Category Archives: Conspiracy Theorica

And I Will Send Word with the Scavengers: The Haunting of the Olina Museum Toy Rooms

On Saturday the long-closed Olina Museum and Distillery re-opened to much fanfare in the Printer’s Quarter. How the Museum came to be closed is a matter for another time; depending upon who you talk to the conflagration that reduced the building to ashes was either part of a massive conspiracy (and really, in this city, what isn’t?), the work of a few directors on a board that had descended into chaos and paranoia over a supposed haunting in the folklore wing, or something like, but not precisely the same as, spontaneous combustion (although really the only people who appear to support that hypothesis are the surviving members of what was then the Museum’s board). But whatever the cause of the closure, the Olina is open again, so I dutifully dusted off my NBTC badge and talked my way into the opening day festivities. In addition to a few widely-publicized exhibits, the opening promised a few surprises. This post is about one of them.

The new buildings of the Olina Museum are special. In order to be able to meet the budget for the rebuilding, the new board crafted a unique (but somehow, to this correspondent, who has now spent enough time in Nagspeake to be shocked at nothing, entirely unsurprising) strategy: they bought up a collection of old and abandoned buildings around the city about to be demolished, moved them to the Printer’s Quarter, and assembled them into a brand-new Olina Museum. Now, if you are wondering whether a board whose predecessors may or may not have burned the Museum down years ago over a supposed haunting had any qualms about tempting the ghosts of the ages by forcibly moving a bunch of ancient and crumbling buildings into unfamiliar territory and asking them to work together, the answer is, of course not. They recognized the absurdity of their predecessors. This was a board for a more modern time. Logical, realistic. Don’t be silly. They did hold off on announcing a few of the exhibits, those aforementioned “surprises,” but that was just practicality. After all, those exhibits were housed in the leaning Victorian B&B that now stood on the ground where in years past, the supposedly-haunted wing stood. But no grisly deaths took place before the 15th, so yesterday I found myself in what was once the kitchen of that old B&B, touring the new Olina Toy Room. And, no surprise, it’s freaky. Yes, I took pictures, and yes, they’re here, but even the creepy toys aren’t the source of the freak factor. In order to understand the organism that is the Olina Toy Room, in order to get the creepiness, you have to know a little about two things, both of them long-standing Oddball Nagspeake Institutions: the scavengers, and the murder-poet, Owen Ilford.

First of all, the scavengers, or, to properly name them, the Right-Worshipful Company of Escauwagieres. If you meet one on the street, no, you don’t have to address him or her by her full title (Sir or Lady Whoever, Chevalier Escauwager). That would just be silly. But you’re best if you never, ever, actually use the word scavenger. In Brookyn, where I spend most of my year, throw out the word scavenger and it calls to mind the folks with grocery carts roving up and down the sidewalks the night before trash day looking for recyclables or anything that might be salable at a flea market. In Nagspeake, however, the city rag-pickers, like the word scavenger itself, descend from customs-collectors. And if you stop one on the sidewalk, any Nagspeake escauwager will park his or her grocery cart full of Rescued and Useful Crapp and give you the full etymology and the full history. There are stories in these parts of underground warrens, caves full of curiosities, even (perish the thought) hidden archives that have survived the civic burnings since the days of the Yankee Peddlers. The Escauwagieres even supposedly had a critical partnership with the city’s most recent hero, the modern smuggler known as the Gentleman Maxwell. And, according to the press-packet handed out Saturday at the Olina, late last summer they sent a delegation to the Museum’s board offering to donate every toy they’d ever rescued from the gutters if the new Olina would include a permanent exhibit to display them. The board agreed. The Toy Room was born.

Like I said, it’s a weird room. (For one thing, it’s in a flipping kitchen.) The exhibit, such as it is, progresses along a nominally historical timeline, but then there’s the random display of Star Wars tontons in the diorama next to the collection of assorted cowboys and Indians. There are lots of trains, but then there’s the gorilla randomly stuck on the train track (which I still don’t find half as weird as the giant grasshopper overseeing the carnage in the faux Wild West). It doesn’t appear to have been curated so much as shoved into the space by whatever means sort of made sense. One wonders why the board even bothered taking the collection if they planned to treat it so haphazardly. Have a look at the pictures, and ruminate on them while we move on to Weird Factor Number Two.

Owen Ilford. Where to start and how to keep it brief, both for your patience and my long-term safety? Owen Ilford was the Nagspeake Poet Laureate at some point way back when (as with much of Nagspeake history, just when is tough to pin down). He wrote a number of historical poems and a number of poems about murder. There is even some question of whether or not he even existed. Most importantly, there is an incredible shortage of scholarship about Ilford because Ilford scholars tend to suffer violent deaths or just disappear. Since I don’t care to do either, we’re going to focus on just one of his poems and lay off any speculation about his life and identity. The poem in question is called The Scavengers (I know, shocking), and this is how it goes.

A nameless narrator forced to flee the city takes leave of his or her children, promising that this is for everyone’s safety, and that someday he/she will return. In the meantime, he tells the children, there’s nothing to be afraid of;/sleep and trust the night;/and I will send word with the scavengers/and you will know I am all right. Throughout the rest of Ilford’s perverse little lullaby, through the good offices of the scavengers (who, in the world of the poem, constitute a confraternity that stretches beyond the borders of the city) the refugee parent sends little toys, reminders of happy family moments, to the boy and girl left behind, one for every year of his absence. Each time he asks the messenger to repeat his parting words and deliver a promise: there’s nothing to be afraid of;/sleep and trust the night;/one day I will make it back home to you/I miss you, but I am all right. The scavengers, in turn, bring back tales of the happily growing children. At long last the exile returns, only to find an overgrown ruin where the family home once stood. Of the children there is no sign. He searches the city and finally learns the horrible truth: the day after his escape, the unknown powers that forced his flight destroyed his home and murdered his family. Walking the streets in a daze, he finds himself at last in the graveyard, where after some searching he finds the all-but hidden graves of his children. They are unmarked by headstones, but unmistakable: atop each one is a small pile of the toys sent with the scavengers over the years.

Nobody knows which, if any, of Ilford’s murder poems refer to actual events. Ilford scholars generally assume many, if not most, do, and they love to speculate on who and what these poems refer to. Oddly, however, they tend to dismiss The Scavengers as nothing more than a cautionary fable intended to freak out parents and give them nightmares. But it’s pretty hard to imagine they won’t change their tunes now. The plaque on the kitchen door leading to the Toy Room bears the following inscription.

The Toy Room

Gift of the Right-Worshipful Company of Escauwagieres, in memoriam

Sleep and Trust The Night.

There are far too many pieces in the exhibit for all of them to have been failed messages from that long-ago exile to the children lying in their unmarked graves, and many are far too modern. But what if? What if they’re here, those failed messages to the dead, hidden among the bits of shining tin and molded plastic?

Here’s one more thing I noticed at the opening. Among the guests was a very old man. Unlike the rest of us, he didn’t wear a name tag. I never saw him speak to anyone, and I never saw him drink from the glass he carried from room to room. I think I began following him more to amuse myself than out of any particular suspicions (my nominal supervisor at the NBTC was at the opening, and I am an ace at finding random things to get me out of a room she’s in). It was while following this man that I found myself in the Toy Room. It was only while writing this post today that I remembered that when I lost interest in following him, it was because he had stopped his wandering to stare for a very long time at something in a glass-fronted case. I wish now that I’d bothered to speak to him, or at least to take note of what he was staring at, but I didn’t.

Shifting Sands at the Chip-n-Putt Emporium

As I type this, I’m sitting at Magothy Treats, drinking homemade gin that Annabelle persists in garnishing with cranberries so that I won’t feel like I’m taking shots to dull my fear, so I apologize if my syntax isn’t perfect.

Last week I posted a piece on the NBTC website at about the Funicular Railway in the Slope. In it I basically accused four men a century or so ago of plotting murder to cover up something that happened at one of the city’s most exclusive, mostly-annual events, the Shutter Club’s Sepia Ball. The four men were a former mayor of Nagspeake, a railroad magnate, the son of the man who developed the district known as the Slope, and the visible half of the mail-order principality known as Deacon and Morvengarde. It’s not the first time I’ve posted about something toeing the “iffy” line around here, but it is the first time it’s brought a knock on my door at home rather than at the NBTC offices. Or rather, a death-rattle from my doorbell. So I put on an insulated glove that I keep by the intercom buzzer for just this purpose (the wiring in my building is, shall we say, intermittently deadly), and shouted “hello” into the resulting static.

Somebody at the other end of the intercom said something back that sounded a lot like Balthazar Morton–but given the static and the dim possibility that the person on the other end was being electrocuted even as he or she attempted to identify him/herself, I was pretty sure I had misheard the name and my visitor probably wasn’t actually the current Mayor of the city. Still, I shouted a warning to step away from the intercom and buzzed the visitor into the building, hoping he was wearing gloves to dull the shock that’s pretty much a guarantee any time anybody touches the front doorknob. Then I waited for my visitor to hike up the stairs to my seventh-floor flat. I waited a really long time, and I admit that I waited most of that time with my eye glued to the peephole. It isn’t that I think the Mayor’s a bad guy, but you can’t live in this town without becoming something of a conspiracy theorist. Plus, Morton’s got a family link to Deacon and Morvengarde, and I think if I ever turn up on their radar, it’s not going to be as a fan. And I live in probably the easiest part of town for making people disappear. So I was just being, you know, a little careful.

After what seemed like enough time for anybody to get to my floor, even with frequent breaks for hydration, I cracked the door open and peered onto my landing. Nobody. I listened; you can always hear people before they get to this landing, thanks to some miracle of accoustics and the fact that usually they’re breathing pretty hard by the time they get a couple flights up. I couldn’t hear a thing. Then I noticed an envelope sitting neatly on the doormat. Deep plum-colored paper embossed with the seal of the city of Nagspeake: a lantern surrounded by a tendril of iron. I kicked the envelope inside, slammed the door, and locked it, half-expecting to hear the thudding of, I don’t know, arrows, or a hail of bullets, raining against it. I don’t know why. Too many spy thrillers on tv this week or something. Not to keep you in suspense, inside the envelope was a single sheet of paper, with a question and a location printed on it. The location was SEPIA SANDS, SUNSET. The question was: How much do you want to know?

I’m not making this up. I guess if you’re going to run a city like this, you have to have an overblown sense of the dramatic.

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In the Hacker’s Bazaar

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.