The Printer’s Quarter is universally distrusted in Nagspeake; at the same time, everybody wants to live there, go to parties there, be able to talk casually about “last weekend in the Quarter.” (In this city, starting an anecdote with “last weekend in the Quarter” is like opening up with “one year at band camp.” You just know something is going to go dreadfully wrong, and the only question is whether hilarity or slaughter is going to ensue. At the end of the anecdote the listeners sigh, wishing they’d been there for the highbrow hijinks/funny romantic escapades/death and dismemberment because it was clearly the social event of the season.) It just makes sense that when anything goes not-quite-according-to-plan with disastrous citywide consequences, it originates in the Printer’s Quarter. This time it started with nomenclature.
When you know there’s a pretty strong likelihood that your writing is only going to survive for only a finite period of time, measurable in the twenty-five year increments between archival burnings, it creates a certain sense of urgency. This urgency manifests itself in weird ways amongst academics, of which there is an abnormally high concentration in the Quarter. For the last month a debate between a cabal of professors from the City University’s Crypto-Urban Studies department specializing in Architectural Drift and a pack of Conservatory for Urban Expression editors has been slowly elevating past theory and discourse into the realm of monomania. The debate is this, and I am not kidding in the slightest: does the term feral metallurgy really apply, when most supposedly feral metals tend toward expression that can be interpreted as conforming to urban form and function?
If you’re rolling your eyes now, so was the rest of city academia. Except for about ten people who were laughing their asses off: City University’s actual department of Special Topics in Feral Metallurgy. Yes, that’s right, the actual academics at CU whose purview this was were not involved, except for being the shit-starters behind it all. The Architectural Drift people are notoriously touchy about the fact that their specialty is widely considered to be along the lines of researching Bigfoot, and somebody in Ferroculture sidled up to somebody in AD and did some faux commiserating. We understand your frustration; nobody takes us seriously either, look what they call our department. Feral Metallurgy, when half the city wouldn’t be standing today if not for the Old Iron holding it up. Feral, like it’s a badly-housebroken dog.
Well, if there’s one thing your average Architectural Drift researcher can do, it’s get his back up over a perceived slight to the legitimacy of somebody’s line of research. And since the average AD researcher hasn’t got the evidence to back up his own research, it’s like a gift from above when he can get on a high horse about something like Old Iron which , if not precisely explainable, is at least observable. Old Iron exists for sure, which is more than you can say about unanchored abandoned houses that supposedly move at will around the city.
The people at the Conservatory for Urban Expression are not a bunch of kids looking for a fight. They are a no-nonsense bunch, they like quantifiables, and they felt that debate over exchanging the term Feral Metallurgy for Civically-Minded Holding Us All Together Metallurgy was a waste of everybody’s time. But the Conservatory Press is City University’s publisher, so that’s where AD went to whine. The Conservatory, predictably, told the AD people to go bugger off and find something real to do with their time. The AD people went for the strategy of annoying the hell out of the Conservatory until it had no choice but to answer back. The resulting firefight has involved everything from scholarly debate to TP-ing Conservatory editors’ front yards. The Conservatory fought with pen and ink at first, publishing editorials about the absurdity of it all, and then they gave up on the pens. They posted snipers with ink-filled Super Soakers on the Conservatory’s front turrets. They turned up at Architectural Drift classes, locked the doors, and set off sprinkler systems in the classrooms in which the water had been miraculously replaced with ink. Supposedly one AD professor opened his car door only to have a flood of ink pour out of it, the way beer pours out of cars in those commercials about the evils of drunk driving. All good fun and games, until the AD people decided to do a little infiltration of their own. They decided to try and find a way to rig all the typesetting machines at the Conservatory Press so that every time someone tried to enter the phrase feral metallurgy, the machine would override it and set the acronym CMHUATM (civically-minded holding us all together metallurgy) instead.
Amazingly, this plan had a shot. Conservatory Press still uses phototypesetting machines, and when the typesetter wants to enter a phrase, he or she enters it on a keyboard with no display and types it a second time to confirm the content. If the two entries match, a piece of punched tape comes out. You feed that into the typesetting machine, and the machine produces an image of the page that’s used to make a plate for printing. So all the AD people had to do was figure out how to get the keyboard to recognize the hated phrase and replace it with the new acronym. The substitution would be caught eventually, but it would certainly freak some people out in the process, and maybe, just maybe, drive the point home. They probably could’ve found a consultant somewhere in the city to do this; however, if these were men and women willing to look for the simplest solution, they would never have wound up in Crypto-Urban Studies in the first place, let alone in Architectural Drift. They went straight to Shantytown, and this is where things went wrong.
There are lots of dodgy places in Shantytown. Most people avoid the tenements behind the basilica of St. Horace Rye, where sometime in the last century the groves of trees that had once decorated the cemetery were torn down to build the thin, tall tenements that stand like overgrown mausoleums among the gravestones. Most keep out of Slaughterhouse Row, because it is what it sounds like and blood literally runs in the gutters. Considered worse than either of these, though, is the Hacker’s Bazaar, a short street of warehouses not far from where I live in Creve Coeur.
Wires overhang the street like jungle vines. Occasional sparks run along them like little lemurs. The scents of ozone and melting soldering wire are omnipresent. Snips of stripped wire and tiny bits of the bright plastic coating accumulate in between the cobblestones along with candy wrappers and empty Mountain Dew bottles. The occasional castoff from a keyboard crunches underfoot like a little square beetle. The hiss of a compressed air can makes you jump and turn to look behind you. From a window above, a burst of frosty air pours down onto you, air conditioning allowed to run wild and out of control. Where the makeshift curtains haven’t been yanked all the way closed, the flickering light from a LAN party illuminates a human head, neck bent at the unnatural angle of someone who is computing on the floor. From everywhere, you see the ghostly glow of tiny blinking lights like mismatched eyes. On market days, the streets are lined with booths piled with cardboard boxes full of parts, antique computing arcana, discarded manuals and cds of pirated software and anime labeled in Sharpie. Behind the boxes, young men and women studiously ignore you as they work on pimped-out electronics or play old-school computer games on their laptops or re-read Cryptonomicon for the fifth time.
It is the ultimate tech support zone: the answers to everything are there, held by a populace of geeks and nerds who may or may not render up those answers depending on whether or not you look like you already tried re-booting your system before bothering them about it. Most of them, raised on the hundreds of YourLittlePCs donated by Deacon and Morvengarde to underperforming school districts around the city in the 1990s, learned how to field-strip, diagnose, and repair at about age ten in order to be able to use the shoddy laptops. They are all-knowing, totally dismissive and yet vaguely threatening at the same time.
I don’t know–nobody does–what happened when the diplomats from AD ventured into the Hacker’s Bazaar looking for someone who could take on the phototypesetting machines at Conservatory Press. Somehow, somebody knew enough about talking the talk to get an audience with the Savant, a shadowy uber-geek who all but rules the Bazaar. Supposedly when he ventures onto the cobblestones, people actually look up from their screens, lower their dogeared paperbacks. When his navy appears in FreeCiv, all lesser empires tremble. He has more Twitter followers than Neil Gaiman. And when the AD people approached the Savant about their project, his entourage scoffed. Of course the Savant could do this. But why would he? Any two bit hacker out there in the Bazaar could do it. This is not the sort of thing you bothered the Savant about. Away, academic rabble!
But the Savant put out a soothing hand. Yes, any hacker could tell a phototypesetting keyboard to produce X when a user enters Y. But the great one was wise enough to see the potential here. What was being offered was a way into the city’s publishing heart–something the Savant had wanted for a very, very long time. He agreed to the AD’s request.
The Savant’s program was installed and executed and did what it had been programmed to do: it replaced a thousand or so instances of Feral Metallurgy in the next few weeks, but that was only the smallest part of its functionality. It also made copies of everything it encountered and saved them remotely. It began to create an alternate archive in a secret location out there somewhere in the ether, one that would be protected from archival burnings forever. One of the Conservatory people discovered the hack; he was a kid who had grown up on one of those YourLittlePC’s and, when the acronym CMHUATM started showing up, he took apart the keyboard he’d been working on and found a little piece of something or other that he recognized from childhood days he’d spent tinkering with his own laptop. Immediately he knew something had been compromised, and when the AD people admitted to what they’d done, the Conservatory editor knew that the Savant’s program was some kind of Trojan Horse.
One of the great reasons the Hackers and their wild Bazaar are anathema in Nagspeake is the unease the city feels for any information that isn’t subject to the redemption-by-fire of the archival burnings. How can the city truly take back its history and give itself a fresh start as it claims to do every twenty five years if there’s a copy somewhere, a copy that doesn’t exist in the real world? (There are conspiracy theorists who hypothesize that Deacon and Morvengarde had something shady up its sleeve when it donated the YourLittlePCs to the city schools in the first place, that it somehow intended to raise this weird army of counterculturists, that it has plans for the Savant and his people. These theorists are held in only slightly higher regard than the Architectural Drift people–or would be, if they didn’t go to such great lengths to hide their identities.)
The riots that followed have already been written about, as well as the city’s thwarted efforts to put Shantytown under martial law and raid the Hacker’s Bazaar. From my balcony in Creve Coeur I can see the cordon of police milling uneasily a few yards from the line of robotic guards holding them off at the near end of the Bazaar. The robots are a ragtag collection of weaponized Roombas and science-fair projects and the things that look like somebody’s attempt to build the bot from Short Circuit or Wall-E. I can see at least two life-size R2-D2s with something that looks like trebuchets mounted on top of them. I can’t see what they’re supposed to launch. The police are trying to get clear shots at the geeks that occasionally peer out of the windows of the warehouses on the assumption that they’re the ones with the remote controls. It’s the most absurd standoff I think I’ve ever seen, and somehow I don’t think it’s going to end anytime soon.
Every now and then, a silhouette in a long black coat emerges on top of one of the warehouses and crouches down to peer over the roof, keeping an eye on the tension below: the Savant, I have no doubt. In the right light, he stops looking like a geek and starts to look a little like a lonely, doomed anime hero keeping an eye on his army of mechanical ronin as he draws his duster around him like a cape. Which is probably the look he’s going for.