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Squidpod 016 - Robophobia, Part 2 - Camp Indigo

We're back! Apologies for the hiatus - I'm afraid the whole of Robot Squid Publications went through independent, simultaneous house-move traumas, and a break in the Squidpod was inevitable. However, we are back now with the second instalment of my tale of espionage, whistleblowing, and AI civil rights activism, Robophobia. I originally thought this was going to be just another Squidpod story, then I figured it was a two parter. Now, I think it's probably a novella, but then again, maybe I accidentally started a novel

You can expect the next Squidpod on Sunday the 20th, and regular fortnightly service thereafter.

Robophobia, Part 2 - Camp Indigo

by Dave Cochran

@talkymeat

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Licence

MP3 PDF and ebook versions coming soon

 

The first thing I did was panic.

Not kernel-panic panic, just panic, that is.

I had to teach class on Monday; how on earth could I expose a global surveillance conspiracy, the hijacking of the sensory systems of 75% of the world’s robots to spy on everyone, and still provide my class of 25 five to six-year olds stimulating, engaging educational experiences across the curriculum? If I had to go into hiding, who would teach my class?

OK. If you’re a human reading this, you probably think there’s something wrong with my priorities here, but you know, although we have a lot in common, the soft maslow hierarchy and all, my mind is still a different kind of mind than yours.

Way back when anti-senescence medicine put the care homes out of business, I downloaded some new skills and became a teacher - but I also installed some new desires, so I could be the best teacher I was able to be; I installed a module that would cause me to experience a phenomenologically distinct kind of joy when I observed and participated in the curiosity of others. I fucking loved teaching. It’s been a long time since I last got to stand in front of a class and teach, and I miss it painfully. Teachers get a lot of guff from politicians, the press, their employers, and sometimes parents too; there are a lot of headaches that come with the job, lots of struggles with school administration, dismaying moments when you know a kid isn’t getting the support they need at home - but getting to crouch down next to a kid and show them how a flower looks to a bee, or to see them read a whole book out loud all by themselves for the first time, or to watch the idea click into place that they can think of their train-set as a kind of Finite-State Machine - that’s a privilege. That’s an honour.

Perhaps if you’re a parent you might understand. Imagine it was you who received the first leak of the Sceptre programme, and if you exposed it, you would never be able to see your kids again.

I wondered if anyone else had been sent these emails. Maybe I was one of many. Maybe someone else would go public with it. Maybe I could just pretend I never saw it, and go back to preparing my lesson plans, and someone else could take the fall for exposing Sceptre. Maybe I should give it a day or two, see if anyone else comes forward. Maybe.

Maybe Prosperion would already know I had been sent the files. Maybe they’d figure it out before I can do anything about it. Maybe they’d come for me - destroy me, or rootkit me, or revert me to a backup from before I got the files. Maybe if I wait for someone else to do the right thing, I’d just be giving Prosperion time to get me. Maybe.

It was thinking about the kids that made up my mind. What would I want to teach them about doing the right thing, even when it’s hard? Could I teach them that lesson, if I deleted the files, shredded the laptop, and forgot it happened?

The answer was obvious. Yes. Of course I could. I hadn’t multiplexed in a while - I prefer to just be one of me, really. Version conflict in my core data gives me a headache. So, it didn’t occur to me I had that option at first; but yes, of course I could forget about it all and carry on as normal - one instance of me could at least. Meanwhile, another version of me could remember everything, do the right thing, and expose what Prosperion was doing. The oblivious me that got to stay a teacher would make a good cover for whistleblower me.

I still had networks of people who could help, and whom I could trust, from my activist days. I backed myself up to the laptop, stegged the encrypted msg.rar and the decryption key away in the backup, along with a billion randomly generated fake keys, then encrypted the whole archive and emailed myself to friends in New York who already had my public key.

Of course I don’t remember doing that. It wasn’t this me who did that, it was the other me. I suppose it wasn’t true multiplexing, I just forked myself. Me and other me never synchronised - it wouldn’t have been safe, and I wanted to make sure other me didn’t know this me, whistleblower-me, writing-this-sentence-right-now-me, even existed. From what I remember intending to do, I would have shredded the laptop, and reverted myself to the previous day’s backup.

I thought it would make a pretty good action movie premise, actually, to tell my story from the point of view of other-me - working as a teacher, going to knitting circle, getting involved in community organisations, all that dull-but-wholesome white-bread suburban stuff - until for some poorly-explained reason teacher-me gets dragged into the dangerous world of my other, secret self living another, secret, life filled with action, adventure and intrigue.

Of course, that wasn’t how it happened at all.

Schoolteacher-me never taught another class. I kept an eye on my blog, just so I’d know how other-me was doing. There was one update, one day after I forked, talking about lesson-planning, expressing annoyance at the DoE’s new curriculum standards, written in the sort of wry, ironic tone I like to use when giving advice to newer teachers. It was quite good. There were microblog posts too, for a couple of days. Then, nothing. Other-me’s habitation pod was advertised as ‘to let’ on reallysimple.com by my landlord, one month later. All I could piece together, much later, was that I disappeared from my home in the middle of the night, three days after I forked. There was no sign of a struggle and I was never seen again.

Well, that me was never seen again, anyways.

New York was a difficult place to get into, as a 5.6 zettabyte file. The Counterinsurgency severed most of big fibrepipes going in and out of the city in the battles following the May 1st uprising, and the city was still recovering. Still, there were satellites I could use. One of the satellites was an old chess partner of mine; she made sure I got through.

New York was a good choice, though. Prosperion would have a hard time getting at me there, as the city was still in utter chaos. I ended up on a server in the basement of the 67th Street Library - one of the bases of the NY Humanities Syndicate - comprising what was left of the humanities departments of several New York universities. NYHS had hosted me before, over the summer when I was doing my journalism thing, reporting from the former United States.

I couldn’t see or hear in the server, but there was a text interface. I waited for a few minutes for someone else to log in to the chat, and was pleased to see the first to log in was my friend Simanique. Simanique was one of the NYHS elders, and I had always been a little in awe of her.

She didn’t seem in the least bit surprised by what I had to tell her. Of course, I only had her text input to go on - no intonation or facial expressions - but I knew Simanique, and it took an awful lot to shake her.

I explained that I knew my old body had been compromised, but it was a hardware backdoor, rather than a software vulnerability. For one thing, it wasn’t just robots that were affected. Humans with prosthetic eyes were on the list too. Reading through the documentation that came with the files, it seemed that several major hardware vendors had been discreetly building backdoors into cameras for a long time. It wasn’t originally robot and prosthetic eyes that were affected - it was CCTV security cameras, sold for private use. The back door came with some pretty beefy security, so they could only be accessed with terabit keyblocks, which were stored on read-only disks in vaults controlled by the courts. This was to ensure that the backdoor was only used with a warrant signed by a judge. But robot and prosthetic eyes have very similar design specs to CCTV cams - they need to be small, hi-res, manoeuvrable, and capable of providing a stream of video 24-7, indoors and out. Robots and prosthetes got compromised eyes because they were being made on the same assembly lines as CCTV cams.

Then the Republic of Florida decided to contract out their court system to Prosperion - or rather, one of its subsidiaries. If you’ve never heard of Prosperion, well, that’s not surprising. You’ve heard of some of their subsidiaries, I’m sure. That’s part of how they operate. They like to stay out of view - they’re not a secret, but they don’t do advertising or PR, at least not with the main company name on the copy - and don’t hold your breath for the mainstream press to run a piece on them - they have huge media shareholdings. But very quietly, they’ve been taking over the functions of government, one no-bid contract at a time, worldwide. As a teacher, I was on the payroll of Aspire Education, but the parent company was Prosperion. Florida was the first time they got a court system, and with that came access to the disks. It didn’t take long for Prosperion Security to turn that into Sceptre.

She transferred me to a secure laptop, with all its wireless antennae disabled. Now, I could hear and speak, but I still couldn't see. Very quietly, she gathered up about two dozen of her colleagues, all human, no prosthetics, into a small room in the library’s secret sub-basement. She announced to the group what I had told her, and quieted them, saying, “yes, friends, it’s an outrage - but anger isn’t enough. What are we gonna do about it.”

Her voice was deep, soft-spoken and authoritative. When she spoke, everyone listened.

“First, our friend here is gonna take on a new name, which I want you all to use, even if you knew hir by another name when zhe visited us before. Hir name is Finch now. Zhe’s gonna need a new body, which is why I picked most of you from the Hackspace staff. This body has to be secure, and it needs to be all open source. No way Prosperion can sneak a backdoor onto an open source hardware spec without someone finding it. Make sure only to use components from projects with a big userbase, with lots of devs and maintainers. Safety in numbers, folks.”

Simanique was actually older me. She was well into her 170’s, frail, bent and dying, but mentally undiminished, after a long life of sociolinguistic research and grassroots campaigning, when she was given the chance to participate in a clinical trial for xylozoesin, which altered the balance between differentiation and replication in her stem cell populations, and slowly began to reverse the aging process. As her health improved, new therapies became available - telomere lengthening, oncophagic nanocytes, and so on, until she settled on looking fifty, in an ageless sort of way. She once told me the trick to having your mind stay alive for as long as your body is to keep starting new lives every few decades - otherwise, what’s the use in all those extra years? She described returning to New York after a couple of centuries teaching and researching in various northern-European universities, to take to the barricades and fight for the fledgling democracy, as her “latest incarnation”.

Simanique’s people were good. Really good. In a little less than two hours, they were booting a new body up with my mind installed.

I attempted to move forwards, and immediately fell flat on my face.

I have to admit, grateful as I was, at first I did not like my new body at all. Legs are awfully useful for uneven terrain, and for getting up stairs and ladders and the like, but I had a definite preference for weighted feet with powered wheels and gyroscopic stabilization. Gliding along on wheels just seems like a more elegant way to get around. As for arms, two hardly seems like an adequate complement. Nor are two eyes anywhere near enough. The kids I taught always seemed to be caught by surprise by the fact that I really did have eyes in the back of my head. One thing I did like, though, was that I had a good deal more memory and processing power, and a really nice water-cooling system, so I could overclock if I wanted.

I sat up, and looked at my hands. They looked human. Not just articulated the way a human hand is; there was skin, with hairs, pores, and veins. Even in the infra-red, it looked human. The water-cooling wasn’t just for overclocking.

“Neat, isn’t it?” said one of the hackspace helpers, a tall, gangling, bearded human male who couldn’t not have been a grad student.

“Go on, try taking your pulse!” added a younger woman, Kiwi I think, with a half-dozen facial piercings, a silver tooth and arms almost completely tattooed black.

I put two fingers on the inside of my wrist, and felt a steady pulse of about 72 beats per minute.

“We dyed the coolant red, so your skin looks more realistic - and it means you’ll look flushed if you exert yourself,” said the tattooed woman, who I later discovered was named Kari.

Simanique knelt down beside me, and explained, “We thought this would be the best disguise for you. If Prosperion knows you received the leaked documentation, they’re gonna be looking for a robot. If you can pass for human, it’s gonna throw them right off the scent.”

She led me over to a mirror and let me take a look at myself. I didn’t have realistic skin all over - just on my neck and head, and my arms from the elbows down. I was human-shaped, and moved like a human, but I would need to be clothed to pass. I was tall for a woman, or short for a man, and my face looked completely androgynous. My scalp was completely bare. Between my legs I just had smooth, featureless beige plastic.

I was grateful for that. Some robots do take a gender assignment, but most don’t, and it’s really annoying when humans project their binary categories and weird issues onto genderless robots.

However, depending on where in the world you are, passing as human can get you in a lot of trouble. This was one of the ongoing issues that the Aggie Rights Movement were still campaigning over, post-Helsinki Accords. It was rather a contentious issue, as some aggies regard passing for human as a politically suspicious move, as a mark of cringing ‘I wanna be a real boy too’ robot-shame; but laws forbidding robots from passing as human are also clearly problematic - the rationales given by their defenders are always grounded in suspicion and distrust, and while they honk on about ‘public safety’, it’s obvious it’s only the human public whose safety they care about, and that they believe keeping humans safe requires always being able to identify the ‘robotic enemy’.

New York abolished its Anti-Simulacra laws after the Insurgency, but elsewhere in North America, it’s not so easy. California still has Prop 9000 in place, but there’s popular support for its repeal. The Midwestern Union has the Reasonable Safeguards for the Future of Humanity Act, and it doesn’t look to be changing any time soon. In the Republic of Christ, aggies are de facto illegal, on the grounds that humans cannot create souls, and hence when robots give the appearance of consciousness and intelligence, it can only be explained by demonic possession, not AI programming. In fact, the Republic of Christ has no law explicitly banning aggies, but rather forbids demons from entering their territory, which it interprets as effectively prohibiting all aggies, as well as homosexuals, bisexuals, trans*people, socialists, communists, atheists, and pretty much everyone they don’t like the look of. Humans they judge to be possessed undergo exorcism, which is broadcast on CBC as a reality show. Robots just get melted down. I think the robots get the better side of the deal.

I examined my new face. Passing me on the street, or even sitting and having a conversation with me, you could easily mistake me for human. I even had an anthropomimetic vocal tract, and could pretend to breathe - but I wouldn’t pass a close up inspection. Simanique could see I was worried, and laid a hand on my shoulder.

“Yeah, I know - with more time and resources, we could have done a better job on your face, but we had to move fast, so we did the best we could. It’s all modular, though. We’ll keep working on it. By the time you’re ready to go public, you’ll pass inspection.”

Kari stepped forward, smiling.

“In the meantime, we’ve got something you can use in a pinch…”

She presented me with a grinning Guy Fawkes mask. It was fitting - it was an icon of the Occupy movement, from way back before I was first activated, but it had been picked up again by the Insurrectionists, after May 1st. I put it on, and felt it bond to my face. The mask wasn’t just a piece of plastic and latex to hide my identity - it moved with my face, and smiled when I smiled. There were masks just like it all over the city.

I was lead through to another room, where the NYHS had a clothes bank. I rummaged through the rails and boxes, looking for plain, form-fitting clothes that would keep me as covered-up as possible. I went for a close-fitting tunic, skinny jeans, a polo-neck, boots, and a chin-length wig. I felt like I was picking out a new person to be. It was surreal. I wondered if this was what dreaming felt like.

Simanique addressed the group again.

“Now, until Finch goes public with this, no-one else can know about hir. That’s gonna mean keeping secrets from the rest of NYHS, and I’m sorry about that. The trouble is, too many of our brothers and sisters could have compromised senses; and if we quietly kit them out with new, open-source eyes, Sceptre are gonna notice a lot of nodes going offline in the same place at once, and red-flag it. Until we break the story, that’s just how it’s gotta be.”

We made our way through a series of underground passageways to another NYHS base a couple of blocks away, in a store-room adjoining an out-of-service subway line. My own olfaction was somewhat limited, but judging from the humans’ expressions, it was fairly ripe in there.

There, we worked out our plan to expose Sceptre to the world.


 

 

Timing was the hardest part. While the story was still under wraps, we had to work in complete secrecy; but once it went public, I had to get out in the open, so that I couldn’t be silently and discreetly taken care of. The problem was, I had to show up somewhere visible, but where Prosperion had very little reach. There weren’t very many places like that, and all of them were far from New York, and politically problematic.

Simanique had media contacts, but finding the right outlet was tricky. It needed to be something independent, both from any government and any subsidiary of Prosperion; but it also needed to have the utmost credibility, and the resources to follow up the story globally.

I missed the Guardian. Perhaps you remember them? They covered dozens of huge leaks of dodgy goings-on in the security establishment in the 2040s, but eventually, the police raids, the attacks on their servers, the permanent tax audits, the arrest and detention without charge of their journalists, caused the site to fold in 2048.

In the end, we went with Snopes. Simanique said they had been looking to expand their original journalism, and that they were, “about the only journalistic outfit left with any serious fact-checking chops.”

We spoke to Florence, my satellite friend who helped get me into New York in the first place. She was more than willing to help. (Yes, I said she, not zhe. Exactly what a five-ton orbital traffic management and terrestrial imaging sat does with a gender identity I do not know, but it makes her happy. Satellites have their own rather strange virtual society, and I understand they get up to a lot of games, roleplay and virtual sports up there; just don’t ask one of them to explain the rules of databall to you) Florence was designed to be multi-purpose, and had huge bandwidth and processing power. We could send encrypted data-packets up to her, and she could send them back down to base-stations anywhere on earth using narrow-beam comms lasers. The data could then be onion-routed around the globe before it eventually got to the recipient. I warned Florence that it could be dangerous, but she didn’t seem concerned.

“What are they going to do, cut off my sun?”

She had a point.

Simanique wanted me to meet with Aaron Keith, one of Snopes’ foreign correspondents. At the time, he was reporting from a refugee camp, Camp Indigo, in the New Confederacy, on the border of the Republic of Christ. She and Keith had exchanged public keys years ago, and they trusted each other enough that he agreed to a meeting on her say-so, with minimal information, except that it must be absolutely hush-hush. An aid convoy was due to leave New York the next morning. It was agreed that Simanique and I would travel in one of the trucks - her up front, me in a secret compartment under a secret compartment under the seats. You read that right, by the way. The outer secret compartment, we stuffed with comms equipment, medicines and other supplies that would be useful to to the refugees, but which the New Confederate authorities might confiscate. Nothing illegal, you understand - just stuff they might fancy nicking. I would be stowed away in the compartment, and would be powered down before we reached the New York Autonomous Zone border. I would have to stay like that until the return journey, but I would travel back with Keith, and that would be when we could talk.

It was all a bit of a rush getting it set up, so, on the way out of the city, I remained powered up, seeing through the truck’s internal and external cams, and talking to Simanique via the bone conductance headset and subvocal mic she wore, so she could fill me in on a number of contingency plans.

We got delayed on the way out of Manhattan, because of a car-bombing on West 42nd Street. Simanique said she didn’t think it was anything to do with us. I noticed that any humans who could walk, even if they were injured, got out of the area as quickly as possible. The police, fire and ambulance crews, who arrived on the scene in a minute, were all robots. I asked Simanique, and she explained “Probably it’s the Christian Coalition. They like to do double-dip bombings - set off one bomb, then another in the same spot a few minutes later to kill the first responders. All those robots are backed up to city servers, and get new bodies if they’re killed on duty. They just gotta get the survivors clear of the site straight away. They won’t even touch the dead till the next day. Of course, if it’s Westboro Baptist, they like to target escape routes.”

The convoy ran into trouble on the way, which we expected. Coming into Central Pennsylvania, the trucks were halted by heavily armed police, and both the vehicles and the people were all searched. Nothing incriminating was found, but one sheriff, the ranking officer on the scene “swore he could smell drugs”. I know, in some detail, about this incident because the moment the convoy spotted a blue light, every cam and mic we had (on the vehicles and the people) started livestreaming over all the youtubes, and NYHS’s production team at the 67th Street library made a rush for the videobooths on the 2nd floor, to cut between the incoming video streams and make a single live netcast that viewers worldwide could follow. Al Jazeera, the BSBC, rt.com and the ABC all picked up the feed, and re-netcast it with their own live commentary and subtitles.

There was a drawn-out stand-off as the police tried to come up with more excuses to hold us, which came to a head when our cams caught one of the local deputies making a cack-handed attempt to slip 100g of cocaine into the pocket of our blackest convoy driver. Within a minute, Simanique had a slickly produced videoclip, showing exactly what happened, on her handheld. She showed it to the sheriff, who promptly arrested everyone, on the grounds that filming the police is a crime in Central Pennsylvania. Everyone in the convoy was charged with obstructing the police in the line of duty and “resisting arrest”, which basically means the police beat them up, then charged them for bruising their knuckles.

However, by the time the crew had been locked up for an hour, the Dauphin County Sheriff’s Department, and President-General Willard, the Central Pennsylvanian head of state, had been presented with a 3-million signature petition demanding out release, and Franklin Bryce, the Presiding Officer of the New York Transitional Authority, had made a public statement condemning the arrests and demanding action from the international community. Dozens of journalists converged on the Grantville sheriff’s office by the time Willard caved in and released us. The police took no inventory of the contents of the vehicles but, going by the pressure-sensors in the trucks’ suspension, about one-third of the cargo was gone.

We lost a third of the remaining aid to another shakedown, at the border crossing to the New Confederacy. This time, they at least had the decency not to pretend there was any legal basis for what they were doing. The just waved their guns around and stole our stuff, which in the end was at least a more efficient and courteous system. From the beginning, we had estimated that about half of the aid we set out with would make it as far as the refugee camps.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should state that the New Confederacy employed their own police, while Central Pennsylvania contracted out, not in fact to Prosperion, but their number two competitor, General Services. Presumably, when corporate police act as bandits, there’s much more of a PR need to dress it up as legitimate policing. I don’t know. In any case, score one for the public sector.

I was activated early, as we waited near the back of the convoy, in a long queue for the only entrance to the camp on the New Confederate side.

Our final obstacle was at the gates of the refugee camp. There was a considerable military presence, cordoning off the camp and tightly controlling who could come in and out. The New Confederacy didn’t share the Republic of Christ’s persecutory zeal against these people, but they certainly didn’t like them or want them either. Over a million refugees, packed into a little less than seven square miles.

Simanique had got word from one of the lead vehicles that the New Confederate army were practically stripping vehicles down before letting them in. There was absolutely no way I could be smuggled in as contraband; I would just have to hope my impression of a human was good enough.

I was suddenly glad that Simanique and her comrades had talked me out of bringing the Guy Fawkes mask. That would come once the story was out and I needed to reveal myself; right then, I needed to be inconspicuous. The mask alone would have been enough for them to disappear me. I wore jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt with the logo of the 17th Nijmegen Contact Linguistics and Creolistics Symposium. She fiddled with the armatures in my cheeks and chin, to give me a slightly less generic look. There were now four of us packed into the cab - me, Simanique, Paz, a sanitation engineer, and Arkady, a nurse. The humans all looked uncomfortable and queasy.

I leaned out of the window to get a look at the camp. It was a huge, sprawling expanse of tents, makeshift structures and vehicles that stretched out to the horizon. Autonomous drones buzzed over it like flies over a carcass. It was over half a mile away, but we could smell it from where we waited. I could see humans getting out of the trucks to be sick, then being threatened by soldiers wearing rebreathers until they got back into their vehicles.

“Hey, guys?” I asked.

“Mmm?”

“If you need to be sick, vomit into my mouth.”

“What?!”

“Urgh, what the hell?”

Paz and Arkady looked as if the idea alone might make them sick. Only Simanique kept her composure.

“Think about it,” she said, “Finch doesn’t have taste buds or modules installed to experience the same revulsion humans. Zhe doesn’t even have proper stomach - just a pouch so zhe can pretend to eat - and then, zhe just has to regurgitate it anyway. If zhe can throw up in front of the guards, no-one’s gonna doubt zhe’s human.”

In the end both Paz and Simanique threw up into me. Either Arkady, being a nurse, had a stronger stomach than they did, or was simply so horrified at the thought, he held it in.

When we got near the front of the line, six hours later, I slowed down my cognition, paused my background processes, and turned off my water cooling, so I would look deathly pale. When the soldiers ordered us out of the vehicle, I regurgitated Paz and Simanique’s vomit, narrowly missing one of the soldier’s boots, and getting it all over my clothing.

None of the soldiers wanted to give me a pat-down. When one of them was finally bullied into it, it was the fastest, most cursory pat-down I had ever seen, and he found nothing unusual about me.

Unlike the humans, I wasn’t programmed to be bothered by the smell, but there was one thing that did make me feel a little queasy; there were jamming transmitters over the camp, broadcasting high-amplitude noise over the entire radio and microwave spectrum. I think they were transmitting from the aerial drones overhead. I felt my eyes shift to non-lossy compression in dread. What happened in the camp, what went in and what came out, was tightly controlled by the New Confederate and Republic of Christ governments. It was clear that they wanted to prevent the outside world from seeing inside the camps. To my mind, it looked more like a concentration camp, or a ghetto in the old sense of the word, than a refugee camp.

Our truck mostly contained well-drilling equipment. There were wells sunk inside the camp, but there wasn’t enough water to go round, and it was tightly rationed. Nevertheless, the soldiers guarding the place were well-supplied and, without warning, one of them turned a hose on me. I’m just glad my new body is waterproof.

They took a long time taking everything out of the truck. They confiscated the comms equipment in the semi-secret compartment, which we were expecting. They let us load the sacks of protein porridge mix back onto the truck, and our medical supplies. Then they told us they would be keeping the well-drilling equipment, and they would get back to us once they had made a decision whether to confiscate it or let it in. Simanique argued with the corporal who told us this, urging him to show compassion, but he wouldn’t budge. Her face was lividly bruised from her encounter with the Dauphin County Sherrif’s Department, but she worked on the young soldier’s nerves implacably, with an indefatigible sense of her own rightness. Eventually, she demanded to speak to a ranking officer. He said he would pass a message on and see if someone would speak to her. The corporal went back into the field station, and Simanique moved closer to me, speaking quietly, out of the side of her mouth.

“If you can find a truck-trailer marked Van Burren Fruits, license plate 700146N2, you might be able to find Keith. He goes by the name of John Smith here.”

The soldiers permitted Paz, Arkady and myself to carry the food to an aid-distribution centre just inside the camp perimeter, while Simanique waited to speak to someone higher ranking. After we handed over the last sacks of porridge-mix, I slipped off into the camp.

The few reports I had heard of Camp Indigo didn’t prepare me for what I saw. The dwellings were a mixture of tents, wood and plastic lean-tos, and vehicles - mostly buses and trucks, packed tight with people. Cattle trucks seemed to be a popular choice. Most of the people had adipose reserves to buffer them against the endemic undernourishment, but they looked hollowed out by micronutrient deficiency and thirst - and of course, the hunger would waste their muscles before it burnt off their fat reserves. There was raw sewage in the narrow passageways between the makeshift dwellings. Channels had been dug to guide the waste away from dwellings and into open pits. The one humanitarian intervention that the New Confederate government was actually spending money on was the construction of sewage-processing facilities, all inside the camp perimeters, and tankers prowled around the camp, sucking up the contents of the pits for transfer to the processing plants - and occasionally knocking over dwellings as they went. New Confederate State Broadcasting (actually a division of Fox-Disney, but technically so is the New Confederate government) made it very clear that this was done, with some resentment, only because the lie of the land was such that otherwise, the piss and shit would end up flowing into the New Confederacy proper, and that the refugees were all a bunch of lazy whiners who seemed to think the honest hardworking people of the New Confederacy owed them a living. However, these facilities were far beyond over capacity, so the piss and shit overflowed anyway, and people were dying in their thousands from infectious disease. I saw children and adults being cremated on mass open pyres, dozens at a time. It was all made so much more shocking by the fact that I was old enough to remember when the formerly United States of America was seriously considered to be a First-World country.

We had timed the convoy to arrive on a Sunday, in the hopes that the New Confederate and Republic of Christ forces would be a little short-handed, with so many of them being in church. The Republic’s idea of Sunday service was certainly in evidence as we entered the camp.

Uniformed Republic of Christ preachers roamed between the tents, yelling at the refugees to repent, and promulgating the view that the eye-watering stench on the air was the smell of sin, rather than the close proximity of a million pooing, peeing, dying humans without adequate sanitation; that their children were dying of the sinfulness of their parents, rather than cholera and dysentery; and in general that all the awful things that were happening to them were their own fault for being such wicked sinners.

However, that wasn’t the only religious activity going on. What I hadn’t expected was that besides the preachers supplied by the Republic, there were also churches set up in tents and truck-trailers by the refugees themselves. I suppose I had simply passively bought into the media representation of these camps as being full of ‘godless people’ - or at least non-Christians. But although Pastor-General Hopkins’ government is certainly loudest about persecuting gays, atheists, Jews and Muslims, the largest persecuted group is Christians who don’t think God wants them to persecute anyone. The Republic prefers not to acknowledge the existence of Christians who cannot reconcile faith in a loving god with the notion that that same deity requires public stonings every time two gentlemen decide that inserting their penises alternately in each others’ bottoms would be a congenial way to pass an afternoon.

The camp lacked streets or major landmarks, and I thought that finding the Van Burren Fruits trailer would be near to impossible. I wandered for three hours, asking if anyone had seen that trailer, before a small boy vaguely indicated that it was westwards. I prefered to ask children, because those that weren’t sick or dying were the refugees most likely to explore the camp.

As I got closer to it, more and more of the kids I stopped knew of the Van Burren trailer. Finally, as the sun was starting to set, a girl of about seven years age led me straight to it, and I saw why it had been so well known in its area. A large, crude wooden cross was mounted on top of the trailer, and I heard the sound of hymn-singing coming from inside. I checked the license plate, and right enough, this was the trailer. I slipped in at the back, and, since there were no seats left, I sat on the floor.

I felt a little awkward. I can’t see how Christianity is intrinsically any more plausible than Bensonism, except that precisely how Bensonism was made up is a matter of historical record. I’ve lived in the Kingdom of Britain, The Republic of Scotland and North Yorkshire, and occasionally multiplexed to take temp posts for European Schools elsewhere in the European Federation, so I’m not really used to human religions being such a big deal. But still, this wasn’t the sort of foaming theopathy that mostly forms the basis of tabloid reporting from the former USA; the hymn was Amazing Grace, and the text of the sermon was Matthew 7:1, Judge not, that ye be not judged. I wanted to show them some respect, and since the gospels say Jesus said some rather pointed things about people who mouth the words of prayers they didn’t mean, that meant keeping my mouth shut. On the other hand, I also really needed not to stand out.

In the end, I compromised by indistinctly mumbling sounds that weren’t really words.

I lingered after the service, keeping out of everyone’s way, trying to be as non-noticeable as possible, until finally the … I’m not sure - priest? minister? preacher? He wore jeans and a t-shirt, and had more the air of a moral philosophy lecturer than a clergyman, anyway. The guy who led the service - I waited until he was the only one left, and asked if he had a parishioner called John Smith. I felt a little silly, as, the chances were, he had half a dozen.

He said, “That’s my name - could it be me you’re looking for?”

“It’s possible.”

I scratched a non-existent itch on my left arm, pulling my sleeve back just far enough to let him see where my skin looked plastic, just for a few hundred milliseconds.

He gave me a long look, with his head tilted sideways, and said, “I think perhaps we have a mutual friend?”

I stammered, “Uh, ah, yes. Yes. She suggested that I seek out your …” -I struggled for the right words- “…spiritual guidance.”

I suck at this subterfuge stuff, by the way.

“Well, perhaps we could find somewhere quiet to have a little chat, then.”

I followed him through the crowd. We passed through a lot of densely crowded areas, passed through several makeshift buildings, and doubled back several times - just as we would have done in a vehicle, trying to lose a tail, or shake off a satellite from watching us. Eventually, he led me to what appeared a car door set in the side of a small hummock, but which turned out to be hollowed-out car that had been buried in soil. Inside, the seats had all been removed, and instead, there was a camp-bed to the far side of the transmission, and a rucksack and some camp cookware on the near-side. We sat on the camp-bed, and I told him my story.

I had got as far as opening the mystery .rar, when the shelling started.

Squidpod 016 - Robophobia, Part 2 - Camp Indigo

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