Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Silence Part 10: Armatures

“Forget 4G. Negative One-G is the future,” Sergio spieled the headline in audible WIRED font. Or whatever that long gone pre-Disconnect web publication was called. He waved his shallot-beaded fork around in curlicue motions like a laser pointer, as though circling some world shattering bullet point on the projection screen of the unusually blue sky.

“Totally.” I went with sustained affirmation, always the smart choice with Sergio.

“I’m serious. Tree bark. That’s where it’s heading.”

“Tree bark, of course. Um, what?” I sipped almost-desalinated water. The few percent saline content gave it an oddly sports drink like tang, reminded me of the Powerade analog we had way too much of in Elysium Vault. The Guugul CIO had a thing for the ‘electrolyte’ drinks, having essentially lived on them in his parent’s basement back in his startup engineering days, and we had several storerooms full of “thirst quenchers” thanks to his micromanagement of Vault rations.

“Tree bark,” Sergio reiterated, pausing, as if to let unheard echoes and reverberations resound the gravitas of the words.

“Take pieces of tree bark, grind them up nice, mix it with water. I know it sounds crazy but stay with me,” he’d started with the big histrionic hand motions at this point, nearly knocking over his own glass of brackish water, taking the pitch up several notches. I glanced around, luckily there were only two other patrons having lunch, an elderly couple, too engrossed in their own food and civil disputes. The culinary sector was not exactly booming.

“So you take that woody pulp, and you strain it through a screen, like an old mesh door or something. Then you dry it out, and what have you got?”

I really had no idea what I had, at that point, except the gist of another one of Sergio’s patented cockamamie get-rich-quick schemes. He was out of his seat at this point, arms up in the air, wily eyed.

“Static screens! This is going to be huge, like the invention of electricity, or Farmville!” Sergio was clearly seeing hallucinogenic visions of entrepreneur stardom, bright lights and Big Idea book deals. I made a mental note after he wore himself down to remind him to stop binging on Old World tech conference videos.
“So then we use these cylindrical pigment delivery devices, I’m thinking of calling them ‘keyboard sticks’ since they allow you to enter text onto physical objects. What do you think, too retro-buzz? Anyways, you use these keyboard sticks to print ink text messages onto these pieces of flattened tree bark. Static Screens. They’re like computer screens, except they’re fixed. Mostly. You can’t delete the text you’ve entered unless you use a special erasable pigment, and you can’t open a new file, or copy-paste or change the font or anything. But see, that’s the beauty of it.”

“You’re talking about paper. Mail. Books. Printing press. Gutenberg.” I offered.

“Paper? What the hell is paper? No, no. Static screens. This is so going Friendbook. If you get on board now I'll sweeten the deal to 40% plus a big executive stock option package.”

Sergio’s child-like entrepreneur smile swished about in ellipses as he luxuriated in a mouthful of his ‘scallop terrine with frisee salad.’ The luxuriation was a placebo, though. We were ‘dining’ at Lady Lala’s Luscious Luncheonette, ostensibly the “Crème De La Crème of Ibayzaar dining.” In truth it was a restaurant for people who wanted to *feel* like connoisseurs, or VIPs talking high-shop over a power lunch.

Reality was the food tasted just as crap as anywhere else in sub-executive Ibayzaar. My French Dip lamb sandwich au jus wasn’t too far from eating goat ass, I think the ‘lamb’ was made from the mutant shitake mushrooms that grew near the mouths of the sewer pipes down on Jobs Street. It didn’t help that they were focusing too hard on presentation, I could’ve sworn the glassy look on the golden flambé was achieved with hairspray. Marketing over substance. Very Old World.

Still, Lady Lala’s did their best, painted the inside walls of a shipping container to resemble exposed brick. Daily specials written in chalked cursive on a slab of (cracked) blackboard, and waitresses in strict uniform and tableside manner. (The container was apparently a lost shipment of Halloween discount outlet French Maid costumes. They all affected cheesy fake accents, but who knew what French sounded like anymore? Points for presentation, A for effort. I took style notes for me and Cyclops’ future ratburger diner, and tips on how not to cook.

“I’ll have to give it some more thought,” I said after a minute of pretending to be thinking about Sergio’s offer. I went to take another sip of water, remembered electrolytes, then reneged on the action.

Sergio sighed the long professorial sigh that warned I was in for a Ted Talks’ worth of intellerati-speak.

“Communication, it’s fundamental. What defines us as a species.” Sergio resumed after swallowing.

“In The Beginning Was The Text. See, at first, we humans back in the prehistoric Chased By Dinosaurs time, since it was so dangerous with all the T-Rexes running around eating us out of our jeeps like canned doggie food, we mostly just stayed in our solitary caves, made propane campfires, watched ‘Tube videos and played single player games. Subsisted on a diet of hot pockets.”

“But we eventually got lonely and bored, and someone thought, ‘I wish I could, like, talk to someone.’ And so the first text was invented, although no one knows exactly when, or on what phone, although some Nokia ‘brick’ fossils have been excavated from closets and recycling bins carbon dating to like, 100 BD . At first the texts were just primitive guttural grunts like, ‘lol’, and ‘zomg dis iz koooool’, and ‘stfu n00b’. But eventually the proto humans started forming semi-complete sentences, first with that crazy British guy Shakespeare in 1492 who nobody can understand cause he was new at it, and then the Egyptian Iliad, then it started getting really sophisticated with Harry Potter during the Enlightenment, and culminated ultimately in Twilight, pretty much the epitome of literature. The digital fossil record, the ebook sales and #trending topics data we have on the Twilight series pretty much speak for themselves.”

“So we humans were like, ‘Ok, this is pretty dope, talking to people, online communities, I’m totally feeling less existential and suicidal so I can stop posting self-pitying shit on my livejournal. And, now we’ve got electric stoves and flying cars which is totally cherry. But still, I feel like something’s missing. I think I’d like to actually Face 2 Face with someone.’ And by this time, dinosaurs were in trouble because they didn’t have opposable thumbs with which to text to keep up with the latest feeds, then the zombie apocalypse at last wiped out the dinosaurs, and the humans had headshotted all the zombies – that’s called natural selection and evolution in case you didn’t know, it’s pretty cool. Jocks (Homo Jockus) AKA Neanderthals also went extinct, when their reserves of creatine energy bars and ESPN dried up as people stopped leaving their caves where they worked and played and pretty much did everything on the intertubes.

“So with the dinosaurs and jocks out of the picture, the humans (mostly Homo Geekus by then) were free to go to tech conferences and cosplay cons and message board meatups and other Face2Face events and actually see each other in person. Problem was, they had only texted up until this point, so there was no vocal language plus their vocal chords and larynxes had atrophied from disuse into vestigial appendices. This moment in time is known in science as ‘The Big Ummmm’, a global awkward silence of epic proportions, and is well-documented in the cosmic microwave background radiation of the Twitter and Google trends record by a sudden crash in #Jersey Shore search traffic.

“Then out of nowhere, a man, some called him “The American Idol”, some called him “Jesus”, sacrificed his cool composure for us and started singing a Justin Beiber song that everyone knew. At first everyone just lul’d and made juvenile jokes about him, Photoshopped his face onto women’s bodies and lolcats, then people started making jokes about how cliché other people’s jokes were, then soon there was a Great Flood of ad hominems that incited The World Flame War, breaking out across the thirteen continents. But the man just kept singing Justin Beiber despite receiving the penultimate epicest bashing in the history of the universe. Then, something amazing happened. One by one, people began to see the futility of their attacks on the man, and some deep inner quantum leap was made, an inner self that was not just part of the shallow spiteful mob-essence of junior high was unlocked, nothing short of the creation of cities. One by one, people started to join in the singing. Soon the shitty Justin Beiber song filled up the hotel lobby that was hosting the Eden Con meat with karaoke, and there was much loving of their neighbors and coming together as one big human family that they’d never had isolated all those years in their caves. There was hugging and kissing and some groping and kinky fursuit sex – sex was also invented at this first physical meatup, and God saw it was good.

“But corporations like PepsiCoke Inc. and the United States and Guugol were alarmed as people were spending all their time having IRL relationships and meat-talking and not wasting millions of hours online on their servers and texting on their smartphone networks. November 25th, 2020, a “day to be remembered in infamy” the Mega Mart CEO dubbed it, was the first Black Friday that the Fortunate 500 companies failed to sell enough crap to get their balance sheets out of the red, also known as “Red Friday”. Thus the “Red Scare” began. People were asked to out their Red neighbors who participated in meat conversations longer than two minutes, wrote posts longer than 140 characters, or who failed to text at least five thousand messages a day. ‘There could be a Red in your social network!’

“People who continued in the “deviant” social behavior were branded “communityists”. (Europe and Tibet were labeled red communityists states, AKA the Axis of Evil) The corporation-network-nations began marketing campaigns like, “shorter is better” featuring RealityTube celebrities typing two letter texts. They propagated dubious studies, funded by the Kotch brothers and other thinktanks, that showed Face 2 Face conversation could cause loss of eye-thumb coordination, and could lead to dangerous ‘relationships’, physical contact and hazardous meat-sex. They instated a national holiday, “Christmas” – which comes from the latin ‘chrinsumere’, meaning ‘to consume’, and mass, or ‘Day of Mass Consumption’. Christmas was a bizarre ritual involving a competition of who could buy the most smartphones and smartpads and game systems and trendy clothes and exercise equipment and other products for every single person they knew, products that ended up getting returned or thrown away or left to collect dust in the garage.”

“Entranced by their shiny new devices, humans began getting caught up in them again, meat-talking to each other less and less, spending more time enamored with countless apps. Attention spans and vocabularies dwindled. The deep interpersonal connections they’d made eroded again as they succumbed to cultural entropy and reverted back into the monosyllabic 140 character lolspeak from whence they came. Addicted to the monthly Hot New Tech, the latest gadget, 3g, 4g, 5g, 6g. Unlimited texting. Hi-Def video. Virtu-‘Sperience. Even walking around in the meat-world, sitting across from each other in a café, people still only talked through their little shiny screens. Long, well-thought out posts became instant messages, then instnt msgs then mcro msgs, then nanmgs. Ashes to ashes, lulz to lulz. Humans at last arrived back in their lonely caves, back at their monkey-like txt-grunting from which they had started. This is illustrated in the documentary ‘Planet of The Apes.”

“Ok, ok, ok, ease up on the history lesson spamming a sec, buffer overflow, Sergio, dude.” I breakpointed. “Firstly, are you sure you’ve got your facts straight? And secondly, what the hell does any of this have to do with paper, I mean ‘Static Screens’?” My sandwich had gone cold over Sergio’s fifteen minute diatribe, not that I was planning on finishing it anyway.

“Of course it’s accurate. I fact checked everything on a Wikipedia archive. And it’s like I said, the Ancients had texting right, it’s just they got the format wrong. We make technology, then technology makes us. A steady diet of hi-speed constant texting and status-updating ultimately leaves people distracted, lonely, unhappy. That’s where the Static Screen Negative 1G network comes in. It slows communication back down to the human level.”

I nodded, afraid to say anything provocative that might set off another verbal landmine from the mouth of my exceedingly eccentric potential partner. I guess there were a few snowflakes of wisdom in his mad blizzard of spaz-warped babble. Paper would become a useful commodity, especially when our burgeoning little societal experiment reached the level where people started wanting to read books, and newspapers. You could be the next Citizen Kane if you got in on the ground floor with the right connections. Hell, it was like the second coming of the printing press, you could easily disseminate information, organize a resistance, maybe break the Ibayzaar deathgrip. Of course, eventually the internet 2.0 would be invented and come around to kill your print empire (again). But then who knew when that would be? We had home-gene mod hacking due to its user-friendly simplicity, but no cure for polio or antibiotics. Some had managed to get solar-powered electrical motors up, but not a clue how to get a combustion or steam engine running. Ibayzaar was a place of disparate technologies, like being in the Dark Ages one moment and a sci-fi flick at the same time.

“Can I get this to go, ma chérie?” Sergio hailed a French Maid waitress in a tacky lace-up bodice who proceeded to giggle and pretend-dust our table with her plastic feather duster.

“Oui, oui, monsieur. Would you lack any dessieut wis zat?” The bubbly cosplayer asked, hands folded down in front, black and white poofy shoulder sleeves like twin chocolate frosted éclairs. Eclairs soaked in hairspray, I reminded myself.

“No, no dessert, Violette, your company is more than my daily recommended sugar intake,” Sergio took her florally manicured hand in his, leaning down to kiss it. I was always taken aback by how this crazy man-child could be such a damn player, womanizer, even. He was no cover-boy Adonis, although he did have a certain boyish Latin charm, and attempted to dress way above his pay grade, like he was eternally waiting for an upper-echelon business meeting to start, soon on to bigger and better things. But I think mostly women were lured in by his intense aura of manic-compulsive lunacy, which they mistook for confidence.

“Sergio! (Sershio) I am workeeng!” The waitress reclaimed her hand, although not forcefully enough to have displayed convincing outrage. She threw up a smoke screen of feather duster in his face playfully, causing him to sneeze, and laugh his annoying high pitched laugh, like a child squeezing air out of a balloon.

“So am I.” Sergio winked. “I’d like to introduce you to my good friend and very soon to be business associate, Jericho. Jericho, Violette.” I waved subtly that ended up looking pretty gay in retrospect.

“Enchanté, monsieur Jericho,” Violette smiled at her new gay friend, then aimed back at Sergio. “Meet me out back in a half hour, I must ‘ave a word wis zee staff.” Violette clopped off, whipping the duster at two of the other French Maids who were lounging around playing cards on the company dime.


In all honesty I was not really buying into Sergio’s ideas. (or perhaps “drinking the koolaid” is more accurate) But in truth, my prospects were, to put it mildly, not looking good. Cy and I were going underwater on our payments at the Chateau Du Hole-In-The-Wall. A month later the landlord’s cancered-up meatthugs came and roughed us up in our coffin-flat (on the bright side the 6x6 apartment was so small they didn’t have enough room to wind a punch more than a few inches. They left me with only six cracked ribs). We ate cheap, which meant fallout weed. It’s not bad, kind of like the seaweed used for sushi nori, but with an aftertaste like chemotherapy. Living on fallout weed porridge has its benefits. That shit will grow anywhere and it’s always warm on account of the radioactive isotopes, but you gotta watch your rad count or you’re likely to grow an arm out your stomach. Or, you know, die horribly of radiation sickness. After we got beat down again and started projectile vomiting blood along with the nuke-soup, I finally decided to take up a second gig, warehousing boxes of synthehol and petri-dish meat for The Derelict, via networking through Syn.

When that wasn’t enough, I hit a new low and started dancing on The Derelict’s Ladies Night for a stint. As decidedly uncool as I was with the idea, it was either shake my junk for money or sign my life away and become another victim of the Sweat Shop human power plants. “Love Machine” I was stage named, for my cybernetic arm, and my stiff-limbed possibly genetic lack of dancing ability which worked to my robotic Chip n Dale persona’s advantage. I gained a disturbing fanbase of Netfreak nutjobs and chicks who had some fucked up kinky desire to fuck robots.

Lady Three Jane was a notable VIP room regular for “The Love Machine”, and a loony but generous benefactress. She was the damaged-goods daughter of some absent, controlling Old World Silicon Valley mogul with an obsession with sci-fi, who named her after his favorite cyberpunk character. She liked to give orders, liked to roleplay. Sometimes I’d be the robot love slave called ‘Wintermute’ (apparently another character from her dad’s books), sometimes she’d bust out the latex and cuffs and I’d get whippings, verbal and physical, dressed in her father’s business suit, as she screamed stuff like, “Fuck you, you selfish bastard!” Sessions would generally end with her crying to me about her daddy issues, then abruptly running out the door in tears. The secondary stress was fucking draining.

From what I’d gathered, her dad’s company and fortune had gone up in smoke, a corporate casualty of the colliding digital continents of the United Territories of Googul and EurasiaNet. Edged out in a network dominance war. Out Edged. He’d jumped out the window of his 102nd floor corner office a week later. Three Jane was the lone mad relic of a crumbled digital Cloud empire, fished from the wreckage by a family friend in the Ibayzaar inner circle, encased in a straight jacket and padded room at the top of a corporate tower, like a cracked crown jewel in a museum display. Preserved with humble reverence as a reminder of former West-Coast entrepreneurial grandeur. Being the only survivor of a Googul Vault invasion myself, maybe we weren’t so different. I guess what Three Jane taught me was everybody had problems, for some it was more psychological, for some more concretely economic.

For Sergio, the problems were psychological and economic. His legs had that wiry strength that you get from extreme physical activity but not enough nutrition and protein for the body to properly rebuild new muscle tissue after the lactic breakdown. It was fairly obvious he’d spent some ‘quality time’ in the human powerplant sweatshops, lots of it if he’d become a debt slave. You could go crazy down there, and who knows how long he’d been. Heat stroke was also common as the sardine-like proximity combined with elevated body heat generated by the physical exertion of generator peddling could cause temperatures to soar to sweltering triple digits. The system was designed to wear people out to husks of their former selves. Planned obsolescence, like the short fixed lifespans of Old World cars, fashion, Asian factory workers. He didn’t like to talk about his time in the human power plants, which he referred to as, “the dark time”. Said it messed with his aura of positivity.

“Great, my first business connection is a half baked nut showing schizophrenic symptoms of Post Traumatic Internet Withdrawal Disorder,” I remembered thinking. Still, he was enthusiastic, you had to give him that. From what I’d gleamed between flash flood-of-consciousness rants, Sergio’s day job was as a delivery guy, a courier, mostly freelance. Holding down a job necessitated hanging onto at least a modicum of sanity, right? Either way, I wasn’t too many anemic paychecks away from going back to sleeping in a cardboard box or melting into an indiscriminable puddle of radioactive goo.


We took a stroll down Geepeeyess street, to run an “errand” before the “business” with Violette. Also known as “Craigslist District”, it was one of the first Ibayzaar favelas scaffolded upon the crumbling vestiges of an Old World megamall. It had since gestated into one of the biggest commercial centers of Ibayzaar, where rumors said you could get literally and notoriously ‘anything’.

A favorite was Rei’s Chibi Pet Shop. A pink-themed boutique selling cats gene-hacked to resemble Hello Kitty!, with gigantic heads, tiny eyes, and vaguely anthropomorphic bone structures. “My little sis loves these things.” Sergio pet a beady-eyed kitty homunculus.

“How much for this one, Rei?” Sergio pointed to “Kiki” the nametag on the white-furred chibikitty who was now licking the palm of his hand affectionately.

“Ten Ebuck, good discount for you my brother, Sergio.” Seijyo The shopowner said, through a big Asian sun-mottled smile like the peel of a ripe banana.

Sergio exhaled as if gut-punched. “Phew, wish I had the credits, but you know, business been pretty slow lately. Sure you can’t slash it any lower for me?”

Rei’s Shinjuku-polite sales smile wavered, but held. “Sumimasen friend Sergio, no can lower. Business not so good also. Cost raise kitty, plus seller fee, rent, nine Ebuck each. Losing money already.” Sergio sighed.

Swaths of customers seemed to be leaving Rei’s and flocking across the street to Pet-Mart, a massive block-size big-box ripoff of Rei’s Chibi Pet Shop, recently opened, with a golden “Ibayzaar Preferred Seller” emblem. The prices were rock bottom at three Ibucks each but most of the chibi animals had milky crossed eyes, arthritic movements and blotchy fur. It was clear the DNA-tweaking had left the cats with as many recessive gene ailments as an Old World inbred Euro-monarch. A sign read, “Half the lifespan, but twice the kawaii!”

“That is deeply fucked,” I uttered, dry heaving a little.

“No shit,” Sergio concurred sadly.

Rei’s shopkeeper front at last gave way to a frown, like Mr. Miyagi disappointed in the lack of harmony in the universe. “I do this all life, father teach neko bushido. Pet Mart steal technique, only make shit obake kitty. No bushido. No quality. No respect worker. No respect life. Rei only quality, like like Sony, like samurai. Pet Mart only shit. Like China Foxconn factory.” Fuck-sukon. Rei brushed the fur of the mewling Kiki like a beloved daughter, as if to reassure her of her value, and himself of his.

We continued West on Geepeeyess and took a right at Page street. “You know Pet Mart’s squeezing of Rei’s out of the market is not an isolated anecdote, not the exception, but the norm. It’s ugly out there.” Sergio remarked.

And the more we looked, the more I saw that it was true. The Plastigicians, another well-known family-run shop that made masterfully crafted plastic sculpture and pottery with a rackety half-working RepRap 3d printer was overshadowed by a Cup n Bowl Warehouse. All around, fixture coffee shops and restaurants like Lady Lala’s were being gobbled up by hordes of Buckster’s and McDanny’s spreading like drug resistant e-coli.

“There’s a new breadline of obsolesced John Henries showing up every month. Couple that with the fact that Ibayzaar Big Players will steal your biz model and market share the week after you launched your new product line and the picture is not so hot for your average bright-eyed entrepreneur. The game is seriously rigged. That’s why we’ve got to play this smart, my friend. We’ve got to go lateral.” Sergio tapped his forehead and looked left and right. Sometimes he seemed so lucid and sharp, but then he’d do or say something that suggested he had no idea what he was talking about.

We came at last to a log cabin, made from real sequoia logs, with a rustic carved-wood sign reading, “Uncle Bunyan’s Timber”. There was a very tall, broad shouldered bearish man in overalls standing outside, having a conversation with one of the Ibayzaar suits backed up by a pair of mercs packing heavy. In his effeminately cut, pearly dinner jacket, the suit seemed even more girlish in the face of the Bounty Man’s brawn, but he also appeared to have the verbal upper hand in whatever they were discussing. The lumberjack did not look at all happy, grizzly beard rippling atop grinding jaw muscles.

The suit appeared to serve up some kind of ultimatum, given his stiff posture, like a circus conductor trying to assert dominance over an angry lion to get him into a cage. The lumberjack stood silent, stoic, iconic. Turned to glance at his cabin, back to the suit. Suddenly reached for the clipboard the suit was holding, and ripped it in half with his bare calloused hands. The suit cowered, covering his rose-tinted spectacles with a limp wrist and making a pathetic squeak like a frightened mouse. The assault rifles snapped onto the lumberjack’s neck like electric prods. The suit regained his composure, straightened his bleach white collar, shaken, but also resigned. No longer dueling, more like preparing to attend the funeral of a not particularly loved relative. The corporate entourage about faced.

It was Alistair, the sniveling blood sucking little bastard who had Cyclops and I locked up and “interrogated” under suspicion we were robots plotting to blow up town square. I prayed he wouldn’t get close enough for fear of what involuntarily harm I might cause to his person.

“Ah, Jericho. The one that got away.” Blinding flash of white teeth.

“Alistair. Still crucifying the innocent and washing out the spots with paperwork, I see.” I said.

Alistair clucked. “How far the apple has fallen from the Guugol tree. From one of the few Chosen network-nation Vault Dwellers to wallowing in that festering shanty slum Derelict Town, playing revolutionary with these roaches and their lack of… refinement.” Alistair swiveled his upturned nose to sniff at Sergio, nodding as if finding his point proven.

“You can steal all the nicest Old World costumes, powder your nose all you want, we both know who the real ugly cancer in the stomach of ‘civilization’ is here.” I spat, literally.

“You and your criminal friends enjoy your little commune, you hear? Progress is coming, old sport. Modernity 2.0.” Alistair signaled to his motorcade to move out. “Oh and could you do me a favor and talk some sense into that deluded ape over there?” Alistair waved offhandedly in the direction of the lumberjack, as if brushing dandruff from his clavicle.

“I’ve gotta see the old man.” Sergio ran off behind the cabin where the lumberjack had skulked off, I followed. The big guy had an axe the size of a traffic light and was hacking a two-foot diameter log up into sections like he was chopping farmer’s sausage on a cutting board. And about as easily.

“Uncle Bunyan, hey, Papa B, John, what’s the deal?” Sergio was standing there beside the lumberjack, trying to get him to talk. The lumberjack seemed to be mumbling to himself while he swung the axe as hard as he could. Each blow echoed like a gunshot, a pound of wood chips exploding outward, and Sergio found himself hiding behind one of Uncle Bunyan’s large shoulders to cover from the shrapnel.

“Great axe, this. I reckon you could chop down one ‘o them concrete sky-touchers, given the proper sharpening.” Uncle Bunyan said at last.

“What happened, man? Come on, just put down the axe.” Sergio placed a hand on Bunyan’s back. He shrugged it off. On the next chop, a piece of wood the size of a fist flew wild and hit Sergio in the nose.

“You know my momma, she hated machines. Daddy was obsessed with that ‘World of Wizardcraft’, lived in the attic with his computers, never came down to see us. Gave me a whippin’ if I ever interrupted his dungeon raids.” Bunyan stopped chopping for a moment, resumed. “Momma said the devil’ed possessed him, came in straight through the wires. She thanked the good Lord when He brought down the second Great Flood to wash away the ‘lectronic sins of the world with the EMPs.” Eeyayumpees “’Things is finally goin’ right for a change,’ she said. Daddy was real angry when the machines died, and he left me and momma to find his lost World of Wizardcraft out there, but we all knew there wasn’t none to be found. ‘Devil finally took his soul, all we can do is pray for him,’ mama said.” Bunyan rolled away the last disc of wood, sawdust blowing in the wind as he moved to a new log.

“When Armageddon done broke loose with people lootin’ then killin’ and then eatin’ each other, momma and I escaped up into the mountains, to live just like how the pioneers of the ‘ol US of A used to live, before the machines, before the dark times. Mama had an old picture book, Paul Bunyan: the greatest lumberjack that ever lived, who could level a forest with one swoop of his axe and who got so thirsty from all his hard logging work he drank up all the water in the Grand Canyon, leaving just a trickle. She showed me how to swing an axe, move logs, and the Paul Bunyan book filled in the rest. I kind of thought of him as my real daddy, you know? And so I became John Bunyan.”

“When momma died of the whoopin’ cough that one devil’s winter, I didn’t know what to do. I felt like, like I was lost in the deepest darkest redwood forest. I thought ‘bout takin’ my own life, I did, at one point. But then I thought, “What would Daddy Bunyan do?” And I knew he wouldn’t just give in to the devil and lay down and die like my poor first daddy, bless his soul. No, old Paul would have Babe his ox pull the sun down into the darkness to light his path, and then chop his way out. So that’s what I did, I started chopping, chopping like my life depended on it. And you know what? Eventually winter passed, Spring came along, and I pulled through and moved on. Just like the great pioneers Lewis and Clark on the Oregon trail headin’ west into the sunset. Then one day I found this little group of pioneers like me forming a settlement on the Pacific coast and thought, ‘Here, I’ve found my home at last!’”

Bunyan finally stopped swinging his axe, the sweat raining from his brow, his shirt damp to the waist. He leaned on his axe handle, head weighing heavily on his forearms, the muscles large but earned through years of Earthy labor, not like a meathead’s injected insta-buffness used as a blingy fashion accessory.

“Now I see the devil machines have finally found their way here. You want to know what I told that tuxedo wearin’ demon? I said, ‘No sir, I am not just gonna keel over and give up the business I built from the soil up with my bare (bayur) hands cause some gosh durned city slickers got them some fancy new fangled tree-cutting dinglehoppers! There’s nothing can’t be overcome by a strong will and hard work! This is America goddamnit! I’ll show them dandy smoothskins and their machines yet, you just wait and see.” Exhausted, his age was more apparent now, hair gone a deep wintry grey, back hunching, rubbing his wrists stiffening with arthritis, an archaic relic of a simpler time.

“John, buddy, just take it easy ok? Just breath, think this through. We really need you with us on this project. I need you. You’re the best- ok, you’re the only lumber supplier I’ve got.” Sergio tried consoling Bunyan again, again he shrugged off the hand, then finally relented.

“What is it John, is it money? I can’t get you the cash right now, our venture is not quite at the return stage yet, but I guarantee you this static screen thing is going to be huge-“

“I don’t need no money, Sergio. (Surjeeyo) All I need is to work harder and beat that blasted tree chopping machine.”

“John, maybe it’s time to put down the axe-“ Sergio tried to gently pry it away but the lumberjack snatched it back, furious.

“I ain’t never puttin’ this axe down! I’m Paul Bunyan!” Bunyan rose to his full near-7ft height and redoubled his efforts, swinging in great arcs as if his life depended on it, splitting tree after tree with ungodly speed. It was unbelievable, majestic, even, and maybe for a moment we believed he was the real Paul Bunyan, believed that he could bring the forest down with a single swoop, believed that he might defy the odds and overcome the machines. Then the moment passed.

Something creaked in Bunyan’s wrist and he yowled out in pain, dropping the axe involuntarily and nursing his injured hand. As he hunched over, the giant began to whimper.

“They’re going to take everything. Everything. What do I tell Lucy and the kids?”

The whimpers became sobs, then the sobs became deep bawling. “There there big guy, we’ll figure it out,” Sergio held the huge man, like a squirrel comforting a grizzly bear. True to his legend, Bunyan even cried big.

“Maybe we should come back another time.” Sergio said, and we headed in solemn silence back toward Lady Lala’s to leave the broken giant to his misery.

I’d been introduced to Sergio by Syn one night at The Derelict. She referred to him as “The Sergio”. I suppose, if you want to get technical, I was actually introduced to “The Neurochemical Entity Formally Known As Sergio”, as he was tripping a home-nano engineered super LSD at the time, and his personality construct had melted into an unstable slush, like the ice caps. He was babbling in tongues some insanity about, “the impact of post-Cartesian hypermediasphere on glocalized collaborative-consumption within the reputation economy,” between snorting lines of spaz off the striped cleavage of a Siberian-tiger gene spliced furhooker named Alexia.

“He’s a budding entrepreneur too, you guys should link up,” Syn had said with that trademark demure auto-smirk, throwing ocean spray with the wink of glittering peacock lashes. I’d bought her the drink that night so maybe she was just feeling generous. Or maybe she just wanted to give herself a break, tag someone else’s ear into the ring to be talked off by “The Sergio” for a few rounds. I still wasn’t sure which.

After that first whirlwind Friday at The Derelict with Syn, we seemed to have something going on, although I couldn’t quite suss out what. I don’t think we had sex that night, not that I didn’t want to, and it’s not like we would’ve remembered if we did, we were so plastered from Global Meltdown on the Beaches. It didn’t feel like the thing to do on the first night, although that could just be me superimposing my sheltered outdated Vault worldview on new reality again.

Since then I’d been down at The Derelict regularly, although more, at least at first, because The Derelict was an oasis of authentic experience and meaningful art in the wasteland. It made me feel less stalkerish to think that, anyway. I would let Syn dredge her overloaded psyche on me, let her pour out all the worst scum and slimy men she’d encountered during the week stripping. Let her flog my collective gender for a while. Mostly I’d try to not talk about my present shit-pushing job, and instead share my plans for opening Jericho & Cyclops’ Ratburger Diner, or how many paychecks I was to affording the Ibayzaar sellers fee, or a new recipe Kalki taught me that I'd managed not to charcoal. Sometimes I’d spool off oral blog posts of life back in the Guugol Vault.

It was becoming increasingly bizarre to imagine the very idea of blogging, Tweeting, sitting in my Batman underwear and blathering on pointlessly about banal events like, “We had the first of a four-part Tron light-cycle model building seminar today! Mine is blue and super epic!” The Law of Diminishing Relevance – the more technologically advanced a civilization becomes, the more pointlessly shallow and trivial that civilization becomes. Would explain why The Ancients lived vicariously through their pre-Industrial Revolution magical fantasy lands of elves and wizards and orcs, endless Tolkien rehashes of the spotless minds.

In a sudden moment of what dad would called, “nowness”, I realized how different the person I was now was from my old sheltered Vault self. “The past is a foreign country” was a favorite quote of his, by some British novelist from back when novels were published on paper, “They do things differently there.” Like coming across a mold eaten analog film camera at the bottom of a cardboard storage box, welling up mute sadness, at what it once meant, but feeling simultaneously alienated, a foreigner. Having fought across the chaos of the fallen world to the bursting saplings of new civilization, having met so many truly real human beings, who lived each day as if it might be their last (as it very well could), even if I made it to another Elysium, could I ever go back to living an aimless life in the controlled, Privileged, baby crib of a bomb shelter?

Syn didn’t like talking about her own past, and she was an artist at parrying and deflecting my occasional snipe-probing questions. A skill no doubt honed by rejecting advances of countless men slipping Ibucks in her thong. “There was no past for me out in the wastes, just a string of moments of survival, primordial time.” I filed these remarks under ‘bullshit’ as the conversation would slingshot off a tangent into the outer orbits of drunken existential philosophical musing. The nature of survival, primordial time, why the Old World collapsed, or some other tenure-track fodder.

I could accept that she did not want to discuss the Darwinian horror of her time in the wastes, Guugol knows I didn’t want to talk about my eight month gauntlet after the fall of my Vault. But even behind that front, there was something else, something tugging at my subconscious, something she was hiding from me. Some liminal inconsistency in her personality landscape, like the camouflaged entrance to a subterranean compound of unknown depth. The unusual facial tic here, the seemingly unprovoked outburst there, an out-of-character wording here. Each time I would approach, I thought I could sense the cold impenetrable steel of the blast doors in her eyes. It put some amount of distance between us I disliked. But perhaps I was paranoid, seeing reality through the hyper-secrecy of a Masters of the Universe EMP shelter enclave that was full of utter opacity, an impenetrable labyrinth of whispers, scrubbed barcodes and over-encrypted RFID tags. That was no way to live.

“We’re residual pockets of Old World culture.” Dad used to tell us about the pre-Apoc times. A world dominated by the paradox of ultra-transparency, where every second, every purchases, every page view, every trode-excavated thought of a person’s private lifestream was on view for the world. Yet permeated simultaneously by the ultra secrecy of corporation-network-nations bunkered behind one way mirror panopticons. Selling off people’s personal info, making up reasons to go to war, robbing the world blind through shadow finance, running the world from the shadow reality. Dad hated it, seeing the horror from the inside as a researcher for Guugol, but anything he could do would jeopardize his position at a time when his co-workers were being replaced left and right by robots and outsourcing. “They denied all of it of course. The director of AnonLeaks, who revealed corrupt corporate secrets to the world for free was branded a villain. The CEO of Friendbook, who sold the private data of individuals to corporations for money was named Person of the Year.” Dad would laugh haughtily at the irony. He would then unfailingly descend, tears glassing his eyes, “That’s what happened to your mother. She tried to break the one-way mirror. She was so strong, so strong.”

In the Digital Age, dad would say, there was no analog grey area, no nuance. It was all-on or all-off. Either you were a “social media” wirehead, constantly refreshing email or status updates for a pellet of shallow social interaction, struggling to maintain and damage-control your digital identity, or you were a disconnected nobody. On or off. Binary. Life as algorithm, individual as computer circuit. Mindless rerouter of signals, retweeter. If anything good could be said to have come from The Disconnection and resulting fall of The Cloud, it was that it put breathing room between individuals again, figuratively and literally.

Perhaps I feared that the breathing room between Syn and I was filling with shallow pellets and one-way mirrors.


Sergio and I shuffled out behind the glorified shipping containers of Lady Lala’s Luscious Luncheonette to wait for Violette. We stepped over a couple Tree Dwellers in fig leaves who preached that eating animals is a “crime against nature, you’re destroying the world (again)!”. Next to them were some MAC women -- Mothers Against Cannibalism -- yelling, “Save a child, eat an animal!”

“That’s a new species of protester.” Sergio coughed.

“Cannibalism incidents are up. More of the wild wild wasteland is flocking to proto-cities like Ibayzaar.” I noted.

We stood around behind the shipping container for at least fifteen minutes, I could’ve sworn I saw entropy at work peeling chips of blue paint from the container’s sides. “What are we doing here, exactly?” I asked.

“Patience, you’ll see. I don’t want to ruin the surprise.” He said, thinking of a way to derail the subject. “It’s all about networking, my man. It’s not what you do, it’s who you do. You’ve got to get your chips on the shoulders of giants, you know what I’m saying?” Barely, through your broken aphorisms and mixed metaphor nonsense.

“Definitely. Networking is where its all headed.” I said.

“There! See? Now you’re getting it, you’re getting the Order Flow, the Way of things, or something.” Sergio enthused. Right. Oh boy oh boy, I’m leveling up in the world of Sergiology. Kind of wished the Order would Flow a little faster.

As if on cue, Violette emerged from a cargo door cut into the back of the shipping container. From some secret pocket in her French Maid costume, she produced an African knockoff of a Cartier lighter. The synthehol flame was faint, but it did the job, fossil fuelled butane having all expired decades ago. Sergio and I stared in cognitive dissonance as she lit up an honest to Guugol cigarette. No one had seen one of those smoke sticks in forty years.

“Where the hell did you get that?” Sergio asked. Violette sent grey plumes through pursed lips to waft around the edge of the building. The vegan proselytizer and Mothers Against Cannibalism lady were briefly thrown off their soap box into a fit of coughing.

“Debutante Cigarettes, menthol. A fresh startup, on Gawker Avenue. Zey ‘ave managed to get a crop of mutant tobacco plants groweeng.” Violette had let down the overly corned up doll-like French Maid character she played in the restaurant, but she still had a slight French accent. Could it be that she actually was French?

“Better watch out, I heard those things can kill you.” Sergio cautioned, while motioning for Violette to offer him one.

“Actually I think they outlawed real tobacco sometime in the 2020’s. The United Networks of Guugol ran up astronomical budget deficits after the blow up of the government debt bubble and gold crash and the dominoes really started coming down. Bond vigilantes threatened to stop buying Guugol unless they got their fiscal shit under control. Massive austerity. Health care costs were so out of control they simply outlawed products that increased health risk, like tobacco. Only way to sell poisonous stuff like cigarettes in stores was to de-toxify it. Easiest way was to take a nucleotide razor to the plant DNA and create benign strains.” I interjected, with a spontaneous spiel from a Vault history lesson. They both looked at me quizzical like I’d just stepped out from a gaping tear in the fabric of spacetime. In a certain sense, I had.

Sergio leaned against a crate of unwashed shit-take shrooms, reaking faintly of sewage. “So, how’s business going?”

I thought I saw an inkling of a wince tug a crow’s foot from Violette’s eye. “Good, you know, the usual. A little slow during the eckonomeeck downturn, maybe, but, c’est la vie, no?” She smiled. “Although I kind of wish the Digitant terrorists would blow up that fecking McDanny’s burger.” She flipped off the chain restaurant across the street.

The Lady Lala’s chef, a handlebar mustached, unusually bulky man that might’ve had some warthog spliced into his gene stew, kicked open a door, dumping a pot of boeuf bourguignon soup to splatter on the dirt. A pigeon flew down to sample the broth, and keeled over. Violette flourished a string of curses at the chef in French, who ignored it and slammed the door.

“C’est la vie indeed. Well, shall we take care of ‘our’ business?” Sergio asked, pushing off the crate.

“Beezeeness before pleasure, how contraire, Sergio,” Violette intoned with a flirtatiously sardonic smirk.

Sergio dropped the butt of his fag, crushed the cherry. The wind shifted, delivering the last breath of Sergio’s cigarette like a smoky pie to my face. Even if it was de-toxed, it still smelled like carcinogenic death. “’Synergy’, my dear, synergy, is what we call it in the big leagues. Business is my pleasure.” I felt I might throw up, although I wasn’t sure if I was gagging on the smoke or the steaming pile of bullshit.

“And your friend, he is ship?” She said, underlining ‘ship’ with the click of the tongue, hot green eyes on me like a pair of long-distance RFID scanners. I suppose I was just a Prospect Newb in the ‘shipster’ underground. I hadn’t proven myself in mortal kombat or defaced a corporate building with po-mo streetart or anything.

Sergio threw an arm over my shoulder in an awkward show of bromance.

“Jericho is ship as the Moderator in Chief Burroughs Klein himself. The J-man here’s a dyed-in-the-wool goddamn freedom fighter, did hard time in the Ibayzaar Guantanamo. Took the waterboarding, neurohacking, the whole nine yards of cruel and unusual, for the cause. He should be TSAing you and me, grabbing our junk, when you really get down to it.” I had to hand it to the crazy bastard, Sergio did know how to spin a web of bullshit truthiness, weave a Nigerian Email. He would’ve been a star in marketing or financial fraud in the Old World.

Violette’s jaw clenched, unclenched.

“We can blindfold him and put him in the back of a van if you want.” Sergio said, laying on the sarcasm.

Violette smirked, and said something in French that seemed to signal the passing of a threshold of trust. “Ok, follow me.”

We followed her through the employee back door, into a kitchen, and I immediately wished I had been blindfolded. Workers were cleaning slimy feces from mushrooms, removing teeth and hair from Petri dishes of tumor-like flesh, then chopping it up and frying it. It took all I had not to projectile vomit my ‘lamb sandwich’.

Violette led us to a pantry with shelves of baking ingredients, stacks of ziplock bags stuffed with whitish powder. A very serious looking meathead with a face like a car crash and about as wide as he was tall stood there, hands clasped behind him, an impressive feat with all the muscle in the way.

“Arms out please.” The meathead began giving Sergio a pat-dow, and whipped out a device which I recognized vaguely from the Vault but which lacked the overergonomic haute-futurist design values. It seemed to have been hacked together from random salvaged Old World electronics, involving a coiled rosary of fridge magnets feeding into a smartphone brain. A metal detector/bug scanner.

“Sergio, what exactly are we doing here?” All kinds of red flags were going off in my head. This “business” we were taking care of obviously wasn’t of the legitimate sunshiny sort. I was already on thin ice with the authorities, half the rotten Ibayzaar security force were just waiting for a reason to get drag me back into a dark windowless room, their crosshairs locked firmly on my head. The last thing I needed was to give them ammunition.

“Don’t worry about it, my man, just a precaution.” Oh, of course. Just a precaution. The muscle finished up precautioning Sergio and turned to me.

“Sir, arms out.” The muscle sounded like a baying bull, voice so low I had to strain to differentiate the vowels, like even his diaphragm was on steroids. I did as requested, as calmly as I could (which I now know actually makes you look even more nervous). The pat down was uneventful, if nerve wracking. No ball juggling, thankfully. However the hacked-together metal detector’s cell phone base screamed the Black Sabbath Iron Man ringtone into my ear as it hovered across my right shoulder. The thug instantly removed my jacket and peeled the glove from my right hand, my cybernetic NeuroArm spilling out into the open like an incomplete Terminator time machine warp-in. The temperature in the room seemed to suddenly drop ten degrees as the tension spiked. Violette and the muscle both gawked for a few seconds in cognitive dissonance, unable to contextualize what they were seeing and determine if it was good or bad. My upper lip tasted salty, like the Lady Lala tap water.

“You’re a circuit head?” The thug accused more than asked. The way his fists were clenched and head lowered menacingly into a mountain range of trapezius dorsi was not giving me warm and fuzzy.

“It’s just a prosthetic. I’m all natural-born meat.” That seemed to piss off the meathead more, seeing as he was mostly unnatural DIY gene-hacked meat. Bad word choice. Or was I subconsciously defending Digitants? Empathy by proxy? At any rate, it wasn’t like shipsters were much higher on the Ibayzaar social food chain than robots. The corporates would be happy if both were excised from their world.

“Just get zis over wis.” Violette ordered.

Captain Beefheart continued his exam, slower and more thoroughly now. I kept a close eye on the bastard to make sure he didn’t plant heat on me or anything.

“He’s clean,” Beefy grumbled, folding the patchwork scanner back away. A chorus of exhalation from all parties.

“You see? Jericho’s a thoroughbred-“ Sergio went to pat me on the back, thump pressing into the nape of my neck. I heard a dentist’s drill whine straight through my auditory bone. “Oh. Fuck.” I mouthed, praying to the god of Mexican standoffs to be merciful, knowing what would come next.

My Guugol holographic RFID projected out the back of my head. Another anachronism beamed through from the future (or past in this case), followed by the cold circle of a gun barrel pressing against my skull. Luckily I was accustomed by now to people freaking out thinking I was a roboterrorist or a spy and pointing guns at me, otherwise I probably would’ve emptied my bladder into my shoes. As it were, I was only moderately scared shitless.

“He’s got a bomb! Fucking toaster!” I could feel Beefy’s fat hand-cannon shaking against the back of my head. I prayed that the cancerous masses of un-telomered muscle cell had not eaten away too much of the decision making regions of his brain, yet.

“What ze fuck is zis, Sergio?” Violette fumed, accent bleeding through heavily, her ridiculous goth-loli sex fetish outfit somehow making her even scarier.

“Woah, woah woah! Everybody just take a warm glass of Chill!” I could see Sergio’s inner lawyer working overtime as his dilated pupils darted back and forth like flies trapped under a glass bowl.

“It’s a network ID badge.” I figured I’d try playing the truth card before Sergio’s yarns took us off a cliff. I’d had enough of the secrecy, I decided to start breaking the one way mirrors myself. It’s what mom would do.

“That’s bullshit! Don’t listen to this bucket of bolts, that’s what they do, they try to fuck with your head-“

“Shut up, Grog!” Violette snapped. “What network?” a film of genuine curiosity appeared to temporarily paper itself over her suspicion and anger with Sergio.

“United Networks of Googol.” They stared at me like I’d just turned into some mythical creature, like a dragon, or a record store. “That’s where this arm came from.” I held up my metal appendage. Beefy flinched.

“That’s impossible, the networks were all destroyed during the Great Disconnect. Wiped out by the EMPs.”

“Most of it was. Destroyed. They took, ‘precautions’, like any self-respecting superpower would. Topside went to hell, but underground.. well, you seem like you know something about surviving by keeping your head down.”

Violette processed that for a moment, seemed to grok it, nodded. “So why are you here?”

“The Vault I lived in was destroyed as well, eventually, overrun by Wasteland netfreaks and cannibals. One security trip up too many. I escaped. I found this place.” The truth will set you free, dad would say. I hoped it was more than Karate Kid wisdom-speak.

“I am sorry to hear that. But then maybe you know something about making sure the ‘underground’ stays air-tight.” Violette offered. I could accept that.

“So he’s corporate, he must be a robot working double agent for Ibayzaar!” Beefy finished Lego-ing together bits of information into his latest paranoid conspiracy.

“Ibayzaar has been trying to exterminate the Digitants, why would they start hiring them?” I pointed out to my induction-challenged friend.

Violette inspected my holotag. Revolving corporate logo, biometrics, vital stats, video sequences. “Very hard to fake this, the ‘Zaar could not pull this off, yet,” she noted. “Plus we might be able to use someone with your… background.” She had a brief private conversation with Beefy whose saggy-sack-of-potatoes face said he obviously disliked whatever she was saying, but begrudgingly went along.

“Ok. He is cool.” Violette decided.

“That wasn’t so hard now was it? Can we get past the spook-world pretense and get this party started?”Sergio straightened his shiny suit. I switched my light show off, feeling less naked without my Facebook profile dancing around in public, exposing my private bits.

“Oui.” Violette pulled a lever behind a stack of wooden crates. A trap door made of an upside down car hood and drawn by bicycle chains dropped down in the floor of the shipping container. The odor of industrial chemicals bit my nose as we ducked our heads to get down the car hood ramp. “Bienvenue, to ze Shipster Underground.”


Beneath Lady Lala’s we entered a secret lab, with a junkyard’s worth of scavenged Old World tech. A seven fingered mechanic/scientist was busy welding cut sections of sewer piping into an ethanol-burning combustion engine, based on some kind of reverse engineered schematic. He’d start the engine, which would overheat or blow a gasket, at which point he’d cuss up a storm, make changes, and try again. Eight hundred ways not to make a light bulb. A bird-necked dandruff-dusted nerd in glasses had apparently given up on getting under the hood of an iPad IV, digitally pad-locked with a closed OS and DRM, seeing how the screen was smashed in. He was now banging his head against a wall trying to figure out the myriad obscure key-combinations to get a pair of Linux machines to say “Hello World!” to each other. Ah, the humble rebirth of internet 2.0. A mad chemist in a black trench/labcoat and an acid green Mohawk was surrounded by creaky clunky centrifuges, beakers and vials of compounds with labels like, “FiReJoOsE” and “!!!GERM-CRUSHR!!!” on a lab table marred by ominous black star-shaped burn marks. Another sweaty shirtless meathead in spandex had the contents of a home gene-therapy kit sprawled out on the Olympic pad of a bench press bench. The skin of his bulging forearms had hardened some sort of woody armored carapace, however it had also begun to sprout oak leaves. He was injecting new mixtures into his arm desperately trying to stop his veins from mutating into tree roots.

“You see? This is where the magic happens, my friend. ‘Technology is the mother of invention.’” Sergio (mis)informed me.

Violette shouted something into one of the back rooms, sealed behind two thick safety doors. A beat later someone in a homemade hazmat suit affecting a steampunk aesthetic emerged, resin faux metal fittings and unnecessarily elaborate leather strappings. He had a ziplock bag that looked identical to the whitish powder in the pantry, except he was carrying it the way you might carry an unstable high explosive, or anthrax, or a slice of steak from an actual honest-to-gods cow.

“You do know how ‘ard zis was to come by.” Violette took the bag of powder, rolling it in her hands. This deal was looking worse and worse by the minute. Whatever that substance was it looked and sounded very goddamned illegal. Sergio’s big dreamer-eyes swelled and started to water at the sight of the bag, it seemed he might burst into song any minute.

“It’s so beautiful!” He grabbed Violette by her frilly French Maid sleeved arms and gave her a big sloppy kiss on the lips. “Yes, yes, I know.” Sergio pulled out a small card-sized piece of paper – I mean “Static Screen” – handing it over to Violette. “Have your men drop my name to this inspector at the northwest gate and he’ll get whatever you want into the ‘Zaar, under the radar. No questions.”

My ribs ached as I flashbacked memories of getting beaten by angry mobs of guard-mercenaries in the Ibayzaar slammer. My mind traversed the plot-graph again and again, but every scenario seemed to end up with me back in a cell. I couldn’t take it any more. What was that stuff?

“What is that stuff? Cocaine? Uranium yellowcake? Neutralized anti-matter? Will someone tell me what the fuck that powder is!?” I shouted, shocking all the ‘researchers’ out of their individual projects, and interrupting Sergio’s daydream of business success.

“None of the above.” Violette laughed. “Something way more dangerous.” denjuros

“Sodium hydroxide.” Sergio proclaimed in his WIRED headline font.

“Ok, define.”

“Aids in the separation of cellulose fibres from lignin, breaking wood down into pulp.”


Sergio threw his hands up in the air, flailing the bag of the shit that transforms wood into pulp, which I guessed turns human flesh into ebola goo. I dodged a potential spill preemptively. Didn’t feel like being liquefied, or taking a bath in potentially illegal substances.

“Have you been listening to anything I’ve been telling you? This is the key to making Static Screens!”

Oh, duh. Wood pulp. Paper.

“Like I said, way more dangerous. Mass spread of information. Think of Reformation. Not so good for ze ‘eads of ze Ibayzaar royalty.” Violette clopped off to chat with the digitally-challenged mechanic.

“Is this sodium dioxide, whatever, will you get in trouble for it?” I asked.

“Ehh. It’s not illegal per se.” Sergio shrugged.

“Ok, so if this stuff is legit then why all the covert ops and smoke-and-mirrors? If there’s nothing to hide then why are we hiding?”

“It’s not hiding, it’s just… maintaining intellectual property, shall we say.”

“Ok. So you’re trying to make pap- I mean Static Screens. I get it. But I still don’t get why the need for all the clandestine network stuff. This whole Underground Railroad Area 51 thing.” I said.

Sergio tapped the tips of his fingers together, brows furrowing, like a military officer trying to decide the best way to break difficult news to a superior.

“You’ve got to understand, The World 2.0 is in a state of what we might call continuous techno-economic upheaval. It’s not a matter of making slow, hard won breakthroughs, but often just sifting through the wreckage and reverse engineering the gadgets, sometimes just finding the “on” switch. Old Worlders thought technological change during the post-industrial 21s century was turbulent, try going through 10,000 years of human tech and cultural evolution in the span of years or months, or even days. Every other day someone figures out how to get some ancient pre-renewable engine working or the DNA alphabet soup to synthesize a better meat or hacks together an automated loom and the next day a whole class of newly Luddite workers is suddenly out of a job. Just like the horror stories we saw out in Craigslist District. It’s like technological revolution day, every day.”

Sergio was right. Whole swaths of sellers were going under and winding up debt slaves in the human power plants, a new army of obsolesced souls: I was hanging by a thread myself.

“And like I said, the game is rigged. The decks are weighted in favor of the Ibayzaar Inner Circle, the fifty frat brothers who pull all the strings, own all the prime real estate, hog the “premium seller” list. Even if you resurrect an amazing tech or invent a new product, they just rip off your idea, use their size, wealth, and slave-labor advantages to undercut you and drive you out of the market. So you see, we need to horde all the technological Edge we can get our hands on, keep it close to our chest, lest the competition steal our Secret Sauce and make us irrelevant.”

“Walk with me,” Sergio motioned. At the back of the lab Sergio slid open a door-sized sheet of aluminum, barely perceptible in the matte grey expanse of wall. We stepped through the portal into the murky catacombs of some kind of pre-Disconnect drainage system. ‘Sewers’ I think they were called. The panel shut with surprisingly little noise, and this side of it was painted to perfectly blend in with the red brick of the arched chamber walls. It smelled wet and old, like geologically old. Older than the surface Necropoli of brushed chrome, poured cement, and designer glass. I’d only seen stuff like this in Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones.

“Where are we going exactly?” The sound seemed to carry for miles, like webcam microphone feedback back in the Vault.

“My place. Now which one was it…” We came to a four-way junction. Sergio tapped his fingers on the wall repeatedly in sequence, mouthing numbers, then shook his head in frustration and started again. It might’ve been an OCD ritual tic or a kind of touch-finger-counting kids use to solve addition problems in 2nd grade. Either seemed equally unfortunate at this point. I really didn’t want to be stuck in a dead civilization’s shit-tubes for eternity, least of all with a raving quixotic madcap.

“Here, this way.” We came at last to… a segment of sewer that looked exactly the same as the others. Sergio pressed up against the brick, rapping on it with his fist then shuffling down a bit and trying again, till he struck what sounded like a contrabass steel drum. He slid open a camouflaged door nearly identical to the one we came through earlier.

It felt like I’d inhaled liquid tree sap from the initial strength of the woody pong coming from the door. The room had a high ceiling, filled with an unintelligible, yet somehow organized intestinal tract of industrial machines. This latest Wonder of the Old World was an even more archaic archaeological find than the cobblestone Euro-sewers. This was something not seen in the Youessay in eons: a manufacturing warehouse.

“Holy shit, I thought they moved all these to China and Africa then turned the buildings into 3D IMAX VR movie theatres and geek conference halls before the Youessay was subsumed by Guugol?”

“I guess the IP Wars started before they could convert this one, or maybe they just got sentimental.” Sergio smiled, patting a humming tuba of industrial metal like it was the last specimen of an extinct species of whale.

In one corner was a pile of logs. A woman and a bunch of Hispanic-looking kids that might have been Sergio’s siblings were busy making sure the logs fed evenly into a wood chipping device which in turn emptied via conveyor into a digester. She was leading them in a song in a language that sounded like a creolized Spanish as they worked. It struck me as simultaneously heartwarming yet alarmingly dangerous, having kids around giant tree-eating blades. So this was where they made the paper. I mean Static Screens.

“Wow, man. I’m really impressed. Seriously. You really know what you’re doing, looks like.” I said.

“Yeah, I learned mostly from a Discovery Channel Youtube video on how grain mills work.” Sergio seemed genuinely proud of this answer.

“Um, yeah. Grain mills.” Wait, weren’t we making paper here?

“I mean they’re basically the same thing, grinding up some plant matter, stuff kinda moves around on conveyor belts, throw in some chemicals and stuff. I filled in the gaps with instructional articles from an old site called eHow.”

“Of course, of course. So, can I see some of these finished Static Screens?” I suddenly felt that sinking feeling, like discovering a mechanic had plugged the wrong tubes into the wrong places while reassembling your car engine, and now smoke was coming out of the hood as warning lights screamed at you.

Sergio scratched his head, “Well, I haven’t quite worked out all the kinks in the pipeline…”

I walked over to what had to be the end of the assembly chain. There were barrels, marked with batch numbers and notes like “30% alcohol, oak”, “400 degrees, palm & redwood mix”. There were several dozen batches of what was supposed to be paper, most of these full of a dried mush like hashed potatoes, a few full of brownish liquid, and one a pile of ash.

“Tell me you’ve actually managed to pump out at least one sheet of paper.”

“There was one that held together for a good fifteen seconds. We had to keep it stored at three degrees Celsius but-“

“Jesus, man, what was all this talk about the business ‘going Friendbook’, you don’t even know the process for making this ‘Static Screen/ stuff, let alone have a business model figured out. You think people are just going to start buying blank paper and pens and not want access to the printing press?” A log got stuck in the grinder, which started smoking. The kids climbed up and jumped up and down on it, trying to get it to budge

“Jericho, listen to me. I know in my heart that we’re just days, maybe weeks away from a breakthrough. I can feel it. This sodium hydroxide stuff is the key, someone mentioned it in the comments section. This is the secret, it’s in The Order Flow-“

“Look, will you just shut up about the goddamn Order Flow bullshit.” I snapped. Sergio’s mouth closed, finally. The corners of his lips quavered, and I could tell he was more than a little hurt, like someone had stepped on his favorite toy, or informed him of the truth about Santa Claus. I suddenly felt guilty, telling the Emperor of his own little Wonderland that he was naked. I told myself he was an annoying stuckup exagerrating twerp who deserved it, but perhaps I was subconsciously jealous, that I could not share his naïve enthusiasm, that I hadn’t come up with the idea myself, that it wasn’t me leading the way to this entrepreneurial future. But even if he was a batshit kid who didn’t know what he was doing, who was I to shut him down? Hope was a rare and precious commodity in our world.

“Hey, I’m sorry, man. I didn’t mean that.”

Sergio turned, head lowered. He dipped his hand into one of the barrels, pulled out a gob of slough like bad oatmeal, stared at it. Threw it back in.

“Listen, Sergio, just tell me what it is you need from me, ok? Just be straight with me. If we’re going to be partners, we’ve got to trust each other. We can’t be holding stuff behind our back, keeping our dirty laundry in secret compartments. We need to communicate.” I said, feeling suddenly lighter. The truth will set you free.

Sergio remained silent for a time. The log eventually unjammed, the woman opened up a panel, whacked something with a hammer, and the smoke cleared.

“I need your help with some old Guugol Vault tech.” Sergio admitted softly.

“Ok, anything else?”

“And… If I could borrow the oxephant it would do miracles for the supply chain.”

Ah, that could be tricky. “Why don’t you just talk to Farjadeen, work it out with him directly?”

“I tried that already. He’s a great guy, Farjadeen but-“


“But he just doesn’t have the sense of vision I need in a partner.” Sergio turned around, his eyes were glassed red but the clouds were clearing.

“Or the knowledge, or the skills. Syn has told me all about you.about your life in a real network-nation Vault, Jericho, about your experiences out in the Wasteland, about being a most-wanted suspected Digitant terrorist, captured and tortured, and lived to tell about it. Man, you’re like a legendary hero! I guess I just got carried away. I know I’m not always ‘all there’, that I don’t always think things through. And I’m sorry I wasn’t totally straight with you up front. I’ll work on that. I know this Static Screen thing is looking a little shoddy right now, but I honestly think I’ve.. we’ve got a shot at making this work. I’ll understand if you don’t want to, but I would be honored if you would be my partner in this venture.”

I wanted to believe Sergio was completely real about all of that, that he was not just having a brief breath of lucidity before diving back down into the depths of borderline-insanity. I still had my doubts about whether this paper 2.0 enterprise could ever come together, literally. I couldn’t help but see the similarities between the Derelict Shipster underground labs and the hermeneutically sealed labyrinths of the past. Was it even within the possibility space of human social organization to have a truly open and level society? Were we doomed to arms race with stick and stones then bombs, then factories, then information, and then finally our own relationships, till we were each left in our own one-person underground lairs, cold, alone, paranoid, with only our edifices of technology, of machines and electrons and wires to hear our regrets? Perhaps some secrets had to be kept, for security, for the greater good. Perhaps the underground was just doing what it had to to survive, and crime was just the continuation of economics by other means. But at some point, we’d all have to leave our Vaults, let someone else in. Or else all we were doing was surviving, not living.

I reached out and shook Sergio’s hand, clumps of wet tree bark and all.


“Fantasteek!” Violette exclaimed, giving me a very big, very kissy hug, going from her frighteningly serious legionnaire-resistance leader to cutesy flirty French Maid in a millisecond.

“Yep, we’ve got ourselves a real live Vault Dweller on our side.” Sergio gave me a firm slap on the shoulder, careful to avoid pressing the button again.

Mere moments after the Lady Lala’s storeroom trap door closed, the two Mothers Against Cannibalism protesters stormed in from the kitchen, sundresses and sweaters, signs still hanging from their necks. Holding Glocks. And badges.

“Ibayzaar Bureau of Investigation, IT Division. Hands behind your head!”

“IT?” I whispered.

“Illegal Technology,” Sergio informed.

“You are under arrest for possession of unregistered technology under article 271 section 13a of the EULA.” They held up one of the bags of yellow powder. The Sodium Hydroxide. They had to have been listening the whole time, pretending to be a bunch of loonies. They knew everything.

One of the undercover agents opened a ziplock bag. Sniffed it. Dabbed it on her tongue.

“Custard powder.”

“Way more dangerous.” Violette winked.


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