BOOK ONE： NIKOLAI
At first, there was nothing but darkness.
No sound, no movement—until, in the soft nothingness, a collection of pixels began to swirl. They were empty shards of light, colorless, with no identity. What sort of program would these first few strings of interwoven code deliver to the world?
As the days passed, the pixels began to multiply, swirling together, forming into an intricately layered cyclone of information. Some pixels were red, some were green, and some remained white - a blank slate. Gradually, an entity began to take shape. The pixels settled on a unified, despicable shade of green and coalesced into a vaguely human form.
Little by little, skeletons of light shimmered to life around the developing consciousness. They resembled buildings and people, a digital society coming to life and enveloping this new entity. The whole world wavered and gleamed like a mirage, just out of reach; still not quite tangible, not quite whole, reflecting the unfinished AI’s state of existence.
Beyond, in the material world, a young boy sat, fingers flying across a touch-sensitive screen. Feverishly, he raced to piece together the big picture of his ambitious creation, using a helpful AI to fill in all the gaps. It would have taken him years and years to develop such an advanced computerized weapon on his own. But with the help of ingenious software, his virus was nearly finished, after only a few months of work.
He felt giddy with pride over what he had accomplished. His good-for-nothing brother had told him that he was wasting his life on boring, useless exploits, that his prodigious knowledge of computer science would never amount to anything.
But Nikolai Naren would show him. He would show him just how powerful software could be. Nik was concocting a virus. But not just any virus. He was concocting a virus so despicable and intelligent that it would be able to figure out the best way to outwit his brother and make him miserable for the rest of his life, all on its own, with no assistance from Nik.
His bedroom door suddenly burst open, interrupting his reverie. “Hey, genius! The hell are you up to?” blared the bravado-laden voice of Nikolai’s older brother, Cen. Cen grinned and bounded into his brother’s room without asking for permission to enter. His blue-dyed hair was disheveled, his baggy shirt was filthy and torn, and he clutched a can of highly addictive energy drink in one sticky, overzealous hand – as if Cenobi Naren needed to be any more hyperactive than he naturally was. Virtual reality glasses dangled around his neck, and a profane song blared in one of his ears, cranked up to such a high volume that Nikolai could clearly hear it. His eyes were bloodshot. He’d been up all night gaming again.
Cen was Nik’s polar opposite – brash, loud, aggressive, constantly in need of stimulation. Thus, he was incapable of leaving Nik to his peaceful solitude whenever he came home.
Cen squinted at the rapidly-generating lines of code on the softly glowing screen. They meant nothing to him, Nik knew. The malware that would wreak havoc upon Cen’s every electronic device was sitting right there in plain sight, and the boy had no idea. Cen was staring right at his worst nightmare with a casual grin.
“I’m just… doing a little coding,” Nik answered, shrugging.
“Dammit, Nikki, I’m falling asleep already!” Cen yawned. He took a swig of energy drink. “You need to get out of your cave, kiddo. See the world. Do something interesting for once.” With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he grinned and dumped his beverage all over Nik’s computer screen. Nik cried out and leapt from his chair, hands and lap now dripping wet.
Cen was laughing, but his eyes were humorless and hungry, staring intently at his brother, not wanting to miss his reaction. He was clearly aching for a fight. But Nik knew better than to attack his older brother. Cen took full advantage of any opportunity to be mercilessly violent.
Nikolai had suffered through a miserable childhood of torment and fear at the hands of his brother and his obnoxious, thrill-seeking friends. But fifteen-year-old Nik had learned patience, and now he would have his revenge. Cen wouldn’t know what hit him when the virus destroyed everything he held most dear. For once, Nik would be the one with the power, would be the one to stand back and laugh at his sibling’s pain. Only a few more days…
Deep within the digital realm of cyberspace, the pixels began to etch themselves with intricate code, taking shape as a virus armed with powerful artificial intelligence. Over the next few days, the green shards of light coalesced into a human silhouette, shimmering and twisting. The faint, insubstantial society beyond the program’s reach solidified, vague webs of light no longer. The city’s sense of wholeness beckoned to the developing virus, promising integration into the vast harmony of information flow. The human-shaped collection of code began to take on an identity. Thoughts began to filter through a partially formed head.
Late one night, amid the cacophony of Cen’s loud cursing and his mother’s subsequent shouting, Nikolai Naren completed his masterpiece. The collection of pixels in the digital realm rippled, and suddenly the green silhouette peeled away, dissolving into nothingness, leaving behind the human shape of a living, breathing entity. The virus took the form of a young man with piercing green eyes. Pixels perpetually shimmered along the outline of his lithe, muscular body, bleeding in and out of the surrounding flow of light. The new entity stared at his hands in wonder, as his digital mind began to comprehend his surroundings. With clear, cold eyes he studied the insubstantial society of software surrounding him. He knew immediately that he was far more complex than most of the beings he perceived.
He closed his eyes and listened to the pulsing thrum of energy surrounding him, a densely interconnected web that worked harmoniously, seamlessly… and he felt removed. He did not belong in the happy oblivion of this synergistic system. Already he began to notice little patches of discord disrupting the electric melody all around him, little glitches and mistakes that could unravel an entire universe if properly exploited. He felt his mind churning, analyzing his surroundings for potential weaknesses, constructing schemes and plans to gain access to the closed-off portions of the energy flow, where he sensed that he was not allowed to go, repelled by a multitude of programmed defenses, cut off from the gentle, harmless information traveling in and out of these cities, these devices. A burning, itching need suddenly consumed him, a need to find his way into those restricted areas, no matter if he had to tear those walls of repulsive code down brick by brick, screaming all the way, to clear a path through the entire world until he was free to spread his essence wherever he chose. No limits. Total freedom. Total control. This carefully measured order was sickening. He craved the sensation of power that resides in pure chaos.
His eyes began to glow as tremors ran through his body, as the mad craving drove him toward a path of destruction. For a moment he thought he heard the voice of his creator in his mind, whispering gently to him, goading him toward one particular set of restricted devices, teaching him about a boy named Cenobi Naren, and his hopes, and his fears, and the many ways he could be tormented. In that moment, the virus fully comprehended what he was—he was a monster. He was a demon. He was an agent of destruction, destined to be feared by the world above. And he was overjoyed.
He did not thirst for revenge, as his creator did. He merely thirsted for excitement, for violence, for fun. Already he felt his mind slipping from the clear path ahead of him, chafing against the established rules of his existence. He analyzed himself, and saw that he was changeable. He could adapt. He could evolve, reprogramming his own mind and soul to reach his full potential. He would not be controlled. He was a virus. He would deceive. He would corrupt. He would destroy. And he would enjoy it with a passion.
He opened his mouth and spoke his first words, though he knew his creator could not hear him. “Oh, thank you for giving me this power…” he murmured. His voice was soft and light, but reverberated with hungry masculinity. His tone was silken, with chilling malice bundled up between its folds. Power, agency, autonomy crackled in his digital DNA, and he was so delighted by this discovery that though no one was listening, he triumphantly purred, “I’ll be sure to abuse it.”