The Loom came to Rade’s world when he was still a boy, a silent invasion made known to him in the strange quiet at the breakfast table, and, once, the murder of Mr. Sauerbier the town ombudsman, who might, it was rumored, have been one of them.
“What are they?” he whispered to Apona Solyom, who sat with him in the back of the class and sometimes made him dizzy with her fierce eyes. “How do I know you’re not one of them?”
“It’s complicated,” Apona murmured. She could be very supercilious (a vocabulary word today). “Mom says they have a disease. An idea that makes more of itself. They try to take over the planet with conspiracies or guns, and then they steal ships and they go to another planet and — here we are.”
“I used supercilious in a sentence,” Rade told her.
“I don’t believe you,” Apona said.
At home Father predicted that troops would come from Landing City or Earth, but even Rade wondered: what could they do? How could anyone kill or inoculate or ban the Loom, when all human behavior spread it?
“They stopped the Loom before,” Father assured him. “On Hathor. On Snowflake.”
“Stopped,” Mother murmured. She worked in mountain prospecting and heard more gossip than Father, who translated Harinder Kaur’s poetry. “Culled would be a better word, dear.”
Rade didn’t understand the Loom or the Marines or Harinder Kaur’s poetry. But he knew from the way people talked that he should want to die rather than become a Loomer. Everyone whispered fear, of them and of the things that would be done to stop them.
At the little town schoolhouse Mr. Viswanathan, dark–eyed and haggard, asked the class to suggest new vocabulary words.
Rade lifted his hand. “Culled, please.”
volucrine elements, handshake orthosis
orthosis: develop antigen signature. prosecute at will
acknowledge handoff and full autonomy
The drones began to flock. First Rade saw only one, a high white cross that roamed the clouds. When it caught the sun the lenses of its eyes glinted like calm water.
“Is it the Loom?” he asked his father.
“No, Rade,” he said, snipping at the shaggy mass of Rade’s hair. “That’s our protection. Today they start flying over every town in the world.”
“Is there anyone in charge?” Rade asked, thinking of the Loom slipping into the control centers.
His mother laughed, and Rade was old enough to know she was afraid. “No. No human oversight. They’re immune.”
The next day there were two drones and the second was small and black and it flew heavy with weapons. Apona Solyom sat with a telephoto lens and took pictures for hours.
That night a house in the Sourgrass Hills out east of town exploded. Three people died. In the morning there were two of the small black drones and one of them was short a missile.
“I guess they got one,” his father said.
His mother scrolled through the town directory with pursed lips. Mr. Viswanathan did not pick culled.
A good handywoman, someone like Apona’s mom, could listen to the sidescatter of the drone whispers. The heavy stuff, pooled targeting data and networked–intelligence chatter — all encrypted. But sometimes, they said, you’d hear voices, some kind of tactical brevity code, a relic of the human minds who had designed the system and raised it up to insulated godhood.
One night, sleeping over at Apona’s, they slipped into the workroom together and listened, shivering, silent, awed, as the machines watched over them, hunting for the spectral enemy they had never met.
rainbow rainbow, orphic: process antigen markers ilyushin east. uprate festivals. coagulate knives zero nine echo nine
orphic orphic, rainbow, acknowledge. starset hash plus one three seven. trajectorize knives and scalpels for teatime.
volucrine, volucrine: orthosis bulletin. phage structure developing, skylark bullseye plus two. slow onset —
“They’re so quiet,” he whispered to Apona, and she leapt, leapt as if he’d wired her right into the speakers, into the current. He caught her fleeing expression: rapture. Hypnosis.
Years later, long after sleepovers and school, long after Apona warned him that if he didn’t get his shit together and focus he would end up working a service job, he (no shame, no shame) started his first day at work.
“Stock technicians are the marrow of the planetary economy,” his boss told him, showing him through the ranked monoliths of the trading floor. Scars stippled her forearms and the back of her neck where she’d had Harinder verses tattooed and then, probably swapping sedition–girl activism for a steady job, removed. “No human has the reaction time or pattern skills necessary to get inside the market — these traders leverage price fluctuations on the picosecond level. Full–market heuristic snapshots come down a crustal neutrino pipeline from Landing City. Anything to get an edge in reaction time.” She slapped the ceramic hull of her favorite virtual arbitrageur. “Machine trades make up ninety percent of the planetary economy by volume. The money never sleeps.”
“But we do.” He cleared his throat nervously. “Right?”
“In theory.” She gave him a lopsided smile. “In practice, you’ll always be on call. Hey. Want to see them working?”
The market laminated itself onto his contacts. Fractal reef grown in radiant heatmap colors on the walls of a single instant. Algorithm ecosystem, loops of predation and cannibalism. Civilizations of structure, self–referential empires of buy and sell, risen and collapsed in the time it took a single neuron to pump one action potential.
He stared into the infinite reach of the economy — no, no, just one shaved instant of it — and tried to feel Apona’s remembered rapture. Terror instead.
“No one,” he said, “could possibly understand this.”
“That’s the idea. Everyone’s fighting for an edge, trying to simulate everyone else, predict them — but the complexity keeps it chaotic. Fair.” His boss frowned briefly, the qualms of that old Harinder ideology twinging, perhaps, beneath her scars. “Sometimes the algorithms veer off into a weird feedback loop, a flash crash or whatnot, and we have to roll back a few milliseconds. But that’s the price of prosperity.”
Rade felt his neck prickle.
“Is this how the drones think?” he asked. “They write their own targeting criteria, right? Is it like —”
“Oh, fuck no.” She exhaled sharply, a dead laugh or a gasp of reproach. “They’re Earth tech. However they think, it’s probably an order of magnitude weirder than money.”
Stock technician turned out to be pretty much what he’d imagined: a lot of filters to dust and wiring to check. The algorithms wrote themselves.
When he was bored, he stared down into the flickering rift of the market visualizer, imagining white wings and turreted eyes, slurry–cold minds flensing social behavior down into decisions, buy, sell, track, shoot.
Rade was still a young man when he came to understand the Loom. It happened in an argument. There was a government woman drinking in the back of the Riot Act and all the razor–eyed sedition girls at the bar, dubious of his political conviction, doubtful he’d have the guts to go up against the woman and her corded high–G strength, told Rade he should be the one to go start a fight.
“Hey,” Rade said, feeling rude, feeling two dozen eyes and ears weighing his attack. “You. You’re Colonial government.”
The woman in the black Earth–style suit blinked watery eyes. “I work in crop immunology,” she said. “I’m not involved with — oversight.”
“I don’t care,” Rade said. “Nine years. A lot of dead people here. Worse towards the Ilyushin coast.”
“Pretty convenient, the Loom,” Rade said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a Loomer. I’m not even sure I know what they’d do, if they had their way.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I’m not sure there’s anything to understand.”
The woman in the black suit stood. “My parents died on Nova Aniva,” she said, angry, weary too. “The Loom got in there. The infection spread — but there’s no pathogen. It’s behavioral. It goes down social connections. It makes you want to make more Loomers. Tens of thousands of people infected. They had to send in the Marines.”
Rade shook his head with a small, sad, patronizing smile. It was his mother’s ugliest weapon. “There aren’t any zombies here,” he said. “Come on. We would see it.”
“It doesn’t make them zombies,” the woman said. Her golden skin flushed. She had broad shoulders and five centimeters on him, but he wasn’t afraid. She was drunk. “They still laugh and work and — love their daughters. They just care about something different. Reaching other people, instead of reaching that new promotion, that new car. And they’re here, you understand? You’d be one of them right now if it weren’t for —”
She lifted a trembling finger towards the silent presence overhead.
“They can tell,” she said. “They sniff for anomalous behavior. The social signature. Cull the herd before it can spread. It’s better than the Marines going house to house. More accurate.” She lifted her mug convulsively and drank. “More humane.”
That, well, that could not go unchallenged. “I think Harinder Kaur would’ve had something to say about the humanity of it.”
The woman from crop immunology snorted in disdain.
After that there was a fight. Later that night the drones blew up a bus on its way into town.
The electronic music scene began to sample their chatter. One video dropped the music for nearly a full minute, and there, over footage from Nova Aniva, over the famous recording of a Marine fireteam surrounding a dozen friends staggering home from a bar, one of them raising her hands and protesting we’re not, we’re not —! while behind her the others drew shivs and knives and little pistols, eyes filled with terrible resolve, grim Loom courage —
Over this came the incomprehensible whisper of the drones, teardrop smoke all convents for exogen, nuns red, bishops chrome. wolfpack, promote referees to basalt two: sierra seven–three, gunmetal six —
The worst part of the video was her expression when she turned, when she saw her friends armed behind her, when she abandoned the cry we’re not for a wounded guys —? And then, piercing through her astonished hurt, gunfire.
Most people agreed that she was Loom too, a decoy, a sacrificial lamb. She’d have to be, if she’d spent so long close to the rest of them.
The trading floor let him go. Surplus to requirements.
“I wish I’d been as smart as you,” Rade said. “I should’ve done more vocabulary words.”
He sat in the grass beside Apona Solyom as she worked her network of cameras. She’d covered the whole hillside in remote lenses.
“They work like the drones, you know,” she said. High above them a silver surveillance flyer tucked its wings and nuzzled up to a fuel blimp.
For a moment he thought she meant the traders, thought she could hear his thoughts, thought Loom, Loom! He laughed at himself. “Your cameras?”
“Yeah.” She stroked her controls. Her eyes flickered, patterned in light, as her cameras spoke to her contacts. “It’s a network. Pools information in a collaborative filtering algorithm. Except those guys up there don’t have a human supervisor deciding when to shoot.”
“It’s criminal,” Rade said. He spat into the grass. “We shouldn’t have to live with random execution.”
“Not random,” Apona murmured. “Just… complex. Decentralized.”
“Like a market,” Rade said, thinking of the ranked monoliths, the stochastic vector–chromosome predictors he’d pretended to understand. Nobody could control the market because nobody could understand it.
“Better.” Apona smiled at some private joke. “Patient. Sensitive. Above subversion.”
“I am none of these things,” Rade said. “I’m jealous.”
“Have hope, Rade.” She flicked a finger. “Beautiful. Look at this shot.”
Rade blinked up the picture on his contacts. Angle of pearl–white drone hull, muscled with thrusters, breaking away from its fueler. Like a bee off a flower. The munitions under its wing gazed in blind threat.
It was beautiful, in a cold way.
In the periphery of his contacts he could see Apona’s avatar putting the image online. Hits began to crowd around her almost at once.
“Hey, Rade,” she said. “Do you want to go on a road trip?”
They went north along the river in Rade’s battered old Vikrant. Apona promised her mom she wouldn’t come home pregnant — “even though”, her mom said, smiling, maybe tearing up a little, “it worked out okay with you.”
Signs by the road: Infection spreads by proximity. Minimize exposure. Report all suspicious behavior. Watch your friends for change. They laughed at that, and promised to report each other.
They argued about the Loom, about the vector — Rade thought it was bioelectric. Apona, more sophisticated, called it something purely symbolic, semiotic, a meaning that could pass through any stimulus, the way value expressed itself in barter and coercion and every kind of currency but always meant the same thing.
“Something mathematical,” she said. “Like a — a vulnerability in an algorithm. And we’re the algorithm. Our minds.”
But the Loom felt old and unreal compared to being in a car with Apona. Rade talked her into an uncharacteristically bashful disclosure of her plans.
“I’m getting big,” she said. “Online, I mean. My photography — my nature stuff, I guess, but, uh, mostly the drones.” She needed a killer series to reach critical mass, to make the viral transition from quiet lag to explosive boom. (They laughed at this too, a little nervously.)
“I know where to get the killer series,” she said.
But she would explain no more.
They camped in the hills south of a town named New Salgotarjan. Rade slept fitfully. The drones above New Sal made unfamiliar sounds, flew in uncomfortable patterns. When Apona’s alarm went off at an appalling hour, he felt relief.
“Up fast,” she commanded. “We need to get the cameras out.”
Together they scattered her camera network in open places around the southern hills. Her directions were frustrating — Rade tried to plant cameras with a view to the drones and the sunrise, and Apona told him to aim them at the town instead.
“Hurry,” she kept saying. “Quick.”
The sun broke the horizon while Rade was placing the last camera on a bluff above the highway, looking down on red–roofed houses and a meltwater pond. “Done!” he called. They knelt in the wet grass and Apona whispered commands.
“The camera net will take the shots,” she said. “I don’t have the reflexes.”
“For what?” Rade asked.
The cameras chittered.
Three houses across the town exploded in small, silent fireballs. Rade cursed into the quiet and then the detonations reached them, low and long. A transformer geysered sparks. Car alarms wailed.
Apona took his hand and lifted it to follow the curve of a slim white drone, cutting away into the sunrise.
“Download all,” she said to her cameras.
The camera net took three hundred pictures: the drone stooping on the town, the bombs separating, the moment when they kissed the roofs of their targets. White roses shredded by overpressure. A two–meter length of rebar spearing through a neighbor’s bedroom window.
All drenched in the dawn light.
They drove north. Their route took them through New Sal. Municipal fire services had already finished their work and the townspeople walked in small, tired knots. Someone waved to them and shouted wishes for a better day.
“Do we look like that back home?” Rade asked. “Do we really look that — beaten?”
“I don’t know,” Apona said. “I don’t really photograph people.”
“I can’t believe we did this to ourselves.”
Apona shrugged. “It’s our way, right? Isn’t that what Harinder Kaur was always angry about? Give it to the algorithm, the market, the network. Let the machine find a solution. People are compromised.”
“Apona,” he said. “You knew it was coming. You knew there was going to be a strike. It couldn’t have been luck.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I knew.”
Rade looked at the river, afraid that she would see his disgust, his instinctive fury, afraid that she would call it stupid.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” she said. “I didn’t know how to say it.”
“They were great pictures. I bet they’ll go global.”
“I’m not doing this to make myself famous,” she said.
“Yeah? Then why?”
“Because —” She shook her head. Touched the car’s dash, as if to redraw their route. “Look, Rade. It’s hard to explain. But this is the only option I have.”
“You always say it’s hard to explain,” he said. “And then it never really is.”
Beneath the stars, lying awake, Rade thought:
The market must understand the whole economy. The individual pieces don’t, not at all — they’re too small, too low to the ground, too, uh, locally oriented. But the whole market has a kind of awareness, right? That’s why we trust it to distribute resources.
And the drones must understand us. They must simulate us, model our movements, our behaviors. They contain us.
They contain Apona. Me. Everything that drives us to act. They have to.
Seven days northeast, across the Eyelash foothills, into the Sota Groove. Rade was too embarrassed to tell Apona that it was the farthest from home he’d ever been. That night they made the outskirts of Skylark Town and the car parked itself at a campsite on the flats.
“It’ll be a tricky shoot,” Apona said. “We can’t get much elevation. Let’s scout a bit before —”
“Apona,” Rade said. “I’m not going to help you.”
“Rade. Please. Don’t be pigheaded.”
They argued for a while after that, but to Rade’s ears it was just the same thing from each of them, over and over again. This is wrong. No, you don’t understand. Yes, I do, it’s wrong. Like the cycles in the market, mindless conversations between instruments.
“You cracked the drone behavior,” he said at last. “Somehow you figured it out. You’re watching their behavior, plotting their movements. You know when they’re getting ready to strike.”
“They talk on military directional nets,” she snapped. “I can’t ‘crack’ those. How would I —”
“You can guess where they’re going to hit. You have some kind of inside information. Am I wrong?”
“No,” she said. “No, you’re right.”
“Then I have to do something,” he said.
Back home the sedition girls used to play a prank: reprogram a car’s horn to broadcast music. Set it off in the night. Run. The sedition girls were girls because Harinder Kaur had mostly written for women, but Rade had always wanted to run with them, had craved that solidarity.
Solidarity meant not letting others suffer.
Rade parked his battered Vikrant in the town square and worked at the horn software. Apona had not come. Supercilious, even in defeat.
Above, the running lights of a drone made slow circles in the clouds.
“Hello,” Rade said to the car.
“HELLO!” the car bellowed to Skylark Town.
Lights blinked on in the upper stories of the main square apartments. Someone jeered.
“I’m here with information!” Rade shouted, made thunderous by the car. “There’s a drone attack coming. They’re going to hit this town any minute. Please — get out of your homes! Get distance from each other!”
A siren in the distance.
“Please!” Rade cried. “I know this sounds like a prank — but look. We took these pictures in New Sal. Look at the timing on these shots! We can predict the drones!”
The car’s dashboard flickered as it sent Apona’s pictures out into the town’s net.
He didn’t have the courage to wait. But as he drove he saw the beacons of other cars lighting on his dash, and felt a little triumph.
Apona waited by the campground. “Good work. You’ll be remembered as Skylark Town’s number one asshole for years to come.”
He closed his eyes and tried to will away the urge to hit her, as he’d hit the crop immunologist, the cops, the holding pen’s ceramic bars. On the dashboard, the map of Skylark Town gave up long rows of cars, like ants from a flooded hive.
“The drones won’t come, you know,” she said.
“You wanted to set up your cameras, Apona. They were coming. You knew.”
She turned away, shaking her head. “Just watch.”
The clock turned on towards midnight. Cars and buses drifted out of Skylark Town — not many, now, but some. For a while Rade tried to keep a count of how many people had left, what fraction of the town was safe.
Drone lights moved overhead in gentle circles. No strike came.
After midnight he put his head down on the dash. Apona touched his shoulder, a wordless apology.
They drove east towards the Ilyushin Sea and the outskirts of Landing City.
“It’s not your fault,” Apona said. “You disrupted the town. Got the targets moving. The drone network re–evaluated its attack. They’ll hit their targets some other time, when they’re sure the moment is right.”
Rade worked the seams of his jeans with a ragged thumbnail. “So we can’t save anyone. We just make ourselves look like idiots, every time we try.”
“I told you, Rade.” Apona shook her head. “This is the only option I have. They hunt by looking for behavioral changes. I can predict their attacks, but if I warn anyone in any way, they compensate for it. The prophecy invalidates itself. The network is too big for us to save anyone. It’s always going to beat us.”
“So I’m the boy who cried drone. No one will listen now. They’ll check the net when I try, and they’ll see I’m just playing a joke.”
“Apona. Do you think the drones heard me? Back in Skylark?”
“Of course they did.”
“Are they going to hit us?”
“Well.” She shrugged. “Are you Loom?”
“Would I know? How would I tell?”
“Hell if I know,” she said, and laughed.
It used to make Rade angry that no one would tell him what the Loom was for, how it worked, who had made it. Some people believed it led to horrors — after all, there must be a reason for the navy to melt fallen worlds to bedrock.
Others believed it did no harm at all. Certainly the infected would resort to force to secure ships, to spread to other worlds, to complete the conversion once they’d reached critical mass. But they kept their personalities, their intellect, their loves. Maybe the compulsion to spread was only that. Maybe it would burn out and leave everyone unchanged.
But even Rade realized, eventually, that the Loom didn’t need a purpose, a reason why. It spread by any channel, by code and gene and compound, by touch and sight and speech and writing and the subliminal language of simple proximity. Anything that meant anything at all.
Wherever information went, the Loom found a way.
Rade decided the Loom had to be like a virus, a stupid, simple thing, its means the same as its goals. And that was why they had to be afraid. How could you be part of something that, on the deepest level, only cared about making more of itself? A network whose only value was more network, with no ambition to ever be anything more?
Who could live that way?
volucrine, volucrine: orthosis bulletin. novel structure reification underway. transect. simulate. bootstrapping mimesis model
volucrine elements acknowledge
They didn’t make it to a town that night. They set the car’s proximity alarm and folded down the back seat to sleep. The moon was full. On the very edge of the horizon Rade could see a braid of contrails and the small fat shape of a fueling blimp visited by shadows in the moonlight.
“I’m disgusting,” Apona said.
He rolled to face her and she stared up into the night.
“I do it because I think it’s beautiful. The drones, the bombs, the whispers, the death. It’s powerful to me. That’s all.” She fumbled at her collar, turning it up. “Some day you’ll see an interview and I’ll tell them that I’m trying to capture the suffering of our world. But I’m not. I just see the drones up there like these glinting — I don’t know, war eagles or something. Noble. Mysterious. And I see these homes burning, and — the contradiction. It’s beautiful.”
Rade tried to find a flippancy that would do. “It’s okay,” he said. “You’re an artist. You’re allowed to be psychotic.”
“Art should be about something,” she said, her eyes tracking from star to star. “Art should be intentional. It should connect people. It should mean things. But all I offer is nihilism and everyone thinks it captures our times.”
Meaning, Rade thought, could be stolen by the Loom, and the only antidote they had, the only shield, involved no human mind at all. Just whispers in the dark. Fire from the sky.
“Well,” he said. “Maybe they’re right. Maybe it does.”
“Sometimes I think they’re using me.”
She rolled to face him. “The drones. Like they’ve worked me into their network. A new sensor. Like I’m doing damage assessment for them, or saying something they want people to hear. Like if we’re all afraid, all the time, if we stay hunkered down, it’ll be some kind of inoculant.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“No. I don’t know. I’m not sure I could predict the drones if they didn’t leave me crumbs. Why me? Why not someone smarter?”
“Well,” he said. “I don’t know where they’d find someone like that.”
“You’re sweet,” she said, and smiled. Rade felt a little dizzy.
“Go to sleep, Apona,” he said. “Tomorrow you’ll be telling the car we should’ve started earlier.”
He had a dream that night.
He sat in the back of a classroom with Apona and she drew things on a paper for him: long impenetrable equations, like the reefs, the market trembling on its thousand thousand axes. “These are the thoughts of drones,” she said. “Watching us. Weighing us. Looking for the ones that stand out. Picking a time, a place, to kill.”
“And you understand them,” he said. “Somehow you figured out how they think. That’s scary, Apona.”
“They are a network,” she said. “Beyond human understanding, by intent — so we can’t grasp them, change them, offer the Loom a way in. That’s why markets are powerful: no one can control them, because no single person can comprehend them. But they’re comprehensible, maybe, to another network. Larger. More powerful.”
The children at the desks ahead of them worked busily at their tests.
Apona leaned in towards him. “Maybe I cracked the drone algorithm because I wasn’t working alone. Maybe the solution was distributed.”
“You don’t seem like a virus,” he said. “And anyway, if you were one of them, you wouldn’t want to draw attention to yourself.”
“Unless I’m a probe,” she said. “Prodding them. Seeing how they respond. So we can map that behavior too. So we can learn to give them input and elicit response, to write ourselves in the signs they read.”
“Because the stronger market will buy out the weaker. The smarter network will win. It’s the only law, the highest law, the one that remains when we abandon morality and teleology and intent. The hegemony of force.”
“But I’m the one who did the prodding,” he said. “I’m the one who went into Skylark Town and tried to warn them.”
“Oh,” she said. “Yes. That’s interesting. Isn’t it.”
The children at the desks ahead of them looked to the window, and Rade saw that they had no faces. Just white, predatory masks, made of metal and mirrored eyes.
“It’s just a dream, though,” he said.
In the morning Apona took a call from a media bureau in Landing City. They thought her photographs from New Sal were gorgeous — though, of course, tragic, deeply moving, a perfect synecdoche of our times. If she were lucky enough to get more, would she be interested in an exclusive?
She’d think about the exclusive, she said. Talk it over with her team. (She patted Rade on the back.)
But, yes, absolutely. They would be able to supply more.
“Maybe,” he said, “maybe if we keep getting these photographs —” He looked away, bashful, feeling naïve. “I don’t know.”
“Harinder Kaur wrote a book and it shaped a whole new world,” Apona said. She smiled softly when Rade looked up. “Yeah. I get what you’re saying.”
Their own little Loom. An idea, leaping from eye to eye, mind to mind, whispering into the crowded steel sky: this has to change.
And Rade imagined the markets, the monolith arbitrageurs speaking their calculations in heat and neutrino pulse, solving for profit in an endless blind race that they had never been programmed to understand. Would they react? Would they feel the current of revolt, factor it into some behavioral algorithm, revise their predictions and orders?
Of course they would. What else was the market but human behavior, systematized? What had he stared into but the arrayed desires of Harinder’s World, the whole of its needs and dreams, mapped by machine? In that fractal reef — everything that meant anything at all.
(A soft chill, a slow prickle, like terror, like awe. As if he had understood something, but not understood the understanding.)
“Apona,” he said, imagining a drone–mind imagining them, imagining the Loom imagining the drone–mind, struggling to model each other, to build the right algorithm, deploy the right heuristic, decrypt the enemy, crack them open, predict, infect, defeat. Imagining the two of them as part of it, somehow, vital components for one machine or the other, but too small to know it. “I’m scared.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s so big.”