The Signal Crusade

I was used to the hardest life out in the grids. One menial job after the other; always getting shitcanned, always with the gutter at a step’s remove. Everywhere I went I dragged my invisible chains. More than my companions, they became my lens, my interpreter, my point of reference to every other thing. You get to a point where the impossibility of escape is almost a comfort, the only thing about any other thing you can take for granted. It’s the opposite of hope – it’s a growing certainty that you have recognized the immutable pattern of your existence which, dire though it be, still gives you the structure of something to lean on through the gale.

Such was the way I had resolved to go through life. Pinned down at the bottom rung of existence, if you like, but drawing comfort knowing I’d no further to descend. Until one day everything was upset by a storm of savage ambition. It came over me in the form of what we might call a divinely inspired national security vision. At a swoop, all the pieces were in place: An immaculate blueprint for how to reduce the gridbound civpop to an enduring state of docility, at the same time purging the signal refuseniks without drawing more recruits into their camp.

It was a vision based on infallible logical precepts and ironclad historical truths. Everyone knows the whole point of the signal is to keep the civpop mind occupied. But the Broadcasting Authority has to walk a fine line between a strategic diversion of psychic energy and complete destruction of the mindstock’s marginal mental capacity at the expense of production and above all tax revenue, without which, sadly, the whole system would crumble. Now the Broadcasting Authority knows full well that the greatest threat to spike sociostability metrics emanates from those who refuse the signal. Your refuseniks or AWOL receivers, if you like. They also know that enacting laws to make signal evasion illegal might be to hold a match to a powder magazine. It’s a matter of preserving the moral high ground and taking care not to let the resistance capture or otherwise embolden the middle. What the Broadcasting Authority has always needed is a way to turn this swing mindstock against the refuseniks. At the same time they recognize that the civpop’s undivided attention is the key to their Eldorado, that gilded polity of unblemished control. They must, I reasoned, be painfully aware of the diminishing returns thrown off by their relentless application of physical control. What they lacked, partly for want of insight into the mind of the target and partly from a lack of subtlety, was the proper interface for engaging the entirety of that attention: religion. It was this deficiency that I was prepared to supply

So where did I go? I went to Reverend Quaid’s mega-church at the New Gau Mall. The one where Senator Scummings worships, attended by a heavenly host of up-and-coming bootlickers. I had to sell my first edition Homeland Heroes collector cards to afford the suit I’d need for admission. Not to mention all the adjustments to my bearing and locution I had to make to stand a chance of clearing ecclesiastical security’s face control without getting carded and bounced, never to mingle with the pious cadres within. Of course, this whole story rests on a sequence of increasingly improbable rags to riches playcalling, so I beg your forbearance in granting me this first little bootstrapping miracle: Borne up on a cushion of pomposity, I breezed through the triple-membraned onionskin security detail, completing in a trice the blessed transition from blasted grid into the sacred bosom of Reverend Quaid’s ministry of worldly and otherworldly success. My sartorial equipage and upright gait slew all suspicion of imposture as I slipped into a pew just two rows behind the mighty Senator.

Did I feign possession in the mega-church pew that Sunday? Inasmuch as I practiced my routine beforehand, yes, I suppose I did. At heart, you see, this is a tale of faith-based entrepreneurialism. But it all depends on how you look at it, because only then, at the spastic nadir of my homeland security trance, did I come into full possession of myself and the unencroached horizon of my natural-born faculties. And if my most important witness came to suspect I had feigned it, who’s to say he would care? To put it another way: I submit that an act of great persuasion rests on inducing a trance state, and that such a state must needs begin with the agent of persuasion.

It was the Sunday after Christmas. Reverend Quaid gave his much-anticipated Epiphany sermon that day. He preached the Word from a tower of massive cross-braced timbers that was footed in the choir pit and which rose nearly to the rafters. Just like the megachurch’s walls, ceiling and pews, the tower was tiled with hundreds of flatscreen televisions. Their sound was muted to a low background buzz in deference to the Creator, but the eternal parade of worldly propaganda and stimulus flickered on, triumphant and relentless.

In the sermon he had dialed up for the occasion, instead of the usual focus on the miracle of God made flesh, Quaid pulled out all the stops to defend Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Not, he cried down into the sea of congregant faces that shone cadaverous and ghostly in the aggregate glare of the pew-mounted LCD’s, that the act itself was righteous – only that, inasmuch as it was God’s plan to deliver the Christ child to safety in Egypt, Herod’s butchery could never dim the prospects for man’s salvation. Nor could Herod be blamed, in his capacity as an instrument of Roman sovereignty, for doing his duty to Rome by defending the very ground on which his own authority stood. Nor were we as good Christians in a position to comment with eschatological certainty on pre-Christian morality, since all the stage players in the Christmas set piece, with the exception of the holy family itself, were doomed to eternal hellfire, never mind their earthly actions and omissions. The sermon met with hearty applause. Given that the congregation’s brainwaves had been so far subdued as to buy Quaid’s enterprising blasphemy, I judged the time right for the throwing of my fit.

I began by admitting a piercing scream. With my next breath I cried, “The Dark Prince stalks this once Christian nation!” Quaid dropped his mic up in the tower. Hearing him shuffle through his sermon notes for guidance, I only hoped I’d be able to step into his spell over the suggestible pew-moisteners before he recovered himself far enough to have me bundled off by his security acolytes. The VIP congregants who could see my face emitted a collective gasp when I opened my eyes. I had put in opaque white contacts that let me look upon the world as through a sheet of marble, lending me the unassailable mystical authority of a walleyed prophet.

“The Honorable Reverend is right!” I thundered. “Render unto Caesar, for Caesar is God’s Vicar on earth and His will cannot be exercised but through him that has a firm hold of the scepter. Truer words were never spoken! But the Dark Prince’s minions are mingling even now in our midst, conniving, multiplying, meddling – refusing. You all know as well as I that we could be blasted to the very feet of Gabriel at any moment by Lucifer’s tactical pyrotechnics. And still we give his minions quarter! Still do we insist that these demonic goblins have the right to be secure in their persons, effects and conscience! I say no more! We must round on these rough beasts and deny them all quarter. Not a moment’s solace, and not a second’s shirking of the signal. Congregants, as I stand before you on this Sunday before the Epiphany I say unto you that I have already had mine – the Epiphany, that is, of how our nation is to overcome its enemies and rise to meet its future as one! With God as my witness I say that I have seen the exact workings of it and that, being blessed from on high with the wherewithal to guide its salubrious mechanism, I want only for the means by which to bring it into execution.

“The Epiphany has committed to my care blueprints for how to seize and occupy the farthest recesses of the satanic mind – how to clear it of deviltry, how to build it up in a righteous architecture, how to hold the impetuous surge of apostasy at bay. For make no mistake: the destiny that God has ordained for us and the will of this nation’s leaders are as one. The blueprints I carry in my mind’s eye reveal a precise method of divination whereby I, at the head of a holy army, would seek out and destroy those who have permitted deviltry to vanquish their minds. If it be brought about we may yet fulfill our nation’s shining promise as a beacon unto the peoples and a continental garden under God. If not, then God help us –” here I choked and blew my face red as a beet with consummate stagecraft.

Reeling back into the pew, I lowered my voice to just above a whisper. “If not, we may yet touch Gabriel’s feet, but only from the effects of Satan’s blast, whereupon we will plummet into the pit to behold from below how the minions of the Dark Prince wield the scepter in this once beautiful garden – Lord in Heaven I can see them even now, they will not receive Your message…” At which point I popped open the peanut I had been storing in the corner of my mouth to release the powerful soporific lodged inside. The congregants were already turning back to the screens in front of them for guidance as I drifted off.

Engage your harnesses, because the narration of my escape into the orbital belts of made men will rattle your bones.

Senator Scummings was at my bedside when I woke up in the hospital.

“Glad to see you’re on the mend my boy!”

The Senator, I had it on good authority, had his fingers deep in the cookie jar of signal saturation assurance. In fact, he stood near the head of a media, surveillance and security combination whose earnest wish was to make signal refusal a crime punishable by liquidation, or else a stay in the lucrative prison combine in which he also commanded a hefty stake. And I had just the thing to bring his dream to fruition. It was all so elegant, so insidious – oh what sinister allure! That I, a mere scullion, should by force of will and by virtue of a value proposition cleverly crafted, be propelled into the very vanguard of surreptitious governance! If these be the times that blast men’s souls, get on with it, I say, and hasten to retool yourself into a blasting cap!

More than anything, the Senator’s end could be accomplished by taking control of the political center, if you like, out in the grids. Under color of God, we would recruit the man in the middle into the Broadcasting Authority’s counterinsurgency army, this time not through passive programming, but by offering him a front row ticket to a transcendental religious experience jazzed up with the trappings of State power. It was the man in the middle – the one who occasionally drifted off-signal and who more than anything needed a positive reason in conformity with his irrationality, his superstition and his love for what is strong to seek redemption in the ranks of the signal faithful – who held the key to boosting’s Scummings’ signal field saturation metrics. Looking back, there is one thing and one thing only that qualified me to be the Senator’s ballcarrier during this goal line stand with the resistance: It is that I have understood better than anyone in my generation that counterinsurgency is, in essence, a weaponized marketing campaign; that its main thrust must be into the psyche, piercing flesh only in adjunct and in proof of the primary objective’s failure. Which is where I come in – having understood that relentless application of physical control can never be enough to subdue the swing mindstock who live and work in the bread-and-butter signal grids strung out and networked from coast to coast. Excuse me if I wax lyrical from time to time – it’s just that this world-historical initiative of mine, joining as it does the strands of pre-Enlightenment superstition with the cables of cybernetic technocracy into a unitary fetter to bind down body and soul is a most worthy candidate for rhetorical excess.

What does the mind in the grids want more than anything? I’ll tell you. It wants the assurance, no matter how implausible or hollow, that all is not for naught. Above all it needs to be confirmed in its refusal to take responsibility for its own destiny by the assurance that there is some agency at work in the universe on its behalf, some wave it can ride to the comforting shore. A godhead, a doctrine, a movement, an interstellar intercessor woven into the fabric of being, anything. I was now ready to be that intercessor, or at least his double agent.

To soften me up, the Senator expressed concern for the welfare of one so obviously touched by the hand of grace.

“Cut the malarkey,” I told him. Then, beckoning him to lean his head into my zone of confidence, I said that I was prepared to gin up repeat performances on demand to promote acceptance of his tactical signal assurance sweeps out in the grids.

“Whatever do you mean?” he chortled.

“With all due respect sir, I already said cut the malarkey. You’re obviously interested in what I can do for you. Now I may not call things by the same names you do, but the fact is that the people need to believe that Providence is guiding your all-seeing eye. Providence: not national security, not shits and giggles sadism, and certainly not needing to live up to the forward guidance you give your shareholders. Senator, I’m telling you that I can sell the uninterruptible signal imperative. I’ll make every refusenik an outcast. Before long they’ll be begging we find them before the gridmobs do. You just put me at the tip of the spear and I’ll drive it home – for a cut.”

He stroked his chin, appearing to pause for a moment to admire the solidity of his own person. “Course we’ll have to talk about the terms, but the method you contemplate merits solemn consideration, my boy. You patently understand how the game is played. I’m sure I’ve never met a young man quite like you before. Tell me, what are you?”

“Currently I’m a scullion, sir. Previous to my current post I’ve been a porter, a junior joiner, a shoe black and a minor factotum. But I’ve given the world and its players the deepest consideration for the longest time. I guess you could say I’ve been waiting all my life for this opportunity. Did I mention that I hear voices?”

Something quick and convulsive happened in his eye before he clapped his hand on my shoulder and burst out laughing. “Oh my – I like you. You’re a natural, not like these boys I see graduating from the mid-level controller farms these days, all gimme mine and no gumption. You’ve got a fire under your ass, son, and if you but give it the proper guidance it will surely take you to the stars.” He put out his hand and enfolded mine. The hand was massive, viselike – very much the hand of a baron of the homeland, heraldic almost, as if it carried within it the distilled violence of a thousand ancestral hands pressed to the million windpipes of his line’s expendable victims. “Sic itur ad astra,” he laughed. “Sic itur ad astra.

~

Before proceeding with the particulars of my launch into orbit, an aside on ultimate causes is due. Obviously they’ve been making great strides in putting together cognitive dossiers on the civpop and taking steps wherever a flag pops up, but there’s no getting around the fact that all that’s a day late and a dollar short. There’s still way too much uncharted, undocumented and unprosecuted extremism. Now what’s the fundamental reason, beyond your baseline lack of knowledge, as to why something you’re looking for can’t be found? What I would lay before you is this: It’s the fact that there is somewhere to hide in the first place. We can’t stop extremists from wanting or trying to hide, but we sure as heck can deprive them of their hideaways. And I’m not even talking about underground cells. I think most of those are pretty well under control. It’s the attention of the individual I’m talking about. Every day every single person in the Soyuz wanders off during some lull into a state of mind where he or she will be more or less susceptible to extremism. We all just somehow disconnect and fall back into the solipsist, autistic universe where everything is permitted, where all you feel is hate, repulsion and bewilderment. It is precisely here, in these unguarded moments, where individuals can be recruited into the ranks of the refusenik fiend. This is the frontier where the authorities must wage their war. Our future hinges on whether we are successful in arresting the drift of the individual’s attention away from preferred content and states of consciousness to the point where it becomes ardent, steeped this wilderness of hate.

~

In the days before jerking out on my first field op I was given a multi-year contract, a wardrobe trailer, and an assiduous little fellow by the name of Gomez. Everyone working for Signal Fidelity Associates – for so Scummings’ outfit was called – was cast in one of two molds: a) a technotronic goon or b) a cybernetic dweeb. Gammas at best, excepting the board-level nomenklatura. To give you an idea, most of Scummings’ people were operating in a perpetual daze – he didn’t trust any of his people to go off-signal. I on the other hand, the maverick schizophrenic, had a covenant in my contract vouchsafing to me in perpetuity the right to bob and weave through the uniform field, tuning in and out at my sole discretion. You heard that right – by putting on a single inspired pewside cum bedside performance I had effectively been raised to the rank of Baron of the Homeland – albeit one whose crest bears the image of a scullion stooped over a slop sink. Order of the scullion, scrubber of blemishes.

Nothing could have been easier than my first operation. Decked out in flowing white robes and a wispy prosthetic beard to supplement my natural soul patch, I marched into the New Gau grids at the head of a bristling parade of gamma goons masquerading as penitents, lab-sourced crusaders whose likeness the world had not seen in 800 years. Sackcloth and ashes, cats o’ nine tails, crosses, garlands of garlic, mass-produced ruggedized relics, quarterback-issue wrist legends imprinted with Bible verses, and of course the sundry implements of slaughter. For my part I had a corneal heads-up display and auricular implants to guide me straight to any disruptions in the signal field. The rest of it was wild pretense, pious imposture and something quite beyond me that my good fortune had allowed me to tap into. You know how these things go. But this wasn’t your average tumultuary crusade of yore. I didn’t have to worry about my train of thug-penitents being thrown into disorder if I stopped of a sudden to tune into a feigned celestial signal or to confer with the one true God or His agent in Scummings – thanks to their entrainment auriculars and assured fidelity there was absolutely no obedience lag. And what a great boon to one riding the molecular edge of counterinsurgency, where the difference between standing tall and going under depends on efficient command cascades!

It was a brooding cold Epiphany day. Casting glances up at the dull apertures of the grid blocks, my own eyes met mostly with slack forms and downcast gazes – not for fear of the new prophet in town, I trow, but in fidelity to the scheduled programming coming in over their tablets, floorscreens and what have you. Doughty viewers, they. But then there were sets of eyes that had a knack for making themselves felt while remaining unseen – the very same eyes, no doubt, whose out-of-pocket minds were disturbing the tranquility of the grid’s otherwise uniform signal field. Hateful, they. Craven, creeping thinkers who scrupled to receive, let’s face it, not only instruction, but comfort, direction, certitude – every boon modern life had to offer. And for what? Natural-born orneriness? A heretic is a frightful thing – a disfigurement of the otherwise featureless compass of our mindstock that begs to be burned out and cauterized. I would cut them up and stack them into fuel for a pyre. Doubting fucks.

New Gau City was a grid like any other first-gen civpop commune grafted onto the map direct from the mind of the new era’s first grid czar, Homeland Baron someone or other. The ones you can tell by all the clumsy cameras they hadn’t begun flush mounting back then. Our march concluded, I drew my penitents up into battle formation on the commune’s Fourth of July muster green and proceeded to fire them up about the mission. Or rather, to confer on them the appearance of being fired up with the zeal of superstition that was so mission-critical. My thug-penitents, you see, were nothing more than plug-and-play order taking omegas, meaning they were in about as much need of a pep talk as your average joystick requires inspiration to translate your twitches into digital signals.

I was relishing the atmospherics as Gomez, working from the command trailer, slowly dialed up the omegas’ neural pep from preseason to playoffs. The Senator’s HR people literally had console arrays like the ones you’d see in an old-timey reactor control room to perform what they called emotive circuit control. Actually, scratch preseason. That’s all wrong, as it would imply a sort of chipper, sunburned insouciance. My penitents’ baseline state of animation was much closer to reptilian catatonia. If you stopped to listen, there was actually a low mongoloid moan rising from their ranks.

It was into this low-pep body that I intoned: “Ye faithful who here hearken do me and the nation great honor by your vigil. Ye are here assembled for to cull a refusenik and cast him as an outlaw onto the golden flames of the pyre. And so it will be done, for so it has been revealed unto me. For I am the vessel that hearkens not only to the signal of civic virtue, but to that of the Lord our God, who have seen revealed in a memory downloaded from the future what will transpire here today. And tomorrow, and the day thereafter, and the results of all the jerk-outs of chastisement we undertake numbering 77 into the middling future. I know to a verity which individual in the building behind me is guilty of shutting his ears to reason, just as surely as I know that he will be caught today, and that, by the lamentable fallibility of God’s vicarious regime on earth, some of his associates will evade today’s dragnet and live on to foment sedition until the vise closes about their necks on the date appointed by the heavenly warden for the same. The outcome that has been sneak-remembered unto me is the same one I have descended today on this Fourth of July muster green to bring about. It is godly work, for a verity, but nowhere in the Scriptures does it say that all God’s work must be pleasant.

“What are the crimes we are assembled to prosecute? Fie! The question is not posed in the right spirit. He would do better who asked: which are the few crimes that do not besmirch the litany of infamy we have resolved this day to expunge in fire? What aspect of our national destiny does not hang on the sweepstake that here awaits seizure by a steady hand?

“The sky warden hath shown me, as by penetrative vision, the nature of the plain on which the battle will be joined, and it is like unto a petri dish in which the most virulent bacilli, having once found purchase, will by Satan’s sinister force bloom rampant, bringing every civic virtue and every hope of tranquility into eclipse until the sky shall grow dark and rain the terrors of the Lord down upon the heads of men.”

Then, gazing up as if to draw homeland security inspiration from on high, I murmured to Gomez over COMMs to dial the neural pep up to just over five and hold her steady. The effect recalled the way a curled-up dog springs into action at the prospect of a treat. The energy that coursed through my omega friars as I continued bordered on automaton rapture.

“Ye gathered faithful, this is a virulence we must oppose by main force, gloves off and sleeves up. Hereby do I declare each and every one of you a disease combat plenipotentiary, fully authorized to operate at the extreme end of the force continuum for to bring about our mission’s fruition. Do you understand me, men? This is what you have been training for – now let me hear you say huzzah!”

“Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!”

“Engage pep level 7,” I muttered into COMMs. And so it was done. A few skirmishes broke out among the friars as a result – doctrinal quibbles, no doubt. A rising tide of furor is a wonderful thing to have at one’s fingertips.

“Gentlemen!” I paused a five-beat for emphasis. “Living and breathing in this grid, right now and with complete impunity, is a hard-line refusenik by the name of Elijah Antiprovatos. Elijah is guilty not merely of shunning the signal, but of fulminating against signal content to known associates and innocent ears alike. In a word, he has joined in league with the Dark Prince to effect the destruction of our nation. Now this may not hitherto have been a crime before the civil magistrate, ’tis true, but furrow not your brows, my dear faithful souls. No, for we have been convened under the banner of God, for to try these crimes in an ecclesiastical tribunal vested with sovereign power warranted by the prevailing state of martial exception. It is a banner that excludes the artful quibbles and chimerical casuistry raised by lawyers, law-twisters and sundry other ninnies. As such, the military operations you conduct today will be carried out under the divine immunity of a most holy crusade!”

The penitents erupted into a howl of bloodlust. Leaving their pep level where it was for the moment, I turned smartly on my heel to face my hidden audience in the residential towers. “Ye who dwell within! Among you there are those who would sow discord and divide your house. Why do ye harbor such sodomites? Know ye not then that to countenance fulminations against God’s vicar is to commit misprision of treason? Do ye not know the blow of justice will fall the harder for your slackness and your feeble guard? Know ye now that I declare this ecclesiastical court-martial duly convened!” I wheeled back on my bailiffs and executioners. “You are become officers of the court. Go into the towers and question the commoners therein. Ask them where Elijah Antiprovatos hides. Bring out in chains all who prove dilatory or recalcitrant. Bring me also Elijah’s known associate Humphrey Daniels, if he too be found within. And fear not to commit such ravages as you must to impress upon the wayward the majesty of the law.”

I could have said nothing and the result would have been the same. Turning their neural pep up to 8 was a virtual guarantee that my reprobates would ransack and terrorize. As for locating Elijah, the manhunt was coordinated by commands conceived in the cyberdweeb trailer – and in something other than verbal form, if I’ve been given to understand correctly: something on the order of images transmitted from one neural network to another, a higher will willing action by its subordinates.

The fact is, other than the names of the suspects and the general contour of the opening statement, I doubt my friars were able to grasp the meaning of my words. Nevertheless, to an uninformed observer they would have appeared, after some brief lag, to have been actuated by them, which after all was the important thing as they began their assault.

There were three entrances to the tower block. The center door had been stoutly barricaded by the residents, but my thug-penitents streamed in through the doors to the wings on either side in a double-flanking maneuver. It took some time for the stalemate in the center to resolve, but in the end the barricade was no match for my omegas’ patented blend of fast-twitch monkey muscle and neural pep. At first the door buckled. Then came a scream of shearing steel. This was followed by the door, still cased in its frame, popping loose from the building envelope and being driven into the lobby to clear a path of maneuver through the corpses and wreckage. The first wave through was harried and held up by resisters. Only a dozen or so penitents had made it in when their resurgence was checked. The resisters had concentrated their attack on the penitent flank and had nearly succeeded in re-barricading the doors by recourse to some handy expedient.

Gomez dispatched a drone to cover me as I hastened to have a look at the door and the nature of the blockage. It was a stack of penitent bodies, their burlap garments drenched in blood and gore. Gomez piped up in my auricular to note that the friars’ minds were being patterned with orders to hack through the barricade. And that Elijah was hiding in the basement. I crouched down among the men and used the cover so afforded to press home my walleyed contacts. Rising again, I shouted: “Men, the body is as nothing before the inspired will. Hack ye now through the flesh of the fallen with your long knives, and honor their sacrifice by doing great execution within.” Upon the instant they did as they were bidden, their blows churning guts and gristle onto the grating that skirted the building entrance like the detritus of some diabolical grinder. A few of the bodies were still twitching. By the time the omegas had cloven a path through the barricade, their brothers in arms who had taken the building by the wings had begun rounding on the resisters within. Sounds of great slaughter ensued as the stalled outer force regained its traction and stampeded through the gory breach, now joining with their inner brethren to close the vise with a level of neural pep that was frightening to behold. Asked how long the hallucinatory intensity could be sustained, Gomez guessed until the job was done. The screams grew louder, louder still, and held a long while before ebbing to a whimper.

“Dingleberries and malicious scripts!” Gomez cursed in my ear.

“What?”

“Oh man. I waited too long to dial it down. A bunch of them just killed one another.”

“Relax Gomez. It’s called biological overhead. You have to expect some wastage in an operation like this. It’s not like any of these guys have families like you and me. You hear that? I think that’s them piping down even now.”

Turning my gaze heavenward, I yelled, “I have seen where Elijah cowers. The all-seeing eye of God hath given me his whereabouts, that the wheels of justice may commence to turn. He hath slithered serpentine into Boiler Room D. Crusaders, bring him to me, and with him all who make bold to resist or obstruct!” I peered into the tower block lobby. Through the blur of my marbled contacts I could vaguely see the omega troop turn on its heel as one, many of them trailing blood. Once they’d filed down the stairwell I stepped over the threshold into a scene of indescribable carnage, the fulsome details of which my marbled lenses spared me. A caverned scream now came bellowing from the basement.

“They haven’t killed our suspect, have they Gomez?”

“No sir. Purely collateral.”

I detected a slinking form out of the corner of my eye as I turned to face daylight and the door. So did my heads-up corneal sensor. Or it could have been the auriculars by sonar. Whatever the case may be, not two seconds had passed before I had a Mark II Leibwaechter drone hovering over either shoulder. I paused, my back still exposed. “Traitor,” came the rasping voice at length. “Traitor scum!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “How darling! So the one that rallies to his sovereign is now a traitor?”

“Sovereign my ass – imposters, you and your master both!”

I sighed. “Can’t think straight, can’t talk straight. It’s no wonder these people will never win.”

Gomez asked after the means to be employed in his liquidation as I stepped back out onto the muster green.

“Leave him be,” I said. “He may be just the sort of swing mindstock we’re looking for.”

Clenching my jaw against the cold, I rolled the delicious terms of my contract over in my mind as I waited for my omega ruffians to emerge with Elijah. It was only by dumb luck that I paced forward in abstraction just as an iron flung from a high window was about to torpedo my skull. The vindictive reflex hadn’t yet welled up in me when the originating apartment unit simply blew up. What an operation I had joined – they’d pre-wired the gridders’ apartments to detonate on provocation!

But here suddenly was Elijah. An impressive figure, I had to admit. Not quite as large as an omega goon, but with handsomely proportioned limbs and a winning countenance all the same. It would almost be a shame to burn him. But a fine-looking man was one thing and a juicy performance clause was quite another.

“Excellent!” I said as he was flung down on the ground before me. “An honest-to-goodness signal resister, and a live one to boot. You have come on bended knee to confess your crimes against the sovereign and the sovereign’s message, I take it?”

“Eat shit you faggot fuck.”

“What a nobly laconic statement! I say, between you and me, I expect this to be great fun. Do you know what’s going to happen now?”

“Don’t care.”

“Oh but you will. You shall be tried for misprision of treason and, well –”

“By what authority?”

“What quaint notions! Do you hear that, friars? He wishes to know on what footing we rest our authority.”

Gomez botched the laugh track badly just then, producing a low mongoloid moan that trailed off into a collective giggle rather than the requisite sadistic mirth. It still appeared to frighten our captive, most grid denizens being entirely ignorant of the mysteries of gruntstock manufacturing.

“As I’ve already taken care to explain, the authority vested in this ecclesiastical tribunal rests on the state of exception declared in New Gau City and on New Gau Island.”

He commenced yelling. “I hereby claim the same authority under the same state of exception. My fellow Americans, the state of exception is an open invitation to reassert our rights through revolutionary self-government! Let none who witness these shameful proceedings –”

“He must be silenced,” I muttered to Gomez.

“What balderdash he spews, sir. Let me get the command out.”

Upon the instant a friarscrum piled into Elijah and pummeled him into reverential silence, whereupon his mouth was levered open with two standard-issue mouth wedges to make way for the concoction that would disable his larynx. A much more elegant technique, you’ll agree, than that of tearing out the suspect’s throat, to which such frequent recourse was had at the dawn of the new era.

“It’s showtime,” I muttered to Gomez. “Tower residents! By the grace of God, the satanic minion so recently in your midst is now in our iron custody. By the will of the Creator, we have broken the network of conspirators through which he was plotting to render our nation unto the devil, beginning with this fair tower block in the great Gau of New Jersey. You are safe now. Nor have you aught to fear from us, as our grace-guided manhunt is over, my warriors now become the bailiffs of the court hereby convened to judge of this reprobate’s crimes. So come one, come all, and rejoice with us in the ritual purge of disunity and evil.”

Our gaffers and production engineers had just about managed to install the jumbo screens and tower speakers by the time the most obese grid dwellers had straggled out onto the green. From the instant it was energized, the apparatus played back high-resolution security camera footage of Elijah committing such acts as reading, conspiring with associates in a dimly lit room, plugging his ears while walking past a public infobox and encouraging his companion to do the same, even sprinting away – the gall of it! – from a sworn peace officer. The crowd further saw him beat his mattress, his wall and his desk in animal fury, just as they saw him throw rocks at safety cameras and type obscenities into his phone – all before the trial had even got underway. If I remember my pre-mission briefing correctly, the only part of the evidence that was doctored was the sprinting away from the peace officer – the perp who flies the law and is not leveled by a leaden volley from a peacemaker being a breed rarely found in nature.

The incidental pretrial footage may have been real enough, but the witnesses produced against the accused once we got rolling were straight out of central casting. The first fellow I had on played the part of the weak man hoodwinked by a charismatic manipulator.

Was it true, I asked him, that the accused had compelled him to submit to satanic rituals?

“It is, Sir HLB sir.” That, for the record, was the first time I’d been called that. It felt good.

“And in what manner of satanic observance were you implicated by this man’s exhortations?”

“I really don’t want to say, Sir HLB sir.”

“Have no fear my good man. You needn’t say a thing. We will show them.” Here Gomez cued video footage that depicted the serial violation of the witness by a group of masked men. Elijah’s satanic sleeper cell, I dubbed them in an élan of inspiration. The jury’s brows were knit in predictable disgust.

PERJURY. Elijah had etched the word into the ground in front of him with his foot. Of course the act was more nuisance than menace – I was dead certain we didn’t have anything to fear when it came to the jury’s reading comprehension. I looked down at Elijah with mock pity.

“The accused appears to disagree with the unfortunate witness’s representation of events that night. I wonder, what would Elijah now be screaming, had God not struck him dumb? What would he have us believe? That the abomination you just witnessed was consensual? Or that it is covered by his freedom of religion, perhaps! God in heaven, this man is an affront to Your grace and to the dignity of Your children on earth. If You mean that we should end this trial now and submit the accused to your condign punishment, You have but to give the sign.”

Whereupon Elijah lunged forward and spat me full in the face, for which violation of court protocol he was instantly submerged in a bailiffscrum.

“Lord!” I cried, wiping the spittle from my prosthetic whiskers. “How many of us must receive this man’s satanic fluids before we call Your vengeance down upon him?” Whereupon a peal of thunder was made to sound offstage. I threw up my hands and wheeled to fix the jury with clouded eyes. “Very well, I hear you. We will continue to observe the forms of due process. But Lord, it is a wintry day, and the officers of Your court, no less than the jurors and the interested public, require a fire by which to warm their mortal flesh. Therefore we do not prejudge this Satanist when we build the pyre by whose blaze he will burn if found guilty. Bailiffs, assemble round the woodpile behind you and set it ablaze!” No sooner did Gomez flash the image of these words into the eyes of the bailiffs’ minds than it was done. For my second witness I called a journeywoman cashier enrolled in the Civilian Retail Monitoring Program. According to Gomez she was a top name in consumer denunciation. She struck me as mousy and disheveled. Typical epsilon.

“You sure about this?” I whispered into COMMs.

“Relax. She’ll blast it out of the park.”

Once we’d established her bona fides to the jury, I asked her if she’d seen the captive before. “Oh sure. Used to come shopping all the time at mall. I just can’t believe it’s all true.”

“I’m sorry, would you mind clarifying that? That what’s true exactly?”

“Well I mean we just used to be, you know, shocked by the stuff he would buy. So we came up with theories about him, you know, to pass the time of day.”

“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to be more precise. You will also note that it is proper to refer to me as Sir HLB sir.”

“Sure, sir. ”

“HLB sir.”

“Sure, HLB sir.”

“Sure, Sir HLB – that’s short for Homeland – you know what, let’s just forget it. What manner of merchandise would this man buy from the store where you are employed?”

“A miscellany really. But when you sit there all day with nothing else going on you can’t help but notice patterns. For example the rice and oil. There’s no way he could eat that much, and it says right there on the screen he’s got no relations.”

“So he’s a hoarder?”

“Yes, HLB. A hoarder.”

The woman was making a mockery of my title. Did she not know that this was a serious forum? Gomez would hear about this.

“Or a black-market purveyor to other hoarders wishing to elude the ration radar, yes. But I would imagine that such activity is widespread enough not to warrant your especial attention in this case, is that not so?”

“Oh sure, HLB Sir, that’s so.”

There came a peal of intolerable tittering from the crowd.

“Ma’am, this is an ecclesiastical court of law. Please see that you mind your forms of address. It’s ‘Sir, HLB, sir’. Is that clear?”

“But I’m no sir, sir HLB.”

“What in the name of the heavenly warden – no, I will not have these proceedings interrupted by your sickness. Ma’am, did you ever witness the accused engaging in other, let us say suspect forms of consumer behavior?”

“But of course, sir HLB. I filed it and I flagged it. That’s why I’m here, right?”

“Eh – quite so. Would you please let the court know what you saw?”

“Well, sir HLB, one thing was the matches and lighters. Way more than normal. And every time he came in he would buy a big thing of salt.”

I stroked my soul patch. “How much, precisely?”

“A pound a pop.”

“Why there we have it! I would profit by this occasion to let the ladies and gentlemen of the jury know that the only reason salt’s availability has not been restricted by the Soyuz Eutrophic Commission is that it is such a reliable forward indicator of antisocial intent. I submit that there can be no legitimate purpose in acquiring so much salt. The criminality of it is enough to make the imagination run wild. What did the kneeling runt use it for, I wonder? Did he use it to pickle his victims? To harry their open wounds? Or did he wished to establish a local monopoly, provoke a supply crisis, and thereafter deny a necessity to his fellow citizens? Or what is worse, suppose this beastly reprobate was working toward the establishment of a breakaway civilization, one that, having no need of us, would live at odds with us? There are worse ways to launch such a vicious and cynical enterprise than the accumulation of salt, let me assure you! The truth behind this whelp’s ominous bid to destabilize the salt supply is likely beyond the compass of civilized minds like ours. Perhaps, judgmatic jurors, it is better you do not cloud your minds in pursuit of his unscrupulous purpose.”

“Right HLB but –”

“I am a right HLB for a damned fact, but for the last time, you will address me as Sir HLB sir!”

“But I don’t understand why I’ve got to be a sir too?”

“Silence woman! Thou art in contempt of magistrate! Bailiffs, seize her!” Insensible to language, the bailiffs did nothing. I looked up into the sky and whispered to Gomez over COMMs: “You’re killing me here man. Get them to clear her out now!”

“But HLB sir I don’t get it. I mean sir HLB, sorry. What did I do? And what does HLB mean anyway, sir?”

At last a detachment of bailiffs launched itself at the improvised witness booth and buried her at the bottom of an omega pile. I hastened to make Elijah taste the business end of my boot when I saw him giggling.

Regaining my wits, I rounded on the jury. “Do you see, jurors? This man mocks our procedures. He celebrates contempt of magistracy with one fork of his tongue while blaspheming with the other. Has his tongue a third fork? The man could be committed to the flames on that technicality alone. But for as long as I preside over this tribunal, it shall be as a magistrate committed to due process. In fact I only become more convinced of my scrupulous adherence to the law and its forms every time it is broken, spat on and trampled by a sluggish schizophrenic such as this. God would not have me sink to his anarchic level. And so I call our third witness!” Then whispering: “There will be hell to pay if you leave me hanging here, Gomez.”

A moment later the great screens flickered to reveal a face. It was the computer-generated visage of our expert witness, a criminal psychologist. A face awesome to behold, it was crafted to command the respect of men, the longing of women and the confidence of all. Seeing it tiled a hundredfold across their field of vision, the crowd fell silent. The words that would presently pour forth from the face’s mouth were more substantial, or so I had been told during pretrial discovery. That is to say, the software vendor had brought Elijah’s personality profile before a panel of criminologists, men and women whose subtle minds had explored every inch and intricacy of crime in their previous careers in politics and finance, and had used their priceless inputs to craft the most damning testimony.

“Good day, Dr. Genauer,” I began.

“And a great good day to you all!” he boomed.

“Dr. Genauer, is the signal clean on your end?”

“As a whistle, Sir HLB sir.”

“Dr. Genauer, I know your time is in short supply, but we were hoping that you could share your conclusions regarding the accused’s psychological profile with the jury. As you know, he stands accused of misprision of treason and seditious fulmination.”

“I’m only too happy to do my duty by the majesty of the law, Sir HLB sir.”

“Then please let us know, in your own words and as distinctly as possible, who is Elijah Antiprovatos? What do you see when you look at him?”

“I see a man doomed by the deformed constitution of his mind to end his life in precisely this way.”

The voice and countenance were truly majestic. There was a slight lag between word and image, but that could reasonably be put down to transmission latency.

“And when I say doomed I mean it almost literally. There are ample grounds for supposing that Elijah long ago condemned himself to the pyre, and that the tribunal now sitting in judgment over him is but the incidental executor of Elijah’s own unwavering design. And it could never have ended any other way. You see, when he came of age, Elijah made the deliberate choice to become an antinomian sociopath, meaning an enemy of society for whom the end of its destruction justifies any means. A look through his dossier reveals an irreconcilable hostility to every pillar on which our security rests. He is a solipsist who rejects consensus, a nihilist who spurns the meaning of the signal, an extremist who rejects the very prospect of contentment and moderation. And in that synthetic rejection, Elijah has shadowed forth something very dangerous, though he may not know it himself: The vision of an impossible alternative to our divinely appointed order, one which, were it to catch on in the minds of men, would inevitably reduce our entire nation to ashes. As such it is no surprise that God guided you to him, and no pity that he should burn.”

“I see. Tell us, if you would, Dr. Genauer, what effect you expect Elijah’s execution will have –”

“No!” It was Gomez breaking in over the auricular. “We didn’t code any follow-ups!”

“– on other latent antinomian sociopaths living in our midst?”

But it was too late.

“I see a man doomed by the deformed constitution of his mind to – ”

The face winked out and disappeared as suddenly as it had come on.

“Well that was unusual,” I offered. “It seems the good doctor suffered a shock when asked to consider the depraved designs formed by our suspect’s mind. It must indeed be a wearisome avocation to ponder the darkest regions of the soul with such resolute attention and such frequency, and as officers of the court in debt to his expertise we can only wish the doctor a speedy recovery. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the time is now upon us. The tribunal must pass its sentence. You’ve been detained on this freezing Fourth of July muster green long enough. I ask you then, in view of the preponderance of the evidence, to pass a verdict of guilty or innocent upon the head of Elijah. Before I leave you to deliberate and warm yourselves around the fire, I must impart a word of caution. I am fully aware that some of you have hitherto been accustomed to consider Elijah as nothing more than a somewhat troublesome neighbor, and would welcome nothing so much as the prospect of his restoration to your placid sheepfold. A desire to avoid change is only human. But it is also weak. The fact is that this man, be he no more than a footsoldier in the devil’s army, is in league with forces that would subvert your lives’ very foundations, and mine with them. I would suggest, if only by way of personal observation, that you owe him your preemptive vengeance.

“Further, there is the rather prickly matter of the bailiffs to consider. As you can plainly see, these proceedings have excited their sense of justice to an almost intolerable intensity.”

Not true in the strict sense, of course, but their neural pep was by now bordering on nine. Several were locked in single combat. Others howled at the sky or pawed the ground at their feet.

The scrum formed to stifle the impudent cashier had gone quiescent, having sat out the last twitch of resistance. At this late stage it dawned on me that the omegas had faces that were more or less identical, subject to difference only in the direction and intensity of muscular distortion.

“What I am saying is this: mind you don’t tread on their toes in your verdict. They may be children of God, but they are prone to the most violent disorders, and once they run riot there is very little I can do to rein them in. Irregular adjudicative protocol to be sure, but such are the reefs through which justice must navigate in times of insurgency and exception. All these things I bid you consider and consider well.”

The jurors trudged off to assemble around the fire. Elijah had fallen over onto his side. His body shook violently and his eyes, so whipped before by the surf of judgment and reproach, now gaped dull and ichtheous at the sky, as if their communication with the world had been severed and left to stagnate.

I looked at the audience flushed from the tower blocks. Most regarded their feet. They looked ashamed.

The jury came back with its verdict even faster than I had anticipated. It’s hard to tell in the afterlight whether what happened was a positive operational outcome or not. Only time will tell, I suppose, and my contract’s got years to go.

“Well?” I prompted. “Let’s have it.”

A middle-aged woman rose to speak on their behalf. “Sir HLB sir, it wasn’t easy, but we reached a unanimous decision.”

“How laudable! That is very doughty of you, mes sages enfants.” I raised my marble lenses to the sky. “Behold how the traitor’s doom doth approach!”

At which the fore-juror raised her hand like a schoolgirl. “But Sir HLB sir – we found him innocent.”

“Come again?”

“It’s just that, I mean, none of the evidence passed the smell test.”

“Come, you jest. Surely this luciferian minion must burn. What is this smell test you speak of? I remind you that grid superstitions are not qualifying metrics of jurisprudence.”

“Sir HLB sir, our informed opinion is that he should not burn. We can’t burn a man on the basis of innuendos. And it’s barbaric.”

“Innuendos? Barbaric? Who taught you these words? How could you possibly be trained in their use? None of you held the alpha language medallion, last time I checked.”

“We don’t need your licenses or your medallions. And Sir – actually fuck that. I’m not calling you sir anymore. Homeland Baron my ass. To me you look like a suds-gargling refectory hand. And we know what perjury is, too. Every witness you brought on was a perjurer. This is a filthy farce.” She spat on the frosted earth.

“But how is this possible? All the tower blocks around the New Gau Mall are suspended in the toddler-level cognition field. Everyone knows that!”

“Think again. Most of us have managed to break the spell. Elijah just happens to be our most aggressive signal-flouting comrade. He’s been leading an underground reading group to teach us the real meaning of your words of control.”

“Words of control? Reading group? Real meaning? Having come for a solitary renegade, it seems we’ve found an army raised under the standard of treason, depravity, Satanism –”

“There you go with your words again. Has anybody ever told you you talk too much? But you’re right about one thing. That you’re about to get more than you bargained for!”

At this she flashed some sort of occult hand signal that threw her rebel machinery into motion. All the jurors and large portions of the audience instantly drew clubs, chains and knives from inside their coats and vests, falling with martial rigor on the diffuse mass of omega bailiffs. Gomez, luckily, was not in dereliction of duty any more than was usual, so that only a few bailiffs succumbed to the rebel pincer before the counterattack image was imprinted on their collective cortex.

Great execution was done on both sides and the outcome of the contest appeared uncertain at first. Gomez breathed that he would detail an extract team, but I told him I would stay the course. Failure was not an option on my first jerk-out in the crusade against the refuseniks. This was my trial by fire, and if I must burn, let it be as a martyr rather than by Scummings as an offering in the way of liquidated damages. Even as I was instructing Gomez to call off the extract team I was rounded on from behind and seized by a detachment of the crazed rabble. My career as a menial had not prepared me for close combat and I was soon overcome. The most infamous abuses were heaped on me as they marched me toward the parade ground in front of the New Gau Mall – and the pyre. The rabble were rattling off a series of crimes of which they pretended I was the author. I had just begun to feel the radiated heat of the flames on my cheek when we were overtaken by a horde of peppy bailiffs.

A furious skirmish ensued, but biotech is biotech. That is to say, the rabble’s thirst for what it calls freedom, however profound, proved no match for the engineered supremacy of the omegas, who proceeded to do furious slaughter on the rebels, collapsing enemy crania and thoraxes with weighted blows deftly landed. I too acquitted myself well in the skirmish, I would like to think, administering the coup de grâce to at least two thug-pinioned rebels with the heel of my reinforced boot. All of which is to say, the valor evinced in pursuit of contractual fulfillment easily outshone the unstructured rebel yearning for the comedic proposition of freedom. I had barely regained my breath when Elijah and the surviving jurors were brought to us by the battered remains of the bailiff force, and wasted no time in using it to pronounce the sentence of death on the conspirators.

“For that the Lord and his just retainers rage at misprision of treason; for that open rebellion against God’s Vicar must be put down like unto a rabid dog; for that this odious blot of poison must be cut out and cauterized ere it spreads too far, penitent warriors, I say unto you that you shall bind these criminals and do them unto death in the flames!”

Excepting the bothersome lag between word and deed, this marked a fitting end to an eventful and instructive jerk-out. Thousands of bovine eyes looked on from behind the glass of the New Gau Mall as I burned my insurgents, five in all. The omegas were snorting and grunting like bulls at their work when the burlap robes of two caught fire and burned them where they stood. Lacking the stop, drop and roll self-preservation module, they were become the burning semaphores of our crushing victory.

Elijah was last to be committed to the flames. I approached him once the screams of the first four had yielded to the underlying rush of the greedy flames.

“Wait!” he barked, having halfway recovered his voice. I crossed my arms and looked down upon him with bemused mastery.

“This is only the beginning,” he said, his neck obscenely craned. “You’ll never win.”

I laughed. “And what a shame it would be if this were the end! The truth is that I have three years left on my contract. We don’t even need victory – what we need is to keep the show going. Now burn!”

I turned away as soon as the order was given. The wildness was replenished in his eyes, and I would not be the willing victim of that look.

~

It was thus that I was created Baron of the Homeland. It was thus that I became the firebrand sword of the order of the signal; compulsory quarterback to AWOL receivers; bane of refusenik and insurgent alike; shepherd to the man in the middle who might otherwise waver off signal and into error. The Senator was well pleased, and my fame spread like brushfire.

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The Signal Crusade

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