Alice was becoming tired of watching that ridiculous coding video her sister texted her that morning: inverting a binary tree.
"Had enough!", she exclaimed.
She was working as a programmer for the better part of the last year and not once was it required that she inverted a binary tree. She had never used a binary tree before, let alone invert it.
So she was considering in her mind, whether the pleasure of building a compiler like the one she studied in her operating systems class in university would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking up her old notebooks when a strange notification on her laptop's screen appeared in her peripheral vision.
There was nothing so very remarkable in notifications appearing on her laptop's screen; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the notification's sound announcing in a relaxed, but hoarse voice,
"Build, and it will be given to you"
but when the notification accelerated swiftly towards the opposite corner of the screen and swirled into the icon of a game Alice downloaded but never played, she was startled.
Alice approached the laptop, sat in her chair, and took the mouse in her palm. She navigated with the cursor onto the game's icon. She clicked it. In another moment Alice was sucked into that icon in a spiraling motion. She felt like she was in a tunnel and went straight on like that for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling what seemed to be a very deep well.
Either the distance between her freefalling body and the well's bottom was too big or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about, and to wonder what was happening to her and what would happen next. She tried to look down and make out what the end of her journey would be, but it was too dark to see anything. Then, she looked at the sides of the well and noticed that there were a lot of dangling wires and little pieces of destroyed PCBs: here and there she saw diagrams and printed graphs hung up pegs. As she was falling, she reached with her armed and tried to grab anything. Her lucky pick was something that resembled a USB flash drive, but not quite the shape nor the port wiring you'd expect from a normal flash drive. On one of its sides, there was an inscription carved in the metal. "Control Plane", it wrote. She didn't quite understand it but she put it in her pocket, nevertheless.
Down, down, down. Would the fall ever stop?
"I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time!", she said out loud.
She didn't comprehend what was happening to her and she tried to strip herself away from any rational thinking. The mere fact that she was now falling down a seemingly infinite tunnel while moments ago she was in her room browsing the web was mind-boggling. There was nothing to do. She kept falling and falling so at some point, to ease herself of boredom she started reciting the digits of the irrational number π. While she was still in elementary school, one of her teachers taught her class about one of the most amazing mnemonics for the number π. It was called "Near a Raven" and it was a variation of Edgar Allen Poe's well-known poem that encoded the first 740 digits of π.
See, I have a rhyme assisting my feeble brain, its tasks sometimes resisting.
For every word, the count of the letters represents one of the digits of π.
Alice kept going and going. She was now at the 102nd digit when suddenly, thump! Down she came upon a heap of cables, and the fall was over. She expected that, if not dead, she would come seriously injured after this fall. But, she was not a bit hurt, and she jumped up onto her feet in a moment. She looked up, to understand where the pit that she came from was, but all she could discern was thick darkness. In front of her stood a huge computer monitor hung from the ceiling, or whatever one can call the darkness that resembled the universe's emptiness, by four chains with sturdy links. The monitor was displaying flashing letters and what seemed to be a network map. Alice has never seen such a complicated network in her life. There were thousands of nodes and services all intertwined and talking to each other. But, there were other things as well, things she didn't quite understand. There were inscriptions of things she has never seen before. One was marked as a "Content Delivery Network - Traditio" while the other had the shape of a bucket and it read "Cache for In-Memory Databases - Repono" and next to it there was a box called "Serverless Functions - Sine Auxilio ". She felt overwhelmed as she continued reading the diagram. There were no routers, no marked LANs and WANs in that diagram, not even a simple firewall present. She noticed one more thing. All the items in that huge monitor were of the color purple. She heard a noise coming from behind the monitor.
A small humanlike device, not taller than a table was coming towards her. It was a weird contraption. It had a body that looked like it could very well be a broomstick. It had two wheels to move around at one end of that long and slim body while at the other end, or what one may call a head, there was a screen with two cameras whose lenses were like googly fish eyes. It approached Alice at a slow but steady pace. It took a good look at her, made a slow but methodical maneuver around her, and then came inches from her face. She didn't know if she was afraid or ecstatic but she felt her heart pumping blood faster as if her body was preparing to be thrown into an arena with lions. She was sweating profoundly and her muscles were contracting.
Before her, there was another long passage, one that looked like a corridor. Around it, arches covered in gold were reaching for the ceiling and connecting a dozen meters above her head. Suddenly, Tracer started accelerating towards that corridor. It was so quick that Alice had trouble keeping track of it, partly because of her still being shaken from the fall and partly because the only light that was shed in that huge hall was coming from that heaven-bound computer monitor. Fortunately, Tracer was still in sight. There was not a moment to be lost: away went Alice like the wind, and was just in time near it to hear it produce a squeaky noise from its tires as it turned to a corner. When she turned herself Tracer was nowhere to be found.
In front of her, though, there were not one, not two, but what it seemed like a hundred elevators, each one of them tirelessly moving up and down. Their cables seemed to be hanging in the same way that this huge monitor in the entrance hall was. Out of the thick darkness of the ceiling. One of the elevators was grounded and hadn't moved for a while. It was like it was waiting for her.
Alice walked slowly towards it. When she was within 5 feet of it, the doors burst open on the spur of the moment. She peeked inside and felt weird. The space inside the elevator seemed to be bigger than the outside.
Once inside the elevator, she involuntarily reached with her hand to press a button so that the thing started moving. She didn't know where to, but she had the inherent knowledge that standing still wouldn't get her anywhere. However, she quickly realized that there were no buttons on the walls of the elevator. Not in front of her, not beside her, not even on the ceiling or the floor. She first heard it. It was a dull, almost unperceptive noise coming from an unknown direction. Then, she felt it. A violent push from below almost forced her to lose her balance and fall. She battled the increased gravity and managed to stay upright. After a few seconds of a turbulent ride, finally the elevator stopped. A woman's voice announced the destination: "Welcome to the pool of tears".
Alice exited the elevator, stumbling and trying to keep her balance. The elevator trip made her feel nauseous. She tried looking around but her vision was still blurry. Large quantities of blood have relocated to her legs during the elevator ride and now, as the heart was trying to regulate the circulation, blood was flowing intensely to her brain and deteriorating her vision.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?", she heard a voice coming from deep within the chamber she now was.
Still not being able to properly see, but at least able to detect figures, even if distant, she saw four creatures standing in a half-circle formation above what seemed to be a circular structure of some sort.
"My name is Alice", she replied in a comforting tone, so as to not sound threatening to whoever stood in front of her.
She heard the creatures whispering to one another as she closely approached them.
"So...Alice, why are you here and what is your purpose?", the middle one asked her.
"I...I have no clue, to be honest. I was sitting in my room and then...and then I clicked something on my computer and...You know it's really weird to explain. But you can rest assured I am not intending to harm you."
"Harm us?" chuckled one of the creatures. "We are not afraid of you harming us, but we are certainly afraid of you disturbing us. Us, and of course the Pool."
Alice's vision was almost restored. She was now able to examine these creatures and she did exactly that, with meticulous care. They were of average height, kind of flat in the middle section of their bodies, and extremely thin as if they were made of a sheet of paper. Their heads were glowing in a very bright color. It was like a tiny sun sitting on top of them. But that glow wasn't their most striking trait. What was, was that they were golden, end to end. A magnificent golden color, one such as Alice has only seen in movies with kings and queens. It made them look important and valuable.
"Do you have a name?", Alice asked as she was now beside them and observing that thing that resembled a fountain.
"We are the Golden Signalers, miss Alice", they all said at once and took a very deep and exquisite bow as if they have spent their previous lives being courtiers in some emperor's palace.
"It's very nice to meet you", replied the girl. "You are the first...people that I meet here. Well, apart from that weird creature with wheels for legs and a head like a screen."
"Ah, you met Tracer", said one of the Golden Signalers.
"I met...it. Yes. I may even say that it guided me here. Sort of".
"Hmm...we see.", murmured the other three Golden Signalers.
An awkward silence fell for a few seconds. It was short but painful for Alice as she felt she was starting to disturb these creatures and she didn't know where she could go from here. She tried some more socializing.
"So, what are you doing here, just the four of you?"
"The four of us?", laughed one of the Golden Signalers. "We are way more than four, girl. Look around you.
Alice rotated her head towards the edges of the chamber, where the ceiling met with the sidewalls. There were countless instances of what seemed to be a reflection of the room and on them, there were the creatures she was standing with. Like a mirror that has shattered into thousands of points and the angle of the broken pieces has slightly changed and now there is an equal amount of reflections of the same object. But, when taking a closer look Alice couldn't find herself in the reflections. They weren't mirrors. They were windows. Windows to other rooms where gravity behaved differently. The Golden Signalers were always in batches of four and all looking at this iridescent fountain in the middle of the chamber. In each batch, there was one that had a helmet with the letter "L", one with the letter "T", one with "E", and finally, one with "S".
"This is magnificent.", sighed Alice. She noticed that while a few of them were glowing, others were not. The more litten ones were those with the letter "E". But she felt the question would be too insulting to ask.
"Isn't it? Aren't we?", replied one of the Golden Signalers.
"What is this thing? This fountain of yours that you are constantly looking at with such scrupulousness?"
"Tis, not a fountain, miss Alice. It is a pool. It is the Pool."
"Right, and why is it so interesting?", asked Alice, with a slightly snooty voice.
"Because the world depends on it.", replied one of the Golden Signalers whose head now was becoming incandescent. "Because if we don't then things will fall apart and nobody will ever know."
"I see.", said Alice. But it was clear from the tone of her voice that she understood very little of what the Golden Signaler had just told her.
The Golden Signaler, whose head was now bright white, waved at her, inviting her to come and take a look at the Pool by herself. Alice walked steadily towards the creatures and started gazing upon the iridescent and colorful water of the Pool. While the walls were only some centimeters tall, it looked like the Pool was of infinite depth. In it were an immeasurable amount of strings, floating around and never touching each other. Strings of every color in the universe were moving almost in parallel toward the limits of the Pool before disappearing into oblivion only for others to come to take their place.
"What am I even looking at?", Alice asked, once again having no clue of what was present in front of her eyes.
"We call them Tears", said the Golden Signaler that was further from here. "They are long series of events that unfold in certain periods. They are discrete-time data. Indexed, always in the perspective of time."
"They help us understand what is happening around the Kingdom. We are tasked with a very simple, but extremely important job. To shine when something's not going according to plan. If a Tear meets a certain condition, we are obliged to shine and that information is then spread across the Kingdom to whoever may be interested in it."
"Like an alert system.", exclaimed Alice.
"Exactly. But a highly sophisticated and I'd dare to say a rather intelligent one".
"Pardon me, if I am being too intrusive with my questions...", started Alice, "...but why are you shining in different colors?"
"Different colors mean a different kind of a condition is met. Usually, when a Signaler shines bright red, there is bad news."
"Then probably today is not a good day for you, is it?", said Alice, noticing that most of the Golden Signalers in the other rooms were shining a bright and intense red color.
"Exactly. And talking will get us nowhere. This war caused huge problems and there is no sight of salvation soon."
"War?", Alice asked.
The Golden Signaler sighed.
"It's been like that for...", but he was interrupted by a scream and loud splashing noise. He turned around where Alice was standing a second ago, only to see that spot was now empty. He looked at the Pool and saw the body of Alice sinking deeper and deeper in the Pool of Tears.
"I am sorry, girl", he said.
She felt the pressure increasing. Her chest was ready to burst. Her lungs were starting to fill with water. She kept turning her head frantically to find where the surface was. But she couldn't. She could no longer understand what direction up and down were. She started losing her senses as the space in her lungs once filled with air was now occupied by the iridescent water of the Pool. She was going to die, she could feel it. It was weird though, she felt like this has happened before.
Then she remembered. The Signalers had told her that the Tears, the long strings that floated around the Pool, were disappearing after a while and they were no longer visible from the Pool's orifice. They had to be going somewhere. She looked around, trying to find one that was within distance so that she could grab it. She saw an azure string floating dissimilarly to the rest. It was like it was being pulled from some invisible line.
She gathered all her remaining strength and kicked hard into the water while also performing a circular motion with her hands. The azure string started coming closer. She continued forcing herself to kick and stroke. In what felt like hours of swimming but was no more than a couple of seconds, finally, Alice was able to grab the string. It started pulling her. She closed her eyes.
"What could that possibly be?", uttered the man in the red robe. "It looks like a pile of river rock sacked in some sort of cloth, covered with mud and algae. It's horrendous!"
The red-robed man continued turning the knob on his fishing reel. Eventually, the sack of algae and mud reached the river bed, along with the azure string.
"Here you are, you stunning and total beauty", said the man and grabbed the string from the ground, lifting it in front of his eyes and taking a good look at it while also making all sorts of muttering noises.
The sack of algae and mud started moving. The red-robed man was immersed in the observation of his freshly fished azure string and didn't notice the pulsating movement of the pile of river dirt. But then, the pile started coughing. He quickly turned his eyes and saw a hand spurting out of the formless mass of river junk. Then another one. Then a fair-haired girl's body appeared. She was beaten and her legs were scratched pretty badly from being dragged on the riverbed.
She tried getting up but lost her balance and fell. She shat by a boulder, some feet away from the water, and started coughing while desperately trying to inhale as much air as she could.
The red-robed man approached her, walking on his toes and having his arms extended to the side, ready to strike with the fishing reel that he was holding. When he came within striking distance of the girl he touched her twice with the end of the fishing reel on her shoulder.
"Psst. Girl.", whispered the red-robed man.
"What?", replied the girl, still trying to suck in all the air that was around her.
"You nearly destroyed my Tear! Have you squashed the string a little tougher the information I need would be lost forever." the man rebuked her.
"Screw you, screw this string of yours, and screw this whole place", the fair-haired maiden yelled. "From the moment I got here I've nearly died twice and lost my way countless more. I am tired and sick of this whole travesty."
The man took some short steps and paused to look at the river.
"This war has taken its toll on all of us", he said with bitterness in his voice. "It's hard to know that every day that passes your very existence might be coming closer to an end. And you can do nothing to escape the end. It makes you feel like nothing matters. The only escape you have is your imagination in this war against reality."
"I've heard about this war before. Who's fighting whom?", asked the girl.
"Take a good look around you and you may be able to answer this question by yourself."
He paused for a short second.
"You didn't tell me what they call you, girl."
"And I am Mad Hatter", bowed the red-robed man while removing a large and flimsy hat from his head. "I am an Operator".
Alice smiled and started to look around. There wasn't much. The color of the water at the Pool in the Golden Signalers' room was iridescent and charming, but as it moved through the river, it was becoming greyish from the mud and algae that the riverbed was home to. Some boulders were by the riverside and a mountain peak was visible but it felt abstracted from the rest of the landscape and was too distant from where Alice was standing. Red dust was covering everything. There were no plants on the ground, no animals running and hunting and being hunted, no birds chirping and moving from one tree branch to another. Only some uprooted tree skeletons that were decaying and were so frail Alice was afraid that breathing too hard would make them collapse.
"I see nothing.", said Alice after a while. "Everything is dying, it's like this place has no life left to it."
"It's a war against time and decay, my dear Alice", said Mad Hatter. "Once, this riverside was blooming. The flora was richer than anything you'd ever seen and that river was home to thousands. Now, only these cursed Tears arrive and everything else is dying and collapsing as well. I can no longer function, I can no longer help. I have no means to contact anyone and I am stranded here till the end of time.", he mourned.
Alice felt sorrow for Mad Hatter. She could see the hopelessness in his eyes and could feel the forlornness that was embroidered in his every word.
"Do you know what's causing this blight? Why did you tell me that you can no longer help?" asked Alice in the most sympathetic tone she could produce, after being thrown into an endless pit and dragged across a rocky and muddy riverbed.
"Once, I was responsible for admonishing countless entities around this whole Kingdom", Mad Hatter replied. "Thousands upon thousands of services were roaming this land, offering their assistance to whoever could use them. In the name of the Purple Queen, I was serving as one of her Operators, pledged to the noble cause of making sure this Kingdom could run like clockwork for thousands of years. Along with others of my kind we were ensuring that this Kingdom could be a prosperous place for everyone. Not missing a single request, not losing the smaller piece of information."
Alice was listening to Mad Hatter with compassion.
"Suddenly, it happened. First, some of the communication with the palace has not been received. I tried and re-tried countless times. But nothing could come through. I thought it might be just a one-time thing. Still, everything was falling through the cracks. It's been like that for months now. I know something really bad is happening, it seems like none of the Operators can communicate with the palace. This decay, this disintegration is unheard of. It can only happen if the Queen is imprisoned or worse, killed."
"This Queen you are speaking of. Where is she?" asked Alice.
"She resides in the great Purple Palace along with her cadre. From there they can observe and act upon the entirety of this Kingdom."
A cracking noise was heard from a distance. Alice turned her head around but saw nothing. Mad Hatter was now sitting on the riverbank and throwing slick rocks towards the river, trying to make them hop on the surface of the water.
"Shh. Please, I heard something", Alice told Mad Hatter.
He stopped with the stone-throwing game and he got up, narrowing his eyes and trying to focus on his hearing. Nothing. He couldn't hear a single thing.
"It's probably the dead trees", he said to Alice. "They've..."
All of a sudden, three creatures appeared from behind one of the boulders. They were gruesome, having a head of a pig and the body of a man. Their eyes were flame-colored and from their mouths, four horrifying tusks were erupting.
Alice got up. Her back was killing her and her knees were covered in blood. She tried running. Each step she was taking was causing a sharp pain in her chest. Her eyes were constantly scanning the surroundings. There was nowhere to go. The only thing in that dystopian land was that distant mountain. She focused her eyes on the peak and charged towards it. She looked behind and saw Mad Hatter standing still and looking at her while the boar creatures run around him. They didn't touch him. They didn't even care about his existence. They were coming for her. And, they were fast.
Her left knee started bleeding again as the skin covering her joints was rubbing against the torn pieces of fabric from her jeans.
"Fuck!", she yelled.
She continued moving in that weird state that was something between running and limping. The mountain fringes were not coming any closer. Her right foot hit a rock and she felt acute pain in her toes like somebody has just smashed them with a hammer. She fell face first. She heard a loud, almost explosive crashing sound in her head. After that, something was completely different. A computer bleep. She tried turning her head to the right.
"Tracer!", she cried. "Help me".
Tracer was looking at her, slightly moving back and forth with his wheels to remain upright. A message appeared on its screen.
Alice pushed the ground with her left hand and started rolling towards Tracer. The boar creatures were now only around 20 feet away from them. She reached Tracer and touched his wheels. Another message appeared on the screen. "Feet, ground". Alice put her feet on the ground and grabbed Tracer's body, almost in a skiing position. Tracer accelerated instantly.
She was trying with all the strength of her fingers to grip Tracer but its lean, broomstick-like body was making it extremely difficult. It was dashing towards something that looked like a bush. The boar creatures were still hunting them but now they were falling behind.
The bush was about three feet tall and it had virtually no leaves, just some pikey arms with thorns that looked like giant nails. Tracer stepped a couple of feet back and before she could even blink, charged towards it. The bush was flung from its place and below it appeared a hole in the ground, large enough to fit Alice. Tracer turned so that Alice can see its screen.
Alice opened her eyes and saw Tracer standing next to her. She didn't know where she was or what had happened. One of the boar creatures grabbed her arm while she was anticipating the jump into that pit below the thorny bush. Tracer had charged towards her legs and so powerful was the blow, that she immediately lost her balance. After that, she couldn't remember anything at all.
She tried moving, just so she could understand if she has broken any bones or if there was a stinging pain coming from a cut or wound. Nothing unusual. Pain from her lower back, some chest discomfort, and the achy knee joints.
Tracer was moving back and forth constantly, like an extremely nervous pendulum. She lifted her gaze and saw that the top left corner of its screen was cracked.
"Poor thing, are you ok?", Alice asked it, being sincerely worried about its condition.
Tracer moved in a circle around her and then stood in front of her face. A message appeared on the screen.
"Got to move".
"Right, right", said Alice and tried to stand. Although her attempt was a miserable one, she managed. Tracer lead the path and Alice followed it.
The scenery was completely different here than at Mad Hatter's riverside. There was no more red dust and it didn't seem like they were so much degradation occurring. Some trees looked healthy and the path that they were following was clearly defined and even marked with big white stones. It was dark but there was purple radiance all over the place, making everything appear more blueish than they were. There was no sound coming from anywhere and nobody seemed to be on their trail.
"Do you know what those things were?" Alice asked, moving closer to Tracer and now walking by its side.
Tracer accelerated and with an exquisite pirouette faced Alice but kept going, only in reverse this time. A message appeared on its screen, once again.
"Why did they attack us?"
Alice started recollecting the events that led her and Tracer on this path. She was sitting by the river, playing with the dirt and writing the digits of the Fibonacci series on the ground with a stick. All of a sudden, a low-pitch sound was heard coming from some of the boulders that were around her. Then the Snorters appeared and Mad Hatter told her to run. She froze for a moment but run, nevertheless. When she looked behind, the Snorters run around Mad Hatter without even taking a second look at him but they were extremely hostile to her and god knows what they'd do if they caught her. She couldn't understand why they weren't even remotely interested in Mad Hatter.
"Tracer, why were they only after me? Why did Mad Hatter just sit there, not moving at all and they just ignored him?"
Tracer has turned his banged-up screen and was facing the path. It stopped and pivoted in place so that Alice can see its screen again.
"Part of the system", appeared as a message on the tiny screen. It stayed there for a couple of seconds and a new message appeared once again "We're close".
"Close to what?", replied Alice.
Tracer continued blazing the trail so she followed him without opening her mouth again. They must have been walking for at least some hours, constantly taking breaks because Alice's knee began to bleed again and she had to rip apart yet another piece of cloth from her t-shirt so that she could patch it up. They were now deep into a dark forest. The trees had minimum leafage but they were extremely tall and intimidating to exist below them. The further they traveled, the more intense the purple light that was diffused around them was becoming. It was eerie but also extremely beautiful and if a ray was not crushing on the hunks of the trees and dispersing everywhere, the warmth that it carried was magnetic.
Tracer stopped in front of a cromlech. There was an inscription on the inner rock that Alice did not understand. She entered the cromlech and took a good look at the three rocks. Tracer entered as well and stood by her. Alice was immersed in the task of deciphering the inscription that she didn't notice the message that had appeared on Tracer's screen. It gave her a gentle touch on the hip.
"Touch the stone", read Alice.
"Me? Touch the stone? What good will that make us? I have no idea where we are and this world is completely stranger to me. Why does touching a plate of stone will produce anything useful?" she argued quite intensely.
Tracer insisted on not making the slightest move and keeping the message on the screen longer than usual.
Alice was confident that touching the stone or not touching the stone would make absolutely no difference. But, given the fact that Tracer was the only one that could help her navigate this confusing world, she decided to do as it told her.
She extended her arm and with the palm of her right hand touched the stone. Nothing happened.
"See? I told you, Tracer".
Tracer moved back and forth and then wrote a message on its screen.
After some seconds, a second message appeared.
It started rolling again on the path. Alice had no choice but to follow him. The path was becoming continuously narrower but that didn't hamper the ability of Tracer to move swiftly around the roots and rocks. It looked like it had completed the same route hundreds of times. After a while, they reached the foot of a mountain. The treeline has stopped a few miles before and now a colossal sleek rock was in front of them. Tracer moved towards the slab and stood in front of a cavity that was formed in the bedrock. It then came back to Alice and nodded by allowing itself to lose its balance for a brief moment. It wanted Alice to go to that cavity.
"What now? Am I supposed to touch another piece of stone so that we can all become witnesses of yet another magnificent event?", Alice asked with all the sarcasm that she could muster.
Tracer made her follow it and did its "talking while moving" pirouette once again.
"Enter your seed state".
"My what?!", Alice asked with a profound expression of ignorance.
She was now looking at the cavity in the slab and she caught a tiny number pad located in the center.
"What am I supposed to type in here?", Alice asked.
Tracer kept showing the message about the seed state on its screen.
Alice understood that she had to enter some kind of number but she had no idea what that number was. "A seed state", she recited to herself. She remembered an article that she once read about pseudorandom number generators. They used some initial numbers or even vectors so that they could produce random numbers, or at least seemingly random numbers because when these generators were provided with the same initialization vectors then they produced the same sequence of output. A seed state was just a number used in these pseudorandom machines to provide the initial state. So this whole thing might just be a weird pseudorandom generator. So she might just enter any possible number and that thing would do something.
Alice typed the numbers one through four on the keypad. Not a single sound, not the slightest movement. She looked at Tracer again. A new message was now on the screen.
"Yours", it read.
"Mine", Alice thought.
She has taken a biology class during university and remembered that a seed is the embryonic stage of a plant's lifecycle. But she wasn't a plant. So what was Tracer talking about? The only thing that had a number that was related to her being in an embryonic state was the date of her birth. She decided that she had nothing to lose and entered the six digits of her birthday on the keypad.
The slab started moving. A crack started developing in the middle and suddenly the two parts of the slate started separating. Purple light rays were leaking everywhere and a thundering noise that could be heard from miles away was piercing Alice's eardrums. Eventually, the walls of rock stopped moving and a path appeared behind the split slate.
Tracer skipped past Alice and entered the crack in the wall. Alice, although hesitant at first, entered after it.
She abruptly felt sick. Her legs were trembling and her heart was skipping beats. Her head felt so heavy that she was no longer able to keep it upright and she had to lean forward. Her stomach was upset and her hands were sweating. She found herself on a marble floor, her face touching the cold metamorphic rock and her hands spread on her sides.
The smell of lavender was hitting her nostrils and that made her feel relaxed. She got up and looked around. She was standing in the middle of an enormous purple room. Above her, there was a sparkling chandelier with thousands of purple lights made out of diamonds. The room was filled with mirrors and her feet were now sinking in the softest carpet that she had ever experienced.
"Alice!", she heard a voice from the end of the room. "We've been waiting for you."
Alice tried to focus her hearing and her vision towards the end of the room. She saw a slender figure sitting standing in front of a purple glass throne. She had ashen hair and her skin was pale and flawless. The ball gown dress she was wearing had a flounce diameter of at least 6 feet and the bodice was of Grecian design. Alice felt awful for her torn apart t-shirt and jeans. She approached this phantasmagorical figure and so did she. The two women met halfway between the place Alice got a sense of how cold marble can be and the dazzling purple throne.
"Hi, my dear Alice", said the woman and hugged her.
The smell of lavender was even more intense than before and the warmth she felt in the dark forest when she happened to be in the path of purple light rays was now covering every inch of her body.
"You are so beautiful", Alice told the woman, but after a couple of seconds, she felt extremely stupid with her comment. There were thousands of other ways to start a conversation and she has chosen the weirdest.
"This is a first", the woman replied. "You've never called me beautiful before. Nevertheless, I am grateful for your compliment. You don't look half as bad as the previous time, too."
Alice was confused. The woman was talking to her as if they'd been acquaintances or even friends for a very long time. But, Alice would swear this is the first time she was seeing her in her life.
"May I ask you a question?" Alice said.
"Go on, child."
"You speak to me as if you've seen me before. As if I've been in this place before. But I can assure you that this is simply not true."
The woman turned her back on Alice and started walking towards the throne.
"Ah, yes. I always forget this part", the woman sighed.
"Which part?" Alice asked.
Lethe. She didn't know the word.
"What does that mean?" Alice asked one again.
"It comes from the Greek word λήθη. It means oblivion, the total loss of memory."
"Are you implying that I do not recall our previous meetings?", Alice said with a mix of anger crystallizing in her voice.
"It's not your fault, Alice. It's how it is, and probably how it should be."
Even if this world has pushed Alice's logic to its limits and left her completely astounded, now she was beginning to lose it. How could she not remember any of this?
"I don't understand", she finally said.
"I know", the woman replied. "Let me help you with that".
The purple-dressed woman moved into the center of this gleaming room and snapped her hands together.
"My name is Rani. I am the Purple Queen and you are standing in the Purple Throne Room of the Purple Kingdom."
Her hands were now emitting the same purple light that the walls were previously radiating. A huge computer monitor was now hanging from the same infinitely dark ceiling. It was the same monitor as the one that appeared when Alice was in the hall room.
"This is the Purple Kingdom. A vast network of services fulfilling the requests of millions of visitors and locals. Huge data warehouses are responsible for storing trillions of pieces of information and some of the most complex communication patterns you've ever seen."
Alice understood most of the things she was viewing on that monitor. It was a diagram of a network of services, similar to clustered networks she has seen before in her university classes and her job. There were ingress and egress routes and a gigantic amount of envoys responsible for allowing this immense amount of information to move around. There were operators responsible for performing various automated tasks and a plethora of observability systems. An armada of software-defined firewalls and intrusion detection systems sitting and making sure that only legitimate entities were inside the network.
Alice's brain was finally starting to piece together the events that unfolded in the previous hours. The Golden Signalers, Mad Hatter, the Snorters. All parts of this vast kingdom network. The Signalers, forever monitoring the events data for abnormalities. Latency, traffic, errors, and saturation. Four signals, the same number as the Golden Signalers' batches. Mad Hatter, an Operator. Sad and unable to reach the services of the kingdom. A service lifecycle operator he must be. Controlling the fate of all these services that the Purple Queen has just shown to her. The Snorters. Ugly, boar-like creatures that tried to kill her, remove her from the network but didn't even care about Mad Hatter or Tracer, because they were parts of the same network where she was an outsider. An intruder. And then the portals, the seeds, the hands in the stone. Cryptographic controls that verified access to certain parts of the kingdom. But why did she have access? Who gave her that access and why was she here in the first place? There was only one way to learn.
"Why am I here?", she asked the Purple Queen.
"For the same reason that you've always been here, dear Alice. To help us. The Kingdom is collapsing, it has entered a state of degradation, thousands upon thousands are dying every day and decay spreads around every corner of our land".
"Yes, I've seen your lands", said Alice, recalling her brief visit to Mad Hatter's river. "It's truly awful but still I do not understand how I can help you."
"Of that, I cannot tell you. Not because I am unwilling to, but because I am unaware of the way", replied firmly the Purple Queen.
Alice sat down and started thinking. Mad Hatter told her about her being unable to communicate with the services of the Kingdom. The Golden Signalers' heads were beaming incandescent red, but not all of them. Just those who had the letter "E" in their helmets. The golden signals metrics. She recited the metrics' names again. Latency, Traffic, Errors, and Saturation.
Latency is the amount of time to service a request. Slow feedback means degraded performance.
Traffic is tied to counting. Whatever that count may be: transactions, requests, sessions.
Then there was the Errors metric. The rate of failed requests.
Finally, Saturation. How close is one to 100% of utilization.
The Golden Signalers' had the initial letters of these metrics in their helmets. Alice clearly remembered that the Signalers whose heads were shining brightest and more were the ones with the letter "E". Errors. Failed requests.
So the most apparent problem inside the Kingdom must be failed requests. But why are they failing?
"Uhm, Queen Rina, when was the last time that you talked to Mad Hatter?"
"It was a long time ago. 3 months, 10 days, 28 minutes, and 3 seconds to be precise."
So Mad Hatter could not contact the Queen. That was a fact. And then the Purple Queen told her that the services have been misbehaving and failing to respond to requests. So there was a problem in the network.
"Queen Rina, can I get a closer look at that huge monitor of yours?"
"Of course, Alice", said the Queen and smiled. She knew that Alice was the key to their problems. It's been like that for the past few years. Every time there was a problem in the Kingdom that they couldn't resolve on their own, Alice would appear out of thin air and work her way around. Deus ex machina.
Alice started looking carefully at the diagram on the monitor. There were thousands of services. Some of them were OK, highlighted with a bright purple color but others seemed off. Their color grade was faint and the network routes leading to them looked broken.
She noticed that there were multiple Provinces of the Kingdom, each one of them consisting of multiple services. There was Exosculatio, Authenticas, Tributum, and more. A province with the name Documentum caught her eye.
"What is this Province, called Documentum?" Alice asked.
"It's one of the most important and wealthy provinces of the Kingdom. Often overlooked though, most of the visitors prefer other, more exotic Provinces like Oblectatio or Comitatus. Only scholars are visiting quite often."
Documentum was just a couple of letters shy of the word "documentation". Maybe this Province had a library or a monastery where Alice would ask for information or read about the way this vast Kingdom was structured and operated.
"Is there a way to visit this Province?"
"There is. Documentum has a secret path that does not rely upon anything else that exists in this Kingdom. It connects the Throne Room with Documentum's biggest Library, the Bibliotheca. We call it the Very Promising Nexus".
Alice almost jumped. Visiting Documentum would certainly help her understand what parts of this Kingdom she was ignoring and how she could be of help.
"How can I get there?", she asked Queen Rina.
"It's pretty simple. Just say the phrase Quic Documentum".
"Quic Documentum!" Alice said vividly.
This time Alice felt almost nothing as she was transferred in some mysterious way from the Throne room to Documentum. The previous transports have been rough, almost feeling as she was going back and forth in round trips and she was constantly hitting stuff as she was being moved. This time it was straightforward, with zero round trips, and certainly did not feel as if she was trying to navigate on a congested road.
Also, she landed on her feet, which was a huge improvement compared to the previous landings which resulted in a variety of body pains. Nevertheless, the room she landed in was dark. There were only some lit candles here and there, inadequately lighting her surroundings. She had a tough time understanding where she was. She started taking small steps forward, careful not to hit something or step somewhere that she shouldn't. Arms extended in front of her, she kept trying to sense what lay ahead of her.
"Cold stone, again", she said as she touched a windowless wall that was blocking her way. While touching the wall, she used it as a guide to move across the room, constantly searching for a door or hidden pass to escape this formidably dark room.
A sharp piece of metal was protruding from the wall and she nearly cut open her palm. A couple of steps later, her left palm touched something wooden. She moved her hand around trying to figure out if there was a handle somewhere. A rusty piece of a circular metal contraption was located in the middle section of that wooden patch in the wall. She pushed with all her strength.
The door made some cracking noises and then the right side was released from the wall. A beam of light entered and lit half the room Alice was in. She continued pushing and opened the door wide open. Every corner of the room was now visible. But, Alice didn't care to look behind her back because what lay in front of her was possibly one of the most majestic views she has ever seen.
There was a hall with mosaics covering the better part of the walls, depicting scenes from Greek and Norse mythology. Around the room, spread across even distances existed multiple wooden sofas from oak. In the center of the hall, there was a sizable black table with hundreds of books laid on top of it. From the ceiling, three chandeliers were hanging. One was shaped as a down-facing fir, while two smaller ones were shaped like disks.
However, the most august feature of this hall was neither the mosaics nor the chandeliers. On the other end of the room, three spiraling staircases lead to nowhere. They were as tall as the largest caravel ever built and around them, they were shelves hosting millions of books and documents.
Alice was in total awe. She walked across the room and reached the table. The first book that lay there read "Majestic Monoliths of the Purple Kingdom". There was another one called "Messenger Systems established in the Province of Fabulamur". Alice took the latter and seated herself on one of the wooden sofas.
She turned the cover of the book and reached the overview section.
This book provides a detailed view of the way that messenger systems such as brokers and queues were set up to transfer information across the Province of Fabulamur."
Although interesting, it wasn't what she was looking for. She needed a book that would cover the whole history of the Kingdom, something that would allow her to understand the very details of how the Kingdom operated. What she needed was the Purple Kingdom's version of Wikipedia, a generic Encyclopedia covering everything that existed under the Kingdom's sun, even if it didn't reach the level of detail that other books in this library did.
She stood up and went to the table. There were a lot of titles thrown around but nothing that would work. She took a lookup. The stairs were extending over to the ceiling. For all Alice knew, it could be a thousand steps before she could reach the top. Searching for a specific using brute force would probably take thousands of years. She tried looking for labels on the shelves and the stairs. Unfortunately, there was nothing that would speed up the process of searching. Some inscriptions and labels existed sparingly but they weren't enough for Alice to navigate this maze of content.
Most libraries have some sort of an indexing system. Scholars in the great Library of Alexandria in Egypt have been using a lookup system for quickly finding papers as back as 280BC. Now, Alice wasn't sure about the concept of time in the Purple Kingdom but even the fact that she had to make that thought, erased the suspicion that indexing technology might not have made it to the Kingdom yet. She was literally inside a network. The system that Alexandrian scholars were using heavily relied on indexing and was designed by Callimachus, a poet, critic, and scholar of the time. The name was called "Pinakes", roughly translated as "Tables".
Five hundred thousand papyrus scrolls were the treasure of Alexandria's Library before its destruction in 48BC. The scrolls were grouped by subject and stored in bins. Each bin carried a label with painted tablets hung above the stored papyri. A typical entry in these tables started with a title and also provided the author's name, birthplace, father's name, any teachers trained under, and educational background. It was like an actual database table.
Alice hoped that the Bibliotheca would have a similar lookup system. She started thinking. Most organizations have some sort of documentation that they can refer to when working with systems developed or maintained by themselves. Usually all of them, once again, have an index, usually on the front page. It contains a tree-like structure with all the titles and subtitles accompanied by a hyperlink tag that one can click and then navigate to the appropriate section of the documentation. It's the first thing one sees when visiting a documentation platform.
She started walking up and down that big hall and looking at the mosaics. There was a certain one that caught her eye. It depicted a scene from Athens's Golden Age of Pericles. It was an assembly in Pnyx, a hill in the center of the city that was used for political assemblies. In the background, stood Acropolis, with the Parthenon and the Propylaia. It was such a scenic depiction of democracy in Ancient Athens.
As Alice kept admiring the mosaic, something clicked in her mind. Propylaia was a Greek word meaning "before the entrance". She has just gone through explaining to herself how documentation systems worked. There was an index that is the first thing one sees when visiting such a platform.
"The room with no lights!", Alice yelled.
It was the first thing she visited when arriving in Documentum. That's where the link had led her.
She grabbed a book from the table and started running towards the door that she came from half an hour ago. She pulled the handle and the door cracked open. She placed the book on the floor so that it would stop the door from closing and depriving the entry room of its light.
It was a room a lot of times smaller than the Bibliotheca's grand hall. There were no tables or sofas and of course no chandeliers. The room had four walls in total and it was square-shaped. On each of the walls, there were inscriptions and below them, one brick protruded from the wall, like a button.
Alice got closer to one of them and read.
"Pipelines, Matrix Jobs and Deployments".
Not what she was looking for. She looked at the next one.
"This must be!" Alice whispered.
She pressed the protruding brick back into the wall. She felt a light breeze and then heard a loud metal noise. The light coming from the open disappeared suddenly. When it came back Alice was standing in the middle of the third staircase holding a book called "The Purple Kingdom's Infrastructure Overview".
She opened the book and looked for the "Contents" section. Luckily, there was one. She navigated with her finger across the page until she found what she was looking for.
She started reading.
The Purple Kingdom, also referred to by the Old Codex as Meshland, is a Type II computer network created by Advocati Pavo, a quantum engineer, and cryptographer. Type II networks are self-sustaining computer networks able to recreate large most of the critical components required for achieving the functionality of up to 80%.
Alice was thrilled she could feel her heart beating faster but she kept reading.
There are three main components in a Type II network like the Purple Kingdom. The first one is the data plane, responsible for conditionally translating, forwarding, and observing every network packet that flows to and from a service instance. The second and equally important to the data plane is the control plane. It has the responsibility of taking a set of isolated and stateless sidecar proxies and turning them into a distributed system. The last but not least component is the MLT stack (monitoring, logging, traceability) which is responsible for providing a detailed insight into what's happening in the network.
Everything was coming to place in Alice's brain. She had to get back to Queen Rina.
Alice started running down the staircase. She went by the large table and shouted.
"Quic Throne Room!"
She felt almost nothing and luckily, once again, landed on her feet.
"Oh, my dear Alice. Came back so soon?", asked Queen Rina who was sitting on the throne.
Alice sprinted towards her.
"Queen Rina!", she said panting and grimacing because of the stinging pain coming from her knees. "Is there someplace that you visit often to command your Kingdom from? Like a castle or citadel?"
"Let me think", replied the Queen, frowning.
Alice hoped that what she had in mind was the answer to the riddle of why the Kingdom has been degrading rapidly. She was thinking that one of the three components of the network has been failing for some reason and she guessed she knew which one.
The Queen distracted Alice from her thoughts.
"There is a province, called Magisterium. There is a citadel there that I and most of the Operators used to visit often and we had extended discussions on governance and policymaking. But I haven't been there since a lot of time ago. Also, I am not aware of any Operator visiting recently."
"Is there a way to go there fast?", Alice asked.
"There are certainly ways to go there. But they are neither fast nor comfortable."
Alice's face started losing the excitement and smile from her face. She hoped that just shouting "Quic!" again, would get her there.
"Unfortunately, there is no Nexus that can get you there fast.", continued the Queen noticing the disappointed expression on Alice's face. There are two ways and both are quite ugly. You could try navigating the inhospitable terrain between here and the Citadel by foot or I could send you there directly the same way I communicate with a lot of the services in the different provinces. But, I have to warn you, you may feel uncomfortable."
"How uncomfortable?" Alice asked while imagining all the ways that she could be hurt. She had a fair bit of experience with transportation mechanisms inside the Purple Kingdom and she couldn't argue that she had an enjoyable time with them.
"You'll have to get compressed. That will allow you to reach the destination faster but also avoid being hunted by Snorters again. They won't be able to tell it's you, especially when I sign your compressed form."
"How does that work?" Alice's voice trembled. She started thinking of rooms with walls moving closer and closer or people crushing her limbs inwards so that she would fit in tiny boxes.
Queen Rina, seeing the color fading from Alice's face laughed.
"We're not savages, my dear Alice. What you have to do is simply eat a piece of cake."
She snapped her fingers and a piece of delicious cake appeared, floating in front of Alice's face.
"It's made of Brotli, an indigenous grain that grows only in the Parvus Province. It will make you tiny and thus, I will be able to send you to Magistratum in the blink of an eye, or even faster."
Alice grabbed the cake from mid-air and took a bite. She felt her stomach behaving weirdly. Suddenly, everything around her started growing. But, for everybody else, Alice was shrinking. She was now no bigger than a fingernail.
She saw the giant hand of Queen Rina approaching her and pinching her hair.
"Ouch! You hurt me!", she shouted.
"Sorry Alice, I can't hear understand a thing. Your voice shows hoarse you sound like two rocks rubbing together."
Miniaturizing her had shortened her vocal cords so much that she could now only produce an extremely low-pitched voice.
The Queen placed Alice in her hand and placed tiny crumbs of the cake beside her.
"Put some crumbs in your pockets and once you reach the Citadel eat one of them. It will decompress you."
Alice stuffed her pockets with cake crumbs and stood in the middle of Queen Rina's palm. The Queen brought her hand in front of her mouth, touched Alice with her lips, and then blew.
Alice started swirling in the air and immediately felt dizzy. She felt warmth, then cold, then warmth again. The lights went out, a blinding white light, and then pitch dark again. The swirling had stopped.
She opened her eyes. She was standing on the edge of a crevice inside a limestone quarry and beneath her, wild waves were thrusting on a cliff. She looked below and her breath was taken away. She was literally inside a crack of a wall. Jumping to the waves below would kill her. Even if she tried eating the cake crumbs she would immediately start growing, putting pressure on the limestone around her resulting in its collapse and eventually her ending up in the sea. She had to find a different way out.
"Hello!", she screamed, her tiny vocal cords not producing anything an ear catch but enough so that a vocal wave got transferred across the crack and echoed. The existence of an echo made her smile. It meant that the crack had some kind of depth. She had to follow the darkness.
Alice began walking, her hands touching the right wall of the crevice constantly so that she would help herself navigate in total darkness. She kept going deeper and deeper and eventually started sensing that the floor of the crevice was now acquiring a slightly uphill slope.
She started ascending the slope. After a while, her head touched what appeared to be the ceiling of the crevice. She put her hands above her head and started pushing upwards. Small pieces of dirt started falling on her face. She continued pushing and eventually, a crack appeared in the ceiling. A ray of light burst through, illuminating the crevice chamber. Alice climbed out of the crevice and felt the salty air hitting her in the face.
She got a crumb of a cake from her pocket, which for her was like a proper piece, and ate it. The grass, which, a moment ago, looked like giant trees, was at the height of Alice's ankle. Alice took a deep breath and filled her lungs with the sea breeze.
"My name is Alice", she tried saying. "Good, my voice is back".
She started climbing the small hill that lay ahead of her. When she got to the top she saw a sharp cliff ending in the sea and on top of it a ziggurat. It was a magnificent, three-level building with external staircases and a golden dome sitting on the top of the main entrance.
Alice started crossing the field that separated her from the Citadel. The grass was muddy and made the run harder but she eventually made it to the cobbled road that led to the central staircase of the ziggurat. She lifted her head trying to take a look at the top of the construction. The stairs seemed endless but she had to climb them if she wanted to reach the temple. As she climbed the first staircase and entered the gate, she felt a pulsating aura blasting her backward. She nearly tumbled down the staircase, having lost her balance and fallen to the ground. She heard a machinated voice.
Protective measures were in place to reassure that none without the proper level of access would enter the control room of the temple. The kiss Queen Rina gave her acted as a cryptographic signature that was verified by the passing aura.
Alice climbed the second staircase without stopping to take a breath and reached the top of the ziggurat. She entered the temple expecting to face a complex computer system with dozens of inputs and intricate outputs. Instead, an 8bit display, a 4-key mini keyboard with just the arrow keys, and a USB port were carved into an altar.
Alice approached the altar but her prior enthusiasm was quickly turned to frustration. She was expecting something different. She expected a computer system that she would be able to log in and do proper troubleshooting on the network. After all, this was the interface to the control plane of the network.
You see, Alice has figured out that the Purple Kingdom was nothing more than a distributed computing system. Each figure she has met in her journeys was a component, more or less important to the operation of this cluster. Provinces were nodes or node groups and they were named after the type of services they offered. Some sort of affinity rules directed services to be grouped by purpose rather than randomly across the network. But the most important part of this distributed system was an abstract infrastructure layer, called the service mesh.
When reading the book about the origins of the Purple Kingdom she noticed that it was referred to in the Old Codex as Meshland or the land of Meshes. It couldn't be anything else other than a reference to the architectural component that holds together the Kingdom.
She knew that the degradation of the Kingdom started when something went wrong in that service mesh. Two were the important components in the system: the data plane and the control plane. The data plane provided features such as observability, tracing, monitoring, or even authentication and authorization. These things worked, metrics were available and broadcasted with Golden Signalers, tracing has helped her to navigate the network more than one time embodied as the mischievous little device, Tracer, and authentication worked as Alice has just managed to enter the temple. But Mad Hatter and the Queen complained about not being able to hear and talk from the services. An issue with the service discovery. The control plane, the component responsible for configuring the set of the envoys of the kingdom used by the network abstraction layer that the data plane provided · malfunctioning, leading to services being discoverable and leading to the dismay of the Kingdom.
She had all the deductions in her head but she had no way to interact with the system. And then, she noticed something. The USB port in the altar was looking noticeably similar to the entrance of a cave. It wouldn't be the first time she had to navigate one. She still had some compression cake crumbs left in her pockets and she decided to use them to enter the USB port. She would barely fit, but it was all she could think of.
She put her hand into the pocket and grabbed a crumb. As she pulled her hand out she heard a metal sound as if something fell on the ground. She looked and a USB flash disk was sitting beside her right foot. She picked it up and read the inscription.
She had a flashback. Herself, falling into the pit after following the notification on her laptop. An endless fall, she reached with her arm in the walls of cables and what came out of there was a USB flash disk.
She quickly took the cap of the USB stick and placed it into the port. The same metallic voice she heard before announced.
"Welcome to Meshland's Temple. Please, select one of the options available".
She leaned on the 8bit display and saw that it now had a menu with three options, aligned vertically.
Restore Control Plane Configure Control Plane Delete Control Plane
Alice left the first option selected and used the right arrow key to verify her choice.
Bob got up and got a cup of coffee from the espresso machine in the kitchen. The Agent had already lived through 90890 generations and hasn't yet succeeded in its task.
"Hey, how's work going? Are you coming for dinner?"
"Yeah, be there in a sec."
Bob went back to his computer and checked the latest run. That was weird. The last run had succeeded, and the cluster was up and running again. The chaos he introduced has been resolved.
He typed a few lines of code in his terminal.
"Alice, it worked!", said Bob and moved to the kitchen. "You know It's named after you, right?"
"I don't care".