24 July 2016

Conquest: 003: Disparity




003: Disparity


Kleinmorg began as a mill town, slumped down between two mountains along the path of the Towerkil.  Thousands of workers had operated the roaring machines in the big blocky buildings, carding, spinning, and weaving cotton cloth.  Others maintained the canals, the brick railroad-flats, and all the other necessities. But the passage of two centuries had laid waste to the cotton mills, undercut by cheaper labor elsewhere, and Kleinmorg had been left to subside on the slag of its remaining industry: specialty shops for felt and nets and fishing line, a paper mill, a chemical plant, and the foundry.  As the twenty-first century approached, however, even this commerce wilted away.  The trip hammers grew quiet, and the Towerkil ate away at abandoned foundations.

For three generations, Kleinmorg’s young fled to seek opportunities elsewhere.  Blair Felt & Fulling and University of Massachusetts Kleinmorg provided some employment, but for many residents, there was no recourse but welfare. The town hollowed out, blackrotted apartments studding its streets like blighted teeth.  The tax base shrank along with the population, and it declined even further when the largest remaining businesses demanded exemptions from a desperate town council.

All of these things might explain, then, why the tech boom was so surprising.  There seemed to be no particular reason why Kleinmorg would nurture a brilliant young programmer such as John Rensselaer.  But reality doesn’t cater to expectations; the reckless young man found astonishing success in the new frontier of distributed software -- and more than that, also chose to stay and build.  Rensselaer’s company, Supersolutions, wasn’t just a miracle for the millions who used their programs, it was also the first glimpse of how Kleinmorg might reverse its long decline.  Distrosoft existed only in networks, uncentralized and impossible to control, allowing them to evade the grasp of the captured regulatory agencies that would otherwise have continued to strangle autonomous ikons, ios, and other modern marvels.  Especially after the Ramanujan controversy ended most AI research, distrosoft seemed like the future of computing… and perhaps even the future of this former mill town.

Sophia Williams knew none of this.  She knew about Blair F&F, of course, the company that owned numerous smaller businesses (including the power company, the town ponder technics, and a dozen Jerrie Joe franchises).  And she was old enough to remember when John Rensselaer had gone to prison for tax evasion, leaving his brother in charge of Supersolutions -- a suspenseful time for her family, since her father worked in one of the Supersolutions cafeterias and there had been reason to fear the company might be broken up.  But Sophia was seventeen, and not particularly curious or studious.

Sophia just knew that she didn’t want to be hurt any more.  She didn’t want to be scared any more.

“What do you mean, revenge?” she asked Magda.  But it seemed like a stupid thing to say: Annie had already figured out that Sophia was up to something (not that Sophia had done a stellar job of remaining inconspicuous), and Sophia had already named Mikki as the author of the damage to her face.  So she followed up, lamely, by just saying the first true thing that came to mind: “I don’t want to hurt her.  I just want it to stop.”

“I wouldn’t quite use that word, myself,” said Annie, gently affixing tape to the gauze on her cheek.  “Unfortunately, all the decent words for conflict have a martial air to them.  But it seems plain to me that your best recourse against such a powerful member of the bourgeois is going to be extra-legal.”

“Social pressure is more effective and less risky.  And you know almost nothing about this young woman or the situation.  Don’t rush into something just because a few isolated facts conform to your preconceived ideas about social class and your petey sympathies. Be a fox, not a hedgehog,” retorted Magda, who was pouring hot water into a teapot.

Annie scoffed, the loose flesh under her arms jiggling as she packed away her first-aid kit.  “A bruised-up young lady from the north side who lives in one of these printed palaces is complaining about a bullying scion of the local robber barons, and is desperate enough to be fumbling about with some ill-conceived plan involving a shovel, a few ponders, and twelve acres of idiocy.  Explain the con.”

Sophia leaned away from the big woman, creating some distance on the couch between them.  The conversation was confusing.  She wasn’t stupid, she knew, but these women spoke in sentences so dense that they might as well be a foreign language.  It felt hostile… as though they were mocking her.  Why were they even living here, anyway?  They sounded like they belonged on a show, one of those rapid-talking cop shows.  Were they professors with the college?

Whoever or whatever they were, it was stupid to involve them.  She shouldn’t have said anything.  Now she wouldn’t be able to do anything to the Blair ponder; these old women would be able to tattle on her.  Probably for the best, she thought, wryly, since it was kind of a stupid plan.  They were right about that much, anyway.  If she’d been able to think of something so obvious as just moving the ponder to cause an accident, then there would be some sort of alarm or precaution to stop it.

“I’m going to go,” Sophia said.  She forced herself to smile, even though she felt so freaked-out that this all seemed like some strange dream.  “Thank you, my face feels better.”

“Start more simply, Annie,” said Magda, as though she hadn’t heard Sophia.  “Sophia, have you, perhaps, talked to the principal of your school?  Or asked your parents to speak to Cynthia Blair, who will surely have a vested interest in reining in her daughter’s alleged violence, if only for purely pecuniary reasons?”

Sophia stared at her.  How could anyone in town know who the Blairs were -- even know the name of Thomas and Mikki’s mother -- and not know how the world worked?

“No,” she said.  “I can’t prove anything.  Mikki is --” she groped for the appropriate word “-- careful.  And Mrs. Blair, she… well…”

The first and only time Sophia had tried to say anything to her parents about it was three years ago, at the start of high school.  The bullying had been going on for months, but Sophia finally broke down and said something to Momma one afternoon, after Mikki had spit in her hair as she was coming out of gym class.  Momma had listened quietly, picking at the ragged edge of a callus on one thumb as Sophia told about how Mikki had gone from being mean to being downright crazy.  And when Sophia was done, and was sitting there crying, her hair wild and ruined since she’d had to get it wet at school to get the spit out of it, Momma had stared down at her hands and unhappily explained that she thought it was best to just let it go.  She told Sophia about Liz Gustaffson and the Heather family and all the other people who’d crossed the Senator or Cynthia Blair and seen their lives ruined -- jobs lost, evicted, or worse.  And then Momma had looked up at Sophia, her face drawn and helpless, and asked her quietly if maybe she could just get Thomas to help her.  Thomas Blair likes you, she’d said.  Just, you know, get him to help.  He’d do anything for you, right?  She hadn’t needed to explain what she meant, and Sophia hadn’t been able to do anything but turn away and sob even harder.  She’d let it go.

“...it’s not good if Mrs. Blair thinks you’re trying to hurt her family,” Sophia could only say, lamely.

She stood up.  She’d already lost a cat to Mikki Blair, and maybe also a tooth -- it was throbbing with ominously sharp pain.  All she wanted was a way to make it stop, not to ruin her parents lives because two know-nothing busybodies with overstuffed vocabularies wanted to play hero.  Annie had made fun of her for the plan with the ponder -- fine, Sophia would figure something else out.  But she would do it by herself.  These people… she didn’t know them or anything about them.

“Well, ordinarily we would want to ensure that our revenge is strong and swift, but undetectable, to avoid reprisal by said mater iratosa,” said Annie in her rapid and clipped way, looking up at Sophia.  Her brown eyes were clear and wide, despite the swaddling bags that lumped up under them.  She pursed full lips, then added, thoughtfully, “No, we will want to send a message.  And a defensible one, too, in this day and age -- striking at their means of production.”

“Don’t rope the young lady into your class warfare, you lone-star looney,” said Magda.  She crossed her arms disapprovingly.

Sophia wasn’t sure what to say, or how to break into the argument.  It sounded like a well-chewed disagreement, worked over in many previous fights, and she felt very uncomfortable -- and increasingly nervous.  She edged her way to the hall entrance.

“See, you’re frightening her,” said Magda, still speaking to Annie.  She was scolding, but with a bright edge of proven-right triumph in her voice.

“Oh, child, I’m sorry,” said Annie.  “Here now, just sit for a bit and let’s see if we can come up with some way to help you.  We’re your neighbors, after all, and there was a time when that implied some social responsibility.”

“Thank you, but I need to go,” said Sophia, uneasily.  She paused, unsure of what else to say, and ended up only saying “Thank you” a second time.  She turned and fled down the hall and out of their front door, abandoning the house that was crammed full of carpets and furniture and insane old women.

She ran back to her house.  An red ikon with tinted windows was just pulling away from the driveway -- not Mikki’s, Sophia saw with both relief and surprise.  Her parents almost never took ikons home.  It was always too expensive.

Sophia crossed ragged lawns and approached her house, warily, glancing at the shiny red rear of the disappearing ikon before it vanished around a corner.  Had it been someone from her school, coming to see why she’d skipped last period?  That would be strange.  Or Thomas, unable to leave her alone without going to check on her?

She approached her front door.  Something was on the front steps.  A big, brownish-black lump.  It stank -- she could smell it in the crisp February air, even from ten yards’ distance.  A sweet and sickening smell of putrefaction.  Propped on top was something metallic and bright.

Sophia’s breath caught in her throat, and she clenched back a gasp.  She froze and took a long, shuddering breath.

She recognized the tag of her missing cat, Wendigo.


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LIESL POTS:  Look, I don’t want to oversimplify, but it’s just a fact: the elites of this country said, basically, that the end was nigh.  They were practically out in the streets with sandwich boards in the twenties.  Doctor Gardner’s house, his home, was bombed.  Firebombed.
LEILA-ANNE GOODWILL:  During the San Francisco riots. That was 2028.
POTS:  Yes. And then the next year the August Thesis comes out, and it’s this crazy mess of code.  And  it’s plain to see that wasn’t the end of the world.  [LAUGHS]  It was just what the skeptics said.  It was as if you’d asked a checkers-specific artificial intelligence to play chess, right?  Some of it was brilliant, some of it was wrong, and some of it was just nonsense.
JOHN TENTON:  But we don’t know how much of that was because the Thesis was cut short.  It seems likely that if Gardner hadn’t intervened that Ramanujan -- that it could have done anything.  It seems likely that we just got lucky.  Actually, we don’t even know that much. Keflavík in Iceland is a Gardner installation, and who knows what is going on there?
GOODWILL:  You’re talking about the Times investigation in October on the remaining Gardner Foundation properties.  How about that, Dr. Pots?  Doesn’t Mr. Tenton have a point?  Did mankind just get a mulligan on artificial intelligence? Or is there maybe something dangerous over there in Iceland, working on another August Thesis?
POTS:  This is just fear-mongering.  It’s no coincidence that, that we have these new movements today, peteys and re, uh.
GOODWILL:  Remedievalists?
POTS:  Yes.  They’re both reflections of an underlying discomfort with disruptive new technology.  They’re the new Wobblies or teacher’s unions, trying to hold onto entrenched but deprecated advantages.
TENTON:  You’re saying that the P.D., uh, movement is fighting for entrenched advantages?
POTS:  Well, it’s about economic inequality, which is a terrible problem, of course, but the peteys are also fighting to get back a vision of the past.  But it’s 2040.  The factories aren’t coming back, and bad-mouthing innovation isn’t going to help anything.
  • Rush transcript from 1 Dec 2040 episode of NBC’s Meet the Press

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Any book like this one must necessarily begin with the following warning: yes, I am realized, and yes, I believe that the clerics of the Realized Church can and do perform genuine miracles.  But while I do think that the divine shows itself clearly in such acts, I also think that far too many outsiders (and maybe even some of the faithful!) allow the controversy to distract them.  “There’s no such thing as magic!” shouts the attacker, and “We see it with our own eyes!” shouts the defender, and the actual philosophy of the Realized Church gets lost in the shuffle.  That’s what this book is about: how becoming realized can improve your life.
  • Wendell Scott, Make It or Break It

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