Part-time demi-goddess

Date
Text David Goldberg
Art Will Caron

Mia smiled at the thank you note sent by one of the more reliable indie smashers to whom she’d granted full write privileges. The note was a drone’s-view orbit of a rugged-looking brown woman in a decommissioned, but clearly hacker-loved, Chinese wrexoskeleton, shimmering in an aura of heat exhaust. Her body was enveloped in battered, fire engine yellow housings for massive synthetic muscles, but the faceplate of her helmet was thrown back to reveal trade-blown black hair and a stunning carefree grin. The shot looked down on flood-prone Hawaii Kai in the distance behind her, along with Maunalua Bay’s signature breakers, the barren slopes of Koko Head and the burnt-out warrens of Portlock.

Her name was Maddie, and she was posing tough with her two oversized cybernetic arms, each articulated like a scorpion tail and ending in a massive five-fingered manipulator. Two telescoping stabilization struts extended from the unit’s back at a wide angle, and sunk deep into debris-strewn asphalt. She triumphantly hoisted a massive knot of what her peers call “mansion spam”—the post-auction, pre-demolition leftovers.

Most smashers crush the spam into cubes or balls and haul it to Kalihi for reclamation in exchange for raw watts, local barter weight, or public reputation-based cryptocurrency. But some, like Maddie, were also artists. Her latest work was this giant shaka sign, held together by spot welds, rough weaving and binding foam. They called these sculptures “Butterfields,” after a famous old lady who made horses out of carefully-selected scrap.

Maddie’s was made from the best that the gutted, abandoned and lava-bombed estates of Hawaii Loa Ridge had to offer: furniture splinters, rusted plumbing, hoses, pool tiles and overlooked shreds of automobile. At first Mia thought the shaka was a little contrived, but then she noticed the wedding band made from scrap aluminum coated with the scintillating dust of crushed photovoltaic cells. It was a nice touch. Smasher bling.

Long odds that anyone Out There would pay for the sculpture itself and Mia and Maddie both knew it. The real art object was the metadata that Maddie had packed with the clip. Specialized materials analysis was the only way to wring every floating point of value out of recycling—and in some cases avoid toxins, aggressive intellectual property defenses, or advanced munitions. So a good wrexo packed a well-trained Watson and its arms were equipped with cameras, scanners, magnets and specialized sub-limbs with tools for cutting, grinding, knitting, stripping, clamping and separating. Mia spun the archive open and found LIDAR models, texture maps, and telemetry soup that not only described the sculpture down to the millimeter, but thoroughly categorized every moment that created it.

The planet’s FX junkies, data fetishists and pattern miners were always looking for new drivers for simulations and algorithms. Maddie had recorded forces of shearing, deformation and compression, documented molecular reactions, and produced maps of vibrational spectra. Everything was translatable and subject to creative rearrangement, so virtual light grew synthetic life, alternate histories unfolded according to patterns of woodgrain, and bristling graphs mapped alien emotional responses. The data structures were surrounded by schools of curious agents, each one looking like a lithe piece of 20th century subway graffiti programmed to emulate the basic behaviors of a fish.

Symbiotic agents were the basis of her realm’s economy, and Mia supported a stable population of a million or so off-the-shelf, cool-hunting routines, art school search plug-ins, and autonomous crawlers. But there were also bigger entities out there, coded from scratch by longer-term subscribers. Those programs roamed in the dark, filtering the output of Mia’s enzymatic algorithms, sampling her divination system of bones, algae and entrails that processed tiny but significant fractions of the world’s raw feeds. Spectral images rendered in ribbons of mucous floated up through sea monster spines, titanic lengths of phosphorescent intestine and vast dreadlocked webs of of mutant sargassum.

Trapped in a thick semi-reflective layer that Mia used for scrying, images like Maddie’s video clip accreted on the surface, melted into watercolors as they aged, and turned to clear transparent gelatin when they expired. Hers was not a surveillance system however, but a synthesizer of experimental inferences and retrodictions. In addition to the population of software agents, there were 21,348 people who lived full-time through her multiplayer API. Descendants of the technologies and attendant cultures of forums, comment threads and online role playing, they were mostly subsistence gamers who caught smaller agents for resale, and hunted the larger ones for sport and ransom. They sought out the rising membranes and loose clots of images, made art and commentary in response, and sold these artifacts of their pseudo-indigenous culture to the outside world.

Maddie recognized that a deep and persistent idea of Paradise survived the islands’ infection, volcanic shakedown and subsequent inundation, and the shaka was prime imagination bait. Mia flipped the smasher a chunk of celebrity crypto and signed it with a quick note: “Howzit, Maddie? Every move is mined, and you dig the good stuff. Keep in touch.” She then blew a tiny kiss and the clip melted to transparency, shedding a delicate mobile of metadata destined to rejoin her system’s constant downsampling of the planet’s insanity, rage and joy. Moving in protective swirling groups or running solo in predator-evading zig-zags, the foreign agents also vanished into the depths of simulation.

At peak performance Mia’s system applied five Googles worth of total information awareness to render a topographic mashup of Hokusai, Doug Young and H.P. Lovecraft. Occasionally she would potlatch, granting untaxed export privileges to any subscriber who had the bandwidth to handle the output of her system when the throttles on her processors and renderers were fully open. Some of her peers criticized her for dedicating so much wattage to UX chrome, but Mia was Old School and loved a deep and well-designed interface. She believed in loyalty built on the power of poetry, not coercion. Leave the warlords to their spreadsheets, emotionally abused AI and pull-down menus of infinite regress.

Mia—worshipped as hostess, patron, sysop and demigod all at once—leaned back into the flow. Bodiless and all-seeing, she let everything surge and wash until clouds began to gather rapidly on the horizon. The storm’s blossoms of granite, cumulus clouds evolved in steady pulses, approaching by jump-cuts. A billion miles away, in a room, in a Newtown house that overlooked Pearl Harbor and the casinos of Ford Island, a phone was ringing.

The jolt of surprise, with a thin spike of dread, cut through her stack of nootropics, making her more aware of the snug cap she wore to override her parietal lobes, and the virtuality goggles she wore. A phone call?

Exactly four people had her number: her parents—who would have sooner just banged on her door—and her two best friends. One was a Kalihi-based social network hacker, musician and bum who dreamt of becoming a Host Culture hero; the other a spoiled nerd whose wealthy and anachronistic father had sent him to the mainland for a face-to-face college education. On the fifth ring, the call kicked over to voicemail and the storm was upon her. Security routines came online, rendered as torrents of rain churning the surface of her ocean. Titan-scale guts, vertebrae and seaweed bubbled to the surface as a constellation of icon-driven metadata indicated that the usual barbarian traffic of troll bombs, counterfeit subpoenas and unsolicited marketing agents was being blocked.

She scattered the security reports and conjured the caller’s visualization. A massive head of mottled, porous and dark green stone surfaced, seemingly dragged up from sunken Mayan ruins, draped with viscera. She recognized the face instantly: disinterested expression, asymmetric haircut, an air of muted desperation. Or was it heartbreak? She wondered if he were still pining for that stunningly haughty sociology commando from Kamehameha Schools, the one from Makakilo. For a moment she watched his lips moving as he left the voice message and then snapped the sound on: “…at the airport. Ki‘i just got here to pick me up. Late of course. What are you into today? I don’t feel like seeing my dad yet. I was thinking of heading down to Mo‘ili‘ili to see what’s going on there—wait, Ki, what?”

Kay’s head turned to the right, revealing a second Janus-like visage that was locked in a ridiculous exaggerated pout, eyes looking up into a non-existent camera lens.

“Mia, look who’s home!” shouted Ki‘i, his voice tinny through layers of encryption and utterly incongruous when compared to the colossal Cthulhu duck face selfie from which it was issuing. “You still locked into your little virtual cosplay sandbox? Pimping gamers and plotting the end of the world?”

“Ohhh, yeah,” said Kay, his face spinning to face her and flinging off spray and tangled mats of glistening kelp. “What’s up with you and the Supervillains?”

These clowns, she thought, flitting through webs of Ki‘i and Kay’s correlative graphs, traces and behavioral simulation output. Vines of data crawled over their stone faces, withering where they encountered network defenses, sprouting wet bulbs of probability where her agents came back with information. Virtual cycles of vegetable life and death rippled across Ki‘i’s glistening stone representation as her system touched and danced with the datahupua‘a.

Since they were little, Mia remembered everyone saying that Ki‘i looked like a young Duke Kahanamoku… Sure, if Duke were a skinny, bald punk rocker with gauged ears. Her system’s rendering of him was a Homeland Security certified average of every image in her archive, and it clearly showed a chin that was narrower than the legendary waterman’s, and eyes that were set wider apart. Staring as it was overgrown with virtual foliage, she felt the surge of a very old crush which she quickly shook off with a grunt and clenched teeth.

“How’s gophering for that glorified social network, Ki?” she shot back.

Ki‘i opened his eyes and looked off into the distance: the picture of an irritated colossus. He opened his mouth to say something, waterfalls cascading from his lips as rain continued to spatter and pour.

“And you, Kay?” she interrupted, conjuring up his breadcrumbs: Hawaiian Airlines flight 722, passenger 83, a white-hot point of heavily defended identity next to the neat clarity of a gambler that was seated next to him. She rubixed a little more and unfolded some unexpected correlations that converged around the Hawaiian Airlines welcome routine and a state-sponsored ID bumrush. “Your phone took that State hack on the chin, and for the most part handled it…” She trailed off, knowing that he’d be instantly bothered by any critique of his security perimeter. “Note to self,” she said out loud, “remind Kay about the bit of malicious that got through a sleeping firewall and is currently taking a nap…”

The Janus head spun to bring Kay’s frown into view. “What are you talking about, Mia?”

Even through the encryption she could hear the concern. “Tell me, Kay, what is Kimo’s House ‘O HI Stakes doing with such aggressive adware?” she taunted.

Kay’s expression turned distracted, eyes looking down at his phone as his stone jaw dropped comically, spilling half a dozen wriggling graffiti tags into the ocean.

“Want me to take care of that for you, Kay? I’ve got routines if you give me permissions.”

“No… thank you,” came his response, terse and distracted.

“Enough, nerds!” Ki‘i cut in, swinging his face around again. “Mia, meet us in Mo‘ili‘ili, choke intel for you. You’ll appreciate it. Plus Kay hasn’t stopped talking about you. Come shut him up.”

“Really?” Mia asked, stretching. “And what about you, Mr. Ki? Did you miss me too?”

Ki‘s head leaned forward, his nose and forehead beginning to crumble where, in actuality, his face was slightly out of camera range.

“Always, Mia,” he whispered. “Always.” She couldn’t quite determine if he were being sarcastic. “Log out for a while, drop the divinity act and see what’s up in Town. I can send a car over.”

Mia pulled the goggles off and the minimalist aesthetics of her bedroom slammed back into place, overwriting the lingering hallucinations of monumental heads, tumultuous skies and rough seas.

“Let me think about it, boys,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I’ve got you locked, goodbye.”

Click.

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Will Caron
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