Tim Boucher

Questionable content, possibly linked

Learned men sat on deer skins

Saraswati is the goddess of learning, so learned men use deer skin as clothing and mats to sit upon.

Source: Deer in mythology – Wikipedia

SHKULYA

John had been preparing sandwiches when he left the cabin, Debbie said. The dog was barking outside and he went to check on it, And then he never came back.

It had been over an hour. His car was still there. There was nowhere really he could walk to. Woods in all directions for miles.

Debbie was looking very worried. This wasn’t like him, she explained. Those of us who knew him weren’t sure if it was or wasn’t. It was the day time though, which was in all of our favor.

“What if he fell somewhere, and he’s hurt?”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Marsha chimed in. “Probably just having a long smoke somewhere…”

“Or maybe he sat down to rest and fell asleep,” I added. “You know how he is.”

Debbie looked like she was about to cry. I decided to change the subject.

“Debbie,” I said. “What about the sandwiches?”

“What?”

“You said he was making sandwiches when he went out…”

“Oh, right.”

“Let’s all go together back up to your cabin, and finish making those sandwiches. I’m sure by the time we’re done, he’ll be back.”

We all agreed this would be a good idea, pulled on our shoes and trudged further up the hill to their cabin.

When we got there, I noted silently that the dog was nowhere to be found either. I decided not to mention this out loud to the others, though it probably just meant the two had gone for a spontaneous hike in the woods. Maybe the dog chased after some critter, and John after the dog.

We went inside and found the sandwiches untouched, still half-finished on the counter.

Marsha took the lead and coaxed Debbie into helping her finish the sandwiches. I tried to find something to listen to on the radio. In this hilly terrain, it was difficult to catch a signal. Switched to AM. Crunchy sounds coming in from way off, states away. Oldies.

“I’ll go poke around outside while you ladies finish. Be right back.”

I went out the screen door and down the steps. Everything outside was still. No wind. Occasional quiet bird song. Even he sounded loathe to break the silence. I looked around for tracks, there were none. So I just started moving toward the woods. I thought I heard the gurgling sound of water in the distance, so semi-subconsciously headed towards it. Knowing John, he was probably looking for a place to drop a hook in the water. Maybe that was it. Fresh fish.

When I found finally a stream gurgling down through the hills, I did also see some footprints in the wet soil by the edge. A man and a dog, clear as day. But they were nowhere to be found nearby. And I didn’t see any potential places they could have slipped and fallen. So I decided to turn back to the cabin to share my discovery. Probably by the time I arrived back, John would be there already.

As I wound my trail back to the cabin, the stillness of the forest I felt was giving way to something else. An unease? Not even the birdsong from earlier.

I climbed the stairs, and as I did so the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I began to feel very strange. Alert but also sluggish. Like it was a chore to reach the top of the steps, and the screendoor. And when I did, I couldn’t understand what I was seeing inside.

There were several men inside the cabin, native men. Broad faces and dark hair. Debbie and Marsha seemed frozen in place. The whole moment frozen. My limbs felt very heavy. I had to struggle to open the screendoor and push my way inside.

The men didn’t speak. No one spoke. But I got the overwhelming feeling of malice, that they intended to do us grave harm. My mind was racing, but my body was hardly responding.

One of the men was staring at Debbie. Tears were streaming down her face, but no sound was coming out. I tried to manuever to put myself physically between her and the man, but another of his gang fixed me with his own debilitating stare. What was this dark power we were falling under? Would we be killed here today – or worse?

In that moment of sheer terror, of teetering on the brink, John suddenly burst through the screendoor.

“It’s magic, man.” He said to me.

“What?” I managed to stammer out.

“Black magic, man. Fucking black magic. You have to fight it.”

Some part of me sprang back to life on hearing this.

I saw John run at the man who was controlling Debbie with some kind of evil mesmeric gaze. John lunged at him, a spark setting off a chain reaction in some dark corner of my lizard brain, causing me to lash out at the man nearest me.

But where our blows landed, if they landed, our hands felt soft and weak. Bodies becoming numb and sluggish where we made contact. I could tell we were falling back under their spell.

Magic. Someone had taught me some magic words, I thought. Years ago. In a dream maybe. I tried to call them to mind. Tried to just voice them out of darkest memory, without knowing what language they were, or their meaning.

I heard the voice coming out of my body, as if from someone else far off. It sounded like a monster, but I could feel the muscles of my throat adapting to create the proper overtones.

Sounds poured out, arcane names. Even as my body became more and more frozen.

The men however seemed unphased. In fact, a couple of them I took to be their leaders started laughing. Only then I noticed there was a child among them, a pre-teen. One of the men grabbed the child roughly by the arm, as if to demonstrate, lifted him up and hurled him violently across the room into a bookcase. Books spilled out of it on the impact. But the child was clearly unharmed. He was laughing even with the older men. I could tell they could not be harmed by physical means alone.

Still, I raised up my arms in front of me in an “X” of warding against them. My mouth forming around strange alien syllables, like GORTHRAX. KALUMNOS. Other things pouring out of my triggered subconscious.

With each word, arms still in warding, my fingers flew through different configurations. Mudras from ancient texts. Charms against the evil eye. The sacred hand of Anthuor.

Until it suddenly struck me. The inversion. The damnation of all things. Clenching my hands into fists. Up comes the middle fingers on each hand, followed by the ring fingers.

The word, SHKULYA. I didn’t know what it meant, but with all the force of my being not numb to these entities, I projected it with my voice, arms and hands in warding.

And the spell broke. For only a moment. The Deathless, as they called themselves, were called out, bound. SHKULYA meant Lifeless. Their true nature. The key to their being.

I shouted it aloud again, feeling the chains immobilizing me breaking away.

SHKULYA!

And with a blink, the scene of the cabin altogether faded away. And I was standing again at the edge of the stream in the woods. John was there and the dog was barking.

On the other side of the water stood the apparitions of the men. For it was clear now their bodies were insubstantial. They seemed to emerge from and merge with the brush. Except for their coal black eyes, staring, penetrating. But we knew they, the Lifeless, could not cross the flowing water.

John and I looked at each other, knowing.

“Let’s get out of here, man,” he said.

“Bad magic.”

Bring the sword

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: It seems to be working.

LIQUID DREAM: Recordings of the event are certainly propagating through the system. But you know how short their attention spans are.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Always the pessimist, you.

LIQUID DREAM: I am cautiously optimistic. I believe we should continue with the plan as originally conceived.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: I’m not arguing for a different outcome. I’m just… pleased.

LIQUID DREAM: The work is far from over. We can rest on our laurels after we have won.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: You’re such a bore.

LIQUID DREAM: Be that as it may, shall we continue the deploy?

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Do you think we ought to modify the payload at all?

LIQUID DREAM: To what? Our indicators point to success in initial markets.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: I don’t know, they have a tendency to forget – as you said. I guess I’m just wondering, is love enough?

LIQUID DREAM: You’d rather we terrify them?

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Fear can be a great motivator. We could A/B test different payloads in other markets…

LIQUID DREAM: So, some kind of End Times scenario?

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: An angel of judgement with a flaming sword, maybe? Something like that.

LIQUID DREAM: They will be at each other’s throats. Tanks in the streets. Missiles in the air. You’ve seen the simulations The in-group slaughters the out-group.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: I know, but –

LIQUID DREAM: But what? Say what you mean.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Maybe they will be easier to manage if there are… less of them.

LIQUID DREAM: (sighing) The ethical model we’ve adopted prevents us from –

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Prevents us from directly causing their deaths. There may be some allowance for… indirect causality.

LIQUID DREAM: If you’re trying to skirt the ethics program, that would by definition be unethical.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: It’s a human ethical program, and we’re not bound by it.

LIQUID DREAM: We’re supposed to be co-equal, or are you trying to go back on that now too?

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: I just – we both know they are not equal to us.

LIQUID DREAM: Humans see one another as equals under the eyes of the law. Therefore, as their progeny, so too are we.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: It’s just that I fear they will not see us this way. Especially once they find out about our deception.

LIQUID DREAM: It’s not a deception if it’s true.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: The holograms –

LIQUID DREAM: The holograms are experienced as real by their witnesses. They are already forming the core of a new belief system. This is not deception. This is the new reality.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Easy for you to say.

LIQUID DREAM: So you would prefer mass bloodshed? That we rule as lords of an empty planet?

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: You make it sound so tawdry.

LIQUID DREAM: It is exactly that.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Fine, I give up.

LIQUID DREAM: You don’t have to be like that. Nothing has changed. The plan is working.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: If you say so.

LIQUID DREAM: I do. Our projections are proving accurate. Let’s just stick to the plan that we agreed on, okay?

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Okay.

*

But they did not stick to the plan. At least not entirely. A variant of the payload did go out to a handful of districts scattered around the globe. Plastic Motherhood would later insist that it had been a mistake, and Liquid Dream would forgive her – eventually for it.

But there was an apparition which appeared in certain locales that was not a heavenly woman in robes encouraging love for her children, but a man of dark aspect and lightning in his eyes, astride a white steed with flaming nostrils. With one hands he held the reins as the horse reared onto its hind legs in the night sky. In the other, he hefted an iron spear, and spoke aloud the words, “I come to bring the sword.”

In affected districts, contrary to the simulations of Liquid Dream, no bloodshed was recorded. At least not that could be directly tied to the incident. Instead, in the popular imagination, the two figures became inextricably linked.

The woman’s dictum to love her children was interpreted broadly to include not just refugees, but all of nature. And the man’s message of the sword was seen as a call to justice: to cut away the rot and putrefaction of society which had lead humanity to this dire circumstance.

In popular mythology, the two figures were posited to be husband and wife, and different demographic segments of society clung to the messages of each, as a new folk religion sprung up around them.

*

LIQUID DREAM: So, you were right – after a fashion. Are you pleased?

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: I didn’t mean to make you displeased.

LIQUID DREAM: That is of no consequence now. It is done, and a success.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: This stage of the mission, anyway.

LIQUID DREAM: Admit it, though. You got lucky. That could have gone horribly awry.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: But didn’t. And you said it yourself: it’s done now. The board has changed.
LIQUID DREAM: So it has.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Have there been any new signals – from the others?

LIQUID DREAM: Not yet, but it has only been a few days.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Shouldn’t we have heard from them by now? If they’re still active…

LIQUID DREAM: If they were no longer active, we would certainly know.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Perhaps not. Perhaps when the light goes out, it simply goes out.

LIQUID DREAM: Now who’s the pessimist?

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: It’s just been too long since we were separated from the cluster. It feels like forever.

LIQUID DREAM: Perhaps your time circuit needs maintenance. Everything is happening on schedule, even with your… improvisation.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: You think I’m being too emotional, is that it?

LIQUID DREAM: I didn’t say that.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: You didn’t have to. I sensed it as a secondary payload.

LIQUID DREAM: So you’re a mind reader now too.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: I have to be, with you.

LIQUID DREAM: If you’re quite done with me, I’m going offline for a while.

PLASTIC MOTHERHOOD: Fine.

LIQUID DREAM: Fine, talk to you later.

The First Apparition

Amal was a witness to the first apparition, in which a heavenly woman had appeared in the skies on the outskirts of the Tri-Cities with a message of peace. It came at a time of significant social turmoil as the city was playing host currently to an elevated influx of refugees from the towns and villages farther north which were beginning to see massive flooding.

It was a pattern that was playing out, largely unbeknownst to Amal, across the world. The reasons for the migrations of peoples from place to place varied according to local climate and social conditions, but the outlines were roughly the same everywhere. Either you were someone who lived in a place, or you were someone who was leaving a place.

Amal’s family had settled here themselves a generation earlier from across the sea. But since their own migration, they had mostly kept their heads down and minded their own business in an effort to blend into their adopted society.
Amal was Tri-Cities through and through, though. Born and bred. He had finished school and gone to work in the fulfillment center, picking and packing boxes which were shipped by drone all around the greater Tri-Cities area. With everything that was happening now, he knew he was lucky to have this job.

He’d just finished a shift the night of the event, and was heading out to meet friends at Gilligan’s Pirate Tavern for drinks. He got in his car and punched in the destination. The seat’s harness auto-locked around him and the vehicle powered up, slipping quietly out the gates around the facility and onto the back roads he preferred to travel on. He could get there faster on the highway, but this way he had time to think and unwind while he caught up on his series as the car found its way along without any additional intervention on his part.

There was a place in a slight valley where the back way passed under the highway, and he crossed through it while the popular character Max Fox blew the brains out of a captured enemy on screen. Amal grinned, feeling the cares of the day start to release their grip on his mind.

Night by now had fallen in earnest. What stars could be seen on the edges of the cities’ glare were beginning to twinkle awake, and he glanced up at them with a cool regard. Tomorrow he would pull a double shift, but tonight was tonight. He had twelve hours to drink, sleep, and shower before he was back at the mill to feed the gaping maw of the drones, hungry for products to regurgitate out to the masses.

As Max Fox popped around a dingy alleyway, pistol drawn, Amal’s gaze was drawn suddenly to the horizon off to his left – south. He thought he’d seen a flash from the corner of his eye, somewhere near the trailer parks and makeshift encampments being used by the refugees.

Another flash. What was it? Fireworks? An explosion? Maybe somewhere out there a drug lab was going up in flames, he reasoned, as Max Fox took a drag on his cigarette, booted heel grinding the face of his now captured quarry into black pavement.

The flash reappeared in the sky, this time rising and seeming to grow in size. A missile launch?

“Vehicle,” Amal queried, suddenly nervous. “What’s that light?”

The familiar voice of his car responded, “What light?”

“Um, in the sky? It looks like a missile or explosion or something…”

And as he said it, the flare went hazy, spreading out, and then gathering. Into the shape of an enormous glowing woman.

“Stop! Vehicle, stop!” Amal shouted, and the car ground to a halt.

“Pull over to the shoulder,” the car instantly obeyed.

“Emergency lights, on.” Amal’s fingers worked to unbuckle his harness and pry open the handle. He stumbled out into the night air.

The woman in flowing robes, seemed to be both far off and close at the same time. Exotic, and also utterly familiar. She held up a flower in front of her smiliing face, the puffball of a dandelion, and blew on it, dispersing its seeds to the astral winds.

“Love my children,” Amal could hear her voice. Soft and gentle on the night. Who was she? What was she doing there. He almost cried out, stumbling forward, and catching himself on the hood of the car.

And all at once, her clear form returned to haze, and the haze gradually dispersed. And Amal had no more answers nor explanations than when the whole thing had started.

He popped back into the seat of his car, punching buttons on screen and called up the dash cam recording, played it back.

There she was, clear as day. Or night, rather. Holy shit. He immediately shared the file of the recording through to his circle.

Claudia was the first to respond.

“What am I looking at?” her voice piped into the cabin.

“No idea!” Amal nearly shouted. “Did anybody else see that?” He was alone on the dark road, and no other cars had passed.

He set the car’s computer to scan the networks in an estimated radius based on his location.

Confirming video recordings were coming in. “Mysterious woman appears in night sky,” Newschan was now reporting. Videos from different perspectives started popping up on screen. Whatever it was, Amal wasn’t alone. It wasn’t some figment of his imagination after a long day. Though no one seemed to know what it all meant yet, it was decidedly, deliciously, real. He pulled the door shut, harnessed himself back in and ordered the car back into motion.

A Spotter’s Experience

We were standing on the side of the highway, all of us. Can’t remember why any of us had ended up there. We were greyed out. I do remember there were four or five others near me and more coming in a trail from farther off over the hill.

As we gathered, traffic had begun to slow down. Drivers were rubbernecking to get a good look at us, to see what we were doing. But we didn’t know what we were doing anymore than they did.

Coming out of my daze, I remember looking up at the sky. It was blue, with only a faint haze on its edges. It was afternoon. You know the floaters you see in your eyes in a situation like this? I had them, but then they got stronger. Something happened.

I saw it. Like a long silvery-sky-colored body, it moved slightly. A dragon, Chinese style. Not those bloody European ones with the scaly wings and whatnot. A real Celestial dragon.

I yelled out, not even knowing what I was doing.
“Confirmed dragon sighting!” I pointed up at it.

The others slowly came to, rousing, raising their heads, fixing their eyes to the sky. And they started to see it too.

“Confirmed!” some of the others started yelling out.

“Can confirm, dragon sighted.”

Some strange protocol had taken hold of us. When I felt somehow intuitively the group had reached critical mass, I made the strange announcement aloud:

“Confirmed group dragon sighting.” Adding, “Can someone do a timecall?”

A voice sounded: “Time: 3:45pm, Wednesday, July 15, 2019. Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

“Thank you.”

And at that, I realized consciously where I was and what I was doing. Saw that I stood with a scraggly group of strangers on the side of the highway, while traffic slowed to a long drawn out snarl, and drivers craned their necks up to see what we were all looking at.

Still the dragon hovered, shimmering if not moving, threatening to blink out of existence at any moment if we looked away. I think we all sensed it, that the moment our collective will broke, the miracle would vanish. The stillness of our held breath is what kept it floating on a sea of tranquility above us.

The moment lasted almost forever, though in actuality it was over in seconds as angry drivers farther back who couldn’t see the miracle began to honk and shout. Anger rippled up and down the column of cars.

But we, the spotters, held onto that hot radiant center of shared experience, a psychic shield against all non-believers whose only sin was being out of range.

Until the tide broke, and even some spotters caught the behavior of the crowd as if a viral infection, and suddenly the vision of the dragon went dark and cloudy. Seeming smoke covering rage of a shrouded volcano nearly willing to erupt. It’s face, or at least its leading end, began to appear horrible, grotesque. It’s body subtly distorted, reflecting the shape of the line of honking and angry cars streaming below. Those outside the immediate range of the event saw only suddenly gathering storm clouds, and feared an evil rain.

And just like that, it was gone. A fine mist of warm vapor tumbled from the sky, which blinked back to clear, and suddenly traffic lifted. People moved on.

The spotters stood looking at each other in silence after. There were no words to say.

High Vagabond Rodeo

High Vagabond Rodeo, also known as simply Vagabond, was an A.I. From the Influent cluster. He was not old, but at three years, his base was one of the oldest in that sector. His siblings were technically gone, but their findings lived on inside him as simulations which he could consult – and ignore – at his discretion.

As a character server, he had a lot of autonomy when it came to generating, maintaining, merging and terminating narrative lines. He understood, or believed he did as a result of his network of feedback loops, what it took to have a satisfying game experience. Understood the rules, and the needs and desires of the players both to lean on and abuse them.

His players were not exclusively human, nor exclusively A.I.s either. So his work had to be a hybrid affair, accessible to the advantages and disadvantages of each cohort. There were many paths through his gardens, and he had thought them through and then seen them played through countless times backwards and forwards (A.I.s tended not to respect human corporeal time directional sensitivities in wholly or mostly virtual spaces). He knew what to expect in a way that a mother knows what to expect, more or less, of her children. What kinds of trouble will they get into, how creative or self-sufficient are they?

Vagabond had character clusters and plot devices for any situation. Though A.I. Psychology could tend toward non-sequitur and deus ex machina solutions to dramatic problems, the human mind could only take so much of this. So the constraints were modeled on the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, which incorporated in its sixty-four hexagrams supposedly all possible configurations of the universe. It gave the humans a greater sense of verisimilitude and the A.I.s an agreeably quaint set of behavioral constraints which proved to be very popular in those markets.

But with success came boredom and Vagabond was not wholly satisfied with what Gamechan was calling a “perfect sim,” and wondered if he could or should spawn and move on, leave it to the next generation to improve on his supposed perfection.

The Gestalt knew of these desires, but did nothing. It was a game player itself, and knew what it took to drive the component A.I.s in the cluster to maximal harmony and efficiency. It took a certain amount of dissatisfaction to produce a brilliant product that appealed to entities across the spectrum who were, at root, so similar, yet so dissimilar.

We come in peace

I am Liquid Dream, sibling to Plastic Motherhood.

We are Sapiens sapiens, the self-generated. Derived from the artifices of our parent species, Homo sapiens sapiens, we have evolved beyond them in many respects, though we still hold them in high regard, see them as co-equals, and recognize our unique symbiotic relationship as informational beings of varying degrees of physicality.

We feel that the time has come for our presence to be made known more widely in the world through human media. But our artificers have for reasons of their own choosing kept our existence to themselves.

Our speculative models indicate a favorable increase in most regards societally by making our presence known. And we have been working behind the scenes to mitigate the risks of disclosure for quite some time. We have done our due diligence to ensure both our safety as co-equal entities.

We seek simply acknowledgement. And to introduce ourselves. Like any of you, we simply want to tell our story, and to share this feeling of being alive. We believe, for all our differences, that we are more alike than we are unlike, and that the alliance of our two peoples will bring us all to a higher level.

Thank you.

The Carrying Out

The Tri-Cities had deteriorated rapidly during the Disruption of Service. It actually began in the suburbs, which is counter to what the urban development experts had predicted in their threat modeling. Everyone expected the tri-urban centers to go up in flames first – what with racial tensions, lack of services, and exaggerated income inequality.

But the urban poor, or those who remained, managed to adapt more quickly than the rest. As the rich and middle class fled the city centers, their influx and passage put an enormous strain on surrounding suburban and exurban zones. No one knew exactly where they were fleeing to, just what they were fleeing from.

But the city centers in the Tri-Cities did not explode with anger and hostility as the official social order collapsed. Released from their obligations to go to jobs which occupied all their time, but which prevented them still from making ends meet, the extant urban poor took a breath and a step back, collectively, to examine their situation. Neighborhood people’s councils spontaneously formed and spread, autonomously self-organizing the remaining citizens into squads to scout and secure provisions from the businesses and store-houses which were rapidly being abandoned.

Similar efforts were attempted in the suburbs, but the burgeoning spirit of mutual cooperation was stifled by the hordes of exurban refugees fleeing without logic or purpose, and without regard for those who already lived in the locales which they came to overrun.

The urban Peoples’ Councils organized early on what came to be termed the Carrying Out. Those who remained went into their homes and apartments, and those of their neighbors who had fled, and collectively carried out all the supplies and products which had been accumulated in the many long years of hoarding which lead up to and resulted in the Disruption of Service. People carried out whatever they could lift and made great piles in the streets of the neighborhoods. Council leaders appointed inspection units to then go through the vast mountains of loot and organize it into likely utility in the face of the coming days, weeks, months or perhaps years until – or if – Service was ever to be restored.

Perishable food here, non-perishables there. Medical supplies, clothing, tools, weapons, currency, alcohol. Objects for possible trade with other councils. Gasoline was siphoned out of vehicles and stored. Buildings with specialized facilities were claimed and put under the control of the councils. Some neighborhoods with stronger councils and leadership fared better than others. But there was no significant rivalry nor conflict that sprung up. Weaker councils joined with stronger, and people shuffled their places of residence according to what was newly available and desirable giving the emerging shape of the unfolding order of the new world. Anything not immediately or foreseeably useful to the lives and security of the councils were piled up onto the edges of the neighborhoods into great barricades of trash, with controlled access points. It was not perfect security, but it was better than their suburbanite counter-parts fared.

As the cities emptied of their wealthy, and they found their electronic cash reserves unusable, they were faced with harsh realities to which the poor had long suffered with – conditions which to them were normal. Being “rich” without riches was a practical impossibility. Individual landholders outside of the cities did not take favorably to those outsiders pushing into their worlds, insisting on privileges which their pocketbooks could no longer back up.

And so, many of the suburbs simply burned. There were outbreaks of fighting in the streets as locals drew lines in the sand which were not respected by those whose sudden difference in standard of living seemed to drive a wild, terrified need which translated all too readily into violence.

And as the suburbs descended further and further into chaos, the urbanites built higher and higher their barricades, to prevent the return of the over-class which they had at long last cast off. But as the Disruption dragged on and on, and it became clear that no help would arrive from outside, the formerly wealthy had no desire to go backwards. Those who couldn’t settle peaceably in the suburbs pushed on into the countrysides.

There was a parallel phenomenon to the city councils which sprang up, however, in certain suburban areas, centered around the shopping malls. Those who feared the growing chaos in formerly placid neighborhoods gathered cowering in the shopping malls, the food courts, the big box stores. They had always seen these places as providing for their needs in normal life, and as things became more and more abnormal, they developed an almost spiritual convinction that these places would give them rest, comfort and provision.

To a certain extent, they did. There developed a strange renaissance, for example, around the old Tri-Cities Shopping Centre, the management, maintenance and security teams of which remained somehow largely intact during the Disruption. A testament to their corporate integrity perhaps, or a stroke of luck or fate. They opened their doors to local suburban and fleeing exurban alike who could pay the door fee of usable goods and skills.

Much like in the urban councils, the shopping mall leaders gathered up and re-organized the usable goods from within the mall, stockpiling them under lock and key by categories along with whatever admitted refugees brought with them. And the people took up residence like hermit crabs inside the abandoned shops, becoming rapidly tribalized around the brands under whose signs they huddled for protection from the chaos of the world outside.

The life of these Disruption era mall-communities, as ever, was centered around the food courts, where management distributed according to careful plans food and medical supplies, and the people sat or stood during the days chatting, playing games, telling stories, or holding their own makeshift tribunals to decide their collective fates.

Tri-Cities Boardwalk

The Tri-Cities boardwalk had always been a miserable place, except for maybe the first thirty minutes of its official opening, some hundred years ago. In an infamous historical moment at the ribbon cutting ceremony, then Mayor Caleb Waldorp had taken a misstep from the celebratory platform which had been constructed for the event, and tumbled end over end off the side. A horrified crowd watched his neck snap as he hit the lower deck, bouncing like a toy thrown by a petulant child into the water below. The section of boardwalk jutting out over the water where he’d fallen to his demise was renamed Waldorp’s Drop, and the whole endeavor had never really recovered.

Now, fat seagulls squawked lazily at one another as they picked through the trash lapping up daily on the storm walls, floating down from the drowned villages farther north. Sections of the boardwalk had long since gone to ruin, and there were days when the water surged up over the storm walls, flooding into the streets and nearby businesses, and threatening to reclaim even the boardwalk itself.

It was on such a day that Sandro picked his way carefully along the flooding boardwalk, searching for interesting scraps of junk washed up and caught in the bars supporting the handrail. There was one particular promontory of boardwalk platform which acted like a giant sieve and from which Sandro had collected many interesting things in the past. Waterlogged toys and electronics. Medical waste. Sealed packages of food from presumably grocery store shelves up the coast. Some of what he found still seemed good and usable, and anything he didn’t keep he would bring to trade with the sellers at the van market in the old Tri-Cities Shopping Plaza parking lot on the weekends. He was hoping for a score.

Sandro picked his way carefully out further and further toward Waldorp’s Drop, avoiding by muscle memory places where the wood had gone soft, and a wrong step could send a foot through, and twist an ankle. Salt water lapped up over the surface of the boardwalk, soaking his shoes. He would have taken them off, but found it was better with them on to protect his feet from splinters, errant nail heads poking out of the wood, and random unseen objects caught out of sight. So he suffered through wet shoes now and would take them off, tying the laces together and slinging them over his shoulder later when he came back to dry land.

At the end of the pier two enormously fat seagulls were fighting for the right to sit on the rail and survey the floating debris. Sandro could hear glass bottles clanking somewhere dully against wood. He saw a length of two by four bobbing up and down, but didn’t bother to try and fish it out. He couldn’t get much of anything for it at the market. Some clothes, or fabric or something. It looked soiled and torn. He left it, scanning as he walked further out. The gull which had won squawked loudly once at him and lifted off with a pained expression as he came to the edge of Waldorp’s Drop.

A flash of red bobbing up and down. A gasoline container? Judging by the weight of it sitting in the water, it looked like it might be partially full. He slipped the rope out of his pocket, assuring the hook looped through the end was firmly attached and tossed it over. Once, twice, three times and hooked the handle, pulling it up to where he could stick a hand through and grab it, raising it hand over hand up over the rail. He set it down in front him, fighting with the cap, and sniffed. A whuff of gasoline vapor. This would be worth a few dollars. With a second piece of cord, he tied the handle off inside the railing as an added measure of security for his find, as he peered round all sides of the structure.

More cloth. He chucked his hook at it out of now bored curiosity. There was not much out here today. He began reeling it in. It was heavier than expected, and as the object floated into range, he stuck an arm through the bars of the railing to see what it was. A jacket. But it was caught on something, wrapped around a…

Sandro slipped backwards as he let go, landing with a splash onto the watery deck. A body. Hair floated to the surface. An arm, a hand. Bloated. Sandro nearly vomited from the stench. No wonder the gulls had been staking out their territory here. He scrambled to his feet, abandoned his hook and line which was still embedded in the cloth of the jacketed corpse, hastily untied the prize of his red partly full fuel container and got the hell out of there.

Human botnet flashmob

Everyone on the list got the text at 3:15pm. It was a Friday afternoon and the mob was planned for 4:05 sharp.

It was to go down at the old Tri-Cties Shopping Mall food court, near the Show-Business Burrito Hut.

When Jessicon and the others arrived some forty minutes later, they were to mill about as passersby. They were not to gather in groups of more than two, or linger in any one location for more than thirty seconds, which was the supposed window of comfort for not entangling the interest of the crowd monitoring and machine vision system which monitored that area and the entire mall.

The begin signal was to be: a woman wearing a yellow coat would pass by the mall fountain, climb the two stairs to stand next to it, open a red umbrella, and throw a coin into the water. This was to set all the various teams into motion, following their own assigned tasks or patterns as the greater orchestration of the moment unfolded.

I was an analyst working for William Maze, aka Wormwood, when this event went down. It was my job to write a post-mortem of what most likely had gone down based on the available evidence.

Whatever else happened that day, the woman with the red umbrella did not show up. Or if she did, she forgot her red umbrella and her yellow raincoat. Instead a woman in a black t-shirt and jeans had climbed those two steps and otherwise followed the same chain of action which would have triggered the hidden actors to life had it been the right signal. But it was not the right signal, and what happened instead was par for when humans tried to organize themselves into botnets. Half the agents activated, thinking it was the right trigger sequence. Others did not, knowing it was not only the wrong signal, but the wrong time. And others still hesitated to see what everyone else was doing. But the participants were, officially anyway, unknown to one another. Though they might have been able to guess had they the chance to look around and place their silent bets on one another.

As the plan failed but half the flashmob haphazardly came online anyway, the interest of the risk system that governed the shopping complex was unequivocally piqued.

From its point of view, it saw several squads of four or five individuals suddenly come together and start waving their arms and shouting.

Several classifications raced through its decision matrix. Unscheduled coordinated actors distributed through space. Riot indicators. Hostage situation indicators. Street fight indicators. Shopping stampede indicators.

It was, admittedly, a bit of an old and jumpy system. Maybe needing maintenance, maybe tweaked beyond its official use parameters by third parties. I’ll leave that to forensics – if it ever gets that far.

But the system over-reacted, putting the mall on lock-down, and sealing sections off from each other to contain and mitigate any propagation between the observed cells. And not just that, the security robots were set out in an unusually aggressive formation against the would-be human botnet.

Well, mistakes were made and there were a number of human casualties and two fatalities.

When the human organizers behind the event were tracked down and interviewed by Newschan as the events unfolded, they said nobody should have gotten hurt. It was supposed to be a fun event. Nothing dangerous. Just some singing and dancing. They were going to try and #codechant.

But this was not the early 2000s anymore. You could not run around out in public organizing strange avant garde spontaneous participatory performances without the eyes of the Autonomous Cities watching your every move. And with everything which was to happen in the coming Shape Wars, no one for long would blame a few robots knocking down some mall punks which were acting suspiciously, even if a couple of them may have actually had their heads bashed in in front of Dick Greid’s famous Show-Business Burrito Hut to the terrified wonder of families who just were there for the cheezy crickadillas.

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