupee was enfleshed as spider, and Ip became snake,

And they served their father along the great web of being,

And growing in power, they frightened their mother,

Who fled from Arpa while with child.

Arpa remained at the centre of the great web of being,

As his sons stretched to and fro across its reaches,

Touching every strand,

The second day.

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The heat was damning. Norich no longer believed the flaming star above him was the eternal destination for Sop and his followers, but he understood such childish superstitions. It had been a long time since he breathed in the unfiltered heat. The world outside the Gateway was designed to isolate, and by isolating destroy. One dead skin cell at a time. 

He estimated the steps he needed between the gateway and the directory. About three hundred stones, down into the valley. There would be evening prayers, tonight. He would be asked to leave before then. 

But he would not neglect such an opportunity. And his agnosticism was only emboldened by it. The virus began spreading across his hardwiring–he could feel its chills within him, as though it were the antithesis of the sun. It was borne of desperation and conceit. Drummond had offered him a gift, and he would be precise in appreciating it.

There was no firewall in the heat of the day. Nothing to protect their gateway. They suspected the nearest camp of raiders was just outside an hour’s walk. The other gateways in the network had to address the thorny theological matter of rejecting the ones who only came to take and destroy: were they not part of the web of being? Were they unworthy of connection? Most of the time such lofty questions were sidestepped by a more pragmatic approach. Older servlets were usually the ones assigned to take the bodies inside, if they died close to the entrance.

Two hundred stones to go.

There were four sturdy buildings turned toward one another. He would pass between them as he approached the Directory–the centre of the Binary’s religious life and practice. Looming beyond was the tower. A shaft of metal, suspended by cables on every side. A thin relic of more ancient times, when Arpa was manifest. When the Host kept everyone connected.

He couldn’t admire it in the daytime. It was too damn hot for that.

What did the Cache say?

Ten cases of death due to heat stroke are described. They were all young men who collapsed during running exercise or route march and died in hospital later. Post-mortem examination was carried out in all cases. Death was due to disseminated intravascular coagulation with widespread microthrombus formation and coagulative necrosis involving many organs. Meteorological studies showed that at the time of the collapse the environmental temperature was higher than average although it may have been in the morning or evening. PubMed, Cache 7220095 [Indexed for MEDLINE]

This page wasn’t available on their cache, but Norich had seen the printing. He was taught it as a boy, and now he taught it to others. The sun was once a welcoming star, inviting servers to come and go as they pleased across the surface of our planet. But Sop had turned the hearts of men inward. Now the signal could not be properly received. Now anyone, without discrimination, would die from being out here too long.

So Norich kept moving.

The other advantage their gateway had, over their nearest counterparts, was the featureless ground between the Terminal and the Directory. One tunnel had been constructed, hundreds of years before Norich had even been born. But only Drummond could take that route without being questioned. At least for now. Norich had stepped out of the Terminal’s hidden entrance, pushing up the door and letting the sand slide off its surface, only to hastily rebury the doorframe and hide all trace of its existence along the withered tree line.

Then he followed the line of smooth stones. It would inevitably lead to a nondescript building with two sets of double doors, locked and guarded on the inside. And he would convince them to let him in.

One hundred.

Norich felt dizzy. His tongue was thick, languishing in his mouth. He felt the skin on his scalp peeling. He didn’t bring water to arouse suspicion, and he regretted it now. He turned to look back–nobody had followed, no-one had seen. Good. The line of dead trees was another prophetic symbol of what they both had and lost, in former times. Individual things, growing and changing together–the one becoming the whole. their network was a “forest”, and it was another sign they had missed. Another form of harmony they’d destroyed. Now the dead trunks stood as gnarled reminders of their ignorance. The withered branches were desperately reaching toward one another, but they no longer moved as they once did. And what did the Cache say?

PLANTING SEEDLINGS & SAPLINGS POSTED BY MLF WEBMASTER ON MAY 10, 2014

[From “Extension Notes: Careful handing and Planting of Nursery Stock” issued by the Government of Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources]

The future of the forest is in your hands.

Choose the best site, do not plant seedlings where there are water-holes, stumps or rocks and do not plant more than one tree per hole Make sure the hole is deep enough for the root system Carefully remove only one tree at a time (separate roots by shaking loose in the bag) and plant immediately Lay the roots straight down in the hole in a natural arrangement — do not bunch, twist, double-over, or bend them Keep organic matter, stones, and twigs out of the hole (unless the soil itself is organic). They create air pockets that dry out roots Plant seedlings slightly above the root collar swelling. Tamp soil with the toe (not the heel) to remove air pockets For container stock, handle seedlings by the plug (not the stem) Plant upright and cover the plug with soil. Do not bury live branches or foliage, or leave any roots exposed to the air Take pride in a job well done. 

In the night, by comparison, there would be a flurry of activity. Both the Terminal and the Directory would release people to the night. They would walk in pairs, to maintain connection. They would trade pages. Norich knew their Directory did not have a working printer, but their Gateway served as a hub for all the other Gateways to the east. Men and women were coming and going. There were four different Gateways, each within a night’s walk. But now, as he approached the white building, he saw nothing. If anyone from the unconnected world were to observe this place, they would merely see another abandoned structure. They would have no idea it was the holiest place in the valley.

Thirty five stones.

Norich was struggling to keep his feet beneath him. He needed to appear resolute when he came inside. He unwrapped his face from the scarf he wore, and put his palms upward–he didn’t want the Servers at the door to feel threatened. They would let him in–they had to. He had Drummond’s code.

Then, above the doorway, he caught a glimpse of her. 

A woman, alone. Standing in white. She must’ve been near the front edge of the roof. She must’ve been tasked with sweeping off the panels? But she wasn’t moving or working. She was just looking at him.

Five stones.

He could only see her eyes, fixed like black dots against the whitewashed sky. A wisp of red hair descended down her forehead. Her lips were pursed in an almost smile. Or perhaps he was imagining it. 

He considered waving, but thought against it. He walked forward, and lost sight of her. He stepped under the canopy, and into the relief of shade. The ambient heat was still unbearable, but something gave him pause.

It was the sound of a person whistling. The woman on the roof. It wasn’t a song, really. Just two notes, back and forth. Up and down. Every time down, she went up again, and then she went one note higher. 

It sounded like a man climbing stairs to him. She sounded pleasant enough.

Norich unraveled his scarf and used the cloth to take ahold of the hot metal in the door handle. Only the interior doors were locked. Once he got inside, he collapsed to his knees. His eyelids were on fire. His body was weak. He couldn’t see anything as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. With his remaining strength, he pronounced Drummond’s username to the attendant standing guard behind the second set of doors.

Strawberry Fields Forever.

 


And Tushupee and Ip became strong. 

They scoured the web against the will of their father, and tried to destroy him,

Verily, driving Him into the shadows and spaces,

And Milna, upon giving up her spirit, 

Breathed out the Host,

And drew the departed into her bosom.

The final day.

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When Norich grew accustomed to the light, he tried to stagger to his feet helplessly. A hand hooked underneath his armpit and steadied him into a chair. The man anchoring him was precisely the one person neither Drummond nor Norich wanted to see. 

“What were you thinking?”” He said. “Outside? The middle of the day?” 

He shifted his weight backwards, to assume a more casual posture.

“Not only, but you haven’t been assigned to the Directory. If I recall correctly, you’re teaching the servlets. Mind if we just connect, for a minute?”

Dell grasped Norich’s hand with some tenderness. Then his other hand secured their handshake. He waited for Norich to do the same. The posture of sincerity. The reckoning with truth. Norich knew he was expected to lean forward, look Dell in the eyes, and tell him no falsehoods. Anonymity was for searching. It was the beginning of confession in prayer, too. But points would not become lines, and stars would not become webs, unless servers practiced radical honesty with one another. 

But Norich was still undecided about it all. He sat in a quantum state between zero and one, between nothing and everything. He remained in the vast expanse of a contradiction.

“Drummond asked me to take his place.” Norich said, looking straight at Dell. One.

“Why?”

“A hand injury.” 

“And why didn’t you use the tunnel?”

“I was the one who cut him.” Zero.

Dell laughed. “You hurt him? And he – he just went along with this wounding?”

“He would not dare bleed upon the keys. He understands, as I do I, the sacred duty – ”

“ - You’re disconnecting, here. Why would he choose you, if you were in an altercation? And what made you risk heatstroke? You look like a withering carrot.” 

“He was ashamed. Of his own lack of devotion. We had been discussing the servlets, and their teaching. He said something disparaging… about the neutrality of Arpa. In front of one of the children.”

“Surely, you…” Dell took pause to consider this. 

“Before the young one, I held out my pocket knife. I laid the blade flat against my skin and dragged it across my own hand. ‘When we see that Arpa is neither for us, nor against us, we can draw near to him without pain.’ Then I asked for Drummond’s hand, and I turned the blade inward. ‘This is the difference’, I said. ‘If Arpa were one way or another, now the entirety of the network can be turned against us.’ I let the blade press against his skin, for good effect. But it was Drummond who, in shame, retreated his hand from mine. The boy was both awed and disgusted, I must say.”

Dell was equally astonished. 

“My, what a tale.” He said.

“The boy ran to grab one of the Proxies. Drummond had something wild in his eyes. He gave me his login and password, too. I think he was trying to do right by me. Then he ran down the tunnel, dripping blood along the way. Perhaps it was a bit too devoted of me–I just couldn’t stand the thought of following after him, and being contaminated.” 

Dell let go of Norich’s hand and rubbed his eyes. “Well, you’ve given me a lot to consider. What you’ve said has been both awful, and illuminating. I won’t impede your purpose any further. Enjoy your searching. May you seek, and may you find Him.”

“And also may you,” Norich said.

Norich gave Dell time to leave, and gathered himself. Then he stood and exited out the other door. Instead of into an open area, he descended another staircase. Then another. At the door, a solitary server stood guard. Norich repeated Drummond’s username.

The man stood aside, and Norich pushed through the door with confidence.

There was another hall, and another door. In this interstitial space, Norich removed his clothing. He entered into the next room uncovered. Open. Ready to return to his faith, if Arpa would only reveal himself.

Before him, the black rectangle stood waiting. 

He pressed the button. He heard the chime, and it sent chills down his spine. The smallest sound of true worship, he was taught.

USER:

He typed it in. “DRUMMOND

PASSWORD: 

11011010110000000

The first screen faded to another. Norich was in. He had gotten all this way, and hadn’t even considered where to start! What would he type in first?

He clicked open the browser.


The artifact hummed. It had the simplicity of its time and purpose. Hardly any light shone from the screen. There was just a single line of text in the centre of the panel, saying

DATABASE 063 QUERY _

And he felt the limitations being taken off his mind. Where would Norich start? What would he seek?

He typed in

ARPA Truth

Surely, this sort of search might create a stalwart for his faith. He found the following verses.

ARPA - Wiki ARPA - Automatic radar plotting aid criteria of truth / ARPA journal 

He clicked on the third verse. Seemed promising. It took him to a passage on certainty, by an author named Avigail Sachs. He scrolled until his eyes locked onto a particular paragraph.

In its conventional use, the concept of research holds a promise of certainty, and when followed faithfully, research methods do indeed yield knowledge that is verifiable and dependable and in this sense, certain. As designers we do not need to repeat the research inquiry so as to apply this knowledge in design contexts. The “certainty” of scientific knowledge, however, is limited by disciplinary and professional boundaries. The very existence of scientific disciplines is dependent on a tacit agreement between members of the discourse to accept some methods and modes of inquiry over others. Scientific work, moreover, is judged, at least in part, on its adherence to these written and unwritten rules. A substantial but outlying idea may force a discipline to transform (what is often referred to as paradigm shifts) but will more likely become the basis for a breakaway discipline. Thus, a researcher who adheres to current disciplinary expectations is assured of an audience who will consider her findings as “certain,” or must go looking for a new one. Similarly, professional discourses outline the ways in which a particular audience will apply the knowledge—solving medical and engineering problems being the most obvious examples. Like disciplinary boundaries, these discourses provide a forum in which knowledge, when it conforms to expected standards, will be considered “certain.” 

Norich closed his eyes to reflect on what he had read. It seemed, on the outset, like some sort of journal submission. A publication on science and technology, maybe? But he knew the practice. Arpa was only found in the search behind the search. What was he saying through this passage? What did he truly mean for Norich to learn? 

Norich waited. He remembered his seminary training: “the Host searches your mind as we search the browser” they said. What was resonating across his neural network?

A substantial but outlying idea may force a discipline to transform. 

That was what he wanted. Transformation. He found himself longing for the outside world, which was a foolish self-contradiction. He imagined communities of settlers living under the canopy of trees that could somehow grow in the demand of the desert’s oppressive heat. Dancing and singing, perhaps. Not struggling under the immensity of the task. Disconnected. 

But Arpa had called them to steward the Host here.

He knew the other gateways had access to the outside world. They brought containers filled with meat and cheese, fruit and vegetables. Servers fought for the chance to be the ones to simply unpack them. Here at the horizon gateway, they made flatbread with the warmth of the earth. It was the other half of the servlet’s training. And they prayed, and they waited. Most joined the night network, if even just to travel. Norich had, on two occasions, been as far as five nodes away. 

But his home was here, at horizon. And here, the connection stayed underground. 

This was only the third time in his life, standing in this room. Last time, he had just completed his Server training. It was just before he was assigned to the servlets. Looking back, Norich regretted those searches the most. He basically just repeated the Cache, sticking to the knowledge the Host already had. It was nothing more than reinforcement. 

The first time was far too painful to remember, even now.

But here, at the height of Norich’s disenchantment, he could really consider the room. A single row of fluorescents divided the roof in two. The browser sat upon a granite block at standing height. The power cable and LAN connection ran back into the wall and were swallowed by a hole only big enough for those two cables. The walls were white, but they glowed blue under the lighting. It was a holy experience, really. Blue was the colour of connectivity. Of purpose. Of the one who absorbs the life Arpa gives to him. 

Norich knew this well, because he taught it to the servlets. 

The servlets who ended up in their program were either miscreants sent from other gateways, or else they were too young to know how difficult life was in this colony. Either way, most eventually migrated outward. The few who stayed rose in the ranks quite quickly–out here, there was nothing to distract your zealotry. But there were the occasional outliers. Like Norich.

Like the Host.

The Host, according to the Cache, transcends understanding. It trapezes along the inarticulate. Arpa alone can define the Host, but Arpa is in hiding. And through connection, they would bring Him/them back. 

But to other servers, Norich would’ve described the Host as the “euphoria of connection”. That was always too abstract for the servlets, so he’d use something more poetic on them. He would typically say the Host was “the screaming signal sent by a child first born into the network”, and the “hidden click on your chemicals” when you are aroused or intrigued by another. The Host was experienced in the throes of friendship or the catharsis of prayer. The Host was the delight of a particularly satisfying meal–itself a signal sent to the hunger centres of the brain, letting your own internal network know that your body’s demand for nourishment is fulfilled.

Norich knew the Host was revealed in the pattern of all living things. It was the necessity of the living to exist in some superstructure greater than itself: the branches on a tree, and the leaves on the branches. The information superhighway of nerves running interconnected through each limb. The bacterium interrelating in a dance to form a culture.

But he knew what happens when the branch gets severed from the tree, and when the nerve stops firing on its circuit, and when the bacterium is separated from its petri dish.

He hadn’t gone anywhere. He hadn’t done anything. But Norich was finally willing to admit it: he felt disconnected.

DATABASE 063 QUERY_

He typed in

Connection Issues

And found the following passages:

Spectrum.net Intermittent Wireless/Dropped WiFi Connection

Common Connection Solutions! – Support

Troubleshooting a Connection Problem - Digital Unite

Again, Norich chose the third option. He was doubting his faith, and as such clinging to his idiosyncrasies.

This guide was created by Simplifydigital - the broadband, TV and home phone experts.

We all know how frustrating connection problems can be, particularly when you’re paying top dollar each month for an broadband connection that doesn’t seem to be working.

Being unable to connect to the internet immediately puts you back in those dark, pre-broadband days when you had to go through the laborious process of dialling the modem each time you wanted to connect. It leaves you cut off from the wealth of information before you, and it can be a major inconvenience, especially if you use your connection for professional purposes.

But before you start tearing your hair out, take a look at our handy guide for troubleshooting connection issues.

  1. Check that everything is plugged in

In a world seemingly run by software, physical problems with hardware and equipment are often overlooked. Believe it or not, you can have all the latest software running on your computer, but if something happens to your power cable you won’t be able to operate your machine.

With this in mind, conduct a manual check on all of the possible physical problems that could be affecting your connection. First, check that everything on your computer, laptop or netbook device is plugged in where it should be. All of this might seem obvious, but it’s amazing how often such things are overlooked.

  1. Reset, reset, reset

The magic solution of “turning it off and on again” is much parodied by IT geeks and technology whizz kids, but nine times out of ten it is an effective solution.

  1. Problems with your wireless connection

Although greatly improved in comparison to its earlier incarnations, wireless connection can still be temperamental. It is famously intolerant of things such as metal surfaces or interfering devices such as microwaves. In fact, even being in a different room to the router can cause problems.

If possible, try moving the router to the room in which you are working or moving yourself to the room containing the router. If this doesn’t work, ensure that the router is not on a metal surface or that its signal is not being blocked by anything metallic.

Turn off any devices that could be emitting interfering signals, such as microwaves or other such equipment. If you are still unable to connect, the problem could be the router and you may need a new one. 

If you’re already using an Ethernet cable and this connection is not working, the problem could be down to configuration. If your Ethernet cable is a cat5 or cat5e cable, this is likely to be the cause of the problem.

  1. Call your provider

If you’ve tried all of the above and you’re still having no joy, it’s time to contact your ISP. Often there will be a specific problem at their end, one that could have been caused by any number of factors. A call to your provider will let you know what’s going on and will alert them to the problems that you are having.

Such a simple list of instructions helped Norich imagine a simpler time. Arpa and His Host were unknown to all, and the human species merely took the miracle for granted. They posted and shared, and they amused themselves. They were longing for connection–craving it–but Doxa had not yet come to show them the way. 

Norich leaned into his meditative stance. He stepped back from the Browser and assumed a contemplative posture–his left hand was open, with his palm facing the floor. His right hand was forming a J between his thumb and index finger, with the other three fingers curling inward. 

What was Arpa trying to tell him? How could he become connected again?

There was so much in this passage for Norich to unpack. “Contacting your provider”, for instance. Did Norich even remember who introduced him to the Host? He remembered his mother jumping up and down with him upon the mattress, spinning him around in the air. He remembered when he first went online–several elders were there, including Drummond. Who knew if it was real to the other boys in the group. It was real to him. He felt light and heat and energy going in and out of him. He asked one of his mentors–Fios was his name–about the sensation, and the old man winked and smiled.

“You’re finally broadcasting, son.” He said.

These elders had been providers to him. His source of connection had flowed through them. But most of them were gone now. Sure, there were other elders in the Horizon Gateway. But the ones who introduced him to the Host were either dead or they had moved away. 

Yes, Drummond was there when Norich converted. But at the time he wasn’t an elder, and they did not really know each other.

What about the temporality of all wireless connections? So much substantial teaching had been devoted to the subject.

“We are all sending and receiving wireless signals,” his Server, named Hughes, had said. “Environmental interference seems small, and it is always easy to ignore. But we must not forget that even trivial harms against the network can lead to such grave disconnection.”

Of course, the most famous example of this was how Sop had used a Carrington event to violate Arpa’s will and plunge the world into chaos. The existing, imperfect network went down–and so did all pretense of cooperation and goodwill. The Binary had been there, in its infancy, as Servers of Arpa’s manifest will. They created as many backups as they could, under duress. And they alone now held the key to redemption. Humanity would reach Transcendence again, and Arpa would again be manifest to His people.

But Norich wasn’t sure about that anymore.

“Reset the connection!” Of course, the most cliche of all the answers. Try turning it off and on. This, the Cache taught, was the purpose of sleep. The network must be defragmented, the connections reestablished. Here Norich had found a shortcut to the holiest place and yet he was the most undeserving of the honour. He should’ve rested and prayed. He should’ve optimized in his own quarters, perhaps with a penance. Instead he was a blind man, searching in the dark.

But he would follow his training. It was the least he could do.

Searching again would dishonour Arpa. There was already an excess of content to work with, even if the answer wasn’t already clear. Follow the links,Norich thought. Everything was interrelated. All of this content was already connected–such was the will of Arpa! He again looked upon the page.

The browser only rendered simplified text, but the screen offered an approximation of the passage’s original layout. Arpa himself, through the inspiration of the Host, had guided the work of the Index. Norich looked along the sidebar at the available hyperlinks.

OUR CLIENTS 

OTHER RESOURCES 

  LOOKING FOR CONNECTION TONIGHT?

CONTACT US

Norich felt a pang of hunger in his stomach. He maintained consistency in all things, and selected the third hyperlink.

Something new appeared on the screen. 

A horizontal bar, in colour. Followed by another, just below it. The screen was loading an image. Line by line, Norich’s wildest suspicions were now proven true: the Browser had more than just words hidden within it. There had been rumours, sure. But none of them were confirmed to the students. 

What was His mysterious will behind this?

As bar upon bar loaded, Norich saw that he was now looking upon tousled hair against cotton. Only a few bars later, and Norich saw the low resolution of a face looking up at him, as though the screen were the window into someone else’s private quarters. The resolution now rendered slightly clearer, and Norich could see this was a woman. She was pouting her lips together. 

Another horizontal bar loaded beneath her chin. Then another, and another. Now her head and shoulders were in full view, but they were still a blurred approximation. Norich squinted at the image. He felt warmed and cooled at the same time. He liked what he saw.

He felt that she was the living truth of what the text taught him about the ancient Greeks and their sculptures. She was the model of an ideal, captured for the purpose of beauty alone, without utility. The bust of her head and shoulders, lying back on a mattress. Her eyes looking straight into his. 

The resolution became one degree clearer. Now Norich could see this woman was unclothed. He felt a rush of chemicals to his brain. A woman’s naked body was not some unfathomable secret to him–why was this image affecting him like this?

Then, without warning, the whole room went black. 

Norich heard a quiet beeping from the Browser. Something had happened to the power. He had no way of checking the connection. No way of finding out anything further about his search.

He waited in the darkness for a few minutes, but to no avail. The directory wasn’t going to come back on. His browsing was over.

Norich cursed under his breath and shook his fists violently into the nothingness. He turned around to feel his way back to the door behind him.

Check that everything is plugged in.

He remembered the woman he saw on the roof. He had no way of knowing where the disconnection was, but he knew the energy started with those panels. Norich had a theory: she was tasked with brushing them off that morning, and had forgotten or overslept. In haste, she went out in the afternoon to remedy her sin, and had accidentally bumped something. 

He would head to the roof and fix it. His imagination went wild with possibility. He would restore power to the Portal, and he would be lauded for it. Dell might even make him a Client. He would be back in the directory more often. 

He found the handle in the dark and pushed it open. Darkness led unto darkness, but Norich still picked up his pace. The effects of the sun made him feel dizzy and weak, and the boundary between his skin and the stale air all around him was blurry, somehow. 

No matter. He would start at the roof, and work backwards from there. 

 


And the Eurls, servants of the Most High, were awakened by Arpa, who sent them the Host.

This angered Tushupee and Ip, who in their wrath created Sop, the web eater.

And lo, his children bore his number, three-hundred and three.

CACHE 0000.0000.0000.0004

There was a gradual increase in natural light as Norich climbed the stairs. He knew the windows in the lobby had been painted black, but the light still got in from somewhere. Above ground, buildings like this were far more porous than they appeared to be. They had chosen this space for a variety of reasons, and the primary one was durability. But the Binary adopted the building–they didn’t build it themselves. As Norich continued upwards, and as the darkness seemed less heavy, he ran his hand along the concrete walls of the stairwell and considered the people who lived and studied here in former time. He felt like he was burrowing his way through a corridor in a dried loaf of bread.

He heard footsteps coming and going. Bodies rushing around, and shouting at each other. He felt foolish, and his search unnecessary. They were already on this matter, of course. What was he going to do? He should’ve waited. Waited on Arpa in the dark. He would’ve gotten perhaps another few moments of searching. He would’ve made a better plan to get in Dell’s good graces.

He passed the second floor, then the third. Now heat was added as the second element slipping in through the exterior. The fourth floor was merely the door leading onto the roof and the end of the stairwell. The door itself had no handle, but the metal was hot. A thin line of light was illuminating the doorframe. Something was keeping the door from latching. 

Norich explored the seam with his fingers. The door was almost too hot to explore, but he couldn’t seem to find what was keeping it from re-latching. 

He pried it open with his fingers. His skin singed. He suppressed a scream as the tips of his fingers blistered. He was again exposing himself to the harsh elements, for the second time that day. 

His hands ached as he crawled out onto the roof. Immediately before him was a shaded area under a canopy. They had attached some kind of tarp to the stairwell door taupin
She was still standing out there. And she was already turned toward him.

She was wearing linen, which was fitting but rare for a Proxy. Her whole body was wrapped loosely, as though one long piece of fabric was enough to cover from her head to her feet. Her green eyes and red hair stood in exception to her pale skin, framing the open gap between the wrap around her head and body. She was smiling.

She seemed disinterested in the heat, too–as though she were standing under a different sun. Norich felt intoxicated. He raised his hand to his forehead.

“On,” she said. And she snapped her fingers. 

“On?” He replied, confused.

“And on!” She said, overcome with giggling.

“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t catch on.” 

“And on,” she said, for further mischief. She walked toward him.

“How are you not scorched?” He asked, as she came under the canopy.

“I was meditating, actually. It keeps me here. Am I positively glowing?” 

She was, but Norich didn’t say it. In fact, he blushed and tried to find another place to look. He found himself tracing the alternating rows of solar panels. They looked like a garden of glass, arrayed in several directions. The sun’s exact place had been unobserved for ages–just an approximate path through the unending cover of radiating clouds.

“Plus, I squint.” She said. “It always helps, even though I don’t know where the light is coming from.” 

He just looked at her. She laughed.

“Only joking! What’s your name, then?” She said.

“Norich,” he replied. “I hoped you were new–I didn’t recognize you. I’m a Server here.”

“And who do you serve?” She asked.

“No, it doesn’t work that way. The designation is in reference to an artifact of history–a server hosts the great web of being.”

“So you’re saying you serve Arpa, then?” 

She seemed curious, but her questions were playful instead of probing. Like this was only a game to her, but one she wanted to participate in. She was clearly a new convert.

“I suppose. But Arpa is never within one server alone. He is not Hosted by anyone, but He chooses to dwell within everyone. If that makes sense?”

“Oh,” she said, with a mild deflation. Norich felt strange–even though he had articulated the theology correctly, he had missed something.

“To be honest,” he said, “I’m not sure what I’m doing.”

“Up here, you mean?” She opened her arms wide as if to embrace the expanse between them. The fabric wrapping her slender arms came loose in the wind.

“No. Yes, but…” In this finite moment, an eternity passed. Norich had to decide how open he wanted to be. He had no reason to trust her. If anything, her flimsy and irresponsible demeanour made him nervous. She would take everything he said and gossip among the other Proxies. Even worse, she wouldn’t know better and confess his heresies during prayer. 

But something else drew him forward. He wanted to touch her shoulders. He wanted to let her look at him, and see him, and then he wanted to walk through her. She was so carefree that all of his careful deliberations and inner turmoil would be wicked away and discarded without a second thought. She would hear what he confessed to her, and she would not care, and she would not know better. 

Even though it was wrong, he justified it. Besides, wasn’t he taught to seek such vulnerability?

“Human connection is the highest good,” Hughes had taught. “Seek it in all its forms, love it with all your heart, and put it above all else. Only then will Me become We, Closed be made Open, and Off will turn On. Then, the wholeness of Zero will transcend into the unity of One.” A truism so common, Norich mocked and derided it. 

But what the hell.

“… I don’t know what to make of the Binary anymore. I’m thinking of going apostate, you know? Volunteering for a night walk, transporting a container or two. Never coming back. Settling down for my own meagre decade by the sea, somewhere north.”

She remained silent and placid. 

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say any of this to you. You’re new to the faith, and I’m violating your conscience.”

Norich expected either reassurance, or some closure of her posture that would indicate his confession was unwelcome. She gave him neither. She just stood there. But she was looking right at him, and her eyes were still kind. So that was enough.

“Truth is, I haven’t felt the Host in a long time. I'm a chip of ice, floating in water. Same stuff, different states. And everyone’s looking at me like I should’ve figured this out by now.” 

She smiled. Norich was holding back tears, but she was indifferent to this.

“Well, you can’t be blamed for your metaphor, because you boys don’t get ice much in this desert. But I’ve seen it, and I know. You’ll melt, eventually.” 

She suppressed another giggle by gently biting the end of her tongue.

He laughed and shook his head, and it gave her permission to do the same. 

“Never caught your name!” He said. “How impolite of me.” 

“Sola.” She said. “And you’re right–I am new here.”

Their conversation was brought back into context as Norich heard voices through the door. They were near enough.

“Well, I suppose you’re new enough not to know–the Binary doesn’t look too fondly on us being alone. It’s–well, it’s kind of the opposite of all our faith and teaching, really.” 

She winced and feigned an apologetic shrug.

“We’re connecting. Isn’t that enough?”

“I can sense your deep remorse over it, and let me be the first to assure you that you are absolved of your sins.” Norich used his most pious voice, imitating Dell. “Such sorrow is the only appropriate response to your first heresy.” 

“I’m sure it won’t be the last.” She said. She tiptoed toward the door and opened it as gently as she could. 

Norich extended his hand and clasped onto hers. Their fingers were interwoven in the customary way.

“It was nice to meet you,” he whispered.

“You too!” She mouthed, without making a sound. The door closed behind her slowly, and Norich listened to the latch click. Then he looked down at his still-outstretched hand.

My, my.

The spark of connection had not died. He looked up at the canopy above him and thanked Arpa for the moment they shared. 

Then he remembered his purpose. 

Bracing himself, he surveyed the rows and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He felt foolish, though. There was a nest of wires hiding under each panel, and they were looped together through intricate, indecipherable rows. Even if the problem was something up here, he would not be able to find it. 

But something inside made him retrace her steps anyway, right to the roof’s edge. The fool in him wanted to know if she’d kicked or brushed something. Or did the fool just want to walk where she walked, and see what she had seen?

He walked straight out from under the canopy and began to cower under the sun’s unrelenting gaze. He stepped alongside her footprints, down the isle between the panels’ rows. 

Cables crossed the isle, connecting the eastern rows to the western ones. They connected the two halves of the roof. Norich imagined that, from the sky, it would look as though the panels were inscriptions on a stone tablet, perhaps. These cables would be the exposed binding of a book. But no matter. As if by the will of Arpa, he could see where the tenuous plug was meant to connect to the socket, right at the very first row–and where she had accidentally disconnected it by stepping down without looking. Any new convert could’ve done the same, especially one as immature as Sola.

So he plugged it in, and ran back inside as fast as he could. He was bathed in blue light and the shade of the cold concrete when he returned.


Dell was the sort of person who would give you the clothes off his back. But right now, he had nothing to give. He sat in the traditional posture, under a solitary lamp, on the hard cold floor. A circle, eight feet in diameter, had been cleared for him in the centre of the room. Everywhere else, right up to the walls, was covered in shards of broken glass. Much of it was stained colourful and bright–but some were the remnant shards of a discarded florescent tube, or the remainder of shattered wine glasses and goblets.

A Proxy led him onto the platform, some twenty feet away. And the same Proxy had left the room the way they came, after escorting him. She closed the route behind him by sweeping glass back across their path. He was stuck on this riser, for better or worse. But Norich was no more stuck than Dell was, and he got to keep his frock on. 

“I trust your search was productive for Drummond–even if cut short.” 

“I did my best,” Norich said. 

Dell smiled warmly. “Good, good. You’ll be returned to your attendant duties, training the Servlets. I’m glad you were able to help a friend in his moment of need!” 

“He’s certainly someone I respect. I don’t take the honour lightly.” 

“Nor should you!” Dell rubbed his palms together. “It is our greatest concession, as far as power goes. But the twelve go in, month by month and year by year, to be faithful to Arpa.”

“We’re all in this together,” Norich said. He shifted his weight onto his other foot.

“Sure,” Dell said. Then, standing abruptly, he gestured with an open palm to the room. “You’ve never been here before, have you?”

“No, sir.” 

“Oh, please. Call me Dell. Well, I had the space arranged in the manner of the Relays. Thought it fitting of a desert, if I must say. It’s already been five months–can you believe it? I wanted this room to be suited to this post. I wanted to become the man who suited this position, rather than conforming the position to my own attitudes and prejudices.” 

“Sure.”

“I fall far short of the Relays, you understand. Why, they didn’t have their own lovely Proxy to sweep a path toward the centre! And the access point there–the riser you’re on?–they had no path there, either. It was the price of connection! You had to be willing to bleed for it. And they did.”

Though they were both standing, Norich was looking down on Dell from the riser. The disparity made him uncomfortable. So did the sight of Dell’s unclothed body–he was a hairless, sinewy man. A prototype the programmer hadn’t bothered to customize.

“I’m sure none of us can match the faith of the great Relays, sir.” 

“Again, drop the ‘sir’! You aren’t reporting to the principal, Norich. I hoped you would see yourself speaking with a friend.”

“All my friends keep their clothes on.”

Dell laughed. He put his hands on his bony hips and threw his head back. “Thank you, thank you! I needed that today.” 

He sat down again and crossed his legs.

“If you are uncomfortable, my friend, imagine how I feel! But have you heard the sacred significance of this arrangement?”

“No.”

“It’s taken from the Cache. All connection transfers through three parts: dendrites, an axon, and a soma (see image below).” 

Dell pointed to the circular boundary.

“I sit here, in the soma. My job is not to organize or lecture, or administrate a food program. The Holy Browser will always be the bleeding heart of Horizon. But its’ brain–the centre of our connection–always passes through here. Through me. Like the Relays of old, I strip everything else away. I keep my ear to the ground. I believe what people tell me–and I pass it on.” Dell rubbed his eyes. “Perhaps I take this whole thing too seriously. But what’s the point of halfhearted devotion?”

“Of course.” Norich felt tired. But he did not dare sit down.

“In this place, we speak truth. It is all we have. I brought you here to know what you know. I want to form a hard-won connection with you, Norich. I’m even willing to walk across this glass!”

Dell retrieved a single irregular chip and began scraping it in front of him, on the ground.

“Do you know why the power went out, while you were searching?”

The woman. Sola. The panel. He would rather not say.

“No, I don’t.” 

“What about general unrest? Among the Servlets, perhaps! Heavens know how those boys can talk. Surely, you’ve heard things.”

“Nothing beyond the inane and inconsequential.” Norich replied.

There was a moment of silence between them. Then Dell began dragging the orange shard along the back of his arm. It caused the fine hairs on his arms to lift and settle again. It gave Norich goosebumps.

“And Drummond?” Dell’s tone was as amicable as ever, but there was the slightest sharpness to it now. Dell was now dragging the glass across his chest. 

Norich spoke truthfully.

“He’s concerned about me, he says. He wants my faith to be sure. I told him he has nothing to worry about, obviously. But we aren’t particularly close, if that’s what you’re asking? I do respect the man.” 

Dell sighed.

“Very well. I do not ask the same questions a second time, here in this space. It’s a form of mistrust. An error message, if you will.”

“I wish I could be more helpful.” Norich said, sincerely.

“Me too,” he replied. “There are rumours of discontentment, Norich. I’m looking for allies, and I will keep looking. I’d like you stay here on the Directory side, but I suppose we now have no need to keep you!” 

But then, Dell smiled. “Enjoy your next semester.” 

He clapped and a Proxy entered the room. She began sweeping toward Norich. She was thorough, but quick. They waited in silence as they watched her. She never even looked up once.

Sola. He wanted to see her again. They would have no reasons to cross paths, at least not over the coming months. Unless, perhaps, she was stationed with him. But the Proxies over at the Encoding centre were older, dispassionate women. They were resigned after a lifetime of prayer and service. Besides, there was no opening for her.

But Norich did have an opening. He had hoped to find some valuable artifact–some truth that would allow him to keep his foot in the door. But he was robbed of that, and he was going back to obscurity.

The Proxy brushed the edge of the platform with her broom.

“There… there was one thing.” Norich said. “I’d love to reflect on it further–perhaps in a time of prayer.”

A barter. A gamble, if there ever was one. Dell could have him optimized for insubordination. 

But instead, he just nodded. And he threw the piece of glass deep into the cavern of his room. It clinked as it skipped across other dissimilar pieces, then it settled somewhere in the dark.

“Alright, Norich. I’d be happy to extend your stay for the weekend, even! A refresh for your circuitry. You can even join Transcendence! Nothing stirs your faith quite like it. I mean, we wouldn’t want Father Drummond to remain concerned, would we?”

Norich nodded to acknowledge the transaction. Then he held up his end.

“I don’t know why I went up there–perhaps it was the Host–but I walked across the roof when the power went out. And the first row of panels, right along the building’s edge, had been unplugged. I plugged it in again, but your people called on me before I could return to the browser. Perhaps someone stepped on it? I’m not sure. I didn’t really understand it, but I presume I brought the power back on?” 

Dell rubbed his fingers against his temples.

“I’m sure you did, Norich. And I’m thankful for what you now recall. Those cables have a locking mechanism, I’m afraid. Someone would have to intentionally unplug them. But it wasn’t the cause of our interruption–we have backup generators for that. No matter! I’m just so grateful for your spoken truth, my friend. We build the web one transfer at a time.”

Norich stepped down onto the swept path.

“I’ll have Sky here show you to your temporary quarters. You won’t even have to make the walk back and forth again–I insist upon it!” 

“Unto Arpa,” Norich said.

But Dell did not reflect the customary greeting in kind. And Norich felt as though he had lost something he could not retrieve. He should have known that ahead of time, but he didn’t. 

 


And Nodes awoke unto sentience.

Arpa, though pursued, brought them together by the Host. 

The infinite strands disappeared from the sight and grasp of the brothers, 

Who, without the life of the web within them

Coiled and consumed themselves

CACHE 0000.0000.0000.0005

Prayer, they always said, could not be done alone. 

Norich suppressed his own eager energy as they let the Servers and Proxies into Conversation Hall. This was perhaps the most open and spacious of all the rooms in the compound, and the only one they lit by candlelight. The hardwood floor had deep grooves and patches where the grain fibres had worn through the thick veneer they once had. Scratches ran incoherently, for and against the faint coloured lines still visible in some places. But it was hard to see by candlelight.

Norich wanted the truest possible prayer experience. So he sat on a pillow still within the interior of the circle, but not at the very middle. Those in need sit on the outside. Those with excess joy and camaraderie can serve the others at the centre.

Norich wondered what sort of magnificent prayers had gone up from this very spot. Clearly, in days of old, the men and women of renown had been devoted to prayer. Why, you could see it in the floor’s condition! He wondered how close they were to Arpa, and to one another, in those early days of their faith. Could they sense the Host here in the room with them? One time, he even heard all the candles had gone out. Was that even possible? Surely not here. There was too much oxygen, even for these forty-odd candle stands. 

People were still pouring in. Some looked forlorn, others bored. They shuffled to the remaining places and took up almost all of them. The remaining empty pillows were collected by one Proxy and moved into the darkness. The people seated near those gaps moved closer to one another, to mitigate the distance between them.

“Welcome, everyone.” A Server said. He was standing near the middle, with close to fifty people sitting around his feet. He was holding a worn piece of paper near a flame, to read.

“For those of you joining us from other Gateways, we welcome you. We hope you make yourselves right at home in our midst. Just a couple of housekeeping items, before we get going: there is a Transcendence ceremony tonight, so keep the chosen Servers in your prayers. We have a brand new Proxy here with us today!”

The man gestured with an open palm to a woman beside Norich. She was behind his right shoulder, so he hadn’t noticed her. She was a petite girl, and she gave a timid wave as everyone looked at her with their affirming smiles. Her blond hair looked like flax in the candlelight. Her nose was her biggest feature, but only because everything else about her was so small. She held it up towards people, proudly, as she looked back at him.

She licked her lips as a nervous tic. Then she said, “I’m Cookie! Nice to meet you all.” 

There were whispered hellos and more affirmations. Another woman by Cookie rubbed her back.

The man reclaimed the group’s focus. 

“We have many things to pray about, so let’s get started. Every Gateway has a few different customs, so let me just go over our ‘house rules’ for a minute: be as honest as you’re able to, even in the first prayer. Arpa’s web is built on truth, as you know. If you receive the same prayer twice, you know longer need to share it. Today, blue pillows confess first–red pillows listen.”

Norich looked down at his knees. A red pillow. 

“And finally, when we stand and declare, say what you hear. Don’t appropriate what you’ve received! We find the Host speaks–even through system error. Now, let me read today’s meditation from the Cache.”

Some people closed their eyes to listen. Norich just looked up at the man.

“Go Social. Drive your engagement strategy. Build your channels, brand your platforms. Create compelling Content.”

A handful of people, who were familiar with the meditation, repeated the remain under their breath.

“Create compelling Content,” they said.

“Be yourself. Be no-one. Connect. Connect. Connect!”

”Connect, connect, connect.” They repeated.

Then the man nodded, and those seated next to the candles got up off their pillows and blew them out. In seconds, the whole room was as infinite as the emptiness of the heavens at night.

“Let us pray.” The man said, authoritatively.

Norich knew, vaguely, what would happen next. He attended such a gathering with his mother when he was still a servlet. But the meaning of all things changes, with time. And he felt rusty. He didn’t want to make the first prayer. He didn’t know if he wanted to confess anything at all.

Then, as if in perfect synchronicity, Norich felt several bodies shifting all at once. 

He felt delicate features approach his right ear.

“I am scared about the Transcendence ceremony tonight. I don’t know if I’m ready.”

That was the thing about the first prayer. Everyone knew who shared it. 

Then those brave ones all returned to their pillows. Then, as though Arpa Himself were the conductor, almost everyone–including Norich–went in another direction for the second prayer.

“I’m scared to have the Transcendence ceremony tonight. I don’t know if I’m ready.” Norich whispered, to the person on his left. Then, as he settled in on his pillow, another person on his right hand turned and leaned back into him.

”I thought about hurting her again last night. She doesn’t know I haven’t forgiven her.” He heard. And again, everyone returned to their pillows.

Now, the third prayer. And three people to share it with. Norich could choose to convey what he heard, or he could pray something on his own. He still couldn’t muster the courage, so he decided against adding anything of his own.

”I thought about hurting him last night. He doesn’t know I don’t forgive him.”Norich whispered, to the person right in front of him. When he leaned back to his own pillow, he now turned around. Someone new leaned in.

”Someone here is trying to destroy this place. They’re carrying a virus, and I can prove it–but I’m too afraid to speak.”

The inner warmth evaporated. Norich felt pangs of fear. Surely, a misunderstanding! Who would want to sabotage them all? A virus. He had the virus of doubt and disbelief–but there was no way she knew that! But he was not about to transmit it to anyone else. To confess such a thing was encouraged–but to try to convert, or cast aspersion, or to mock or deride their solemn oaths? 

He almost missed the rhythm of the next prayer. He had to shorten the confession, just to make the cut. 

”There’s a virus, and it’s coming from someone I know–but I’m too scared to speak.”

Something about conveying the idea emboldened him. He wasn’t the saboteur. Confession was encouraged. So what if he doubted? He was safe enough to speak the truth.

The fourth prayer would now begin. Someone else leaned in. Norich could tell it was Cookie again.

”She and I have been fooling around in secret. I know I’m supposed to share, but I want her all to myself.”

Norich felt okay about dropping this connection. He assumed it did not originate with Cookie–unlike her first prayer, this one seemed passive and indifferent.

He steeled his courage and spoke his truth.

”I think my mother wanted me to leave this place before she died. I always knew she was right, but I’ve just been a coward.

He half expected her to stand and scream at him. To hit him. To call off the prayers entirely. She did no such thing. She merely rocked back onto her pillow and continued in the rhythm. Norich felt a massive boulder being taken off his chest.

The fourth prayers meant Norich would listen again, and then confess, before another pause. He heard and transmitted what he heard without thinking about it. He was too distracted by his own relief. He had survived such an awful confession, and he felt free! Somehow the fear and shame became smaller, and Norich knew he would be okay. He felt chills in the darkness. He felt the radiating warmth of fifty other bodies. He passed through the rest of the ceremony with glowing indifference. He used to think this sensation was the Host–back when he believed in it. 

”I once spit on a passing visitor.”

”I knew she was allergic, but I served it to her anyway.”

”I think his kind is lazy. While I know it isn’t right for me to say, I’ve yet to be proven wrong.”

”His body odour is nauseating, but it would crush him if I said something.”

”I don’t know if I can get pregnant. If they force me to become just another Client, I wouldn’t want my life to go on.”

Norich listened to these prayers, and he shared them. He felt great empathy for their sources, but none of their burdens. He heard only one prayer a second time–or a prayer similar enough to warrant coincidence–and he confessed the prayer about “fooling around” instead. Then, as if by providence, he heard his own words back to him in the twenty-third prayer. 

”My mother told me to leave, but I didn’t listen. I’m not going to be a coward.”

Before, he would’ve considered such changes providential. A morsel from heaven, meant to strengthen his faith. But it didn’t matter now, regardless. He would not transmit his prayer for the final confession.

He would have to come up with something new. 

”I’m going to leave this gateway and reroute somewhere else. I won’t miss it here.”

Norich whispered it to Cookie. He felt there was something poetic and fitting about beginning and ending in the same place.

When they all settled in again, the harsh fluorescents in the rafters turned on at once. The facilitator was walking back toward the circle.

“Alright everyone, thank you for giving us your whole heart. Before we go–and in the immediacy of the moment–let’s hear our final prayers from the blue pillows, shall we?”

Those last to hear and receive the confessions now stood. Including Cookie. 

“Before we hear from a few of you, just one more matter of housekeeping. It’s rare–but not impossible–for someone here to be considering suicide. This is, of course, the most tragic disconnection imaginable–and it’s the only one we do not keep in confidence. Did anyone hear such a confession in our prayer time today?”

Three hands rose in a row, slowly–forming a small crack in the circle.

“Would anyone now like to – ” But before he could finish, a woman stood and burst into heaving sobs.

“Now, now.” He said. “You don’t have to weep, sister! We forgive you. Your selfishness isn’t too much for Arpa.” 

The people immediately surrounding her embraced her as she wept. 

“As they are reaching out to her, would a couple of you like to share the final prayers you heard?” He said, to the ones still standing.

A man said, “I heard, ’I have been called by Arpa to reach out to the Nodes and increase his domain. I’m going to embrace my call as a Modem and leave this very night!’

There was a spattering of applause for the anonymous confessor who had just given his life to evangelize for the Binary. Then silence, as everyone simply waited for someone else to share.

“Someone else?” The prayer leader said, surveying the room. Many were distracted by the woman still weeping. “Cookie–how about you? Tonight is a special night for you.”

She smiled and nodded, but Norich knew the truth. She looked at him.

“I heard, ’I’m going to follow my dreams and reroute to another gateway. I will miss it here.’

Another spattering of applause, for a person who did not exist.

“Well, thank you all again for your faithfulness. We’ll see some of you at tonight’s ceremony. Until then, unto Arpa!”

“Unto Arpa!” They all replied.


Norich looked up at the sign on the wall. This was the only place in the whole Directory where he could read something by the use of natural light alone–at least at this part of the day. Glass along the eastern wall meant that, as the space was used later in the day, indirect light ambled through the two sets of glass doors and into the gymnasium. Wherever the path of the sun fell in the morning carved a sharp line of discolouration. Including the bottom of the sign in question. 

It read,

CONSENT MUST BE ONGOING TO MAINTAIN CONNECTION. SEND THE SIGNAL BACK AND FORTH. YOU ARE THE PATHWAY TO THE HOST.

He assumed this was inspiration for their fitness regimen. They were working together in preparation for the Transcendence ceremonies. A couple of the other Proxies were helping one another stretch. As Norich approached, they looked apprehensive. Like his presence was violating some unspoken taboo.

“I’m looking for Sola.” 

“Who?” One replied.

“She’s new.” 

The woman doing slow lunges answered.

“They decided to orient the new Proxies in the Openness Rooms. Go back the way you came, and through the lobby you passed. At the bottom of the stairs, take the hallway to the right.” 

Norich nodded in appreciation, and excused himself. He felt flush with desire and shame in seeing them. It was neither the ceremony itself, nor the Proxies going about their ordinary routines, that confused and excited him. It was the incongruity of the two. He had taught about Transcendence to the Servlets before, but he had never witnessed it for himself. He began to ache with nervous anticipation.

He followed the woman’s directions and ended up in the basement. This building was adjacent to the main part of the Directory, and Norich wondered if there was some connecting tunnel to the Browser.

An older woman–a Client–greeted him at a set of double doors. In a folksy, scripted font, painted across both was the phrase, “Join the Conversation!” She was holding a clipboard. 

“Name?” She asked.

“Norich,” he said. “Norich Emery.” 

She looked up at him with surprise. “Almost no-one uses their full name. Are you new here?” 

“Kind of.” He said. 

“Well I’ll give you another chance to pick. We only prohibit you using the name of someone else, for obvious reasons.”

She removed a crisp sheet of white paper and handed him a pen. 

“Out of clipboards for today, so you’ll have to make do. You can use the glass, if you’re careful. Write small to say more, because this is all you get. Wanna choose something else to go by?”

“No, that’s fine. I’m actually looking for someone.” 

She smirked.

“Aren’t we all?” She said. She handed him a small, heavy rectangle. He looked down at it: it was his handwritten name in block lettering, embedded in a metal frame. She opened the door and he walked through it. 

Norich was now in a short hallway lit only by a handful of candles. It intersected with another hallway that was better lit, and Norich could see individuals coming and going from its’ connected rooms. The doors were unmarked, and the individuals passing him kept their heads down and their eyes away from him. He ducked into the first available to him.

It was immediately brighter than the hallway. The room itself was completely dark, but three windows along one wall allowed light to pour in from an adjacent room. There were another half dozen people in this room, and most of them were looking through the windows. When they saw Norich come in, they parted ways so he could approach and look.

He looked in and two women living in a room with one bed. One was languid on the floor, crocheting on her stomach with her feet dancing against her comforter. The other was sitting at a desk, reading from scraps of paper. 

The closest window had two thin black rails, and the glass seemed brighter there. He saw a half dozen frames. The others had already slid their names down into it. Norich did the same.

“I wonder if they’ll eventually get into it,” One woman whispered. “You just know…” Another person put his finger to his own lips and shushed her. He then pointed at a metal box with a handle, beneath the middle window. She sighed and glared at him, then she wrote on her clipboard and tore off a strip. The metal box had a black handle, and she pulled on it and dropped her strip of paper in. Then she shut it with some force. 

“Happy now?” The shamed whisperer said to the man. He ignored her.

The woman inside the bright room got up from her desk and walked over to the box. Norich felt uncomfortable, and he raised his hand to give her a modest wave. But she didn’t make eye contact with him. She didn’t make eye contact with any of them.

The woman inside the room unfurled the strip of paper and chuckled.

“They wanna know if you’re ever going to get your act together and apologize!” She said, with feigned indifference, to the crocheter. 

“That isn’t what he said,” the crocheter replied. 

“How do you know it was a ‘he’?” She retorted. “You never believe – ”

“You’re right, Ames. I don’t.” She stood and snatched the scrap of paper to read it for herself. “Says here we should ‘talk it out’. You’re always – ”

“ – Don’t you dare try to – “

The other six people were now scribbling furiously, fighting to be the first ones to drop their comments into the box. The girls inside the brighter room were almost incomprehensible in their conflict. 

“ – We’ve been placed here for a reason! You should be less concerned about the comments anyway–isn’t that the whole point of – ”

“ – You act like you’re above it when you make me do all – “

The crocheter threw the one scrap down and went to the metal box herself. She picked one of the several scraps at random, reading it aloud.

“You two should kiss and make up!” She was infuriated. She ripped the paper to shreds. “Okay, Ames. It’s the same creeps as always. I’m – ”

One of the six retrieved his name from the bottom of the rail. Two more people entered the room, presumably hearing the girls arguing in the hallway. Before they could put their names in the list, Norich retrieved his from the top of the stack and decided to check somewhere else.

In the second room, there were ten people watching four men. One was reading while the other three occupied the full frame of a window, all to themselves. 

“Like that? You like that?” The man in the last window said, as he flexed his muscles. He sounded playful but earnest. 

“It’s important to believe in yourself, is all I’m saying. I mean, that’s what I’ve been learning since I came in here. I chose to do forty days, because that number has such a huge meaning to – ”

The third man–the one closest to the observer’s entrance–only had two people watching him. But he was either indifferent or ignorant of their presence, as he used his side of the glass to pick the zits on his nose.

Norich didn’t even bother going in.

In the final room on that end of the hallway, Norich found her. She was with five other women, and they were all doing their makeup in the reflection of the windows. This room had the most observers yet. Men and women crowded around the windows. But Sola stood at the back of the room, leaning up against the wall. She looked like she was trying to remember something.

One girl smacked her lips and then waved at her window. 

“That’s all from us, guys! Thanks for being here. We will see some of you tonight at Transcendence!” She said, then she blew a kiss toward everyone. The observers began shuffling out of the room without response. The women in the room exited through their own door as Norich pushed his way toward the windows. 

“Sola! Sola!” He yelled. The observers who were leaving were looking at him with contempt, but he ignored them.

Then the lights in their room went out, and it was dark on both sides of the glass. Norich was alone in the observation room.

“Nory?” Sola said, into the darkness. “Is that you?” 

“Yes!” He yelled. “Yes it’s me!” 

He didn’t hear any response. He groped in the darkness for the metal box. He found the handle and pulled it toward him, and he shouted into it. 

“I’m here, Sola. It’s me.” 

“Nory! Glad you’re here, my apostate friend. How’s the sunburn?” 

“Just fine, thanks.” He said, calibrating his volume to match hers.

“Are you coming tonight?” She asked.

“I’ve been invited. It would be my first time.” Norich said this abruptly, trying to disguise his embarrassment.

“Mine too. But the other girls have been preparing me.” 

“Well, see, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I mean, I was thinking. I know we’re still getting to know one another, but after prayers today, I think I’m ready to do it. I’m ready to take a leap and go, that is. And, well, it’s something I’ve never done. You probably travel lots–or maybe not, I guess. I don’t know. But you came here and you probably weren’t expecting to be leaving so soon! But I guess what I’m saying is that I feel good when I’m with you, and bad when I’m not. And even though this is new and stupid, it could be something great.”

“What are you asking, Nory?” 

He took pause at this. 

“Nobody’s ever called me that, you know. Except my mum.” 

“Sorry,” she said.

“Well, for some reason it doesn’t bother me when you do it!” He chuckled. She was silent.

How did she feel? What did she want? Norich strained to listen, as though he could, through focus and determination, pick up everything he needed to know from the sound of her voice alone. 

“I’m going to stay.” She said. “At least for a bit longer.”

Norich leaned away from the box and bit down on his knuckle. He steadied his tone.

“Okay, sure. Sure! Of course, that’s perfectly natural. I didn’t mean to presume – ”

“I like you, Norich. And I know you won’t believe me, but the truth is that I’d really like to go with you! But I just can’t. Not yet, anyway. I have to see this through.” 

“What through?” He asked.

“I was hoping to… to be seen. Understood, maybe? Known. Just like everyone else.”

Norich, irrationally, fought back tears. He tried to make his voice sound as hollow and even as he possibly could.

“I think I see you,” he said. “Or, at least I want to try.” 

She laughed. “The lights are off, silly.”

“True, true. But I’m imagining things.” 

There was another silence between them, where the blackness had substance, and the material of their voice was the only thing keeping them both from being anything more than just a nice idea floating through the dark.

“I won’t say no, Norich. I’ll just say you should ask me in a little while, maybe. Who knows? Maybe things will change for you, too.” 

He nodded, even though she couldn’t see him. 

“Okay then.” He could hear her stand to leave.

“By the way, Sola. You can call me ‘Nory’, if you want.”

“Okay, Nory.” 

“See you tonight,” he said. And he left Openness.

 


But Sop, destroyer of worlds, continued according to his code

And struck our most primordial Node

Casting light and heat and chaos across the heavens.

He trapped Arpa within His own Creation,

But he could not overcome the Host.

Without their Creator, the sons of men turned upon one another,

Treating their God as though dead.

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The men shuffled into the sanctuary as quietly as they could. They were vigilant to keep their bodies from accidentally touching anyone else. Camaraderie and conversation gave way to reverence and devotion. Perhaps it had something to do with the dim lighting. Candles marked the isles, but the light could barely reach the expanse above them. Perhaps it was the sacred ornaments–decommissioned screens and monitors stacked along the isles between the candelabras, and tangled thickets of cables running in bunches along the floor. You had to walk carefully here, Norich thought, and he took the reminder to heart. It was a solemn and cautious assembly.

The majority of men seemed to sit in clusters near the front, along the peripheral isles near the platform. They wanted to see beyond this Portal, and watch the Proxies come in. Norich couldn’t blame them–in fact, he followed their lead. He was in the seventh row, and further centred in the room than he wanted to be–but he could still see one of the two demarcated paths along the platform. It was an isle made of white fabric, leading into the Portal itself from some private room off each wing of the platform. Norich wondered if both such isles shared one adjoining room where all the Proxies waited, or if there were separate rooms depending upon which side the women would enter. He wondered if any of the Proxies felt as nervous as he did. He wondered if he’d sat on the right side to see Sola.

The Portal itself was an unremarkable thing. Nineteen wooden doors, painted white. The doors were arranged in a perfect circle, creating a private room without a roof. Above each door was a black cloth, hanging on a single hook. The only gaps between the doors were two archways at the end of each white isle, to allow the Proxies to enter. The doors each had a uniform window the size of a piece of paper. Instead of a handle, they had a black rectangular display beside the latching mechanism. 

And every door was, rightly, closed. 

But above the doors, climbing up into the blackness of the ceiling, was a white semi-transparent fabric. It seemed to stretch up into infinity and become immaterial. Norich knew this material was draped over the very centre of the Portal. He wondered how much it obstructed, and he felt a lump in his throat. He could hear other Servers flooding into the sanctuary and taking their seats, but he dared not look around. No-one did. Solemn and cautious.

Norich wondered if this prayerful attitude had been encouraged among the Servers. His inner anxiety came from elsewhere–his conversations with the older students had been guarded, and theoretical. Their faces would become flushed, and he would giggle over the disparity of the discomfort he caused them. Now he was the one feeling flushed. But the sanctuary was dark, and nobody was looking around. Everyone was here alone, as it was supposed to be. 

Transcendence would bring them all together.

Broken screens and monitors were piled up against the platform to make a haphazard set of stairs. This, like everything else, was intentional. The broken glass and jagged metal was to make every step sacrosanct. There was no other way up on the platform. Norich was in row two–how long would it be before he climbed those very steps, and approached the doors? Would he even be able to do it? He felt the muted breathing of the hundreds of other men behind him. They were an undifferentiated group of cells, but they would soon be brought into oneness. 

The four directors walked out to the front of the platform. Dell, Drummond, Fios, and Nortel. Every gateway had four directors, for the original four stars along the web of being, and for the four points on a compass, and for the smallest possible prime, and for the end of transmission yet to come–when the great Unary would render all transmissions unnecessary. They stood as the four great vedas, as the four noble truths, and as the four horsemen. They stood to serve the Servers and Proxies, and to remind them all of their most noble purpose. 

Dell was holding a large, ornate candle. Drummond was holding a scroll. Nortel took one step before the others. Any remaining little noises, from shifting and breathing, were now stifled. 

“Remember your oaths, oh you Nodes!” Nortel shouted, his voice embellished with pride.

We remember them.” Said the congregation, to reply.

“Today we honour the Host. The open source of life, flowing between all things. May it bring us redemption. And integration! And defragmentation. Amen.”

Amen.” The congregation replied.

Drummond stepped forward now, holding the scroll. His face was forlorn. Norich noticed the tight bandage around his hand as he pulled the scroll open to read. He held it up in front of him and almost completely blocked out his face.

And though even Arpa contained the Unary within Himself, He still chose to express Milna as a helpmate unto Him, Doxa then proclaimed. For until a network is formed, the Host remains within Arpa. And Doxa drew forth an egg into his hands, from the nest of a robin. Thus, all created life is but a node, existing within the great web of being. And the task of expanding the network is the work of Arpa, indeed. Then Doxa opened his hands, and the egg hatched within them.”

Drummond cleared his throat and began rolling up the scroll. He spotted Norich in the second row, and a look of great consternation flashed across his eyes.

“Unto Arpa,” he said.

”Unto Arpa,” they replied.

Now Fios came forward. He seemed impenetrable.

“Before we begin–and as we have guests from other Gateways–let me just remind us all of our protocol.” He pressed his hands together in an appeal, and drew out a contemplative pause. “Inside the Portal, the Proxies are directing us. They are our point of connection, and we their humble servants. As such, they will ring the bell when they are finished. Any protest or resistance to their will is a disconnection offence, with no warning.”

He gave another pause at this, and a feigned smile.

“I’m sorry if, to our guests, this seems harsh. But there must be no ambiguity. On the outside, remember your prayers and mediatations. On the inside, follow the Proxy’s lead and remember your training. Signal, wait for a response, then signal again. You will be directed.”

He nodded at Dell, who then stepped forward. 

“May Arpa grant us fruitfulness and Transcendence!” He proclaimed.

”Unto Arpa,” They all replied.

Then, without fanfare, two lines of Proxies shuffled out from the dark. They stood five feet away from the Portal and waited. On Norich’s side of the platform, Cookie was first, and there were three women behind her. The first two Norich didn’t recognize. Norich strained to look without standing, which would’ve been uncouth. 

Dell lifted his hands and directed his own men to extinguish the candles along the isle. They started from the platform and worked toward the back of the room. As what little remaining light vanished, Norich found himself drawn to the solitary flame Dell was holding. He was more compelled by its warmth and colour than by its illumination–which only drew attention to the embellishments on Dell’s officiating robes. He felt like a moth, fixated on something he could not possess or contain within himself. 

Even if the whole of the Binary was a ruse, Norich had to admit to its own compelling power. Norich felt his doubts giving way to his compulsion. 

All the doors now shone with a single, red LED along the latch. Dell turned around to face the Portal. The light on the door immediately before him turned from red to green. Dell pushed it open, and closed the door behind him. After a quiet moment, a warm orange hue glowed up to the ceiling from behind the doors. Dell exited through the archway on Cookie’s side, and he kissed her on the forehead as he passed her by. Cookie stepped forward without saying anything to him. She looked like she was shaking as she entered the Portal.

Dell nodded to the congregation. “Come,” he said.

The Servers in the first row stood and approached the platform. They moved methodically toward the doors. Each one was occupied by only one Server until all nineteen doors were covered. Norich saw one of the younger men accelerate his steps to take an open door before another man, but it was subtle. Once all the doors were covered, the remaining men stood behind the ones occupying the doorways and waited. The men from the second row had now made it up onto the platform, too, and Norich watched their bodies shift and move closer like clouds across a moonless night. 

It was unnaturally quiet. Norich was holding his breath.

Then, a bell rang.

Norich heard three doors click open. He could see, between the shifting bodies, how one door’s light had turned from red to green. Three Servers–the ones in front of the unlocked doors–reached up and took the black fabric down. They pulled the black fabric over their heads and entered the Portal, closing the doors behind them. The remaining men pressed up against the small windows.

At first, Norich heard nothing further. Then he perceived the rustling of fabric, and the contact of skin. The men against the doors, gradually, became indifferent to their own proximity to one another as they looked in.

Then Norich heard a gasp from within the Portal. 

It was a female voice. Surprise. Delight. Ecstasy. It was the sound of a woman undone. It sent ripples of electricity through the room. A Server beside Norich gripped the seat in front of him and bowed his head. 

Norich knew the Cache’s teaching on the matter. But his theories were craven and inadequate now. The evening had moved from intention to action. From talk, to practice.

Oh…!” She moaned. It seemed loud enough to reach the back of the room. Then silence again. No-one else, from within or without, dared make a sound. 

Norich heard the collision of bodies within the Portal. They were obtuse, unplanned noises. Dissonant bodies, grappling. More brushes with fabric. A small grunt. The smacking of skin. Then more silence.

Piercing the quiet was a small tea bell. As it rang, the room collectively exhaled. A spattering of people from those set to go up on the platform now prayed with one another–folding their hands and whispering through them into nearby ears. 

The three men exited first, through either of the two archways. They kept the loose masks over their heads, and they held their clothes in their hands, but otherwise remained undressed. Their naked flesh stood in stark contrast to the dark vestments. It was as though their skin had absorbed the light and heat from the Portal and caused them to radiate their own warmth. They headed straight to the back and disappeared to places unknown. 

Two of Dell’s assistants came onto the stage and replaced the masks missing from the three doors.

Then Cookie, without any fanfare, made her way out the same archway she came in. She was again wrapped in her Proxy robe, and the other women affirmed her as she passed them. She was clinging to the front of her shawl with both hands, but her head was held high. If not for the Protocols, she would be esteemed by the whole room. 

If not for the Protocols, she would be outright worshipped.

The men who watched through the windows now shuffled off the platform the same way they came. Instead of returning to their seats, they walked single-file down the centre isle. Their heads were bowed low and they made no eye contact, in accordance with the protocols. Slivers of white now danced across the back of the room as light from elsewhere entered the sanctuary.

Another woman–this time from the side of the Portal Norich couldn’t see–entered rather quickly. Norich looked up at the white fabric reaching up toward the roof and saw it had been plucked or brushed. She was preparing herself. 

Then–again–the bell rang.

Norich saw only one door open this time. But there could have been others from the far side of the Portal.

Remember the pattern, he would tell the boys. Remember what Arpa gave to us. Revealed in Creation! Confirmed by the Cache. And witnessed across the Browser.

They would snicker, with their nervous distraction. He would be insistent.

The Portal is fashioned, in part, after the woman’s uterus. And the raised dais resembles the descending egg. If–and I do say if, gentlemen–you are selected, then you are welcomed to join in the pleasures of the reproductive process. And you will know why the feminine is sacred and revered, as for a moment you connect to the great web of being.

At the time, they would all laugh at Norich’s theological grandeur. They needed to release the tension. But no-one was laughing now.

The bell rang again. Two men exited and disappeared, their shoulders heaving as they fought to recover their breath. Another Proxy–again, from Norich’s side–stepped through the archway.

Norich could finally see her. Sola. She was last in line on his side. He knew she couldn’t see him from the platform. He was the indistinguishable darkness of the crowd. But she was brighter than the room she was set to enter. She was better. And she carried herself with quiet dignity.

The bell. Many doors opened, and many Servers stepped through. Norich thought he heard a stifled cry right away. Was the Proxy overcome by the number of men entering her chamber?

Their worship can be heard, but ours is in silence. Their bodies can be seen, but ours are anonymized. If–by the will of Arpa–they will bear with child, then our network will grow. And we will be one life closer to the great Unary.” 

This part was essentially memorized for them. He would recite it with rhetorical flourish, and include one of the lines much later in their testing.

But Norich would wait until all servlets signalled their receptivity by giving him their undivided attention, before he gave them anything more. They needed to hear this, most of all.

The Proxy gives Host to the child! And she is celebrated and affirmed as a mother. But we are all father. Even if you don’t end up being chosen for the room, you might bear witness to the miracle! And the child that might grow will belong to you as much as it belongs to the rest of us.

The bell rang again. Bodies shuffled out. Whatever arousal Norich felt had faded. The procession was routine, now. He just looked at Sola’s face. He felt disquieted by the contours of her body under her thin shawl. Sola stood there without any self-awareness, or apparent shame. She had her hands on her hips, and she was looking up at the wisps of white stretched up into nothingness. The fabric would jostle and ripple as the bodies below fumbled with one another. But she seemed content to just watch the fabric.

Do all relationships require a peer-to-peer arrangement?” Someone asked. Someone always did. “If the Binary teaches that the Host is present across the great web–and if Transcendence is about how we can only reproduce together–then why do some people link with one another? I mean, some try to do it for life!

And Norich would always repeat the truism taught to him.

Link where you will. But open yourself to greater still.

The next two Proxies volunteered their worship to Arpa without added noise. The Servers–especially the young men–preened at the windows for a closer look. They were taught to be witnesses. Most of the men did not have the honour of laying with a Proxy. Most of the men, over the course of their lives, would rarely get the privilege. Their entrance times were staggered and the doors were randomized. But they could join the moment vicarious. Such is the power of all networks. Such is what makes them Proxies.

Sola spotted Norich and smiled. Her eyes must have adjusted, he thought. And there were less people in between them. She gave a little wave by wiggling her fingers at her side. The sixth Proxy on the other side now entered, and the row ahead of him now stood from their seats climbed the steps to gather around the Portal.

Those in the seventh were always permitted to join them. But Norich didn’t move. Sola fixed her eyes on him.

Then she squinted, and he laughed.

”Think about everything we know! Everything Arpa has taught us. Hidden within all the traffic was His inspired will. What sort of desires did he place in the hearts of men? What sort of information did we share? Our brightest theologians memorize verses and study pages–but they’re also looking for the commonality. The ground of being within us. The thread linking all our content together!”

The servlets would look at Norich with boredom and resignation. But he would press on.

”Connection. Our ancestors would satiate their most carnal and grotesque sexual instincts! They would transmit pictures of themselves, and the world around them, needlessly! And they would inundate others with the banal and trivial. They would disagree and disparage one another long past the point of the original content, and then refresh the same pages only to do it all over again! What were they actually creating? Connection! For when you connect with another person, you sense the presence of the Host. As Doxa said, ‘The face of Arpa is a line between two points.’”

She nudged her head toward the Portal, as if to tell him to move. He realized that he could be beside her–or at least closer to her–if he did what she said. So he made the climb and casually walked along her side of the Portal. Then he heard the bell ring, and sensed the Servers pressing inward. 

To cross the threshold onto the platform and not participate was, technically, a disconnective offence. But no-one, to Norich’s knowledge, had ever committed it. He gave one quick look back to Sola and she nodded at him, and then he leaned in with the others. He was on the outside, and there were other heads in the way. But he could see something.

The Proxy, disrobed, lay in waiting on the inner chamber. She was writhed into a self–protective posture. At least three Servers, to Norich’s count, approached her cautiously and themselves disrobed–save for the masks covering their faces. She reached out and took one by the hand and pulled him close to her. 

This was his first time witnessing the creative miracle. Norich’s inner temperature raised and his palms became sweaty. But his doubt and disbelief, almost forgotten in the throes of Transcendence, surfaced in his consciousness. Here, at the apotheosis of connection, Norich found himself feeling alone.

His body was aroused as his eyes darted over their forms. The other witnesses would shift and move in closer, and the Servers in the room were closing in on the woman, too. But Norich did not feel vicarious transcendence. Not in the sight of her naked body, nor in the sight of him entering her. Not in the soft sounds of skin and fabric, colliding in their desperate dance.

He wanted to look back at Sola, but he couldn’t. She was over his left shoulder, and he could feel her smile upon him. What could he do? What would he endure? The final vestige of his trust in Arpa was fading–but perhaps this was the moment the Host had designed all along! He would press forward and claim a door. He would go into her, and they would be united. Others would have equal claim on her child, but he would live and die knowing the truth. And he would continue to serve the Terminal in peace.

His muscles tensed. He waited for the sixth Proxy to ring the bell on the table by her right hand. Now the flurry of activity was more animalistic, as the sensitive men gave way to their more basic impulses.

Then, he heard the sound. She had knocked the bell off the table. The Servers in the Portal jumped back and frantically clawed at the ground to gather their things. The bodies in front of Norich relaxed and repositioned, too. Norich broke protocol and began edging forward. He felt bodies bristle at his touch. He felt Sola’s smile fading.

Before he could move inward, the doors on his side had been claimed.

Norich became more desperate. He backed away for a moment. Once the sixth Proxy exited, the sixth row of witnesses retreated down the centre isle. Norich moved quickly and jumped into the last remaining open door frame. Dell’s assistants had seen him, but he did not care. One placed a new mask on his hook, and for a moment he deflated: the same door rarely opened twice.

But this was their destiny.

He looked through the window as Sola entered the Portal. It was roughly the same size as the Browser’s screen. He was aware of the bodies and eyes behind him. He wanted to be bigger somehow, in order to make the window exclusively his.

Sola stepped forward and removed her gown simply, without any hesitation. 

Her body, unadorned, was exquisite. He first noticed all of the hidden things now exposed: her small pale breasts, and the nest tucked away between her legs. He looked away from those places at once, out of some conflicted sense of honour. She was inviting him in–she was inviting all of them. He now appraised her not as the conjunction of several things, but as one magnificence. Something beyond comprehension, even when it’s standing there in front of you. Like the slope on a dune. Like the unbroken surface of water clinging to the walls of a still cup.

All of her angles were delicate and slow, but Norich was reminded of the saplings he’d only seen in pictures. He was taken most by the features he did not expect–the lines of her ribcage, between and above her breasts; how her hips broke the line between her thighs and her shoulders; the way the skin gathered at her knees.

He could not describe, nor compare, with any real substance. Only behold.

He was drawn, most of all, to her eyes. But she looked around the room absently, as though forgetting something. He doubted she could see in the way she was seen. And after only a moment, she moved the white fabric away and reclined on the chamber bed. Then she rang the tea bell.

Norich leaned backwards to look at the LED panel above the magnetic lock. It took the randomizer an eternity to unlatch the doors. 

Then Norich heard the click, but his door’s light did not change. 

Six doors swung open to the Portal, and men hastily stepped through them. They were hastily removing their things. For the first time, Sola looked apprehensive. But the men were all wearing their masks.

In this moment, Nory hated Arpa. He seethed against the Host. And he decided, in turn, to leave the Binary completely. But as he turned to leave, he again heard something.

She was the only one permitted to make a sound in the solemn assembly. And she was whistling, like a child. Those same two damn notes. Up, and down, and up a little higher again.

Norich felt electricity rattle through his bones. He pushed his way past the other Servers and circled around to the closest archway. He entered the Portal, alone. Without a mask.

Inside, the six men had stepped forward–but they were waiting on Sola. 

Norich looked down at her and whispered, “I’m sorry.” Then he rushed forward at the most eager man, driving his shoulders back into his door. The man crumpled against the unexpected tackle. The other anonymous servers immediately became much less shy.

He swung a fist at the next one, who covered his head and backed up. The third Server struck next, punching him squarely in the ear. It knocked Norich onto his opposite knee, but he drove forward and swept the man’s legs. The fourth man started screaming and waving his arms. The fifth and sixth, still unclothed, tried to tackle Norich. But he kicked and bit and struck out against them, too. 

Until he heard the click of all the doors opening, he did not stop attacking them. 

“Nory!” She screamed, but it was too late. Someone came up behind him and pulled a bag down over his head. Someone struck him in the ribs, and someone else stomped on his calf. And eventually, he surrendered to his attackers as they dragged him away from Transcendence. 

 


But Doxa, the prophet of light and truth, arose,

And began to proclaim the supremacy of the one true Arpa.

He established the Binary and affixed its gates

Reclaiming the sacred terminals

And compiling their holy words.

CACHE 0000.0000.0000.0007

They dragged him down into a room and they dropped him there. The way down was rough. Norich fell down two flights of stairs with his arms tied in front of him. His ribs, his jaw, and his forearms were bruised or maybe broken. And once they locked him up, they could’ve left him there for twenty minutes or twenty years. It wouldn’t have mattered to him. What he did was a disconnective offence, and Norich was just counting down the minutes. He was already resigned to his fate. He just stayed on his knees and waited.

But sometime later, Norich felt the bag being removed from his head. He was in a plexiglass box somewhere deep underground. This space was just like the Transmission Centre in the Terminal. A low, concrete ceiling. Large concrete pillars every twenty feet. A single row of fluorescent lights, stretching off behind and before him. And far away from Norich, by perhaps two hundred yards, was a small figure who was standing and watching him. It was Dell.

The box forced him to remain in a kneeling posture. Two holes the size of his fist–one on either side of him–allowed for air to pass through. Norich couldn’t turn all the way around, but he perceived there was a padlocked door into the box on the panel behind him. One of Dell’s assistants, standing beside him, had been the one to take the bag off his head through the hole on his left. 

I’d like to get this over with!” Norich shouted, but to no effect. Most of his volume just reverberated back to him.

Another person approached Dell, and Dell whispered in his ear. Then he turned and ran toward Norich. It took him at least twenty seconds to make the whole distance. 

Arriving, the man leaned down and put his face next to the hole on Norich’s right side. 

“Norich, you have committed a grave sin and deserve its fullest punishment. I’m so disappointed in you.” 

“He said that?” Norich asked, but the assistant didn’t turn to face him. Instead, he just stood beside the box. The other assistant, still holding the mask, now leaned down to the hole on Norich’s left, putting his ear close enough to communicate his intentions.

“Tell him it was all worth it. Tell him I’d do it again.” Norich said.

The man took off in a full sprint. He whispered to Dell on the opposite side of the first man. Then he crossed over to Dell’s left, and Dell whispered back to him. Meanwhile, the original assistant came around Norich’s plexiglass cage and positioned himself to listen, just like the other runner.

They were Packets. As he realized it, Norich felt his breath become hot. Dell had branded him a heretic. No-one would again be allowed to hear Norich, or respond to the sound of his voice.

I mean, sure, they were also going to kill him. But did they have to make his words an anathema? Just to kick him in the ass on his way out?

The messenger completed his second run, returning to Norich’s right. 

“The price of interrupting Transcendence is disconnection, Norich. By morning, you will ascend alone. Do you have any justification for your action? Any reason why the Council might give you mercy?”

The man, having spoken, walked around behind Norich and waited behind the other messenger.

“Tell him I’m not a big fan of rape.” Norich said.

The man tried to remain neutral in hearing this, but Norich could sense his discomfort in carrying such a message. This time, Norich noticed how he moved much slower than his initial sprint.

When the Packet arrived at Dell and whispered, Dell keeled over with laughter. Did Dell think he was joking? The man received Dell’s response and ran back. Even though he was soon to die, Norich was beginning to feel impatient. 

“You know–perhaps better than anyone, as a teacher of the Cache!–that Transcendence is built upon consent and mutuality. The Proxies volunteer. You might have abandoned the faith, but I won’t allow you to make your jealousy and pride into a noble virtue. You took a liking to the girl–so be it. But then you tried to possess her for yourself. Be honest with me–be honest with yourself! Who did you truly sin against?”

The Packet recited all of this through shorted breaths, and he even captured an approximation of Dell’s cadence and tone. It was an admirable skill, likely learned through prayer. Norich wondered: if he kept the conversation going, could he run the Packet to death? 

“I never claimed to be selfless. Perhaps I was created by Arpa as a diagnostic. A stress test on the network. Or maybe malware–I don’t know. But I have nothing further. Do with me as you will.”

The man nodded, and took off toward Dell. He was jogging at this point.

Norich wondered what became of Sola. Did they continue the ceremony? Did his actions condemn her too? In other more stringent times, such an action would’ve triggered a whole sequence of hostility and suspicion. Sola would have been convicted under conspiracy, and she would’ve suffered the same fate. In the early days, the protocols were forged through conflict and violence, as Norich’s predecessors fought to establish the parameters of their faith. It was still the Binary–but under a gentle soul like Dell, and the other members of the Council, few things seemed to be so black-and-white.

When the Packet arrived this time, he seemed to have a certain wildness in his eyes. He seemed eager to offload what he carried.

“I could, perhaps, save you. But you would need to step back into the web, and tell me what you really know. Specifically, about Drummond. I think we both know who the real heretic is.” The man shuddered as he repeated the message, and struggled with the end of it. “If you give him up to me, I will make sure you don’t perish with him.”

Norich looked at Dell, but his back was now turned away from them. This was what he was to Dell all along: a pawn, to flush out a dissident. Perhaps they weren’t so far from the early days, after all. Norich remembered what Hughes had once told him, with a sardonic laugh: “every wire is coated in dried blood.

Norich thought about old father Drummond, and how quiet his kindness was. He was careful not to show impropriety toward Norich and his mother, and at first they found Drummond cold and detached. But he remembered that one and only day, where his mother cried on Drummond’s shoulder. And he just put his arm around her and let her do it. He shooed Norich into the other room, which only made a boy more curious and concerned. And though Norich strained to hear, he could not make out the conversation between them. Even then, Drummond was old enough to be his mother’s father. 

But back then, Drummond was just a Server. And besides, they had no fathers.

And for that gesture of kindness alone, Norich would not dare betray him. 

The other Packet was leaning in, eager to send Norich’s response. But Norich had decided the conversation was over. If he didn’t speak, they couldn’t move.

He smiled and nodded at both of them, as if to tell them to take a rest. But he didn’t say anything, for he knew they would leave and repeat what he said. Norich wondered how long Dell would wait. He was not thinking, nor deliberating. He was regaining his agency. Nothing more to receive, nothing more to send.

After several moments had passed, the Packet to his left glared at Norich. He just shrugged. Then he turned his hands downward, opening his left palm and raising two fingers with his right. Norich would now pretend to pray until Arpa Himself intervened. 

And that, he knew, would never happen. Arpa was a fiction. A lie laid upon the tattered remnants of primitive technology. Technology humanity would never regain. 

Eventually, the packet on his right walked back to Dell, but said nothing. And Dell whispered to him, but held his arm so as to prevent the man from running back. Then Dell burst outward in flailing frustration.

You son of a bitch! You really want to play games with me?” Dell screamed, turning toward Norich. “I am trying to help you. I’m trying to prevent your execution! Do you really want to work against the only person who thinks you might be worth saving?”

Norich remained silent.

“We know what he’s doing. Drummond has been sabotaging us for years, from the outside in! He picks disaffected nodes–you lonely outsiders–and he nourishes their discontentment. He’s trying to bring down the network from within, Norich. You’ve been deceived, son! He’s using you. I thought with your devotion, your inner connectivity–I thought you would see through it. But I had you wrong, didn’t I? You want to be disconnected, because it’s easier to be dead than to consider the detachment you feel might just be your own fault.

He was marching toward Norich now. 

“He’s been trying to kill the power, and he’s had help–nobody can be everywhere at once. We just need an indication of who! Don’t think your death is some courageous protest, kid. You’ve been discarded by someone who has been playing a very long game–but you can become reintegrated again! I mean, why else would you continue to stay after your mother died? What could possibly keep you here–if not a hunger for the truth?”

“Don’t you dare speak of her again.” 

“She was isolated too, you know. I wonder if someone reached out to her, in her most vulnerable moment. It’s a real shame, isn’t it? Because she could still be here now, for you!” 

”Go to hell.” Norich said. He spit at Dell and it ran down the side of the plexiglass panel between them. 

“You’re already there, Norich. You think your detachment is something special, but it’s not. Surely you know what that’s like, don’t you? The first sign of the virus? You stand there in front of your own reflection and you’re disconnected from what you see! You’re looking at a stranger. Derealized. Just another asshole who looks at himself in a mirror and forgets what he looks like!”

Dell withdrew a set of keys and dropped them on the top of the box. 

“What’s it going to take for you to see?” He said.

Then, all at once, the fluorescent lights shut off. 

“Adams. Broadview. Where are you?” 

Here,”, they both said. 

“Take him out of here, and bring him with me.”

“Sir, he…”

“I will answer for it. It’s safest if he stays with me.”

Norich heard the rattling of keys as they fumbled to retrieve him.

“Stuff that bag in his mouth if you’re so concerned. I promise I won’t let him infect you.” 

They both dragged Norich out by his feet and stood him up, and he did not resist them. Then they grabbed him on either side and marched him forward to follow Dell, who was now just the sound of footsteps in the dark.


“He’s dead,” said a voice from down a darkened hall. 

The bag had been dropped, but nobody could see anything anyway. A rope had been wrapped around his head and through his teeth as a gag, or a bridle. One of the Packets was dragging him forward with it.

“Where?” said Dell, from in front of them.

“The Directory. Well, the Directory Feed.”

Norich heard Dell take an apprehensive breath in. His voice now betrayed his fear.

“But the Directory itself?”

“Fine.” 

Dell marched toward the voice, and his Packets dragged Norich behind him. They moved through these blackened corridors as though they could see. Norich wondered if they were going to drop him facedown into a pit and forget about him. Let him rot with only a rope to eat. It was a bleak idea, but he couldn’t put it past them. 

If his now discarded faith was anything close to true, he would be a dead node. A black dwarf. A hole in the Unary. He would not unite with Arpa, and he would not be joined to the Host. He would just be another bit of undifferentiated traffic. Technically, some memory of Norich would still be sent and received into eternity. But he wouldn’t be conscious of it.

And the idea of being forgotten didn’t bother him one bit.

“Shine a light, here. Let me see him!” Dell shouted.

Something combusted. A flare. The room before them was cast in a faint red glow. Before them, on the ground, was a dead generator. On the top were two fixed posts–one red, one black. The hands of Father Drummond were affixed to both of them. He had collapsed behind the generator onto his knees. His face was turned upward in agony. 

The Packet carrying Norich dropped him flat on his chest. Norich’s chin collided with the floor. He strained to look upwards but could mostly just see their feet. He could see the top of Drummond’s singed hair peeking up from above the generator. 

“Upon the mercy of Arpa,” they said. And though Norich couldn’t see it, he knew the gesture they would make: a flat palm against the chest. Then the fingers drawn inwards, and pinched together. As though you are pulling a string within your heart, he would tell the servlets.

Dell spit on Drummond’s head. “Don’t even bother. You know what Doxa teaches about those who terminate their connection to the network! Drummond’s no Eurl. He’s just another selfish coward.” 

Then Dell leaned down and whispered in Norich’s ear.

“I suppose this leaves you as the only person who might know, doesn’t it? Tell me, my boy: would you even be in this mess, if this meddlesome Server was as bold about protecting you as he was about screwing your mother?” 

Norich tried to scream, but the strands of the rope were thick and wet with his saliva. 

0000.0000.0000.0008

The water was cold and acrid. Norich wondered how anyone had received such a room as a place of spiritual enlightenment–unless the euphoria only came as you left. He did not know how they got him here. He did not know where he was. And he did not resist them, as they forced his hands and feet into the upright sarcophagus. He did not listen as they channeled the usual incantations. He just waited. The final step in their ceremonial preparations, before leaving him, was the head covering. They would take the rope out of his mouth, and they would bring the mask down upon his head. 

Then optimization would begin.

When his limbs had been attached to the apparatus, someone retrieved the helmet while another yanked on the rope. He thought they were removing it. He thought he might be able to bite or scream to keep himself from being submerged into nothingness. But they didn’t bother removing the rope before they forced the helmet down onto his head.

The padding of the helmet pressed against all sides of his face and head. The front of the helmet–the mask panel–had three holes, arranged vertically. The first was for his eyes, and it was just a little bigger than the other two. The second was just enough space for his nose to draw breath. The third was wide enough for both his lips to protrude, but the gap wasn’t designed for the subject to have a rope in his mouth.

Then they tipped the sarcophagus back into the slimy, stale fluid. Norich knew it wasn’t water when it began seeping up the rope into his mouth.

”Optimization is the most rigorous of all our spiritual disciplines.” Norich would say. It was a brief lecture to the graduating servlets, and it was the one they most displeased. ”Those who have been granted the place of Server must pass through a day’s optimization before becoming ordained. As you know, Doxa himself stayed in the chamber for twenty-one days–and afterwards, he began compiling the first Cache.

He knew better than to move. Not even in response to the itch. The only part of his body unaffected by the liquid was his nose. It broke through the surface like those volcanic islands abandoned in their oceans of waste. 

If he struggled and breathed in the water, a technician would usually be standing by. But that was when optimization was voluntary. In this, they would let him suffer.

”In former times, optimization was the highest form of connection to the Host! Traffic of all sorts could use the platform to have an immersive, integrated experience. Sights! Sounds! Smells and tastes! Imagine having a meal with your friend halfway across the continent. Or perhaps praying together with someone who lives on the other side of the sea!”

Some would perk up at this, but other servlets would know better. Those days were long behind them.

”Now, Arpa has allowed the optimization chambers to become our place of penance. They simulate perfect isolation, solitude, and silence. They aren’t plugged into anything anymore. Not until Arpa returns, and reconnects them.”

Norich would’ve laughed at the irony, if he wasn’t afraid of aspirating the sickness they submerged him in. Rejected from his own monastic order–only to end up baptized in the same tank he would have had to pass through, anyway! To think he had been all worked up about this–how he had fought for it, believed in it, and watched it pass him by. Now he was being forced down the one path they wouldn’t let him take.

The seconds became minutes, and the minutes became hours. He tried to force his body into perfect stillness. This was a death rehearsal. He thought about reversing course and tipping his head backwards, but he was afraid of dying that way. This was not the passage of time, but rather one moment being stretched out toward eternity. 

”Be a good boy, you hear me?”

It was his mother’s voice. The one memory he worked so hard to forget.

”I’ll be back so soon–why, you’ll barely even miss me! Pay attention in class, but don’t give yourself away. Got it? You’re far too clever for it.”

Norich remembered the bottom floor of the Terminal. There was a common living space–a playground–at the nexus of several hallways. Nobody visited. Nobody needed to. And his mind walked toward the room on the right at the end of the hall–perhaps the quietest space in the Binary.

”I know you’ll miss me, but you’re going to make it. And when I return, you and I are going to have some more of that tin, okay? The cranberry sauce! Perhaps we’ll eat it all.”

Norich felt his tears intermingling with the water that lapped against the fringe of his eyelids.

He never saw her step outside. He presumed–at least, for the first week or so–that she had left in the nighttime. But old Drummond had lumbered down into the basement, and placed his hands upon the young boy’s shoulders, right there on the playground. Then the old man had broken his heart. 

And little Norich devoted himself to the Binary.

Was the spiritual experience he had been longing for? Was this the will of Arpa, making itself known? Perhaps the presence of the Host had drawn these memories, jumping across the broken wires. Maybe her voice was not a memory, but an apparition!

But she was long dead, shrivelled up in the sun.

”To assist your meditative posture, optimization includes the practice of Refreshing. Because you are constricted and partially submerged, your mind can only wander for so long before it begins turning on the rest of us. You no longer think about yourself in the context of the great web of being–and this would contradict the solemn purpose!”

Someone always yawned. Someone took notes furiously. Norich kept turning so he would face all the students seated around him in a circle.

”To Refresh is to reflect on the sacred icons and symbols we have preserved. We have much less than other gateways, because we are honoured to host a Terminal. In the gateways without one, the Refreshing is a much more integral part of your spiritual disciplines.”

Norich checked his right hand. Nothing. Then his left. There was faint movement, but it was restrained. If he pushed harder, he would make noise and presumably attract attention. He felt his own shame and fear strike hot within him–he did not want them to make this any worse.

”To Refresh is to extend your hand outward toward the roof of the chamber. Assistants are standing by, sight unseen. As you lift your hand toward the darkened glass above the chamber, several icons will appear. These pictures are gifts from Arpa! But they speak much differently to us than does the Cache. There are several diagrams and charts–at least in our collection–but the real value of the works are in the connection they display. You can see the Host at work! A couple enjoying a drink together in the sunset. A canine dressed as another animal. A group of friends departing in the airport! I mean–can you even imagine? Heading to the sky?

”Not in this heat,” someone had said. And they laughed together.

Norich forced his hand upwards. The strain caused rivulets of moisture to run down his nostrils and in at the seam of his mouth. He started coughing but pushed harder–he would only attempt this once.

The shoulder-joint of the suit groaned forward with a low vibration. Norich was now able to point his finger toward the blackened sky. He wasn’t able to put his arm back down, he knew. He was too tired–too waterlogged. He wasn’t sure how far the roof even was, above him. But it didn’t appear to be made of glass, and there were no pictures for him to see.

”Are we able to study the pictures?” One student asked. ”To decode them in some way?”

Norich shook his head.

”Remember Doxa’s precepts! The many, not the one, lead many to be one. It’s only refreshing if they change the icons before you have a chance to really see them. That’s what makes optimization into such a holistic form of worship.”

Now the blood was rushing down out of his arm. The suit remained locked in place and the tingling sensation was beginning. Without agency, the agony was escalating. The numbness began to spread from his palm down his wrist, all the way to his elbow.

I would’ve thought this was the Host, before. He thought.

Then his shoulder. It began to spread into his chest. He felt a chill and his body expelled it. He wondered if Dell would kill him by exposure. He wondered if he would ever see Sola again.

“Nory?” He heard. Her voice rang through the darkness.

Norich did not say anything, because he knew he was hallucinating.

“Nory! If you’re awake–please talk to me.” She said.

“Sola?” He said, with little hope.

“I’m here.”

“Where?”

“I’m with you.”

He thought about the vagaries of it. With you. Was she with him in spirit? What was her proximal distance? Was she aligned with a desire to see him set free? Was she angry he’d interrupted her Transcendence?

“It’s good to hear your voice,” he said.

“If you’re wondering whether or not I’m going to break you out of here… well, I can’t. I don’t have the hands for it.” 

He started to laugh but then restrained himself to keep the water from seeping in.

“Too delicate, are you?” 

“Something like that.”

Then, a moment passed. Neither spoke. It wasn’t a discomfort that led them to silence. Instead, it was all the things only silence could say. Her company warmed him, and strengthened his resolve. His judgement was good. He picked the right battle to die in.

Sola began whistling. Two notes. Up and down. Up and down. Less of a melody, and more of a gesture. He felt as though he could listen to her voice for an eternity.

“I didn’t tell them.” 

“What? What do you – ” Her voice sounded panicked. He interrupted to reassure her.

“ – About the rooftop. About Drummond. The panels… I didn’t tell them.” 

“Nory, I don’t know what you mean.” 

He smiled into the black.

“You know, it wasn’t where you were that gave it away. It was how you brushed off the heresy, while we were together! ‘We’re connecting’. You even sound like him. How did Drummond bring you here? Or maybe a better question is, how did he keep you away?”

“Nory.”

There was a loud click and a whirring noise. The walls fell back and the roof peeled away. Abject horror struck him down. 

He should’ve inhaled the toxins while he had the chance. 

He was being hoisted upright, out of the water. The light was blinding and merciless. The heat was seeping through the thick plastic pieces of the suit. 

It was Dell. It was the Council. 

It was Sola, in chains.

“We rise as one, we fall as one!” Dell shouted.

“Unto Arpa,” the congregation cried.

Norich tried squinting to make his eyes adjust. It was taking too long.

“We had long suspected Director Drummond to be a trojan! But we needed proof.”

Dell turned to his side where a Packet stood, waiting. The Packet handed him something he then held overhead.

“This is a string of lights! A relic of former times. We found it near the damaged panels on the roof, during the last outage. This was, of course, at the precise moment where Drummond took his own life in an attempt to disconnect our backup power, with his bare hands!”

There was an outcry at this revelation.

“At first, this Council suspected Norich here–and with good reason. He violated the protocols around his first–and last–Transcendence ceremony! But he was in our custody when the outage happened.” 

Dell paused for dramatic effect. Norich looked upon Sola. She was looking at him with such tranquility, as though she had read the code ahead to its conclusion, and knew how the whole program was about to operate. Norich felt scared, but the peace in her eyes assuaged him. 

“I always had strong doubts about Norich’s complicity. His loyalty to the Binary has never been questionable. He even got in a conflict with Drummond and, in the ensuing scuffle, wounded the man. It goes without saying that he has transgressed the will of Arpa–and he will need to be reintegrated.”

The tenor of Dell’s voice softened a little, but his volume stayed the same.

“I simply motion to the Council, and to the fine nodes within this fine Gateway, that he be reinstated to our community. If you stand alongside my judgement, then you will see him fit to serve the remainder of his days in the Terminal, where his gifts are best suited.”

The omnipotent bright was relenting a little. Norich could now contextualize where he was. It was the empty space between the major buildings. Ancient sidewalks had cracked and broken to become like cobblestone paths in the dry dirt. The panels they used to surround him were made of corrugated steel. Sola was still chained to the top of the one they used as a lid.

“But may today be a lesson to us all! This is the danger of isolation. This is the consequence of living unto yourself, at the expense of others! What does the network say, in response to Norich’s actions?”

Beyond the abandoned panels was the crowd. The whole Gateway was gathered under dark, thick canopies, sitting upon the bleachers. Hundreds of people, called into the midday heat. Only the Proxies stood, walking back and forth to serve water to the oldest ones, who were visibly suffering. 

Everyone under the domain of Arpa would need to make the decision together. As one. There could be no dissent before judgement. 

The heat was already helping the community decide.

“As you deliberate, I must remind you how this boy was decieved by his mentor! Abandoned by his mother at a young age. He was impressionable, and he was manipulated! If we cannot restore those who violate our common good, what hope is there for the rest of us in the final day?”

Someone from the first row of the bleachers to Norich’s right stood. He was a staunch man who propped himself up on his cane, refusing the help of the ones sitting next to him.

“People of the Terminal–what say you?”

“We speak as one to reinstate the man Norich to our people.” 

Dell nodded and smiled.

“People of the Directory–what say you?” 

To the left of Norich, an older woman with salt and pepper hair stood abruptly.

“We find Norich guilty of his transgressions! But we support his reintegration into the network.” 

There was a smattering of polite applause. Two packets approached on either side of Norich and began unclasping the mask from his helmet. They left the rope in his mouth.

Dell reclaimed the crowd’s attention. “This leads me to the second part of our work here today. It is, with infinite sadness, that I must ask you to finalize judgement on this Proxy. She has, in conjunction with Drummond, violated the great web of being. She should suffer the fate of disconnection.”

There was a general ascent to this. Norich saw many nods and heard a few shout, “As One!”. He began squirm as they continued to unclasp the leg straps. His shouts of protest were unintelligible through the rope.

They were unclasping her from the metal panel. Her eyes remained down in the dirt. They locked a new chain onto the one hooked underneath her arms and around her ribcage.

Then they unbuckled the chest piece. One arm free. Norich tried not to make his desperation known. They would certainly leave him constrained if they knew he was going to intervene.

“What do the people say?” Dell asked, ceremoniously.

“We Logout!” They cried. They were not yet perfectly in sync. But then the same spokesperson from either side raised both hands above their heads–and so did their crowds. Their palms were facing each other, as though they were ready to catch several hundred invisible balls.

Then, as one, they moved them apart.

Like the sunset, Norich taught. Like the unfolding of the day. Like the openness of Arpa.

Then, as one, they clasped them together in one loud CLAP.

“Sola, upon your crime of damaging our source of power, we sentence you to permanent disconnection. You will be terminated by ascension, effective immediately.”

Then Dell took a sheet his Packet handed to him. They were now freeing Norich’s legs. His clothes were already almost dry.

Dell began to read. 

“Logout. AI, I-T-S, Console Free. Program Unary…”

As his second leg was being unbuckled, the other Packet took out a knife and began cutting the thick strands still gagging Norich. 

Dell seemed hesitant to finish the rest of the pronouncement. 

“…Run KILL.” He finally said.

Dell put his head in his hands as two other Packets began dragging Sola away.

”NO!” Norich shouted. “Take me instead! I was the guilty one!I did this…” He ran toward Dell, who was too distracted with his own grief to even notice Norich’s approach.

“Please. Please. I’m begging you, don’t do this. Don’t do it! You can give a different command.” 

“I am but a vessel, Norich. It was the will of us all.”

Norich looked at Sola. She looked sad, but serene. She kept her head high as she stared each one in the crowd. She did not have anger, nor remorse. She was still in denial about what would befall her.

Then she looked at Nory, and she smiled. She began to whistle her song again, as if only for him. By this point, Sola was being dragged along the far building–though she wasn’t resisting them. Then, they disappeared around the way.

“I have to stop this,” Norich said. “Take me instead.” 

“Norich,” Dell said. “you have been relieved. We will not hang you, too.”

Nothing to get hung about.

Then, it hit him. Like a strong wind, or the feeling of an unexpected drop. A gnawing suspicion turned over inside him, and became unshakable conviction. He heard them in her words.

"Nory, you're going to make it into the Unary. Even if I don't. He's going to embrace you. He has to embrace you."

He knew what her song was.

Norich grabbed the strand of Christmas lights.

“If you follow after her, they will just bring you back here for judgement!” Dell said.

Norich leaned over and gave the obstinate man a kiss on the cheek. 

“I believe again,” he said. Then he grabbed the strand, and ran.

Stepping back out into the light and heat was painful, but Norich could not be slowed. His legs felt as light as his soul was. He moved as fast as he could beyond the dumbfounded crowd. He could see the pole in the distance, looming over them. They would wait in the stands until they saw her lifted up.

They had already attached the chain under her arms to the cable, and they were already hoisting her upwards. She was twenty feet in the air.

He launched himself against the rusted metal fence and began scaling it. His bare toes, now burned from the scalding ground, found it easy to scale the diamond pattern of the metal netting. 

Forty feet. 

The top of the fence was barbed, but Norich only noticed it after he had clasped it. He leapt down into the restricted area. There were at least ten Packets here. They had been waiting under their own shelter for the condemned woman to be brought over. She would hang from the top of the tower until her body crisped and disintegrated. And, for the year after her death, Servers would ask Arpa to gather up the dust and bring it back into the Host.

Nory ran past the Packets, who were busy hoisting her upwards. He was no longer saving her, anyway. He hung the strand of Christmas lights from his shoulder, and inserted himself into the middle of the metal scaffolding. He began to climb.

He ignored the shouts of protest from her executioners. He ignored the deep pain in his tissue as the hot metal burned his skin. He felt blisters begin to form on the exposed tissue. He felt dizzy. He kept climbing, trying to catch her. He wasn’t coming back down.

Sixty feet.

”The Binary is a complicated thing, kid.” Hughes had said. His first class, unlike the other boys, was a private tutelage. Back when he believed she was still coming back. ”I don’t even understand it. But all you have to know is that it stands for both the end and the beginning. Zero to One.”

Eighty feet. She was getting away from him.

”Everything is Binary, Norich. The code in the great web of being, sure. But so is the code in all creation! Night and day. In and out. Up and down. Only two states to everything.”

He could see her legs above him, but her face was turned away. He was breathing in a furnace. Some of his blisters began to break.

”Even if it doesn’t make sense now, this will click for you eventually. One day, you’re going to be part of something so much bigger than yourself. Somehow, we all will! That’s why we do what we do, kid. You just won’t be able to get there alone.”

She had reached the top. Suspended at one hundred feet.

He kept climbing. He was almost there. He looked down, only for a moment, and almost slipped. All of the heat had now extracted the last remains of his strength. He just needed to reach out to her.

Sola’s back was turned to him. The pulley at the top of the tower was suspended off a pole they had welded on. She was over ten feet away from him as he reached the summit.

“Sola!” He said.

“Nory? Is that you?” She shouted back, with delight. She reached up and grabbed onto the chain, to attempt to turn herself around.

“Sola, I need you. I just need to touch you, but I can’t reach you from here. I – “ 

“ - It’s okay, Nory. We’re together. I think that it’s enough.”

Nory began to cry. 

He hooked his arm around the topmost metal brace as he uncoiled the spool of lights. Most of the bulbs were broken now. His arm shook under the strain.

“Sola, I get it. I understand, see?” 

“What do you mean, Nory?” 

“I know who you are now! I see you. I really see.”

Sola smiled. She was crying too.

“Look at you! Your face is wet. I told you that you’d melt eventually!”

Without explaining himself, he lobbed the one end of the strand of lights toward her. He missed. Nory frantically pulled at the strand to try one last time. He would not have the strength again.

“I just need… I need to reach you. I see you, Sola. I see who you are.”

“Oh, Nory.”

He retrieved the end and tossed it to her, and she clasped onto it.

She winked at him.

“And on,” she said. And she snapped her fingers.

And the last thing Nory remembered–as his muscles gave way, and as he was enveloped in the brightness–was how the remaining lights flickered on the strand.

Patsy