The alert comes screaming in on Jana’s implant, bright light lancing through the fog of REM sleep:
[New glyph. Intersection of 148th and Cliffton.]
When her eyes snap open, it’s there, the only thing fully in focus. A blurry image of the yet-untitled glyph #75 hovers beside it.
On autopilot now, Jana pushes away the sheets, rolls out of bed. Cold tile stings her feet as she crosses the apartment and grabs her preferred glyph-hunting uniform from the rack. A black sweatshirt and paint-splattered jeans, pulling double shift as her studio outfit.
She summons another tab as she dresses, this one to check the metro map. Seven minutes until the next train. Shit.
No time to shower. Time for coffee? No—not worth the risk. It’s across town, and she needs to get the first crack at this, before the normies and the cops show up and contaminate the scene.
Jana snatches her bag from the corner, rifling through empty paint cans and tangled interface cables to find what she’s looking for: a dozen hard drives, loaded to bursting with skimmed encryption sequences. She’ll have to transfer them on the ride over.
One’s already slotted into her skullport as she ducks outside. Fragments of uploaded sequences dance at the edge of her implant vision, scintillating among the AR advertisements that burn cold and lusterless against the distant skyline.
She hurries through downtown streets in the dark, speed walking until she’s awake enough to run.
#12—“The Gulf Stream”
[There were ducks in the pond at the park yesterday.
They were the brown and white kind though, the ones with spots. I looked for the green ones you always liked but they weren’t there. I think they might have gone south for the winter.
Is that something they do, the green ducks? You’d know better than me.
Anyway, I gave them some bread for you. I remembered how you like to feed them even though the signs say you shouldn’t.
I hope we can go see them together soon. I miss you.]
The sharp lines are slashed at shoulder height, fresh paint seeping into creases of ancient brick.
Jana paces the sidewalk, apart from the crowd, studying them. As she moves, light from the solar lanterns seems to ripple across the glyph’s surface, playing off the near-invisible frequency icons embedded within.
As far as glyphs go, #75 is plain, almost boring. Splashed across a florist’s shop in some sleepy uptown enclave, between windows lined with lilies and chrysanthemums.
It’s also a disruption, an inversion of the trend. After several glyph sightings on abandoned warehouses and hollowed-out train cars, the forums had buzzed with speculation about the artist’s embrace of the daring, the remote, the dilapidated. A statement about the civilizational entropy of capitalism, Jana theorized at the time. Some kind of allegory for the postindustrial age, with the glyphs as a stand-in for humanity, migrating from sleek downtown skyscrapers toward rust and broken concrete and decay.
So much for that. Her thesis will need heavy revisions.
There are no police here yet, no outsiders. Only the predawn crowd of the devoted. Jana recognizes some of the oldest glyph hunters among them. A few, she knows, are adherents to a rival theory—that the work is a commentary on the tech itself, the loss of user agency in AR space, the mass encryption of once-public information. Thankfully, they look just as confused as she does.
Jana takes a closer look at the design, identifying the subtle tweaks that come with each new iteration, and speculates what they might signal about the meaning within. The overlapping radial patterns are striking on their own, of course. But they’re also incidental, merely reflections of the message they encode. Like shadows on the wall.
Analysis complete, she circles back to the center of the glyph, steeling herself for disappointment as she activates her implant and toggles the decrypter.
Razor-fine filaments splinter across her vision, isolating and extracting the frequency icons, stringing them together for translation, then pairing them up against the thousands of sequences she has on file. For a minute, she waits.
The error alert flashes, pulsing crimson across the florist’s banner:
NO MATCHES—ACCESS DENIED.
Jana sighs, exhaling vapor into the gray and bitter morning, then turns to leave.
#23—“The Broken Column”
[We got snow here last night. A whole lot, at least seven inches I think. I had to call in sick because the plow missed our street again and the drift was so bad I could barely get the door open.
It’s funny. I used to say I’d call about that. The plow missing us, I mean. But I never did. I guess it’s because it gave me an excuse to stay home with you.
I hope it’s warm where you are now. Are you coming home soon?]
Jana takes the scenic route back to her apartment, checking up on her tags on this side of the city.
Most she finds untouched, clinging to alley walls and storefront shutters. Only a few have been power washed off or painted over. Her pride and joy, carved into the crossbeam of an elevated rail line, remains unscathed, the arch-swirl of her tag towering like an AI’s imitation of the exaggerated graffiti characters of old.
The decrypter extracts her signature as she passes under it. A fake name, woven into a cop-proof sequence. Standard practice.
The walk gives her time to think, which she needs if she’s going to reconcile #75 with her existing theory. She turns it over in her head, as she’s been all morning, trying to force it into place.
Something about the flowers, maybe? Beauty in the collapse, in the return to nature?
That could work. Hanging a left onto 81st, she pulls up a new pane and navigates to her favorite glyph-centric forum. There aren’t too many posts up yet—mostly discussions about the significance, or lack thereof, of #75’s location. Plus some chatter about a local alt-weekly’s recent article on the glyphs, stoking ever-present fears they’ll go mainstream.
It’s picked up a name, too—“The Flower Seller”—but the forums can’t decide if it’s in tribute to the Rivera, or the Picasso, or both.
Jana composes her contribution to the discourse: a brief essay arguing for the continuation of her theory, along with speculation on the next glyph’s placement. She also weighs in on the name, favoring Rivera.
There’s a half-second delay before hatred comes screeching back from the ether, digitized voices overlapping in flame war harmony:
[—interesting take but I’d have to—Excuse me Rivera’s is called Flower Vendor not—FUCK YOU MARXIST BITCH—lmao get rekt I can’t deal with these fucking normies man—hey dipshit it could be vendor OR seller it’s a translation issue—Jana this is brilliant—]
She mutes her notifications. Flicks off her implant.
And then she stops short, as her now-untinted vision catches on something in her periphery.
A glyph sprawls over the wall to her left, its paint battered and peeling. She recognizes it as #17. Titled “Man in Armour,” for the Rembrandt.
Jana never liked the name. Or Rembrandt, for that matter. But this glyph is still one of her favorites. Its unique position—on a boarded-up window opposite an ambulance chaser’s bench ad—was what first sparked the idea for her theory, solidifying her take on the artist’s commentary. She can’t believe she forgot it was here.
Not sure what she’s expecting, Jana pulls up the decrypter, runs it through.
NO MATCHES—ACCESS DENIED.
She curses and reaches into her bag, sifting through hard drives, checking for any she missed. Hoping, like always, that one might hold the key.
Her hand closes instead around one of the paint cans. And an idea forms there, in the space between skin and label.
The forum’s vitriol is still ringing in the back of her mind. Echoes of discourse. Discourse that is really, now that she thinks about it, just commentary on a parallel conversation, unfolding one-way between the artist and their audience. But what if it didn’t have to be one-way? And the undiscovered sequence, not an obstacle but an invitation …
Before Jana knows what she’s doing, she’s strapping on and slotting the interface rig. Extrasensory awareness blooms as the glove apparatus meshes with her implant. Neural rendering software stirs to life, sending currents of instinct and intention flickering between her brain and her hand, making each finger murmur with anticipation.
This is wrong. She knows it’s wrong. The walls the glyphs appear on are consecrated, off-limits, untaggable. But she’s acting on instinct. Surrendering to impulse, like when she’s in the studio and latches onto a concept, forcing it onto the canvas before it can slip from her mind.
Deep breath. She empties her head of everything but the message, unsigned and set to a public encryption sequence—
A burst of movement and aerosol, and it’s done. A whorl pattern in dark chrome glistens back at her from the brick.
For a moment Jana just stares at it, backing away slowly as her mouth opens in a silent scream. Then she runs, leaving her anonymous message to the artist behind her, its icons glinting in the midmorning sun.
[I’m sorry. I don’t know how to tell you this, but I broke your LEGO typewriter. I was making coffee this morning and knocked it off the windowsill and it broke and all the pieces went everywhere. I think I found them all, even the little connector bits that went behind the stove and the fridge and down into the floor vents, but I can’t find the instructions and I have no idea where to start.
I’m sorry. I’m so so so sorry. You worked so hard to build that for me. I promise I’ll fix it. Or we can wait til you’re home and we’ll fix it together, whatever you want.
I love you. I’m sorry. Please come home.]
Her vandalism of “Man in Armour” gets the expected reaction: fury, then forgetfulness.
It takes up three days of glyph-hunting discourse. There are accusations against potential culprits, threats of excommunication, but despite Jana’s notoriety—or perhaps because of it—her name doesn’t crack the suspect list. So, she keeps her head down and waits for the storm to pass.
Which it does, once that alt-weekly article gets picked up by a national magazine, and word spreads that some big-name curator on the coast has taken an interest. A perfect smokescreen.
After things cool off, Jana works up the nerve to go back. She’s relieved to find her message is still there, not painted over.
She gets in the habit of checking on it every few weeks or so. Even stokes some conflict with the local artists as a cover, competing for space on construction pylons and rusted-out dumpsters, and taking detours past #17 each time she returns to fix her tags.
When she comes back in October, the message remains. November, it’s there. December, January, February, no change.
She skips March—preoccupied first by midterms, then the spring break vacation she promised her parents she’d take—but when she returns in April it holds its place. And it’s no longer alone.
Jana does a double take as she strides past, already late to class. Inked beside her faded chrome arches is another sigil, in a shade of matte indigo with its own entry in her thesis’s section on color theory. Her pulse thrums as she summons the decrypter.
It latches onto her message first. The cringeworthy note, trying and failing to walk the line between artistic praise and desperation. She tears her gaze off it, forcing the crosshairs to center the new icon. Hesitates. Then runs it through.
No error message, this time.
This is a surprise. I wasn’t aware anybody had noticed these. Not to mention any sort of following. You said something about a website?
Anyway, yes, I’d love to meet.
Jana blinks. Saturday. She told her parents she’d go home this weekend—it’s her mother’s birthday. Doesn’t matter. She can find an excuse.
In a breathless swirl of cyan encrypted for just the two of them, she accepts the invite and leaves her number. With it, a suggestion to provide a time and place.
She’s halfway down the block when it occurs to her to turn back, remove the glove, and empty her can over the artist’s response.
This discovery is hers, after all. No need to share.
#74—“Christ of Saint John of the Cross”
[My friends don’t understand why I stay in the city. I told them it’s because you’re here. They say that’s exactly the reason I should leave.
We got into a fight about it last night. I’m not sure how it began, but it ended with me yelling about how I won’t go to Florida, and they yelled back that I won’t have you here or in Florida so I might as well go because at least it’s warm there, and then I told them that I’d rather freeze and they could go to hell and they stormed out.
I know they’re right, though. I can’t have you here. But in the meantime I can have the ducks in the park and the snow and the pieces of our LEGO typewriter on the windowsill, and in those things there’s still the essence of you. Here I can walk on streets we walked together and feel you at my side with your hand in mine and for a moment it’s like you never left.]
Jana finds the bench exactly where she was told it would be: tucked away along a path in an uptown park, in a shady spot overlooking the reservoir.
The artist said they’d meet her here at 6 p.m., but Jana arrives early just to be safe. She props her elbow on the hostile architecture armrest and waits, listening to the lap of water against concrete, and wondering why someone so private picked such a public meeting place.
Her stomach jumps at each crunch of gravel, expecting the artist, only to sink when the source comes into view. Joggers. Students with their backpacks. White-collar finance types, still in their suits. Small dogs dragging their owners on leashes.
Eventually they start to blur together. And as 6:15 rolls around, Jana worries the artist won’t show. That something’s wrong. That she’s made some mistake.
While she’s thinking that, one of the people she ignores stops, doubles back, and stands in front of her, silhouetted in the slanting afternoon sunlight.
“Hi,” the shadow says, pausing for her to turn her head. “Jana, right?”
“Yes.” Jana squints up at the unfamiliar face. Her mouth is suddenly dry. “Are you—”
A hand extends, squeezing hers. “My name’s Marcela. And yes, I am.”
Jana doesn’t know what she thought the artist would look like. Probably some cooler, more avant-garde, potentially gender-swapped version of herself. But the woman who slides onto the bench beside her is more pastel suburbanite chic—soft-eyed in a green turtleneck, one hand curled around a Starbucks cup, the other setting a tote bag on the ground. Her cheeks crinkle when she smiles.
“You’re the artist?” Jana whispers, as if she didn’t hear the first time. “You created the glyphs?”
The crinkle-cheeked smile widens into something forced, uncomfortable. “I don’t call them that. But yes.”
“I’m—” Jana stops herself, searching for the right words, but finding none. “A huge fan.”
“Thank you. Although I didn’t know I had fans, until a few days ago.” She shifts on the bench, worrying at the frayed sleeve of her sweater. “I was hoping you could help me understand that, actually. I tried visiting some of your websites. They were interesting, but most of them didn’t let me in, and the handful that did—well, I just couldn’t wrap my head around …”
She trails off, leaving Jana to finish for her.
“Why they care?”
“People want to know what they mean.”
“What they mean?”
“You know, what they’re supposed to say.” Jana’s heartbeat comes fast and heavy, sending seismic echoes through her chest cavity. She realizes she’s been holding her breath. “We’ve all been trying to figure it out, since nobody can read them without the sequence.”
Marcela’s gaze slides out over the reservoir, her lips pressed into a thin line. And as Jana studies her face, she almost gets the sense that she’s never thought about it before.
“They’re for my daughter,” Marcela says after a while.
“Your daughter,” Jana repeats, sounding it out like it’s a word from another language. In her mind’s eye, she sees the theories—not just hers, but all of them, every single interpretation they labored and fought over—crumbling to dust. “Are they … a gift for her?”
“I guess you could say that. But they’re more like messages, really. Or requests.” Her voice gets smaller. “To come home.”
Requests to come home. What does that mean? Jana starts to ask for an explanation, for something more. But Marcela cuts her off, transferring the answer to her implant before she can get the question out.
The file splits the space in front of her: a missing person report. The kind that occasionally stirs Jana’s implant awake at inconvenient times, flooding her synapses with names, images, and scraps of information, all quickly forgotten.
[Adolescent girl,] this one whispers. [Teresa. Age 17. Last seen leaving her home. All online profiles deactivated. Attempts at contact unsuccessful.
Date: two years ago.]
“We had a fight,” Marcela says. “About her grades, I think. She took the car.”
Jana blinks the report away. She feels horribly guilty, for reasons she can’t quite explain to herself. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s alright.” One of Marcela’s manicured fingernails traces the seam in her Starbucks cup. “I haven’t given up on her. Everybody else has, but I won’t.”
“And you leave the glyphs—your messages—”
Jana sinks back into the bench. She’s not sure she understands Marcela yet, but she doesn’t say that.
Furtively, she flicks on her implant. Runners and dog walkers slide past, their bodies pincushioned with photos and profile links and relevant ads, entire identities written into the air above them. In this two-layered world, with every person and object tagged and tracked and laced with metadata—can anybody truly disappear anymore?
She turns it off, wondering.
“You remind me of her.” Marcela nudges the tote bag between their feet. “She was creative, too. That’s how I got this.”
Jana looks down, sees plastic and wire spilling out through a half-zipped pocket. An interface rig.
“It was hers,” Marcela adds. “Homemade. Took me a while to figure out how to use it.”
Jana reaches down, then pulls back. “May I?”
She slides out the rig, examines its craftsmanship. Admiring the little flairs of ingenuity and improvisation she’d expect from a teenage artist-engineer searching for their style.
“She had her own little art ring, between her and a few other kids.” Marcela leans over, fiddling with one of the wires. “I used to get so worried with her running around out there spraying up buildings. But she told me it was safe, and they only ever did it in abandoned places where they weren’t hurting anybody … God, I sound naive, don’t I?”
Jana laughs, then cringes, hearing delayed-onset echoes of her own mother. “This is amazing.” She returns the rig to its case. “I’d love to see her work.”
“Sure, but you’ll have to find it first.” Another brush of connection from Marcela’s implant. “Here.”
The newly transferred file flashes in the upper reaches of AR space. It’s an encryption sequence. Private, unnamed, and untracked.
“That belonged to her friends,” Marcela adds. “They used to draw over each other’s art, like some sort of game. Teresa acted so tough about it, but deep down, I knew they were all terrified of getting caught. So they used this sequence to keep it private.”
Jana slumps forward, elbows catching on her knees. Her palms go to her eyes. If she didn’t feel like crying, she might laugh.
After all those theories, all their searching for the master sequence—it couldn’t be that easy.
“I suppose that’s what your people are looking for,” Marcela continues, somewhere far away. “I thought I might reach her with it, wherever she is.”
There’s a pause, and when she speaks again her voice is barely a whisper. “All this time, I hoped she was listening.”
“Somebody was,” Jana hears herself say. The sequence lingers there, burning against the backs of her eyelids. Icons scrolling in the dark. “We listened.”
The silence that passes between them is cold and heavy and filled with the sound of birds. After a while, Marcela places a hand on her shoulder. “Would you walk with me?”
Jana nods. And then she follows Marcela, for what seems like a long time, walking until the shadows start to fade and the sun sinks beneath the reservoir.
They wind along gravel paths bathed in twilight as Marcela tells her everything there is to know about Teresa. She’s just Teri with her friends, though her mother refuses to call her anything but her full name. A brilliant girl. Artist from birth. Not just painting, but poetry and music, too. Never goes anywhere without her rig and a sketchbook. She acts and dresses like a rebel, but gets straight As and starts varsity soccer and plans on going to college somewhere exclusive and utterly unaffordable. And Marcela is so, so proud of her.
Not was proud, Jana notes, but is. Is proud. So very, very proud.
As Jana listens, she pulls up the glyph-hunting forum, watching posts scroll by.
She could end the discussion right now. All there is to do is upload Marcela’s sequence and let them see for themselves. Even if her theory’s dead, so are all the others, and she can claim victory for having found the artist first, for unraveling the truth before anybody else.
But will people still listen, if they have the answer? The mother’s scream into the dark that they’ve mistakenly amplified—will it go silent?
Jana hesitates, half of her willing the sequence to send, the other half refusing to release it.
Marcela stops somewhere along the way, leaning over a wrought iron fence. Beyond, a pair of green-headed ducks glide across a stagnant pond. She gives them a sad smile.
But Jana’s attention is drawn elsewhere—past her implant, across the water, to where a sun-faded glyph wraps around the remnants of a maintenance shed. There’s no record of this one in her notes, but its age shows in the weathered paint, in the moss creeping over its bottom-right corner. One of the originals, she guesses, from back in the single digits. Maybe even the first.
Her decrypter runs it through the new sequence, granting her access. And she hears Marcela’s voice, from another time, reading the glyph’s encoded message back to her.
Tears sting in the corners of her eyes as she closes the forum. Beside her, Marcela is tossing bread to the ducks.
Jana takes her by the hand, twining the artist’s delicate fingers in her own. “There’s this curator,” she says, “on the coast.”
#75—“The Flower Seller”
[I’m sorry. That last one didn’t come out right. It was late when I wrote it. I was tired. And upset. I’m sorry.
Let me try again.
People want me to move on. They don’t say it outright, but I know they do. They think you’re never coming back. And they think trying to stay close to you is hurting me. I don’t blame them. It’s been hard.
But they don’t understand it, really. That I’ll keep you close no matter how much it hurts, because it would hurt even more to let you go. That to stop loving you means killing a part of myself I don’t want to live without.
I know you’ll come home one day, when you’re ready. And I’ll be here. Always.]
The day after the exhibit was announced, they painted over her pride and joy.
Whoever was responsible didn’t even sign it. Just slashed over her characters with blood-red Xs, the paint dripping down the rail line’s rusted flanks.
The icons cry out to Jana as she walks beneath them, suspended against the backdrop of shifting sky ads. A chorus of insults shrieks in the back of her skull. Calling her a sellout, mostly, with whispered undercurrents of misogyny and idle threats of violence. Jana just looks away, the ghost of a smile fading from her lips, and continues onward.
The rest of her tags have fallen since then. Painted over, one by one, until they’d purged her signature from the city. From downtown to the suburbs, there’s no trace of her left.
She heads north on Cliffton, passing the spot where “The Flower Seller” once stood. Scars show where the diamond saws cut it from the brick. Assuming all goes well, it should be in Philadelphia tonight, with the rest of them.
As far as the curator is aware, it was entirely Jana’s idea which glyphs would go into the collection. He doesn’t know about the artist. But he trusts Jana, and Jana trusts Marcela. And Marcela chose her messages carefully, hoping against hope that somewhere, in some gallery in some city far away, a young woman would stand before the glyphs she selected and read the words nobody else could, then decide to come home.
The curator wanted Jana at the debut. She was the glyph expert, after all, the one who’d reached out, who made all this possible. Jana declined, but promised she’d meet up with him on the second leg of the tour. She owes her mom a visit home first. And she has things to attend to here before she goes.
The monolithic outlines of warehouses loom up ahead, low-slung and skeletal, all of them trapped in the mid-stages of industrial decomposition. It’s a few blocks down and a right before Jana finds the one she’s looking for.
A quick glance over her shoulder, then she’s scaling the chain link fence, pulling herself up into the gaping maw of a loading bay. Inside, moonlight pools beneath high windows, and each footfall echoes back at her from the cavernous ceiling.
It’s still there, exactly where she spotted it from the street the day before: tucked into a corner two stories up, on a wall cluttered with decades of pre- and post-AR graffiti. A lone tag in matte black.
Jana runs it through. Gets a match for Marcela’s sequence.
The tag speaks to her as its characters fill her implant. The voice is reminiscent of Marcela’s, but somehow lighter, younger, more alive.
[Love, Teresa,] it says, over and over, and nothing more.
Date: four months ago.
Jana grins to herself. “I found you,” she whispers.
She takes a picture, opens her map, and marks down the tag’s location. It joins the dozen others she’s pinpointed, one more star in a constellation scattered across the outskirts.
There’s a shadow of a pattern emerging. Not clear yet, but Jana feels it’s pointing her to somewhere, to something, to someone. She just needs to keep searching.
She slips on the interface rig, arranges her paint cans on the floor, and remembers the note Marcela passed to her. The words crystallize in her mind as she lets the rig take over, encrypted starbursts blossoming from her fingertips.
If the glyph hunters find this, it’ll be #83. As she slips out of the warehouse, Jana wonders what they’ll name it, what theory they’ll attach it to.
Whatever they land on, they’ll be wrong, she decides. And they’ll be right. And it won’t matter either way.
To her, the glyphs are still a commentary on capitalism. And a protest against invasive tech. And a teenage renegade’s experimentation, and a mother’s scream into the dark. A mirror, an act of vandalism, a bastardization of street art, a meaningless pattern, a blank slate. They’re all of it and none.
The night is bright and clear and impeccably starless, like only city nights can be. Exhaustion is beginning to weigh on her. It’s still early, though, and she feels the shadow pattern leading her somewhere, guiding her along paths unseen to the next tag. So she follows it, deeper into the dark and the decay.
Next month she’ll be in California working on the exhibit. But tonight she’s happy to be here, in this city they’ve erased her from, sending messages for Marcela.
And searching, in the night, for an answer.
Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson
First Reader: Aigner Loren Wilson
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors