Choices: Part 7 of Building Sanctuary

Mak and Li meet twice a week. Talia brings produce from her container gardens, sketches, books, and articles in exchange. Some of the money Rex set aside to pay for therapy is instead used to cover replacement IoT tattoos. Li cannot enter the building with one but she needs to wear one to take part in her IoT education activities. The cost of replacements adds up, but Li seems to be making real progress so no one regrets the expense.

Grandpa Rex often comes along with Talia and the girls. It’s crowded in the apartment with all four of them there, and like many of his generation he appreciates being in the company of other people. He strikes up a friendship with Nan. They both spent their careers in the telecommunications industry, though with competing firms. They often reflect on the promise the Internet held before it was reigned in by corporate greed, and lately have taken to retreating to the basement lab for hours at a time.

Rex put some more of their nest egg into new equipment for the lab, and though the details are not openly discussed, most are aware that efforts are underway to test more technologically-advanced resistance strategies. As with Mackandal’s efforts to end slavery through poison, the cemetery contingent hopes to find a way to poison the computerized systems that hold their communities hostage.

They’ve been investigating the possibility of compromising the VR headsets with the goal of mobilizing warehoused citizens. Some of the off-liners at Maple Hill have relatives who are scraping out a miserable existence in the VR shipment terminals. Even with automation, some humans are still needed for quality control. If they can introduce a virus into enough units perhaps they can start a chain reaction that will shake those who have been plugged in out of their torpor.

Nan spends her mornings helping coordinate operations at Maple Hill. Everyone who lives there participates in tactical resistance, supply procurement, farm management, maintenance, care of children and elders, or some other communal task. It is difficult work. There is never enough food or shelter for the growing ranks of off-liners. Sanitation is a huge challenge, and with crowded conditions disease outbreaks regularly sweep the camp.

Even so, people continue to stream in. Life in the gig economy has become untenable, forcing more and more families into unmanageable debt and out of their homes. The VR industry has a hard time keeping up with demand, and many of the entry-level warehouses have wait lists. Joining an encampment is preferable to being alone on the streets with DARPA and Palantir’s drones and robot patrols.

Afternoons for Nan are devoted to the basement lab with the technologists, but she takes break every so often and decamps to a folding camp chair on the terrace, a basket of yarn at her side. Crocheting is meditative, and working with her hands helps her think through difficult problems. She taught Li the basics, and now Li can make a granny square on her own. Even Rex, always up for learning something new, is giving it a try. It takes about a week to make enough squares for a scarf, a month for afghan. These items provide warmth, but more than that as handmade gifts they symbolize communal care and are treasured by their recipients.

It may seem frivolous to undertake such projects, but in a world so out of control, creating something tangible and beautiful, one square at a time helps push back despair. The off-liners keep an eye out for worn sweaters they can unravel for yarn. At the Wheel House, mending and repurposing items that would have been tossed are valued skills. They embrace the sentiment of kintsugi, that there can be beauty in the repair of broken things. Life on the ledger has broken people in countless ways, so the idea that there is a possibility of repairing damage and moving forward is central to their collective hope for a better future.

Another regular at the Wheel House is Nan’s sister, Vi, whose area of expertise is traditional remedies and native plants. The domesticated lands of the city are now wild and overgrown. Few are inclined to maintain yards, and there is no money to keep up the parks. There is food and medicine for those who know where to look. Vi has created raised medicinal beds around the perimeter of the Wheel House that she uses to treat residents of the encampments. She eagerly shares her knowledge with anyone who expresses even a hint of interest, and often sends Talia home with bags of chamomile and mugwort to ease a troubled sleep.

Learning about these remedies has been fascinating for Cam, who has started to engage with science in a new way. She has latched onto the farm crew teens that come to the Wheel House to rehydrate. A welcoming group, they have invited her to join them whenever she can. Cam spends a couple of days each week learning the basics of soil science, seed saving and crop rotation, skills that were almost lost in the shift to indoor hydroponic IoT agriculture. These direct applications of science excite her in a way the labs in Skyward Skills cannot. Cam’s online studies have started to slip; it’s hard to focus on badges and modular learning when the real world is out there waiting. Perhaps Cam is more like Li than she cares to admit.

In the late afternoons, people gather to prep meals for the encampments. The Wheel House is midway between the Forest Park farm and Maple Hill, and since Mak has running water and a basic kitchen, much of the work is done there and finished on site. At least once a week, Talia’s family helps with a meal. Cam is proud to see the vegetables she tends shared this way, but it pains her that it’s impossible to make the produce go as far as it needs to.

At home they have to stretch their budget with rice and oatmeal and sandwiches, but the level of deprivation in the encampment is staggering. As a single parent Talia has a hard time making ends meet, but until now she sheltered Cam and Li from the harshest realities of life outside their sector. Seeing the off-liners first hand makes it difficult for Cam to maintain a striver mindset. Transporting food and water to sustain this growing community is taking a toll on the council of elders. Maple Hill is reaching its capacity, but it is hard to turn people away.

One of the newest members of camp arrived on stifling hot July day. A boy of about eleven wandered out of the woods and approached the farm crew. He didn’t speak at first, but after downing a bottle of water in the shade of a nearby tree they were able to find out his name was Nur and that he was alone. He was feverish, with an infected wound on his hand. He’d been expelled from the data-mines because of it and had nowhere to go. Cam was working that day and brought the boy to Vi, who prepared a poultice and found him a place to rest. Li, as usual, was eager to make a new friend, especially one her own age.

From then on, whenever the family came to camp, Li and Nur stuck close together. Nur is bright and a hard worker. Soon, the time comes to test some of the developments Nan and the others have been creating in the lab. There are two programs. One is intended to compromise the effectiveness of the virtual reality systems, while the other is designed to affect the integrity of DNA data storage. The council of elders approaches Nur to be their contact with the children in the data-mines, and he agrees even though the risks are great. For two months, the Wheel House lab technologists have coordinated with their contacts in the VR shipping terminals and the Data DNA mines to test the systemic poisons they’ve developed. These are targeted interventions, not wide scale yet, but preliminary results seem promising.

With fall approaching, the situation has become increasingly unstable. The size of the encampments makes them a threat to the authorities, and thus they are targets of escalating attacks. The Solutionists employ drone ammunition against the farmsteads, and food sources are dwindling. For Talia, the family’s participation in the Wheel House community has brought its own set of challenges. While they are in a better place mentally now than they have been in a long time, paid work is elusive, and Cam and Li have all but stopped participating in badged education opportunities.

There are hundreds of reminders sitting unread on their devices. An unannounced home visit from the sector’s administrative services unit has thrown the family into upheaval. Nur had been visiting the apartment at the time, and having an unaccounted for off-liner in their home, on top of other parenting infractions, means Cam and Li can be taken away from Talia and Grandpa Rex and placed in privatized care. As the visitor was leaving, he said he would be following up within the week.

Mak also receives bad news. His mother contacts him through private channels. The interventions the Wheel House technologists have been inserting in VR systems have been discovered and are being traced back to Queens. It is likely that agents of the Blockchain Collaborative are preparing a raid. Mak’s mother is furious that he would compromise her business interests in that way. Though she still loves him, and feels compelled to warn him, going forward she has decided to cut off all contact and financial support.

Nan and the council elders knew they needed to have a back up plan. It was unclear how long they would be able to hold on in the encampments, and now it seemed they would have to abandon the Wheel House and lab, too. They had carefully studied the Maroon societies of the American South, Caribbean, and Latin America, those who escaped enslavement and created resilient collectives in remote and inaccessible places. There were lessons to be learned from their resistance and survival.

In the years leading up to the lockdown, resistance camps had sprung up to counter petroleum pipelines as the industry gasped its final breaths. Indigenous communities had never lost touch with the land and were anchors of this movement. They sustained the core of the resistance in the years that followed. It was clear that as resistance grew in urban centers, those opposing the Solutionists would need to regroup beyond Smart City surveillance. Through her contacts, Nan had been in touch with a resistance camp in northern New Jersey that would welcome refugees from the encampments. Their ultimate goal would be for the group to make its way south, where larger communities of off-liners were coalescing in remote valleys of the Blue Ridge and the swamps of the Carolinas.

With a hurricane projected to hit coastal New York later that week, the elders feel it is the right time for them to begin that journey. Increased demands for power demanded by the ledger have resulted in countless jury-rigged systems of solar generators that mine Bitcoin dust and keep the systems going. Most of these installations have been dropped haphazardly on open surface lots and abandoned roadways. They would never survive gale force winds. After the storm passes, it will be several days before the Domain Awareness systems are entirely back online. That would provide a window of safe passage.

Nan puts out a call to the community, and they gather at Maple Hill for a briefing. Leaving Queens means that life, as they know it will never be the same, even for the off-liners. They will never be able to return. Leaving likely means a shortened life and tremendous hardship, but it is the only guarantee a person has of retaining free will in a world where one’s choices are fully controlled by the data stream. Not all will go in the first wave. Some members of the resistance choose to remain behind to maintain communication lines and monitor conditions on the ground. The rest will take the technologies they have developed out of New York in the hopes that they can establish a new lab and continue to grow the program.

Talia, Rex, Cam and Li have a weighty decision on their hands. For Talia, the writing is on the wall. It is unlikely that her gig employment prospects are ever going to improve, and their lifestyle will have to be supported by more and more data currency sales. Rex knows his years were counting down; but his health is still good and he’s up for the journey. The group will need the perspective of elders who knew pre-lockdown life, and he takes a lot of pride in the work he’s been doing in the lab. Of course he would also do anything to protect his daughter and granddaughters. Li, the family rebel, is eager, especially given that Nur will be leaving with Nan.

The wild card is Cam, who has long been a striver. She has a data dashboard that will likely provide with her if not a prosperous future, then at least one that will keep her out of the VR warehouse. But there is the threat that if she stays, she and Li will be pulled apart and separated from Talia and Grandpa Rex. The family won’t leave if they aren’t in total agreement. It is all or none.

No matter what, the future is fraught. To stay plugged into Solutionist society means navigating a world where she has to fight and compete to curate her life’s data, forever. Leaving means a shot at community and connection, but also the risk of physical hardship and uncertainty. That night Cam sleeps on her mugwort pillow. It is a night of dreams so vivid it is hard to believe they aren’t real. When the morning light comes through her window, she has clarity. Badges, Gold Coin, data be damned. She nudges her mom sleeping on the sofa and says, “It’s time to unplug.”

THE END

(PDF of the Full Story HERE)

Supplemental Links

Kintsugi: Link

Native Plants for Healing: Link and Link

IoT Agriculture: Link

Food Justice and Healing: Link and Link

Maroon Culture in the United States: Link

Pipeline Resistance Camps: Link

Solar Bitcoin Dust Miners: Link

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