The above image was commissioned from Morgan Isaacs, whose work can be found here. This text is adapted from the forthcoming novel Theia by Taylor W. Green, Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved
In the third decade of the 21st century, the more influential governments of the world began to feel under pressure. Their people were demanding more transparency than ever. They cried out for fewer taxes and lower tariffs while insisting on the social programs that had been a barrier against darkness and poverty for generations.
On the other side, the incorporated interests of the multinationals were also feeling left out in the cold. The cost of doing business was increasing by the month. The grease that slicked the wheels of commerce was running thin. Even in the United States, where business was synonymous with success and the Good Life, activist groups were mounting more and more successful pro-regulation campaigns. The core business model was healthy; it just became a matter of a long-term strategy for sustainable growth.
The heads of the great tech, media, and shipping companies of the early 21st century began talking. In boardrooms, conferences, in the bars of Silicon Valley and Midtown Manhattan, in emails between personal friends and even rivals, an idea began to coalesce. Some say it was the rideshare app guy that came up with it, but he probably only attached himself to increase his personal brand. In the end, it didn’t matter where they idea sprung, only that it stuck and was executed in one push.
Proxies for the big players –Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Cisco, Jabil, Alibaba, Oracle– the giants of Silicon Valley and beyond, in one week made a few strategic donations to justices, lawmakers, watchdog groups. They gobbled up competitors and fused into one another to compete with the growing content-delivery conglomerates– Viacom, Comcast, Disney, Time, TimeWarner, and Fox. In the early 2020s, the strength of the new tech and media companies allowed them to press into other countries and operate as de facto leadership in places like Maldives, Estonia, Bhutan, Panama, Myanmar, and Belarus. Now these companies had seats at the U.N. and could affect global policy. They could begin tipping the scales with votes rather than merely soft power.
The public didn’t care. They trusted their tech companies as far as they could throw them, but that was farther than their corrupted and mismanaged governments. The change was brewing. The nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries felt outmoded. The new world was borderless, limitless. Money could be made if you could bend the circuit to your will. On the internet, strange and organic as it was, a person could be judged and enriched by their merit or cleverness, not on what color their passport was. People emulated their leaders, grabbing and skimming, making deals, buying clicks and views.
It was on this precipice that the stage was set for the Fall.
With the cryptocurrency boom, nations found themselves merely holding tanks for economic interests. Their old job of guiding economic activity through regulation and interest rates began to wear away. The governments stopped making money. They taxed more heavily, the burden falling on the people since the conglomerates held so much sway. Communities created their own currencies and kept money close, dancing lightly and laundering easily through TOR browsers. A few small countries folded into bankruptcy over a few days. The overseers stressed calm. Promised stability. But, the people had tasted a rare meat that had been kept behind high walls for a long time. What was the role of government, anyway? asked the more populist pundits. It had betrayed the social compact again and again in favor of industry. Even law enforcement began to be replaced private security forces, paid for by the communities they were meant to police; they chose officers that looked more like them and played by the rules that they set.
The match was struck: one too many dead protesters, one too many leaked videos of abuse. Money splintered further into cryptocurrencies and hard assets, the people did what they learned you’re supposed to do from television against desperate power brokers and unjust authorities. A strained and divided populace united against one enemy… and in the background, multinationals quietly tipped the scales, too quietly to be noticed by anyone important when the din was so loud.
The six-month lull in bankruptcies ended when half of South America went upside-down overnight. The EU was next, protesters barging into the emergency meeting in Brussels and holding the chancellor hostage for better working conditions and a say in economic policy. India’s democratic government tried to hold on, and mostly succeeded, until its currency went belly-up. A digital barter system took hold throughout the subcontinent, rendering the government useless and setting the stage for a violent reversal of the enduring caste system. A tactical nuke was deployed in Islamabad. China and Russia quickly handed the keys to their biggest business leaders on paper, who promised a swift end to the crisis. Britain, Canada, and Australia followed suit. Most of sub-Saharan Africa, whose governments had fallen six months previous, were already well into this transition. Their brutal prisec forces were beholden to no one and maintained peace and relative economic stability through threat of force. The seeds of the Mwungano Afrikaan were planted, power structures already weaving their way through the new structures of society. The African states had become more stable than their colonial oppressors of centuries prior. Many other countries emulated this model, farming out security to form a patchwork network of self-governing city-states.
In the United States, the federal government gave up power on paper, but many states and municipalities held on violently, though not really against anyone in particular. The day of reckoning had finally come, and the folks that were ready had their shot at protecting their families and leading through this crisis, at last.
The burning, looting, and killing lasted two months and left millions dead and hundreds of millions displaced throughout the world. Radio was silent. The internet satellites floated quietly, masterless. The rage fizzled out when no one knew exactly who they were fighting, though the why still burned.
Out of the ashes of fallen governments, a network of communication limped to life. Community leaders were desperate for food, water and medicine to help in the hardest-hit crisis zones. The first thing that was delivered was radio, and it seemed like a godsend. There was only one channel, and the voices on the other end had a plan. Soon, trucks began arriving with resources to keep the people calm and fed with sufficient medical care. Nobody asked questions about where it was coming from. The self-driving trucks and helicopter drops were prompt. After a couple months of this, a new emblem emblazoned itself across the trucks. It read: “M.L.C.C.I.” in military-cutout style lettering. They were careful not to display any flags on the trucks, the mistrust still red and ripe.
After a few weeks, hand-written letters began finding their way into the packages of aid. They read of a global meeting, a re-establishment of ties with neighbors. A calming of land disputes between towns and cities. There were a set of rules to follow, such as no killing for any reason, including capital punishment. And they requested tech workers from before the Fall to report voluntarily to their community organizers and up the chain.
Soon, an exchange system was established. The trucks began picking up surplus workers and delivering seeds and tools for self-sufficiency. The community people began hearing new words for the territories that they were inhabiting: Pacifical Group in the Western U.S., Mwungano Afrikaans, Desnapakt from Belarus, RBK-Nippon in Japan, Foundation Etlas Territory in the Eastern U.S. and Canada. Everything was voluntary, although if any brazen community leaders chose not to accept the aid for whatever reason, they were quickly removed.
It was understood that these groups of companies were funding the aid efforts. That they saved the world from complete destruction. That they caught mankind in its most dire moment. This nickname stuck. The MLCCI, or Mobile Labor Coalition of Corporate Interests, began to be known as the “Catchers.” And the young people that went off to work with them, the “Caught”.
And once the order was established (some reports of violent suppression on the fringes, down the river, but of course that would be inevitable our community wouldn’t injure our own like that), the devices were the next thing to come back on. The phones and tablets that had been used for light or to read and reread bedtime stories that had happened to have been saved on their disks began to receive information. The satellites that everyone thought had turned into dead hunks of metal in the sky, quiet stars that glinted at dawn or dusk, began to whir, their solar panels twitching back to life.
In the shock of almost bombing each other into the Stone Age, the world was grateful for the order. They knew they were in the right to have reacted strongly to the heavy taxation and aggressive regulation by their governments. They weren’t the ones to have acted violently, oh, no, but they have a cousin or a brother that did some pretty awful stuff in those few dark months, and sure, they understood why they did it. But now, their communities and families were together, everyone was working, and the narratives coming through the newly-glowing devices were simple: there was a terrible Fall across the whole world, and a few brave companies and individuals pooled all of their resources to keep those little white trucks coming and to pay to train your young men and women to keep the peace. Global maps were very slow to emerge. Some countries were still the same shape, others were not. The MLCC directed those benevolent companies and individuals to watch over different swaths of territory with a gentle hand, and if any large community or city had a dispute that it could not settle itself, they could send it up the chain and find an arbiter of sufficient skill to make a fair decision. If any young man or woman couldn’t find work, they could submit their skills to the patricorporation that maintained their territory, and sufficient work would be found.
These communities grew organically, outwardly, supplemented with resources from the MLCC. Their communications were prioritized to geographical closeness. The new power brokers were not going to give unfettered global communication to everyone. As everyone had seen and near-universally agreed, that would only create chaos. The 21st century, after this Great Fall, would be a century of Order.
Anjelica Rivera Luna was fifteen years old, living with her parents and three younger brothers and sisters in the Mexican state of Oaxaca when news of the Fall reached her town. The men argued over what to do. She could hear them through the open windows of the concrete meeting hall. The men were silhouetted by old incandescent bulbs powered by the lines that ran into town from the highway. This was the first few days, when the global networks were still up, the news announcers on the tinny radios still grabbing at the threads of story breathlessly, not realizing their job would not exist in mere hours.
Anjelica was already the cleverest person in her school. She had a naturally mechanical mind. She wasn’t particularly good with people. People were inefficient, and often chose self-sabotage over their own welfare. Just look at the men now. They were arguing about which side to throw in with– the oil drillers, the narcotraficantes, or the federales. Which uniform to wear? But Anjelica knew the people of her village were disposable to each of these groups. People are numbers when you don’t know their faces. But numbers could work like people when they were asked correctly.
She had applied to a technical school in Guadalajara and already gotten in. She had planned to go in September. But September seemed very far off now. If she had to stay in Santa Maria Cortijo, she would learn what she needed to learn.
As the men argued and the women talked hushedly around the cooking pots, Anjelica snuck into the schoolhouse and began downloading, burning, and printing everything she could think of. DIY water treatment devices, solar panel schematics, emergency contact numbers, Morse code sheets, maps, poisonous animals, CPR techniques, agriculture best practices, basic chemistry, star charts, programming languages, nutrition, Spanish to English dictionaries, everything. Thankfully, some American preppers had organized these texts already into handy file packages. It took her all night, and she had to print different material three and four times over instruction manuals and newspapers, but in the end she felt prepared for whatever would happen next. Their town was not in the transit path for the narcos. It did not sit on any major highways or near an airstrip. If the men would not take responsibility for their town, then she would make sure they were ready for the inevitable.
Anjelica was the middle child of seven, though her older siblings had moved into houses of their own. Her father was a mechanic and taught her how to fix simple machines and how to run electrical wire when she was very young and she would climb onto the roof and run the wires between the walls and know which one to connect when she got there. Anjelica began to see the world this way, connections between people and places and beliefs: forward and backward. Positive and negative. The more connections you had, the more power, but also the more stationary you were, less able to maneuver. When she was 11 she developed an off-grid electric fence for a local rancher that ran on wind power and wouldn’t fail if one windmill went down. She made more that month than her father did the entire year. Her parents were so happy for her. It felt good. Her siblings got a little fatter, did a little better in school.
Her system was copied across Oaxaca and into Guerrero, often without giving her any credit or money, but she was the only one that could maintain it, at first. Her father would get a call on the family cell phone and they would hop on the moto early in the morning, ride to the cattle ranch of some rich man that she had to call Don. Anjelica made notes in her head. The wires that made everything run. What power came from the coal plants. What power she sold to the Dons, borrowed from the sky. Her father’s moto power. The power that the wife had over the Don whenever he pulled out the paper checkbook. And the wind. And the sun.
When Anjelica began downloading the backups, she had already found access to the secret bases and roads that the military network used in Mexico City and retrieved the bookmarks from her secret server. It was only a matter of downloading the maps and the schematics for the vehicles. She downloaded a topographical map of all the known underwater rivers and the cenotes in Yucatán. She prepared lists of how to develop explosives out of fertilizer and cleaning chemicals, if it came to that. And she downloaded a list of all of the public schoolhouses with working internet connections in her state and the surrounding area.
She leaned back in the teacher’s chair as the sun rose over the low mountains to the east. Her eyes were red and bleary. The room was hot and smelled like machine plastic. She gathered up the reams of paper and CDs and hid them throughout the schoolhouse. Her father hadn’t come home from the meeting yet when she got back. Her mother wore a weary fear as the rice on stovetop boiled. They locked eyes when she came in.
“A boy?” Anjelica’s mother asked accusingly, hopefully, even now.
Anjelica had washed her hands as best she could, but the black toner from the printer had gotten deep under her nails and was smudged across her clothing.
“Homework,” Anjelica replied. The dance was comforting in this hour of uncertainty. She half-smiled and went to bed.
Anjelica dreamed, the vivid dream you get when the body is hot and the sun is shining through your eyelids. She dreamed of a world that didn’t trip over itself. One that kept on going like it was, everyone passing their best ideas around, selling them or giving them away when things were bad. She drifted in and out, but every time she returned to the dream, it always devolved into arguing, petty pride standing in the way. Desire and greed poisoning the well of mutual interest. Even when the dream pushed into the far future, men and women guiding huge quetzalcoatl from city to city and speaking with animals in human clothing, it always fell into cheating, thieving, violence. Tables flipped, food tumbling down elegant stairs, ugly blades and names spilling from spittled lips and gnarled hands.
When she woke up, the men of the town were still arguing, but much closer. They were now in her living room, she realized, as the only power left in the town was from her homemade solar panel on their roof the size of a dinner plate.
Anjelica exited the sleeping room as the sun was going down and moths fluttered around the single light. Her light. Her family’s light. It would only last a couple hours. Then what? Their eyes turned to her when she came out. Eyes looking through her, not seeing, exhausted from new despair. Did they know what she did? They resumed arguing in circles.
The women were bringing in food and looking at each other nervously, exhausted but unable to rest yet, corralling children, quietly wiping soil from their hands off on their aprons from burying valuables somewhere. When one woman returned, another left to do the same. If the younger ones knew something was wrong, they had stopped caring. They took advantage of the limited supervision and played guns in the twilit street.
It was then that Anjelica knew, deeper than the rivers and cenotes that moved energy beneath her feet, deeper than the color of a sow’s blood when it flowed thick from the rancher’s cut, that the the world was only going to stay together if she willed it to. That chaos was the natural way of mankind, for now and for always. That the river would always flow downhill. The wind would always blow from the ocean. But it could be directed. It could be used.
Her mind ran through all the possibilities of the near-future like a logarithm. And she decided what to do.