The Ghosts of Zero

a prologue by The Digital Alchemist, from Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zero

Is it the future yet?

In my grandfather's day, the future was going to be a place where robots were in charge. Or, if not, everyone would at least be walking around with chips in their brains, linked to the net or to some hive-mind of all humanity. Perhaps we would become the robots, forerunners of some Singularity event. At the very least, we were supposed to all be driving flying cars and colonizing Mars, right?

No such luck. Sure, we've got decent flightcraft, actual 3D holovids, and pyraplays more immersive than any virtual reality thought possible in the twentieth century. We've made advances like you wouldn't believe. Medical, especially. Malaria, AIDS, Torger syndrome: all quite curable. Paralysis, loss of limb, organ failure: they can build you a new anything, if you can pay, of course. But cancer? Schizophrenia? The goddamn flu? Still out of luck, no matter who you know or how deep your pockets.

Hell, we do have androids: simulacra, human in just about every way except where it matters. But our robots just don't have the impetus to become Skynet. No, this isn't the future. The future is always another day; you never reach it. That's its nature. And it's probably better that way, because the future is always brighter. Today…things aren't so bright. Not for most. The world is—spoiler alert!—pretty screwed up, and I guess I should tell you about some of it. I'll start with what you already know and go from there.

Mostly, it's all about the corporations and what we'd let them get away with.

When the corps started overshadowing governments in sheer size and capital, when their net worths began to exceed national treasuries, when politicians finally got on corporate payrolls—openly—it was a slippery slope. Forget the old Sherman Act, or any of the international antitrust efforts that followed it. You couldn't stop them by force—the corps were already growing their own security divisions, their own armies. Oh, some nations tried. Those were some messy times, no doubt about it.

First they bought up the private military companies like Academi, Erinys, Red Aegis—then culled from national armed forces and did their own recruiting. It was a sad day when West Point became just another Steelweather outpost, a privatized academy for "security officers." Meanwhile, Annapolis met the B-One Corporation's needs.

Go Army, Beat Navy! took on a more sinister slant. They certainly weren't playing football anymore.

When this all started up, it was some pretty freaky shit. I actually laughed aloud the first time I saw a soldier in riot gear sporting a Pepsi logo. Not that it lasted. They were eventually absorbed by B-One.

B-One—a ridiculous name. I hated their ads, popping up just about everywhere you looked, online, offline, wherever. You remember those early ones? Their slogans sang "B-One With the World" or "B-One For the World," calling to the masses, enlisting a legion of consumers. Then it was "B-One of Us!" They were all Unity and Progressiveness, invoking roundabout objectivism and the brotherhood of man.


But now they're one of the top dogs, so the joke's on us. I've even done a few jobs for those assholes, off the grid. And we're all B-One consumers, like it or not, as long as you eat food, purchase a simulacrum, and enjoy the conveniences of modern life. Unless, of course, you're dishing out to Steelweather, Visigoth, Lernaean, Zinmar, or one of the other big boys. No matter who it is, you're feeding the machine directly.

Each of them wants to be the biggest, the baddest, the richest. They're capitalism's bastard children, grown so fat they can't get through the door. So they'd rather buy the whole damned house and never have a need to leave.

They're also the reason for the wars that screwed us all over. It's a good thing you weren't around for the last of all that. Back when we were kids, wars were things that happened in faraway countries—usually in Africa or the Middle East—and were fought over oil, revenge, religion, political posturing. The soldiers were enlisted men and women who went overseas to kick ass or get their asses kicked. Either way, that was the status quo.

Not so with the so-called Multinationals Wars. Its generals were CEOs, its battlefields were anywhere business was conducted, its soldiers were everyday people caught in the crossfire. And why? Because of the good ol' Internet.

As I see it, here's how it went down—and good luck finding any suits backing me up on this. To own up is to pay up, and the rich never do. It was early in the twenty-first century, and the idea of "net neutrality" was slipping away, becoming quaint and old-fashioned like paperback novels. More and more government and corporate control was exerted on the global flow of information. With increasing reliance on the Internet in the daily lives—and livelihoods—of the vast majority, the allure of power for the one who could control it just became too much to resist. We're talking suits trying to pull off 1984 shit, if decades after Orwell's estimation. Multinational corporations wanted to own as much of the Internet as possible, and thereby the world itself. Gradually, legal battles between corps, and between corps and the governments that tried to keep them in check, escalated. Courtrooms gave way to battlefields.

That was the First One—the First Multinationals War™. Yes, one of them actually trademarked a goddamn war. I forget who. And it started when corporate executives started dropping like flies. The reason being, if you couldn't undermine a rival's business ventures to make your bottom line, just take out its chief players. Enter the assassinations. But see, this wasn't a lasting solution. The big corps, like the mythological Hydras they are, would just grow two new heads for each one that's lopped off. There's always another man or woman in a suit standing in line, ready to seize power. Always has been. Skirmishes, smart bombs, dirty bombs, and bouts of terrorism sparked up all over the planet and on just about everyone's doorstep—and in some cases, their own living room.

Of course, the apparent causes of the war were legion: patent infringements, antitrust disputes, trade violations, you name it. But the real reason for this global madness was corps trying to control and rebrand the Internet in their own image. And until outright war broke out, they'd nearly succeeded.

But you'll remember that. Everything changed. The world got significantly darker, in some places quite literally. Both offline and on. It was so long ago, but some of our generation can still remember a time when the Internet was just the Internet. It was everybody's and nobody's, more or less anonymous. But in the decades that shadowed the First One, the Internet itself became the battlefield. And even that name went up for grabs. It was the In-2, and the Bscape, and the Verizonet, and a dozen others for a while, sometimes all at once.

Over the years, we grew used to the idea that our information was not private, that anything put online was technically owned by some company or other. We all paid for our access to the net one way or another, and we generally knew who was in control of what. Corporate logos were everywhere. It was an illusion of freedom and a semblance of privacy. And we suspended our disbelief to the contrary. We stuck our fingers in our ears and pretended it wasn't so. I guess we just got used to it. But it wasn't about our complacency. It was about power. It's always about power. And the pie was just too divided for any of the corps' liking. From the day the First One ended (if it ever did really "end"), everyone knew it was coming: the Second One. And when it did, everything changed. Again.

There's no point in going on about the war itself. It was after your time, and you really wouldn't want to hear it. Although the era of national wars now lived in the shadow of corporate wars, they're still all the same: kings and queens stir knights and bishops into a jingoistic frenzy and ultimately clear the board of pawns. There's unforgivable collateral damage, and sometimes even the royalty end up zeroed out. And this was true of the Second Multinationals War, too. But when the smoke cleared, when the endlessly rebranded old Internet was thrown down in bits and pieces, there was a clear victor: the Worldnet. Familiar, but new. Ordinary, but alien.

The old spirit of net neutrality from a bygone era was resurrected. The Worldnet was mysterious, but it was vast, intact, and wholly undivided. Most surprisingly, it appeared to have no competitors for control. There was no corporate branding to be found. The Worldnet is what we call it now, and it seems as open and free as the Internet once was, very much the same if not much better.

But whose is it? Who owns it? Somebody has to. Most people don't bother asking how or why, but there are always paranoids and skeptics. And so come the conspiracy theories: Someone—perhaps one of the corps, or some superconglomerate of corporations, or some other phantom entity—now must secretly own and control the great majority of the infrastructure which hosts our new global information network. Yet no one's come forward. There is just the Worldnet, unchecked, unknown, holding untold potential power never turned kinetic. In a world that is otherwise decidedly dystopic, the Worldnet appears completely utopic.

What, me worry?

But hey, it's not all that krakt. A lot has changed since you left. It sounds grim, but the fallout of the Multinationals Wars finally burst what was left of the American bubble, with mixed and manifold results. Suddenly we realized that the universe didn't revolve around us. We were no longer the world's leading superpower. For the sake of surviving, we had to learn what "international" meant, we finally went metric, and we were among the first to adopt the World Bank Currency (the WBC). The W. The dub. Sure, locally you'll still see dollars, yuán, and pesos, but anyone who's anyone carries around a dub-key to at least one account.

And those who resist this sort of progress? The holdouts? They get laughed at. Or devoured by the wolves of change.

In my grandfather's time, there was going to be a nuclear-blasted World War III someday, or some kind of technological apocalypse. But Armageddon never came. Or this is it, and we're drifting through it now, having crept up on us so slowly and so surely that we didn't even notice until we looked at our own past and saw how alive we used to be.

At the end of the First One, a popular sentiment was that the world had been set back to zero, that we were starting over again. But that was years ago now. Yes, maybe things could be worse than they are, but they can still suck royally. And no, I guess our world isn't dead just yet.

But sometimes it feels like we're all just ghosts, haunting a planet no longer ours.