The cold, contemptuously amused female voice echoed from all around. The ever-shrinking group of boys came to another intersection, peeling off into different corridors. Connor swallowed hard, choosing the second left and continuing to run, well aware of the ray shields closing behind them, doors slamming to and locking, lights flickering out to not come back on. The entire place was a death trap, and time was running out. She hadn't made herself airtight yet, but it was only a matter of time, he was sure.
He slowed, panting desperately for air, as he came to the end of the corridor. Two frosted-white glass doors confronted him. His gaze traveled over them, their handles and hinges, seeking for the deadly electric current that he was certain was running through them. Choosing at random, he grabbed the left one and yanked it open, only to slam it again as twisting snaking wires, spitting sparks, lashed out the room at him. Heart going faster than should be physically possible at his close escape – he was supposed to die there – he opened the right, at the same speed as before. An empty room greeted his eyes – he glanced down, taking in where the floor should be, examining the drop into the pit of spare computer parts. Stepping onto the threshold, he waited tensely for the door to slam into him from behind, lurching him forward into the pit. As he felt it smashing into his back, he leaped, borrowing the force from Her murder attempt to launch himself across the room to land in a crouch on one of the consoles.
"Nice try, Sister," he muttered under his breath. Inching his way along the console, he paused by the door, dubiously eying the small platform in front of it. Reaching down, he shoved hard on it, testing its strength. No good, he knew, She was watching, she could dump him off immediately once he stepped onto it. But this Maze wasn't unwinnable… of course, he may well have taken the wrong turn… it was said no one who had ever made it through had solved Her puzzle, but stumbled through on blind luck or unorthodox skill.
Taking a deep breath and resigning himself to a messy, painful death on thousands of circuit boards and wires and fans, he stepped onto the platform. It held, and he blew out the breath. Only the best of the best made it through, the smartest, most creative. None approached Her intelligence, of course. Whoever had designed Her, so long ago, had done their job well – too well, thought the friends and families of the contestants. It was a brutal contest, but it ensured that the next generation of IT personnel knew their stuff, inside and out.
Wiping his sweaty forehead on his sleeve, Connor examined the door. Another standard frosted-glass security door – without a handle. His first hacking, then, his first test to get him into Advanced Training. No wonder the platform had held – there was a puzzle in this room. Sliding out his microbyte, he slid it into the single card reader on the side of the keypad. Studying the hand-held monitor, he sucked in another breath, watching the code scrolling. Releasing it slowly, he finally input one of his standard keys, modifying it very slightly before running it.
The door clicked, hissed open. He yanked out his chip and took off again. Sister was silent now, a disturbing silence – he didn't know if her lack of taunts meant he was on the right track, or so hopelessly doomed she was no longer entertained by watching him struggle. Refusing to let himself dwell on it, he wiped off his forehead again as he ran. Without any warning, all the lights went off at once. A nanosecond later, the floor beneath his feet vanished into nothing, and he fell with a scream.
He woke up sneezing. He didn't stop sneezing as he stood, choosing a direction at random in the pitch darkness, and started walking. Holding his jacket over his face did not help with the sneezing as he bumped into a wall and groped along it until his hand fell through into empty air. He did not stop sneezing until he stepped through the invisible doorway and something behind him slammed, simultaneously with the hallway flooding with blinding harsh white light. Glancing behind him at what was now a blank white wall, a corridor ending in a dead end, he set off again at a brisk walk, shaking carpet fibers from his boots. Whatever the soft stuff that had caught him had been, it had rejuvenated him. After a few minutes of walking, he broke into a run again, tearing through the featureless corridor. Behind him, he could hear footsteps – not merely the echo of his own, pounding just off-time, but the footsteps of a pursuer. Of many pursuers, he amended mentally, noting the staggered rhythms, the multiplicity of echoes. He knew, in his mind, that it was Sister, that it was all Sister – but Sister was deadly, and Sister would be more than happy to spatter her pristine walls with scarlet blood.
He didn't even see the wall. It was, he thought, probably designed that way. Perfectly clear, visible only by the spots of crimson his broken nose had left on it, to all appearances, floating improbably in midair, was the beginning of the heart of the Maze. Soon, he would reach the Center, would have his chance to either crack the Code, rising as a newborn Hacker, or he would die screaming in agony as Sister gleefully claimed her prey.
He looked sideways, right and left, ignoring the pursuing footsteps. White walls to either side, deceptive – all distances looked the same in here. Solid to his right – he went left, trailing his fingertips on the clear material, until they fell through. Holding his nose tenderly, Connor entered the heart of the Maze.
Watching the floor was no good – clear glass went into tile so seamlessly as to be invisible. Holding his hands out to either side, slightly in front, the Hacker hopeful began running again. Sister's footsteps had long since died away, gone when he entered the clear Heart. Her puzzle Her puzzle Her puzzle Her puzzle repeated endlessly in his mind, thumping in sync with his heartbeat. Her puzzle. Murderous outside, a clear heart… a room of code… Her puzzle… what was Her puzzle… Hacking, and cracking, breaking and dying and bleeding and ultimate victory… a perfectly clear heart…
He didn't realize at first that he'd made it to the Center. He stood in the doorway, staring blankly at the walls lined with computers, the few standard swivel chairs scattered throughout the circular chamber. Stepping slowly inside, he ignored the panel sliding to behind him. Sinking into a chair, he looked around, voice soft. "Sister?"
"-am I -here am h-h-h-here, Connor," she replied, her pre-echo caressing around him softly, her audible speech ringing gently in his ears. "this This i-i-is your f-fi-f-final test."
He swiveled in a slow circle, watching the data on the monitors. A clear heart, a clear heart… murderous and clear… a… sister…
And it all became obvious. It took him no time at all, fingers flying over keys and mousepads and chips popping in and out. He followed the pattern She laid for him, for them, all of them, but he saw it now, and he was following it now while he saw it. Like the lights She played with to confuse them, it was blinking out behind him – he knew he'd never remember it after he finished. He knew, some small distant surprised part of his mind, that every Hacker who made it past Sister solved Her puzzle, but no human being could remember it, so no one ever believed they'd solved it. He knew, when he got out, he'd not believe he'd solved it either, but would believe it was luck. But now, as his fingers flew, he knew, that he was solving it, and that he would survive this-
The press of a single red button and he looked up in triumph, only for his soul to crumple within him, crushed at the sight of the room. Nothing had changed, nothing at all. Had he been wrong…?
He stood, leaned against the only blank panel left in the room – not the one through which he'd entered, long covered by hardware – and fell through. Looking up, looking to his right, he saw the corridor. Always the Hackers had risen from the very room in which they crafted their salvation, but…
The lights flickered on, one by one, inviting him to follow them. Wiping his bloody nose on his sleeve, Connor set off down the hallway, surrounded by a crooning automated voice. "Brother… brother… brother… brother..."
He paused, right before stepping into the simulation of the room behind him, the platform that would lift him to the waiting crowds above. He paused, and he grinned. "Guess I fell for you at last, Sister."
"B-b-br-brother," she sang back happily, and he took that final step forward. All the torture, the terror, fell away behind him as he rose to meet the crowds, a Hacker at last.