10 July 2016

Conquest: 002: Foundation

002: Foundation

“I’m not doing anything,” said Sophia, reflexively.  She started walking to the sidewalk in front of her house... as though she’d just paused to idly look at the ponder buried in her driveway while she was en route to somewhere else.

“Why yes, I can see that,” said the heavyset older woman from her position next to a mailbox several houses down.  The Jacobs place, until they moved out last week.  This must be the new tenant.

The new neighbor studied Sophia as she spoke.  The woman had large brown eyes that bulged slightly from her face, made even more prominent by the bruised-looking circles beneath them.  She looked old -- maybe sixty or seventy, Sophia had never been very good at telling people’s ages -- and she was wearing a headscarf and a long denim dress that stretched tight over a wide belly, with bare, fleshy arms and voluminous cleavage.  She was magnificently tall and impressively round.  “Plenty of people stand in the middle of the road in the afternoon with a hammer and a rusty approximation of a shovel, staring at ikon transponders.  Just the other day, the whole lot of the Benevolent Order of Astonishingly Poor Liars was out here engaged in some truly excellent ponder-staring.  A rich and noble pursuit.”

Sophia wilted before the woman’s withering sarcasm, feeling her shoulders tense up.  She lowered her head and began walking more briskly.  Sophia didn’t know this woman or whether or not she was the kind of person to interfere.  If she could just get out of sight, hopefully she’d be out of mind.

“It won’t work, you know,” she heard from behind her.  “Dig one up and it’ll be worthless.  They operate in a blockchain, like a distro, so even if you could tamper with one, it would find itself outvoted.”

Sophia half-turned in surprise, and in the process placed her foot down wrong.  She stumbled as her toe caught the asphalt strangely and nearly lost her balance.  

The woman squinted at her, frowning, continuing with the rat-a-tat flow of precisely pronounced words.  “Or maybe you didn’t even get that far.  I can see something is motivating you, anyway, by the look of that abrasion.  You’re all hematomaed-up, eye-wise.  Just because those are called orbital, doesn’t mean you need to chuck them around so hard.  Poorly-positioned proteins and plaques, that’s what you’ll get.”

Sophia stared at the woman, bewildered.

Is she making these words up?  Is she just being funny?

It reminded Sophia of her Gran.  She’d gone to work with Gran a few times when she was younger, before the cancer had taken that apple-cheeked, waifishly-small elder from her.  Gran had worked as a tester for the Rensselaer Group, doing something mysterious with computers -- the old ones, with big screens like picture frames instead of an io projection.  It had been fascinating to little Sophia, since Gran had actually carried on with real work most of the time, leaving Sophia to her own devices.  In between the occasional cooing comments or questions about whether or not Sophia wanted another piece of taffy, Gran would chirp into her phone or call out questions to her neighbor in fluid, semi-intelligible jargon, sorting through whatever bit of code wasn’t working that day.  And sometimes, when she noticed that Sophia was listening in to something, Gran would lapse into silly technical-sounding nonsense, just to confuse her on purpose.  Gran would pick up the phone and smoothly begin an imaginary conversation about recompiling the ram-doc-spec-matron or reticulating the splines on the turbo encabulator, and just when Sophia was starting to lose track of the flow of syllables, Gran would whirl around in her chair with a reedy chuckle, blowing a raspberry at her mystified and giggling granddaughter.

“Annie!” shouted another woman’s voice.

Sophia’s nosy neighbor turned back to her house, answering the call with a shout of her own.  “Out front, getting the mail!”

“What’s taking you so long?” came a returning holler.

“There’s a girl out here who’s trying to decide whether or not to commit a felony!” called back the older woman.  Sophia cringed, looking down at the tools she was carrying.

Should I run?  No, she knows where I live, that’s stupid.  And I haven’t done anything wrong, anyway.  I could just ignore her and walk away, but then she’ll probably tell Momma or Daddy.  Maybe I should just go inside.  I can say I was going to do something normal with the tools, if she tells on me.  Or just say she’s wrong.

“Is it a good felony?  Like a fun one?” shouted their interlocutor from the house.

“Boring and dumb!” shouted the older woman, and now Sophia was wondering who might be overhearing this.  She needed to go, but hesitated, unsure of what might be the best thing to do.

“Well, bring her here!”

The neighbor -- Annie -- turned back to Sophia.  She raised a big arm and motioned.  “Come on, then.  Don’t worry, don’t worry… you’re not in trouble.”  Sophia didn’t move.  She realized her mouth was gaping, and closed it.  Annie puffed in annoyance, and gestured again.  “Land o’ Goshen, kiddo, come here!  We can at least fix up that cobbler you call a face.”

Is this an Uncle Eddie situation?

But Annie seemed strangely harmless, for all her syllables and sarcasm.  The big, bluff woman didn’t seem warm or friendly, exactly -- nothing like Gran or Momma -- but neither was she angry or creepy, like Sophia’s nasty uncle.  Annie just seemed… disconnected.  Detached.  As though she weren’t really invested with the situation (maybe not even all that interested).  As though it were just a problem to be solved.

“Come on,” repeated Annie, and Sophia went.

Annie’s house was one of the shabbier ones on the block.  It was formerly rented by the Jacobs family, an angry, fatherless clan of six brothers and their exhausted mother.  The Jacobs boys had been heavily into the petey scene in Kleinmorg.  It had been disruptive, since they’d often skip school and go prowling midtown, where there were shops and remed houses but not a lot of security.  Most of their destruction there was just the usual vandalism, smashing windows and keying cars, but sometimes they’d get hold of something small enough to take away.  Then they’d spend hours in their backyard, beating someone’s property into pieces with psychotic energy and patience.  It was nerve-wracking, but their neighborhood didn’t have the security to stop it, and certainly no one was about to personally confront them.

They hadn’t done any P.D. on their house, of course, but their activities had still taken a toll: flying bits of metal scattered as a Jacobs beat a generator or artisanal bicycle into its constituent atoms.

Sophia warily followed Annie up her walk and into the former Jacobs home.  The heavyset woman kicked her sandals off as she entered, turning to beckon Sophia up over the threshold.  She leaned over and plucked the hammer and shovel from Sophia’s nerveless hands, humming something tunelessly as she did, and placed them carefully next to a smooth wooden bench resting just past the door in the little mud-room.  She glanced at Sophia’s ragged athletic shoes, but didn’t request that she take them off.  Instead, she just gestured for Sophia to go further in.

Hesitantly, Sophia did, walking down a little hall until it opened up into a large living room.  Actually, Sophia saw immediately, it was actually both living room and kitchen; the bolt-holes were visible in the ceiling, half-hidden behind hanging houseplants, where the original partition had been removed.  A big wooden butcher’s block stood in its place.  The arrangement allowed for a larger space than most prefab houses could have -- a benefit that the occupants had used to cram it chockablock with rugs and furniture.  There were at least twenty rugs in the room, laid next to each other and layered over others, so that the living room portion was a full half-inch higher than the kitchen, and thick-limbed wooden armchairs were crammed in next to an overstuffed old couch and a dozen end tables of varying sizes and sturdiness.  Adding to the sense of oppressive fullness, the walls were decorated with natural things: a broken half of a beehive, a bird’s nest woven through with red threads, a brown furry thing made of leather in the shape of a horn, a frame holding jewel-winged insects, and more.

Sitting on a stool at the butcher block was a bemused woman, watching Sophia with interest.  She was chubby, although not as rotund as Annie, with glittering dark eyes and her hair piled up in long locs on her head.  She was wearing black slacks and a silver blouse.  “Hello,” she said, not unkindly.

“Hello,” said Sophia.  She spoke a little more loudly than she intended, glancing around her.  This was strange.

“She had a hammer and a shovel and was staring at the ponder in her driveway.  Not sure what can be done about congenital silliness, but I thought we’d at least clean up her face,” said Annie, walking up behind Sophia.  Sophia felt a little trapped -- the packed room probably had something to do with that -- and stepped forward, past the other woman and out into the living room area.  She stood apart, turning to watch the pair.

“Sure, we can.  Hello, there.  I’m Magda, and this is Annie,” said the other woman.

“Hello,” Sophia said again.  After a moment, she felt awkward, and added, “I’m Sophia.”

“Nice to meet you, Sophia,” said Magda.  Annie stepped past her, over to the countertop, putting a hand on Magda’s back as she went and letting it linger as she walked by.  Sophia watched the gesture.  They’re a couple.  Annie knuckled the button on the bottom of an electric kettle, turning it on.

“I’ll get the first-aid kit,” said Annie.

“It’s in my workshop,” said Magda.

“You still have a thumb?” said Annie.

“If you’re willing to round up,” said Magda, easily.  She waggled a gauze-bound digit at her partner, then turned back to Sophia.  “So then… force or profit?”

Annie clucked her tongue as she walked past Sophia, saying as she went, “Intentional verbal spoliation for the purposes of questioning obfuscation is only needless aggravation.”

“Cease your interrogation of every permutation of my conjugation,” countered Magda, calling after her.

“Assassination!” threatened Annie on her way out of the room.

Is this some sort of weird sex thing?  Or a religious thing?  Or both?  Sophia had heard that the Realized Church did a lot of that sort of stuff.  “I should go, I think my Daddy is waiting,” she said.  Someone is waiting for me, in other words, and will miss me if I’m not there.

Magda nodded politely, but then asked another question, rather than responding.  “Did you think you could sell your house’s ponder, Sophia?  Or were you aiming for a more violent end with its removal?”

“I was just looking,” said Sophia.  She frowned.  What business was it of theirs?  They were neighbors -- new neighbors at that, strangers -- and this was not the sort of neighborhood where people meddled with each other.

“It wouldn’t have worked, either way,” said Annie, reappearing with a small red box.  She sidled past a pair of chairs and settled down on the big couch, sighing as she lowered herself onto its puffy purple pillows.  “Consider this a safe bet for the future: any adolescent plans for something as ubiquitous as an ikon ponder can’t be so obvious.  It’s sort of like when you meet a new person and they have a particular kind of name, like Clementine or Kirk -- you don’t make the first joke that comes to mind.  A thousand other people will have beaten you to it.”  She patted the couch next to her, then opened up the first-aid kit.  “Have a seat.”

Sophia did, sinking down into the couch.  Her face did hurt, after all.

“Not sure that rule can be generalized,” broke in Magda.  “It makes me think of the economist who walked right past a ten-dollar bill on the sidewalk, saying that it must be an optical illusion or someone else would have already picked it up.  Consider the possibility of black-swan jokes... immediately apparent to someone but still completely new.”

Annie shook her head as she ripped open a swab of disinfectant, dabbing it onto Sophia’s cheek.  Sophia just listened to the patter of nonsense, trying to keep up.

“The point is that if she’s seeking retribution -- which is the obvious conclusion, I think, given this ruggeroo-looking face of hers,” said Annie, glaring at Magda for a moment, “then this is not the way to go about it.”

“Well, we’re agreed there, dear,” said Magda, pleasantly.

“Then the question becomes how she can better achieve justice.”

“A lofty goal, and not one we should perhaps be putting before her.  Expectations of a just world and all that, O my Pangloss.”

“We’ll not get into the ways a liberal arts education has crippled you, thank you, let’s just stick to the topic at hand.  Sophia, what happened to your face?”

“I’m not sure --” Sophia said, but then thought better of it.  More firmly, she said, “A girl at school.  Mikki Blair.”

What was there to lose?

Magda whistled, low and long.  It was quaintly cartoonish, and Annie paused in the process of unfolding a bandage to purse her lips skeptically at her partner.

“A Blair.  You have enemies in high places,” Magda said.  “In Kleinmorg, there’s the college, the Blairs, and the Rensselaers.  You’re picking fights with one of the three powers of the town?”

“She’s been after me for years,” said Sophia, scowling at the woman.  She felt indignation flare up inside.  I didn’t do a thing to her, not ever.  “Because of something that happened with her brother, a long time ago.”  My fifteen minutes of local fame, come and gone when I was seven.  Saved thanks to Thomas, which somehow makes me Mikki’s mortal enemy.  Really, she knew it wasn’t any sort of logical process that had put her in Mikki’s sights.  But that incident, with poison wracking Sophia’s guts and a panicked Thomas dragging her to help, had still somehow been the start of it all.

“I can’t stand a bully,” said Magda.

“It’s the economic disparity that gets me,” said Annie.

“Thuggishness needs no Marxist justification.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“For my part, it’s quite decided.”

“Excuse me,” said Sophia, leaning away from Annie as the older woman pressed the bandage to her cheek and breaking into the rapid flow of polysyllables.   “Just what are you saying?”

“Why, isn’t it obvious?” said Annie, surprised.

“She’s talking about helping you, my dear, although I’m not quite sure I’m sold on the notion,” said Magda.  “She’s talking about revenge.”

The kettle made a loud click.

“Ah, time for tea,” said Magda.  Annie smiled over at her, beatifically.


how sweet of rama!
to give such evidence and proofs
for our destruction
  • Gregory Batomat, “No. 7,” The New Yorker


Crandall was arrested later that same day, but it was too late: Ikon was live.  In fact, Crandall even had time to notice and fix two bugs in the software before she was caught.  That final version of her basic program, Ikon 1.2, became the basis for both the Rensselaer version and the Global Scrape version, the two most popular Ikon variants.  And while there is a third version of Ikon, Hunter2, it’s a David compared to the Goliath of Crandall’s work: Rensselaer Ikon and GSI are used by approximately 91% of all users.  That means that hundreds of millions of people employ Jeri Crandall’s work every day, which makes Crandall -- by some estimates -- the most prolific criminal in the world.
This fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by glowering authorities, who have issued strongly-worded statements admonishing Crandall and her imitators.  But when the state of Illinois attempted to prosecute her for a small share of those crimes, presenting it as a test case for distrosoft accountability, the judge found that Crandall couldn’t be held accountable for “merely providing a means, neutral in nature, by which other individuals could then break the law,” going on to find unequivocally that “the state has not shown an element of malice nor of negligence in Ms. Crandall’s actions; she is rather like an automobile manufacturer, who likewise can not be held accountable for the many speeding tickets their customers routinely receive.”
In some respects, law enforcement has been lucky: there are very few engineers with Crandall’s foresight and squeaky-clean background, and it has proven possible to lean on many who wanted to follow in her footsteps.  Two cases formed a high-profile lesson for budding engineers: John Tenton, whose banking distrosoft had a cleverly-hidden “kill switch” that he agreed to trigger, and John Rensselaer (of Rensselaer Ikon), whose program was “clean.”  Tenton got five years of probation for his cooperation.  Rensselaer, on the other hand, was prosecuted on an enormous list of unrelated charges, and will be eligible for parole in 2069.  The message was clear, and has been mostly effective.
  • Murray Abrahamowitz, “Governments Take Aim at Black-Hat Distrosoft Devs,” WIRED


  1. Hairy Leg Massage
  2. Snacktime in the Garden Shed
  3. Your Spicy Dumpster
  4. Steamer Trunk
  5. Bilateral Insertional Achilles Tendonitis
  6. Tastee Wheat
  7. Eat the Rich
  8. I Smell Something Cooking, Let Me Get My Plastic
  9. Septuple Entendre
  10. F’k’r
  • Set list for a gig by prominent petey band Cowboy Stardust Legend


  1. Really enjoying the structure of the chapters thus far--reminds me somewhat of a braided essay, although in this case the research is part and parcel of the world-building.

    A quick question, however--would you be willing to mirror calls for editors (and other posts of that nature) on this site in the future? I'm subscribed here, whereas I don't really frequent Reddit, and as a result, I only saw the calls post several weeks too late.

    1. Absolutely, I will put future calls for editors on here.

  2. Wider adoption of Hunter2 may have been hindered by its problems with password security.