This is Part 1 of a Serial called Disconnection.
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There were manuals aplenty on First Connection, called Prime by those who had to have special words for that sort of thing. Everyone who wore implants was able to read information optically, or listen to stations, but only those who went through Academy were ever licensed to run the net fully, mapping it directly onto their neurons, using their brains as literal processors, sifting through information at the speed of light. Academy graduates worked in the government, in medicine, in the highest orders of the rest of the sciences, though some joined graduate law schools while others still ended up stepping into fields of art and music, where they performed with excellence. Rarely did a graduate burn out after Prime, and no one with the ability to run the net simply didn’t do it; it was an addiction all its own that was paid for by the rest of humanity that wanted information, entertainment, and expertise.
Manuals aplenty, but she hadn’t read them — enough had called her ‘a natural’ that she took them at their word and went at everything with a sort of instinctual savagery that is usually thought of as belonging to animals and aboriginal tribes of legend.
Up to and until this point, she had progressed faster and with a higher aptitude than any of her classmates, excelling without effort where many had failed after countless admirable attempts. Up to and until this point, she had experienced none of the headaches, heartaches or lost sleep that plagued so many of her colleagues. Up to and until this point, her existence had been all but charmed, and the ease with which she communicated through Nex’s tertiary grids had been a sort of confirmation to the higher-ups that their plans and risks were all well-founded, and coming to a glorious fruition.
Still, there were hundreds who expected (and maybe even hoped) Prime would burn her out and leave her a gibbering shell — there were a few in every class; such a fate didn’t escape the cream of the crop, either. For seven years running, at least one in the top ten percent of those advancing would leave their terminal by way of a backboard — in the last thirty years, one hundred and fifty-three had left after the zippers of polybags passed over their serene faces, closing on them like the last wink of some black, wrinkled eye.
The day of finals found her awake early; she was far too excited to sleep — this was the day she’d finally be allowed to not just work with Nex, but in it, and tap the main host. This was the day she’d show them her capacity for the datalines and her ability to port between each of the streams, a talent so highly prized she was sure she’d wind up in the Backbone, where information was current and currency. There wasn’t even the consideration of failure. The very concept of her own inability to excel was alien.
Countdown came, finally, and her terminal opened, source going public for those who would judge and those who would watch merely as spectators. Family and friends of those in Academy who had never upgraded to join the main host watched and listened through bundled a-v streams that displayed on screens in cheap caff shops and spec bars; this was more entertaining than even the extreme sports that broadcast each startup. Those with morbid humor said that at least in the finals there was the possibility of a fatality, and maybe it was that people paid no attention to those who spoke of such things, but none ever really spoke up to disagree, either.
Precisely as was structured, at 00.00.01, Autorun formatted each open terminal and gave the stats for the final, then set itself in an idle loop to observe. At 00.00.10, she (and over three thousand other hopefuls) plunged headlong into the code, rewriting lines and lines of data, at first with their fingertips, then once they had their implants and syncpoints configured, with the movement of their eyes, and then finally with just their minds. She moved fast, streaking far and ahead of her classmates. Not a single character of wasted space in her work, not a single exploit left for the Ravagers to find and crack. Those who watched from afar and those who had worked beside and those who judged were almost spellbound by her graceful efficiency — there was art to the way she programmed; she moved like one of the creators of old and left the masses astounded in her wake.
History files and personal logs would forever mark this moment as a turning point in history, if those doing the recording had any clue.
At exactly 00.27.18, she achieved Prime, the Oneness that came as connection protocols were recognized, and information began to flood not simply into retinal and aural implants, but into her brain, directly. Her syncpoint received messages of congratulations from throughout Nex and the main host. She wasn’t aware of any of them in particular, however; she was blissfully surrounded in a sea of sensation. Information in its various forms moved through her, one with her and the rest of the main host, and this was only a taste. All who achieved Prime were allowed a only .01 cycles to remain in the flow after their final, and then given a full cycle and a half for passing dreamwards, though many would end up awake in a caff shop with other grads, wide-eyed and celebrating. Few understood the necessity of the rest that day, and so many would spend the next few days in downtime, sheepishly smiling their way through recuperation, accomplished, but exhausted.
At precisely 00.27.19, when she should have disconnected, Autorun failed to record an anomaly within Nex’s primary grids. She remained connected, and no one had the slightest clue that the shell had been compromised.
At 00.27.20, Autorun shut down her syncpoint, and bathed her in silence, left her with her blood awash in electricity.
It was over.
It had barely begun.
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