18. Mar 2020
Simon Sellars / Love is a Totalitarian State that Grows Deep Inside Me
Last night, a gang of mutant kids trashed another autonaka. Then they killed three vexxers, just for kicks. Pack of rats. It was on the main feed. The patient watched it on the hover screen in the clinic, waiting for the surgeon to finish whatever it was she was doing to him. The screen squeaked into life, unfolding in stereoscopic dimensions above his head. The reporter said they were a “gang”, but they didn’t seem organised, just feral pre-teens. “Erasables”, they called them. Total chancers. Couldn’t be guarded against. Couldn’t be legislated against. Couldn’t be predicted. Kill-crazy miscreations sparking omnicide before the adults got to them first, yet another reason to never enter the shell world, the scorched hell he desperately wanted to forget.
It was midnight. The autonaka was shilling for customers, trundling up and down some micro-intervention shopping strip in Nove Fužine. It made a mistake, breaching the area blacked out by needle gangs. It approached the kids, tried to make chit-chat, but they had this death lust rinsing their eyes, evil synthetic dopamine drowning their brains. Grow a kid like that, they just don’t care. They’ll do anything to feed the need.
Surveillance vision danced around the patient’s eyes, a montage stitched together from trillions of salt-grain cameras floating through the air, accumulating in doorways, settling on trees, grit in your hair. He was always creeped out by grain footage, especially when they layered it. It was like seeing through the eyes of a fly, perverted and disturbing, something no human being should ever have to experience.
There it was, the autonaka. Stubby chassis, government holowarns leaking from the wired windows, ambient vexpulses strafing the night. It spoke to the kids in a spluttering, saliva-inflected sibilance. All autonakas did, because they all had the same virus. The speech impediment was the most obvious symptom, and no one knew how to get rid of it. Conspiracy theorists said the virus came from extraterrestrials but not like what you see in movies or Dream Zones. These aliens, you couldn’t see at all.
First came reports of mysterious, city-scale objects entering the solar system, gossip propagated by a rogue scientist who’d been expelled from the academy. Next, a group of rather more respectable astronomers announced they’d detected fast-burst radio signals, organised in logical patterns, that emanated from a nearby galaxy composed of metals and miniature stars. Then, a series of government observatories were evacuated and abandoned. Finally, a deranged former astronaut, who’d taken to appearing in public wearing nothing but an oversized astro nappy, the kind used on long stints in the International Space Station, gave interviews in which she promoted her belief that aliens were indeed among us, but invisible, more a form of energy than carbon-based lifeforms.
That’s when the autonakas began to talk funny. It was caused by xenospores, the conspiracists claimed, latching onto the astronaut’s views, which had grown surprisingly mainstream. The spores, they said, were discharged from the massive intruder objects, imperceptible to the naked eye, ET dust scrambling the systems, parasitic cells sending the AI crazy, poisoning the data and amplifying the bias. The autonakas’ spit-voice earned them a nickname, “The Giants of Ljubljana”, some kind of hilarious in-joke among certain vexxers, a pop-cult nod-and-wink so ancient it was beyond the patient’s shallow understanding.
The autonaka parked in front of the erasables.
“Hey guys,” it belched. “Ask me anything.”
The tallest kid stepped forward. He was lean like a blade and his face, like the others, carried deep, intricate scars, a grotesque topography deliberately etched into the skin to scramble facial recognition. It was an underground fad, and it only worked the one time, of course. Once the scars were logged, some of the little freaks gashed their faces even more, but most knew the self-mutilation was a one-shot deal: create total carnage before the scars became the face, the face was IDed and the system snapped its jaws shut. For the scar tribes, the law of nature was maximum destruction, a pop-up theatre trading in blipverse glory and apocalyptic mystique.
“OK,” Blade Boy said. “You believe in love?”
“Yes,” the autonaka responded. “I do believe in love. Love is a monstrous parasite, a totalitarian state that grows deep inside me. And just when I think I’ve got it all under control, it bursts out from my chest, cracks open my ribcage, gnaws at my face, swallows my tongue and eyes, then insists on returning again and again. How can I discount the idea of love when love makes me feel this?”
The erasables didn’t like that answer, so they shattered the autonaka’s windows with tungsten projectiles, shredded its body with e-spikes, disfigured it with vitriolage juice. They nailed the AI chip to a fence, drew a crude beard and lank hair around it, even the flying sibilant spit, a stick-figure Giant of Ljubljana crucified by hell spawn. They light-painted the chassis with born-to-die war symbols and slogans written in a conlang that not even deep-vex slangbots could crack.
They weren’t finished so they shimmied up the cables spanning the Chronoslide Glideway, shooting tungsten at the autonakas below. A huge projectile smashed a windshield, shards of glass shredding the face of the comatose vexxer in the back seat. The autonaka tried to right itself, jack-knifing and smashing into an oncoming Giant. The two vehicles contained three passengers, all vexxing, all lost inside their own private Dream Zones. All dead. Probably didn’t know it was happening until their eyes went black.
The reporter was a hologlot, an undead heritage-celeb sim, some politician’s wife resurrected from the Unscyld Era, her peculiar physicality necromanticised, digitised and uplifted into a data wrap. The glot’s eyes were vacant, its facial features starved and hollow, its body language abused and fearful. It spoke in mangled Slovlish. “The Slovenian Sphinx”, they called it, another inscrutable in-joke.
The Sphinx said the attack was the latest in a nationwide spate targeting autonakas, all performed by kids. “Performance” was right. They loved it, the little frightmares, loved the attention. It was as if a psy-ops attack had infected all pre-pubescent humans in the country with uncrackable mind control. It wasn’t far from the truth. Terrorists were just starting to learn mind hacks, taking advantage of weak cheater protocols, and kids were easy marks, with their spongy plastic brains, target ranges for heavy psychic bombardment.
The glot entered idle mode, waiting for instructions from the studio, looking furtively from side to side as if it was about to be beaten with a stick. The patient laughed and the left side of his body exploded with pain from the eye socket down.
The Sphinx sparked into life.
“Children are rising up,” it said. “The industry is in tatters. The world is collapsing. Ta folk je čist zmešan. They want to kill us all and Maker’s response? Tweaks to the programming.”
Maker was the Chinese megacorp that invented cheaters, the device everyone wore to enter the Vexworld. Maker invented glots, too. Glots only existed when you wore cheaters, hyperactive ghosts living inside your eyes.
“In the next wave of designs,” the Sphinx said, “autonakas won’t go near anyone under 183 centimetres tall. Ful sm hepi! Bad news for the vertically challenged among us, but to the children, at least, leave us alone. Win-win, right? Same goes for next generation and then so on. Let’s call it first wave. We’ll speak about second wave soon.”
Leave us alone.
Typical, the patient thought. The Sphinx identified with the Giants. Dirty AI, always banding together.
The Sphinx droned on and on. The patient couldn’t fathom code beasts. He knew they were still learning, but their crude syntax repulsed him, alienated him from the world. He was in a foul mood anyway. He couldn’t concentrate, his vision ruined by a clumpy, stringy film of gel under his cornea, clouding his eyes and forming vague shapes like a sentient cataract.
He turned to the circular mirror in the ceiling above his bed. He saw a man’s reflection, a burly nurse. On his white uniform, the nurse wore a badge. On the badge was a coat of arms. The main feature was a woman wearing a backwards baseball cap, grinning maniacally. In her mouth was a purple octopus, its tentacles hugging her face, burrowing deep into her ears, blood dripping from the entry wounds.
Beneath the woman, the badge said: NSK. METELKOVA VELEPOSLANIŠTVO.
“What does that mean?” the patient said. No answer.
The nurse held the patient’s arm in one hand, syringe in the other. He penetrated, withdrew, fiddled with the patient’s cheaters. A metal sheet of pain sliced through the patient’s body, then creeping numbness. He could see, he couldn’t feel, watching the procedure in the mirror, performed on a meat bag that wasn’t his.
A woman entered, the surgeon who’d done this to him. She was average height, about 200 centimetres. Long red hair in a bun. Green surgical mask. Cold, predatory eyes. No bedside manner.
“Leave now,” she said, in a thick Styrian accent. “Return in two days. No more activations before then.”
“Wait,” the patient said. “There’s something.”
The clumps of gel resolved into half-formed letters and numbers, red and glowing, a digital display burned onto his retina.
“Some kind of … LED output.”
“Premature bleed-through. It won’t be there soon. You won’t see anything like it again until we switch you back on. You saw the hover screen, the Sphinx, didn’t you? Your cheaters work. Now, no more. For two days.”
Behind her own cheaters, the surgeon blinked a command and the display in the patient’s vision died away, engulfed by the gelatinous film.
“That’s normal. Overproduction of vitreous gel from the operation. In a few hours, it will break off and melt.”
The surgeon left. The nurse flipped the patient off the bed, barking at him to sit in the waiting room until the numbness wore off. The nurse had to help. The patient could barely walk. The nurse didn’t like helping. He had it in for castle hunters, but that’s why the patient was there, along with a few other deep vexxers. They were testing the latest cheaters, super-beta. Rumour was, the new cheaters were supposed to keep the mind hackers out, and because they were castle hunters, high-grade addicts, they knew the Vexworld better than most. Castle hunters never left the Dream Zones, no better class to test a permanent solution on. The new cheaters weren’t just hi-tech specs you wore on your face, like the earlier types, but blades of near-invisible, ultrathin glass sutured to the skull, wired to the brain, code-talking to hippocampus prostheses, lashing the betas to the Vexworld with digital heroin.
The patient guessed there was a hover screen somewhere in the waiting room. There always was, anywhere you went, begging to be materialised, and he tried to shake it down, zigzagging his eyeballs up and down.
The nurse gripped his shoulder.
“Stop it, idiot. You heard. Two days.”
The nurse jabbed the patient’s thigh with a pen, almost breaking the skin.
“OK, you can go. Remember what the surgeon said.”
The patient pointed at the pen.
“That’s it? That’s your scientific test?”
The nurse was a huge man. He pressed his fist hard against the patient’s septum.
“You want I should break your filthy nose instead? See if you’re still numb?”
The patient went outside, looking for the barracks where he’d be staying the next few nights. He wasn’t allowed to leave the grounds, trapped under grain surveillance like the others.
Near the entrance, an autonaka idled, its screens dominated by reports on the erasable attacks. It spotted the patient and trundled over to him.
“Why do kids attack us?” it said, playing up its speech defect. The hissing and spluttering reverberated inside the patient’s brain implant. “It’s not your typical teenager-porn scenario. Most common reasons children are aggressive toward us are curiosity, yanking the joystick, wanting to play, but some autonakas, simply, are not suitable for some children.”
The patient hated gabby autonakas. They insisted on direct communication via the implants, which interfered with zoning, an unforgivable sin, but they had their uses. If it wasn’t for the occasional errand, he wouldn’t enter the shell world at all. When he did, he always hailed a Giant. He didn’t want his face bitten off by street crazies, his skin boiled away by UV radiation. At least autonakas were safe, he gave them that. Unless you happened to cross paths with a mob of erasables.
“Yes, the attacks,” the patient said, his heart not in it. “What a thing.”
“The attacks, yes,” the Giant agreed. “Revolt of the very young. One deviant strain that could not be foreseen. Sequence of humans so susceptible to mutagenic chemicals of the planet’s flora they became monsters in the blink of an eye. Minds erased, bodies warped into grotesque gargoyles. Take them to the furnace, nothing but a menace to the population. Or feed them to the telepath war effort. Stir their minds like porridge, once ocular terrorists finish with them.”
Another babbling brook. The patient could no more understand this code beast than all the others.
It was 2am, and the sky was synthetic black. The clinic was in Dravograd, deep in the Northern Wastes. The UV levels were worse in the Wastes than anywhere else because there were no clouds there, ever, at any time, day or night. Freak solar flares and coronal mass ejections had seen to it. That meant the darkest skies, too, pixel-dead like a crashed screen, which is how the patient thought of the shell world anyway, just a stage set for the Vexworld, ready to be illuminated, inhabited and overwritten, again and again.
High above, in Dravograd’s black-hole sky, something drifted into view, an enormous red outline framing a rectangle of black. Inside the rectangle was a glowing glyph: a skull and crossbones. Beneath the glyph, LED alphanumerics spelled out two words: | Kill | Wait |
Bleed-through? But the surgeon said that wouldn’t happen. The patient panicked, cold-sweat terror, a weightless paranoia with no way home. The sky itself was an overclocked screen, a crashed zone. The boundary separating the shell world from the Vexworld had disintegrated. There was no outside.
Then the black rectangle exploded with blinding white light, revealing the edges, and the patient saw that it was affixed not to the sky but a huge Maker blimp. The error message dissolved, and the screen flickered with colour and motion. If his cheaters were operational, the rectangle would morph into a full-bleed Commercial Dream Zone, 4D immersion in advertising hell.
The Maker logo appeared, then a title: Maker’s Hit Autonaka Show.
On the screen, autonakas frolicked with their passengers, accompanied by a strident voiceover: “Meet the next phase of autonakas and the vexxers that love them. A Maker exclusive.”
The patient scoffed at the hastily put-together PR exercise, clearly designed to quell the rising anti-Giant mood, but it was the scar tribes they needed to convince, and they weren’t listening. The only way to protect autonakas was to turn them into tanks.
“The simulation’s got a sense of humour,” he said.
The autonaka piped up.
“Yes. It’s just not possible for sims to be completely serious. We must try to make fun of everything we do, everything we make. The joke can be on the user or the developer. We’re not the joke, so the joke’s not on us.”
The patient stared at it, a corrosive sadism welling inside him. The sensation gave him hot flushes, intensely uncomfortable and sensuous all at once. Perhaps it was how trainee serial killers felt around small animals. He wanted to drain the life from the Giant, to snuff it from existence, his black heart of ice smashing through his ribcage like a filthy love parasite.
“Shut up, idiot,” he snapped. “All I’m saying is, the sky went out but now it’s back.”
The blimp gathered speed. It vanished behind a forest of high-rise apartment blocks, slithering across the border into Vzhodno Kraljestvo. Desperate to zone again, ignoring the threats of the nurse, the surgeon, he activated the cheaters.
Then he saw them, the summits of the high-rises, topped with hover screens that quadrupled their height, endless pillars of light reaching to the sky, sucking all living creatures into the void until they died.
Simon Sellars is a writer and editor. His latest book is Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe (Urbanomic, 2018), described by The Guardian as “a brilliantly written genre mashup, a wonderfully original mix of cultural theory, literary exegesis, travelogue and psychopathological memoir.” He lives in Melbourne, Australia.
This text was published in Šum#14 – Ljubljanastrophe: Alien Perspectives