[ iii ]

Zhang Shàng Shi sat alone at her desk, elbows propped up on its lacquered brown surface, gloved hands steepled as she gazed intently at her holodisplay. Nestled comfortably into her ears, tiny earbuds loudly broadcast a popular song with a pounding rhythmic beat to drown out the world’s distractions as she focused intently on the data. She kept her straight black hair cropped short in a bob as befitted a woman officer of her station. Not a single hair was out of place, ever. As usual, her simple pine green uniform with the embroidered patch of the five golden stars against a rectangular crimson background and banded gold and blue epaulets was perfectly pressed. The three shiny silver stars on the starched collar denoted her rank. They had been lovingly and thoroughly polished to a shiny brilliance in the solid light of the overhead illumination, as they were every morning.

An officer of the Core, she would never tolerate unsightly wrinkles on her official garb. A mussed appearance was a sign of shoddy habits at best, complete lack of care at worst, and she tolerated neither. Every decision she made was carefully weighed and measured, from what she ate each morning for breakfast after her morning regimen to the most difficult choices she faced on a daily basis. As much as she demanded from her subordinates, those she managed with tie wan, she demanded still more from herself. A young woman finally gaining momentum in her career, she could ill afford to demand anything but the best and the most from herself if she hoped to continue rising through the ranks. Shàng Shi was merely a pit stop for her, hardly a role that challenged her mettle, and one she hoped to leave far behind soon for a more glorious responsibility.

Still, though, she had enjoyed her time in this office, and she hoped that she had proven to her seniors that she clearly could be entrusted with much more than she had been already given. Today would be the third time that she had been assigned the noble responsibility of proctoring what her generation had referred to as lai zi di yu de kao yan, but that now was known more simply as The Test. Every year this was the challenge all the juniors had to conquer in order to officially join the glorious Core. Those who were worthy would be promoted to the lowly rank of Er děng Bīng and be given the opportunity to prove that they deserved to remain and eventually to make something of themselves. Those who were unworthy could always attempt it a second time, she remembered, the following year when it was held again, but they rarely did. Rumor had it that The Test was even more difficult the second time someone attempted it. It stood to reason that if one were unworthy the first time, then one would likely be unworthy the second time, and the system enforced it. At least, it did according to rumor. It was impossible to know with any certainty because so few attempted it twice, and those who failed the second time not only proved to everyone and to themselves beyond the shadow of any doubt that they absolutely did not deserve to be a member of the Core, but they were banished quickly away from the other juniors so that their negative chi would not infect those who had succeeded.

Zhang had personally witnessed formally close comrades fail and drop out of the process, never to attempt it again. The Core was not for everyone. Like her, it demanded only the best, and failure was not to be tolerated. What a horrible realization it must have been for those who failed and learned that they had wasted all of their time preparing for a role in society that they could never hope to attain, that they had never deserved. It was pitiable but necessary. Wasting resources on those had been charitably allowed to join could only weaken everyone else who had rightfully earned their spots.

Zhang Shàng Shi drummed the tips of her fingers lightly against each other in a quick cadence as her sharp eyes scanned the rapidly-updating rows in her holodisplay. Though still relatively early in her career, she was nevertheless an officer of the Core, and as such, had been given the privilege of state of the art equipment. This was standard issue for any officer of her rank and utterly essential for her to carry out her duties. To an outside observer, the slender Zhang appeared to be sitting alone in her office on an ordinary black pleather chair behind a birch wood-facsimile synthodesk, printed to the original requestor’s specifications and passed down to those who had inherited this office and post afterwards.

It was an amazing piece of furniture. Lightweight, durable, stain-resistant, water-resistant, flame-retardant, and odorless, it would far outlast any of its temporary owners. Installed somewhere in the smooth edges and rounded corners of its manufactured frame was a series of emitters, and it was these emitters that populated the holodisplay. For those wearing specially designed and calibrated lenses, a three-dimensional collection of objects hovered in mid-air above the plane of the desk offering a wealth of information and freedom. With the paired haptic gloves, each object could be flicked, rotated, resized, created, destroyed, recreated, and any of a seemingly infinite number of other actions with simple gestures. To everyone else, there was simply nothing to be seen and nothing to be manipulated.

When Zhang first inherited the desk, as every officer had before her, she had searched curiously for the emitters. The engineers who designed office furniture really were brilliant. Despite her strong background in IT, try as she might, she could find no trace of the tiny devices or of their power source. Industrial Engineering nowadays was a complex fusion of engineering and design work, and to the uninitiated the NoT might as well have been true magic, even if the uninitiated was brilliant in IT. It had actually bruised her ego that she could not reverse engineer how the IEs had designed this desk’s display functionality. Even when she covered the entire surface of the desk with parchment, the holodisplay had been perfectly visible and responsive as always. It was truly a marvel of modern office design.

Reaching forward, Zhang pushed a floating window aside and pulled the one behind it towards her, zooming in on its contents slightly. She preferred her windows to be only a little translucent. Even with eyes as sharp and as quick as hers, she found it difficult to truly pay attention to the details of the objects that were not grouped immediately in the front of the stack and consequently ignored them unless a flicker of movement in the right location caught her attention. It was natural that she gravitated towards the technology both out of a sense of personal accomplishment and from natural interest, but what she truly enjoyed was watching the flow of data as it moved from checkpoint to checkpoint. Unlike most of her contemporaries, this Shàng Shi enjoyed watching the raw data as much, and sometimes even more than, the interpreted views the software automatically provided. Because she dealt with the data at such a low level, she felt she had a much stronger feel for it than others must. Any one data point was insignificant, but the aggregate of data had as much a claim to life and individual behavior as much as any carbon or silicon-based creature. Its behavior, in aggregate, could be observed, predicted, analyzed, and on occasion, might even be surprising as well.

As much as she enjoyed watching the flow of the data and individual data points as they traversed the system, today she had another reason for studying the data so hawkishly. She had received an order from her superior to pay especially close attention to one specific student who was expected to attempt The Test this year. The exact identity of this person was unknown as all students were, unbeknownst to them initially, assigned a UUID to keep their identities anonymous. This 256-bit universal unique identifier was assigned by the system and could not be modified or revoked once assigned. It would have been created the moment the student indicated interest in joining the Core, early in their childhood, and would serve as the index for the individual’s database records for all eternity. In this system, no one ever knew their own UUID. There was no need. Even Zhang had no idea what her’s was.

The order had been terse. If the target UUID appeared, monitor and study it, then submit a detailed profile and analysis. No doubt this same order had been given to all of the other proctors, for of all of those officers, the identifier would appear on only one holodisplay, and no one had any idea who, when, or where until it showed up. Zhang hoped to claim it as her’s.

Other than the demand to submit the DRI, the detailed report of investigation, before COD, there was no other direction given. Close of day? Never had Zhang heard of such an order being given. Like data points, any one junior attempting The Test was insignificant. Worse, he was unproven. There was a mystery here. Of course, any further information was above her pay grade. Otherwise it would have already been provided. Not only was it extremely unusual for an analysis on any one junior to be ordered before he had even attempted The Test, it was surprising that there was such urgency in this matter. In the last two years she had been a proctor she had not heard of such an order being given, nor had one ever been mentioned in conversation, casual or otherwise, since … ever, to her best recollection. With proper use of technology there was absolutely no need for anyone to get manually involved. The monitoring and data collection systems recorded every event that occurred far more accurately and quickly than a human being could. After this UUID had begun, and finished, The Test, a report could be automatically compiled and emailed to the appropriate parties for analysis. Still, today had presented another opportunity for her to shine, to show her superiors why she deserved to be promoted and given more responsibility, and she would take full advantage of it! In fact, she could guarantee that she would be the only proctor able to take advantage of this opportunity.

It had not taken Zhang Shàng Shi long to decide on her course of action. From a very young age, almost before she had told her parents that she wanted to join the Core, Zhang had known that she was destined for greatness. Unlike some of her compatriots, she felt she could honestly claim that nothing had ever been given to her. She had a great sense of pride, in fact, that nothing had come easy. Well, almost nothing. She had earned every one of her accomplishments, fighting and taking for her own whenever it was necessary. For her, The Test had been incredibly difficult to pass. She recalled that she had not even known that she had passed until they informed her. She had never been the biggest, the smartest, or the strongest. It was her iron will that set her apart from everyone else. Where they might fail, she willed herself to success, but it also did not hurt to do whatever she could to improve her chances.

Zhang had spent much time early in the morning, before the sun had even arisen as represented in the external weather tracker, working on her impromptu changes. With her background in IT, she had gained a useful working knowledge of how some of the programs she used daily interfaced with each other and with the backend data sources. It was an understanding that few of her peers had, even fewer still to the depth and facility that she commanded. For the most part such knowledge was the domain of those who were never seen and never heard yet who kept all of the systems of the Core functioning at peak efficiency. Since she had spent the time to gain such knowledge for herself, it was only right that she use it to advance her own cause. It even conceivably could have been considered a moral wrong if she had chosen to not do her best by holding back from using an advantageous skillset. It had not been easy, but it had not truly been difficult, not to her. It also helped that the software had obviously been designed to support such types of actions. One had only to understand how to enable or disable the desired functionality, if she had the proper security clearance, which, as an officer of the Core in her role, she certainly did. It had not been terribly difficult to locate the correct interface where she would be able to configure the monitoring system to notify her when the UUID first showed up. It had mostly been a process of elimination to trudge through many of the interfaces, and their sub-interfaces, and the sub-interfaces of those sub-interfaces, but finally she found what she needed. To override any default notifications and to only notify her instead of anyone else, however, was a different matter entirely.

If the UUID were already destined to be sent to her particular holosessions, then there was nothing to be done, but if it was destined to go to someone else’s, then she had to not only make sure that she was notified of the UUID’s activities, but she needed to disable the default notifications and also to ensure that the data was rerouted to only her. Finally, she had to lock her changes down with a TLSP so that no one could undo her work, and she had to complete all of this before anyone else did. Zhang loved time-limited secure passlocks. They were the perfect mechanism for locking down temporary changes to any system. Easy to implement, practically unbreakable, and self-deleting, they were perfect for the exact type of temporary changes she was making.

It took far longer for her to commit her changes than she would have liked, but she knew immediately upon finally navigating to the correct configuration interface that no one else had yet attempted to do what she was doing. For now, at least, she had the chance to claim ownership of the prize. A few moments later, her changes were staged. Even though she had needed only to drag the UUID’s virtual object over to the input area with a quick swipe, she quadruple-checked its 64 alphanumeric characters to make sure it was absolutely correct. With even one mismatched or out of sequence character, this unique identifier would represent someone else, or perhaps no one at all.

There was no reason for her to doubt the integrity of the software or any of the representations on the holodisplay, but Zhang had not risen so quickly through the ranks because of her blind faith in the system. One key way in which she had differentiated herself was by being more thorough than any of her peers. Only once she was absolutely certain that all was in order did she generate a TLSP to lock down her changes.

She had no idea when this UUID would show up. There had been no indication as to remotely when over the course of the day that particular junior to which it was associated had been told to attempt it. It would be annoying, but Zhang could simply navigate back to this interface if she needed to undo her changes before the TLSP expired so she set its lifetime to 86400000 milliseconds and activated it.

She involuntarily held her breath, a moment’s doubt creeping into her as she waited for the system to acknowledge her actions. Had she taken too long to lock down the system? In her desire to be meticulous, had someone else snuck past her and locked it down already, rerouting the data to his own protected holosession? The acknowledgement she expected, whether positive or negative, felt slow in coming, but finally it came. Her haptic gloves shivered with a brief vibration, a soft ding chimed in her tiny earbuds, and a miniature lock suddenly appeared, superimposed upon the requisite object in her holodisplay — all indicators that her change had been accepted. There was nothing left to do now but to wait. She allowed herself a few moments to celebrate delightedly in her own restrained manner, rubbing her hands together gleefully, or perhaps simply from habit, then settled in to wait for her monitoring agent to alert her. She glanced through the special lenses in her eyes at the scrolling rows of data in the upper corner of her holodisplay. It was scrolling rapidly, too rapidly to truly follow, and though there was no need, and possibly even no use, for her to follow the data, she could not resist staring at the ever-changing rows, feeling the patterns of the characters wash past her in rivulets.

Zhang Shàng Shi alternated between cycling through the various interfaces floating in her holodisplay with the standing orders they represented and stepping away from her desk over to the clear floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked the area below where most of her subordinates sat on their cheap chairs behind their recycled little desks as they focused on completing their day’s tasks to the uncompromising standards of their superior officer. It pleased her that she had been able to mold them from disparate individuals of varying personalities and in some cases almost unacceptable skill levels into a valuable team. They had responded well to her tie wan, her management by iron fist. It had been much work for her, and there had been casualties along the way. Those who had failed to live up to her expectations had been booted quickly and without remorse. Finally, though, she had ended up with a well-oiled team capable of executing her orders properly.

The hours of the day passed mind-numbingly slowly. Excitement and anxiety had been replaced by mental fatigue. Waiting for the elusive UUID was beginning to try even Zhang’s considerable patience. As the hours melted away, the representation of the sun climbed higher in its holodisplay tracker, then began to descend, the background colors first brightening and then darkening in a faithful simulation of what was happening outside in a world that could not be seen from this office. The lunchtime meal came and went, and then her mid-afternoon snack came, both repasts delivered like clockwork by a faithful page familiar with her schedule and demands. Dutifully he had left everything on her desk and then left, silently backing out of the room with a deferential bow. Another page would return later to collect the empty trays and cups and utensils when it was convenient for her.

Zhang had not even touched her lunch. A simple partitioned plastic box with rice, pork, a small ration of fresh green vegetables, and another of pickled vegetables, it smelled delicious, but she rarely remembered to eat. There was always too much to do and too little time, and so usually food sat untouched on the other side of the desk, cooling until it was taken away by a page. She always drank the tea though. A cup of scalding hot green tea was good for the body and could always relieve her stress, no matter what sort of day she was having. She had just taken the first small slurping sip of tea when it happened. A soft chime rang in her ears, and a notification flashed into existence before her eyes, awaiting acknowledgement. Immediately she felt the adrenaline pump through her body, banishing the fatigue and frustration that had beset her. Finally that blasted student had shown up to the testing location to attempt The Test, and finally she could hopefully begin to find out just what was so special about this person that an officer, or officers, above her level wanted him studied even before he had joined the Core.

Zhang’s eyes were sharp, a thoughtful smile on her pursed lips as she calmly set down her cup of tea and swiveled her chair slightly to more fully face the holodisplay. Leaning forward as she often did when she was scrutinizing something, she reached out with her left hand and expanded the floating representation, isolating it so that she could focus without distraction upon its growing history and stream of data. Her unblinking eyes absorbed the data, learning what they could of the student behind the UUID.

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