It doesn’t matter where you’ve been / As long as it was deep.Quisp folk song
“Look who’s up!”
Glad cries resounded as J., a pack slung over one hunched and narrow shoulder, made his way into the drop-port’s lounge. He’d toggled on his jumpsuit’s social-distancing function, before exiting the up-tube; the crowd parted before him, fellow researchers nudged aside by the proxemic-field. He wasn’t the only one playing it safe, which created a kind of lava-lamp effect as knots and clusters of neon-clad travelers eddied this way and that within the bar’s black-lit confines. Nothing unusual in any of this. Even if a few drinks were spilled, it was all part of the fun of drop-in research.
As usual, J. seemed to know everyone. His colleagues could only see his distinctive white quiff, bobbing above the crowd. It was several minutes before he made his way to the team’s usual booth. They’d gathered there, by appointment, because something big was brewing — something Recursion-related — and they wanted to validate J.’s analysis immediately. He wouldn’t even have time to go home, first.
Once J. did reunite with the team, it was apparent to him that at least one of their number had started drinking early.
“Wuzzon,” slurred O., their physical form even more disorganized than usual. “What did you bring me?”
This was a joke so hoary, in xeno-semio circles, that O. wasn’t offended — didn’t even notice — when no one cracked a polite smile. Hoisting artifacts from down under was forbidden, both by law and their profession’s ethos.
“A conundrum!” replied J., shoving his pack under the table and sliding into the booth. His proxemic-field contracted, so that he was able to sit only a few inches away from his colleagues. Social-distancing didn’t apply within the team.
“Glad to have you up, boss,” said V.
J. wasn’t V.’s boss, but he had been her thesis advisor when she’d gone through advanced semio training, nearly a generation earlier. She called J. “boss” now with ironic affection, and as a way of reminding the team that this was a work session. They weren’t wedged into a booth, in a noisy and crowded lounge, for chitchat.
“Who do we have here?” asked J., looking at the young person sitting next to him. She presented as female, maybe, and she looked like a teenager. His business partner, R., had informed him they’d hired a new abductive — fresh from training — but if R. had offered other details, J. had forgotten them. He’d been abstracted for a week straight.
“J., meet (*),” said V., making a tsk-ing sound. (To be precise: The kind of “tsk” one makes when temporarily stymied, not an annoyed “tsk.”) “She’s just finished training with M., who sends his regards and requests that you don’t treat this one kindly — he doesn’t want you undoing all of his work. (*), meet J.”
O. rolled their eyes. They weren’t as impressed by M. as the others were, they wanted them to understand.
“Welcome to the Abduction Squad,” said J. “It’s ‘(*),’ right? Did I enunciate it correctly?”
“Close enough, thanks,” she said. “M. invented different sounds every time he called on me.”
V. chuckled. “I trained with M., too, once upon a time. I’m sure he’s only become less corrigible.”
“Thanks for the job,” (*) said. “R. said you insisted on hiring me.”
“I did?” J. looked surprised. “Well, I’m sure that I had a very good reason. M. must have talked you up, to me.”
“That isn’t exactly flattering,” said (*). She didn’t seem offended.
“It’s the dive-atmosphere,” said V., protectively. “Plus, he’s not as young as he used to be.”
“Ouch,” said J. He almost asked (*) how old she was, but caught himself before committing an impropriety.
“How old are you, anyway?” demanded O., of (*). Their own age was a carefully guarded secret.
“Don’t answer them,” V. said to (*). “They’re just testing your boundaries. It’s how they’re wired.”
(*) didn’t answer O. Undoubtedly V. already knew her age; J. would ask her later.
“And to what do we owe the pleasure of your company?” asked J, of O. “It’s been a minute. What was our most recent project — liquid stimulants, right? Brown or white? Or was it both? That was… over a year ago, now.”
O. puffed up a bit, began to answer, but V. interrupted. “It’s this Recursion crisis which may or may not be brewing…”
“He’s put me on retainer for the duration of the inflection,” said O. They did not sound grateful. “Insulting rate. I’m sure one of my other clients will offer me more. But I’m willing to make the sacrifice, for old time’s sake.”
“Rumor has it that you resorted to selling comics-scraps, earlier this year,” said V. She’d been needled mercilessly by O., when they’d first collaborated. Now, she never missed an opportunity to get revenge.
“I only sold my doubles,” said O., with beautiful-loser dignity.
(*) found herself sympathizing with them. O. was an old friend of J.’s, she knew, and a former business partner — in a pioneering, ill-fated consultancy whose handful of surviving audits were referred to, by older hands, in reverential tones. (*) found it difficult to square her first impressions of J. and O. — the former seemed so unassuming, the latter so hapless — with the high regard in which their early work was held, by M. and others.
J. didn’t encourage V.’s needling. Despite everything, he was protective of O. Ostentatiously excavating a wad of writing-covered napkins from his suit’s breast pocket, he whistled a drink from the booth’s Object, which whistled back in acknowledgment. As he sorted the napkins out, V. shoved miscellaneous “book” aside until she’d cleared the center of the tabletop. A battered table-top projector, which she now toggled on, was already in position.
“How was the atmosphere — chokey?” V. asked.
“It’s been chokier,” J. replied absently. Napkins sorted, he focused. “Thanks for setting this session up at short notice,” he said.
“Happy to return the favor,” said V., who tapped rapidly on her semiocorder. In fact, J. rarely ventured into the field, any more. Although he didn’t project-manage V.’s audits, he made a point of overseeing validations of her analyses.
The projector whirred into action. A brilliant white pattern, or schema — a functional-looking mandala — appeared on the sticky tabletop. “G-Web,” read the generic legend appearing just above the schema (from V.’s perspective).
“Is that really necessary?” asked O., who didn’t appreciate having their book shoved aside.
“You know, the new projectors can model a holograph,” offered (*) cautiously, not wanting to cause offense.
“We have one at the office,” said V. “But this is fine, for the moment. We’re used to it.”
“While I was under, this time, I went down a rabbit hole,” said J., in a tone that suggested that although the validation session hadn’t officially begun, it was just about to — this was preamble. “That is to say,” he said, turning to (*), and speaking in a mock-professional register, “while embedded in the alien culture in question, I spent an inexcusable amount of time following up on a single lead rather than gathering a wide array of data, as I’d been instructed to do.”
(*) nodded. She’d never gone under, but she’d learned from M. that J., in particular, was guilty of such behavior.
“I was supposed to be finalizing analysis of a charismatic rodentoid character, as well as helping N2. oversee a study of upper respiratory health brand communications during a viral epidemic. Instead, I became obsessed with a different mass-culture phenomenon.”
O. moaned. Which was hypocritical, since it was their policy never to follow up on anything except their own interests and fetishes, when on assignment. They also never read their own proposals — it was a point of pride.
J’s drink arrived, wrapped hygienically in moss — a tendril of which he nibbled, before taking his first thirsty sip.
“Before we begin,” said (*), “can I ask why I’ve been included in this session? I’m excited to be here, but I’m not sure what I have to offer.”
“Yes, why is she here?” asked O. “Wait,” they said. “I know why. We’re getting pulled into the thing, aren’t we? I’m here because this team can’t tackle the thing without me, and she’s here because you need to field-train her.”
“What thing?” asked (*).
“The Recursion thing.”
(*) looked puzzled. “Isn’t that ancient history?”
J. and V. side-eyed each other. As usual, O. was making it impossible to get any work done.
“The ‘Recursion thing’ might not be a thing,” J. said. “According to our models, though, there’s a good chance that it could become a thing. And that might happen quickly. So yes, we’re staffing up. I can’t remember the details, right now, but I know that R. has been recruiting while I was under.”
“I still don’t get it,” said (*). “What’s the ‘Recursion thing’?”
“Can we talk about it later?” suggested V.
“I’ve been hearing rumors from my sources,” said O. “Multiple sources.”
“They freelance promiscuously”, V. explained to (*), nodding at O. “Don’t reveal any sensitive info to them.”
“It’s a major cultural crisis,” O. said, to (*), ignoring V. “And as I’m sure you learned in school” — a word he inflected with scorn — “‘shared and circulating patterns of meaning actively and inescapably penetrate the social.’ So it’s a social crisis, too. It could mean the end” — he gestured, vaguely, to the lounge and its denizens — “of all this.”
(*) started to laugh, but the others didn’t seem to find O.’s statement funny. “Should I be worried?”
“Let’s bracket this topic,” said J. To (*), reassuringly, he added, “It’s probably nothing. We’ll debrief you tomorrow.”
“I hear they’re going to suborn all the semios, the ethnos, even the cool-hunters and critics, everyone,” O. said. “They’re assembling a task force. Which means that we’re going to wind up stuck in a windowless room, for days on end, breathing the same air as agency gurus, baldies, psycho-philosophers, and gelotologist clowns. Not the baldies, I hope,” they added, as an afterthought. “Please, not the baldies.”
“Shall we?” said J., addressing V.
“Rule Number One is going to kick in soon,” said O. “Fair warning.” (*) looked puzzled, but no one explained.
“Let’s,” she V., pulling her goggles up from around her neck to cover her eyes. The others did likewise. J. peeked surreptitiously at (*), curious to see how her goggles fitted over her unusual eyes. O. stared openly.
“Down under, the quisps are obsessed with theater — particularly recorded theater, the production of which can be unimaginably expensive and time-consuming.” J looked around. “We’re all familiar with this phenomenon?” Everyone nodded.
“Although they’re approaching their first — or possibly second, you’d have to query a xeno-historian — Recursion, right now, they’re still a highly creative, imaginative culture. It hasn’t yet become materially impossible to produce and distribute new forms, expressing norms in new ways. Norms, too, haven’t ossified — at least not entirely.”
(*), obviously a diligent student, tapped notes into her ’corder, which looked like the latest model. J. and V. were using older models; O. didn’t have one. Among their book, on the table, could be discerned a far homelier device.
“So… there’s this one particular theatrical recording with which the quisps are obsessed. Not only within the culture that our team has been studying for the past couple of generations, but seemingly every culture on-planet. Spin-off stories across all media, fan-generated content, children’s toys and games, ‘action figures’… and the obsession is diachronic, too. The play in question is two, maybe three generations old — but it keeps finding a new audience.”
“Is it a religious play?” asked V.
“We didn’t think so, though in-world scholars who’ve studied the phenomenon like to use the word ‘myth,’ in discussing it. It’s an adventure story — a pastiche of adventure stories. It wasn’t intended to be taken seriously.”
“Who’s the client?” asked O.
“Need-to-know,” said V., reflexively.
“I need to know.”
“It’s an entertainment studio, looking for inspiration,” said J. “But… other institutions, governmental institutions, have taken notice of our audit. We’ve been asked to run a workshop for the studio and special guests, tomorrow. Which is why I’m here, instead of with my family whom I haven’t seen for weeks. Can we keep this moving smartly forward?”
“Did you tell them about my screenplay?”
“The studio, obviously.”
J. tapped on his ’corder. Their goggles opaqued.
“What I’ll show you first is a trailer,” he said. “I want you to get the gist, top-line, before we go deep-structure.”
“I can’t hear anything,” said (*).
“We don’t usually turn the sound on,” said V. “It’s an old defamiliarization technique of J.’s.”
“I discovered it accidentally,” said J. “My earphones were busted, we couldn’t afford new ones.”
“‘Dialogue is for deduction,’” said (*). “I’ve heard that phrase, but I didn’t really get it.”
“V. coined it,” said J. “Here we go.”
“This is de futuro, obviously,” he added, after a moment. “The far future. Though it’s supposedly not their own future.”
“Are these effects purposely bad?” asked O.
“State of the art, at the time. And although effects have come a long way since then, the quisps have very fond feelings for these. They typically laugh at other outdated play-effects. But these — they’re beloved.”
“Damsel in distress,” said (*), after another moment. (*) was unfashionably feminist, for her generation.
“I like the masked man,” said V. “Please tell me he’s our fourth paradigm.”
“Pay attention to the armored troopers, in the next shot,” said J. “We’re going to talk about them first thing.” After a moment he added, “And this one, with the beard. He’s a wizard.”
“Are they all the same ethnicity?” asked (*). “I mean all the human characters?”
“Yes,” said J. “In the sequels, it gets a little more diverse.”
“And all the actors in rubber masks,” said O. “They’re supposed to be xenomorphs? Are they villainous?”
“Again, not so much in the sequels,” said J. “But here, the xenomorphs are often racist allusions to human ethnic groups. So yes, they’re mostly villainous. But they’re not the play’s villains. OK, that’s the end of the trailer.”
“Do you want us to go through it again, more slowly?” V. asked (*).
“No need. M. toggles so fast, it’s a blur. This was leisurely, by comparison.”
“‘What clients can’t see,’” said J., quoting M. “‘they can’t ask bullshit questions about.’” He tapped on his ’corder.
Their goggles cleared. Everyone reached for their drinks, simultaneously.
“So… does the play recount one of this culture’s central myths?” asked V., tapping on her ’corder. The play’s title now appeared in small type, below and slightly to the left (from her perspective) of the projected schema, along with J.’s name and the date. Below and to the right of the schema, in a field already titled “VALIDATION” she entered the others’ names. To O.’s name she appended an asterisk.
“I’ve always wanted to see my name on one of these,” said (*). “I’m really in the show, now, aren’t I?” Seated between J. and V., she could read the projection easily. J. read it upside-down — his preference, another defamiliarization technique. O. refused to look at the schema. In fact, they were scanning messages on their clunky device.
“The baldies agree, it’s a second-order Recursion,” they announced. “Our culture is ‘rejecting the cure,’ they claim.”
“Directly, no.,” said J., answering V.’s question. “Indirectly — I mean, it’s a mashup of aspects of various myths. But let me break it down for you guys.” J.’s tone now side-shifted into the mock-academic mode that he favored using in such sessions. Doing so was effective — it elicited respect, without raising hackles. Abductives are a prickly lot.
Consulting his napkins, J. said, “The play’s central conflict is between an oppressive imperial power, represented by armored troopers who have conquered and occupied major cities and trading ports around the galaxy, on the one hand, and a gentle wizard, the last of his kind, on the other. The wizard was once a legendary member of an elite force of lethal troubleshooters — fighting magic-users — who’d attempted to prevent the rise to power of a tyrannical emperor. His side lost the struggle — and, we’re supposed to infer, he grew sick of violence. He’s been living as a hermit, for the past couple of generations, growing wiser…. He’s nearly attained complete illumination, at this point.”
“Is the unmarked term, in the play’s structural matrix, ‘Empire,’” asked (*), capitalizing the term formally, “or is it ‘Imperial Troopers’?”
“Try-hard,” burped O. (*) seemed unfazed.
“‘Troopers,’” said J. “But whenever we say ‘troopers,’ think of them as on-the-ground representatives of the empire.”
“Are they conscripts, or volunteers?” asked V.
“We never learn anything much about them. Which leads one to assume that they’re conscripts. Right? Because stories about volunteer soldiers usually make it a point to emphasize their individuality…. But this is your area.”
“The individuality of fictionalized volunteers is most often a function of their place of origin,” said V. “It’s not as though we’re learning about their own unique personalities. War theater, for the quisps, almost always serves a propaganda function…”
“This particular play wasn’t made during a war, or during the lead-up to one,” interjected J. “But go on.”
“War theater made during peacetime is even more polemical. But what I was going to say is, stories about volunteer soldiers often emphasize that they’ve come together, from the nation’s many regions, ethnicities, and so forth, in order to form a single unit. So their personas tend to be sentimental caricatures, a function of their origins.”
V. always spoke rapidly, to forestall interruption. But when she was going down one of her own rabbit holes, her words flowed in a torrent. Now she stopped, abruptly. Pulling her long hair out of her face, she fastened it behind her ears — a tell, of sorts, indicating that she was entering full project-management mode.
“OK, ‘Troopers’ is our unmarked term,” she continued briskly, tapping on her ’corder.
The word ‘TROOPERS’ appeared on V.’s projected schema, where the semio square’s top-left vertex (from her perspective) met the curve of the unit circle. The circle’s top-left quadrant lit up automatically, contrasting with the dark, hyphenated radians quartering the space. The two segments immediately to either side of ‘TROOPERS’ glowed more brightly than did the quadrant’s two outer segments. Meanwhile, the ‘top’ and ‘left’ quadrants of the schema’s small, interior circle — the bindu, as J. referred to it, though never in client sessions — were also illuminated.
The rest of the schema, though visible, remained dim. (*) wiggled a little, excited to play her first professional game.
“Let’s talk about the troopers’ thematic complexes,” J. said, using a gnawed-on ’corder stylus to indicate the bindu’s illuminated quadrants. Pointing to the “lower” of the two illuminated inner quadrants, he said, “I’m sure you can guess this one — the ‘imperial’ complex.” V. tapped, and ‘IMPERIAL’ appeared in that field.
“The trooper’s ‘imperial’ complex — ‘imperial’-side discursive complex, that is,” he said to (*), who nodded, “is ‘thuggish brute.’ They obey orders without question, almost always to the detriment of innocent people trying to live their lives. Though there is some evidence that they’re a peacekeeping force, cracking down on crime — but only for the benefit of the empire.” As V. tapped rapidly, the phrase “THUGGISH BRUTE” appeared in the brightly illuminated segment immediately below, if you will, the word “TROOPERS.”
“The other thematic complex?” asked J., rhetorically, pointing to the “upper” of the two illuminated inner quadrants. “I’m going to call it the ‘economic’ complex.” V. tapped away.
“Through the lens of this complex,” J. continued, “we can perceive the troopers as tireless drones — they buzz around, accomplishing things efficiently, non-stop, and again without questioning orders. They’re not so threatening, when framed up in this way. Except in the sense that everything they’re building is intended to oppress the empire’s population, crush resistance, and aid colonization efforts. Still, they’re probably helping to develop frontier zones….”
“Can we smoke here?” wondered O. Indeed, several of the bar’s other patrons were puffing away within their proxemic-fields, creating a psychedelic visual effect. They lit up, too, seemingly paying no attention to J.’s debrief.
“Are there two types of trooper — one who bullies the populace, and one who… gets projects accomplished?” asked (*). “I mean, do they wear different sorts of uniforms, depending on their functions?”
“No,” said J. “That would make sense, I agree. But the play depicts just one trooper-type. This might have more to do with the play’s costume budget than with any ideological considerations. But as far as we know, they’re all extruded from the same template — we don’t get the sense that they have any individual eccentricities or autonomous reason.”
“Wait, are they robots?” asked V.
“They are almost robotic, in appearance. But… as you saw in the trailer, the robots in this play are delineated as such. So the troopers aren’t the same as the robots. In fact, the robots have more personality than the troopers do.”
“What genre is this?” queried O., their first contribution to the meeting. “Science fantasy? Yuck.”
J. pointed at them, touching a finger to his protuberant nose. “That’s the conundrum.”