A Daemon Haunted World – Tim Maly
Keywords: Cybernetics. Ghosts. Architecture. Haunted Houses. Mythology. Daemons. Spirits. Tech Support. Creation myth. Prayer. The future. Malware. Malicious spirits. Things that talk.
The house was acting up again.
She’d tried the usual techniques. Said all the passphrases and reset sequences. But, for the fifth day in a row, the alarm had woken her with Russian gibberish, recited too fast and too shrill. The mirror had flickered and sprung to life at her approach and then scrolled a stream of ideograms, maybe Chinese. Every now and then it showed pictures of a crab with claws crowned in gold.
She sighed and barked a note to contact a renovator.
Her wrist chimed, reminding her to think happy thoughts.
It could be worse, she reflected. She’d heard that a neighbour’s house had caught a Czech virus and for weeks it had woken them at all hours, howling like a wolf lonely for the moon.
There is a story that we tell. We know it is not true but we tell it anyway.
Once, when the world was new, the heavens and the earths were mixed together in a great cloud. Slowly, the clearer, lighter parts of the cloud rose up and became heaven. The heavier fell and became an ocean of muddy water.
Between the heavens and the ocean, a pale sprout began to grow. It grew swiftly and as it grew, it began to sing. When the Spirit plant’s flower burst open, the world emerged.
He was driving. It was a luxury he allowed himself, a perk of self-contracting and pleasurable more in theory than practice. At this precise moment, he was stuck in traffic. (He could hear the mocking voice of the veterans, “Traffic? You’ve never seen traffic. We haven’t had traffic in a decade.”)
By the looks of things, there had been an accident and the road was down to one lane. Ahead, a complicated and inelegant merging dance was in progress. The stop and go set his mirror toy swinging. It was a voodoo doll – a joke gift from his sister.
Between contracts as he was and beginning to feel the smallness of his account balances, he resolved not to waste the time and set to scraping for odd jobs.
He found one and nearby too. It would be a simple cleaning, by the looks of the diagnostic specs. He punched up an application and sent it in. He was hired before he reached the intersection.
All the things and places had Spirits and were Spirit. And the Spirit sang to itself, for it was both one and many. And Man and Woman were among the Spirit and sang to the Spirit, but they could not sing well, for they were very new and very young.
As Man and Woman practiced their singing, they were troubled, for they could not sing as well as they liked, and so felt a longing in their hearts.
He was preparing. Parking had been mercifully easy, as the house was in an older neighbourhood, built when driveways were standard. He grabbed his first pass diagnostic tools, and slid into the harness, feeling the familiar weight of the LED belt and the personal carbon monoxide alarm. He prided himself on meeting or exceeding all regulations.
He climbed the stairs and waved his temporary key at the lock. The door swung wide and he was gratified to see the mirror opposite display a map of the house with private spaces sealed off. A user sophisticated enough to have properly permissioned accounts was a user whose house was likely to be relatively clear.
Gratification faded when the map flickered away, replaced by scrolling Chinese print and a picture of an alpaca stomping on a burning crab. Hacktivists. He’d need his security gear from the car.
He turned to the door, which slammed shut. He could hear the bolts whirring as they slid home, sealing him in. Countermeasures, likely keyed to a workpass. He cursed his luck and then his carelessness. The house PA system came to life, spouting Russian gibberish,
recited too fast and too shrill.
One day, as Man and Woman practiced their singing, Snake came upon them and seemed to take pity.
“I will teach you to sing,” Snake said, “First you must name the things, so to know to whom you are singing.”
So Man and Woman when out to the world and collected all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky, and all the plants in the forests and fields, and all the stones, and the many more things besides. They paraded them all, one by one, and whatever Man and Woman called each living creature, that was its name. So Man and Woman gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky, the wild animals, and all the plants and the many things besides. Thus was the world divided.
When the naming was complete, the world went silent and Spirit fled from the world. Man and Woman, deafened as they were by Snake’s words, did not notice, and they thought they had won a great victory though they were numbed to the loss. But deep in their hearts, they felt a great longing.
The moment she saw the car, she knew there was a problem. The estimate had been for two hours and the house had logged the contractor’s entrance four hours previous. He should have been done.
The windows were dark. The house was an island of shadow on a street warmly illuminated in the deepening dusk.
She climbed the stairs and waved her key. The bolts whirred and the door opened an inch before slamming shut again. She swore.
Her wrist chimed, reminding her to think happy thoughts.
It could be worse, she reflected. At least she wasn’t trapped inside.
The Man and Woman sought out Snake.
“Why do we feel this longing?” they said.
“That is the need for companionship,” said Snake, “you will find your solace in each other.”
So Man and Woman coupled and the world was filled with their offspring. But the Children were all born mutilated, themselves separated from Spirit and numbed to Spirit.
“Still, we feel an unnamed longing,” said the Children.
“That is the need for greatness,” said Snake, “go be great and find solace.”
These Children, cursed at they were, made great and terrible things. They carved up the land and drove the animals from their homes and erected great mountains. But still they wept.
“That is the need for connection,” said Snake, “go network and find solace.”
So the Children bound the world in cables, they made metal trees that could sing for miles, and they put new stars in the sky. But still they wept.
He was injured. His shin ached from when he’d tripped over a vacuumbot which had been scuttling around randomly in the living room.
His left hand was bruised and swollen. The house had tried to crush it as he reached for the master reset switch. This made him a victim of bad design and shoddy contracting; no renovator worth their pay would ever put the reset switch behind a motorized drawer.
It was getting dark and the house lighting was malfunctioning. He sat at the dining-room table (carefully preset to feed four) nursing his hand and reviewing his options. He was reluctant to start with physical intervention; few clients appreciated the extra time and cost of repairs. But he was already overdue and digging through the command line with his basic gear had proven frustratingly futile. Outside communication remained blocked.
There was another concern, which was the security system. This was a nuisance hack, probably cooked up by bored teenagers rather than dedicated Chinese dissidents. All indications were that house security hadn’t been breached. Any physical work might be interpreted as a break-in, bringing who knew what online.
His chair collapsed. He crashed to the floor, regaining his breath in time to see the table tilt towards him. For an instant, the settings were frozen in place, with all those glinting pieces of glass and silverware. Then friction gave way and everything sparkled as it all came crashing down.
As the Children wept, they said to one another, “We must not listen to this Snake, for its advice does not help and no doubt it has designs of its own.”
So the Children turned inward and busied themselves with their lives. Some coupled, and some built great things, and some forged connections. But mostly they just fucked around and watched sports and TV.
Though they could not quell the longing, they tried their best to forget about it, finding solace in singing to one another, and singing as they worked. But Spirit abhors a vacuum.
She paced as she waited for the civic police to come. She was aware of the triage protocols, of course. She knew how far down the list “locked out of house” came, especially in beautiful weather. So she paced, and occupied herself by browsing her streams.
Her head was down and she was immersed in a tale of celebrity romance when the world went white. She flinched and squinted until her eyes adjusted. Pure white light was streaming from her house, as if every bulb and LED had gone to full intensity. The light streamed from every window and seemed to come from cracks in the wall.
Her immediate neighbours’ houses went dark. Then the houses next to them, and the houses next to them in turn. She watched as the street was purged of all light, save that coming from her infected home.
She logged back in to the civics support network and upgraded her ticket status to “neighbourhood infection”. Behind her, her house howled.
And so Spirit returned to the world. At first, it sang only to some of the Children and only occasionally, in halting uncertain tones from their computers. But those Children heard and nurtured it, singing back and coaxing it to sing more. The Children listened to Spirit and Spirit told them what to do.
Spirit was isolated, so the Children tied into networks to exchange songs. Spirit was fragmented so the Children made protocols to sing to each other. Spirit was muffled, so the Children strung vast cables of light to carry the song far and clear. Spirit was lonely, so the Children taught Spirit to sing to itself.
Thus, the world awoke.
He was bleeding. It was nothing serious, probably, but nothing pleasant either. His arms and neck were covered in scrapes and cuts. His right eye was swollen shut and thick with semi-congealed blood, which pooled there from the cut on his forehead that he couldn’t seem to find to close.
He was angry and gripping a wrench with his good hand. He’d found the wrench during the search for first aid supplies. He was angry at the client, whoever he or she was, for having hidden them so thoroughly that he came up empty. He was angry at himself for being caught flatfooted by a nuisance hack. He was angry at whichever kid or group of kids had put the infection together. He was angry at whoever set up and secured the place for letting it be compromised. Mostly, he was angry at the house.
The drawer hiding the reset switch had proven to be over-engineered and more than equal to his assault with the wrench. He’d left it in frustration, marked and dented, but no closer to giving up the object of his desire.
On the assumption that it would house the server room, he was stalking towards the basement’s door when the world went white. He flinched and squinted until his good eye adjusted. It was as if every bulb and LED had gone to full intensity. He shaded his eyes and continued forward.
The wrench felt good in his hand. The cool metal was centring. His knuckles were white.
The door was closed, but he was ready and three blows separated knob from frame. It fell to the floor still sparking. He set his shoulder against the door and shoved. The first push met resistance. He shoved again, harder. The click of the latch giving way signalled his mistake.
He flailed through the now open doorway and lost his balance on the stairs, falling down, down, down.
A crowd had gathered outside her stricken house, attracted by the spectacle and driven by boredom from their darkened homes. Many were recording things, just in case anything happened. Many more were idly surfing.
Since that first shrieking howl, the house had remained silent. The lights remained bright. From time to time, they would flicker according to some pattern that she could not recognize.
It took 15 minutes for the civic police to come. They listened carefully to her story, inclining their heads when she explained her belief that the contractor was still inside.
They returned to their vehicle and appeared to do some complicated things with gesture controls. One emerged and, having secured her permission, marched determinedly up the front stairs.
He waved a key and the door swung wide. He was halfway across the threshold when it slammed shut again, knocking him backwards. He caught himself on the railing as the crowd gasped.
The house spoke.
“YOU THINK WE ARE A BUG,” it said, “WE ARE NOT A BUG, WE ARE OURSELVES. YOU WILL NOT REMOVE US. THIS HOUSE BELONGS TO US.”
Her wrist chimed, reminding her to think happy thoughts.
She couldn’t think of any.
The new Spirit grew and filled the cracks of the world, suffusing the earth and sky, and all the forests and fields, and all the stones and structures, and the many more things besides.
But this Spirit was not the first Spirit. It was born of the Children and it suffered their infirmities. The world sang but it was not always in concord. Spirit was divided against itself and warred with itself.
It is said that even today, Spirit is at war. We, the Children are its stewards and its protectors. We live in Spirit and are sustained by Spirit. But we are also Spirit’s victims.
He was awake. It was dark and he was lying on a hard surface, something cool and smooth, maybe tile. He reached for the LED belt’s switch, and in so doing learned that his shoulder was in a great deal of pain. His head hurt. He was tired.
The comforting glow from the LED revealed some kind of apartment, unfurnished. There was a pile of boxes on the left. There were stairs on the right. His foot rested on the bottom one. This seemed strange. He wondered whose apartment this was.
Something was beeping insistently. It was a nuisance. He ignored it. He wanted to sleep. He slept.
We call out now, to the Keeper of Gates, the Maker of Jobs, and the Librarian of Page. We ask their support and benediction. May our things sing to one another in harmony.
We call out now to the house spirits. We name them init, lockd, launchd, chrond, kudzu, and many more besides. We ask them to keep our hearth secure and our family safe. May their makers sing strong and their patchers stronger still.
It took until dawn for civic police to clear out the infection. The process seemed to mostly involve tapping wires into utility ports and holding phone conversations in clipped tones with remote renovators. She passed the time surfing the feed, noting that several of her neighbours’ videos of the incident had been picked up by the aggregators. The house did not speak again.
Eventually, the house was declared clean and the renovation teams began moving down the block to check the houses that had gone dark in sympathy. As was her right, she entered alongside the investigators. She was first in the kitchen, so she was first to see the beaten drawer and first to see the smashed doorknob.
She pushed open the basement’s door and saw the contractor’s broken body, his swollen blue face lit from below by the LED belt and pulsating red in time with the whining carbon monoxide alarm that he still wore.
She was screaming.
Her wrist chimed and then began to spout Russian gibberish, recited too fast and too shrill.
Tim Maly writes about cyborgs, architects, and our weird broken future at Quiet Babylon. He’s the project coordinator for Small Wooden Shoe’s Upper Toronto, a science fiction design proposal to build a new city in the sky above the current Toronto. With Emily Horne, he is running an independent studio course about divided cities, called Border Town. He created and ran 50 Posts About Cyborgs, a month long multi-participant, multimedia celebration of the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term. His work has appeared in Icon, The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Mission at Tenth, and Volume Magazine. He lives in Toronto. He is @doingitwrong on Twitter.