Kevin O’Farrell was in town when the war broke out. He was in town when the war ended. It was that quick.
Friday night was going to be just how Friday nights usually were. A few pints of Guinness, although it’s never as good as it is back home in Donaghmede. A kebab from the Istanbul, heavy on the chilli sauce. Maybe one or two JDs at the Talbot to finish. It was pretty much a sure thing he’d end up scuttered and wake up some time Saturday with a head-splitting, sandpaper-throated hangover. That was the plan, as far as planning went. It was Friday night, after all, and he’d just been paid two days ago.
Town was more relaxed than it had been for months. People were out again, allowing themselves to get back to some kind of normal. The latest round of bioterror threats had put a damper on that for a time, but now they’d faded away without anything much new to be scared of. Time for a few drinks, some food, people’s guards starting to drop at last. It was almost a party atmosphere on the streets and it was as if Kevin could feel the weight lifting. He hadn’t realised how oppressive it had all been, how much it had affected everything.
The downside was that the squaddies were out too. That always added an extra dimension for a young Irish migrant worker in a garrison town. Weedy, shorter than average, Kevin O’Farrell was easy game for skinhead soldiers pushing him about—”for the craic,” as they would say. That kind of shit’s okay as long as everyone’s having a laugh, right?
He headed up Queen Street, fists in his hoody’s kangaroo-pouch pocket, sticking to the far side of the road from the squaddies’ pub, The Union. The chip shop next to the pub spamyelled him, sent taste-centre endorphins kicking down to his belly making him hungry when he was not. Special deals for our regulars Kevin. He Xed it.
The Union burned amber on his meSphere, a threatening glow layered over the real by his enhanced-reality lenses. It was a squaddie pub and it knew from his meSphere profile that he was a Mick. There was an app for that. There always was. Fuck ‘em all and back, eh?
There were three of the gobshites outside, sucking on cigarettes held in meaty-clawed hands. Pressed dark blue jeans, heavy black boots with a mean shine, white polo shirts, tattoos of union flags and barbed wire. StreetThreat flagged the situation as 8: squaddies, booze, a vulnerable ethnic who’s fair game because he’s young and male.
Kevin kept his head down.
HeadKutz spamyelled his meSphere: half-price weekday haircuts, and, for a moment before he Xed that too, his vision was overlaid with head and shoulders of how he might look with a buzz, a flick, a sweeparound, rather than the shaggy urchin mop he had now. Even as he blocked HeadKutz, he had to smile at the real-time wizardry that had taken CCTV stills of him and realityShopped him almost beyond recognition.
Bad move, that. Walking past a squaddie pub, smiling.
Just as Kevin had layers of apps in his ‘sphere feeding his enhanced perception of the world all around, so too did they. They’d be standing there with their lagers and their cigarettes and their testosterone, and they’d see Kevin: flagged up as a Mick, coming here and taking English jobs. And smiling about it.
They weren’t all like that, of course, and Kevin was smart enough to know as much: he’d never make the mistake of lumping them all together the way some of them did to everyone else. But the ones that did . . . their realities were enhanced, their meSpheres knew what they liked and what they believed and they filtered out the irrelevant noise. Everything was enhanced, and that included prejudices.
Kevin knew how it worked. He knew all about the fuzzy quantum mathematics that helped meSphere apps anticipate the illogical logic of human thought. Just because someone likes A and they also like B, it doesn’t mean they like A and B together. The brain doesn’t follow that kind of logic. Except when it does. Search engine developers had known for years that algorithms based on quantum logic could uncover meanings and patterns in data far more efficiently than classical algorithms. Quantum reasoning was a far better model for how the brain worked out those hidden meanings than any other approach. Apply these algorithms to the meSphere and you got a reality enhanced with prompts and ads and buddy-links you could almost have chosen for yourself, only better.
And so those three squaddies—with their fags and their beer and their apps that picked out Kevin and said he was the kind of scruffy gobshite that was bringing this country down—turned as one, like programmed automata. One raised a fist with a ciggie sticking out between first and second finger, another started to make some kind of gesture that involved a finger and the side of his head and lowering forward like a caveman.
Kevin kept walking.
He wanted to run, but if he did and they were serious he knew they would catch him easily.
He locced Ziggy and Emily and Matt via the meSphere. The three of them were in the Lion’s Head on High Street. A couple of minutes’ walk if he could just keep going and the gimps at The Union would forget about him. He pinged his friends, let them know he was on his way.
He risked a glance across and was accosted by HeadKutz again, something in his profile flagging him as a prime target for a cut-price haircut. Maybe he should. No reason why a backroom search-logic geek had to look like one.
But the three gobshites . . .
Two were staring at each other, and the other one of them peered up as if he could see the stars through the glare of the street lights and it was the first time he’d ever seen them.
And there was nothing.
The Union wasn’t amber, flagged as no-go. StreetThreat didn’t hang 8s over the three thugs. It was gone. All of it was gone.
That was when the war started. And that was when it ended.
The meSphere kicked back in with a pixelated staccato of screen-flicker. It stablised, and then a message flashed up, a semi-transparent pop-up overlaying everything.
There was a war, it read. You lost. Life will go on as normal, but with less extravagance and with the utmost respect for those who believe. We will not relent in pursuing the enemy. We control the meSphere. We won. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. We are the Brethren of the Jihad. We are your humble servants.
Kevin’s head pinged with messages and alerts. Friends and family loccing him.
Ziggy: You get that bro? What the fuck? It for real ya think?
Sandeep, uber geek on the search-illogic team: Hey Kev. Dig the profiles! They bucket-testing the shit outta this war.
Even his kid brother Eoin, back in Dublin: They shitting us or what? We just lost World War fricking Three?
“Stand down? What do they mean, stand down?” grunted one of the squaddies, the one with a ginger buzz-cut and cartoon-square features. “We’s not even fucking stood up.”
Kevin forgot himself, and stood there staring at the three.
One of the other squaddies shrugged. “How we supposed to know?” he said. “We only got orders, init?”
They saw Kevin staring, but somehow they didn’t look threatening any more. They looked confused, diminished. “You know what’s happening, do you?” Kevin asked.
Ginger buzz-cut looked across at him, then let loose with a stream of violent abuse.
Kevin backed off, and hurried away.
All around him, the meSphere stuttered its overlay. Restaurants spamyelled him, then fell quiet. His headspace was quiet and then there was an abrupt flurry of pings and messages. Then quiet again.
Another pop-up appeared, empty, then vanished.
He felt dizzy, disoriented.
He had to stop, and lean against a wall. It felt like there was a war in his head, even though he knew that the war had happened. It had started, it had finished. It was all over, lost.
And still, his head was bombarded with spamyells and visual static. Noise that meant nothing, or might have meant everything if only he could understand. His head kept reeling and he felt sick.
He concentrated on breathing. A simple thing, yet so hard.
He messaged Emily and Ziggy, and Ziggy sent back, Hey bro. Ya getting the news?
He blinked up a feed, but it was sporadic, frequently interrupted and washed over with random noise. What he could pick up was being doctored, realityShopped like those HeadKutz photos. The BBC stream had a new overlay in a language he didn’t recognise. It used Latin characters but not in a way he was used to. Indonesian, Phillipino . . . he wasn’t sure.
The government had resigned. Heads of the military and security services had been detained, automatically locked in their offices. Software agents of the Brethren of the Jihad had taken control of the nation’s military, power, financial and other systems, maintaining stability in this time of crisis. In his closing speech, the former Prime Minister spoke of his gratitude that at last someone had taken responsibility for tackling the moral decline of the nation and that they could all look forward to a time of spiritual maturity and respect.
It was a coup, but the powers of the land seemed almost grateful.
Jesus, but I never thought World War Three would go like this, Kevin messaged everyone in a mass reply-all. It’s like the PM were waiting for it.
He reached High Street and saw that people were in the road, looking dazed and confused. The Exchange flashed that it was closed until licensing laws had been reviewed. The Shackleton too.
Farther down, there was a crowd outside the Lion’s Head. Quick messages revealed that Ziggy, Emily, Matt and Lola were there. All turfed out.
Waiting for it? messaged Ziggy. Blown to pieces more like. I don’t call that waiting for it . . .
Kevin found his friends, gave gang shakes and hugs. Ziggy, all dreadlocks and shell beads, said, “What you saying, they were asking for it, bro?”
Kevin didn’t know what to say. He’d checked the feeds again as he worked his way along the crowded High Street. Asking for it: such a meek and humble handing over of power. “I don’t know,” he said. “You tell me: What’s happened?”
“It’s in the feeds, bro. The bombs, the snatch squads. Swift an’ clinical is what they saying. A show of force so we know just how beaten we are. Didn’t you check the feeds?”
Kevin shrugged, said nothing. He remembered the point, the moment when the meSphere faltered and then righted itself and then the message came through.
There was a war. You lost.
The kind of military takeover Ziggy described would never happen so swiftly. The war was in the wires. It had taken place in cyberspace, started and finished in milliseconds. A takeover of all the systems that ran the country.
Ziggy grabbed Kevin’s arm, getting antsy, lairy from the drink and the adrenaline. “Hey bro,” he demanded. “Don’t just go ignoring me. This is big shit. What’s happening?”
Kevin put a hand on his friend’s wrist, calming him. “I don’t know,” he said. There was something nagging away in a corner of his mind. “Just give me a mo’ though, would you? That’d be grand.”
Sandeep! Sandeep Patel, the second generation Indian from the East Midlands who liked to call Kevin a “bloody foreigner” and had made him more welcome at SphereIllogic than anyone else, back when he’d started there last year. His message earlier . . . Kevin flipped it back up: Hey Kev. Dig the profiles! They bucket-testing the shit outta this war.
Bucket-testing. A/B testing. Where a web feed showed some users a variant of a page so the owners could measure the outcomes, how many more clicked to buy; or where some passersby would get a spamyell from a shop or restaurant with a different wording, different tone. Real-time testing with subtle variations. Amazon and Google did it all the time, way back in the when of things.
And now . . . Kevin looked around at all the confused, defeated faces.
How many different versions had people been fed so that the so-called Brethren of the Jihad could modify their campaign depending on user-segment responses? How many variants were there of that BBC feed, videoShopped in real-time by some semi-AI in order to model and shape and defeat a nation’s head-space? How much was even true, and how much just a piece of misinformation carefully engineered to steer the collective illogical logic of the population?
Kevin grabbed Ziggy by the arms and his dreadlocked friend fell quiet, mid-rant.
“It’s not over,” said Kevin. “Do you see? It’s not over at all. It’s still happening. All around us. Everything: one big bucket test. We haven’t lost, Ziggy. We only lose if we believe we’ve lost.”
Ziggy shook himself free. “Bro’ you gone mad in the head. It’s all over the feeds.”
Kevin turned to Emily and Matt, but they just looked dazed, lost. In their heads they’d lost and there was no getting through.
Kevin started to run. Run until his breath came ragged and his lungs burned and his legs were like jelly.
He turned back down Queen Street, heading for the Union, the squaddies. He didn’t know what he was going to do, what he could find to say to them, to convince them, but he had to get through. Had to try to persuade them that they were only beaten because they thought they were and that they might just still have a chance if they’d listen instead of just beating the crap out of the ranting gobshite of a Mick who was about to burst into their bar and start haranguing them.