Flynn breathed in as his vehicle reassembled itself 25
kilometers above the Straits of Gibraltar. He held the breath in as his radar
pulsed deep into enemy territory, then exhaled as the vehicle disassembled itself
just before a counterattack could blow it out of the sky. Split into a dozen
pieces, parts of the Qilin craft spun off in every direction, a controlled
explosion to forestall a real one.
The single video
feed dominating the main view on Flynn’s HUD gave way to twelve. The
upper-right corner of the HUD contained a three-dimensional hologram which
amalgamated the data into a simpler view, with objects color-coded according to
hostility and distance. Flynn preferred the individual feeds. There he could
watch as pieces of his Qilin headed to the upper reaches of the stratosphere.
He could watch as another plunged into the dark void below, intersecting with
the ocean 100 kilometers west of what used to be Portugal. He could tell that,
for now at least, all was well.
But for how
long? His radar pulse had shown nothing out of the ordinary. The Qilin could
stay its missiles. The sensor arrays on each of its pieces had nothing like the
sensitivity of the assembled craft itself, but he could monitor their immediate
surroundings until it was time to bring them together again. Flynn eased back
in his chair and stole a glance towards the control room’s door, beyond which lay
the underground bunker near what was, for now, still Berlin. Piloting from here
was safer, saner; none of the old cliché of being in space with no-one to hear
you scream. Though of course, thought Flynn bitterly, we now know
that was never true anyway.
Flynn had been fourteen years old when the spaceships
appeared: thick black rectangles with protruding lips hovering insistently in
the sky, like books that the human race was afraid to open. Their
appearance over geopolitically inconsequential areas -- the Congolese
rainforests, the southern tip of the Americas, the deserts of Xinjiang made
the reaction in the metropolises of the North and East a strange mixture of panic
and wounded pride.
supposed to be a moment of triumph, as Flynn remembered the TV newscasters
exclaiming in shock. In the fifteen years since the last war had threatened to
put an end to civilization altogether, Earth’s scientists have combined their
efforts in pursuit of this day, Tsingtao News reminded its viewers. Both
sides only accepted peace on the guarantee that the last war would indeed be
the last war, and not just a pause for breath before we moved back up the
ladder of escalation towards extinction. But now...
Now, as humanity
stood on the brink of perpetual peace, these ships arrived to threaten it. At
the very least, they introduced a monstrous new variable into the equation.
No-one had predicted their arrival, so how could anyone predict what they were
going to do next?
The day the
visitors arrived was the day that the World Neural Net was due to go online. Almost
every man and woman on the planet would be directly connected to the net via neural dust. After centuries of being lectured by humanists for our
deficiencies in human feeling and for designing the weapons that served to rip
it apart even further, we are on the brink of a great accomplishment, Flynn
remembered one sci-pundit sniffing defiantly on Tsingtao. Humanity will become
one vast mind, reflecting the will of the entire species. War on any part of
that mind will become unthinkable, perverse. A technological singularity will
occur, propelling humankind onwards, upwards, outwards. Perhaps, the
sci-pundit paused for dramatic effect... to the stars.
When the ships
came, the presenters wanted to know only one thing: whether the stars had come to us
first. But even the most optimistic pundits couldn’t
answer. No-one could.
It was an
unsettling development for everyone, not least Flynn. It was a year before he
was due to be injected with the neural dust which would harden in the capillaries
of his brain and strike up communication with the small transceiver behind his
ear. He would be able to remove the transceiver whenever he liked, but no-one
ever did. They said that to be unplugged would be like if a man in the pre-net
era disabled his higher reasoning, leaving only the animal beneath. To be
unplugged was to be inhuman.
Gene therapy already having rendered his mental development faster than that of a twentieth
century boy, Flynn had been eagerly following the news. The world’s technologists
had developed a pilot version of the technology for use among themselves. This
enabled a rapidly-increased pace of development both in the net and the
scientists’ egos. The problem of developing a dust with high enough resolution
to interface with a million neurons without putting subjects at an unacceptable
risk of stroke was quickly solved. The captains of industry were then plugged
into the net to tackle the problem of manufacturing and distribution at scale. World
peace was then placed in the hands of the manufacturers, who were only too
happy to fulfil the order after a little sprinkling of fairy dust.
North and East had
both agreed that if the net was to be legitimate, it had to link together all
humans, not just those living inside their own prosperous alliances. So the
final step had been the injection with neural dust of every living human who was
both of age and chose not to reject it -- and, it was alleged, plenty who did.
This work had all been accomplished by the
time the alien ships arrived. Even for those of a more nervous disposition,
transcending human limitations was not something to be given up just for the
sake of a few rectangles hovering over the world’s wastelands. Besides, whatever
threat or opportunity the visitors represented, it was surely better faced by a
united humanity. The near-universal distribution of neural dust would ensure that
whatever decisions were taken, they would serve the interests of all: the first
species-wide direct democracy in human history arguably couldn’t have arrived
at a better time.
After a delay of
only a few days, and holding its breath just as Flynn would in his bunker 15
years later, humanity flipped the on switch.
Flynn refocused his eyes on the HUD. An enemy electronic
warfare missile launched from somewhere in the Western Sahara hit like a
thunderclap in the exact spot his Qilin had assembled. The pulse of microwave
radiation it created could destroy all electronics within a mile radius, but it
was a futile gesture. The nearest piece of the Qilin was 50 miles away.
pulse, one microwave pulse; that was how it always went on routine patrols. But
Flynn winced, steeling himself for the possibility that the enemy might realize
that this was no routine patrol. This was the problem with fighting someone who
always seemed to voluntarily tie one hand behind their own back. What if they
decided to untie it?
visitors were preserving the old ways, for now at least. No extra missiles
zeroed in on the constituent parts of the Qilin, and no enemy sensor array
assembled itself to even search for them. Flynn was relieved. A wider
confrontation would have delayed his mission while dozens of craft materialized
and shot EW missiles at each other. Such skirmishes usually petered out or,
very occasionally, escalated to the detonation of a microwave pulse so large that
all combatants were fried and the entire affair rendered pointless.
wondered if the visitors found this recurring pattern as frustrating as he did.
On the other hand, the pattern had remained unchanged since the war settled
down into its current phase five years ago, so maybe they liked it. Or perhaps
they had no concept of frustration or liking, of satisfying or hating, and they
did things for reasons that even someone who knew what Flynn knew would never
be able to divine. Especially someone like you, a voice in his head
retorted. He tried to ignore it, but it wasn’t easy. I guess by the end of
today we’ll know, he shot back.
Shortly after the net came online, the injection of
neural dust had been transformed from a private matter between a man and his
needle into a public rite. Moving at the speed of thought, the collective human
mind standardized social rituals according to what it judged to be in the best
interest of the new era. The new codes were not a result of enforced
conformity, but of a collective decision reached by ten billion human minds thinking
through the problem as one unit. And that unit decided that joining it was
something to be celebrated.
mandatory courses in the history and contemporary theory of the net had told
him, in theory at least, what to expect. Being plugged in didn’t mean voices
in your head, as those hearing about the concept in the pre-net era had tended
to imagine, he read in one e-textbook. It means access to a new level of
consciousness which feels just as much a part of yourself as your own thoughts!
All of the world’s knowledge and understanding will be instantly at your neuron
tips, and your subconscious will be busily involved in an ongoing global
rumination on the problems and prospects of the species. At night, you will
dream humanity’s dreams…
reading about it was one thing, and actually becoming another grey cell in the
global consciousness was another. So Flynn was distinctly ambivalent when the
needle pierced his flesh, a moody teenager uneasy in a room of earnest adults. Looking
back later from his prison cell, he realized that the loss of innocence he
experienced that day was also a loss of ambivalence. It was hard to stay ambivalent
about the world when it was so fucking single-minded about you.
sign that something was wrong came when the technician charged with easing the
boy onto a new plane of being announced that a connection could not be made. The
audience -- who had come to close their eyes and smile smugly and claim that yes,
they could feel their connection to their new brother -- murmured uneasily. This
wasn’t how it was supposed to go. More murmuring followed as it was established
that the transceiver was not at fault. The audience got up and left as protocol
dictated, tutting all the way. It was all simply ghastly. The consequences
didn’t bear thinking about, even just inside their own heads.
education began that day in an antechamber to the ceremony hall. “Even though
the net has been online for a few years there are still minds it, er, cannot
reach,” the technician explained. “I shouldn’t really be telling you th- well,
not that it matters now.” The gaze he held Flynn’s eyes in temporarily wavered.
Flynn realized with growing anxiety that what no longer mattered was himself.
different currents of thought in the mind as to why,” the technician continued.
“The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe, and some say
it is simply beyond our understanding. Others say some minds simply do not want
to connect.” The gaze wavered again, and his eyes settled in a downwards cast.
“Others… that the mind rejects them as unworthy.” His eyes rose again. “Of
course, no-one really knows. Now, where did I put my transceiver?”
The technician found
it, and for Flynn the rare experience of dealing merely with a fellow human was
over once more.
plunged into a hidden stratum of society shrouded in secrecy and shame. The
mind of humanity wished the unconnected no specific ill. But they were a
problem to be solved, a force to be controlled. They went to special schools
and graduated into special jobs, where they could be watched. There was no
formal segregation in social or romantic contact, but the gaping chasm between
the connected and the unconnected imposed it in practice. Good girls might like
bad boys, but they hardly deigned to date animals. Soon Flynn’s head was bent
over as he walked, carrying the weight of the shame visible on his naked ears.
After the net had come online, the mind of humanity quickly
made enormous strides in technology, economics, and the standardization of
social practices across the world. The promised singularity did not appear -- the
mind still moved at the speed of thought, after all, not the speed of silicon -- but
the world became unrecognizable. Poverty was eradicated, disease conquered, and
the impetus towards war tamed.
At the same
time, the mind directed people the world over to turn their collective attention
towards the visitors in the sky. They probed the ships with sensors and
constructed vast neutrino receivers deep underground in the search for some
intelligible signal. They discovered that no wave could penetrate the exterior
of the ships, and all they picked up coming off them was the reflection of
their own messages. A rogue fighter pilot who had removed his transceiver unloaded
his missiles on the ship over Congo and then slammed his jet into it, leaving
no visible trace.
years passed like this. Flynn was now 17 years old. One day he was watching
television -- a medium solely for children and the unconnected; hence sanitized,
censored -- when he saw the news that the visitors had made their move. Missiles apparently
launched from the ground under the alien ships had hit twenty targets across
Earth. At least one of the names of the targets Flynn already knew, from overheard
hushed conversations between parents. It was Salt Lake City, Utah.
had wanted to be connected to the net. The rejectionists had gathered in
densely-packed settlements where they rejected technology and maximized closeness
and communication with physical beings, living lives which they viewed as the
opposite of those of the connected. Rejectionists in the prosperous urban centers
of the North and East had mostly been allowed to make this choice. But they
knew that those of their inclination elsewhere had often been forcibly dusted
or killed for refusing. They feared the same thing might one day happen to
them. For people already inclined towards a mystical bent, the appearance of
the visitors over the marginalized areas of the world had hence seemed like an
omen, or a promise -- could they be our saviors?
missiles suggested otherwise. Salt Lake, the Falun Gong Autonomous Region, and Fatima, Portugal -- all gone. The strikes were precise but gratuitous by the
standards of human technology. They left deep, glowing red craters encrusted
with debris, like the visitors had stubbed their cigarettes out on humanity’s
skin. Flynn could still remember that the television anchors had no idea what
to make of it, simultaneously terrified at the sheer power they had witnessed
and humbled that their belief in the perverseness of the rejectionists now had
extra-solar blessing. Whatever the visitors came to do, it wasn’t to take us
backwards, one anchor crooned. The rejects sure got dusted in the end.
out that this particular current of triumphalism was not all that was present
in the human mind. Commandos were dispatched with technology much improved
since the last great war to sweep under the alien ships. At the very least, the
question of why the missiles had appeared to originate on the ground had to be
answered. There had already been scattered spurts of rejectionist violence in
the urban cores of the East in the aftermath of the strikes. What if the whole
thing had been a perverse false flag, a signal to rebellion by some insane
But that was
not what the commandos found. Sweeping through the Congolese jungle and landing
amphibious raids on the shores of Patagonia, they felt themselves to be chasing
ghosts. No launchers were found, no aliens sighted, no concealment tunnels
unearthed. They settled down for the long haul and deployed sensor arrays,
crude early versions of the technology Flynn would later pilot over Gibraltar.
Then, on the
twelfth day, a patrol in the jungle walked straight into an ambush. An EMP fried
their transceivers and projectiles thudded into the trees around them. A drone
disguised as a mosquito in the canopy above caught the slaughter on camera and
beamed it back to the command ship offshore. It clearly saw bipeds in body
armor and helmets using model tactics, blinding and confusing their enemies
with directed-energy weapons before shredding them in interlocking fields of
fire. The last time the generals watching the feed had seen it done so well was
at the academy. A few of the attackers also fell, victims of the
counter-tactics the commandos had spent years drilling.
They fought like us
and died like us. The enemy was human!
The pace of
operations increased, and soon a small unit of the enemy had been wrung out of
the jungle and defeated. The victorious commandos approached the bodies of
these traitors to the mind, seeking a clue as to who they were and why they
fought. But under the helmets they found no nose or mouth or even eye to give a
hint as to how the enemy perceived the battlefield, or what was at stake on it.
One commando had gotten close enough to the enemy while he was still alive to
wrestle him to the ground and deliver the fatal blow. Close enough to see the
features drain from his enemy’s face and be replaced with blankness. Close
enough to realize that the features he had been looking at in the creature’s
final moments were not alien but were in fact his own.
After the missiles had been launched, Flynn felt the
distance between himself and the connected widen from a chasm to an infinity. The
mind of humanity made its demands, and his parents became exhausted from
playing their role in its deliberations, disconnected and withdrawn from their
surroundings. Flynn ventured into the communal areas of their building and
found it was the same everywhere, as if the battlefield trauma of the last few
days had inflicted the thousand-yard-stare on his entire species.
The day after the
strikes, Flynn set out to school to find everyone in the street viewing him
with a a cold, hard regard. The children who used to taunt him when they saw he
was of age and yet unconnected were nowhere to be seen.
Arriving at the fifth floor of the tower block
which served as school for the rejects, Flynn found it emptier than usual. The
classrooms were closed, and several dozen children sat nervously in the common
area. Even with its usual complement of about ninety pupils, Flynn had no idea whether
they were all or even the majority of the unconnected children and adolescents
in the city. He certainly had never been allowed to meet any others.
A boy who
must have been no older than twelve walked up to Flynn and greeted him. Flynn
didn’t know the boy’s name, but he tried to be kind to him. They seemed
recently to have begun attempting to plug in children at younger and younger
ages, and the rejects ended up here.
going on?” asked the boy, causing Flynn’s heart to swell temporarily at the
assumption that he had useful knowledge. It was an assumption no-one in the
connected world ever made.
know exactly,” Flynn sighed. “Yesterday was the start of a war that could end
human history.” He had heard that said on television the night before, though
with less of a gee-whiz edge than Flynn allowed to creep into his voice now. “Everyone
is acting weird. Maybe the teachers are late.”
were very late. The clock ticked around to nine, and a few students drifted
towards the doorway and tried to open it. The door was locked.
fifteen minutes after the abortive escape attempt, the door audibly clicked as
its security lock was released. Flynn’s young companion ran towards the exit and
smacked his head into the door as its heavy bulk swung inwards, apparently
under the force of a kick. A man with a gaunt face stepped into the room, his transceiver clearly visible on his shaven head. Two others followed him.
everyone,” the leader said, pausing only briefly to notice the boy on the floor
clutching his forehead from where the door had connected with it. “Ah, Michael,
hello. Adam, Clara, Benjamin, Flynn -- hello. You are known to us. You are all
known to us”. Flynn stared, pondering who “us” meant -- the three men before him,
or the collective behind them. But then what was the difference?
happened yesterday, school is being relocated for your safety. You should all
come with us,” the man continued, still staring down impassively at Michael on
the floor. “Come with us now. Remember, you are known to us. You can trust us.”
about the scene made Flynn think otherwise. Maybe it was the creepy uniformity
of the men; their gauntness, their shaved heads, above all their transceivers,
a uniform which marked them out as from another world. Maybe it was the way
their leader stared down at Michael before turning and leaving the room, not
lending the boy a hand as his cronies rounded up the rest of the children. Above
all it was the ambiguity in that “us”, the feeling of being subject to a power
whose identity he could not even be sure of, not even when it stood embodied right
in front of him.
Flynn decided he
was going to run.
the elevator down, each batch of children assigned its own guardian. Flynn
noticed the guardians were not armed. He remembered how his father, a beat cop,
had stopped taking a gun on patrol shortly after the net came online. In fact, the
old man never really talked about regular police work at all any more, but
rather about investigations, public hygiene, mind coverage. There didn’t seem
to be any need for such mundane things as patrols or guns anymore. Well then,
thought Flynn, it should be easy to get away.
guardians had a shuttle waiting at the bottom of the tower to herd the kids
into. Flynn couldn’t tell if they planned to get in themselves or lock it from
the outside and let the vehicle drive itself to its destination. When it was
his turn to get into the shuttle he sprinted forwards around the corner of the
building instead, then weaved through the alleys. Other parts of the city had
been razed and redesigned to be more “efficient”. Flynn had seen families
walking out of buildings they had lived in for decades so that they could be
demolished. Their faces were always blank, only the blinking red light on their
transceivers serving as evidence that the moment had any significance. Flynn
was glad his alleys were still there.
adrenaline was still pounding in his ears when he reached the entrance to his
building, but none of the guardians seemed to be following him. He stole one
last glance behind him to be sure, then entered and went up the stairs to his
own front door. It opened automatically and he stepped inside.
inside stuck with Flynn for a long time. His mother was slouched in a chair
facing the door, and his father stood in the corner, taut and poised, his face
red and angry. His mother’s face was a contrast, that distant look in her eyes which
he had grown to hate crowning a face that was streaked with tears. She had one
hand on her transceiver, and that hand shook. She gradually lowered the hand to
her side, leaving the transceiver in place. Looking back on the scene later,
Flynn always imagined that she had taken her transceiver off, that she had struggled
not to put it back in, that she fought as best she could, but that there was ultimately
no fighting and winning against the net now, however much you loved your son
and however hard you tried.
reestablished mind coverage of Flynn,” she said quietly. Her eyes were focused
on some point above Flynn’s head but her words were apparently addressed to his
father. “See that he is relocated”.
Flynn looked over at
his father again and realized that in his hand was a gun.
Under the Atlantic, a segment of Flynn’s Qilin craft spun
around nervously. He enlarged its video feed so it temporarily filled his HUD.
A shoal of cod was passing nearby and he had to make sure it didn’t encircle
It was likely that
there were more cod-drones in the shoal than there were actual fish. If they
could cut off the escape routes of an enemy craft, they would suddenly rush it
and detonate. Fishing had been ended -- not banned, because that would imply the
possibility of transgression, and who transgressed against the mind? -- the year
before. A boat had pulled some cod-drones out of the water and they had lunged at
its sensor array, blowing it clean off the ship. That tiny gap in mind coverage
had allowed the visitors to swarm in and disable defenses across the entire
sector. In the end, they fell back just as it looked like they might make it
all the way to Berlin, raising for the tenth time the question of why they
never pressed their advantage to its conclusion. The mind didn’t know the
answer, but nowadays the people of the North stuck to farmed fish all the same.
staring. Usually the only sign a cod-drone would give of its presence was if it
sensed a rival drone trying to infiltrate its group. Entire shoals had been
decimated in the bloodletting that ensued, teeth cutting through titanium and
projectiles flying until only a few bewildered natural cod remained.
Flynn would usually
have found the prospect amusing, but not today. He scanned the shoal carefully.
The Cod War had become a textbook example of how the arms race between the mind
and the visitors operated. Humans had quickly deployed their own fish drones -- it
had been more the idea than the technology which they were lacking, after all.
But then the aliens improved their own tech one step further, pushing the mind
to respond and starting an endless cycle. If human tech stayed static, visitor
tech would too; if the former advanced, the latter always advanced just one
step ahead. It was the same in every field of warfare. The result was a
constant gnawing anxiety tempered only by the knowledge that the visitors
always seemed to hold back from achieving victory.
Flynn continued to
stare. The shoal drifted away, and he prepared to reassemble his Qilin for the
next stage of the mission.
After Flynn was captured, he realized how starved for
human dialogue he had become in the years since the net went online. The voices
he had been hearing since then had all been one-way -- commanding, educating, civilizing.
Their manner always suggested that there could be no dialogue with lesser
beings, only edicts for their own good. But now, gathered together day and
night with other rejects, he felt himself recovering his humanity.
dialogue, stories emerged. Stories like that told by Linda, whose brother had
died fighting the East in the last human war. Her parents never got over it,
not letting her eat Chinese food and voting for the most anti-immigrant party
in the North. “But then they got d-dusted,” she stammered to Flynn from the
next bunk, late at night. “Everything changed. They didn’t hate anyone anymore.
I didn’t have to hide my friends. It was wonderful. Then it was time for my
ceremony, and the dust r-rejected me.” She let out a sob. “They blamed me. They
tried to dust me t-ten times, and it never worked. They wouldn’t talk to me at
home. They just sat there and communicated with each other over the net. The
day we got brought here they just locked the door and let the guardians take me.”
“Did they say
goodbye?” asked Adam, a twenty-something whose bunk was above Flynn’s.
wouldn’t open the door, they wouldn’t talk to me, they wouldn’t do shit. When
the guardians were coming they locked themselves upstairs. The guardians let
themselves in and took me.”
a long, drawn-out expletive from the gloom. “What about you Flynn? You never
said how they got you here.”
me from home too. I busted out of school and ran home. I thought I’d be safe
there.” Two months of confinement and nursing of the betrayal had passed now. Flynn
felt foolish for ever having thought home was safe, and he thought the elder
man might judge him for it. “Huh, I don’t know how I was so stupid now. Ain’t
nowhere safe from them.”
silence as they all considered the question.
under severe restrictions which the guardians enforced dispassionately. The site
they lived on was spacious, with a small forest and a river, but was bounded by
a high wall. They could get whatever media they wanted -- books, music, movies -- on
the local net, but information on current affairs was restricted to the TV,
which no-one trusted. Sex was not allowed. A couple who had tried it in the
forest got caught on drone footage, which was then played in the bunk rooms.
The nihilism to do it anyway hadn’t yet set in. No physical harm had come to
anyone they knew of in captivity, but Flynn couldn’t stop thinking about the
way the guardian had stared at the injured Michael on the floor.
“We are safe
here so long as the mind wants us to be, child,” said another voice from the
gloom. It belonged to a woman who Flynn had seen in the bunk room before,
although he had never heard her speak. She was always in the distance, talking
to a group of younger detainees as they lay sprawled on their beds, as she was
doing to Flynn’s group now. Flynn reckoned she was older than his mom, but it
was hard to tell.
“How do you
know?” asked Linda. “What could they need from us?” There seemed to be a hint
of hope in Linda’s voice at the idea of being needed.
“My name is
Gloria,” said the older woman. “I was plugged into the mind once, and I’ve seen
how it works.”
and Flynn all sat upright sharply. Before they could interrupt to point out the
absurdity of her claim, Gloria went on: “I got dusted at the same time as all
the other adults, and for years I was part of the net. But th-“
was it like being in the net?” asked Adam.
her patience at the younger man’s interruption. “They’re right when they say
you cannot imagine it. I find it hard to imagine even now. You aren’t the
person you’ve always been. The net doesn’t destroy that person, it just changes
it. You probably imagine voices in your head, right?”
They all nodded.
They had been told so many times that this cliché wasn’t true, but nevertheless
their imaginations failed them when they tried to picture it any other way. “It
isn’t like that,” Gloria continued, predictably. “The mind of humanity thinks
with you and through you, so everything feels like your own thoughts, your own
decisions, and you’re just one neuron firing in the process.”
“So it does
destroy you!” said Linda angrily. “It definitely destroyed my parents.”
“It is what
it is, child. But you need to understand this because it’s why you’re here. The
mind is scared of you. You’re a rogue neuron and it doesn’t know how or when
you might fire. When a normal person takes their transceiver off, they’re
independent for a few minutes, but they always put it back on. You’ve seen the
pressure. But you -- the mind can’t build walls in your head. That’s why it put
you here.” She tapped the walls of the room sharply. “And it’s why in the
future, it might need you”.
Gloria quickly became a major fixture of Flynn’s life in
confinement. At first, he thought she was mad. She exuded such confidence in
the face of a world which had collapsed so completely that there was no other
possible way to view her. All of her lectures had the same theme -- how
everything was going to be okay because the mind needed them -- and the same
content -- vague and opaque. But most of the other rejects in the center were
younger than Flynn and looked to him for comfort, and he in turn had to look for
it somewhere. She might be nuts, but at least Gloria was always there.
One thing Gloria
would not do was talk to Flynn about how or why she had ultimately been
disconnected from the net. She always claimed knowledge based on having been connected
but wouldn’t back it up. Flynn had never heard of anyone becoming a
reject after being connected and abandoning the net -- the very mark of
humanness -- seemed unthinkable. Captivity was mostly a blur, but Flynn’s memory
of it was punctuated by particular moments when Gloria let the air of mystery
around her dissipate a little and spoke concretely about the topics she was
always eluding to.
One such time was
when they were watching television one year into captivity. The guerrilla war
had failed, and for the first time the television anchors seemed unsure,
dejected, even withdrawn -- serotonin-starved neurons crushed by a despair
greater than any one human being was ever meant to withstand.
Gloria’s own brain
chemistry lit up, and her eyes twinkled. “Know thy enemy, Flynn. That’s what
they learn in the military academies. But how can they know the visitors? The avatars
trick us into thinking they’re like us -- they even copy our faces -- but they
aren’t. In human wars, we have goals and we know what the other side is capable
of. You know the history of the last great war, right, Flynn? What did the Tianxia
Flynn had no
difficulty answering. He had unlimited access to e-books on what the mind’s
histories now called the dark ages. “To be ceded Siberia, and the methane valves,
because they didn’t trust the North not to release them to fuck over the entire
planet if they couldn’t get Tianxia to back off geo-engineering rainfall
patterns for their own benefit.”
“Fuck over, eh? Is
that what it says in your books? But close enough. So, what did the North do?”
annihilation of the East,” Flynn said, with a hint of pride. He was a
Northerner, after all. “And they blew up the Chinese geo-engineering arrays. But
the faction that wanted to play around with the methane got purged. They
drained the methane out and shot it into space. That way, Tianxia was
confident enough to accept peace.”
“Exactly! They knew
what the enemy wanted, what they were capable of, and they made their strategy.
But how do you fight something whose goals you don’t understand and who invents
whatever capabilities he wants out of thin air? Someone you can’t even talk to,
who isn’t even human. They haven’t got a clue.”
“But how does it
help us? You never say, you just tell us to hope.”
“Just watch, Flynn.
Sooner or later they’re going to realize what they’re doing wrong.”
Another memory. Later.
Humanity has spent two years building a massive invasion force. It rolls towards
the ground under the ships. Huge armies of tanks and helicopters and jets
crewed by avatars materialize and defeat it. Portugal, the staging area for
reinforcements in Europe, is incinerated by missiles.
The anchor is
explaining how the enemy forces vanished as quickly as they appeared, leaving
no trace of the battle but the human and material wreckage strewn on the field.
“Our sensors didn’t pick up any battlefield communications during the campaign,
and enemy dead blanked out as they have in the past, leaving the mind with no
new information about enemy capabilities or intentions as a result of this
operation... in another development, authorities are struggling to re-establish
mind control over dissidents in the wake of defeat. They have issued a final
warning before deadly force is used.”
Gloria is watching.
Flynn is older now, though she seems hardly to have aged. “Mind control hasn’t
done them much good so far,” Flynn mutters to her. “Maybe they should try
something else.” Gloria smiles and winks at him. Her smile says: finally,
you get it.
She doesn’t say it,
because they’re listening to the television too intently. In Tokyo, hundreds of
thousands of people are gathering to burn their transceivers on giant pyres.
The television never mentions Tokyo again.
A final memory. One
day Flynn wakes up and Gloria is gone. She has spent days barely sleeping,
unable to take her eyes off the television, so at first he assumes she has just
finally passed out. He searches everywhere, but he can’t find her. Panic is
gripping him. He knows now that she isn’t crazy, that she’s the only one who
can bring understanding and purpose after ten years inside these infernal walls;
fuck -- he feels the hope tumbling down and the walls going back up in his mind
already. Then a guardian appears and speaks to him like he’s civilizing -- no, taming -- the
animal that Flynn feels he is back on the way to becoming. And the guardian
stares impassively down as he sits hugging his knees on the ground and says
“Flynn, you come with me.”
A flashing alarm jerked Flynn out of his
reminiscences. His Qilin had reassembled, and its powerful radar array instantly
picked up three enemy vessels. Their formation suggested they were scanning his
He only had
a split second to react. There are situations in which the pilot of the Qilin takes
a back seat to its computer, and sudden entry into combat is one of them. Unless
his vehicle alerted the defense net, pulsed three EMPs laterally at the targets,
and then disassembled in under half a second, it would be forced to stay disassembled
for the duration of the fight which was about to follow.
button with a practiced strike of his first, Flynn stopped the process just in
A few tense
seconds followed, but to Flynn they felt like an age. The enemy vessels spun
around, but they didn’t strike. He inhaled sharply. The old woman had been
missile launched from somewhere in southern France ripped into an enemy vessel.
A kinetic strike. An EMP would have been too risky with Flynn’s Qilin nearby.
He must have not reacted quickly enough to avoid alerting the defense net. His
radar lit up as dozens of ships assembled all across the sector and began
firing at one another. A small feed in his HUD which was focused on the ocean
saw a cod lurch unnaturally into the air, mouth open and eyes dead, then detonate
to take out a pursuing halibut.
his eyes. This was going to be more complicated than he had thought.
After Gloria had vanished, Flynn was brought into a
small, windowless room in a part of the camp which was normally off-limits.
Even after all these years they had still not witnessed physical violence being
used against an inmate, but the few people who had either snuck or being taken
into this building had never returned.
seated at a small table in the middle of the room, under a single fluorescent
lightbulb. On the other side of the table were two chairs, both unoccupied.
A guardian entered the room and walked purposefully to one of the chairs on the other side
of the table. Flynn barely bothered to examine him -- they all looked the same.
sat down in the chair, and then did something completely unexpected: he took
off his transceiver and placed it in a small metal dish on the table. Shock at
the act made Flynn’s stomach turn cartwheels. But what he felt most of all was
anger and defiance against a type of man he no longer viewed as human,
transceiver or not.
Flynn,” said the guardian.
should I call you?”
what you should call me, but what my name is, is Nguyen,” he replied. Flynn
blinked and realized the guardian had Eastern features. He had ceased even to
notice such details.
“I thought names
were no longer used among the connected. You identify each other through the
mind. Is this just when your transceiver is off?”
changes happening, Flynn. That’s what we need to talk about today.” The man’s
manner of speaking was awkwardly clipped and obtuse, as if he was used neither
to this manner of communication or to a conversation partner who didn’t already
know everything he did.
that we don’t discuss it alone.” The man sat still and quiet for a few seconds,
as if he was trying to will something to happen out of habit. Then he frowned
and signaled towards the door.
entered the room with the same sense of purpose as Nguyen had, and sat down in
the chair next to him. She stared at Flynn.
shifted uneasily in his chair. “Are you... are you working with them?”
you think, Flynn. The guar- Nguyen brought me here yesterday to talk about some
things. We talked most of the night. With his transceiver off you can talk to
him just like he’s a normal man, Flynn.” Nguyen visibly grimaced and
unconsciously batted at his ear, clearly uncomfortable at having his current
unconnected state described as normal. “You should listen to what he has to
seen on television the latest news about the war, yes?” asked Nguyen.
“We see it’s
not going well. Every strategy you-“. Nguyen grimaced again; the guardians
detested it when the disconnected seemed to not share a sense of ownership of
the war against the visitors, and Flynn knew it. “Every strategy you
have tried,” he continued, “has failed. But the visitors never make it to
Berlin, or Beijing, or New York City -- or even past the outer defensive rings.
Nothing has changed since you kidnapped me as a boy.”
trust the television?”
thought for a second. “Yes. I think so. Gloria said what we see on the
television is like a reflection of the mind thinking, that what each person on
it says reflects at least one current of thought in the mind. She said it might
sometimes be censored but it doesn’t lie.” He turned to Gloria and narrowed his
eyes. He still couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that came from her being on
the other side of the table, seated next to the guardian. “Is that true?” he
Gloria, “at least if Nguyen is telling me the truth, and I think he is. The war
is stalemated just like we see. The mind can’t win but it also can’t lose. That’s
where we come in.”
Nguyen, “this is where there is a role for the disconnected.”
Flynn,” Gloria went on excitedly, “the mind has been doing research on us for
years. They think we have capabilities that normal people don’t.” Gloria elongated
the word “normal” sarcastically. “They think we can break the stalemate.
could we break the stalemate? The visitors can spirit into existence any tech
they need to match us. They even copy our soldiers to make their avatars.”
“We have several
hypotheses,” said Nguyen. “One is that the visitors draw their ability to
predict us and mimic us from tapping into the mind. They arrived when it went
online, after all. Hence, they may be unable to deal with the unconnected. The
second hypothesis...” he continued, before faltering. Flynn had never seen a
guardian falter before. “The second hypothesis, as Gloria said, is that you
have capabilities that normal people do not. It is possible the mind has reached
a kind of local maximum. We can’t lose, but we also can’t win. A current in the
mind thinks that outsiders could find a solution where it could not.”
“A local maximum?”
“What he basically
means is that they’re stuck,” said Gloria. “They haven’t got a damn clue. And
they need our help.”
“The mind is unusually conflicted on this topic. This is why it has been kept
away from the television.”
“Is that why you
have your transceiver off?” This time it was Gloria asking the pointed
question. Flynn relaxed a little.
“What I am doing
was authorized by the mind. Keeping my transceiver off just means it stays
authorized until our business is concluded.”
getting impatient. “What is our business? What real reason do you have for
thinking the unconnected can help? Just after the visitors arrived, there were
plenty of cases of people taking their transceivers out and attacking the
ships. That pilot, Chilemba, took his transceiver out and slammed his jet right
“You know history well, Flynn. But you only know the history the mind lets you know.
Chilemba made a sacrifice under orders. His transceiver was in. Besides, he was
using primitive technology. From your vantage point inside this camp, you
cannot imagine the transformation in technology which the mind has accomplished.”
shouted and pounded his fist on the table, close to the metal box with the
transceiver in it. “So you offer me the chance to work for liars and murderers!
Why should I?”
stared impassively at him, as if he was trying to figure out how to reason with
an idiot. Gloria broke the silence. “Let me speak to him alone, Nguyen.”
Nguyen got up and left. “Okay,” said Gloria, “listen
to me, Flynn. First, you need to understand that things have changed. There is,
as they say, a current in the mind now which is arguing for the value of being
unplugged. Of having a personal identity back again. That’s why Nguyen has a
name and doesn’t have a transceiver.” Flynn noticed the guardian had left the
instrument in the metal dish when he left the room. “They think claiming our
individuality back might be how we can beat the visitors. They think it might
be why they hit Fatima and all those other places after they arrived.”
“Secondly -- well, you do some of the work
here, Flynn. What is the one thing that confuses us the most about the
“They don’t destroy us. But they also don’t
let us beat them.”
“Right. So, the mind has come up with an
idea. They think maybe the visitors want us to try something different. Why
else do they keep this up, if they’re not trying to teach us something? You’ve seen
their technology: they could end us whenever they wanted. So they want
something from us, and maybe this is it. I think the mind might be right for
over the table. He was beginning to question Gloria’s sanity again. He had
heard dozens of theories about the paradox of the visitors’ restrained aggression.
Some said that they were a warlike tribe who tested their new leaders in
carefully-controlled battle; another that they filmed the war on Earth to
provide shipboard entertainment while stationed here on some other, hidden
mission. But the fact was that no-one knew the real reason for it.
without a transceiver, I can tell what you’re thinking,” Gloria said. “Nguyen
says the mind is divided like never before about what to do. Its calculations
of the risk are so finely balanced that they keep spitting out different
answers about whether it’s a good idea or not. He’s finally got the go-ahead.”
anger was returning. “What the hell has this got to do with us? And even if we
believe them, how do we know we won’t be risking the human race? The visitors keep
within parameters and we’re changing the parameters. We don’t know how they
goddamn human race, Flynn?” Gloria was angry now too, taking the transceiver
into her hands and squeezing it savagely, then wincing and banging it on the
table. “I know what these things have done to the human race. You were never
connected, but I was, Flynn. The human race wasn’t supposed to live like this,
not knowing where one person ends and another begins, with no mysteries or
creativity or individuality to call their own. We’re the last real humans,
Flynn, and if we have to put the grotesque monster which has assimilated the
rest of them out of their misery, then so be it.”
staring across the table at Gloria, weighing her up. He had never heard her
talk so pessimistically about the future before. It didn’t sound like Gloria. Perhaps
the whole thing was a trick played on him by the mind for some unfathomable purpose.
He was as cut off from his own kind as anyone in the history of humanity, and
here was the one person he thought he could trust, suddenly appearing in doubt.
He blinked. It did
look like her. And what she was saying had a logic to it. He had been dreaming
of deliverance, but it hadn’t arrived. Dreams could be denied. But facts -- facts
like the transceiver on the table, a gun in his father’s hand, the pathetic
state of the human race -- facts couldn’t. He reached out over the table and
grasped Gloria’s hand, the one which had been hammering the transceiver on the
table. He squeezed it, drawing strength from its sheer corporeal existence. He
withdrew his hand and nodded slightly.
“Tell me what to
do,” he told her.
Back in the present, all hell broke loose. The
protocols of humanity’s defense system unfolded in a pageant of exploding
skies, churning oceans, and irradiated landscapes. The response of the visitors
unfolded in turn, incomprehensible in aim but always just predictable enough in
practice to maintain the balance. The intensity and complexity was greater than
it had been in Flynn’s training, but after the initial shock, he wasn’t
worried. He knew what he had to do.
His craft, like
those of the other unconnecteds who had been persuaded to join them, was cut
off from the mind’s strategic control. Supposedly there was no way for it to be
reasserted, but Flynn didn’t believe it. That made what he was about to do all
The enemy attack gave him a pretext. EMPs
exploded all around him, driving him back from his current position and leaving
him only a narrow funnel of safety to retreat through. His Qilin’s tactical
computer automatically set him off on the journey to preserve itself from the
electromagnetic blasts. By the time Flynn took manual control and accelerated, the
craft was already halfway to Berlin.
He kept an
eye on the blue dots denoting the vehicles of the other unconnecteds on his
HUD. The dots were surging north, like little pieces of flotsam on the
cascading waves of the EMP blasts. The waves rolled ever-higher, pushing their
cargo further than the enemy had ever penetrated before: over Milan and Zurich
and Paris and Brussels and Budapest and Prague, converging with stunning
rapidity on the underground bunker from which Flynn piloted his Qilin. The yellow
dots denoting the mind’s vessels were brutally submerged by the tide.
All over the
world, human beings stopped dead in their tracks and slumped down where they
stood as the mind suddenly called on each and every neuron at its disposal to
parse what was happening. Only in the ruins of Tokyo, where survivors without
transceivers had been left to hunt like dogs through the trash and rubble for
nourishment, was everyone unaware of the momentous event that was unfolding.
For all of
the brain power that the mind marshaled to deal with the problem, the course of
action it had to take was simple. By mobilizing the unconnecteds, the mind had
changed the parameters of the conflict. The visitors had responded by abandoning
the restraint they had observed in the war so far. The solution was simple:
change the parameters back. The mind screamed the order with the combined intensity
of twelve billion human beings suddenly facing the prospect of extinction.
Suddenly the sky ahead of Flynn’s Qilin
bristled with missiles, but he barely had time to register their existence
before they were gone. Projectiles faster than the speed of light shot past his
vessel, obliterating them before continuing onto the launchers. Although he
didn’t hear it, a team of guardians slumped down dead in the hallway outside
his room in the bunker, felled by a projectile which had travelled from Congo
to Berlin in less time than it took them to receive the message to enter the
room to kill him. The communications array which could be used to override his
control of his Qilin vanished, a deep, red crater left in its wake.
Flynn’s Qilin was over Berlin, along with fifty others piloted by rejects who sat
in the rooms around him. He assumed they all knew what to do, because he only
knew what Gloria had told him to do: to crash his Qilin into the heart
of the mind and destroy it.
“It’s time I told you the truth about me and the mind,
Flynn,” said Gloria.
at her, speechless. Not for the first time since walking into the interrogation
room, everything he thought he knew about Gloria was up for question. All he
could do was wait to either be betrayed or redeemed.
“Do you know
why we call them ‘the visitors’, Flynn? Why not ‘the aliens’ or ‘the invaders’?”
annoyed Flynn. This was stuff a schoolchild knew. “Because their ships look
like the ships from the twentieth century novel by Simak. The Visitors.
And they don’t talk to us, just like his visitors didn’t. What’s your point?”
That isn’t right. That’s more history you think that you know but you don’t. We
call them visitors because I gave them that name when they first came to me.
interrupted. “They did what?”
finish. Simak’s visitors couldn’t communicate meaningfully with humans. But our
visitors can. I know because they talked to me. They told me what was going to
happen and how I was going to make it happen. This was before the global launch
of the net. I was one of the early architects, if you can say ‘I’, because by
the time we made real progress the mind had already subsumed our identities. Every
night I took my transceiver out was like waking up and reclaiming myself after
a fever dream. Being plugged in didn’t seem right. But this was so soon after
the war, and giving up didn’t seem right either.”
“One night I
had taken out my transceiver and my cat was on my lap -- you notice how these
drones don’t even have cats anymore, Flynn? In the mirror I saw an avatar appear on the bed. She looked just like me, the cat even went over to her while
we were talking -- I think she even smelled like me. An exact copy. She
told me that soon we were going to have visitors, and that with their help I
was going to save the human race from what I already suspected was going to
happen. She said her race went through the same thing, but they were saved by
people from the sky. She said the net could get us to a certain point but would
end up destroying our individuality, and without individuality you cannot get
to the stars.”
paused, but Flynn was just staring, open-mouthed. She continued. “My visitor
didn’t stay long. When she left I panicked. I thought I’d hallucinated the
whole thing, that maybe this was some side-effect of the technology. Remember,
Flynn, this was before the ships--the only rectangles I was thinking about were
the graves from the war. So I plugged my transceiver back in and let the mind see
what I saw. It only took micro-seconds for it to reject me, to kick me off the
ready to speak again. “What happened next?”
two months before the global launch. We were due to plug in the industrialists
the next day. They went ahead, and they ignored me. I thought I was crazy, that
I was letting down humanity. But then the visitors came, and that’s what they
called them -- visitors. Just like I had when I’d interacted with the mind. You
can’t imagine what a mindfuck that was, Flynn. They put me in this prison
before anyone else, just to stop me telling my story.”
more questions than he could get out at once. He tried just one. “If that’s all
true, why would the mind trust you now?”
Flynn, the mind knows a lot more than you or I, but it works in a certain way.
I’ve seen it from the inside. I’ve seen how its narrow logic cuts off certain
paths. That’s why the mind can never take us to the stars but it’s also why I’m
still alive. The mind doesn’t believe I ever had that conversation with the
visitor. It thinks I just went crazy. The mind says that the visitors have
much, much greater power than we’ve seen yet -- how else do they effortlessly
match any step we take? So if the visitors wanted the mind gone, they could
just do it. But they don’t. They want something else. And the mind thinks changing
the parameters is the only way to find out what.”
snorted. “The mind thinks you’re crazy and I think you’re crazy too. How do you
know you’re not?”
Now listen to what I want you to do.”
Five years to the day after the Battle of Berlin, the
historic anniversary of mankind’s victory over the invaders. Flynn is sat on his porch, gazing up at the
stars. The television is on inside his house, and he can hear the pol-pundit talking
excitedly, even as she recites a history every human being on the planet knows -- even
in Tokyo. A heroic band of true individuals made their last stand in Berlin,
she gee-whizzes, and the invaders were defeated. Where did they go after
their humiliating loss? No-one knows. But that wasn’t the only momentous thing
to happen to humanity that day: before the unconnected could smash them, the
aliens managed to destroy the mind. Now we’re all individuals again, and the
new world government plans to keep it that way...
smiles, even though no-one is watching. He pictures Gloria holding court in the
presidential palace. No-one around her has a transceiver. With the mind gone
and the unconnected the apparent saviors of mankind, there is a new order.
Individuals are back, even though humanity benefits from the technological fruits
of the mind’s brief reign: scarcity vanquished, war extinguished. Humanity has
escaped its local maximum, and the stars beckon. Still, Gloria is no fool. She
knows each new order needs a founding myth.
doesn’t mind the little lies. He doesn’t mind that the pol-pundit is describing
how the heroic Pilot Flynn smashed his Qilin into the enemy mothership as it
closed in on Berlin, using the creativity of the unconnected to find its weak
spot. He doesn’t mind that they’ll never know what the visitors did for them,
and that they’ll keep calling them invaders and aliens and the greatest threat
to humanity. He doesn’t mind that twelve billion humans will never know that it
was he who freed them from the mind’s grip, he who plunged his ship into its
dark heart after the visitors exploded its defenses.
He dozes off and
thinks of the sound those blessings made as they rained down in rhythmic
cadences, just before he struck the final blow. Their missiles, their missiles;