John Shirley



Copyright (C) 2006, John Shirley.
Images Copyright (C) 2006, Rudy Rucker.
6,300 Words.


A long dark journey later, Kiln spoke this diary entry to his computer: “Terror can be heartwarming. Terror can be a source of hope. Terror can be a source of redemption.”

But riding in the back of his car, this gentle April morning in 2209, Kiln was thinking only of his students’ Emo-Expressives Presentation. And thinking of that unsettling new kid, Destin.

Kiln was auto-carring to ReChicago, from Old Indiana, bullet-fast along the controlway. He lay stretched out on in the backseat of the driverless car, feeling neither inertia nor g-force tug when the vehicle rocketed with mathematically parabolic perfection around curves at a hundred-eighty miles per hour; there were few other cars—congestion was hard to find in a world populated with only ten million people. He wondered what it would be like to really feel the tug of that kind of speed…He almost ached for it…

 He remembered Manora Iloru’s Presentation from last year…“I feel that orbital dynamics call me to express my desire to delight in all existence,” Manora Iloru had said. “My aboriginal heritage speaks to the stars…”

Manora had been taught to treasure her Australian aboriginal heritage, despite her family’s only feeble connection to it. Who could fault her? But couldn’t these kids be challenged to do something more than was expected of them? His students performed up to and beyond conventional expectation – all of them. There were only seven 11-year-olds in his history class—make that eight, with that odd new kid, Destin—But still…There was a certain hollowness, without…Well, without what? He was never quite sure.

The car lurched—

And jarred—shuddering in its every part—with jaw-clacking force. Then he was spinning, and banging against the inside of the car. Which should’ve been impossible, given the various technological safety nets.

But it was happening, the anti-inertia field was damped or cut, and the controlway had lost control of the car; his brand new fuel-cell Swallow was spinning out of control. And a quivering bubble of something he’d never felt before burst in him, making his skin contract, his mouth go dry: real terror.

The car’s motion stabilized into a sideways skid that seemed to go on and on, as he managed to pull himself up to see out the side windows—there was a barrier forming itself across the road ahead. It was flying up from the nanocells of the roadway itself—it was, in fact, the road reshaping into a wall. Some aberrant nano-organization program?

The road was dis-assembling itself, its nanocells literally swarming bee-like into the new shape: Solid becoming liquid, becoming solid again in another shape, all in a second.

His car was skidding right for an impenetrable barrier—

The wall loomed; his heart banged.

Then the car skidded to a stop, a foot from the wall. From somewhere up above came echoing laughter.

Hyperventilating, he leaned back, wiping the sheen of sweat stinging his eyes. Panting, he peered out the back window at that same imperturbable climate-controlled sky—and saw three men flying through it. They were leaning into their trajectory, in bucketlike soloflights, one-man fuel-cell ‘copters; dual rotors up top.

The authorities got here quick, he thought, to deal with this glitch.

But these men were wearing black full-face masks, and street clothes, not InfraSystem uniforms. These were not IS operatives. They hovered over his car for a moment—he thought he heard the laughter again, as they spoke to one another. Then they zipped away to hover over other stalled vehicles…one of them pointing a shiny instrument of some kind down at the cars…

There were seven other cars in the approximately football-field-sized controlway space encircled by the wall. Kiln could just make out, over the distant wall behind, the gap where the nanocell roadway had broken off to form the wall, exposing naked ground beyond. Normally the controlway repaired itself, kept itself in perfect roadbed shape.

Then his car began to move again. Slowly at first, picking up speed—it began to weave in and out of the other cars, faster and faster, in shifting figure-eight patterns, so that the interlacing trajectory of eight cars formed a skewed, blurred-metal flower-blossom shape, seen from above; a demented atomic-particle pattern. The cars seemed to rush headlong at one another—and angled apart at the last split second, only to come around for another head-on rush, as if infinitely ‘playing chicken’ and infinitely losing nerve. He glimpsed terrified adult faces, men and women in the front and back of the other cars, terrified—and, perhaps, a little delighted. The terror overtook the delight when the cars began to come closer and closer together as they passed—beginning to grind their sides against one another in passing, shooting off sparks, knocking off external metal fixtures. If they keep this up, Kiln thought, they’ll knock off the guidance sensors too…And then what?

Kiln found himself laughing and weeping at once; the laughter won out. He peered out the back window at the hovering men in black masks.

They’re doing this, he thought. They’ve taken control of the road and the cars and they’re toying with us. Why?

Then his car was released from its external guidance, and went rocketing for the wall again, this time head-on. And this time he was clearly going to hit it.

Only, the wall fell away in front of him, like a breaking wave, and his Swallow rollicked over the temporary hump in the roadbed. It jumped—and thumped down, spinning…

…Kiln yelling….

The car spinning… to a stop.

 But Kiln’s head was still spinning. Panting, he said, “Door open.” And waited to see if it would. The car door swung obediently open, as if the vehicle had never betrayed him, and he climbed shakily out. An halfdozen InfraSystem hovercars were coming apace over the treetops, from the nearest Social Nexus. Most of America was “greenbelt” now, and the wind of their coming rippled a vast green forest roof.

So that’s why it had come to an end—the terrorists’ soloflights were already disappearing over the horizon. They could fly places the larger hovercars couldn’t go. If they had surveillance dampers, they could get away.

Terrorists? That was the word came into his mind. A half-forgotten word from out of history. Something that hadn’t existed in fact for more than a hundred-twenty years, since the chaotic era after the Great Depopulating; since the psychological revolution, the perfection of nano-forming with its age of plenty. There was no need for terrorists…



The soft glamor of spring sunlight diffused through the transparent ceiling, perfectly filtered, moment by moment, to give them all of the benefits and pleasure of sunlight, none of the glare or burn; the circle of children’s faces, each a mellifluous mixture of skintones and racial features, beamed softly, as well. Attentive, respectful, those sweetly callow faces; but not unnaturally attentive, not excessively respectful, as Manora finished the last Emo-Expressive, the guidance wand in her small dark hand evoking a final swirl of sand-painting tones on the watch-wall: images of space travel as if rendered in colored desert sand.

Eminently dissatisfied and still not knowing why, Kiln nevertheless gave out his beaming professional approval. “Beautiful, Manora. Just beautiful. In fact, you all rendered marvelous, thorough Expressives…You clearly gave it a lot of thought. Now—one more task at hand before break. Our new friend Destin is, I hope, ready to give his Q and A on Essential Historical Tropes, late 21 st Century to early 22 nd…”

“We already did that,” Dandy said, with the usual maddeningly perky flip of her blond hair.

She would have to come out with the irrelevantly obvious, for the thousandth time, Kiln thought. Then: What’s with me? Why so critical of someone’s little personality quirk?

He was still rattled, of course, after what’d happened that morning on the controlway, even after half an hour doing re-centering exercises. For the tenth time he considered discussing the terrorist attack, if that’s what it was, with his students. The InfraSystem operatives interviewing him, after the attack, hadn’t specifically told him not to—but they’d asked him to be “discreet till we get this sorted out”.

“You ready, Destin?” Kiln asked abstractedly. Seeing himself in his mind’s eye speeding toward that frowning, encircling black wall…

“Sure am,” said Destin. Kiln glanced at the boy, carefully controlling his own expression. What was it about Destin? He said ‘Sure am’ so very precisely. Casually and yet…there was something odd about the boy he hadn’t quite placed. He was a little taller than the others, but otherwise perfectly proportioned, with a soft cap of brown hair, perfectly regular features, metallic-blue eyes; his orbital-school jumpsuit was fashionable, and he had more right to wear it than most kids.

Destin stood up, the formfitting chair nano-shaping to unobtrusively ease him out of it, and said, “My subject was The Depopulation, the coming of perfected nanoforming and almost-at-will atomic restructuring, and the social consequences.” He looked at Kiln with just the right expectancy in the tilt of his head.

“First off,” Kiln began. Then he glanced in mild irritation at Jaret, whose fluttering clothing tugged at his peripheral vision. “Hey—Jaret? Turn off your clothing, please.”

“I feel it’s part of the continuity of my Expressive,” Jaret said with a bland sort defiance. As he spoke, his clothing, made up of bundles and broom-ends of intelligent fabric fibers, shifted like wheat in a turbulent wind, undulating in intricate patterns; like hula-skirt grass that covered most of his body, waving with a mind of its own.

“Jaret, boy,” Luceo said, “do you have to act our your instinctive adolescent rebellion stage here and now?” Luceo’s Pakistani heritage showed in his almond eyes, his cocoa skin, glossy black hair; his clothing was a conservative contrast to Jaret’s. “I want to hear Destin’s Q and A and go to lunch. If he’s done soon, we can play gyro at the table.”

“If you don’t make a mess this time,” Kiln said, automatically.

“I don’t see why we can’t have cleaning nanos in the tables,” Dandy said, with a faint frown.

“It’s supposed to teach us responsibility, and not too much reliance on nanos to do everything for us,” Jaret said with dramatic weariness.

 Kiln’s heart warmed to him. The boy had personality. “Jaret—shut off your clothes-dance, please.”

Jaret had rebelled exactly enough to feel rebellious, without creating an atmosphere of social censure, and waved a dismissive hand. “Clothes quiet.” The bundles of fiber subsided.

And Kiln found he was disappointed. Why didn’t the kid tell him to go to hell?

Kiln nodded to Destin. “Sorry. Okay—just give me a quick background on the Depopulation—and the Depopulator. A hundred words or so.”

Destin launched in with no hesitation at all. “The Depopulator was Jeremy Distroff, a Russian-Australian microbiology researcher, who was part of a team that developed the sterilization virus, late in 1999. The virus was intended for controlling excessive populations of rabbits or rats, for example—but I guess Distroff had a different idea as to what were the worst pests, because working between the year 2000 and 2026, he secretly genetically engineered and released a related designer virus that rendered human beings sterile—people of every race. He rendered billions of people sterile at one stroke.”

Destin paused—exactly when he should—and Kiln, swallowing his inexplicable exasperation, asked the next prompting question.

“Do you remember any of the speech Distroff made about what he’d done when the sterilization virus was traced back to him toward the end of his life?”

“Yes. It’s one of the most famous speeches made in the last two hundred fifty years.” Without even taking a preliminary breath, Destin went on to recite: “‘My name is Jeremy Distroff, and I am the criminal perpetrator of this mass sterilization. What I have done is morally and ethically wrong. I was applying a limited kind of eugenics, which is itself a fascist, even monstrous conception. I took away a basic human right from most of the human race, the right of procreation. But I believed the human race was in danger of destroying the planet. I would do what I did again.’”

“ So Distroff reduced the population of the world, over several generations, so radically, that the population of the world became…what?”

“Voluntarily manageable. For the first time, due to its low numbers. humanity had a chance to manage itself. Until then, the world had been suffering from a great famine due to ecological damage.”

Kiln stared, thinking: I didn’t cue the kid, any time, that that question was coming; but he instantly responded as though he’d spent ten minutes preparing the answer. Kiln glanced at the other kids. They were staring at Destin, fascinated and withdrawn both. They were all bright and articulate. Any one of them could have come up with the same information—but never so flawlessly organized.

“And what is the most striking contrast between our society and that of the 21 st century, for example, besides ecological effects, as a result of all these factors?”

“The elimination of hunger, ethnic bias, and war; and the elimination of crime.”

Kiln again tried to catch Destin off guard. “The elimination of crime…was what Distroff did a crime?”

“Yes. It is thought to be a crime. But ‘all life is a holistic complexity’, according to the authority I read on Distroff. Professor Lu Wong. Professor Wong said that a good may come from a bad; a bad from a good. That there are gradations of bad and good, and they sometimes mix.”

Kiln nodded numbly. Destin sat down—with just the right pause before sitting. Destin had such perfect poise during it all. He never knocked a wand on the floor, or paused to remember the next bit. And he’d said ‘One of the most famous speeches in the last two hundred fifty years.’ Two hundred fifty years: What a precise number. The kid was spooking him.

“Yes, well, that’s excellent. Very good, Destin. Of course…crime is not completely eliminated in the world…”

His students looked at Kiln with a new sparkle of interest.

Kiln smiled and went on, “Some of you may’ve heard about the…the attack this morning, on the interstate controlway from Indiana…”

“Yeah – what was that?” Jaret asked, sitting up straighter. “I heard something about it on Morning Media.”

“It was a terrorist attack, wasn’t it?” Destin said, looking at Kiln evenly.

“Was it?” Kiln frowned. “That word isn’t used much anymore.”

“I’ve been doing history research. You assigned it to me.”

“So I did. Well—no one was hurt in the attack. But they were, I suppose, terrorized. The roads suddenly nanoformed to make a wall. And then the cars in that area were taken over by remote control, and, well, played with.”

“It was not the first such incident, was it?” Destin asked, watching Kiln.

“No. There have been others. Airplanes have been taken over, sent into temporary tailspins... Masked people in costumes ran through the NanoArt Mall re-shaping everything with pre-programmers. Thirty-two sculptures duplicated into the same shape: houseflies. These events were, again, not physically harmful—but they were some form of guerilla activity.”

The kids were chattering in delight. Only Destin was quiet, watching Kiln, until at last he asked. “Mr. Kiln—do you think these attacks have any kind of value? Are they good, in any way?”

“If they are,” Kiln replied cautiously, “it would have to be in Professor Wong’s way. Some unforeseen, holistic effect. I can’t see any good in them.”

“But isn’t it the case that throughout history, the negative has led to the positive? Didn’t violent conquest lead to people sharing information—the Romans learning from the people they conquered, the conquered learning from the Romans?”

“Yes, that’s true. But…”



His voice trailed off as he stared into Destin’s eyes. The light had dimmed for a moment, just faintly, as a cloud went over the sun; there’d been a split second when the ceiling had adjusted to allow more light in. In the momentary dimness, in shadow, something had glimmered…

Destin said, “What did you think of the terrorist attack—when you were there?”

The students fell silent; he felt their gazes on him. “What makes you think I was there?”

“Weren’t you? Perhaps I was mistaken. I thought you said you were. But I guess not. Then let me ask, in light of your master’s degree thesis, do you think the terrorists could be religious fanatics?”

“My…? Where did you come across my thesis? It wasn’t published.”

“It’s in the Stanford research data base. I’m thinking of your paper suggesting that the outlawing of standard organized religions was an abuse of power. That there might’ve been some real value in Islamic Fundamentalism, some historical necessity for it.”

The other kids looked uncertainly between Destin and Kiln.

“I suggested that in context of the time, it was meaningful. But—extremism resulted in the nuclear terrorism that destroyed Jerusalem, after all. No one knows for sure if the bomb was detonated by Muslim extremists, Jewish extremists or Christian Apocalyptics. Various groups took credit. But the destruction was the result of…of someone’s extremism. So—no. I wasn’t suggesting such extremism is acceptable.”

“I see. I was just curious. I hope you don’t mind I read your paper. It was in a public database.”

Kiln didn’t reply. The kid seemed to be trying to prod Kiln into a damaging admission. “Um…” He was relieved when his wrist-com murmured, “Time for Break.”

The kids were slower to leave than usual—Destin politely waited for the others to file out the door. He was on his way out to join the other children—which was, of course, exactly what any child would likely be doing—when Kiln called out to him, “Destin, hold on for a moment.” He crossed to the boy—and stuck out his hand. “I just wanted to welcome you to the class, sort of formally. I just realized I hadn’t done it yet. It’s a tradition here to use the old fashioned hand-shake for the class welcome…”

Destin hesitated the merest fraction of a second, staring at Kiln’s hand. Then he took it and shook hands. Kiln gave Destin’s hand an extra hard squeeze, smiling as if the squeeze were a gesture of affection. But Kiln’s whole attention was in that grip.

As Destin dropped his hand and turned to go, Kiln nodded to himself. Squeezing Destin’s hand, he’d felt the unmistakable resistance of metal parts under the boy’s skin.



A bear was shambling toward Kiln’s back yard…

Before it came, Kiln was pacing in the moonlight, on his patio, now and then sipping at a mild cocktail of mood-gentlers. Compari, juice essences, and designer pharmaceuticals over ice. He was thinking about the controlway, of course, and the boy—who wasn’t a boy at all.

Was Destin some kind of agent for the government? Had they been watching him since some social-risk-assessment program had noted dangerous rhetoric in Kiln’s Master’s Thesis? Did they think he was connected to the Terrorists?

 Maybe he should have gone out with Resonya tonight, after all; a symphony, an erotigymnics session afterwards would get his mind off all this. But—though Resonya was an attractive woman with a charming Russo-Turkish accent; though she was conversationally adept, intellectually adept, sexually adept—she was also excruciatingly predictable. For no good reason at all, she bored him silly.

 Kiln stopped pacing, gnawed on a knuckle—an indefinable feeling rising up in him; an almost sentient pensiveness that defied tranquilizers. Something gloriously feral was bounding from the dark glade of his inner world…snuffling hungrily into his mind.

What was it Jung had said about self knowledge? The self is like a vast dark sphere—and the part of ourselves we know is like a tiny little patch of light on that sphere…like the moon in a black sky…

 The moon was almost full, and glazed the yard with an infinitely subtle blue-silver: the Navajo pots with their overflowing succulents, the statue—programmed, tonight, to a life-size Thomas Jefferson—and the picnic table Kiln never used. The stars glittered coldly over the dark, dense woods behind his unfenced back yard.

Then the bear came into the pool of moonlight, swaying its big head from side to side; a large brown bear, and Kiln was glad to see it. “Wish I could invite you in,” he told it. “You probably smell the remains of my dinner.”

The bear waddled ponderously toward him, lifting its head to snuffle warningly.

“But if I were you,” Kiln went on, sipping his drink, “I’d turn back right about now….Whoops, too late.” He added this last as a silvery protective node flew down from the roof of his isolated house, and flashed a spark at the bear’s snout. The flicker of electricity made it rear up, shaking its head. A second flash caught the bear on the rump, hurrying it back into the forest. The protective node flew back to the roof of the house—past a fluttering bat, which it was programmed to permit.

Kiln sighed. The bear was not even singed, but he’d have liked trying to tame it a little. But you’d have to get Wilderness Management’s permission, or spend half your time off in the woods, beyond the reach of protective nodes—which could be dangerous. Mountain lions, wolves out there. But then again—why not?

Kiln shook his head. “Getting crazy thoughts,” he murmured aloud, turning to go back in the house.

“Any thoughts you’d like to share, Mr. Kiln?” asked the voice from the woods.

Kiln turned, a chill raising the hair on the back of his neck. Destin stepped from the woods, and approached the house. A node left the roof and flew toward him—Destin raised a small, specialized wand and pointed it toward the node, which hesitated, as if thinking, and then flew back to the roof. Destin came onto the patio, and waited, his hands at his sides.

“Boy—what the hell are you doing here?” But Kiln, somehow, was not terribly surprised.

“I’m assessing your facial nuances as indicating you’re employing a tentative deception,” Destin said. “That is, you’re testing, with that question, to see what I’ll say—but you’ve already decided I’m no ‘boy’. The hand shake was a good stratagem. They did not anticipate it.”

Kiln nodded slowly. “Your skin texture is realistic, and your behavior programming is sophisticated—maybe a little too exact. Real kids –even extra-precocious, unusually mature ones—aren’t so perfectly poised. You should have been nervous, or picked your nose now and then or something.”

“A good suggestion, I will convey it, next time my camouflage is formulated to be a child. ‘Pick my nose’.”

Kiln sat on the picnic table top, his feet on the bench, staring at Destin with frank fascination. “So—Destin the android. Tell me—who will you convey my ‘suggestion’ to?”

“My handlers. Those who sent me to check on you.”

“The government. InfraSystem Intelligence. You know the trouble with those guys is, they haven’t got enough to do. Almost no crime. And when they find it, the perpetrator is almost always someone who’s had a bump on the head or some kind of psyche-gene mutation, and they just fix it and cure the poor fool and send him back to his old life, sans the aberrant impulses. He can say anything he wants, make any criticism, militate for change in our society—if there were something anyone could get exercised about enough to change—or dance in the street naked and be called an interesting eccentric.”

“But if he violates the Basic Rules—yes. They will come and get him. But you notice, you have not violated those Basic Rules.”

“So I assume I’m being observed, tested, because of my worrisome thesis, or my accidental run in with the Black Masks.”

“That is only half correct. My handlers became interested in you because of your thesis. My handlers are the ‘Black Masks’. They chose to disrupt the controlway partly to see how you’d react. And partly because they wanted to stage another disruption. Your eyes have gone wide—you are surprised.”

“You bet your polystyrene ass I am. Surprised you think I’m as gullible as that. You pretend to be connected with the terrorists, so that I’ll leap up and clap my hands with joy and plead to meet them. After which InfraSystem busts me, Basic Rules or no.”

“You may already have a surveillance drone on you. But it isn’t ours. Come with me, please. There’s someone who wants to meet you.”

The boy-shaped android turned and walked into the woods. From his eyes came two beams of light, illuminating the way. His eyes had become flashlights—for Kiln’s benefit.

Kiln shook his head. There was no way he was going to fall into whatever trap this was. He watched as the lights went behind a tree, and emerged again farther on, filtered through brush, becoming fainter, fainter...

He put down his drink and turned to the lights of the house. “Close all doors and windows till I return,” he told it. The back door and kitchen windows slid shut. Turning to the darkness, Kiln jogged into the woods. “Destin! Wait!”



“Did anything follow you two?” asked the blond man in black. the man was talking to “Destin” but looking at Kiln.

“No,” the android said, his eyelamps switching off. “Unless it’s beyond my monitoring capacity.”

Destin and Kiln had just stepped off the thin path, into a moonlit clearing. Kiln was sticky with sweat; his face itched where twigs had whipped at it; nettles stung the back of his hands. But there was a kind of electricity in his blood—he felt more alive than he had in years.

 The fox-faced man’s blond beard was close-clipped into baroque curlicues along his jawline. He was a lean man in a black simuleather outfit, like the ancient motorcycle gangs but without insignia. He leaned, arms crossed, apparently against a bush—then Kiln realized the stranger was leaning against one of the bucketlike soloflights, between its horizontal rotors, its surfaces treated with cammiepix which duplicated the backdrop of trees and brush.. On his hip was what appeared to be some sort of projectile weapon in a long narrow holster. Kiln had never seen a hand weapon except in holos and museums.

  “I’m supposed to believe you’re not a government agent?” Kiln asked.

 “You’re supposed to believe I’m Skysmash. That’s the name I go under. Collectively we call ourselves The Distroff Riders. Distroff took extreme, bold, illegal methods to save the world—now we do it our own way, from our own direction. Come with us, and you’ll also believe we are exactly the same crew that turned your car into a carnival ride today, my friend,” said the bearded man in a silky voice, blue eyes glittering with humor. “There’s another soloflight up on the hilltop, above the clearing—you see it? Just enough room in it for you and our programmed boy-spy here…”

“You’re letting me see your face—suppose I want to turn you in later? Do you…”

“Kill you? No. We have access to 24 hour Blot.”

“Memory erasing enzymes? Those are—”

“Illegal, yes.” Skysmash said the word illegal with something like reverence. “It’ll only blot your memory back 24 hours. No great harm. But hopefully we won’t need it.”

“Because hopefully—what?”

“Hopefully…you’ll join us.”



Kiln had never flown in the open air before and the wind in his face fanned a flame of exhilaration in him.

Destin handed him a black mask to put on. Kiln slipped the mask over his head, as three other soloflights joined them, their pilots already masked. “They all have melodramatic names like Skysmash?” Kiln asked, yelling over the wind.

“Certainly,” Destin said, donning his mask. “It’s psychologically satisfying. That’s human nature.”

“So are the masks and the black leather?”

“Some wear old fashioned cammies, some wear robes.”

“But—who are these people? I mean, okay, ‘Distroff Riders’—but who are they personally?”

“Private citizens with certain special skills, access to programs and interference-frequencies—and a willingness to use those things radically. Terrorists, in your terminology…They used their special programming data to disrupt the controlway nanos this morning, and tonight they’ll use it for something else. Up ahead—you see our two objectives. The c-kite demonstration and the style-mall it’s being held at.”

The group of soloflights were angling down toward a chaotic flock of control-kites—nanoformed into dozens of distinctive shapes—abstracts, bats, flying dogs, superheroes, ancient gods, shapes that changed like kaleidoscope images. Designed by the ‘flyers’ who controlled them with remote-gloves, some darted and whipped, others flying in symmetrical formation then breaking apart in jazzy aeronautic improv—some of it literally musical improvisation, with those c-kites that were also musical instruments.      

“Watch this,” Skysmash yelled on the soloflight radio. Kiln could see him reaching down into the soloflight and manipulating a hidden keyboard. Clouds had already thickened over the demonstration, and now lightning exploded downward, crashing into the c-kites—some exploded instantly, others began to spin and sizzle in eerie coronas before simply falling to the Earth in blackened lumps like offal. Still the lightning flashed—rain lashed down, wind blew the frightened c-kite flyers flat. Control-gloves crackled with sparks and people screamed as their hands singed; as electricity shook them. Not fatally, but enough to make them quiver and weep.

Kiln’s heart hammered with joy at the aerial chaos—but he forced himself into some kind of objectivity and yelled into the radio: “Now that’s just mean spirited, Skysmash! What’s the damn point?”

“Mean spirited, is it? They can have as many of their precious, cute, multiculturally all-inclusive c-kites as they want! They’ve lost nothing! They can have a hundred, tomorrow, if they order their nanoformers to make them—but I have given them something the nanoformers can’t! Unpredictability! Outrage! Inspiration to spontaneity!”

“That’s the point of your ‘terrorism’? Nonconformity? But no one is conformist, except for the Basic Rules. There are endless types of people doing whatever they like out there in the world!”

“Whatever they like? When can they destroy for the joy of it? When can they do this? Watch!”

And unholstering his weapon, he led the soloflights in a ragged formation down, down through bursting lightning, veering over the heads of the terrified crowd of flyers and directly at the tall glass walls of the style-mall. Only design could be sold in a world where anything could be freely fabricated—and here styles for clothing, design for objects and art, as well as the substance of music and literature, were traded for work-units.

The lightning crashed into the windows, weakening and blackening them, and then the soloflights smashed splendidly through in a scintillating cloud of flying shards. The Distroff Riders roared through the style-mall, making whole families scream and throw themselves flat; shattering through the style-displays. Sculptures, lowgrade androids posing in fashions, paintings, holo displays, all the ephemera of the style mall fell before the raking, racketing weapons fired by the terrorists—beauty exploding, grace demolishing, Kiln’s spirit rocketing—

—and then they crashed through the farther glass walls and soared up once more into the thickening clouds, using them for cover even as the sirens of the InfraSystem operatives warbled near.



 Half an hour later, sipping cocktails in a public roofgarden with the other members of the Distroff Riders, listening to them argue about the wording of their first public manifesto, Kiln made up his mind. He would become a Distroff Rider.

He didn’t care for the scripted quality of their rhetoric; their grandiloquence, their bombastic monikers and outfits. It all stank of dilettantism, a kind of provocateur tourism—but if he said no, they would erase his memory, and he didn’t want to lose this experience. And who knew what else he could experience with these people? There could be levels of this thing—they referred darkly to other cells…There might be more serious people, with a real cause out there…

Skysmash and a blond, voluptuous young woman in cammies left the manifesto discussion and strolled over to him; Kiln glanced at her, smiled politely, instantly taking in her sexual possibilities.

“Destin here was just wondering if you’d made up your mind,” Skysmash prompted. “Will you join us?”

“I thought I’d—” He broke off, staring at the woman. “Destin?”

“Yes,” she said. In a voice that was like the ‘boy’ Destin’s, and yet unlike it. “Destin—I’ll go by Destini, in my next role.”

“Ah.” Kiln cleared his throat, a little sickened to think he’d speculated about sex with this soulless thing, a moment before. “I take it you’ll be using seduction, for the next recruit, instead of…the ‘nosy student’ gag?”

“That is precisely correct.” Her smile was precisely correct, too.

Kiln shrugged and turned to Skysmash. “My answer is—Yes,” Kiln said. “I’ll join you. I’ll be a Distroff Rider. It’s—always been in my blood. As you seemed to’ve guessed. Some hunger to break the mold—in some real way…”

“Good!” Skysmash said, grinning and clapping him on the shoulder. “I knew when they found your Master’s thesis you were a good candidate—and the expression on your face this morning told me the rest! All you’ll have to do is your interview at the Bureau, get briefed on what is allowed and what is not allowed…”

“The what? The Bureau?”

“I thought Destin told you. This is, of course, a government program.”

“No he…a what? The Black Masks…The Distroff Riders—a government program?

“Well yes. The International Committee did a series of social-computer models. It was determined that more conflict, more sheer chaos was needed for the society to evolve.”

“The government…is staging terrorist attacks on its own people.”

“Oh yes! And it will get more intense! It’s going to be a helluva ride! We are going to get a lot more disruptive and people will have to adapt. It’ll prod all kinds of new ideas into being—and perhaps the next step in human evolution will emerge. Eugenics is currently prohibited—but there are ways to provoke the gene pool into what is called ‘probable mutation posture’. We exert pressure on the species in different ways—But of course we want it in a controlled form…A special vocation is needed; a special creativity. Certain personalities are ideal for…” Skysmash’s voice trailed off; he peered at Kiln closely.

“You seem—upset. Perhaps this isn’t for you…You absolutely have to accept the Bureau’s limitations, Kiln. Because once they give you the classified nano-control programs—well, it should be obvious…The potential for real terrorism…And we don’t want that, of course.”

“So it was all social engineering…with a genetic twist?”

“Of a sort.” He glanced at Destini; back at Kiln. “ Maybe you’d like to re-think this…?”

Re-think it? Kiln wanted to grab ‘Skysmash’ and skysmash him; he wanted to take him into a soloflight and take him up about three hundred feet and throw him down on the android. Maybe the voluptuous android would automatically go upright-rigid in self protection, and this smug son of a bitch would be impaled on blond-betty here…Impaled on Destini…

But another part of Kiln’s mind was thinking it through. All he needed was the nano-control program. He was something different than ‘Skysmash’ and his friends—he knew that now. He was no terrorist, not exactly. But he was a revolutionary. Nature made some people revolutionaries—for reasons of her own. And what these government-sponsored ‘terrorists’ were doing was wrong—was rank manipulation of the worst kind, was an affront to the sacred impulse to foment chaos; an insult to the inner flame of individuality at its most terrifying, its most real.

 And, worse, the Distroff Riders were hideously inauthentic.

 It was up to Kiln to bring actual spontaneity, authentic nonconformity back—not the planned kind. The kind that had once been accompanied by amplified rocknroll thunder…

And yes—his way…some people would die. But it would be worth it. The human race would be energized—would question itself once more. Would rekindle its fighting spirit.

Kiln grinned broadly. “Hey—no problem! I just had to absorb it all—but of course I’ll go to the Bureau! And I’m happy to do it their way. I’ll do it all within your rules—and we’ll have a damned good time out there!”

The provocatourist grinned back and clapped a comradely arm around Kiln’s shoulders. And deep inside himself, Kiln made his plans…

He would see to it that ‘Skysmash’ paid the price for his participation in this travesty—eventually, Kiln would kill him.

First, Kiln would recruit some of his students into the new cell, once he had the nano-program. Jaret would be perfect. For a start. Perhaps Manora.

Together—they’d tear the world in little pieces. And then they’d watch as it tried to put itself back together.. How the flames would rise!

But to this buffoon in his black leather, all Kiln said was, “I think it’s high time—we had another drink…”




About the Author



John Shirley is the author of numerous novels, books of stories, songs and screenplays (eg, The Crow). His story collection Black Butterflies won the Bram Stoker award. He's one of the orignal cyberpunk authors, with seminal works like City Come A-Walkin' and Eclipse, and his latest, an "alternative apocalypse" novel,  is The Other End.


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