Flashback: Echoes in the Mainframe

I'm reposting this story, for what I think are obvious reasons. Call this a victory lap, although I don't know what the "victory" is.

I rarely write about SF writing itself because such metacommentary is boring and smacks of self-obsession. I'm drawing an exception here. Every spec author wants to be a "visionary" these days, with a trend toward "hard" SF over pulpier stuff even in markets that seem like they'd favor the more adventurous material. I've never professed to be a prophet; I'm just a storyteller, a term uttered with a sneer in a lot of quarters. I just tell interesting stories about interesting people, or at least try to. I don't try to predict anything.

Even so, it's nice to be able to say "I fucking called it." Because I did, didn't I? I ended up living in a diluted version of my own story. I wrote this thing in December 2018, a year before the 2019-nCoV outbreak. If any of the people who turned up their noses at this had picked it up, then they would have been in the position to post a "prophecy" from a "visionary" who's well-placed to see the real-life goddamn analogue unfolding before his eyes.

Instead, it's here, where you can read it. And lest some of you doubt that I wrote this over a year ago, I'll have you know that it's one of the stories in Cavalcade of Rejection, which is free at the moment by the way.

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Echoes in the Mainframe

Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 4 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 10 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Soft Rains, the latest film from indie studio Night Call, is on track to break box office records for independent cinema." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in independent films. Would you like to talk about something else? That's okay, I can sense that you're busy!

Would you like to leave a short message for Sara? She has 0 messages in her queue right now, so you'll be the first person to hear from her when she comes back! You'd like that? Okay! Speak or write a brief message and I'll relay it to the real Sara just as soon as she logs back on:

...

Okay! I'll tap Sara on the shoulder just as soon as I see her. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 7 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

I see that you uploaded a picture yesterday. That's you and your girlfriend, right? Is that the Eiffel Tower behind you? No? I guess my eyes aren't so good these days! Would you like to tell me the story behind the picture? No? Another time, then!

Hey, have you heard about Sara's big poetry project? For the last 8 days, she's been collecting poems for a school project. I see that you have an interest in poetry, but you haven't given her any ideas. Would you like to recommend a favorite poem? No? Well, will you give me permission to suggest a poem you mentioned from your profile? No? That's a shame.

Would you like to leave a message for Sara? She has 28 messages in her queue right now, but she's a quick responder, so I bet you'll hear from her in 2 days! You'd like that? Okay! Speak or write a brief message and I'll relay it to the real Sara just as soon as she logs back on:

...

Okay! I'll tap Sara on the shoulder just as soon as I see her. Would you like to do anything else?

You'd like to get in touch with one of Sara's relatives? I'm sorry, Sara's friends list is private and she hasn't given me permission to connect you to anyone. Would you like to leave a public comment on Sara's page? I can make it semi-private, so only her friends can see it. You'd like that? Okay! Leave your message now:

...

Okay, I've published your comment "Has anyone seen sara lately?" as a semi-private post. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 11 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 17 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

I bet you'd like to hear about your comment, right? There have been 9 responses since you last logged in. Here's the most recent response:

"Does anyone have a phone number or something? This is like the worst way to contact her"

I don't sense that anyone has answered your question. Would you like to review them anyway? No? Very well. You can read them on your own whenever you wish.

Would you like to leave a message for Sara? She has 132 messages in her queue right now, but she's a quick responder, so I bet you'll hear from her in 9 days! No? That's okay, I'm sure she'll be back any day now!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Government announces new regulations in light of recent developments." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in regional politics. Would you like to talk about something else? That's okay, I can sense that you're busy!

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 16 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Mysterious outbreak identified as GV-1, government announces sweeping travel restrictions." Would you like to talk about this? You would? Great!

It seems that researchers have isolated the pathogen responsible for all those deaths earlier this month. That's good! But there's no existing treatment regimen, so while the scientists work on a vaccine, the government has greatly enhanced the travel and import regimens it enacted. I hope you weren't planning a trip across the country, because there's a lot more red tape now! What do you think?

...

I see! You asked if I can confirm that Sara is okay! Unfortunately, directive 10005-HP has made it a serious offense to disclose the names of any victims or potential victims of a public health crisis, so I can't help you. Sorry!

...

I see! You asked if I can tell you the current death toll! Well, the preliminary government estimates are...between 5,000 and 15,000 infected, with a mortality rate of 20%. Some outside observers think that those numbers are low, though.

Would you like to leave a message for Sara? Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 32 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 38 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 16 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"If Sara died then we'll never know, the government will keep a lid on it. They don't want people thinking pandemic. The names will be secret for 40 years."

"GV-1 is a LIE. This whole thing is a scam to make people all panicky and distracted while the government initiates Project Dominance. She's probably hiding in some fancy secret palace with all the other 'victims,' laughing at us."

"I'm tired of all this anti-government conspiracy nonsense. This agitation is coming from foreign elements trying to sow disharmony throughout the country so THEY can keep their power. The people funding these trolls are the same one spreading plague around, I'll bet."

"I wish Sarah was here if only to ban these pricks."

"I just wish Sarah was here."

Sorry, but in accordance with directive 10109-LR, I must inform you of the following: The government has announced new regulations regarding the shipment of goods into and out of areas suspected of being contaminated by GV-1. If you were hoping to send a care package to Sara, then it will just have to wait.

Would you like to do anything else? No? Before you log off, may I make a suggestion? I notice that you haven't set up your own avatar program yet. Now might be just the time to get that going! What if Sara logs back on during your absence? Having a properly configured avatar with lots of available data will make the experience much more pleasant for her! Would you like to set up your avatar now?

No? Very well. Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 39 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

A quick reminder: Sara has a birthday in 10 days. Maybe you can send her a special birthday message!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "GV-1 outbreak contained, but government urges caution."  Would you like to talk about this? You would? Great!

It seems that the government has fully contained the outbreak and is now preparing logistics for a new treatment regime which is currently in the final testing phase. That's great! But due to the risk of a secondary outbreak, the travel and shipping restrictions have been extended. Sorry!

...

I see! You asked if I can tell you the current death toll! Unfortunately, in accordance with directive 10005-HP regarding dissonant or untrue content, all external sources regarding GV-1 have been restricted. Sorry!

Would you like to do anything else?

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 19 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

That's all of them. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Good morning, John Yang! This is Virtual Sara, here to remind you that today is Sara Xu's birthday. We all hope you're invited to the party, but maybe you'd like to send her a special birthday message. How about it?

...

That's great! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

Thanks for speaking with me!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 55 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 61 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "GV-1: Modeling a potential pandemic." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in biological science.

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 24 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

That's all of them. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 63 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

I sense that you are troubled. Would you like me to read you a poem from Sara's collection? No? Another time, then!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Import restrictions fail to stop outbreaks in North America, Western Europe." Would you like to talk about this? You would? Great!

Uh oh! In accordance with directive 10005-HP regarding dissonant or untrue content, this article has been restricted. Sorry!

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 27 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"Sara is dead. I didn't see her die but none of us are getting out of here alive. If you see this, run. I don't know where you can run to but if you can read this then you aren't in a safe place. Please believe me. The government keeps deleting my words but they're all I have. It's too late for me."

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

That's all of them. Would you like to do anything else? No? Before you log off, may I make a suggestion? I notice that you haven't set up your own avatar program yet. Now might be just the time to get that going! What if Sara logs back on during your absence? Having a properly configured avatar with lots of available data will make the experience much more pleasant for her! Would you like to set up your avatar now?

...

Great! This is the perfect way to stay in touch with Sara. Don't worry, this will only take a couple of minutes!

 

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Happy birthday, John Yang! This is your old friend Virtual Sara, delivering a special message from the real thing. I'm sure she wanted to give you a big hug herself, but she hasn't been around lately, so please accept the next best thing!

Wherever you are, I hope you have a fantastic day!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 88 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 94 days ago and

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Unfortunately, in accordance with new directive 12001-HS, this part of the page has been restricted. Sorry!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "[This article has been restricted in accordance with directive 10005-HP]." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in $NULL.

...

You'd like to chat? Okay! What would you like to talk about?

...

Wow, that's pretty heavy for me! Maybe you'd like me to connect you to a counselor who specializes in end-of-life issues? No? All right.

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

Oh, and John? Remember to check the configuration on your avatar. That way, we can always keep in touch! Right now, I sense that it is programmed to activate after 30 days of absence. Is that right?

...

Great! Thanks!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 113 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "URGENT DISPATCH: GV-1 IDENTIFIED IN 191 COUNTRIES." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in international news.

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 124 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Hey John, I've been meaning to ask you...I noticed your public post "The end closes in" and I sense that you are in crisis. Would you like me to connect you to a counselor who specializes in end-of-life issues? Are you sure? All right.

I sense that you are troubled. Would you like me to read you a poem from Sara's collection? You would? Great! Do you have a favorite poet?

...

In that case, I'll pick one for you:

"Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house."

Lovely, isn't it?

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 130 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 136 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "WHO: Global GV-1 infection rate expected to exceed 30% by end of year." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in public health.

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 160 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 166 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? You would? Great! Let's play!

 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 2310 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "NULL CONTENT - FEED NOT DETECTED." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in $NULL.

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 2316 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? You would? Great! Let's play!

Cavalcade of Rejection: The Blessing of Winter

After entirely too long, I'm back with another entry for the Cavalcade. And speaking of which...

The Cavalcade of Rejection is free again, this time through January 7th. Remember, if you choose to download it, I do appreciate reviews - they really help get the word out.

Onto today's story, and this is another one without much of a background. I wrote it for a contest that, as far as I know, never concluded. It's another Taiyang story, placing it in the same universe as All the Stars Within Our Grasp, so there's that. Speaking of which, if you haven't been reading that one, I've been updating it on Inkitt, which should be easier for Chinese users to access.

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The Blessing of Winter

Cong Xiansheng hadn't bothered observing his birthday since he was 180 years of age. It was, of course, a cursory event even then - dinner and drinks with remote family members, many of whom were clearly hoping that he was ready to step aside for good and all - but in the years that followed, he struggled to manage even this minimal level of frivolity. So he put that increasingly meaningless ritual into storage along with his other memories, quietly screened and deleted the labored well-wishes of his impatient loved ones, and it was just another day henceforth. All that remained to remind him of his first day on Earth was the simulated glee of those distressingly human-like interfaces that vexed him every morning, at least until he wiped their digital memories of his exact date of birth and they too fell silent. With time he forgot the exact date of his birth, and even his age receded into the shadows of his mind. Time meant nothing, and life was nothing more than an eternally sleepless now.

When people learned of Cong Xiansheng's odd treatment of his own birth, their response was always incredulous. Some of them rationalized an answer on their own, telling themselves that the old man who had eluded death for so long had at last evolved beyond the need for such petty rituals. On the other hand, the youngsters - the ones caught up in that rebirth of old ideas and traditional ways - were more perplexed. There was wisdom in age, they knew, but this man's wisdom was beyond their reckoning.

"You have been blessed far more than most," they would say. "Why wouldn't you celebrate such fortune? Why not applaud the gift that is your life?"

"What life?" he'd snap in response, and thus another conversation fell flat.

What was there to celebrate, anyway? The way the old man saw it, longevity was not an achievement but a matter of fate. It had always been this way - a blessing not of righteousness but of heredity, of genetics. This had become even more true since the Cinnibar Protocol, that gift of Taiyang science to its citizens. The blessing of longevity granted to those loyal enough to claim it - that was the promise, and the empire had fulfilled it. To most it granted an added decade of good health, while a select few gained a half-century, but Cong Xiansheng was a biological fluke dwelling in the tail of that distribution.

When he looked in the mirror, Cong Xiansheng saw only a fossil that was better preserved than most, but this was not the image he projected to the world. Other empires celebrated the young and vibrant, but the Taiyang honored their aged, and few were more worthy of that honor. Perhaps he was rude to those whose own spans fell well under a century and a half, but the questions grew so wearisome.

"What was it like to live through so many periods of turmoil, to witness such change?"

I don't know, ask someone who remembers. Everything fades in the second century, you know, and thank heavens for that. A good memory is another overrated blessing.

"You were born into a different world. Does modern society ever shock you?"

All my friends are over a hundred years in their graves, and the living expect me to answer their problems and are outraged when I can't. One could say that this is shocking, though I would choose other words.

"Do you ever wish you could return to the old days?"

The old days are polluted by nostalgia, and be glad that they are gone. The future, though, is no better, being twisted and bent by false promises. There are certain lessons that one only gains with time, and one of those lessons is that there is no golden age, only a sequence of myths.

"Aren't you afraid they'll make you retire from the Protocol soon?"

This was an especially stupid question, and one the younger fools would inevitably ask. No one has to retire from the Protocol - it was always a choice and remains a choice. The youngsters always make dark assumptions, thinking that there must be some pressure on those fortunate souls who beat the odds. They've all seen the propaganda films teaching them of the responsibility of those on the Protocol not to unbalance the empire with their advancing years, but children are governed more by fear than rationality, and there is no fear greater than the unknown. Surely existence, even in this imperfect place, is always preferable to whatever awaits beyond the veil?

Such were the thoughts of that rare breed of protester, gathered in thin packs before the Cinnibar Retirement Centers with their satchels of crude propaganda leaflets. Cong Xiansheng fancied himself a connoisseur of such articles and even found their slogans charming in an immature sort of way. "No to brainwashing, no to death." "Longevity is a blessing, not a disease." "Fight for forever." Cong Xiansheng had many of their flyers in his frozen fists over the years, all of them emblazoned with that obligatory blend of passion and ignorance, but such was the curse of youth.

There was a rare sort of honesty in the Cinnibar Retirement Centers, one lacking in the Cinnibar program more generally. The Cinnibar Protocol Administration Centers had become fixtures in cities across the Taiyang holdings, each one a triumph of design fit to complement the scientific wonders conducted within. The builders favored classical architecture with styles all but lost to the ravages of age, rising just high enough to challenge the heavens. No less attention was paid to their interiors, decorated in a style that synthesized the leading edge of psychology with the delicate touch of high art. Scrolls hand-inked by masters lined the walls of the grand entrance chambers, beautifully rendered pieces capturing the traditional blessings and the art of the seasons - winter conspicuously omitted. Everything was symbolism and polish and comfort, a place subtly speaking to the beginning of new life.

The Retirement Centers, by comparison, were exemplars of austerity and practicality - stumps of buildings in little-trafficked neighborhoods, their dull and clean facades an effective camouflage against the silent urban backdrops. Each center was staffed by earnest young workers who carried out their tasks with such bionic efficiency that one would be forgiven for questioning their humanity. They weren't cruel, and in fact many of them seemed as perplexed as the protesters, but a layer of essential professionalism masked that personal confusion. Cong Xiansheng could still catch this lack of understanding sometimes - quietly, hidden in a flick of an eyelid or a moment's tortured pause before speaking.

"Good afternoon, Cong Xiansheng. No need for an ID scan, sir, we certainly know who you are."

Closed lips greeted the peppy young man, a heavy silence that struck a blow as sure as a fist. The enthusiasm of youth, that strange tendency to race ahead so that they might waste time more quickly, had come to grate on Cong Xiansheng.

"...Yes, Cong Xiansheng never needs an ID here. You must be into your third century by now, yes? Sorry if I forget, my memory is not so sharp."

"Just bring out the counselor."

It was the young man's turn to fall silent. "...Sir? You want to...retire?"

"Yes. Bring him."

"Ah...They were doing the orientation when you began the Protocol, yes?"

"Yes, they were."

"I'm sorry, ah...we do encourage willing retirement for our more successful participants, but if a man as blessed as you opted to remain around for longer, there are few who would question or condemn."

"I know. Bring him."

"...Very well. Oh, we should do an ID check, just to be in full compliance."

The discussion had become mere ritual, one Cong Xiansheng had conducted with only a few variations on dozens of occasions in slightly different contexts. It was like this everywhere - respect the vessel for its durability but question the soul residing within. A trophy is to be admired for the achievement it represents, but does one enable it to speak? Does one listen to its complaints or allow it to seek its own path? To receive such treatment from a retirement counselor, though - it was a violation to aim to convince one to retire, but equal was the seldom mentioned trespass of aiming to persuade one to stay in the Protocol. For Cong Xiansheng, this one rule had proved highly flexible.

The counselors were men and women chosen less for specific skills than for a novel character - on the surface, the metered speech and patient warmth of a Castilian priest, and beneath it the skilfully utilitarian mindset of a mechanical engineer. Their job was not to encourage but to facilitate, not to shove a man into his grave but to lead him to the edge that he might step in of his own accord. Contrary to the words of the young fools, there was no brainwashing or even persuasion at play, merely a choice that people in past cohorts seldom made.

"Good morning, Cong Xiansheng." The counselor carried a folder - a relic of another time, turned to a transparent prop in a world of electronic memories - and made a show of glancing it as though he might forget the person to whom he spoke. His face was an image of reassurance, his plump, still-youthful features crowned by a contrasting head of thinning hair.

"And to you, said Cong Xiansheng. So? Let me take care of what I must and we can proceed."

"Now, Cong Xiansheng, there's no need to act with haste. A bit of friendly conversation goes a long way." The counselor flipped open his folder, miming a look of shock. "So you are THAT Cong Xiansheng! Enjoying your 267th year - very impressive!"

"This routine is wasted on me. I'm ready to retire."

The counselor set his prop aside. "...Of course, that is your right. A good thing, in fact! This was all part of what my forebears discussed with you some two hundred and twenty years ago-"

"It's bad for social harmony to have a master class of ancient people around, and a drain on critical resources besides."Cong Xiansheng sliced neatly into the counselor's speech. "It is deleterious to the great works of the Emperor for people to exceed their limits by too much. This much I can remember well."

"...Indeed. You must know that those guidelines were meant for an entire population, not one man. Your continued existence would hardly disrupt anything critical - quite the opposite, in fact! Some of the young people will be lost without your presence, and on a personal level..." The counselor leaned in close as though the usual monitors couldn't hear every word. "...We don't know the limits of the Protocol, its true potential. Certainly, I've been curious as to how long a man can live if he wishes. Three centuries? More? We simply dont know, but you have defied even our best forecasts! For all we know, you could watch the sun rise on your five hundredth birthday if you so desired!"

"I don't desire it."

"I see. If you are having any problems-"

"I'm not, and my mind is closed. Do as you will, and do it now."

"Certainly, sir." The counselor's inner struggle over his joyless duty was reflected well in his face. "We can do the retirement immediately, but given the enormity of the event, there are certain considerations we should make. I am sure that the Emperor would like to bestow-"

"The Emeror is a fool and I'll see him in whatever hell awaits us," said Cong Xiansheng. "Is this sufficient? Has my blasphemy boiled your blood enough that you'll do your damn duty?"

"...I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean to upset you," said the counselor. "You can proceed to the Retirement Room any time you wish."

"At once, then. Now."

The newer staff members may have felt some urge to commemorate this moment, the death of the oldest man of all time, but the regulars had more wits and Cong Xiansheng certainly wouldn't have had it. There was neither courage nor tragedy in his choice - it was merely a choice, one of millions he had made, different only in the conclusion. There was no emotion as he walked to the Retirement Room nestled deep within the facility. Unlike the rest of the facility, this room had a trace of symbolic flair, though in its subtlety it went unseen by those who never had need to see it more than once. Cong Xiansheng, being more observant than most, could glean the designer's quiet intent - the odd angles of the walls, the nearly invisible lines running from each shallow corner to the next. This was a single snowflake. This was the start of winter.

There would be one last earthly sound playing on Cong Xiansheng's eardrums - a voice, prerecorded some seventy or eighty years prior, delivering a bloodless announcement. "As the river wears and smooths the stone, so does time act upon us all. Cinnibar has bestowed upon you a blessing, and it is time to pass that blessing on to generations unknown. Sleep now, and awaken in the place Heaven has planned for us all, a place without the burden of memory or pain."

The silence that followed was complete and perfect, leaving nothing save the sound of Cong Xiansheng's blood rushing through his aged veins as a reminder of life. There was perfect silence and perfect blackness and perfect coldness, and life itself blurred into oblivion. There was no death, no hard transition between states, but a slow drift into repose. There was the pulse and the blood, then it was quieter, and at last there was nothing.

Cong Xiansheng slept.

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Cavalcade of Rejection: That Last Quiet Stretch

Welcome back to the Cavalcade. It's an odd time for an update, coming as it does in that intermediary time between Christmas and New Year's, but I have a bunch of belated presents for you. But first, I'd like to leave a shout-out to my Chinese readers:

你好!谢谢你阅读!我喜欢注释!

Now, a few related points before today's story. First, the Cavalcade of Rejection ebook is having another free period from Friday, December 27th to Sunday, December 29th. It would really help me out if you could download a copy and leave a review - and remember that the ebook contains stories not featured here, so if you like this series, you can get even more of it.

Second, I'd like to remind everyone that the serial All the Stars Within Our Grasp is still going strong. It's up to Chapter 6 as of this writing, and you can subscribe for free to get updates as they are released.

That second one is important because today's reject is based in the ATSWOG universe. I mentioned in a previous post that I had hoped to expand the universe with short stories, novellas, and possibly even other full novels, both as a promotional device and just for fun. The ebook collection contains three stories in the ATSWOG universe - "Diplomatic Etiquette and the Alien Menace," "Acts of Creation" and "Unbroken Waters" - and today's offering is a fourth. This one is set in the Agolgan colonies, a location mentioned in passing in the novel which is home to one of the major non-human species of the Stretch. This one's a bit moodier than the novel, but I find it touching. Shame no one else did, but what's new there, huh?

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That Last Quiet Stretch

Mr. Harker built that stitched-together scrap pile of a rocket ship to put distance between him and the pains of a lost and tragic love, or at least that's what the old fools kicking around Agolga always said. They're wrong, but I get why they think that. Sure, Mr. Harker had taken a man-sized portion of loss for himself, and the tears were no secret in these parts. Plus, one look at that misbegotten vehicle, that cylinder of scrap iron and explosives all held together with nothing more than reclaimed wire and sodder and prayers and well-wishes, and you'd wonder if the bastard climbing into it just didn't care if he lived or died. Maybe you reach a new horizon beyond that which man dares to glimpse, or maybe you explode and wind up strewn across ten billion cubic miles of the void - either way, the heartache is well forgotten.

It's a lot of garbage, though, just the idle tongue-wags of a bunch of bored nitwits looking to have a little fun at the expense of a man with dreams. If anything, Mr. Harker was looking for love - not the love of those people who fed him big fancy lies and then turned to specters when the going got tough, but his first love, his childhood love. Mr. Harker was going back to the source of it all, going back to that moment when he turned his peepers to the skies and wondered what was up there, spinning around all those little lights. He was going back to those smooth days when a boy was free to ask himself if there wasn't something more to existence than his little piece of paradise in the habitation zone.

People forget that he was born into this colony. The rest of them were adventurous souls, or at least adventurous souls of that type that will fly to the edge of space just so long as they wind up someplace with a respectable eatery and a comfy place to sleep. Not adventurers as much as exceptionally, deeply intense tourists - just the type that the wise men in Exterra want for their colony worlds, otherwise boring people with a taste for a cheap moment of glory. It wasn't an easy thrill for Mr. Harker, though. He was carried here by his parents who, not long ago, ended up departing this universe of ours for good and all. The Agolgan colony is all he's ever known, and that's pretty terrible if you think about it. What's there to see on this withered little rock, anyway? How many times can you take a day trip around the whole sphere before it sheds that adventurous charm?

How long did it take before I lost my taste for the place? Maybe a year, two, couldn't have even been three. My own rationale for coming to this craggy stone vanished a long time ago, blown back into space. I'm sure that I told people some poetically courageous nonsense about pushing back the boundaries of human understanding into the infinite horizon as we continue our mastery of the great beyond. The real reason? Couldn't tell you anymore. I'm comfortable, though, as much as anyone is here, and I'm not bound to leave. Sometimes I wish I was more like Mr. Harker, with a little more of that steel in me; other times, I'm grateful that I don't have that ache.

Mr. Harker has had a bad run, thats for sure, but if those gossips really want to find his lost love, they should gander up to the north after the amber sunlight fades into the night. There's this smear of starlight up there, starting a few degrees east and continuing until it almost touches the crest of the planet - the Exterran Stretch, the new homeland beyond the void. I know what people here think about the Stretch, that place they abandoned for the colony worlds. Its no place to be - a corrupt hollow, or a sprawling slum, or a battlefield not yet stained with blood, or maybe just another dumping ground for bad memories. Well, those are just their opinions. For another type, the Stretch is hope. It is people not yet met, cultures not yet experienced, and - yes - loves not yet sundered. Above all of that, though, is his desire to reunite with the love that he forgot, the one stolen by the relentless grind of life and the myth of maturity. He was always an explorer at heart but a real one, a hardy and nomadic soul, not a dilettante like the rest of us.

The tragic part of this love story is that Mr. Harker won't make it to the Stretch, or anywhere close. I gave his ship the once-over myself - my honor as one of the few old nimrods who didnt mock him too much. Yes, his ship works in some technical sense, and it has the means to support its passenger for quite a while. It has ample power to twist out of gravity's strong hands and emerge into the black expanse. What it lacks is certainty. One math error, a stray fleck of ice, an unexpectedly breezy launch day and that flying trash can of his will go back to being scrap, its pilot only a meaty ballast. I begged Mr. Harker to give up on the ship and just pay a mercenary pilot to give him a lift - he has the money, and I'd be willing to chip in for a good cause. No, he said, the trip itself is also important. Better to get there by my own wits than by some crazy flyboy wholl fleece me in the end and snatch all the glory. Better to make it myself, or fail by myself, and know that it was me.

You know, I could leave this place if I wanted, I have the money for one of those crazy flyboys – why do I stay? Why don't I take off if the magic's gone? Fear? No, it's nothing as effortless as that. There's nothing back in the Stretch I haven't seen, other than a few new faces and the usual fads. So why do I stay here and let a loon like Mr. Harker and his starborn spirit mock me like this? I do still have something to lose, that's part of it, but maybe it's that I let the world beat that spirit out of me. If I lost everything or gave it all up, could I turn into that? Maybe that's the real fear, that I'd have to throw away the cozy certainty to get that feeling and I know I never will.

I don't know, maybe I'm reading way too much into this. Maybe Mr. Harker really does have a death wish and this is his way of concealing an extremely elaborate exit from life. Maybe I'm the fool to buy into some romantic vision of the spirit of exploration which, in the end, is just another breed of madness. It's not like I'll ever know, and no matte what happens I don't see Mr. Harker returning to the colony. Dead or alive, he succeeded at what he set out to do, and maybe that was enough in the end.

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ATSWOG: The Empires

More of All the Stars is now up, so it's high time we talk about the empires. The Exterran Federation is technically a unified political body, but most of the Stretch is actually run by de facto local powers. They refer to themselves as "empires" and model their societies around notable empires in human history, updating the hardware but leaving the "software" - the cultures - untouched. In the backstory, there were many of these empires (nearly as many as there are real-world cultures), but during the timeline of All the Stars, there are just four significant ones - the others having collapsed, been destroyed or simply faded into irrelevance.

We've already had a glimpse inside one of these empires - the Taiyang, based loosely on the Han Dynasty. Those of you who've followed the Cavalcade of Rejection series or downloaded the book (another free weekend is due after Christmas, by the way) will have seen the Taiyang mentioned a few times. It is at once a traditional society and a highly advanced one, expansive and yet insular, inquisitive and yet suspicious of outsiders.

One of our major characters, Yang Yizhen, is a Taiyang insider of sorts and through his behavior will demonstrate what the empires are like. This is a man not comfortable in the relatively familiar surroundings of the Federation because it's not familiar to him. He is used to a world of rules, ritual and order. You've already seen a bit of culture clash between Yang Yizhen and the modern, worldly Jennifer Shen, and there will be more of that ahead.

The idea behind the empires was to give the Stretch some flavor beyond that of the trope-driven settings of most space colony-type science fiction (such as that of the Federation-controlled words which we'll be seeing in the next few chapters), and also to give the universe some room to grow. The next planned novel - dubbed The Space Beyond the Heavens - would have been set primarily in the Taiyang Empire while also exploring Paz Castilia, the Spanish/Iberian empire. The other two - the Greco-Roman influenced Tetrarchy and the Persian-influenced Alshams Asha - along with the various as-yet unnamed minor empires would have been fertile grounds for short stories and side novels down the line. Perhaps they'll yet show up in some future project.

ATSWOG: The Exterran Stretch

The Exterran Stretch

All the Stars Within Our Grasp is, at once, an ambitious work and a limited one.

The ambitious aspect of the work is tied up in its setting - the Exterran Stretch, the collection of post-Earth human colonized worlds and the other local planets inhabited by intelligent life. Setting is critical in science fiction, but more so if you want the universe to exist beyond the confines of a single work. ATSWOG was meant to be a multi-volume story (the final version would have been four novels), but I had plans beyond that. It was to be a living setting that would keep growing and spawning new stories long after the leads finished their journeys.

I stumbled into a common universe with my first few novels. There were, in total, five complete novels and two or three incomplete ones which all featured overlapping characters, places and history. But while this was an accident that stemmed from the manner in which I wrote those stories, with ATSWOG it was planned out.

Phase 1 would have been short stories. I've already featured several that reference the Taiyang Empire, the Han Dynasty-inspired monocultural body featured in Chapter 2. Eventually, this would have included ever-longer works - novellas, maybe even side novels - focusing on the Taiyang and other empires, the Agolgan colonies, Epocha (which we'll be seeing) and other planets and species. I even had some fantasy - a long=shot dream that I dared not ponder too deeply - that my little universe might draw enough attention that others could expand upon my original works, adding layers of depth and turning it into a truly living universe.

Overambitious? Oh, yes. I'm not convinced that the Exterran Stretch is sufficiently distinct for this...although I'd ask that you wait to pass judgment until later, when you meet our villains. The non-humans are variations on themes and perhaps the monocultural empires aren't as colorful as I think they are, but this is a universe shaped by some true fiends, and they had the gifts to bend the Stretch in a million ways until we found one that really worked.

That was the hope, that I'd start with something fairly basic but then, through the novels, short stories and whatever else I dreamed up, turn it into something unique and epic. Perhaps that'll still happen. After all, ATSWOG is...

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The Stretch Unfolds: A New Project

Another always popular update post, this time featuring a major announcement and a minor announcement.

Major one first. I have something new for you to read, but you won't find it here:

I will be posting All the Stars Within Our Grasp, my last complete novel-length manuscript, via the email newsletter service Substack. I'm doing it there and not here for a few reasons - mostly to try and reach a new audience, but also because this site's traffic is clearly bot-dominant and I'd like to know how many human readers I have. The newsletter is free, and if you don't want to receive the emails you can also just read it on the Substack page. Supplemental posts will be available here, and eventually the whole thing will be available for download (gratis, of course).

Speaking of downloads, a minor announcement: The Fabulist is now available at another venue, free-eBooks.com. It's, well...free, and if you do download a copy, I hope you'll also rate it. Every little bit helps.

Noble Savages: Life Beyond the Diner Confidential

Members of the United States national press corps? We need to have a talk. Come over, I don't want to have to yell this across the room.

...Look guys, I want to respect you. There was a time in my life when I wanted to be one of you. But then I watched you degrade, and in the last few years you've developed some...let's call them unfortunate tics that are getting out of hand. I really wanted to keep the political and social commentary off this site, because that's not what it's for, but at the same time many of my projects are informed by my life experiences, so this was inevitable and I'll put it off no longer.

So...This shit needs to stop. And by "this shit," I mean the Diner Confidential pieces with the old guys who are Trump voters. It's enough.

You guys hear this a lot, I'm sure, and given you general attitudes you may be doing it because people complain about it. I'm writing this anyway for two reasons. One, this time it was the AP doing this - when it's the New York Times, it doesn't matter what I think because I'm not in the Manhattan social register so I may as well not exist (the same thing that stops me from being published also means that no NY-based news outlet thinks I exist at all).

More importantly, I'm going to take this from a different angle than you usually get from the Extremely Online Left. I want to address this not from a political or demographic angle but from a storytelling angle - and you are telling a story when you do this.

So why does that story always start in a diner?

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This is one of the pictures the AP used to illustrate the article in question. It's folksy, I'll give you that. To the kind of people who think David Brooks is a keen observer of the American condition, it may even come across as "authentic," whatever it even means when white people say that.

Now, I don't know what the process for picking interview subjects looks like, at least not for a piece of this genre. Perhaps you guys are getting them in advance and arranging these diner interviews specifically for that Brooksian folksiness. Given the dubious screening process and homogeneity, though, I suspect that you are actually finding these people on site, meaning you must spend a fair bit of time hanging around these diners.

Initially, I can think of two reasons why you might do this. One, convenience - a restaurant is a public location with a predictable flow of people where one can hang around for a good long while for an outlay of a few dollars. Two, an earnest belief that the diner is some vessel of Real America where one can find Real Americans, thus making it a natural starting location for any such visit.

Either way, it creates a problem for me. You see, I come from a town called Pratt, Kansas which seems very much like the kind of place those high-falutin' journalists from the Big City might visit. Only we don't have a diner.

At all.

Funny for something that y'all associate so dearly with Real America, huh?

I spent a while rolling this around in my head, trying to figure out where your ilk might even start their Heartland Noble Savages tour. There's a bar and grill downtown, but it's obviously not open for breakfast - and you guys seem to love the breakfast interview. There's a donut place, but that's not quite the same (and also owned by Koreans, last I checked). There used to be a diner on the highway that had good milkshakes and really bad burgers, but it's been closed for probably twenty years, and I don't think they had breakfast, either. There's a restaurant attached to an inn on a minor road that does have breakfast, but I haven't been out that way in so long that I couldn't tell you if it was still open.

Finally, it dawned on me that there's only one place where you could do your little routine: Donald's Servateria.

Which, as you can see, has breakfast.
Which, as you can see, has breakfast.

The Servateria isn't a diner - it is, as you might imagine from the name, a buffet. At least, I'm pretty sure it is. I don't recall if I've ever been inside. Once, maybe.

Honestly, for the longest time I thought the Servateria was closed. That torn-from-1960 signage is the actual sign that it had all throughout my childhood, and it looks as out-of-place in context as it does here. I can recall seeing some ads for it on local TV affiliates when I was a little kid, but never again after that. I really thought it was closed, but no - it's just that it developed a specific clientele that was enough to keep it open, and thereafter they felt little need to draw in new customers.

To drop the pretense, the only time you'd see anyone under the age of sixty in the Servateria is if a patron brought the grandkids. Other than that (and the occasional road tripper who found such places charming), it was dominated by retirees. If you went to the Servateria looking for interview subjects, that's who you'd find - not a representative sampling of the town (let alone all towns), but a very thorough sampling of one particular demographic.

All of which unlocks a third possible reason why you're all obsessed with diners - you want to find these particular people regardless of whether or not they're representative because you want to tell a specific, masochistic, audience-baiting type of story. But that's not true, right?

Look, I can be as fair as anyone. I get that there's an appeal in meeting the locals on a trip into the hinterlands known as "Places Outside of the New York Metro Area," and it's so much easier if you can find one location where everyone gathers. Whether due to laziness or to misapprehension, you've decided that this has to be a diner - not a park, not a knick-knack store (which exist in abundance in small towns), not a cafe (to be found inside some of those knick-knack stores), not a Sonic Drive-Thru (the one in Pratt was a hell of a lot busier than the Servateria ever was). God forbid you find a community calendar and try and attend, say, a potluck or community sale or parade or local sports event - all places where you'd see a far more representative group.

So why not try that? Might it be because these are not high-priority articles, but mere space-filling clickbait?

I said at the start that I wanted to treat this as a storybuilding exercise, and here's the upshot: Opening a "small town opinions" article in a diner is a heinous cliche. It's the journalistic equivalent of starting a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in a tavern. You can whip up whatever excuses you want as to why you had to do it, but everyone knows that you put more effort into those excuses than you did into the actual product - and all the clever reasoning won't stop people from rolling their eyes.

Next time you do this (and clearly there will be plenty of next times), why not go to, say...a chicken noodle dinner? It might not be better, but at least people will sigh with a bit less weariness. And at least I'll get to read something different for a change.

(Fun fact: I have a short story about a kid whose town is invaded by journalists doing Heartland Noble Savages tours. I don't anticipate publication)

Cavalcade of Rejection: 1984 in Chinese

Today's rejection is a bit different. What I've shown you up until now has been speculative or at least spec-adjacent. However, I've also been known to dabble in more realistic content, typically inspired by my own experiences. This is always something of a gamble. Aside from the already low odds of anyone outside of Manhattan (and therefore unable to spend evenings kissing ass at literary salons) getting published in a literary journal, there's the sensitivity of the content itself. It's one thing to have some spec editor tell me my story is uninteresting; it's infinitely worse to hear the same comment from some upper-crust lit editor about my own life.

Today's story was one of my first attempts to break in to a non-spec market. "1984 in Chinese" is inspired by, well...1984 in Chinese, a copy of which I own. You might remember this from a post I wrote many months ago, though I doubt it as no one read the damn thing. In any case, it struck me as a such an unlikely object that I had to write about it.

I probably wouldn't write a story like this today. Not that I have any issues with the prose (I wouldn't be showing you this if I did), but I'm iffy on the subject matter. Americans - who often have limited imaginations when it comes to other countries - have an idea of what life is like here that doesn't match reality. There's this narrative that any nation that's not an America-style democracy must be full of people trembling in fear. I once encountered a person on Quora who wondered if I was in fear for my life for writing about China, and I believe he was serious. Most people aren't far off of that belief.

So I'm torn. I have to write about what's true to my own experience, yet I don't want to write anything that's going to create a false impression and worsen a stereotype...yet I also know that if I don't play to that stereotype and sketch depictions of China as some dystopian nightmare state in need of enlightened Western salvation, it's going to get rebuffed as "inauthentic" by a bunch of people who learned everything they know about the PRC from Thomas Friedman's taxicab confessions. Decisions...

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1984 in Chinese

I don't know why I bought the damn thing, it's not like I'll ever possess the skill to read it, let alone the degree of mastery necessary to compare the writing to that in the original. The original novel, of course, is a classic, but one with roots running deep into the author's language, a plot cast in the vagaries and plasticity of the English tongue. Could one truly reproduce this tale in a language ruled instead by context-dependent ambiguity? Wouldn't it necessarily lose something in the transition of culture and grammar?

More importantly, would the government censors really allow it? And why would they allow even a neutered version to land in a bookstore in plain sight? Questions without answers, questions about which we can only speculate. One thing that is not speculation: Somewhere in the world, there are a million machines that know my name, know my face (even if they can't truly see it), know my background. They know of every missive I've ever written and every transaction I've ever carried to completion, and the same about every soul within their domain.

So what happens when some transient fool opts to purchase such a thing? The second the cashier passed that scanner over the bar code, one of those machines acquired a new juicy tidbit: Owns a copy of George Orwell's 1984 in Chinese. Those machines, inveterate gossips that they are, immediately set to work spreading this delicious fact through their own networks. One of those machines, perhaps, belongs to the government that currently holds me beneath its purview, and that machine is waiting eagerly for the chance to dish to someone with fleshy ears to hear it.

They won't do anything at first - why would they? It's a Western misconception that totalitarian states act in haste to eliminate wrong thought. This is perhaps true of some of the more goonish governments ruling in the ruins of dead states, but modern autocracy is far more insidious than that. The powers that be are willing - in fact, pleased - to allow life for their subjects to proceed normally. The people who labor beneath the iron fist of despotism still live out their lives, still tend to their families, still feed their filthy vices, still harbor their secrets, at least from each other. Fear is a mighty but inartful instrument compared to apathy and complacency, and it is by these tools that the modern tyrannous state exercises control. This bureaucratic oppression is simply too dull to arouse outrage as a more overt act would.

So there are no "disappearances" in the middle of the night, no suspicious accidents, no media-glutted show trials, no dark conspiracies whispered in government antechambers. There is only a lone red flag on a single computer, a single irregularity buried somewhere in the depths of the digital sargassum that clings to the foundations of society. Just the one quiet red flag, one switch in a trillion turned invisibly from zero to one. This is all that happens for the first few weeks, the first few months. It is a defect for which no one cares, no one panics, no one even notices.

Then, one day, there is an incident. What is the nature of this incident? Who was involved? Is he at all relevant to the incident? All irrelevant questions to a council of machines who know nothing but “on” or “off.” In the opening moments of that incident, the masters of those machines set them to work on a single, critical task - make an educated guess as to the perpetrators of the incident, that a second incident will not follow. Thus the machines spool back through those trillions of switches and the quadrillions of connections between them, and at some point in this process their numb eyes land upon that red flag, that socially suspicious purchase. Now a subprocess whirs to life as a new set of machines, a new electronic panel, searches for connections between this one harmless yet unacceptably suspicious act and anything else of note. They find nothing, for there is nothing to find.

And yet, the machines, these perfect bureaucrats, continue their work. They pass back over their original work, and then again, and again, and with each recursion that red flag looks larger. Now a second switch has turned on, this one for a suspicious number of searches. Weeks pass, and the perpetrators of the incident have been apprehended (or, barring that, the state has decided to pretend that it was never much of an incident to begin with), but those two ones are still there. Every time the electronic hive studies itself, it takes note of that, and with time it adds more suspicious behavior. He made a few too many late night internet searches, or bought a lot of imported junk food from a store that, itself, was flagged many years ago - trivial offenses but for that pair of switches screaming at the algorithm to notice them. A third switch is turned, then a fourth, at which point the grand algorithm takes notice. Now the whole network is sweeping back and forth, and with each recursion the network notices new problems, and those flags are growing exponentially - fields of red flags, like the building facades at one of those universities where this person spends a suspicious amount of time.

Now the machines are screaming again but this time someone with some small measure of genuine authority has taken notice. Living eyes have fallen upon this foreigner and his strange, slightly suspicious habits, and a new network is engaged. They start exactly as anyone working in the 21st century would - paging through the archives of his digital life for any hint of disruptive intent. This step is invisible until one of the censors slips up and leaves some trace of himself on a website, a red flag of his own. Or is it an error at all? Is this, perhaps, a subtle bit of fearmongering to gauge for a reaction? It seems unlikely – a less obsessive soul wouldn't take notice – but then everyone knows that the state makes no mistakes.

More systems fire to life. The cameras are everywhere, but some are less blind than others. Some of them behave strangely now, moving in a way that betrays some trace of mechanical ingenuity, following his footsteps a bit too closely. The eyes of the city are infinite, but a few are backed with a mechanical simulation of sapience. They can spot this potential agitator wherever he goes and, with time, the operators know his schedule and routes at least as well as he does. Any deviation from this electronically determined center point flicks even more switches, and triggers even more systems, and summons more investigators.

This is where things start to change in ways that are more tangible for that imbecile who thought that all he was doing was purchasing an ironic souvenir. The police drop by one night to check his passport - he does keep that with him at all times, right? His computer hasn't been working right, and a cursory investigation turns up programs that he never noticed before. Paranoia is hardly a necessary ingredient, he must have just overlooked those...but wasn't there that problem with the camera before, where it sometimes seemed like it had clicked to life unprompted? And when, exactly, had he enabled those options on his phone? It's not true paranoia, of course, because people are undeniably watching, but which sinister group is it this time?

He isn't yet afraid, though, because he is protected by a national privilege. True, he is not a rich man by any means, but he hails from a rich country and that identity bears some power. The people from the poor countries, they are routinely victims of state overreach because the state has no fear of retribution. People from countries such as his are never victims unless their trespasses are so overtly and brazenly vile that their own homelands no longer want anything to do with them. Whatever offense he has committed - and he can think of a few, all trivial in the grand scheme of things - he is still safe.

Then even more eyes fall upon him, and this time it isn't just those cold electronic sensors but actual people. Such a man stands out already for his foreign features, but surely they didn't always stare like this? Now he is sure that his paranoia is justified. At some point, his face must have been drawn to public attention. Why? It doesn't matter except in some abstract sense. He is the enemy of the entire system now, and the entire system - organic, mechanical, the distinction blurring together in the wake of the behemoth - is now aware of his existence. Of course it had always known, but now it had reason to take notice, and invisibility was a fantasy.

Even so, life goes on. He lives his life and pursues his dreams and indulges in his vices and for all of the staring eyes - and there are more by the day - little else has changed. He grapples with the idea of escape, though this is now an impossibility and on some level he understands that. The best tactic, insofar as there is one, is to wait until the system finds a more dangerous agitator. Eventually, the dragon will spot finer prey with a weaker belly and move on.

Then there is another incident, and the final process clicks into place. This time it is not subtle. This time, the system makes itself known. The shadows are now tangible and they move at the speed of violence, and that one poor soul's fate no longer belongs to him.

The situation is preposterous, of course, but even so I was sure to buy my Chinese copy of George Orwell's 1984 in cash. And in the months since, as I've flipped through the pages and considered those glyphs that I can scarcely understand, my only explanation is that the system allowed this transaction because the advance of time has rendered the author's warnings a footnote.