This story is part of a series!
This is a direct followup to Up to Code. It expects knowledge of the world and characters introduced in that story, so I would strongly recommend reading that story before this one.
Down to Code
The office was quiet.
That wasn't surprising in any way; it had every reason to be. The quarter was over, the grades were in. And, as I'd told my students from the beginning, I gave them the exact grades they deserved.
But I suppose I'd gotten so accustomed to my regular visitor that I couldn't help but expect to see her come by sooner or later.
I heard a familiar light knock on the door. "Come in," I invited.
"SorrrryI'm late, Mrs. Meyer," stuttered Lina Brackett as she entered. "I'm feeling kind of lagggytoday."
I sighed. "It happens."
I'd given Miss Brackett a D in my Introduction to Sourcery class. For all her effort, it was the grade she'd earned from all her assignments and tests, so I was in no position to change it.
But she was undoubtedly unique, if maybe not in the way I'd initially hoped. And it was abundantly clear she was the most motivated of my students that quarter. So I was also in no position to deny her the chance to continue her studies in the field.
I asked her, "Was there something in my email you didn't understand?"
"Oh, no, nothinggg like that." She shook her head. "I guesssI'm just here to thank you, and alllsoto promise I'll..."
"Hold that thought," I coughed. "Can we get that fixed?"
"Um..." She looked from side to side with jerky movements. "Yeahhhcan we?"
"Ahem. Sorry, I suppose I misspoke. Can you, is the question."
She looked disappointed, and it seemed as if her ears were sagging even more than usual. "Professor Meyer, I only just tookkkkyour final the other dayyy..."
"And you showed immense improvement. Don't worry, I'll show you how it's done."
I took a quick look at her and found the problem right away: a wasteful routine was slowing her down. This was the kind of glitch I'd fixed thousands of times as an admin, so it seemed like a good first try for Miss Brackett.
However, as much as I tried to guide her through, explaining what to do and why it would work, she seemed unable to fix the glitch. In fact, she...
"Argh, fine!" I threw up my hands, and in a matter of seconds went in and fixed the issue.
"- or Meyer that was so fast!" Lina gawked at me.
I rolled my eyes. "I have no intention of getting you too dependent on me, so I should hope you'll be able to fix glitches that simple soon."
"I think it might be a while," she said, scratching her head shyly. "It doesn't seem simple at all to me. But I guess you were an admin, huh."
"Hm," I nodded. "But I never told you that, did I?"
"No, but my friend Lily told me about it," Lina explained, seeming to remember something else as she said it. "Since she took your class once."
I raised an eyebrow. "Lily... Could you be referring to Miss Bryce?"
"Uh... is that her last name?", she asked, sounding confused. I couldn't be sure if she didn't know her own friend's last name, or if she'd just forgotten.
"I can't recall any other Lily taking my class, so I would assume so," I nodded. And indeed, much like Brackett, she had been quite a memorable student.
The thought of those two being friends immediately struck me as odd. Yet the more I thought about it, the more natural it seemed. But this wasn't about Miss Bryce.
"So, what exactly is it you visited for, Miss Brackett?"
"Right!", she replied, remembering the original topic. "Like I said, I'm really grateful you're letting me in SRC 102 anyway, and I promise I'll work really hard once it starts. But..."
I wasn't sure I liked the sound of that. "But?"
"But for today," she said, her mouth slowly forming a smile, "I just want to talk to you, Professor. If we're going to have another quarter together, I really want to be sure we're not on bad terms or anything."
I glanced away from her smile. I knew it was all my fault that she felt the need to do this. I similarly didn't want any hard feelings, but particularly after that outburst I'd had a few weeks ago, it seemed foolhardy to think everything was fine between us.
Then again, after said outburst... maybe it was just me, but Lina seemed worried for me more than anything. That had really left an impression on me - reminded me what about her had been so remarkable on that first day of class.
So was this really only to clear the air between us, like she was saying? Or was she still, outrageous as it seemed, looking out for me?
"Fair enough, but I don't know how much I could talk about."
"Don't worry, I've been thinking up topics," Lina grinned. "Okay, so first. Sourcery classes are kind of meant as preparation for future admins, right? So since I'm in that position, I wanna know how you decided to become an admin, and what kind of childhood -"
"Off-limits," I promptly declared.
"Whaaa?" She stared wide-eyed. I could almost hear her mentally scratching off who knows how many topics from a list. She leaned back and held her forehead in thought. "Um, is it too soon for me to ask that kind of stuff?"
"Not exactly," I shook my head. "I wouldn't talk to anyone about my childhood, or "why I became an admin." Because..." I thought about it. "Well, "off-limits" sums it all up, really."
"I don't suppose it has to do with..." Something appeared to come to her mind. "Your initialization...?"
Obviously I wasn't going to answer that. She appeared to understand that this, too, was off-limits.
"...So you want to know more about me, I gather. I suppose what I can tell you," I began, trying to keep her from further disappointment with what I wouldn't answer, "are stories about my time working as an admin."
Lina looked surprised. "Wow! You mean that isn't off-limits?"
"Oh, some of it certainly is," I clarified with a frown. "But I believe I can give you a general idea of what those days were like."
Yet naturally, even if I wouldn't be telling Lina the full story, I still remembered it all quite clearly.
"North Lode Call Center. What is your malfunction?"
When you're a novice admin in North Lode City, you have to say these words a lot. I wasn't one of those for long, so I ended up hearing them much more than I ever said them.
An admin just starting out begins by taking direct calls, hearing out people's glitches. Then you pass it along to whoever can actually fix them, unless that person is you. The better you get, the more you get to distance yourself from answering calls.
Not to say that as a high-level admin, I could just entirely ignore the calls coming in. They were still an important metric for how much work I'd have to do in a given day.
On this particular day, the phones were ringing off the hook.
I hurried to my office and shut the door to stop the noise. Oddly, though, I didn't see any memos or anything.
"Is everyone so busy that they can't even afford to tell me what's going on?", I mused aloud.
The door creaked open, and a certain someone poked his head in. "Not much point if you're not around to do anything, is there?"
"If it was important, Cooper, you should've called me in."
His ears drooped. "Y-Yeah, I guess you're right... But I was counting on you being a little more on time..."
Lance Cooper was a young, scruffy sort who hovered around the top of the administrative ladder with me, yet would never admit to being anywhere near the admin his idol (me) was. And it was definitely nothing official, but we were effectively "partners," whatever that happened to mean from day to day.
"Nothing I can do about it now but make up for lost time," I shrugged. "What are all the calls about?"
"There's been a glitchquake," Cooper concisely explained. "In Lanville. Left a huge fissure too, apparently."
"Lanville?" I thought about that. "Wasn't there one in Fwdport not too long ago?"
"Uh, yeah," he confirmed. "Do you think there's some connection?"
"No, there's next to none. Which is unfortunate," I sighed.
The unpredictability of glitchquakes had always bothered me. Before I became an admin - granted, this was not a long timeframe - I vowed that once I became one, I would identify their causes and how to predict them, so that we would be able to do something about it.
After all, I thought, just how much destruction and chaos could be prevented if we learned to predict where glitchquakes would strike, if not how to stop them before they did? Cleaning up after them felt like too little, too late; surely the mess could be prevented in the first place. And when it struck larger cities... it was a big mess.
But that was proving easier said than done. Because Lanville and Fwdport were nowhere near each other, and no notable common points between them came to mind. Maybe if Fwdport had been close enough to be calling us the other day, I might've gotten the opportunity to do some more personal research into it.
"What do you mean by "unfortunate" -"
"So are we going to Fwd... excuse me," I coughed. "Are we going to Lanville?"
"That's what I was going to do, but I was hoping you would show up soon," Cooper said with a smile.
I held out my arms and gave a most sarcastic "Tadahhh." Cooper unironically ate it up.
As I went to open the door and brave the phones again, he asked: "So, how do you fix a glitch fissure, anyway?"
I looked back at him, a little surprised an admin his level had never dealt with one before. Or maybe he was just asking how I did it. "The same way you fix any giant mass of glitches."
He looked at me expectantly, apparently not having any idea what I meant.
I sighed. "...You patch it up."
"Well," Cooper announced, "here we are in beautiful Lanville."
"I get the idea it's more beautiful normally," I remarked.
Parts of the town looked perfectly fine, but the glitches got worse the closer we got to the fissure - in fact, they practically guided us to it. Buildings had collapsed in on themselves, or clipped into the ground, or into other buildings, and there were crowds of glitch-affected people who weren't faring much better.
We would have gladly tried to fix issues as we went, but the fissure took priority. Thankfully, there were plenty of admins and independent sourcerers already hard at work to take care of the glitches, so it was just the fissure which we had to handle. ..."Just" the fissure.
Soon, we arrived at it. I peered down into it, as did Cooper, and he seemed immediately queasy. I stuck my arm in front of him to keep him from stumbling in, but I couldn't say I didn't feel similarly.
It was a disgusting pit of glitches. Technically, I suppose they must have been normal objects, yet they were glitched beyond recognition. So what else was I going to call them?
There was one thing I recognized, however.
"Is there someone down there...?", I asked aloud.
"Uh... c-can't really tell," Cooper gulped.
I turned around and asked: "Did any of you see someone fall into this fissure?"
The reply was weak, as most of the people around were suffering from glitch exposure - actually, even we had to be careful of that. But the consensus seemed to be "no." Still, I trusted my eyes.
"I'm going down." I noticed Cooper's reaction. "...You can stay here."
"I was hoping you'd say that," he sighed with relief. "Are you sure you'll be okay, though?"
"Please. You talk me up so much, and now you start questioning my abilities? Just watch."
He turned his head toward the fissure, then turned away again. "I don't think I can do that, but..."
I walked around the perimeter of the crack, looking for the most stable side, and then began slowly converting the glitched-up ground into ladder rungs to take me deeper down. It was slow work, but I had to be sure that the rungs were glitch-resistant enough that they wouldn't give out and drop me all the way to...
Actually, the deeper I got, the more I wondered if this hole had a bottom. But I presumed that if someone had "landed" down in here, there had to be something to land on.
I turned out to be correct. I still wasn't sure if it was actually the bottom, but I found a young rabbit girl floating amidst the glitches. Holding tight to the ladder, I reached out with my other arm to try and pick her up, and...
Oof. Not only had she been afflicted with numerous glitches, but one of them was causing the effect of gravity on her to be roughly doubled. At first I went to normalize it, but then I had a better idea.
"Catch!", I shouted up out of the hole.
I pulled the girl up effortlessly, and she went flying out of my hands. I hurried back up the rungs, and by the time I reached the top again, she was leisurely floating back down for Cooper to grab her.
"Is she made of paper or something?", he said incredulously.
"Just made her weigh less temporarily, for convenience's sake. Careful, she's glitchy."
As his mind caught up to that, he yelped and dropped the girl to the ground - thankfully, she was still extremely light, so it presumably didn't hurt her. But she did come to shortly afterward.
"Where am I...?", the girl asked.
"Lanville," I answered, then looked around. "You see, there was a -"
"Wh... what happened?", she interrupted, sounding alarmed. "There was this big earthquake, then... then I don't remember..."
I raised an eyebrow. "...Hm? What's an... earthquake?"
She blinked. "I... I don't know... It's like, when the ground shakes, right...?"
"I, uh... well, there was a glitchquake," Cooper told her, seeming as confused as I was. "And it made this fissure here," he gestured, "which you fell in, and Meyer here" - he gestured again - "saved you!"
She looked between us, not fully understanding. "Oh... Th-Thank you... I guess."
"You guess...", Cooper repeated lamely, his shoulders drooping.
I couldn't help thinking about how no one had seen the girl fall in, and no one was running to her aid now. That seemed to indicate she had no parents nor siblings to take care of her, a suspicion confirmed by a look at her initialization records -
"Wait!", she exclaimed. "Where are my parents?!"
That surprised me. "Your... parents?"
"Does she not have any?", Cooper asked me quietly.
"She shouldn't," I whispered back. "So why..."
"Hold on a second," he said. "I just remembered why this seems so familiar."
"You didn't say anything about this seeming familiar."
"Because I wasn't sure why!", he excused. "But I heard there was something like this at the Fwdport quake. A boy who fell in a fissure, and asked about parents he didn't have..." He scratched his head. "I guess it must be a common effect of the glitch fissures."
This was news to me. I didn't see it the way Cooper did, however. Rather than these children being random victims of the fissures, perhaps...
I made sure to encrypt my speech so that no one around could understand it, and indicated to Cooper to do the same. Then I proposed my theory.
"Yes, I would suspect it's glitches that are causing her odd behavior," I affirmed. "But I think you've got it backwards. What if these... glitchy children are inviting the quakes, if not causing them?"
"What?!" He was taken aback. "That's preposterous, Meyer! Are you really basing that on, like... two cases? You're really grasping at straws, here..."
"And what else am I supposed to do?!", I shouted.
Even though our conversation was encrypted, that obviously didn't stop people from taking notice of me raising my voice there. I supposed Cooper had a point, and it wasn't a good time for this discussion anyway.
"Don't worry, everything's fine," I told the crowd, slightly embarrassed. "We'll get this fissure patched up right away."
They seemed satisfied with that and began to dissipate. But someone asked us: "What about that girl there?"
I looked at her. What about her? At first, it had seemed like she had no parents, no siblings - a "singleton," as they're called. Yet her claims otherwise threw me, even knowing those claims were likely glitch-addled.
At any rate, it just felt... wrong to leave her alone like this. I wondered if the other admins back at the call center could do anything for her. Why, if it came to it, my husband and I could take her in for a couple of days -
But Cooper answered for me while I was agonizing over the question. "Oh, she'll be fine. She's a singleton, so she knows how to take care of herself."
"Y... Yes, of course," I shakily confirmed, surprised at Cooper taking the initiative.
He looked at me after the bystander left. "Why'd you have to make me answer?", he questioned, with slight annoyance in his voice.
"I just... I wasn't sure."
He shrugged. I began to think he would laugh at my suggestion of taking the girl in temporarily, so I didn't feel like even mentioning it. Given he had children of his own, perhaps I could have convinced him... but I'd made enough of a fool of myself already.
I reluctantly turned to the girl. "Well... once we close this fissure, we're going to be leaving," I informed her. "There are lots of people around fixing the damage from the glitchquake. So if you have any glitches, they can help you."
"O... kay. Thank you," she said, still seeming wholly bewildered.
"One last thing, however. What's your name?"
She looked down, holding the back of her head. "Oh... um... I can't seem to remember..."
"Are you sure?", I implored. "It's important."
Cooper looked at me. "Is it? Can't you just take a -"
"Wait!", she exclaimed. "Yes, I've got it!"
"...It's Rena. Rena Taggart."
I smiled at her. "Thank you. I'll remember that."
"Who's Rena Taggart?"
Lina had been relatively quiet during my story thus far, but she seemed very curious about this detail, and how I had decided to mention it.
"No one important," I replied. I quickly realized how harsh that sounded and attempted to explain. "Er, what I mean is... asking her name was only important for the research I conducted after that incident."
"Research into what?"
I had to be careful with my words here, in a different way. "...As I said, I was interested in what had been causing these glitchquakes. So... into that, let's say."
"Hmm... Did you find anything?"
"U-Um...", I stammered. I felt like there was something caught in my throat. "Just... let me tell the story as I want to tell it to you."
"Okay, I guess," she conceded. "It still totally sounded like you were going to say it was me or something, though."
I stifled a laugh. "Of course not. If that girl were you, you would have started finding the story familiar before I even got to that part, correct?"
"Yeah... I guess." She scratched her head. "...Then why are you telling me this story, anyway?"
That was a good question. I wasn't sure of that myself.
If all Lina wanted was to hear what it was like being an admin, I could have given her any number of other cases I'd handled, ones where I didn't have to talk around quite so much. So why did I pick this one?
Having my attention called to it now, I think I knew the reason. I was hoping, however faintly, that Lina might have something to add to this story, some new perspective. That she could see something, figure something out which I couldn't.
It was a lot to expect from her, and foolhardy to do so, especially when I couldn't tell her everything. But it was worth a shot.
"Oh, sorry, one last thing," Lina interjected mid-thought. "There was that one little part where you mentioned your husband..."
I glared at her, and she seemed to immediately regret bringing it up. But...
"...I'll get to that," I sighed. "Please, let me tell the story."
"O-Okay," she mumbled, her eyes wide.
"Grasping at straws, you said?"
Cooper looked up at me. "Huh? Did I say that? ...What was the context?"
I put down a printout in front of him. "Just look at this and try to tell me I wasn't at least onto something."
He read it. "Name: Rena Taggart... sex: female... age: 9... parents: 0... children: 0... parents: 2..." He looked up. "Wait, hold on."
"See the problem? No wonder she's wondering where her parents are." I glanced toward the ceiling. "The poor girl must have memories of parents, which she gets reminded of from time to time... and yet, none."
"Wait, wait, slow down... Where did you get this? I thought you checked her info directly and it said 0."
"This?" I took back the paper. "Straight from the logs of the Once-in-a-While Loop."
"...That doesn't sound good," he moaned, rubbing his eyes.
The Once-in-a-While Loop was... well, it was top-secret, first of all. It was the means by which all initialization of new people happened, and while everyone knew something caused that, only the highest-level admins knew it by name and were granted access to it.
And now, it was looking like we had an obligation to fix some glitchy behavior with it.
"I wrote up some consistency checks," I explained. "Scanning the logs for people with conflicting traits like Rena's. Only basic things, though - I'm sure I could've thought of more. ...I still got a pretty long list."
Cooper held his chin in thought. "Hmm... How far back does it go?"
I winced. "I'd rather not say, since it doesn't change our duty to fix the issue, but... too long."
I sat down and leaned back with my hands over my face. "I don't know how it's gone unnoticed for so long," I sighed. "Think of all the trouble this must have caused over the years, just because no one saw the source of it all."
Thinking about it, it was much like the glitchquakes in that way. I still wasn't too sure if there was a connection there or not - all I knew was that for now, this was more important.
"Well..." He pondered. "Maybe other admins have noticed. They just haven't been able to fix it."
"That sure is encouraging, Lance," I seethed.
"Hey, I didn't mean that! If anybody can fix it, it's you, Cadence!"
I looked at him.
"...I-I mean, Meyer. Sorry. You used my first name, so I... um... sorry."
It actually wasn't his use of my first name that bothered me most. I hadn't explicitly said so, but I'd already taken a look at the Once-in-a-While Loop in hopes of identifying the problems... and it just seemed beyond me. So if I was such an amazing sourcerer, and I couldn't do it, then who in the world could?
...It would just have to be me, somehow.
"I never thought glitches could get so deep, you know?", Cooper remarked. "A glitch in the whole process of initialization... It just seems absurd."
"Absurd, perhaps," I confirmed, closing my eyes. "But to me, it always felt likely."
This was not, of course, a story I could tell Lina.
...But I tried.
"So, after the two of you helped this Rena girl, it led to you investigating... a thing."
"That "thing" seemed really complicated to you, even though you were - are? - known as one of the best sourcerers in the world."
"Your assistant guy kind of got left in the dust as you spent long nights alone trying to puzzle out the... thing..." Lina gasped. "Was it a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle?!"
"This isn't a riddle!", I groaned, exasperated. "I'm just trying to give you the gist of... you know."
"I'm fearing I don't," she whimpered. "SRC 102 is gonna be hard, isn't it..."
"I just want you to understand," I said forcefully, "why I ended up quitting as an admin. ...To an extent."
"Wait, that's where this story is going?" Lina gave me a questioning look. "Are you telling me this story as a warning, for if I ever become an admin?"
"...Maybe a warning of sorts, yes."
"Well, don't worry. I know I'd take forever to solve a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, so I probably wouldn't even try."
As much as I wanted to laugh at her, she was actually more accurate than she had any right to be.
Because my folly, ultimately, was that I put too many of the pieces together.
I had spent many late nights analyzing the workings of the Once-in-a-While Loop. And I found that it was at the same time both a simple and complicated matter.
For something that was the backbone of life's existence, the Loop was very bare-bones. It did little more than create a familial structure, then call a function - newProc() - for each member of the family, passing only family-relevant parameters. Everything seemed fine there.
So newProc() was where the problems must have crept in. Yet this was a heavily-encrypted function, and nothing I tried on it could make it readable. It scarcely resembled anything I'd ever seen.
Eventually, I thought of a different way to approach the problem. I could trace newProc() to see what it was accessing - essentially, I could see where it might be getting the characteristics for the people it was creating.
Working in sourcery, especially at the admin level, shows you some strange things about the world. It shows you how everything is malleable. How everything has exact values. How everything follows a set of rules.
But the thought of delving into one of life's biggest mysteries - how we are initialized the way we are - still made me shiver. When newProc() called upon "fate," what was it calling?
I wasn't sure if what I found was an answer. It just looked like... garbage data.
This raised too many questions. It wasn't taking this data as input, was it? Or maybe, though I didn't see how it was possible, it was another function that I couldn't even recognize as one?
I sifted through this area of memory, hoping for an explanation. Eventually, I found...
...well, it must have been fate.
”̞̯͓̯̿̈́͊͛aͣͬn̫͐ͪͦ̂́’̒t̝͛̄̓̃ ̙̙̄̋̄̓k̖̖̜̯̅͌͋no̎̔ͧͩͪ̑w̼̯̖̽͑͑̏̂.͈̲ͨͪ͛ͧ̇ ̫.̜̬̝̣͚͋̈̇.̼̅.̟͔̘̺͇͚ͩ͛̓͛ͅW͓͇̓̒̍̔ë͓̮͓͔̰̠ͥͤ̆ͨ͌̚’̼̻̲͉̣̑ͧͥ̿̏̍̐ͅr̰e͕͙ͬ ̯̰̣̙̫̪ͫͩ̓̀ͧ̎ͤó͔͎̄ͮ̓͛n̳͋ͮ̃̐ͬͮͅl̖̙͚̪͖͚͊̑ͮͣỷ͎̏̅̾͒̽͒ ͓̘̱̪̪̼͐ͦ́ͥͅp̆ͪ́͂ͪ͂r̙̲͚̼͉̖̽̎̅ͩ͂̃ͅo͈͉̬̞̲̯̤ͬ̉̔̀͋c͎̄̓͑̓̐̂e͚̰̰͓̊s͖͐ͥs͍̱̹̩̀͋̇e͆ͥ̌͒ͦͥs͍̬͍̞.̙͗̊̊͐̏”̱͕ͣ̉̏͐̽̏ͫ
Processes... processes. The word turned over in my head.
newProc()... New process? This was the function creating us. Every one of us.
...Why not just... "new()"?
I put that out of mind, instead asking another pertinent question: What was I actually reading? It seemed like part of a conversation log, but all but that one snippet had been overwritten by all sorts of other junk data.
One thing was clear: I was not meant to be seeing this. And I should have stopped right there.
But... I was desperate. I had no idea how newProc() was operating even after my alternative approach. "We're only processes" was my only lead, even if I wasn't quite sure what it meant, or if it had any relevancy to the problem at hand.
"Maybe if I do a search for "processes,"" I thought, "I'll get lucky... find an important function."
I wouldn't call it luck.
"n҉n͡ing ͠it ̴ín a ͘l̶o͠o͞p ̴s͟eems̛ ͢l͜ik̡e ̡t̶he̡ c͟los̴e҉s͏t́ wȩ ̧c̀an ̕g̷et̡ t͝o͠ h͢o͜w t͢hín͟gś wer̶e͡ bef͡o͠re.̵"
"͏You̶'͘re sa҉y͟in͝g̡ įt ͟w̕ill i̛n͘itiáli͜z͝e pro̧ce̡s̨ses ̀at ány̷ ͟age͟? ̢W͏i͜t͠h̴ ̛an̢y "̕
"u͡ţ ̸it͞ is ҉mo̷re a҉cc̶ura̛te tha͏t́ ͝w̛ay̷,̧ ͞rig͏ht?͠"
"͘Y͜ès, b̷ut..̴.͡ ҉t͘hey ͟h͡ad ̀l̡i̡v͝e̵s̶ ҉u̕p̷ ͞t̡o҉ ̸th̕a͟"͟
"f̵i͡l͟l̡ t́ha̸t͡ i͘n ̶t̨h͘e sa̧me̛ ̧way͏ ìţ ̡d҉i̵ḑ for̷ u҉ş. ̡.҉.̧.̕P͟oo͢r̶ly.̨"
"͏Çan't we ҉do any̴"͢
"cky to̶ sţu̧mb͠le͞ up͡on su͠c̀ḩ ą use͡fu̧l ̴f͜unc̸ti͡on̨ a̢t a̧ll.҉ R̢e҉wo̸r̨ki͡ng ͘it͝ mi҉g̕h́t̛ t͏a͘ke̷ more ͞ti͡me t̶h͘an͡ ҉we̴ h͜a͞v͡e. ͝B̷esides̵.͜.̵. w҉hy̢ ̶w"͝
"a̢u͏se͠.̡.̴. ̸thè ̧a̛dm͢ins d͏e̵çidęd i͘t?̶"͜
"̶An̡d ͘we're ̡in͞ no͟ ͡pośi̵t̢ion ţo̶ ͟cl̸a"̴
"Al͠l we͢ ̕c͡a͡n̴ ͜do ͢i͡n th̶e͞i̡r a҉bsenc҉e... ͢is̸ ͏k̛e҉e̕p̧ ͜th̢e͞ şhi̧p afloa̡t.̕"
I had already been kept up all night working on the problem, but now I really couldn't sleep. I had too much to think about.
This Once-in-a-While Loop... I'd thought it was "natural." A part of our world from the very beginning. Everyone thought that.
But this told me otherwise. It was made by, as far as I could tell, ordinary people - it was shoddy and rushed. I had good reason to believe that the "glitches" in it were not recent glitches, but flaws in the design from the very outset.
More worrying yet, it was said to be an approximation of "how things were before." What had that been? What had gone so horribly wrong as to require the Loop's creation? Why were its creators running out of time?
There wasn't much else I could be absolutely certain of... but I had sinking feelings about what lurked in the missing fragments of the conversation.
And one thought destroyed me. According to how far back the Loop's logs went back, it had been created a very, very long time ago, and now I knew it had merely been thrown together by who knows who.
So then why couldn't we, with all our knowledge of sourcery, do any better? Why couldn't I make a dent in it?
Maybe we'd been doomed from the start. Because even I, the prodigious sourcerer, being initialized at such a mature age, had had decades of my life just... filled in. "Poorly."
And that meant none of it was "real." I'd hardly had any real experience in sourcery, I never deserved to be an admin; that's just how things had been set up. For that matter -
I felt sick.
For that matter... how could I even call that man my "husband"?
It was not a new thought, but now it seemed validated enough that I couldn't just dismiss it. Many people reported that their earliest memories felt "off." Closer inspection tended to reveal that their age of initialization was the dividing line where the memories became more normal.
And if those earlier memories were our only basis for trusting that these were the people we fell in love with and married, or that these were our children...
I couldn't believe in them anymore.
Before I knew it, dawn had come. The call center wouldn't be open for a few more hours, but I knew who was probably already there.
"North Lode Call Center. What is your malfunction?"
"It's not my malfunction."
Cooper looked at me incredulously, then tried to talk it over. "L-Look, Meyer, um... I know this problem has been a huge struggle for you, and you've been pushing yourself really hard on it. But you need to know when to give up and move on. There are lots of other things you can handle! There's no reason to just... quit entirely!"
"It's not just that," I sighed, shaking my head. "I am giving up on the Loop. ...It just happens that I'm also giving up the rest of the job."
"Why?" Cooper still couldn't comprehend it. "You're one of the best admins there is..."
"Because it's a losing battle."
With that, he seemed to realize something had happened, because the Meyer he knew wouldn't have said that. And I wanted him to know why I had come to think this way, but...
But I didn't want him to know everything. Because I didn't want him going the same way as me.
"Do you ever suppose...", I began, "there's something higher than us? ..."Admins" more powerful than even the most powerful sourcerers we know."
"Probably," Cooper nodded, hoping this was leading in a positive direction. "Unless our world just came from nothing at all, there was probably at least one to start it off."
"...I wonder where they are now," I idly mused.
(in their absence)
"W-Well, I'm sure they're still checking in, right?", he theorized. "They might be fixing things without us even noticing. Hey, maybe they'll fix the Once-in-a-While Loop for us!"
"I don't believe that," I flatly told him.
"Which part? ...Look, either way, we have a job to do as admins," Cooper pleaded. "We just have to do the best we can at it!"
"...Whatever that means."
"Meyer... You're really worrying me, here." He looked at me sadly. "You should just... take some time off and think about it. Because I don't want you to leave for good. No one does."
I had to grant him that perhaps I could surmount this with time. But there were still some unavoidable truths to deal with.
"Well," I sighed, "I'll do that, and we'll see what happens."
"I'm glad to hear that," Cooper smiled, relieved.
"But it's not going to be a very relaxing vacation," I warned. "I have my... husband to deal with."
"To... deal with?" He was confused again.
"I can't stay with him anymore," I explained. "I'm going to break up with him."
Cooper just stared at me in shock. He thought, then looked at me again, and kept repeating that sequence.
"Tell me what happened," he eventually asked, very seriously.
"Something happened. I know it did."
"But I don't want it to happen to you."
"Then why won't you tell me...?", he muttered, a little annoyed.
I had said everything I wanted to say, so I just remained quiet.
"...All right, Meyer. It's your life, and I guess it isn't my business," he conceded. "Personally, I'll be hoping to see you back in the swing of things in a week or two. But just in case you don't come back... I'll tell you this."
"We live in a good world. A really good world. ...A real utopia. That's what I believe." He looked down. "As admins, we see a lot more problems in it than others do, and we have to work hard to fix them... but that doesn't get me down. Because I know we're making people happy."
"And that's what makes the job worth it. We're making a better world here, one step at a time. And when I come home..." He seemed to be visualizing the scene. "I see my kids, and I know I have the same duty I do at work. I'm the only one who can take care of them. And it's worth it."
Now I'd heard everything I wanted to hear, too.
"Unfortunately, I can't see things that way," I told Cooper, standing up. "...That's why you should have this job, and I shouldn't."
I looked back at him from the doorway, and as usual, he recoiled upon realizing he had slipped up. But I wasn't angry at him, not at all.
"Please, just do a good job in my stead."
"...Why didn't you want the job anymore?"
Lina had sat in thoughtful silence as I finished my story. Honestly, even I hadn't expected to get as detailed as I did in the version I was telling her. But for whatever reason, it didn't feel unusual to open up to her.
"It began to feel futile," I sighed. "You might say I no longer had the right mindset for it. Cooper did, and so I left things in his capable hands."
"I dunno if he sounded that capable," Lina remarked.
"I could tell you some more stories about him, but they'd be pretty boring by comparison." I looked at the time. "...It's also getting pretty late, isn't it."
"It's still hard to imagine you feeling like you weren't good enough," she said with a hint of sadness. "I mean, I feel that way a lot, like, a lot, but..."
"Well, it only gets worse when you have everyone singing your praises while you feel useless."
"Yeah, that's a good point... Yeah, I guess it can happen to anyone," she figured.
Then she fell silent, trying to think of something to say.
"But it's okay to feel that way, Mrs. Meyer!", Lina exclaimed. "Because... it's like art! If you keep working at it, you get better and better, but you also get better at seeing your mistakes. So just try to remember that it's because you're getting better!"
I took a moment to imagine how this related to the problem in question. "...I'm sorry, Miss Brackett, but I don't see how it's anything like that."
"W-Well, um..." She nervously tugged on her ear. "I thought it was pretty good for something I thought up on the spot that had personal relevance to me!"
"I guess I'll grant you that," I shrugged.
Lina went quiet again. "...But really, something must've happened to change your outlook so drastically, right?"
I groaned. "Yes, but I won't tell you what."
"Right, right. That's fine. I don't want you to force yourself to remember any bad stuff. I'm glad to just have, like, ten pieces of your thousand-piece puzzle," she smiled.
"You can keep them," I told her, reciprocating her smile. "It's not just my thousand-piece puzzle."
She started blankly at me. "Huh?"
"...I think this metaphor has escaped us both," I coughed. "But thank you, Lina. I'm glad we could talk today."
She nodded, no doubt astounded that I'd called her "Lina."
She stood up. "Well, um... I'm glad I got to know you a little better, Professor Meyer. I can see you've been through some heavy stuff, so... you can talk to me anytime, okay?"
I nodded in agreement. "I'll do that."
And so she left... hobbling on one leg, as apparently the other had gotten glitched out of commission while we were talking.
"Trying to solve everyone else's problems when you still have plenty of your own to deal with... Maybe she's more suited to being an admin than I thought," I mused.
I was about to leave myself, but then another familiar visitor came in the door.
"Professor Meyer," Lily said to me sternly. "I'm here about Lina Brackett's grade."
"Ah, Lily," I nodded, sitting back down. "Actually, Miss Brackett came in just a while ago, and we had a long talk. I believe everything's settled now."
Suddenly her harsh look faded, revealing the Lily I knew. "Oh, phew. That's good. From how she was talking the other day, I was worried she wouldn't even want to step back in here," she related, looking around the office.
"Well, she's made it her home over the past quarter. She wouldn't be scared off that easily," I chuckled. "You, on the other hand, I haven't seen in here for a long time. ...You're looking great."
"Oh, uh... thanks," she replied, blushing.
"It'd be nice to reminisce..." I noticed her reaction. "...but I wouldn't want to keep you. Was Lina's grade all you wanted to ask about?"
"Yeah, pretty much," she shrugged. "What did you and Lina talk about, though?"
"She wanted to know what my time as an admin was like, so I told her. That's about it."
"Wait, really? You never told me anything like that..."
"Well, you said you weren't interested in becoming an admin, so I didn't want to bore you with it," I explained. "Besides, I told you the other half of the story - how I found myself here, teaching at Chexum."
"Is that really "half" the story?", she asked doubtfully. "Unless I'm forgetting big parts of it, seems more like it'd be a quarter. No, an eighth. No, a sixteenth..."
"You want to know the rest that badly, Miss Bryce? Good," I smirked. "In that case, I've given you and Lina something to talk about, haven't I?"
"...Oooooh. You know," she said cheerfully, pointing at me, "this is why I like you, Meyer. You always know what's up."
"So I've been told."
With that, Lily left as well, and there were no more visitors for the day. Yet as I packed up to leave, I couldn't help but reflect.
The circumstances that led to my retirement as an admin had been... "heavy stuff," indeed. When I made my accidental discoveries, it felt like the end of the world, and the most I could hope for at the time was that it would only be the "end of the world" for me.
As time passed, I began to see where I was mistaken. I had become so deeply entrenched in being an admin that I came to see the world as nothing but a pile of messy code. Technically speaking... I may have been right.
But getting away from the job gave me perspective. Our world was... well, it...
...it still needed fixing. But it was not as deeply "broken" as I had thought it. Because despite everything, people still lived in it.
Lily and I really did help each other out. As I showed her how to use sourcery to feel comfortable with herself, she showed me that initialization was not the be-all and end-all. What at one point I would have called a heinous glitch was, in fact, real and beautiful in a way I couldn't have imagined before.
And Lina came to remind me of those same sorts of things just as I was forgetting them. She was living proof of the shoddy state of our world, and yet she lived like no other. True, I'd grown tired of her innate glitchiness and lashed out at her, the same way I'd gotten fed up with the world's glitches; yet she persevered, and could still afford to show concern for me.
And now I felt comfortable with where I was. I could still help people in my own way as a teacher - the way that suited me.
True, I had been initialized to be an admin, a wife, and a parent of none. And I'd more or less failed to be all three.
But now I knew that things didn't come down to that.