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Small Gods of Time Travel

Small Gods of Time Travel is a sci fi story written by Mark Bailey, told in 40 chapters. In this story, a man travels back in time to the day before 9/11. Once there, he meets up with his younger self. Together, using information and technology from the future, they try to improve society. Their most ambitious goal is changing the outcome of the US 2016 Democratic Primary. Along the way, powerful future technology falls into the wrong hands, with unexpected results.

The artwork associated with each chapter was produced from the chapter's title text by NightCafe's artificial intelligence tool at a resolution of 800px x 800px. If you study these pictures, you'll see that some of them bear uncanny resemblance to the words that seeded their production. The images you see here are 500px x 500px. Full resolution artwork is only available as Tezos NFTs minted by Mark Bailey here.

Table of Contents

1. The Day Before 9/11

2. Watching 9/11 Unfold Again

3. Winning Numbers from the Future

4. Like ThinThread Without Constitutional Protection

5. The Dank Duck Regulars

6. Trading Information for a New Identity

7. No War, etc.

8. Serious About the Treehouse

9. Ruthlessly Embarrassed

10. A Believer in John Titor

11. High Desert Dose

12. Hiring the Lobbyist

13. Meeting in an Old School Bus

14. The Genesis Block

15. Start With Rat Park

16. I Know He's Your Clone

17. UFO in an Ocean of Stars

18. Even the Moonies Got it Together

19. An Important Few

20. You Are the One Percent

21. Serious About Mt Gox

22. The Mycelium Key

23. Suspected Mind Control

24. Yeah, Assassins are Inconvenient

25. Neural Signatures as Private Keys

26. Evidence in the Testing Data

27. Electric Fields Cannot Lie

28. A Game With No Real Rules

29. A Brilliant Enemy on the Loose

30. Meeting in Miami

31. A Conspiracy to Steal Our Fire

32. Ogling the Spheres

33. The Telepathy Test

34. The Vibe is All Wrong

35. About the Virus

36. They'll Do What Fat Leonard Did

37. Candles in the Forest

38. Revealing Small Gods Within

39. 9/11 Redux

40. The Cosmic Mystery of Building 7

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1 - The Day Before 9/11

Out of nowhere, a middle aged man with luggage appeared on the sidewalk in front of a large worn duplex. One moment there was an empty space on a quiet night, the next moment there was a pop and a whoosh and the man was standing there, looking around slowly. Thomas Barabos was his name. He had arrived to the spot by extraordinary means, and was pleased to find no one nearby to witness his sudden materialization.

Proceeding to the second floor apartment, pulling a heavy suitcase up the stairs, Thomas saw the lights on and knocked on the door. This was it, he thought. Shrugging, he took a deep breath. A stylish young woman opened the door. "Yeah?" she said.

"Sorry to bother you, August," said Thomas. "I've come to talk with Thomas."

August studied him, then looked more closely. "You're related," she said.

"Yes, I'll explain everything," said Thomas. "I've brought you gifts and groceries."

"Thomas!" called August over her shoulder.

The younger Thomas soon appeared. Confronted with a much older version of himself, he grinned. "What's this?" he asked. "Who are you?"

"I'd like a chance to explain," said the elder Thomas.

"You're not staying here," said August, seeing the luggage.

"I do realize this is last minute," said old Thomas. "But we're family and it's important that we speak tonight. I have things to share, and to show you. Underneath it all I have a family business proposal for Thomas. My name is Thomas, as well. How should we deal with that?"

"You're Old Thomas," said August. "You're just Thomas."

"A family business proposal?" said Thomas.

"That's right," said Old Thomas. "I need someone I can trust like family. Someone bright, and too young to be set in their ways. I think that person might be you."

"Well you do look almost exactly like my uncle Donny," said Thomas. "But we've got other plans tonight."

"Getting stoned and drinking too much, I know," said Old Thomas, smiling. "Cancel your plans and I'll supply the weed here, while we talk. I'll even give you five hundred dollars for your trouble."

Thomas looked at August. "Fine!" she said. "But no weird stuff or we'll kick you out, hard."

They went inside and Old Thomas set his bags in the living room. Looking around the apartment, he was briefly overcome with nostalgia. The room was just a futon couch and a small television. Proceeding to the dining room, Old Thomas sat down and began removing items from his backpack while Thomas and August talked privately in hushed tones nearby. "I have a picture to show you," he said when they moved to join him. "On my mobile device."

"It's you and uncle Donny," said Thomas, inspecting the picture on the phone. "He looks older, though."

"That's a crazy camera," said August, studying the phone.

"State of the art," said Old Thomas.

"So you're what, a second cousin or something?" asked Thomas.

"Long lost," said Old Thomas, handing his younger self a jar of quality herb. "All of my other family is in a different country, and Donny couldn't help me, so I found you."

Thomas passed a pipe around and they explored Old Thomas' phone and a laptop he set up. Thomas suggested that they get some beer and Old Thomas objected. "One of my only rules if you want to be involved with me is no drinking," he said. "And trust me, with our family history, it's better just to avoid it."

The thought of five hundred dollars convinced Thomas to acquiesce.

"By the way, I brought you a coffee maker if anyone wants coffee," said Old Thomas. "And there's a bag of groceries in my big suitcase as well."

"You didn't have to do that," said August. "God, you two really do look alike. I mean, really, down to the pattern of blemishes on your skin. How is that even possible?"

"Are you sure you're ready for the answer to that question?" asked Old Thomas.

"Wait a minute," said Thomas, catching on. "What is this?"

"Promise you won't freak out?" asked Old Thomas.

"That depends," said Thomas.

"Alright, I'm you, from the future," said Old Thomas. "I came back in time from the mid 2020s to try and give you better choices than I had, and to maybe give this world a better future. But I can't do it alone. I need your help. I just arrived in your era and I don't even have a valid ID."

"No fucking way," said Thomas, contemplating the revelation. "No way! Are you telling me I just smoked weed from the future?"

"Indeed you have," said Old Thomas. "And I have things to tell you about everything. But there is one matter of concern immediately. There will be a terrorist attack tomorrow, on 9/11, and it's going to change everything."

"You're from the future and you want us to help you stop a terrorist attack," said August, trying to process the moment. "That's it. I'm not calling you Old Thomas. I'm calling you T2."

"For sure!" said Thomas. "You're totally T2."

"Fine, but it's too late to stop the attack," said T2. "Tomorrow morning, when you wake up to news of commercial airplanes hitting the World Trade Center and Pentagon in New York and Washington, you'll have confirmed the quality of my information."

"If the attack is so bad, why not go back further, in time to stop it?" asked Thomas.

"The logistics of that were untenable," said T2. "Events of such magnitude are products of massive social momentum. And my resources have always been limited."

"So what happens?" asked Thomas.

"Hijackers, mostly Saudis, with support from elements within Saudi Arabia's government, crash three planes and kill three thousand people," said T2. "The official story is full of holes, like a supposed hijacker who later turned up alive and well and evidence that some of the hijackers actually trained at US military bases. Society takes a dark turn after that. I've prepared a series of briefing documents for you about it. Would you like me to pull up the overview? It's on this laptop, here. Oh, there's something else."

"He moves just like you," said August to Thomas while T2 fished something out of a bag. It was an old, slightly yellowed copy of the New York Times, dated September 12, 2001. Handing this to August, T2 proceeded to pull a small espresso machine and a bag of food from his large suitcase. Bringing these to the kitchen, he set about making coffee while leaving the couple to pour over his newspaper from the future. "Do feel free to begin exploring the files on that laptop," he called from the kitchen. "That machine is a gift for you, so you may as well start learning how to use it."

"No way!" said Thomas a few minutes later. "Am I reading this right? 500 gigs of storage?"

"That's actually not very much," said T2, carrying three small coffees back to the dining room. "Wait until you see my terrabyte drives."

"Umm, I gave up coffee," said Thomas. "I'm just doing yerba mate right now."

"Because of the headaches, right?" said T2. "Well, I can assure you that coffee is better for those than that tea you've been drinking. But we'll talk about the headaches soon. It's not just migraines that you're dealing with. The truth is a harder thing than that. I'm here to help, but it'll still be hard."

"What do you mean?" asked August, worried.

"I have health problems that caused me no end of trouble over the years," said T2. "I didn't even really get a handle on it until I was in my thirties. Part of why I went to all the trouble of coming back here was to spare Thomas here some of the difficulties I experienced."

"I want to know what happens after the terror attack tomorrow," said Thomas. "Assuming it happens like you say it will."

"Honestly, everything goes to shit, but slowly," said T2. "The CIA sets up an international network of torture prisons with help from the American Psychological Association. There are wars, financial crises, and disaster profiteers. Half of the world's insects are killed by new pesticides. Eventually, a virus called covid-19 starts spreading. There's a global pandemic that kills one million Americans. There's civil unrest. Martial law in some places. And it just keeps getting worse from there."

"So that's the big thing you came to stop?" said Thomas.

"I'm not sure the virus can be stopped," said T2. "But society's response to the virus was abysmal. It screwed everything up beyond repair. People started seriously losing it on a massive scale. A hundred thousand people a year were dying from drug overdoses alone in the US. The global economy had a seizure. It's this horrid response to the pandemic that I'd like to try and improve."

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2 - Watching 9/11 Unfold Again

"Oh my god oh my god!" exclaimed August the next morning upon seeing the news. "Wake up! Wake up, it's all happening!"

T2 rolled off the living room futon where he'd crashed and meandered over to the coffee maker. "Morning," he said, smiling, perhaps inappropriately. "Thomas up yet?"

"Oh my god!" said August again. "You smile exactly like him!"

When Thomas emerged from the bedroom, the three of them watched the second half of the 9/11 attack unfold on their small tv. August muted the news and they sat there in silence for a while, sipping their coffees. T2 went outside to stand on the balcony. It was sunny and quiet in the small, off-campus neighborhood. The others joined him twenty minutes later.

"Okay," said Thomas. "What do you want us to do?"

"Step one?" said T2. "Well, I've got information and objectives but no master plan. So I guess if you two agree to help me, making a plan would be our first order of business. After securing some initial resources, that is."

"Did you bring back lottery numbers?" asked Thomas.

"And sports outcomes and financial market data," said T2. "But the lottery is probably the easiest place to start. One of you can win it in a week or two. I forget how long it took people to reopen for business after today. Seems like I was out of work for a couple of weeks. Whatever. Until then, I have funds available. You can keep working your jobs or I can pay you to help me, your choice."

"I feel like there's some big catch you're not telling us about," said August.

"There's more than one catch," said T2. "I don't have a legal identity, so you'll have to help me with everything from forming entities to banking to securing properties. I do have special medical needs, and no identity to go the doctor with. Related to this, I have some health and diet guidelines for Thomas that may seem onerous, particularly the non-negotiable ban on alcohol. You, August, would remain free to do whatever suits you in this regard. Beyond this, I may eventually try to go public with the fact of my time travel. That might make you minor celebrities, which you may find objectionable."

"Wait, you're saying she can drink and I can't?" said Thomas.

"If that's where your mind went just now, maybe you shouldn't drink," said August. "Did you hear the part where we don't have to work again if we don't want to?"

"I imagine there will be an adjustment period of four to twelve weeks," said T2. "To be honest, I was hoping we could all just spend some time making art. We'll get any supplies you want."

August and Thomas exchanged a glance.

"I want to do a project diagramming out the next twenty years," said T2. "Maybe on canvasses. Maybe just on big sheets of paper, with inks and oil pastels. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around a few things."

"You mean like time travel?" asked Thomas. "Seriously, how does that even work? While we talk, are you remembering being me having this conversation?"

"Ahh, no, it's not like that at all," said T2. "When I left my future, I left it forever, and came to this present, which has its own unique future. Different timelines, you see. Different worlds, for all intents and purposes. Which means I'm stuck here, since some of the technology that got me here may never be invented in this timeline."

"Could you build a new time machine?" asked August.

"Given enough time, probably," said T2. "But all of this is very experimental. And there won't be a computer sufficient to run the software component of such a device for many years. Same goes for the necessary brain-computer interface. The tech is still in its infancy."

"Brain-computer interface?" asked August.

"Non-invasive," said T2. "Just a fancy headset, really. Though, for other purposes, more and more people were getting devices implanted into their bodies, the most common being a radio ID tag injected into the hand."

"Fuck that," said Thomas.

"For sure," said T2, who had his brain-computer interface headset with him, but felt it prudent to keep that a secret for now. "But there are also people who have regained motor function or use of their limbs with implants and computer interfaces. So the ethics of it are more complicated than you might think."

"You guys are the same and I'm freaking out!" squealed August. She said it in a funny way, but she was freaking out.

"It's 9/11," said T2. "Everybody freaks out today. It's okay to feel however you feel."

"Probably going to take me a minute," said August.

"Hey, at least the future isn't skynet," said Thomas. "Though the coming Patriot Act may be comparably damaging from the standpoint of individual freedom."

"The Patriot Act?" asked August.

"It's a whole thing," said T2. "Passed in the wake of Anthrax attacks that may have been orchestrated to influence the legislation. But don't worry. We're far from the halls of power where these things are unfolding."

"So you say," said August. "We don't know how this works. For all we know, the Men in Black are coming to take T2 away. No offense, T2."

"It's not at all likely that anyone with the government is aware of my arrival," said T2. "The only thing that might raise a red flag is my cash. I bought the old paper currency in online auctions. But each of my currency notes is already in circulation here. If anyone ever came across one of my bills next to its present-era counterpart, there might be an investigation. Though the more plausible outcome would be that they'd explain the anomaly away with talk of print errors or counterfeiting."

"I want to know more about time travel," said August. "How do you know where you're going?"

"You have to find the location of the place in your consciousness and direct the transmission there," said T2.

"How did it feel to travel?" asked August.

"Like nothing at all," said T2. "The biggest shock was your damp atmosphere."

"Hey, won't your being here have, like, a ripple effect?" asked Thomas. "A butterfly flaps its wings and suddenly your lottery numbers are all wrong?"

"Could be," said T2. "But I'm betting on any such effect being too small to influence events I'm not directly connected with. For the time being, anyway. Next year, I'll be attempting to prevent the mysterious death of Paul Wellstone. Successful or not, that could have larger ripple effects."

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3 - Winning Numbers from the Future

The trio spent weeks making art and talking. With T2's records of the future, Thomas won thirty million dollars in a national lottery. They split the money three ways, with T2's third going into a new LLC. T2 joked about naming the company Facebook but no one got the joke so he decided to call it Network Insight Systems instead. August said the name creeped her out. Thomas thought it sounded about right.

They bought a commercial building between a coffee shop and a glass blowing studio for the company headquarters. There was an apartment on the second floor above the offices, which was part of the reason they chose the spot. T2 moved in, giving Thomas and August some much needed space. After spending a few days apart, T2 got them all cell phones - painfully expensive, clunky things - and delivered them to the couple's apartment.

After handing out the phones and showing how they worked, T2 noticed that his younger self appeared ready to say something. "What is it?" he asked.

"Okay," said Thomas, hesitating. "I mean, we've been talking, and are we just supposed to be your assistants now or whatever? Like what we want doesn't matter? And where's your August? We never asked, but did something happen to her?"

T2 smiled. He'd been waiting for something like this. "It will take time to set up the rest of the accounts I need, but after that, I should be able to operate somewhat independently, at least for the next year or so," he said. "Give me sixty more days, and then you two can travel for a year. Go anywhere. See everything. How does that sound?"

"Like you've spying on us and knew what we were going to say," said August.

"I don't need to spy to know you, remember," said T2. "I'm telling you that you can tour the world's ancient sites like you always wanted. Giving you two the opportunity to do this is actually one of the things I was most looking forward to, planning my trip here."

"I still want to know what happened to me," said August, not entirely mollified.

"Alright, I guess it's time to tell you," said T2. "Thomas, there's a reason, beyond the headaches, why I've been on you about your drinking and diet and health in general. I have something called bipolar disorder. Now, forget everything you imagine you know about this disorder, and I'll tell you how it happened for me."

"Okay," said Thomas unsteadily.

"When I was a year or two older than you, after months of eating wrong and drinking too much and managing my headaches poorly, I just stopped sleeping one day," said T2. "After a few days of that, I became unhinged. It was a classic manic episode, but I didn't have healthcare and I was afraid of the mental health system, which totally sucks in this era."

"So what happened?" asked August.

"We split up and I spent the next couple of years in a nightmare," said T2. "I was locked up, hospitalized, and worse. Eventually, I recovered, but that time scarred me deeply. Anything I can do to spare you that, I'll do. Including bringing you to an AA meeting tonight if it turns out you've been unable to continue abstaining from alcohol these last few days while I haven't been around."

"Fuck," said Thomas. "Like ... fuck."

"That actually makes sense," said August slowly.

"I should also share that I've had only two manic episodes of that severity in my life," said T2. "That first one, then another in my thirties, which wasn't nearly as damaging. So the disorder doesn't have to run your life. If you make better choices than I did, and develop better habits, it may never even manifest at all."

"I think you should listen to him," said August.

"While we're on the subject, there's another piece of this that's more delicate," said T2. "Involving unprocessed trauma from childhood. Thomas, I know you think you have a handle on the stuff that happened to you, but you don't. If you can't start talking about it, healing from it, this stuff is going to keep festering, eating at you, making everything harder than it needs to be. August is here for you. I'm here for you. But it's up to you to decide whether to trust us with it. It's safe for you to trust us fully, but it's got to be your choice."

"What am I supposed to say to that?" asked Thomas, suddenly defensive. Angry. "How the fuck am I supposed to react when you just show up, ready to be the new boss my life? So I had a few beers last night. So what? Suddenly I'm just going to quit living my life on your say so?"

"It's perfectly natural for you to avoid the issue," said T2. "This is hard shit."

"You got drunk and punched out a window last night," said August quietly. "I think the problems he's talking about are real. And they're serious."

"Maybe, but none of this even feels real," said Thomas. "Like, did I die, and this is some weird afterlife where I have to finish all of my unfinished business from when I was alive?"

"That feeling of unreality you're experiencing is a protective mechanism," said T2 gently. "Your mind wants to disassociate to avoid painful truths. It's okay. Just stay with us, here. Focus on your breathing. Breath, fueling life, is as real as it gets."

"Whatever happened to you, we'll get through it," said August.

Tears began rolling down Thomas' cheeks. "I don't get it," he said to T2. "You fucker. If you had the power, why not go back to before it happened and stop it? Like, I can accept time travel. All of it. Fine. Whatever. But you had the power to stop it from happening and you didn't stop it. So you let it happen. I mean, what the fuck?"

"The way the multiverse works, there are versions of me who did stop it," said T2. "And versions of us where none of it ever happened. But the reason I chose this era was that this is the time in my life when I recall needing the most help and not being able to find it. I came back here to be that help for you."

Thomas closed his eyes and shook his head. He felt unworthy, and didn't recognize that that's what he was feeling. August hugged him. T2 hugged him, too, and realized that this was the first time he'd actually hugged his younger self.

"You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," said August. "But you can. We're here."

"And one thing to consider is that it's far more common than people in this era imagine," said T2. "Being an abuse survivor is pretty much the least unusual thing about me."

"There's no way what happened to me -- er, us -- is common," said Thomas.

"All over the world, from Australia to the UK to the States, pedophile rings have preyed on kids forever," said T2. "The Catholic Church is filled with pedophiles. Not to mention the American Boy Scouts. Our abuser was part of a smaller network based in Germany, which used the German Boy Scouts, or Wanderfogel, as cover for its activities."

"Are you fucking serious?" asked August as she put together who the abuser must be.

"I don't know if I can handle this," said Thomas.

"To be honest, I'm kind of hoping you'll help me to go after the fuckers," said T2. "In my timeline, by the time I got around to doing this, too much time had already passed."

"Go after?" asked Thomas.

"Not kill," said T2. "Go after legally. Maybe socially or in media. The powers that be probably wouldn't be much help. No surprise there, since government officials end up deep into kiddie porn, at the Pentagon and elsewhere."

"I'm going to have to think about that," said Thomas, turning the idea over in his mind.

"Take all the time you need," said T2. "The offer is on the table."

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4 - Like ThinThread Without Constitutional Protection

By the middle of winter, Thomas seemed to have come to terms with his situation. He and August were leaving soon to travel. August had taken a turn at winning the lottery and had come away with sixty million dollars after taxes, which was again split three ways. T2 was stressing out about their impending departure. "It's just, who am I supposed to talk to when you're gone?" he asked. "My business associates?"

"You'll have plenty to do," observed Thomas. "According to our plan, this is the time to amass a fortune. We'll be getting the accounts in Panama set up. Mossack Fonseca, right?"

"I for one can't wait to get out of here," said August. "I'll miss everyone, but where we're going will be incredible. All the places."

"I hope so," said T2. "You know, there's something I haven't told you about the future. Something I didn't think was very important until now. The world I come from is a dystopia, it's true. But my individual life was good. Things were fine. I didn't travel back in time to escape anything. I did it to run towards new possibilities."

On the day the couple left, T2 walked to the river and picked pebbles off the beach to skip across the water. Then he made his way to campus, to the computer science department, where he had a meeting with a computer science professor named Al Winslow. After asking around, T2 found Winslow in his office, on the phone. Entering the room and sitting down, T2 sat down and waited quietly until the call was finished.

"Dr Winslow, I'm Thomas Barabos, but everybody calls me T2," said T2.

"Call me Al," said Al, initiating a stiff handshake.

"Thanks," said T2. "As I told you on the phone, I have a new company called Network Insight Systems, or NIS. We're looking to hire a couple of grad students. Ideally, they'd have some familiarity with web standards, convolutional neural nets, crypto, and distributed computing. Is there anyone you can recommend?"

Al raised an eyebrow. "Trying to get a software engineer on the cheap, huh?" he said. "Afraid you might be barking up the wrong tree here."

"Well, thanks anyway for your time," said T2 blandly, not rising to leave.

They sat there for an increasingly awkward minute. "I'm sorry, was there something else?" asked Al.

T2 chuckled. "You're not going to get rid of me that easy," he said. "Listen, what we're doing at NIS is groundbreaking stuff. I can't say more unless you sign an NDA. The problem I'm bumping into is that there's just too much data. Too much work for our existing team. I was hoping we could maybe sponsor a hackathon or something. Something to find local talent instead of flying people up from California. If it helps, I'm sure some kind of finder's fee could be arranged."

"Finder's fee?" said Al.

T2 grinned, pulling a thick bundle of twenties from an inside coat pocket. "Two thousand," he said. "It's yours if you sign an NDA, review my confidential job descriptions, and recommend people. And I'll give you another thousand per position that I fill based on your recommendations."

"This is all highly irregular," said Al, reaching for the money. "What exactly is it that your company is working on?"

T2 handed him the money and pulled an NDA from the same pocket the money had been in. Al took the cash and set it on the desk, then took the NDA and reviewed the pages. "Aww what the hell," he said, signing the document. "Now, what's this really about?"

Taking a phone from the future from another pocket, T2 powered the device on, loaded a photo app, and handed it over. "Scroll through the images by swiping left on the touch screen," he said. "Take all the time you need."

"So you're a cell phone manufacturer or something?" asked Al, absently swiping through pictures of art.

"Each of the images you're looking at is 28 megapixels," said T2. "Make a reverse pinching movement on the screen to zoom in."

"What the hell?" said Al.

"Alright, I'll need that back," said T2, retrieving the device and putting it away. "You see, what we do is envision the future. The prototype you just saw won't hit the market for fifteen years. But we can start designing applications for similar devices now. Ideally, avoiding software development dead ends along the way."

"Where'd you say you went to school?" asked Al, who was trying mightily to keep his composure.

"Not your concern," said T2. "But you would of course be free to publish papers on any of our public research. Most of what we make will be open source, and I noticed that it's been a couple of years since you've published."

Despite his reservations, Al grinned. "Your positions would need to be paid," he said. "No unpaid internships. And I would need to be kept in the loop about everything. What's the equity situation?"

"Payments will be on a per-project basis," said T2. "If things work out, we can maybe discuss options."

"This is about 9/11 isn't it?" said Al after a long pause. "Has to be. Who do you really work for?"

"Let's just say I work for the forces of good," said T2. "Forces that feel 9/11 could have been prevented. Lapses at the State Department let hijackers into the country illegally. Cultural biases in the intelligence community kept us from getting key information from Sudan in time to stop it. The president was even briefed on the impending attack. But DC is a pit of vipers where information is traded for favors on a black market instead of being correctly applied to save lives. I greatly prefer the private sector to that world. Technology has no hidden agendas."

Al took a sip of a soda. "I see," he said. "So maybe you're not a spook. But that raises another question. What happens to my kids if you get in trouble with the spooks?"

"We're not working on security or defense matters," said T2. "But, like everyone else, we're subject to mass surveillance. The NSA's Echelon program has been monitoring all communications for years. This system will eventually be replaced by one called Prism. They've just abandoned a threat detection program called ThinThread in favor of one called Trailblazer, which is a more expensive, shittier version of ThinThread that ignores the Constitution. Trailblazer doesn't care what we're doing. I can assure you that we're not on anyone's radar."

"So you're an ex-spook, then," said Al. "I guess I can work with that. Just promise me you'll keep my students far far away from anything controversial."

"I can do that," said T2.

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5 - The Dank Duck Regulars

The Dank Duck was a dive bar underneath a freeway overpass a block from NIS headquarters. T2 had convinced the owner to add good coffee to the menu. Now, he sat sipping said coffee and spacing out. Plato, another Dank Duck regular, joined him at a high table.

"What's new?" asked T2.

"I feel lost and think I might be an alcoholic," said Plato. He started most conversations that way.

"I feel like wars are starting and there's nothing I can do to stop it," said T2. "In Afghanistan, it's to prop up the heroin trade. In Iraq and later Libya, it'll be to preserve the global reserve status of the petrodollar."

"That's what I love about you," said Plato. "Your boundless optimism."

"How's work?" asked T2.

"I call people, they answer my questions, repeat," said Plato. "You're the one with the exciting job."

"Actually, it's mostly very boring, but I like that," said T2. "Why don't you come work for me, and find out for yourself?"

"My wife is my boss right now," said Plato. "The hardest thing I have to do at work is avoid getting her in trouble by being a slacker. You got a position cushier than that?"

"Probably not," said T2. "We work pretty hard."

"I went by your office and peeked in the windows," said Plato. "Swanky."

"Renovations were just finished," said T2. "The new hires and I designed it together. Now they've all got a stake in the project. And it came out nice."

"I saw a table with balls for chairs," recalled Plato.

"To keep meetings short," said T2. "We call longer meetings conferences and hold them at the conference table."

"Naturally," said Plato. "Oh hey, I think I might have found you that doctor you're looking for. At least for prescriptions."

"That's great," said T2, feeling on the brink of immense relief.

"Yeah, here's a card," said Plato, handing over a business card. "Dr Smith."

T2 laughed. "You really are a life saver," he said.

"Just don't get addicted to pills," said Plato.

"No worries," said T2. "All I take is a mood stabilizer."

"Right," said Plato. "I also talked to my friends in the antiwar group for you. But you should really come yourself to talk to them."

"I don't think so," said T2. "COINTELPRO never really died. Ending up on an FBI watch list could be bad for business right now. But I appreciate your passing that information along."

"The group is split over how to take your warnings," said Plato. "Some say it's a trick to keep us from doing demonstrations. The rest are ready to heed your warning and exercise caution."

"Just remember, there are eyes on you," said T2.

"Christ, you're paranoid," laughed Plato. "Should we do egg rolls?"

While they ate, they were joined by Trish, a woman Plato worked with. Plato left shortly thereafter, leaving Trish staring at T2.

"What's up?" asked T2.

"You look exactly like a friend of mine, but older," said Trish.

"I'm Timothy's long lost older brother, T2," said T2.

"You still talk to him?" asked Trish.

"Sometimes," said T2. "He's overseas."

"Cool," said Trish. "So what's your deal, then?"

"I'm behind a conspiracy to fix society after amassing great wealth," said T2. "In other words, I run a tech company."

"Lame," said Trish. "Tell me something that matters."

"For a long time, all I could think about was how to change history," said T2. "Now all I can think about is how to change the future. With information. With art."

"I don't show people my art," said Trish. "Do you show people yours?"

"I've only done one art piece since I came here," said T2. "It's a diagram of the future on twenty canvasses."

"Seriously?" said Trish.

"Here, I have pictures," said T2, showing her pictures on his phone from the future.

"Your camera's a trip," said Trish. "I mean, the art is nice, too."

"The piece hangs on the ceiling above my company's conference table," said T2.

"Please don't start talking about your job," said Trish.

"Okay, how about this," said T2. "Would you consider what's happened politically in this country to be a Neocon coup?"

"Basically, those fuckers," said Trish.

An abstract image

6 - Trading Information for a New Identity

After the remodel, NIS headquarters was mostly a single large open room, with pod-like working alcoves along the walls. T2 kept a small office for private meetings. He sat in this room now, looking across his desk at Agent Todd Feldspar, who was reviewing the documents on the clipboard he'd been handed.

"Hey don't you usually travel in pairs?" asked T2.

"Not always," muttered Feldspar.

"So you do this sort of thing often?" asked T2, realizing as he said this that he was on the verge of sounding reckless. Maybe that was for the best. He was playing a part, after all.

"I'm here because your tips checked out," said Feldspar. "And this new information may also be helpful, if it checks out too."

"Did you bring the passport?" asked T2, unable to wait any longer to ask about it. "The birth certificate?"

"I got it," said Feldspar. "But I need to know how you're getting your information."

"Nerd stuff," said T2. "We develop software that recognizes patterns. Sometimes, it recognizes patterns of criminal activity."

"But you're trading this info for a fake identity," said Feldspar.

"And your personal mobile number," said T2. "That part is important. For you as well as me. How else am I going to warn you when they move in? Your buddy at State has been making fake passports for cartel members. You did make sure he lost my records, didn't you?"

"Yeah, you're all set," said Feldspar. "But come on. Bank robbery. Human trafficking. No one knows about this stuff without an angle. So what's your angle?"

"Let me see the passport and I'll lay it out for you," said T2.

Grudgingly, Feldspar opened his briefcase and passed T2 a yellow envelope. T2 found a passport inside and inspected it. The document appeared to be in order. A weathered birth certificate likewise appeared authentic. "Alright, I'll tell you, but you're not going to believe it," he said.

"Try me," said Feldspar.

"My whole deal is using technology to make the world a better place," said T2. "Using computer programs to glean insight from data that mere humans can't make sense of. Now, these aren't shallow waters to be playing in. My competitors are cutthroat and I'm reaching out to form a relationship with you instead of playing ball with them. Which reminds me."

"What's this?" asked Feldspar as T2 passed him a big manila envelope.

"Information about issues in your organization," said T2. "For years, the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit was systematically lying to courts about forensic evidence to secure criminal convictions. Dozens of people have been executed on their testimony. And that's just for starters. Since 9/11, some agents have become increasingly comfortable committing civil and human rights violations. Now, I've got you pegged as one of the good ones. Maybe you can do more with this information than I can."

There was a knock on the door and it opened. "I checked the place out and we're good," said a woman in a dark blue pantsuit.

"Thanks, Jennings," said Feldspar. "Mr Barabos, this is Agent Jennings, out of Portland. She'll be your point of contact moving forward. It's her number in your envelope, not mine."

"What happened to no surprises?" asked T2. "Agent Jennings, you didn't tell any of my people who you were, did you?"

"I told them I was an investor and they showed me what they were working on," said Jennings.

She pulled up a chair and Feldspar passed her the clipboard, but not the manila envelope. "This for real?" she asked, scanning the pages expertly.

"I realize that my intelligence may be poorly aligned with your current priorities, but this is what I've got," said T2. "Also, I'm not sure if he told you, but my involvement ends here. If you try to depose me or compel me to testify, you'll get nothing more from me but a wall of million dollar lawyers."

"So what exactly did you have in mind, moving forward?" asked Jennings.

"I was thinking quarterly reports, hand delivered," said T2. "With the understanding that my source could dry up at any time."

"Crazy-pants," said Jennings. "This whole thing is crazy-pants. You better not be wasting our time."

"Believe me, I know the value of time," said T2, who wanted to say more but didn't.

"Like I said, the stuff I got from him before all checked out," said Feldspar.

After the FBI agents left, T2 sat at his desk for several minutes with his new passport in his lap. It worked! He was now Thomas Barabos, born in Seattle in 1960. The documents wouldn't solve all of his problems, and there was always a chance that they would create new problems. But securing them had been one of his major objectives and now it was done.

Pulling a netbook from a desk drawer and leaving the office, T2 found everyone working diligently. "Announcement!" he said.

Four twentysomethings in their work alcoves turned his way. "Oh my god!" said Rachel. "The investors!"

"Are we going to get raises?" asked Reed.

"Not today," said T2. "But I am letting you all off early. Unless you want to keep working. That'd be fine, too."

"Your decisive leadership is inspiring," said Tyler.

Without a word, Ken rose from his seat and walked out of the building. Everyone else watched him go. T2 gave the smallest of waves goodbye, like he was bidding on an item at a posh auction. "Now," he said, "For those that stayed, a special challenge. I have prototype software on a prototype computer. The first one to get the software running on our regular corporate machines gets a special bonus."

"What's the software?" asked Rachel.

"Python 3.9, plus many related packages," said T2.

"3.9?" said Reed.

"But that's ...," said Tyler.

"Indeed," said T2, grinning, placing the netbook on the conference table. "Just pretend it's a computer from the future. Work on it until it's done, even if it takes all week. You'll want all the Anaconda stuff. Oh, and I'll be out for the rest of the day. So you'll have to hold your questions until tomorrow."

An abstract image

7 - No War, etc.

Trish and Plato met T2 at the Dank Duck and got beers on him before sitting down.

"What's up?" asked Plato.

"Big news first," said T2. "I started a new thing, funding grants. Calling it The Anything Project."

"That's cool," said Trish.

"So, like, if your antiwar group wanted money for some reason, you could apply and get it," said T2. "But not to pay lobbyists. That's not what the fund is for."

"How big of a fund?" asked Plato.

"A hundred million over ten years, to start," said T2.

"No way!" said Trish. "No way you have that kind of money!"

"It's not something I advertise," said T2. "But yes, my net worth is high."

"So you won't come to our meetings but you'll give us money?" said Plato.

"I'll go to a meeting to announce it," said T2. "But I'm not trying to steal thunder from the stuff you already have going on. I wanted to talk it through with you two, first."

"I can't even picture what we'd do with money," said Plato. "Print stickers?"

"Throw parties," said Trish.

"For sure, but think bigger," said T2. "The administration is making a case for war based on the false information that Iraq has been making weapons of mass destruction. If we could do anything, what would we do to stop the coming war?"

"Sorry, but war is coming," said Trish. "It's more like how do we stop the next one."

"One thing that occurred to me is that the movement could use secure communication," said T2. "My company just built a platform for that. I'm trying to think on a national scale."

"National like gerrymandering and supreme court stacking?" asked Plato.

"Honestly, I think the politics of it are impossible," said T2. "You could have more people demonstrating against this war than have ever demonstrated before in human history and the war would still move forward."

"What about direct action?" asked Plato.

"Ahh, before we say more, I should probably warn you that environmental activists are now being called ecoterrorists," said T2. "They're probably looking at the antiwar movement in a similar way. I'm up for whatever. Just saying there's some risk here."

"Do you have something specific in mind?" asked Trish.

"Nothing specific," said T2. "Only vague ideas. Disruptive public dance parties. Sharing messages on billboards. That sort of thing."

"Billboards?" said Trish.

"War is wrong," said T2. "No war, etc.."

"Your leaders are lying to you," said Plato. "Imagine seeing that on a billboard."

"Let's do it," said T2. "Want to draw up some designs?"

"I'm sorry, can we come back to the part where you're claiming to have millions of dollars?" asked Trish.

"What can I say?" said T2. "I've had a good year in the markets."

"Right, but if we tear down the system, what happens to all of your wealth?" said Trish. "Doesn't that make you compromised?"

"Pretty sure I'd have bigger problems than wealth to worry about if the whole system went down," said T2.

"What about sky writers?" asked Plato. "Stop the war, written in the sky above our next march? That would be pretty cool."

"You think that would have better impact than billboards?" asked T2.

"I think I make eight bucks an hour and you're talking about millions," said Trish.

"So come work for me," said T2. "The Anything Project will pay you a living wage. Your first job could be to design an ethical decision making framework for the for-benefit corporation."

"Are you serious?" asked Trish.

"Totally," said T2. "You'd be perfect. You're friends with all of the anarchists in town and you're obsessed with social dynamics. I'd trust you with the work."

Trish frowned. "I'm not obsessed," she said, reddening slightly with embarrassment. "How would you even know that?"

"Just something your friend Thomas told me once," said T2. "Maybe I've got it wrong."

"Yeah, maybe you do," said Trish.

"Does that mean you don't want the job?" asked T2. "You could work from home or out of the NIS office. You could even hire someone else, if you feel there's too much for you to do."

Finishing his beer, Plato got up. "I'll draw up some billboard ideas and bring them by your office," he said. "But sitting here for this conversation ... maybe it's best that you don't come to the antiwar meetings. I mean, figure out what you're doing and then come. Because if you show up and just tell everyone that there's money, the whole meeting will turn into an argument about whether or not you're an agent of the patriarchy trying to sabotage the movement with your blood money."

T2 laughed. "You're probably right," he said.

Staying put, Trish waited until Plato was gone and gave T2 an appraising look. "If you're for real with this," she said. "Okay. I need the money. But you better not be jerking me around."

"How does a thousand bucks a week plus full medical sound?" asked T2.

"I'm not dressing like a corporate tool," said Trish, feigning grumpiness but smiling despite her reservations.

"Dress however you want," said T2.

An abstract image

8 - Serious About the Treehouse

"Okay, let's hear them!" said T2 to his assembled NIS team. "What are your best predictions for the next twenty years?"

"You go first," said Tyler.

"Alright," said T2. "I predict that society will get so screwy that people will barely have sex anymore."

"Lame!" said Ken. "No way! How about this? I predict that the tech companies will get as big and powerful as governments."

"Duh!" said Rachel. "I think there'll be computers in everything. Phones. Watches. Refrigerators and coffee makers. Maybe even light bulbs. It's like, computers keep getting smaller, so why not put them in everything?"

"Reed?" asked T2.

"I'm thinking," said Reed. "What about UFOs? I think that the government will finally admit that they've been studying UFOs and it will change everything."

"Do I get a guess?" asked Trish from the alcove where she'd recently started working. "I know I'm TAP and not NIS. But can I do one?"

"For sure," said T2. "Let's hear it."

Trish didn't have anything ready. She simply wanted to participate. "I think, in the future, it'll be okay to be gay," she said. "Like, gay people will be able to do anything that straight people can. Get married. All that."

"Great thoughts everyone," said T2.

"Yours kinda sucked," observed Ken.

"And yours was too obvious," said T2. "Fortunately, this isn't a contest. It's just for fun. An exercise to get you thinking about how your work might fit into the world as time goes on."

Retiring to his office, T2 had a long phone conversation with Thomas and August. Their year abroad had turned into something longer, an indefinite adventure. Most recently, they'd purchased a boat on the Ionian Sea and made their way to Amsterdam, where they'd joined an art collective. When the conversation ended, T2 found the main room empty. He sighed, locked the door, lit a spliff, and laid down on his back on the conference table, looking absently up at the art installation hanging above.

"So that's what you do when we're gone," said Trish, who had been in the bathroom.

"Want some?" asked T2, wiggling the spliff.

"I'll take a regular cigarette if you got one," said Trish.

T2 rolled her one and held it up from his prone position. Trish took it, lit it, and laid down next to him on the table. "Looks good from this angle," she said, pointing at the twenty canvas art piece suspended above. "Are those graphs?"

"I talked to your old friend Thomas," said T2. "He's in Amsterdam. He was sick, but they figured it out over there and he's fine now. Probably won't be coming back here anytime soon, though."

"That's cool," said Trish. "Tell him hey the next time you talk."

"And yes, there are graphs there," said T2. "The timeframe is 2000 to 2025. Inflation is in red. Income growth rate disparities are the blue and pink. Intergenerational disparities are those concentric circles."

"Cool," said Trish. "And the big tree thing that looks like a subway map?"

"Key events," said T2.

"What's that writing, there?" asked Trish.

"You'll see, if you ever get close enough to read it for yourself," said T2.

"Jerk!" said Trish.

"Nothing like a good mystery," said T2.

"Is it song lyrics?" asked Trish. "I bet it's song lyrics."

"Maybe it is," said T2. "On another topic, I have a question."

"What's up?" asked Trish.

"If you won the lottery, would you still want to work for TAP?" asked T2. "Like, let's say you won the lottery tomorrow. Do you quit?"

"I don't know," said Trish. "It's cool what you're trying to do but how big of a lottery are we talking?"

"Let's say you'd end up with seven million after taxes and splitting it with somebody," said T2.

"Splitting it?" asked Trish.

"Hypothetically," said T2.

"I'd want to build a treehouse in a forest and work from there," said Trish.

"Would you come into the office for monthly meetings?" asked T2.

"Fine, but one of the months, we meet in the forest," said Trish.

"Deal," said T2, holding out his hand. They shook on it. Then T2 pulled a slip of paper from his pocket. "Play these numbers tomorrow and split the winnings with me," he said.

"And if I win, I'm serious about the treehouse," said Trish.

The next day, Trish played the numbers and won. She bought wooded property next to a national forest and began planning her treehouse. All T2 would say about the numbers was that they were randomly generated, which was technically true. Whenever Trish brought it up, T2 redirected the subject to her plans for the winnings. Trish was considering using her property for an ecovillage and T2 encouraged this.

When their school year ended, Tyler, Ken, and Rachel decided to form their own company and Reed stayed on with NIS. Now, most days, Reed was the only one showing up at the office, where he worked on projects at the intersection of cryptography and decentralized systems. One afternoon in June, Agent Jennings walked through the door, looking exceptionally somber. "Is he here?" she asked Reed. "I need to see him. Now."

"Check his apartment upstairs," said Reed without looking up from his work. "Through the door, all the way back, up the stairs."

An abstract image

9 - Ruthlessly Embarrassed

"Hello?" called Agent Jennings as she entered the apartment without knocking. "Mr Barabos? We need to talk."

Detecting the scent of marijuana, Jennings proceeded cautiously. She found T2 sitting in the living room, wearing a plastic mask connected to what looked like an oxygen tank. He removed the mask, turned a valve on a gas regulator, and turned to face the agent. "Headache disorder," he explained. "Oxygen therapy helps. What's up?"

"Like you don't know," said Jennings. "The last thing you put me on ruined me. It ruined me! Agent Feldspar took early retirement. Is it even safe to talk here?"

"Safe enough," said T2. "But refresh my memory. What was the last thing I put you on to?"

"Information about The Finders," said Jennings. "About a possible CIA connection."

"Oh right," said T2, recalling the details. "I'm surprised. Would've thought that one would be a dead end."

"We hit a dead end alright," said Jennings, sitting in a nearby chair. "My boss wanted me to write a formal apology to the CIA for even bringing it up. Why did you think it would be a dead end?"

"The information was old and publicly available," said T2. "Plus, The Finders don't really seem to fit the pattern. The Agency manipulated the art world and supported drug cartels. It did mind control experiments like MK-ULTRA. These operations were madness, but madness in support of a big picture. I don't see where The Finders fit into all of that. Can I get you a coffee or something?"

"That's the thing," said Jennings. "Ever since 9/11, nothing has made sense. It's like our priorities shifted, but not how you'd expect. Like we're being fit into some big picture we can't see. And if it's bad at the Bureau, it's worse at the CIA, like a whole new group of people are in charge. Scary people, with scary agendas."

"Yes, the Neocon coup of 2000 did seem to send things in that direction."

"I can't do it," said Jennings. "They were following me, probably tapping my phone, all over a simple letter of inquiry. I couldn't do it. So I resigned."

"And you came here," said T2. "Should I be worried?"

"I had to go somewhere and this is where I ended up," said Jennings. "It's getting harder to trust people, you know."

"Are you fishing for a job?" asked T2. "I'm sure some private security firm would love to have you. Or maybe you could teach. I'm happy to write a letter of recommendation."

"They're already saying that I've lost my nerve," said Jennings. "I get a job like that, they'll call me a has-been. I'm only thirty-six!"

"But ... I'm in tech and cyber isn't exactly your thing," said T2. "Unless you'd be willing to travel for an extended period of time. Then, I might have something for you."

"Oh, like what?" asked Jennings.

"Chief Security Officer and my personal driver," said T2.

"What kind of travel are we talking?" asked Jennings.

"All domestic, the first year," said T2. "I'll be buying properties and meeting with people."

"I could handle that," said Jennings. "Depending on compensation."

"This ... actually helps me quite a bit," said T2.

"And I'll get a look behind the curtain into your operation," said Jennings.

"You'll have to sign some forms and promise to be cool," said T2. "And maybe wear a costume. I still haven't decided if I'm doing costumes on my trip or not."

"Definitely not," said Jennings. "So tell me, what do you think the CIA is up to with this Finders business?"

"No idea," said T2. "Like I said, it's an anomaly. If there is a connection, it would probably be about mind control research. But I doubt that there's a connection."

"Well, someone high up on the food chain wants all talk of it silenced," said Jennings.

"In 1962, top officials drafted a plan called Operation Northwoods, which explored carrying out false flag attacks to convince the public to go to war," said T2. "This plan was kept secret for many years because it was embarrassing. It's possible that the CIA accidentally associated with The Finders in the past, and now they're embarrassed by it. Perhaps ruthlessly embarrassed by it."

"I can't believe you just take this all in stride," said Jennings. "Guess the marijuana helps."

"It helps with the headaches," T2. "That a problem for you?"

"Don't worry, I won't call the cops on you for it," said Jennings. "But I can't be party to criminal activity."

"Certainly not!" said T2, grinning. "My plan was to leave next week, going city to city, buying up undeveloped lots on the outskirts and housing in the urban centers. Talking to people along the way. You up for that?"

"So, a road trip?" said Jennings. "Maybe I could use one."

"How does fifteen hundred a week sound?" asked T2.

"Two thousand," said Jennings.

"Fair enough," said T2. "Do whatever you need to get ready."

"The truth is I'm ready now," said Jennings. "My plan was to keep heading south to the redwoods if things didn't work out with you."

"They really did a number on you over this thing, huh?" said T2.

"I've had case work that gave me nightmares," said Jennings. "And seen even the most upstanding citizens turn out to be monsters. But I always trusted that the people I was working for were doing the right thing, even if I disagreed with them sometimes. But this? It's like they closed ranks and left me on the outside. I was sure that if I didn't leave, they'd find some crime to charge me with. Maybe even frame me. So I'm done. I'm done!"

"Right, well, working for me won't exactly be a walk in the park," said T2, rising unsteadily and shuffling across the room to retrieve a cup of coffee. "I'm extremely eccentric. You won't understand half of what I'm doing and I'm not going to explain myself to you every step of the way. Just so you know."

"Sounds like you want to tack a signing bonus onto our deal," said Jennings.

An abstract image

10 - A Believer in John Titor

Hanging up the cell phone, T2 continued to pace around the parking lot of a gas station on the edge of Boulder, Colorado. He pinched a cigarette out and rolled another one, standing there, despite the wind. From the driver seat of a tall Mercedes van, Jennings watched him while eating a sandwich. Then she returned her gaze to the mountain goats ambling up a cliff side in the distance.

"Fuck fuck fuck," said T2, getting back into the vehicle. "Fuck, Jennings," he said. "The younger Thomas Barabos is tangled up in something down in Antigua. The island, not the city. Seems he bought property in St Kitts, then sailed to Antigua to gamble. But then he got involved with some casino owner there and disappeared. His girlfriend hasn't seen him in days."

"What do you think is going on?" asked Jennings.

"Could be a few things," said T2. "Maybe he's just holed up somewhere, drinking again and hiding it from his girlfriend. Maybe he said the wrong thing to the wrong person and they disappeared him. I called our lawyer in Panama and they'll get to the bottom of it eventually. But fuck. Whatever it is, Thomas is supposed to be an important part of my plan. Should I be rethinking that?"

"Family is family," said Jennings. "You want to press pause on our thing while you go down there?"

"No, Thomas makes his own choices," said T2.

Just then, they were distracted by a pickup truck flying a huge flag that read: "9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB."

"Look, it's the circus," observed Jennings.

"Nothing wrong with speaking your mind," said T2.

"You should go talk to him," said Jennings. "Might make a friend."

T2 considered the prospect, and decided it might be a good distraction. He got out of the van and walked over to the truck, where a man in a cowboy hat was pumping gas. "Nice flag," he said, announcing his presence. "I'm curious, what exactly does 'inside job' mean to you?"

"You know it wasn't an airplane that hit the Pentagon, right?" said the cowboy. "It was a missile. Anyone with half a brain can see that in the pictures. And what about building 7, falling down by controlled demolition even though it was never even hit? Our government was behind the whole thing. Globalists within our government."

Resisting the urge to say too much, T2 put his hands in his pockets. "So you think our government did it, what, to hide the trillions of dollars missing from Pentagon accounting?"

"Maybe," said the cowboy. "You know about Able Danger? Sibel Edmonds? The FAA's destruction of 9/11 tapes?"

"Yeah, I've been following the story," said T2. "The reason I came over was to ask you what you think should be done about it."

"Charge 'em all with treason," said the cowboy. "The Neocons. The Zionists who masterminded the whole thing. All of them."

"Thanks, well, I've got to get back on the road," said T2, cringing at the cowboy's antisemitism. "But maybe consider the possibility that the mastermind of 9/11 is known and he's not at all a Zionist."

The cowboy merely nodded. T2 got back in the van.

"Good talk?" asked Jennings.

"Yeah, he's a racist," said T2. "Probably doesn't even know how racist he is. Like, I'm sure he doesn't identify as a racist when people around him talk about racism."

T2's phone rang, preventing him from saying more. He answered and listened for a minute. "Thanks," he said, hanging up. "Thomas is okay. He flew into Minneapolis-St Paul airport yesterday."

"Good news," said Jennings.

T2's phone rang again. It was August, who had also just learned Thomas' whereabouts. They talked for a few minutes about what sounded to Jennings like family stuff. When the call was finished, T2 looked tired. "I guess that's not what I was expecting," he muttered.

"What?" asked Jennings.

"Thomas is in his hometown, filing charges against a man who abused him when he was a kid," said T2. "We'd talked about the possibility of him doing this. I went through something similar when I was his age. But I thought he'd reach out to me before going ahead with it."

"Are you worried?" asked Jennings.

"Maybe," said T2. "I guess I just thought I'd be there for him through this. But he didn't even tell his girlfriend what he was up to. Whatever. At least he's alive."

"His case," said Jennings. "Anything I can do to help?"

"Thanks, but his case is years old, in a county where the abuser is a prominent member of the community," said T2. "There's an international connection, but all of the evidence is long gone."

They drove south for hours, listening to the radio when there was sufficient signal. When they neared the New Mexico border, they turned off the main road. Later, T2 directed them to a road at the base of the mountains that was barely a track in the high desert. After a mile or so, they found a small, scrubby farm, hidden by a trick if the landscape until they were nearly upon it. T2 jumped out of the van. "Craig!" he called. "Craig, we come bearing gifts!"

"Get off my property!" said a shirtless, white-haired man who had emerged from a ramshackle chicken coop. He was holding a hunting crossbow.

"Now hold on," said T2. "We heard about you from a beautiful young woman who once stayed here. All we want is to camp on your property and we would of course compensate you for the privilege. You like precious metals? We can pay you in gold."

"Pull around that tool shed there and park behind it," said Craig. "But first, let's see that gold."

T2 handed over a one ounce bullion coin. Inspecting the metal with a practiced eye, weighing it in his hand, Craig was satisfied. "The well is broken, so you'll have to haul your own water from town. Mary at the cafe will let you fill bottles. Maybe you can fill some for me. Have to be tomorrow. They're already closed today."

Getting back in the van, T2 and Jennings parked as instructed and stepped out onto the windblown sand. Without a word, T2 ducked into an outbuilding and emerged with a shovel. "Help me dig a fire pit before it gets dark?" he asked.

They dug a pit, passing the shovel back and forth to complete the work, and gathered sun bleached twists of firewood from the surrounding area. When the sun went down, they ate their rations and lit a fire. Ten minutes later, Craig came over and sat down. "You act like you've been here before, but I've never seen you, and I've been here over twenty years," he said to start the conversation.

T2 smiled. "You're a believer in John Titor, right?" he said. "What if there are others? Time travelers, like him?"

"What are you getting at?" asked Craig, intrigued.

"Maybe I have been here before, but in the future," said T2.

"Oh, I get that way sometimes, too," said Craig, who took a long swig off of a dusty glass bottle with no label. "Like I'm adrift in time. Outside of it, even."

"Right, but T2, how did you know where the shovel was?" asked Jennings.

An abstract image

11 - High Desert Dose

Under a desert sky filled with an impossible number of stars, firelight playing across his features, T2 answered. "The story begins in the year 2023, with something called programmable matter," he said. "An accidental byproduct of programmable matter research made it possible to transport things across space and time."

"So you discovered time travel?" asked Craig.

"I didn't discover time travel," said T2. "But I did discover how to aim when time traveling, by steering the arrival aperture using brain activity directly."

"That's like how the Grays pilot their ships," said Craig.

"Could be," said T2. "Only my trip wasn't in a ship, and it had to be one way. There was never any coming back for me."

"You mind?" asked Jennings, pointing to Craig's bottle.

"Be my guest," said Craig, passing the bottle. "Mead from my bees. Mostly from yucca."

"Delicious," said Jennings, drinking deeply. "But I'm not buying it. No way you're from the future."

"So what happens?" asked Craig. "In the future?"

"All I know is that you have a good next few years," said T2. "The price of gold and silver keeps going up and up. And the US government finally admits to studying UFOs."

"I knew it!" said Craig. "Is there first contact with ETs? I mean, officially."

"Not by the time I left," said T2. "To be honest, things were kind of coming apart at the seams and everyone seemed preoccupied with that."

"How bad?" asked Craig. "Was it a civil war like Titor said?"

"It wasn't civil war," said T2. "But it was bad and getting worse. The whole system was going haywire."

"Ahh, so why come back here?" asked Craig. "Why not go back even further and take out Sullivan and Cromwell or stop the bison from being hunted to the brink of extinction by white people? Wait, let me guess, you need my help."

"As a matter of fact, I do need your help," said T2. "We're going to look at a piece of land south of town. It might eventually be a small ecovillage, but not for years. What I need you for is to go and look in on the land from time to time. Call me if there's anything fishy going on. If you're interested, I'll give you three hundred a month, payable in gold at the start of every year."

"You know they got that property all cut into two and five acre parcels, don't you?" said Craig.

"I'm buying a few of 'em," said T2. "I just need someone trustworthy to keep an eye out."

"Sullivan and Cromwell?" asked Jennings.

"They were a company that helped the Nazis," said T2. "Then they helped start the CIA."

"Then the CIA brought hundreds of Nazis over to work with the US government after the war," said Craig. "The stuff about Paperclip is well known. But the stuff about mind control is still a big secret."

Jennings took another big swig of mead. "It's stronger than I thought it would be," she said. "Hey, what the hell? Are there drugs in this?"

"Not drugs, magic mushrooms, for the special occasion," said Craig. "Two swigs is about two doses, so you're in for a wild ride."

Feeling panic well up, Jennings looked to T2 for help. "Sorry, I didn't know," he said.

"You dosed me," said Jennings, a few times, turning the idea over in her mind. "That's assault."

"You can thank me later," said Craig, who stood up and began doing some kind of improvised bird dance on the edge of the firelight.

"I'm gonna be sick," said Jennings, who was then sick all over a nearby spiny yucca.

T2 rubbed her back and gave her a bottle of water. "You'll be fine," he said. "Nothing out here can hurt you. It's just us and the stars out here. Craig didn't mean anything by it. Probably thought we wanted to get dosed."

"But you didn't have any," said Jennings, recovering. "You're fine. You're fine and I'm suddenly very afraid that I'll turn into a cartoon character."

"He dosed the booze, which I don't consume," said T2. "I totally would have warned you if I knew."

"God, I have so much energy," said Jennings, returning to her spot by the fire. "And the stars. The stars!"

"Pretty amazing, huh Jennings," said T2.

"Call me Ana," said Ana. "From now on, just call me Ana."

"So, we're finally on a first name basis, then?" asked T2.

"And I finally know your secret," said Ana, laying back onto the sand. "You're from the future. Tell me things from the future. But only good things."

"In 2008, we get our first Black president," said T2. "I was in New York at the time, and when the election results came in, it was like all of Brooklyn was suddenly united. The streets were filled with people celebrating. For a moment there, we had hope."

"Tell me another one," said Ana.

"Same-sex marriage was legalized," said T2. "So was marijuana in about half the states."

"Crazy," said Ana. "But I want to hear more. I want to hear everything. I'm finally ready to know. Were you a scientist?"

Chuckling, T2 added wood to the fire. "Not exactly," he said. "I was in crypto, which won't even be a thing for several years. I'll tell you about that if you want, but I warn you it's complicated and probably boring."

"Tell me everything," said Ana.

They slept sprawled out on the sand next to the fire, listening to coyotes. The next morning, Craig made coffee and killed a chicken for breakfast. While they ate, Craig told them in uncomfortable detail about a sexual healing session he had planned for the day. Driving away toward the next land purchase, T2 made an executive decision. "So," he said. "Instead of camping out there again, why don't we never go back there and just get a hotel room tonight."

Ana laughed. "It was fun!" she said. "I love that the old prospector turned out to be a drug addled sex maniac."

"I'm glad you were amused," said T2.

"I haven't been that high, maybe ever," said Ana. "And the whole time, you convincing me that you're a time traveler from the future. Hilarious!"

"Hilarious, right," said T2.

"You spent hours explaining something you called cryptocurrency," said Ana. "Tell me that's not a real thing."

"It's not," said T2. "Not yet."

An abstract image

12 - Hiring the Lobbyist

As their road trip progressed, they bought housing in urban locations and set computer servers up in every spot. In rural areas, they bought large tracts of undeveloped property and had wells dug for water. M2 spent much of the journey on the phone, engaged in conversations that Ana only half understood. The big picture wasn't yet clear to her, but it was coming into focus.

In DC, they met a lobbyist named Rick Rickle. Rickle sold himself as a well-placed insider, ready fight for industry interests if the price was right. As T2 laid out his needs and expectations, the larger plan began to make sense to Ana. It was obvious that T2 was building a national network, which he called The Federation, but she didn't fully understand what that might mean.

Leaving the meeting, Ana had questions. "What kind of eccentric rich guy hires his own lobbyist?" she asked.

"The kind who is fed up with cannabis prohibition and wants to popularize Universal Basic Income," said T2.

"You know you sound crazy, right?" said Ana.

"I'm hoping to accelerate the conversation," said T2. "Get people talking about this stuff sooner rather than later."

"Right, but no one's going to take you seriously," said Ana.

"Give them time," said T2.

In New York, they met up with Thomas, who had just bought a building in Brooklyn, on the edge of Red Hook. The place needed work, and Thomas was theoretically overseeing this, though when Ana and T2 arrived, Thomas was up on the roof, painting a sad skyline at an easel and wallowing in self pity. He'd found no justice for the man who had abused him as a kid. And now his girlfriend August had left him, having invested in a vineyard in France, which is where she was now.

"Oh hey, guys," said Thomas when he saw them open the door onto the roof.

"Let's see," said T2, moving to examine the canvas Thomas was working on. "So this is what you've been doing instead of getting the Brooklyn TAP node online?"

"It's happening," said Thomas defensively. "Internet was just installed this morning, and there'll be crews in here all this week and next. I didn't want to get the node all set up until after that."

"I guess that works," said T2. "Listen, why don't we go somewhere and talk? Oh, and would you mind winning the lottery again?"

The three of them found a deli, got sandwiches, bought a lottery ticket at a bodega, then walked to a park under a bridge. They ate in silence, with unseasonably warm autumn wind occasionally blowing the smell of trash their way. "You wanted to talk?" asked Thomas finally.

Not knowing where to start, T2 watched a bold rat scurry near them, stealing a bit of fallen bread. "Do you know what I like?" he asked finally. "I like action steps. Like, whenever something's got me all twisted up, I like to take some constructive action, even if it's small, to settle my mind."

"Maybe that's why I'm painting," said Thomas.

"And maybe painting isn't quite sufficient," said T2. "There's a social dimension to certain kinds of suffering, and I suspect you're trying to escape that with art, instead of getting into it and dealing with it."

"Getting into it, how?" asked Thomas.

"The guy that hurt you has been outed and nothing really happened to him beyond minor damage to his reputation," said T2. "And you're probably thinking that it was pointless. But your actions limited his access to other victims by making your hometown aware of his activities. That's something."

"I lost most of my old friends and my girlfriend left me," said Thomas.

"But you grew closer with your family, didn't you?" asked T2. "And anyway, there's a bigger picture here. If you feel you're ready to start engaging with it."

"What bigger picture?" asked Thomas.

"That our total system is run, in part, by pedophiles," said T2. "Predators like Dennis Hastert and Jeffrey Epstein have their hands on society's levers of control. But the problem isn't just at the top. There are tens of thousands of sex slaves being harmed by organized crime rings that operate largely with impunity."

Ana looked frustrated. "No one at the FBI is giving them a pass," she said. "I'd heard that about Hastert but not Epstein. He's a hedge fund guy, right?"

"He brings prominent men to his properties for sex with children," said T2. "There are hidden cameras everywhere, suggesting the possibility that he's blackmailing these powerful people. Tell me, if the FBI got its hands on video of top people in business and government abusing disadvantaged teenage girls, would they use the evidence, or would there be instructions from the top to bury it as deep as they could?"

"So ... is that supposed to make me feel better?" asked Thomas.

"I'm hoping it helps give your experience context," said T2. "You weren't just abused by a man, but by a member of a club. And that club is just one of an enormous number of other such clubs, which are all supported by a system run in part by club members."

Ana wanted to argue with this bleak assessment, but she couldn't.

"What were you saying about action steps?" asked Thomas. "I mean, I know the system's rotten. You think you have a way to bring it down?"

"Not bring it down," said T2. "But perhaps make it less relevant. Protect people from some of its harms."

"What do you want me to do?" asked Thomas.

"There are nine ecovillages forming in this country under the TAP umbrella," said T2. "And forty-four network nodes being set up in urban centers. Once you're done here, I want you in Minneapolis, then Eureka, California. When summer rolls around, go to the rainbow gathering outside of Likely to talk to people about our Federation. That sound like something you'd be willing to do?"

"Why Minneapolis and Eureka?" asked Thomas.

"I expect trouble at both nodes," said T2. "And I'll trust your assessment of our operations there."

"What kind of trouble?" asked Ana.

"Each node will support a collective," said T2. "I expect political trouble within these collectives. All of them, eventually, but these two to start."

An abstract image

13 - Meeting in an Old School Bus

A thick mane of moss coated the huge fallen trees leaning at improbable angles here and there throughout the forest. At the end of the road into the property was an old school bus, which had been converted into a utility shed/office. This is where Trish met T2 and Ana, who had parked their van halfway up the drive, where a sizable tree had fallen and blocked the way.

Trish wasn't alone. She introduced her companions, who were all young and dressed in earth tones. A few had bits of stuff in their hair. Feathers. Twigs. Yarn and wire. T2 counted sixteen, which meant that some of this forest's residents weren't present. He'd been hoping they'd all show up, but this was most of them. "Everyone," he said loudly, addressing the small gathered crowd. "I came here to meet with Trish, but I also came here to ask you a question. Do you feel free, living with the trees here?"

"Yeah I do," said a young man named Eggs.

"For sure," said a young woman named Rambo.

"Definitely," said Pine Cone.

"Fantastic!" said T2. "And you don't miss all the conveniences of more conventional arrangements?"

"I live in a tree house and hunt for mushrooms all day," said Pine Cone.

"All I do is play guitar," said Eggs.

"Most of us help with running the retreats," said Rambo. "The rest farm. If you were wondering about our income."

"Retreats?" asked T2.

"Groups from the city come up and stay in a big yurt," said Rambo. "Our job is to provide protected healing space for them. They mostly keep to themselves and it works out for everyone."

"Are you staying for the full moon party?" asked Pine Cone.

"That's the plan," said T2

Trish and T2 ended the assembly by leaving to meet in the bus. "This all seems to be working out," he said, finding a seat. "I do have two concerns. First, are these retreats of yours psychedelic in nature? Second, what crop do you farm?"

"My property, my risk," said Trish. "Plus, it's actually important work we're doing. We're helping people."

"Understood," said T2. "Just promise me that you'll never use our network for anything illegal."

"Fine," said Trish. "Can we talk TAP?"

"Okay," said T2. "Let's start with how you gave a hundred thousand dollars to your friends at the local Food Not Bombs chapter."

"They submitted an application like everyone else and I approved it," said Trish.

"That's not where I'm going with this," said T2. "What I want to know is why didn't you give larger amounts to Food Not Bombs groups in other, larger cities? Or a hundred thousand to them and maybe fifty thousand to the group here?"

"So you're not mad?" asked Trish, relieved.

"I just want insight into your strategy," said T2.

"The strategy is mutual aid," said Trish. "Every group gets the same, and any group can appeal to the others for additional funds if the need arises."

"Interesting," said T2. "And is it working out?"

"So far so good," said Trish. "They're buying reliable vehicles for food drops and abandoned lots for community gardens. Some are partnering with street outreach organizations and anti-GMO activists."

"That's great," said T2. "We've never talked about it before, but this is an area where I have strong opinions. I think industrial agriculture in partnership with chemicals manufacturers is one of the greatest threats to our future."

"Okay," said Trish.

"In and of itself, genetic engineering is neither good nor bad. But the most common form of genetic engineering at this time is making plants resistant to glyphosate, so they can slather the fields with it and kill everything but the GMO crops. Glyphosate is of course an endocrine disruptor that probably causes cancer, and it's contaminating the whole food supply."

"Right," said Trish. "Monsanto."

"And Syngenta," said T2. "And Bayer. The list goes on. At the same time, these companies are rolling out pesticides called neonicotinoids. I have it on good authority that these new pesticides, in combination with other factors, are starting to cause an insect apocolypse that will wipe out most of the bees and butterflies in under twenty years."

"Shit," said Trish. "Is that why you hired a lobbyist after telling me not to use funds to pay lobbyists?"

"No, my lobbyist is focused on ending cannabis prohibition and starting conversations about Universal Basic Income," said T2. "Sadly, I believe the chemical companies are too powerful to touch. Much like Big Pharma, the war machine, the incarceration industry, and the banking cartels."

"Yeah," said Trish. "Big Oil. All the rest."

"If we can't fight them, my thinking is that the best we can do is displace their power," said T2. "Maybe do what little we can to give the natural world a fighting chance against them. What I want to do is start awarding pollinator habitat grants to people all over the country, administered by TAP. They'd be small, a hundred bucks a pop, but all a person would have to do to qualify is promise to keep pesticides and other industrial chemicals off of a parcel of land. Maybe award five thousand a year for five years?"

"I like it, but what if people cheat?" asked Trish.

"We'll require video documentation of the parcel and their commitment to pollinators," said T2. "My guess is that fraud will be minimal. Do you think you can head the program up?"

An abstract image

14 - The Genesis Block

The first Federation Assembly was convened at a karaoke bar on Chicago's west side. TAP and NIS associates from across the country occupied the better part of a nearby hotel. The mood was one of building anticipation. T2 stood near the stage in the bar, waiting for Thomas to introduce him.

"... And now," said Thomas. "I give you my future self from another timeline. Old Thomas, or as you know him, T2!"

Taking the stage, grabbing the microphone, T2 wished his younger self hadn't improvised that last bit. "Hi everyone," he began. "Glad you could all make it. I've brought you all here to celebrate the creation of the Anything Federation Blockchain's Genesis Block. Does anyone know what that means?"

"It's the ledger?" said someone in the crowd. "Our unified ledger."

"That's right, Reed," said T2. "Our unified public ledger. And the TAP Token. That'll become important in ten years. But instead of jumping ahead to the future, consider the recent past."

T2 paused, noticing a camera pointed his way. "Prescott Bush was a Nazi collaborator," he said. "The current president belonged to a secret society called Skull and Bones. Some say The Bilderberg Group is secretly in control of society. Others say a transnational superclass of influential individuals runs the show."

The audience had gone from casual to attentive. "There may be truth to all of that," continued T2. "The elite may drink together at Bohemian Grove, but they cannot control everything. The world is simply too big. Too deep. And we can thrive in those depths."

A glass shattered by the bar and the room fell briefly silent. T2 shrugged and went on. "What we're doing, together, is creating new options for the future," he said. "Giving people a chance to live their own dreams, not the dreams imposed on them by central planners. Instead of playing their game, we're inventing something new. Something better."

"I have a question," came a man's voice from the back of the room. "How did you predict the tsunami?"

"I did issue a thirty day warning about that, yes," said T2. "Unfortunately, almost no one paid attention."

"Nina Debs, Chicago Post," said a woman near the front. "Mr Barabos, what is your net worth and where did your fortune come from?"

"There'll be time for more questions at the end," said T2. "The point I was getting around to making is that all of us, together, are in uncharted territory with this endeavor. As you meet one another for the first time, you might find that you have little in common with each other. It's true that many of you are artists and many others are in tech. But TAP has also provided funding for activists, home buyers, aspiring entrepreneurs, and of course, Food Not Bombs."

"Wooo, Food Not Bombs!" came a cheer from the center of the room.

T2 smiled broadly. "Since some of you are wondering, my money comes from the markets," he said. "Stocks. Commodities. Currencies. I'm amassing quite a fortune. My whole plan is to pull as much money as I possibly can out of Wall Street, and to use these funds to finance important work, like the work that you all do. Some of you help people meet their basic needs. Some of you make things with your hands. Some of you add to humanity's shared base of knowledge or its vast tapestry of artistic expression."

"In other words, all of us here bring something unique to the table," continued T2. "There are cultural and religious and political differences between us. But we're connected by our Federation. Like in Star Trek. Only without the uniforms. And with it still being okay to smoke."

T2 had been hoping someone would laugh at that but no one did. He pressed on. "The Anything Federation Blockchain will connect our national network in a new way, by serving as a single source of irrefutable truth when it comes to agreements or financial transactions," he said. "Every dollar that passes through TAP will be mirrored with tokens on this blockchain, including grant payments. Grant recipients will be encouraged to create accounts and claim tokens along with their legacy system payments. Unclaimed tokens will go into a common fund. In the future, use of this common fund will be controlled by a participatory network governance process."

The audience was mystified. That was fine, thought T2. None of what he'd just said would be important this year or next. The idea was to start getting them used to the concepts and language. Trish and Thomas returned to the stage and they opened the floor to questions.

A man T2 didn't know took the microphone first. "I just wanna say," began the man. "That 9/11 was an inside job. Jet fuel can't melt steel beams!"

This received a few claps of applause. The man handed the microphone to the reporter from earlier. T2 prepared for the worst. "Mr Barabos, how many properties do you own?" she asked.

"I honestly don't know," he replied. "Is that seriously what you find interesting here?"

"Seriously, I'm wondering where you came from," said the reporter. "The earliest record of you I can find is 2001."

"I came from the Midwest and my private life is private," said T2.

"Have you ever been married?" asked the reporter. "Do you have kids?"

"No and you've used up all your questions," said T2.

Grudgingly, the reporter handed the mic over to a woman named Cherish that T2 had met in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. "Hi," she started. "So every node has a website and a blockchain ledger and a physical space to maintain, right? But what happens if you go belly up after we've done all that work?"

"All official nodes are funded through 2011," said T2. "There's plenty of time between now and then to consider that problem."

A man T2 recalled from Boise took the mic. "I want to know what you're doing to prevent TAP grants from going to illegal immigrants," he said. "Immigrants and terrorists."

"As you know, the application process is the same for everyone," said T2. "And we comply with all legal requests from the authorities. Node operators are responsible for verifying grant applicant information. Though, considering your comments as a node operator, I'm wondering now if we need a better policy."

An abstract image

15 - Start With Rat Park

Deep in Appalachia, the night swimming with fireflies, sitting on a section of log, T2 watched as Ana allowed two younger women to braid her hair. Nearby, a trio plucked out haunting melodies on stringed instruments and a quiet man with a big bushy beard offered a mason jar of moonshine in lieu of conversation to anyone that approached. The tranquil scene, lit with oil burning torches, starkly contrasted the storm raging in T2's mind, which had been kicked up by the recent mess in London.

He had alerted them well in advance of the 7/7 bombings. He'd sent detailed warnings to the British authorities and the American authorities and major media around the world. But no one had listened. The bombs had detonated, the people were killed, and now the UK had its very own 9/11 moment to use as justification for any course of action it saw fit to pursue, no matter how damaging to freedom this action might be.

"You look like you're somewhere else," said Molly, a twentysomething TAP associate, finding a seat next to T2. "Still thinking about the news?"

"You know," said T2. "When the US government started spouting lies about yellowcake uranium to justify war with Iraq, I knew better than to think that I could do anything about it. But the 7/7 bombings seemed like they'd be another story if I just warned enough people that they were coming. Now, I feel like all of it was for nothing. Or worse, like maybe the people in power knew what was coming and wanted it to happen because it created opportunities for them to expand their political power."

"Do you know what I learned growing up as a smart girl in West Virginia?" asked Molly. "I learned that most people are average and that doesn't stop them from thinking they're smarter than that."

"True enough," said T2.

"There aren't many folks walking around who are my intellectual equals," said Molly. "Statistically, I'm only likely to find one in any random group of two hundred. Point being that most people just ignore my ideas because they're not equipped to adequately evaluate them. That doesn't make them sinister, even when bad stuff comes about as a result of their foolishness."

"Right on," said T2. "I still wish the people calling the shots were smarter than that. Maybe they're just not."

"Smart or not, I think they're all basically unhappy rats," said Molly. "Living in shitty cages, locked in cycles of compulsive action and unrewarding addiction. To money. Power. You know."

"Probably," said T2. "But where does that leave us?"

"Don't know," said Molly. "But a good place to start might be Rat Park."

"Oh yeah?" said T2.

"For sure," said Molly. "There was once a scientist who got a bunch of rats hooked on drugs. Which I guess is a normal thing for a scientist to do. He put drugs in their water bottles and the rats would get high until they died. This went on until he found the secret to getting the rats to stop using."

"What was the secret?" asked T2.

"Rat Park!" said Molly. "He made a place for the rats to live that didn't totally suck. A park where they could play and dig and socialize, instead of keeping them is shitty rat prisons all of the time. The rats in Rat Park started avoiding the water with the drugs in it, the ones who were addicted kicked their addictions. See, it turns out the drugs were never the problem. The problem was having a shitty, unnatural life that produced addictive behaviors."

"Makes sense," said T2.

"When I first heard about what you were doing with TAP, with your Anything Grants, Rat Park was the first thing I thought of," said Molly. "Most of society is like the regular bad rat cages. They even call working the rat race. But why should that be all there is? Why not give people the opportunity to make their own Rat Parks, where they can find variety and joy instead of stupid, arbitrary mazes to run through?"

"I like it," said T2. "But the part I'm having a hard time with is the scientist. What I mean is, maybe we can all be happy rats in a Rat Park of our own making. But the people running the experiment still treat all of us like disposable rodents. They can't be stopped or reasoned with. Oftentimes, they can't even be identified. So they just keep putting drugs in our water and making us run their stupid mazes."

"Look around," said Molly, waving her arms around for effect. "This is our Rat Park and we love it. So you couldn't stop people in another country from doing a bad thing. So what? You're doing the part that you can do."

"True enough," said T2. "So have you personally received an Anything Grant?"

"I got fifteen thousand dollars to spend the whole year building a system to identify and track to people behind mountaintop removal coal mining," said Molly. "It creates profiles of each one, and connects these profiles to the poisoned landscapes and waterways around mining sites."

"That sounds ... risky," said T2.

"It is," said Molly happily. "But it's not like the government is ever going to hold these people accountable. I figure if they're going to destroy the planet, the rest of us should at least know who they are and what they did."

Overhearing this conversation, Ana's ears perked up. "How exactly does that work?" she asked.

"It's a three tier system," said Molly. "Tier one is workers, just regular people collecting a check. We put their pictures on our website to shame them for harming the environment, but don't include names or locations. Tier two is managers. They're about half-and-half good old boys and petty tyrants. They get pictures and names and cities of residence. Then there are the corporate bosses, who sometimes don't even visit the mining sites. They get every last thing we can find on them, posted for all to see."

"But what if something happens?" asked Ana. "What happens to you if someone uses your website to help them commit a crime against one of these bosses?"

"Maybe I'll get in trouble," said Molly, shrugging. "In this state, I might even go to prison. Like if someone went ahead and dumped a truck full of stolen coal on some executive's house or poured a bunch of battery acid in one of their swimming pools. Or if they drowned a boss in a poisoned stream, that would definitely get me in trouble. But so what? I'm not encouraging anyone to do anything with the information I provide. That's their choice. And I wouldn't lose any sleep over it if one of the people wrecking our ecosystems got hurt."

"And TAP is paying for this?" said Ana.

"Technically, the grant covers my living expenses so I can work on the project," clarified Molly. "Funding for the project itself comes from donations."

An abstract image

16 - I Know He's Your Clone

Twelve foot windows revealed a dreary autumn noon outside. Having managed to lever one of these windows open a few inches, T2 smoked a cigarette next to it while Ana showered. He smiled at the thought. After all this time, they'd finally slept together. It was as if, all of the sudden, the mood shifted between them. Had he made the pass, or had she?

Tempering the pleasure of these considerations was a grim awareness of current events. No one had heeded his many warnings about the hurricane that had just devastated New Orleans. T2 recalled that Blackwater mercenaries were somehow involved, and remembered all of the shady contracts awarded in the disaster's aftermath. What a mess that was.

A vibrating phone distracted T2 from these thoughts. He answered. "Mr Barabos?" came a gravely man's voice. "Brad Wachuski. Your partner Ana Jennings has been working for the FBI this whole time. There is a town car waiting out front for you. Please, take a meeting and hear our offer."

"I'm going to need more than that to go on," said T2.

"We'll meet at my office in Tribeca," said Wachuski. "Shouldn't take more than an hour. I really think you'll like what we have to say."

The line went dead. T2 looked around, as if surveying the room would help him make sense of the information he'd just received. Could it be true? Could Ana be an undercover agent? She'd been with him for years!

Scrawling a note for Ana about going out for a walk, T2 dressed quickly and exited the apartment, finding the car waiting. He rode in silence. By the time they pulled up to an unmarked doorway in a giant building in Lower Manhattan, T2 had convinced himself that he was making a terrible mistake. The driver got out and opened the unmarked door for him.

At the door, a man in a knit white shirt and a heavy gold chain greeted T2. "I'm Mr Tyler," said Mr Tyler. "Mr Wachuski is right this way."

T2 followed him through an industrial looking hallway to an elevator. They proceeded to the tenth floor, where a large man in a custom suit awaited him on plush furniture in a vast office. Wachuski stood and shook T2's hand. They sat down while Mr Tyler wandered off.

"Alright," said T2. "What is this?"

Wachuski chuckled. "Don't worry," he said. "I brought you here for synergy, not trouble. Did you speak with Agent Jennings before you left?"

"No," said T2. "I came to hear you out. So what have you got to say?"

"As I mentioned, Jennings has been working for the FBI the whole time she's been in your employ," said Wachuski. "She's undercover, collecting intel on you and using your organization to gather information on the environmental activism movement."

"You say that, but it doesn't really track," said T2. "I mean, she's been with me for years. She's witnessed crimes and nothing ever came of it. Plus, everything I do is above board. And my organization is so transparent that our financials are on our websites for all to see."

"They think you're an agent of a foreign intelligence service, fomenting anti-industry discontent here," said Wachuski. "But we both know they'd have put you away a long time ago if they could prove that."

"And how do you know any of this?" asked T2.

"Our firm is paid to know," said Wachuski. "We're the biggest specialty consulting firm you've never heard of."

"And you've got government sources," said T2. "Assuming you're right about Ana."

"I am," said Wachuski. "Now, let me tell you what we can do for you. Whenever your name comes up from any of our sources, it will be reported to you. Or to an attorney, if you prefer. We can also, on your behalf, look into any party of your choosing. You would also receive our regular newsletter on market conditions."

T2 considered this. His lawyer's office in Panama did that kind of thing, but they'd missed Ana, though in all fairness, he'd never specifically requested that they check her out. "How much?" he asked.

"You move a minimum of one hundred million into a fund that guarantees two percent interest," said Wachuski. "We keep the remaining yields, or incur the losses. You may terminate the agreement at any time by pulling out of the fund."

"Okay," said T2, nodding slowly. "So then, how good are you? And what happens when two of your clients end up on different sides of something?"

"In those rare instances, we try to set up a meeting," said Wachuski. "Get it all worked out."

"And what about potentially sensitive questions," said T2. "For example, does Alan Dershowitz have a relationship with the CIA? What's the real story behind Gary Webb?"

"I can look into it," said Wachuski. "So we're on, then?"

"I'll want to check you out, first," said T2. "But in principle, I could use your service. Any advice on what to do about Agent Jennings?"

"If it was me, I'd be putting distance between us," said Wachuski.

The drive back to Brooklyn was a wordless emotional roller coaster. Returning to the guest room, gripped by fear and anxiety, T2 opened the door. He found Ana wearing a bathrobe, on the bed, reading a paperback thriller. "How was your walk?" she asked.

"I had an unplanned meeting," said T2. "I was given some information that troubles me. About you."

"Oh?" said Ana, her eyes still on her book.

"Ana, have you been working for the FBI this whole time?" asked T2.

"Oh," she said, putting down the book.

"It's been years," said T2. "What ... what are you even doing for them?"

"Mostly giving them information about TAP and your other business dealings," said Ana. "I never did anything to hurt you. Or your companies. My bosses, well, they just wanted the lay of the land."

"The lay of the land?" asked T2.

"They figured you for a lottery scammer and insider trader," said Ana. "Maybe even a spy. But the angle was ecoterrorism funding. I never found evidence of any of that. Somewhere along the way, my reports on the environmental activism movement became important to them. Far as I know, that's why they kept me here with you."

"The part that I'm most upset about isn't the lying," said T2, measuring his words. "It's the possibility of losing you over this. And couldn't you get in trouble just for admitting it to me?"

"I only get in trouble if you don't cooperate," said Ana.

"What exactly do you expect me to do?" asked T2.

"Take off your shoes and lay here with me while I read my book," said Ana.

After fifteen minutes of quiet, Ana put her book down. "There's a bigger picture here that you don't see," she said. "The Bureau collects intelligence on everything. They know who is doing what, where, all the time. When you started TAP, you created a bird's eye view of a movement they'd been trying to piece together from disconnected scraps. They want me here, seeing what you see."

"Shit," said T2. "So you're telling me it's my fault that you spied on me? I guess everything is okay, then."

"I'm saying don't worry," said Ana. "I'm saying we're on the same side. I haven't told anyone your secret, if there was a concern."

"My secret?" asked T2. "That I'm from the future? I tell everybody that these days and no one cares."

"I'm talking about Thomas," said Ana. "I have test results showing that you have the same genetic makeup. The exact same genetic makeup. I know he's your clone. And I haven't said a word."

"Thanks for not telling anyone," said T2. "I'm protective of my clone."

"Where did you do it?" asked Ana. "The cloning. Was it Brazil? United Arab Emirates? Hong Kong?"

"In the States, here," said T2. If cloning was easier for her to accept than time travel, he could live with that.

"How many other people have clones?" asked Ana. "Is it a lot?"

"I kinda hope not," said T2. "So what happens now?"

"Maybe nothing," said Ana. "But maybe something. Who was it that told you about me?"

"My new consultant," said T2. "He said I should distance myself from you."

An abstract image

17 - UFO in an Ocean of Stars

Eating a giant piece of fresh cornbread with his hands instead of using the plastic fork that came with it, T2 sat on a bar stool at The Yacht Club, a dusty cowboy bar near the border of Colorado and New Mexico. Technically, since a statewide indoor smoking ban had come into effect, the establishment was a private club, which exempted it from the new restrictions. Having paid one dollar to become a member of this club, after finishing his cornbread, T2 turned his attention to the conversation that had captured the room.

"I'm just saying that the CIA basically manufactured Al Qaeda when they armed Afghanistan against Russia," said a large man in blue overalls.

"Sure, but didn't Vladimir Putin seize power in Russia after the FSB killed hundreds of civilians in bombings that they blamed on Chechen separatists?" asked the bartender.

"What's your point?" asked a spindly woman at the end of the bar.

"That governments and terrorists have more in common than dogs and coyotes," said the bartender.

"Right now," said T2, loud enough to get their attention. "Inside US military prison camps in Iraq, a new kind of terrorist group is forming. ISIS, they're called. This new group will eventually become an army and begin overrunning the region. Unintentionally or not, the US is making it happen."

"No way it's unintentional," said the woman. "Just wait until the next big thing. Then you'll really see what they're capable of."

"You think there'll be another 9/11?" asked overalls.

"9/11 was Pearl Harbor all over again," said the woman. "I doubt they need another one of those any time soon. No, I think the next one will be more like a new Spanish Flu. I read that they could bring in the military if there's a flu epidemic."

"They wouldn't even have to," said T2. "Get people scared enough and they'll do everything the government says. Even if it breaks society."

"Not us!" said the bartender cheerfully. "We go our own way here."

The conversation relaxed into meaningless bar banter. Paying up, T2 left, stepping out into the crisp desert night. It was two miles back to the yurt he was staying in, and he welcomed the walk. Alone, on a dirt road cutting across a mountainside, T2 paused to look out over the vast valley below, seeing a few islands of light floating in the darkness.

Above the horizon was an ocean of stars. There was no moon, but T2 saw at least one satellite. Then he saw something unexpected. Three lights, forming an equilateral triangle, hovering over the valley. This was no traditional aircraft. It hovered above an area some thirty miles distant, then bolted north. After fifty miles, the object altered its trajectory abruptly before disappearing.

T2 laughed out loud. A UFO! Resuming his journey, he recalled that there was a military base in the mountains to the northeast and wondered if he'd just witnessed a test flight for some kind of new experimental aircraft. Could have been, T2 decided, turning off of the main road onto the smaller dirt road that led up the mountain to his property. Reaching his driveway, which was all but invisible in the darkness of the surrounding pinon forest, he smelled a campfire and found a small group of people lounging by the fire pit.

"T2!" said Eggs, who had taken up residence here only recently. "How was the bar? Did you bring the cigarettes?"

Chuckling, T2 tossed Eggs a pack of smokes from his pocket. "I saw a UFO on my walk," he said. "A triangle, flying over the dunes in the valley. Pretty cool."

"Far out!" said Eggs. "You think it was aliens or military?"

"Probably military," said T2, pouring himself a bit of coffee from a thermos he'd stashed in the camp before his trip to town. "Still far out, though. Anything happen here?"

"All quiet," said Eggs.

"Eggs told us the story of how you helped Trish Lupo start the Cascades Ecovillage," said Owl Horns, a young woman T2 had been introduced to only recently. "How you put her in charge of TAP and got this whole thing going."

"Oh?" said T2. "Did he tell you that I traveled back in time from a dystopian future to get the ball rolling on stuff like this?"

"No, he just said you were really chill," said Owl Horns.

"I saw your bit on the internet," said a man named Pocket. "You and Thomas. Your whole video about time travel and proving it with genetic tests. I've got to admit, you two really do look alike."

"They're clones!" said Harry the Drunk, who was laying on the ground in an out of the way shadow. "Alien clones!"

"Whatever Harry," said Eggs, who had clearly had enough of Harry's ramblings for the night.

"Well, regardless, I'm leaving tomorrow," said T2. "I might not be back here for some time. So if there's anything you need, or want me to know, this is your chance."

"Some old guy was up here earlier, spying on us with binoculars," said Pocket. "I tried to go talk to him, but he ran to his car and drove away."

"Let me guess," said T2. "He had long white hair and drove a green Buick?"

"You know him?" asked Pocket.

"That's Grandpa Craig," said T2. "He's a local. Friendly enough. Introduce yourselves if you ever see him around town. If you want gems or minerals, he's the guy to see. And if you ever want someone to have a feud with, he can keep up a good feud for years."

"I thought you didn't want us to start any trouble," said Owl Horns.

"No real trouble," said T2, laughing. "But things can get boring this far off of the beaten path. If you were to, say, hang a pair of underwear from Craig's mailbox one day, I guarantee you'd get at least half a year of trash talk and petty retaliation out of it."

"How would he know it was us?" asked Pocket.

"Trust me, he'd know," said T2. "And this brings me to a slightly more serious point. Remember how every TAP ecovillage is supposed to have a pair of ambassadors maintaining good relations with the local community? Well, that seems to be missing here. What's up with that?"

"I'm the ambassador!" declared Harry.

"Um," said Owl Horns. "Harry and I were supposed to do it, but then we broke up and it just sort of slipped through the cracks."

"Okay, that is not acceptable," said T2. "Get your shit together. Appoint new ambassadors if you have to. We may be creating our own little world off the beaten path here, but we're still a part of this community, with all of the social obligation that implies."

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18 - Even the Moonies Got it Together

It was sunny in Seattle, where T2 and Ana shared a small cottage on the property of a much larger house that TAP had recently purchased. After spending months apart, the close quarters felt a little awkward at first. But they had worked it out.

T2 had reconnected with Ana at the Denver airport. Together, they flew to Seattle and met with Ana's bosses. The FBI accepted her resignation, but T2 had to agree to appoint secret intelligence liaisons at NIS and TAP. These liaisons were to maintain communication with a Bureau representative and send them quarterly reports. T2 gave them Reed and Eggs. The arrangement wasn't too onerous, and T2 got the impression that his companies weren't the first to be treated this way.

They sat now, drinking lemonade outside, with a local anarchist named Jump, who worked for TAP. Jump ran the collective responsible for the Federation Daily, a news website focused on the TAP network. The site wasn't mainstream. It mostly oscillated between communist and anarchist perspectives. After operating for a year, T2 had a pretty good idea of where the site was headed. And he wasn't entirely pleased.

"Have you given any thought to the material I sent?" asked T2. "The checklist?"

"Yeah, we talked it over and decided to reject it," said Jump.

"The whole thing?" asked T2.

"You can't be serious," said Ana.

"We like the free form style," said Jump. "Emphasis on free."

"So you're not interested in doing actual journalism?" said T2. "Christ, even the Moonies got it together enough to make the Washington Times happen. You telling me you're less with it than the Moonies?"

Jump looked blankly at him.

"Alright," said T2. "So the TAP news wire we set up. After looking over your year, it seems you published under five percent of the items on the wire. Why so low? And everything you did print came from only four cities."

"Our number one priority is facilitating the leftist conversation in this country," said Jump. "Everything we post is in line with this priority."

Ana laughed. "Sorry if I'm speaking out of turn," she said. "But you've had a year of funding and all you came up with was a bunch of irrelevant, pseudo-intellectual crap. You've got six writers and none of them can write. Including you. Six White dudes in their twenties. And just so you know, any story that includes the term proletariat isn't news."

T2 frowned. "You do know that this is a pivotal time, don't you?" he asked. "A pivotal time for free speech and society as a whole. But also a pivotal time for the Federation Daily. Do you have another funding source lined up? Because TAP seems unlikely to award you another grant for the coming year."

"Aww, seriously," said Jump. "So you're telling me that if we don't do it your way, you're pulling our funding? That's so ... fascist."

T2 and Ana looked at each other, their eyes filled with mirth.

"TAP funded you for a year and you produced a product of subpar quality," said T2. "The Federation needed a news outlet and you completely fumbled the opportunity. Deliberately, from the sounds of it."

"I don't see what the big deal is," said Jump defensively. "You said we could do anything. Anything."

"You seem disinclined to see the big picture here," said T2. "The Pentagon spends billions on psychological operations and treats the whole internet like an enemy combatant. Since 9/11, the CIA has been manipulating Hollywood like never before. And that's before even getting into the sway that advertisers and corporate owners have over the content of mainstream news. Can you see where I'm going with this?"

"So what?" asked Jump. "You want us to make another Huffington Post? Well, we're not doing that. We're radical leftists."

"I thought that might be your position," said T2. "Your grant application for the next year is denied. Minneapolis will be taking over the network's news service. The replacement site will go up next week, with the name changed to AFN, or Anything Federation News. You and your writers are welcome to submit applications to the Minneapolis node if you want to keep contributing to the endeavor."

"But what about all of our work?" asked Jump, who had clearly expected the conversation to go differently.

"The current site is archived on the Federation Blockchain," said T2. "Your collective has the right to use this however you want."

"But this is total bullshit," said Jump.

"Maybe it is," said T2. "Feel free to complain about it on the listserv."

After another minute of complaining, Jump got on his bike and rode away. T2 took a deep breath and Ana looked at her phone. "We've got five minutes until the next one," she said. "Think it'll go any better?"

"What do you mean?" said T2. "I thought that went fine."

A black sedan pulled up and parked. A middle aged man in an ill-fitting gray suit got out, tugging a briefcase behind him. His name was Archie Knox. They waved Knox over and he shook hands, then found his way into a seat at their table. "So you're the guy," he said to T2.

"Indeed," said T2. "Help yourself to lemonade. You ready to get into it?"

"All set," said Knox, opening the briefcase and removing a small stack of papers. "Here's a list of all of your residential properties in the state that met your criteria. You sure you want to sell all of these?"

"I'm sure," said T2. "For as much as you can get for them. I want all of them sold by the the end of 2007."

"I see," said Knox. "Like I said on the phone, I can do that, but with this many properties, even spread out between now and then, I'm afraid it might disrupt the local markets."

"Mr Knox," said T2. "I'm doing the same thing in forty-one other states. These are excess properties that I purchased to make exactly this move when the time came. And the time has arrived."

"I see," said Knox.

"Home prices will peak and then fall sharply for a few years after that," said T2. "At which point, I'll be buying again. Now, if you can handle these sales to my satisfaction, I'll use you again in 2012 for the next round of buys."

An abstract image

19 - An Important Few

Outside, tiny shards of crystalline snow floated on the wind. Inside, a fire roared and a man named Jay roasted chestnuts. Half a dozen people relaxed on couches around the fireplace. T2 Ana were there as guests of Thomas and his friends. It was a celebration. The New Year was upon them. Like everyone else in the country, they were talking about the financial crisis.

"I mean, yeah it was bad, but aren't we all kind of far removed from all of it?" asked a woman named Marnie.

"I'm telling you, the crisis wasn't the crisis," said Thomas. "The real crisis is the response."

"Oh, not this again," said Jay. "Look, I agree that the big banks are bad, but they're not cartels like you keep calling them."

"He might have picked that up from me," said T2. "Right now, the financial system is being fundamentally restructured. By the time they're through, the country's twelve largest banks will control seventy percent of all bank assets. When the dust settles, the government will have injected over a trillion dollars into this parasitic industry and sent $16 trillion more overseas for damage control. The banks will keep bribing ratings agencies and lying about Libor. And the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street will just keep spinning. What would you call it, if not a cartel?"

"I guess the foreclosures do affect regular people," said Marnie.

"The military-industrial complex used 9/11 to consolidate its power," said Thomas. "That's exactly what the banks are doing now, using the financial crisis, which they themselves manufactured."

"You always get so worked up about this," said a woman named Kate. "I just wonder if there's a more evolved way to relate to it all."

"And I wonder how people can use money every day without even understanding where it comes from," said Thomas. "It's all debt, created in a computer system. Loan amounts go into circulation while the amounts owed for interest are never created, except as new debt, keeping dollars artificially scarce in every part of the economy that regular people have access to."

Ana, who had until then been quiet, spoke up. "I'd say it's a wonder the system works at all," she said. "But then, the crash sort of proves that the system doesn't actually work without government intervention. Free market! Ha!"

"You know, I read somewhere that the bailout the government gave the banks was similar to the total amount owed by all homeowners who were delinquent on their mortgages," continued Ana. "They could have given the money to the homeowners to bail them out. Instead, the government paid the banks directly, preserving homeowner debt, and the banks took possession of the homes through foreclosures."

"Okay, but what are we supposed to do, huh?" asked Jay. "All join credit unions?"

"For a start," said T2. "Personally, I favor creating a new monetary system entirely. Outside of banks. Outside of governments. A financial network created for us, by us."

"What, like your corporate points program?" asked Jay.

"Be nice," said Kate.

"There's a bit more to it than that, but basically," said T2. "The tokens you call corporate points will actually become quite popular once they catch on. And nothing motivates the creation of a new system like watching the old one eat itself."

"I have a question on an unrelated topic," said Ana. "How do you all know each other?"

"Just friends," said a woman named Corie. "Kate and Jay are a thing. And Marnie and Thomas are a thing. And I'm just wherever I feel like being in all of it. Like a butterfly! Or a bee."

"So you're not all with NIS or TAP?" asked Ana.

"I don't even know what that means," said Corie.

"She means The Federation," said Thomas.

"Oh right," said Corie. "Thomas said you started it. That's cool."

"What's The Federation doing about the financial crisis?" asked Jay.

"Thomas," T2 asked. "How much of an overlap do you suppose there is between your AFN subscribers and readers of Adbusters Magazine?"

"Maybe ten percent of mine," said Thomas. "Why?"

"Because I might ask TAP to consider bold action," said T2. "To hold Wall Street crooks accountable in media and support economic justice efforts."

"Wait," said T2. "Is this more about Universal Basic Income?"

"In a roundabout way," said T2. "But at first, we need news stories about the corruption and collusion. And like you said, we need people to understand what money really is, who controls it, and how it's controlled."

"And what then?" asked Marnie.

"Then people can make informed choices about how to proceed," said Thomas.

"So in other words, we're screwed then," said Jay.

"Why would you say that?" asked Ana.

"I just mean that people don't always make the best choices, informed or not," said Jay.

"It's true," said T2. "Not everybody would make the same choices we would. But some would. An important few."

An abstract image

20 - You Are the One Percent

One day, for no apparent reason, T2's lottery numbers from the future stopped being the same as the numbers that were being drawn in the present. T2 had been expecting them to start being off here and there, not all at once. Fortunately, by the time the numbers stopped matching, he was obscenely rich.

With housing prices down, T2 bought property after property, setting up rent-to-own deals with thousands of tenants. This and his other business ventures were run almost exclusively by other people. Thomas was handling the AFN competently, and this was becoming a popular news network. Trish continued heading up TAP, with the network's full support.

The TAP crypto token was connected with the Bitcoin network by a software bridge, making it easy for people to swap one cryptocurrency for the other. The Anything Federation Blockchain was many iterations more advanced than the Bitcoin Blockchain. It stored more kinds of data and was energy efficient. T2 felt irrationally proud of this blockchain, which Ana sometimes teased him about. His hope had always been to accelerate adoption of crypto, but it was still too early to tell if he was having any impact.

None of this was on T2's mind as he jogged through the crowd of Occupy demonstrators. He'd been supporting the movement with money and media from the beginning, but had until now avoided its various 'occupations' because he didn't want to be publicly recognized as a member of the one percent. The crowd T2 moved through wasn't rowdy. Some people milled around aimlessly, a few held signs by the roadways for passing cars to see, and the rest congregated around a speaker giving a speech.

The speech was delivered without amplification, a few words at a time. The speaker spoke the words, and the crowd repeated them verbatim so everyone could hear. They called it a 'human microphone,' as it made it possible for speeches to be delivered without need for bullhorns or other devices, whose use required permits in many jurisdictions. T2 found the innovation interesting in that it synchronized crowds in a unique way. But the human microphone delivered words extremely slowly, which meant it was only good for communicating very simple information.

Having passed through the crowd, T2 sat on a low concrete wall on the north side of the government plaza. Waiting for Ana, he watched as a police car pulled up and let a young man out of the back of the car. The young man doddered around for a moment, appearing disoriented. When the squad car pulled away, T2 approached the young man, concerned he might need medical attention.

"Hey man, you okay?" asked T2. "I saw you get out of the squad car."

The man appeared to have trouble focusing. "Cops got me high as fuck," he said. "Then they fed me McDonalds."

Ana arrived in that moment. "Sixty pizzas are on the way," she said to T2. "I had them delivered to the south side, where the crowd is. What's with him?"

"He says the cops got him high," said T2. "I just watched them drop him off."

"So high," confirmed the man. "Like, they picked me up here and brought me to a warehouse down by the airport. Then they made me smoke bowl after bowl while they stared at me and asked me question after question. It was like being abducted by aliens! After that, we went to the McDonalds drive through. And they dropped me back off here."

"That's crazy," said Ana. "For real?"

"Part of why I picked today to come down here," said T2. "I'd heard that police were interfering with demonstrations by feeding drugs to activists and had to see it for myself."

"They are interfering with the demonstrations, aren't they?" said the very stoned man, wandering away, back into the crowd. "That's messed up."

"I handed out about a hundred cards," said T2. "But, to be honest, I doubt anyone will show up tonight."

"Why do you say that?" asked Ana.

"Honestly?" said T2. "Most of these people probably see me as the enemy."

"I'd think some will at least be curious," said Ana.

A few hours later, T2 and Ana stood in the hotel bar they'd rented for the evening, surrounded by a hundred and fifty people. Half the crowd consisted of the collective that ran the Minneapolis TAP node and their associates. The other half had likely found their way there from T2's advertising.

"See," said Ana, as they looked around the room. "They're here and ready to hear what you have to say."

After conferring with the sound guy, wearing a wireless mic, T2 had the music turned off and called for attention. "Hello everyone," he began. "I'm T2 Barabos and I invited you here this evening to talk about our sadly distorted economy and what we might be able to do to fix it."

"Eat the rich!" shouted a man in the crowd.

"Unionize!" shouted another.

T2 laughed. "Both fine ideas if this were still the Nineteenth Century," he said. "But we're not. We're in the Twenty-First Century and I daresay we can do better. Now, make some noise if you think Occupy is actually changing the world."

There was scattered applause and a few shouts.

"Really?" asked T2. "After demonstrations everywhere and 8,000 arrests, that's the extent of your enthusiasm? Wall Street crushed Main Street and got bailed out by Washington while everyone else was left to fend for themselves. I thought Occupy was the people's response to that. Am I missing something?"

"You are the one percent!" shouted a woman in the center of the room.

"True," said T2. "And it's also true that projects like RIP Medical Debt are coming out of Occupy to make a difference. I'm not here to denigrate the movement or tell anyone what to do. What I would like to do is present you with a perspective you may not have heard before."

"We are the ninety-nine percent," said someone, like they wanted to get a chant going. "We are the ninety-nine percent." This stopped when no one else joined in.

"That perspective is this," continued T2. "The legacy economy that we inherited is hopelessly corrupt. But the technology exists today for us to abandon that system and replace it with something far more equitable. Imagine throwing away the entire world of credit ratings and bank mortgages. Imagine making Wall Street irrelevant and building a new economy from the bottom up instead of having the financial sector crush us from the top down."

The crowd started paying attention. For the next fifteen minutes, T2 laid out how his companies could provide infrastructure for a new economy capable of providing a real alternative to the legacy system. He'd done something similar in a dozen other major cities, though the impact of these talks was yet to be determined.

An abstract image

21 - Serious About Mt Gox

Collecting a small handful of arugula leaves from plants in the yard, T2 wandered in slow circles, consuming the greens. Ana stuck her head out the back door. "We have a visitor," she called. "A Mr Tyler, here to see you. I put some coffee on."

"Thanks," said T2, making his way back into the house, where he found the New York businessman waiting for him at the kitchen table. They shook hands and T2 poured himself a coffee. My Tyler refused the coffee but accepted a glass of orange juice.

"You need me for this?" asked Ana.

"Take your walk," said T2. "Nice out there."

"This must be important or you would've just called," said T2. "What's up?"

"I'll get right to it," said Tyler. "We can't figure out what you're playing at down in Missouri. Ten million dollars to a civil rights group in a town called Ferguson. Mr Wachuski is very interested in what you might have going on there."

"Ahh," said T2. "I guess that was a rather large donation."

"Right, but what's your angle?" asked Tyler. "Your timing in the markets and real estate has always been good. Prescient, even. But then you started buying up news outlets and throwing gobs of money at charities. So this Ferguson thing. We want to know what you know. Is it more real estate? Casinos? What?"

"You ever give any thought to police?" asked T2. "To how policing is changing in this country?"

"I'm not sure I follow," said Tyler.

"We're in the middle of a massive push to militarize civilian policing in this country," said T2. "It started after 9/11 and it's only been accelerating. The Pentagon's 1033 program is the most visible example of this, but it's happening in more subtle ways as well."

"Okay," said Tyler.

"At the same time," said T2. "Police have been padding their departmental budgets more and more with property they seize, often from innocent people. Some departments are literally making wish lists and then stealing from the population to acquire the items on those lists."

"So they're not saints," said Tyler. "What's your point?"

"Well, at least in the south, policing and corrections have been infiltrated by hate groups," said T2. "Because of these things and many others I doubt you want to go into right now, the police have essentially become an occupying army terrorizing communities of color. Particularly in places like Ferguson."

"I'm still not seeing your angle," said Tyler. "Maybe I'm missing something. But aren't you a rich White guy from the north."

"I have information suggesting that Ferguson will become a flash point for racial tensions around policing," said T2. "If allowed to build unchecked, these tensions will likely translate into rioting and looting on a national scale in approximately seven years. That civil rights group I gave to is positioned to relieve some of these tensions, especially now that they're adequately funded."

"Jesus, Barabos, you do play a long game," said Tyler, considering the statement. "I'll pass your insight on. There is another matter Mr Wachuski asked me to raise with you."

Here it is, thought T2. The real reason for the visit. "Alright, let's hear it," he said.

"This business with your Federation token is making some of our other clients nervous," said Tyler. "One client straight up asked us to kill your cryptocurrency before it got any bigger. You're rocking the boat with this thing in a big way."

"Was that a question?" asked T2.

"I'm not here to tell you how to run your business," said Tyler. "But there's a larger plan for digital currencies. You couldn't have known you were stepping on toes. Now you know."

"Given the nature of the technology," said T2. "I couldn't stop our token even if I wanted to. More than half the network is made up of independent operators at this point. If TAP and NIS shut down their nodes, these operators would take over the blockchain without missing a beat."

"I can't go back to our client with that," said Tyler.

"Get him on the phone, I'll talk to him myself," said T2.

"Not today," said Tyler. "Mr Wachuski was sure that we'd work something out."

"If your clients have a plan for digital currencies, great," said T2. "If they're smart, they'll buy Bitcoin and avoid Mt Gox. Beyond that, the space is a wild west. It'll be worth two trillion inside of ten years."

"That's not exactly the answer I was looking for, but it'll have to do," said Tyler. "So you really think Bitcoin is safe?"

"Yes and no," said T2. "As a whole, it's very safe, though it does consume enormous amounts of energy. There are however risks in every individual circumstance. While the tech won't fail, the people operating it may make mistakes. If you do buy Bitcoin, be extremely mindful about the wallet you store it in."

"Paper wallet, right," said Tyler.

"Good, so you get the basics," said T2. "My overall outlook on Bitcoin is positive. But I'm serious about Mt Gox. They have security vulnerabilities that someone is going to come along and exploit."

"I understand," said Mr Tyler. "Would you be willing to lay it all out in an article for our newsletter?"

"That I can do," said T2.

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22 - The Mycelium Key

Paying four million dollars for a thirty second commercial during the Super Bowl seemed excessive, but T2 felt he had no choice. He'd spent thirteen years trying to nudge society in a better direction and seemed to be getting nowhere. TAP had given billions away and provided affordable rent-to-own housing for hundreds of thousands of people. NIS had become a major player in the web microservices industry. T2 had built the empire he had set out to build, but it wasn't enough. The Super Bowl commercial was his attempt to go bigger.

Still, it impressed Ana, which was wasn't nothing. They watched the game together in their living room in Boulder, though T2 insisted on having the program muted until their commercial came on. Trish and Rambo had flown in from Oregon for the occasion. The commercial itself was largely Rambo's brainchild. When it was about to come on, they turned the volume up and all stared at the screen.

It began with a closeup of moss, shot with a drone that flew slowly back to show a tree, then up to show a forest. The forest, viewed from above, was then animated with countless filaments of light linking the trees. A narrator spoke:

"There is no such thing as a single tree. That's because every tree in a forest is connected to every other tree by a web of life that lives in the soil. Through this web, trees talk to each other, share resources with each other, and care for one another."

The scene then faded into a series of short clips of beautiful actors doing fun activities. The narrator went on:

"Unlike trees, people aren't rooted in the soil. Bound together by an endless web of light, people are free. Free to do anything. That's what The Anything Project and Anything Federation is all about. Freedom. Freedom and connection."

T2 muted the tv when the commercial ended. "Well, millions of people just saw that," he said.

"I think it was great," said Trish, patting Rambo's leg.

"I'm glad you went with that one," said Ana. "The alternate one I saw was too dark."

"It's good, but is it four million dollars good?" asked T2.

"Guess the metrics will tell us that when they come in," said Trish.

T2's phone buzzed and he answered. "Thomas?" he said. "You're on speaker."

"Hi Thomas," said everyone.

"Hey," said Thomas. "I just saw the ad. Pretty cool! There's just one thing I noticed and I wanted to ask you about it."

"What's that?" asked T2.

"So I watch the commercial and go to the website we set up for it," said Thomas. "Looks like a normal site where we're collecting emails for our list, with links for users to learn more about The Federation, TAP, and NIS. We're not selling anything or asking for donations."

"We wanted to keep it all super simple for the Super Bowl," said Trish.

"Right," said Thomas. "But then, I looked at the website's page source and it seemed kind of weird. So I typed the word 'mycelium' into the submit email field and it brought me to another page. This page asks for an email and an Anything Federation Blockchain address. I mean, what's that all about?"

Everyone looked at T2. "On that page, if you enter the information, you'll be directed to verify your email," he said. "From there, a user can download our new Federation token wallet as an extension for any major browser. These wallets will allow users to interact with the new website and decentralized applications we're rolling out."

"As head of media, shouldn't I have known about this?" asked Thomas.

"The whole point was never to make an announcement about it," said T2. "I want the first users of the new system to feel like they've just accidentally happened upon something strange and amazing."

"So you're saying don't write about this," said Thomas.

"Maybe give it thirty days," said T2. "Just to see what the organic response really looks like."

"Right on," said Thomas. "Rambo, you there? I'm sure I heard you. Great job with the commercial."

"Thanks," said Rambo. "Did you see the other one I just made? The one about food?"

"No," said Thomas. "Is it about how commodity speculation raises the price of food for poor people?"

"Nope," said Rambo.

"Is it about how the sugar industry corrupted science and misled regulators about the health risks of sugar?" asked Thomas.

"No," said Rambo. "It's about the tiny handful of companies that control eighty percent of the grocery market."

"Nice," said Thomas. "Send me a link. Congratulations again. Bye everyone."

Everyone said bye.

"You all seriously think it was good?" asked Rambo. "I feel like it might have been too abstract."

"Maybe that's for the best," said T2. "And now we've got a whole year to think about how to do it better next time."

"What if we did something more ... confrontational?" asked Trish. "I don't mean just for next Super Bowl. I mean, what if we got more aggressive about growing our network?"

"We don't evangelize," said T2. "Or did you have something else in mind?"

"What if we got more theatrical?" asked Trish.

"How would you do that?" asked T2.

"Costumes!" said Trish. "A couple of nodes have already adopted Star Trek costumes. It's a trend that's catching on and I think it's hilarious. I think we should encourage or even require every node to establish a costuming standard, which they'd apply during all public appearances."

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23 - Suspected Mind Control

Having just given a talk on the future of money to a crowd of thousands, T2 sat with Ana at a diner near the theater, surrounded by key players in the Anything Federation. While a few people stopped at their table to get selfies with T2, they mostly left him to eat his meal in peace. Finishing their food and paying, Ana went outside first to bring their car around while T2 stood outside in the spring night, smoking a cigarette.

A blue Toyota pulled up. T2 stepped back from the curb to give space to whoever was waiting for this vehicle. Then he saw a young man walking towards him wearing a puffy coat that seemed too warm for the weather. The young man drew a gun from his coat pocket and fired five times. The sound of the firearm was startling enough to knock T2 off balance.

Falling to the ground, he saw only a blank stare on the shooter's face as he dropped the gun and continued walking down the sidewalk. A blank stare, like he had no idea what had just happened. As people on the street started panicking, T2 realized he'd been hit. This was his last conscious thought as he bled out on the concrete.

Ana pulled up and jumped out of her car just in time to watch T2 take his final breaths. She kept everyone else away from him while EMTs arrived to confirm the obvious truth that he was gone. Despite the shock she was in, Ana sent texts to Thomas and Trish and Reed to let them know what was happening. By the time the police had her at the station giving a statement, the entire Federation knew that its leader had been assassinated in Cleveland.

As a former FBI agent, Ana was treated decently by the officers who interviewed her. Within a few hours, she learned that they'd arrested a man named Kyle Clinton Kissinger for the murder. Kissinger was found exercising at his health club and claimed to have no memory of the evening's events. Eventually, a pair of FBI agents arrived at the police station, went over everything one more time with Ana, then told her that they planned to keep the investigation with local law enforcement because there was no evidence that the assassination qualified as an FBI matter, despite the crime's high profile.

Within days, the police had settled on the story that Kissinger was a religious zealot, acting alone, who believed T2 to be the Antichrist. The only evidence for this story was that the assassin attended a church where the pastor had recently given a sermon equating digital currency with the 'mark of the beast.' Ana was livid, seeing this story as one of the most egregious examples of bad police work she'd ever come across. But the matter was out of her hands, so she returned to Boulder to regroup with Federation leadership.

Thomas, Trish, Reed, and Eggs met Ana at her house and went over everything again and again, until they were all exhausted. T2 had long had a plan in place for his death, which Thomas and Ana were executing now. When all of this plan's technical considerations had been seen to, there was nothing left to do but move forward. But that wasn't easy with so many questions still lingering about the shooting.

"I just ... I can't do it," said Thomas over lunch one day. "There's no way he was acting alone. I think Kissinger was programmed to kill. Not programmed like that one guy I heard about, driven nuts by parties unknown until he lashed out uncontrollably. I mean programmed by pros to do this one specific thing."

"So you think he was a Manchurian Candidate?" asked Reed. "Is that even possible?"

"There was a time when the CIA used over eighty institutions, major ones like universities and hospitals, to experiment on people for the purposes of mind control research. Declassified documents suggest that they successfully used hypnosis to create assassins half a century ago. How far do you think this mind control tech might have progressed in fifty years?"

"So you think it was the CIA?" asked Reed.

"No way," said Thomas. "I think it was some big money interest with access to the modern equivalent of that old CIA tech."

"What do you think?" Reed asked Ana.

"My mind keeps coming back to a meeting we had a few months ago," said Ana. "T2 had just given a talk about the connection between Big Pharma and psychiatric diagnoses. I guess he offended someone because they sent an important lawyer to come and scold us."

"I'm not following," said Trish. "What did he say in that talk?"

"The usual, mostly," said Ana. "That Big Pharma has a lobbying component as big as a small country. That every single expert involved in writing the book on psychiatric disorders has financial ties to the companies that medicate these disorders. That kind of stuff."

"So you think Big Pharma offed him?" asked Trish.

"I don't know what to think," said Ana. "But that lawyer at that meeting tried to give T2 five million dollars to stop talking about the industry in public, then he threatened to sue when T2 refused the money. I've been to hundreds of meetings with T2 over the years, and that's the first time something like that's ever happened."

"What do you know about the lawyer?" asked Thomas.

"That's the thing," said Ana. "When I went back to look him up, he was a ghost. All I could find was a picture of him on the website of a Cleveland law firm, but the firm dissolved a month after the meeting, and I haven't been able to reach anyone connected to that firm at all. I know who he is, attorneys have fairly public identities, and I know where he was, but where he is now is totally unknown."

"You tell the cops?" asked Eggs.

"They let me leave messages," said Ana. "But as far as they're concerned, the case is solved."

"Fuck that," said Thomas. "Fuck all of this. I say we find that lawyer ourselves and get him to tell us what he knows."

"Did you save his profile picture?" asked Trish. "We could put that and his name out to the network and find him that way."

"Assuming he's still in the country," said Reed. "But even if we did find him, this whole thing seems a little thin."

"It's better than nothing," shrugged Thomas. "Ana's working her contacts. I'm flying to New York tomorrow to meet with Mr Wachuski to find out what his people have been able to find out. Assuming they weren't behind it. Which they could possibly have been, for reasons we don't yet understand."

"Put his name and face out on the network," said Ana. "We find him, I'll talk to him."

"You guys," said Eggs. "What if this was the government? Like, not the FBI or CIA, but some military contractor, tired of T2's endless antiwar messaging?"

"Do mercenaries create mind-controlled assassins?" asked Trish.

"Someone does," said Thomas. "Someone did. Between us, we've got the resources to figure this out. But we should probably get a plan together for what to do with the truth once we find it."

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24 - Yeah, Assassins are Inconvenient

On a lounge chair at a SoHo cigar bar, Thomas sat across from Mr Wachuski, whom he'd never before met in person. They puffed on stogies Wachuski provided and talked about T2 for a couple of minutes. Then Wachuski got down to business. "As to the matter of T2's money in the fund?" he asked.

"The company that owns that money is now controlled by me," said Thomas. "Part of why I'm here is to determine the future of those funds. I'm also here to ask you why your people didn't see it coming. The shooting. Please tell me you know who was behind it."

"Our assessment was that the incident was an internal matter," said Wachuski. "If there was a third party involved, it wasn't government or a major corporate player."

Receiving a text, Thomas looked at his phone and swore. "Reed shot but will live. Gunman in police custody," said the text. "Another one of my people was just hit," he said. "If you get me information on why this is happening and who is behind it, I'll keep our funds in your fund."

"I see," said Wachuski. "We'll look into it. If this latest development means that you face an ongoing threat, you might consider a less visible location than Lower Manhattan."

"I'll stay safe," said Thomas with more nonchalance than he felt. "I just really need to know who is behind it."

"As it seems T2 left you with the keys to the kingdom, do you have any business insights for our other clients?" asked Wachuski. "T2 contributed regularly to our newsletter."

"Every company in our network remains fully operational despite the loss," said Thomas. "I'm told that NIS is considering diversifying into device manufacturing. That's the best I can do today."

After the meeting, Thomas wandered aimlessly through the Village before catching a car back to the Red Hook apartment. His paints were still there. An easel and canvasses, too. Making use of these things, Thomas spent a few days painting an abstracted bird with very large feet. After completing this picture, he got on a plane and flew back to Minneapolis, where he was currently based.

Marnie had left him months ago, so Thomas was alone in his house. After eating and sleeping, he decided it was past time he called Ana.

"Did you get anything from Wachuski?" asked Ana when she answered.

"Best I could do was a promise to look into it," said Thomas. "What more can you tell me about this thing with Reed?"

"The shooter used a .22 and aimed poorly," said Ana. "Donald Orange. He claims to have no memory of the event. Just like Kissinger. It's looking more and more like somebody is out there programming assassins."

"No kidding," said Thomas. "Listen, you're the expert. Should I be hiding out right now? What about you?"

"I don't know," said Ana. "And why Reed? Could this have something to do with NIS? Oh, by the way, I sent you something. Did you get it?"

Going through his mail, Thomas found a padded envelope with a flash drive inside. "Got it," he said, still on the phone. "What is it?"

"I got one and you got one, from the lawyers, after T2 passed," said Ana. "Mine was a video goodbye. I didn't plug yours in."

"Thanks," said Thomas. "I'll look at it when we're done. Do you know if he was giving Mr Wachuski his insights about the future?"

"Probably," said Ana. "A bit here and a bit there, maybe. Are you thinking Wachuski might somehow be connected to all of this?"

"I doubt it, but he might know more than he's saying," said Thomas. "I'm calling Reed when we're done. How was he when you talked with him?"

"About how you'd expect," said Ana. "Though I got the impression that he wasn't happy with the specifics of the continuity of operations plan T2 had in place when he was killed. Reed's position was unchanged, and I got the impression he was expecting some kind of promotion."

"Huh," said Thomas. "I'll ask him about that. What about security moving forward? For all of us?"

"I'm putting together a new security plan," said Ana. "For now, avoiding known routines and unknown persons may be the best we can do."

"Okay," said Thomas. "I'll call again later."

Plugging in the flash drive, Thomas found a sentimental video goodbye from T2. Watching his future self say goodbye in this way was surreal. Thomas shed a few tears and watched it again. Then he began exploring the other files on the drive.

One directory appeared to be filled with materials pertaining to T2's brain computer interface project, which he'd rarely talked about. According to these files, the project had been ongoing since T2 arrived in 2001 and had consumed tens of millions of dollars. When Thomas saw that Reed was listed as the project manager, he decided it was time to place that call.

"Thomas, thanks for calling," said Reed. "Please tell me there haven't been any new major developments."

"No, things on your end seem exciting enough for the both of us," said Thomas. "How are you feeling?"

"Good enough to go back to work tomorrow," said Reed. "Those bullets just grazed me. Really more of an inconvenience than anything."

"Yeah, mind-controlled assassins are inconvenient," said Thomas.

"I've been thinking about the birds," said Reed wistfully. "The bird population collapse due to pesticide use."

"Oh?" said Thomas. "What about it?"

"I've been thinking about how crime on that scale always goes unpunished," said Reed. "We've got a country that puts millions of people, people of color especially, behind bars for the pettiest of crimes. But no one's going to jail over half the birds disappearing. Just like the people behind the attacks on T2 and me are going to get away with it."

"So you're convinced your shooter wasn't acting alone?" asked Thomas.

"Donald Orange is just a regular guy who sells cars," said Reed. "Or he was. And Kissinger? No, I'm sure someone else is behind it. Maybe one of our competitors."

"Are you worried they'll send someone else to finish the job?" asked Thomas. "That they'll come after the rest of us?"

"I don't know, maybe," said Reed.

"For now, I'm just glad you're okay," said Thomas. "And whenever you feel up to it, I'd like to go over T2's BCI project with you in some detail. Hopefully, we can keep the project moving forward, even with him gone."

An abstract image

25 - Neural Signatures as Private Keys

NIS headquarters had moved and expanded since Thomas had last seen it. There were a couple dozen occupied coding alcoves, a few corporate offices, and two rooms devoted to training and testing the brain computer interface now in development. One thing Thomas noticed right away was that T2's giant, twenty canvas painting was no longer displayed. When he got to Reed's office, this was the first thing he asked about. "Nice place," he said, as Reed got off the phone. "But where is T2's big painting?"

"In a crate in the storage room," said Reed. "Why?"

"It's supposed to be displayed," said Thomas. "If you're not going to keep it up, ship it to someone who will. Ana in Boulder or me in Minneapolis. Ana might make more sense, since she already has most of his other artwork."

"The truth is that I always hated that painting," said Reed. "It made it seem like the future was all mapped out, instead of being what we make of it. The work is crated and ready to ship. I offered it to Trish, but her tree house can't accommodate a large art installation. You're more than welcome to it."

"Fine," said Thomas. "Make any other big changes the minute T2 died?"

"Just moving forward with the Neural Sensor Effector Array, like we talked about," said Reed. "Are you ready to see the NSEA in action?"

They proceeded to the device training room, where two college undergrads sat on lounge chairs, before large screens, wearing what appeared to be a motorcycle helmets made of wires and blinking lights. On the screens, bits of text would appear, each one a response to the last visible message.

"Are they ... chatting using only their minds?" asked Thomas.

"Yes," said Reed. "Pretty amazing, right?"

"How is the accuracy?" asked Thomas.

"We've got it down to thirty minutes of training to achieve eighty percent accuracy," said Reed. "But ninety percent accuracy requires another ten hours of training. And no matter how much we train, we can't seem to do better than ninety-six."

"What's the typing speed of a trained unit?" asked Thomas.

"That varies by individual," said Reed. "Twenty to thirty words a minute is normal."

"Can connected individuals communicate directly with each other, unmediated by screen displays?" asked Thomas.

"Only with simple messages universally," said Reed. "Individual differences in idea processing make more complex direct communication challenging. Some people think in words, some think in pictures, some think in feelings. The tech can be trained for all types, or most of them, but unmediated direct communication requires both subjects to be well matched."

"So the NSEA can't read someone's thoughts without training?" asked Thomas.

"Not with any accuracy," said Reed. "But once the software has an individual's neural signature, well, reading minds is what it does."

"Tell me about the software," said Thomas. "T2 left me detailed software and testing documentation, but I haven't had time to go through it all."

"Well, the neural signature is essentially a combination of weight values in a modified convolutional neural net," explained Reed. "It's simple in principle, but requires serious computing power."

"And you think the product could be ready for market as early as next year?" asked Thomas.

"Only if we go direct to consumer," said Reed. "If we seek regulator approval to market it as a medical device, it would take a minimum of five more years, unless our lobbyist can somehow work some magic."

"I see," said Thomas. "And safety testing? How far into that are we?"

"For consumer use, we had an accredited lab test the NSEA system and they found that the electromagnetic fields produced by the system at maximum power were well below the recognized threshold for tissue heating," said Reed. "There are other standards we'd have to meet to market the product for medical use."

"Interesting," said Thomas. "And do I understand correctly that you want another thirty million this year for further development and testing?"

"Only if we go the consumer route," said Reed. "Going the medical route would cost considerably more."

"How many of the developers I passed on the way in are working on this project?" asked Thomas.

"Just two," said Reed. "The rest are on web service and blockchain projects."

"You mind if I talk to a few of them?" asked Thomas.

"Be my guest," said Reed.

Thomas took one last look at the NSEA systems at work, shrugged, and left the testing area to find a developer to talk to. He was going to pick one at random, but then he noticed that one young man had a book on his desk that Thomas recognized. The book was by 9/11 Commission co- chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton. Its gist, Thomas knew, was that the government's official story was full of lies.

"Excuse me," said Thomas. "I noticed your book. Do you have a moment to chat?"

"Sorry," said the young man. "I know who you are. I'm Dave. Should I not be reading this here?"

"Read what you want," said Thomas. "Did you know that CIA agents started getting special insurance to protect themselves against liability for their post-9/11 activities."

"I hadn't heard that," said Dave. "I do know they started using broad administrative subpoenas for bank records to spy on millions of people without traditional due process."

"Yup," said Thomas. "But down to business. What is it you're working on here today?"

"Blockchain identity," said Dave. "The basic idea is to use neural signatures as private keys. So I'm trying to figure out the most efficient hashing algos, etc.."

"How far along are you?" asked Thomas.

"Not as far along as the boss would prefer," said Dave. "But I should have something up and running in the next few weeks."

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26 - Evidence in the Testing Data

For the next few days, Thomas studied the NSEA files T2 had left him carefully, working on his laptop in an NIS alcove, alongside the developers. Eventually, he began to realize what he was looking at. With this realization came fear.

Without saying anything to anyone, Thomas closed his computer, left the building, and got into his rental car. He drove for an hour, until he reached Trish's ecovillage. There was still an old bus at the end of the long, rough driveway. Thomas got out of his car there and made loud noises to announce himself.

Trish was leaning out a window of her tree house as Thomas approached. "You coming up?" she called down.

An elevator had been rigged with pulleys and counterweights. This ascended a little too fast for Thomas' liking, and he soon found himself on a bench in a large room with a tree growing through it, thirty feet off of the ground. Trish poured him a coffee and sat down. "So what's up?" she asked. "And why didn't you just call?"

"What do you know about this NSEA project?" asked Thomas.

"T2's headset, right?" said Trish. "I know Reed's mentioned it, but I usually stay out of NIS business. Why?"

"It's costing tens of millions a year," said Thomas. "That sound right to you?"

"I don't know," said Trish. "Where's the revenue potential? How much could the tech make?"

"That's the thing," said Thomas. "It could maybe crack a billion in several years, if we treat it like a medical device. But I don't see it even breaking even as a consumer device. So what's left?"

"I'm not sure," said Trish.

"The CIA once created six remote-controlled dogs," said Thomas. "That tech is out there. So is the tech to erase specific memories. But NSEA? That system is next level. I think maybe it could be used for mind control."

"Mind control?" asked Trish. "You think Reed is behind the attacks? Why would he have himself shot?"

"I don't know," said Thomas. "Not yet. But I know enough now to start asking the right questions. My next move is calling Ana about it. I was hoping to do that here, with you."

"Let's do it," said Trish.

They called Ana and put it on speaker. When she found out what it was about, she put them on hold for a moment while she located pertinent records. "All set," she said finally.

"Do you happen to know if Reed was in Ohio at any time during the year leading up to the assassination?" asked Thomas.

"He was, about eight weeks beforehand," said Ana. "Visiting a product testing company, according to my records."

"Do you know anything about Kissinger's whereabouts during Reed's visit?" asked Thomas.

"I can try to find out," said Ana. "You're thinking Reed somehow got Kissinger to do it using this NSEA thing?"

"The device can read and implant thoughts, so maybe," said Thomas. "I think the proof is in the testing data. T2 left me complete records, and when I requested the same information from Reed, the data he provided was incomplete."

"Crap!" said Trish. "I like Reed! I hope it's not him."

"If it was Reed, and if the tech really can be used for mind control, we've got to kill the project," said Thomas.

"Has he told you about his 'brain print' scheme?" asked Trish. "Like, instead of fingerprints, there would be brain prints."

"If it was Reed," said Ana. "I'll put him in a world of trouble even if criminal prosecution isn't possible."

"The omission of testing data is probably sufficient cause to terminate his contract," said Thomas.

"You know, Reed called me earlier," said Ana. "He told me that he suspected a rival company in the attacks. According to him, Rex Drexler, owner of Drexler Systems Inc, has been a thorn in the side of NIS for years. This Drexler is also apparently adept at hypnotism, having been a stage hypnotist before moving into BCI technology."

"So Reed's version is that Drexler hypnotized Kissinger to kill T2 to hurt NIS, then followed up by hypnotizing Orange to assassinate Reed, but failed at this?" asked Thomas. "I guess that's worth exploring. Still, where should we look to find more about Reed?"

"Leave it with me," said Ana. "But be careful. If Reed finds out we suspect him, he could respond unpredictably."

"Got it," said Thomas, hanging up. "Thanks."

"Oh my god," said Trish. "Before all of this, I went into NIS and used one of those headsets. Reed said it was just for fun. I spent an hour selecting colored squares on a screen until I could move the cursor with my mind as easily as with a mouse. Do you think he implanted something in my brain? Like a command or some other information?"

"Maybe, but I doubt it," said Thomas. "You've always been his ally. And he needs all the allies he can find for what he's trying to do."

"What do you think that is, exactly?" asked Trish.

"The more I think about it, the more I suspect that the shootings served more than one purpose," said Thomas. "They weren't just attacks. They were demonstrations. I think he was publicly demonstrating the mind control tech."

"So the goal is what?" asked Trish. "Sell the tech to terrorists on the black market?"

"Reed doesn't strike me as a black market operator," said Thomas, chuckling lightly. "But maybe. To be honest, if the NSEA really can brainwash people, I'm not convinced he has a complete grasp of all that implies. Tech like this could mind control an unlimited number of people for arbitrary reasons. Fortunately, Reed's no Robert Mercer. I doubt he's out to mind control whole populations to influence politics or anything like that."

"What if he's trying to sell it to the military?" asked Trish. "Or the CIA or whatever?"

"He might be," said Thomas. "If he was, what would that look like? I mean, what exactly would he do if that were the case?"

"He'd probably have them visit the office," said Trish. "Try to impress them. T2 had cameras installed a long time ago at the doors. If we knew when a visit might've happened, we could pull the footage and see who came."

"Good thinking," said Thomas. "Text Ana about it? And if there's any unusual downtime or missing footage, that might help us put together a timeline of events."

An abstract image

27 - Electric Fields Cannot Lie

Trish and Thomas spent the rest of the day gaming out scenarios for if Reed was or was not behind the attacks. After staying the night at the ecovillage, Thomas went back to NIS. Once there, he secured four NSEA systems, consisting of four headsets and the latest software build. Placing these items in his trunk, Thomas found Reed idle in his office and started asking questions.

"What can you tell me about Drexler Systems Inc?" asked Thomas.

"They've put all of their eggs in one basket," said Reed. "An EEG based BCI. They can't compete with our tech, so I think they've decided to start playing dirty."

"Have they contacted you at all?" asked Thomas. "Contacted any of our workers?"

"Not that I'm aware of," said Reed. "But that doesn't mean much. They're our most direct competitors. They obviously want us out of the picture."

"Obviously," said Thomas. "So, tell me, when I asked you to provide NSEA testing data, you provided incomplete data. Why was that?"

"What do you mean?" asked Reed. "I did provide complete data."

"Okay," said Thomas. "That statement conflicts with the evidence, but okay. Tell me, where do you see yourself in a year?"

Panicking inside, Reed kept his composure. "I see myself overseeing massive adoption of NSEA. Games. Porn. Even outside of medicine, our system has major appeal."

"How much of the total NIS budget is for NSEA at this point?" asked Thomas. "Eighty percent. The other twenty percent covers all of the blockchain and web services projects, which is where all of our revenue comes from. Now, unless you can explain NSEA's revenue potential a little better to me, I'm leaning towards pulling funding."

"No!" said Reed, more forcefully than he intended to. "It's just ... this project has become my baby since T2 gave it to me. And we're ten or even twenty years ahead of the competition. It would be a mistake to stop it at this point, after we've come so far."

"You ask for thirty million," said Thomas. "I'm prepared to give you five. But only if you start operating with a little more transparency. Especially about the elephant in the room."

"What elephant?" asked Reed.

"The revenue potential if we sell NSEA systems to intelligence agencies for interrogations," said Thomas. "That elephant."

"Oh," said Reed. "T2 was always against that. Plus, there are logistical barriers. The software requires a valid neural signature. The tech could be modified to make it work, but I'm not sure there's the demand you envision. I inquired with my FBI contact and they definitely aren't interested."

"You inquired with the FBI?" asked Thomas. "Recently?"

"Six months ago," said Reed. "I didn't know anyone at the CIA, or I would've asked them, too."

"As the NSA expands from terrorism into domestic policing, maybe they'd like a shot at mind reading technology as well," said Thomas.

"Sorry, are you saying I should pursue this?" asked Reed.

"Money is money," said Thomas. "When drug cartels needed to launder vast sums of blood money, HSBC accommodated their needs. If HSBC is helping the bad guys, who is helping the good guys? Why not us?"

"My thoughts exactly," said Reed. "Do you think Ana might have contacts we could follow up with?"

"She just might," said Thomas. "I'll ask her. In the meantime, can you walk me through how the software would work in an interrogation situation?"

"It starts with the testing," said Reed. "The subject is shown an image series and readings are taken. The process is repeated until the subject's neural signature has been isolated."

"This could be done against the subject's will?" asked Thomas.

"We're just measuring electric fields in the brain," said Reed. "Will has nothing to do with it. And once these fields are measured, we can measure the brain's response to new stimuli. A person can lie in answer to a question. The brain's electric fields cannot lie."

"Nice pitch," said Thomas. "Email me the code you'd use for that. We'll find the right buyer."

Leaving the office, Thomas didn't feel the least bit bad about deceiving Reed. Thomas now had a clone of Reed's phone, and had placed a recording device under Reed's desk. If he was lucky, Reed would be sending him evidence that the NSEA could be grievously misused. This was all part of Ana's plan, unfolding more smoothly than expected.

Thomas flew back to Minneapolis and spent a week catching up on lost work. His ruse proved successful when Reed sent him the incriminating data. The code for reading an uncooperative subject's mind was there. So were records of more testing subjects than Thomas had previously seen.

A few days later, Ana called with an update. "We got the fucker," she said, in lieu of greeting. "He's trying to sell Rex Drexler the mind reading tech. They've got a demo set for tomorrow."

"What does that mean for us?" asked Thomas. "Oh, by the way, I got something too. Donald Orange was an early test subject. But after he was shot, Reed told police that he had no idea who Orange was. Now we've got proof that he lied."

"I think the demo means he's getting desperate," said Ana. "Now might be the perfect time to get him to send you the mind control code. He still thinks you're on his side, right? Tell him you reached out to the CIA and they're interested in licensing the tech, but they need to see the code."

"Okay, but he doesn't know I know about the mind control," said Thomas. "Just the mind reading, and he already sent me that data."

"Just try," said Ana. "If Reed actually demos the mind reading for Drexler, word will be out. That's the last thing we need."

"Alright, but what's our play here?" asked Thomas.

"We get him on industrial espionage," said Ana. "Selling company secrets to a rival. A friend at the Bureau said that there's already enough to pick him up for that. It won't stick if he's got a good lawyer, but the investigation should be enough to separate Reed from NIS and the tech."

"So then why the CIA story?" asked Thomas.

"We want him giving us as much of his hidden information as possible before he's picked up," said Ana. "We need to know exactly how big this thing is, how much damage is already done, and how much worse it could get."

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28 - A Game With No Real Rules

The next conversation Thomas had with Reed played out about how Ana hoped it would. Thomas told Reed that the CIA was willing to license the mind reading tech, but that they'd pay significantly more if the tech could be modified to convince subjects to do things they'd otherwise never do. Reed told Thomas about an experimental application of NSEA that could do just that. He sent Thomas a large batch of files on this 'experiment.'

Looking over the files, Thomas saw no mention of Kissinger, so the data was clearly incomplete. But it was complete enough. What a nightmare! Thomas thought of T2, his now-dead future self, and wondered what he would do in this situation. Obviously, he'd stop Reed, which was why he'd been killed. Killed by Reed's mind-controlled assassin.

Thomas wished he could just shoot Reed with a poison pellet from a modified umbrella. Or maybe mind control Reed into becoming a white collar slave for the NXIVM cult. One call to Mr Wachuski is probably all it would take to make Reed disappear without a trace. Thomas might have made that call, but this was Ana's show. She'd been T2's partner and Thomas trusted her to look out for all of their interests better than he could.

During the Drexler demo, Reed offered to provide the rival company with proprietary NSEA tech for twenty million dollars, payable to a company in the Seychelles that Reed falsely claimed owned the underlying rights to it. When the FBI agents parked nearby heard this, they moved in, quietly arresting Reed for attempting to sell technology he wasn't authorized to sell. Thomas was on the phone with Dave, the software engineer, when it happened.

"Looks like that's it," said Dave once Reed was gone and Drexler's people had left. "We all just saw him leave in handcuffs."

"Thanks," said Thomas. "How is everyone responding? Could you put me on speaker to make an announcement?"

"I guess," said Dave, obliging. "Hey everyone, I've got Thomas Barabos on the line and he has something to say to us."

Ten or so people in the office gathered around Dave's phone. "I'm sure you all have questions," said Thomas. "What I can tell you right now is that Reed Johnson misused his position at the NIS. Today, he tried to sell our tech to a rival company. If any of you have been asked to do anything unusual by Reed in the last year, we need to know about it now. No one else is in any trouble, but we need to get a handle on the full scope of Reed's activities."

"Okay, but like, who is the boss now?" asked a woman whose voice Thomas didn't recognize.

"NIS was designed to run without a boss," said Thomas. "Once the dust from this thing settles, I'm hoping one of you will be able to take over with the full support of your coworkers. If any of you actually want the job, that is. If no one wants it, we'll fill the position with someone from elsewhere in our network."

No one knew what to say to that.

"There is another matter of immediate concern," continued Thomas. "Reed's Federation token stake. Can someone write an update that forks Reed's stake out of our blockchain? He was trying to steal from us, so I doubt there will be any trouble getting enough nodes to adopt the fork. But we need it now."

Dave and a few others said they could do this.

"Great," said Thomas. "Now, it's possible some or all of you will be deposed regarding this matter. We may have a lawyer come and talk with you about that. But for now, if anyone in an official capacity contacts you and asks you questions, please provide them with true and complete information. The more fully we cooperate, the better this will go for us."

"Understood," said Dave. "Loud and clear."

Thomas hung up and paced around his empty house for a minute. Then he walked to the neighborhood coffee shop. At a sidewalk table on a nice afternoon, Thomas distracted himself from the drama unfolding on the other side of the country by focusing on his surroundings. A pair of aging men were talking with a younger man leaning on a bicycle.

"Wealth has been redistributed from the working class to the ruling class since the seventies," said one man.

"We need to tax the one percent," said the other seated man.

"Tax them?" said bicycle guy. "Some people want to eat them. Not me. I'm vegan. But you know."

"Well, I'm for Universal Basic Income," said Thomas. "Universal healthcare."

"We know, Thomas," said the more ornery old man.

"Yeah," confirmed bicycle guy. "We know. Tell us something new."

"Okay," said Thomas. "So, I'm in charge of a tech company now. NIS. The person managing this company was involved in illicit research. He was arrested today on industrial espionage charges. And the illicit technology he was researching has terrible implications."

"What kind of tech?" asked bicycle guy.

"The kind I'm almost afraid to talk about," said Thomas. "Because just knowing it's possible could drive proliferation."

"So, a weapon," said bicycle guy. "Computer virus? What else could it be?"

"Right," said Thomas. "We're trying to contain it, but this virus has already been active in the wild."

"I thought you were in media," said the less ornery man. "Is this a new job?"

"I inherited the new position when T2 Barabos was gunned down in Cleveland," said Thomas. "Hopefully it's temporary."

"Oh right," said less ornery.

"Seriously, I have no idea what I'm doing," said Thomas. "It's like I'm playing a game with no real rules and wicked consequences."

"In over your head?" asked ornery. "Just don't agree to anything you don't understand and you should be fine."

"Thanks," said Thomas, who had been breaking that rule left and right. "The whole thing is a shit show. I'm just trying not to make anything worse."

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29 - A Brilliant Enemy on the Loose

Reed's bail was set at a million dollars. Upon making bail, he drove to San Francisco and disappeared. Everyone who had been with T2 in the early days had fortunes in offshore accounts and Reed was no exception. Though his assets had been frozen by the government and his crypto tokens had been invalidated on the Federation blockchain, he still likely had the resources to start a new life. And he would have had a plan in place for situations like this.

Coinciding with Reed's departure, six NSEA headsets went missing. To Thomas, this was a worst case scenario. A brilliant enemy with mind control technology was on the loose. In theory, any person could be compromised. Any stranger could be an unwitting agent of Reed's. Though he was tired of traveling, Thomas met Ana and Trish at the Colorado ecovillage, where everyone knew everyone, and no one seemed like a mind-controlled assassin.

"So that's it," said Ana, shaking a pan of popcorn on the campfire. "Agents are on the look out, but there are no more resources for Reed."

"Okay, so when can I go home?" asked Trish.

"I keep coming back to the idea that T2 was a demonstration of the tech for someone," said Thomas. "I mean, T2 was no Robert Kennedy, but his assassination did seem almost staged in some grotesque way."

"Foreign or domestic, are you thinking?" asked Ana.

"Knowing him, it could be either," said Thomas. "My guess is someone in Silicon Valley. Reed would totally pick California to disappear into."

"That sounds right," said Trish. "What does it mean for us?"

"If he gets plastic surgery and a fake ID, he could end up anywhere," said Ana.

"Guess you guys will be here for a while," said Harry, who was no longer called Harry the Drunk.

"Did the update you got include anything about our unaccounted for test subjects?" Thomas asked Ana.

"Nope," said Ana. "But our people continue to look into it. Just like our lawyers continue advocating for Kissinger and Orange, for all of the good it's doing."

"I still don't get why Reed was suddenly trying to sell to Drexler in the first place," said Trish. "Especially if he believed Thomas about the CIA being interested."

"I called him and told him that the CIA deal was a trap," said Ana. "After Thomas had everything Reed was going to give him, but before the Drexler demo. The goal was to get Reed to make a big mistake. In hindsight, we might have pushed him too far too fast."

"In hindsight, we should have gotten rid of him ourselves instead of trusting the law to deal with it," said Trish. "No offense, Ana. But he's in the wind now, because we trusted your Bureau."

"Don't forget, he's a national fugitive now," said Ana. "We couldn't have made that happen in-house."

"Are you sure about that?" asked Trish. "Between our ecovillages and our nodes, we've got most of the country covered. And none of us would've just let him go like that."

"And what could we do if we caught him?" asked Ana. "Make ourselves criminals by holding him somewhere? To what end?"

"We could use NSEA to convince him to make a video confessing to his crimes," said Thomas. "I don't see anyone believing the part about the mind control without something like that."

"So, mind control him into admitting his use of mind control?" said Trish. "That's as unethical as it is poetic."

"What about the media?" asked Harry. "I know our free press has become less and less free since 9/11, but don't like a million people read our Anything Federation News?"

"We'll get there eventually," said Thomas. "But I'm waiting until there's consensus on what to tell the public before putting the story out. Like, do we even want people knowing that our mind control tech exists?"

"One problem at a time," said Ana. "This whole thing is already too much, too fast. I'm still coming to terms with T2's death. I haven't even gotten through half of the information he gave me before he passed."

"Same," said Trish.

"Yeah," said Thomas.

"Sometimes I wish everything would just stop for a while," said Ana.

"Well, you've come to the right place for that," said Harry. "Around here, we've got nothing but time."

"You've also got sand," said Trish.

"Time and sand and pinion trees," said Harry.

"You know what I wish?" asked Trish. "I wish I never had to go back to the regular world. If I could just stay in Federation territory forever and never have to deal with normal people again, I'd be good. Great, even."

"T2 would have loved to hear you say that," said Ana.

"Yeah, he and I both," said Thomas. "To us, the known world has always been a wasteland, inescapable until he traveled back in time to create an escape hatch. Now, we're the best chance we've got of creating a parallel society that people participate in voluntarily. No bad actor, even one as bad as Reed, can make our Federation any less of an accomplishment."

"You all got me to quit drinking," said Harry. "Before I came here, I tried treatment and twelve steps and psychedelic trips, but I always came back to the drink. Then I came here and drank like a fish, at first. But it was no fun. Being a part of this ecovillage, being accountable to everyone for my contribution, I quit, and I haven't looked back. That never would've happened without T2."

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30 - Meeting in Miami

Summer air shimmered above the pavement. Condensation rolled down Reed's chilled bottle of soda while he waited on a Miami park bench for his contact. The man who eventually arrived epitomized the nondescript. He was slightly graying, with tan skin, of average height and build. "Mr Johnson, I'm Mr Miller," said the man, sitting down.

"Finally," said Reed. "So do we have a deal or not? I demonstrated the technology. Are you still interested? Is Zee still interested?"

"You assured us that events would unfold one way," said Mr Miller. "That you'd be running a legitimate enterprise we could do business with. Instead, you're a fugitive trying to sell stolen tech, with a face that hasn't yet healed from recent plastic surgery. What would you have us do?"

"Don't tell me you've suddenly sprouted scruples," said Reed. "Even in suits, you're mercenaries. Maybe you're not as bad as that company that traffics heroin and systematically defrauds the government while operating an a virtual extension of the CIA. But you swim in those waters."

"If you say so," said Mr Miller. "Would you like to hear my offer?"

"I'm all ears," said Reed.

"We're prepared to offer you fifty thousand dollars cash for two headsets and the software to make them work as advertised," said Mr Miller. "We'd like to get this done today."

Reed scoffed. "It costs almost as much just to make each prototype," he said.

"Sixty thousand," said Mr Miller. "And an anonymous boat ride to Central America. Get you out of the country nice and easy. Final offer."

Weighing his options, Reed felt unprepared to start a new life in the south. Whatever happened here, he intended to return to his new home in Sacramento afterwards. Still, he needed the money. The law had made his funds largely inaccessible. "You know what?" he said. "Fine, but I'm staying in the States."

They met again, twelve hours later, and completed the exchange. Left sitting on a park bench with a paper bag full of cash, Reed watched Mr Miller walk away. Considering the implications of the transaction, Reed felt sick and hated everything. He'd given a powerful weapon to a company that might violate human rights. He himself had violated human rights, and would again. Ever since the T2 assassination, things had been going wrong for him.

Reed wanted to take it all back and knew that he couldn't. Giving no thought to his victims, he lamented the difficulties he'd begun to encounter as a fugitive. And now Reed resented Zee for taking advantage of him when he was down. Sixty thousand dollars wasn't nothing. But it wasn't generous, either.

Buying a cheap car and driving back to California, Reed wondered what his next move should be. All he could think to do was to keep working on the tech. He still had four NSEA headsets. When he got home, he began experimenting anew.

To attract subjects for his experiments, Reed made flyers targeting the New Age and wellness community. A 'revolutionary form of biofeedback' for an 'unprecedented meditation experience' is how he advertised what he had to offer. Instead of paying test subjects, Reed charged them fifty dollars a session, offering the first session for free. During this first session, he captured the subject's neural signature, adding to his growing library of such signatures.

One afternoon, after two of his new subjects had just left, there was a knock on Reed's apartment door. Assuming a subject had forgotten something, he opened the door. There stood a man in Brooks Brothers, with a distinctive gold chain around his neck. Before Reed could react, the man pushed him back into the apartment and closed the door behind them.

"Hold on," said Reed, panicking. "I think you must have the wrong apartment."

"Mr Johnson," said the man. "I'm Mr Tyler. You know why I'm here."

"Are you from Zee Corporation?" asked Reed, leaning awkwardly against one of two stools at his kitchen counter.

"Try again," said Mr Tyler. "You have travel luggage? Let's get a piece of that and fill it with all of the tech that isn't rightfully yours."

"But ... it is mine," argued Reed. "I developed it. I wrote most of the original code. I have as much right to it as anyone else."

"You seem like a man who keeps his luggage in the bedroom closet," said Mr Tyler. "Come on. Let's get this over with."

An idea came to Reed then. "Alright," he said, heading for the bedroom. "Alright, but you're making a big mistake."

When Reed entered the bedroom, he opened the closet, pulling his empty suitcase from its place on an overhead shelf. He tossed this on the bed. While Mr Tyler nodded approvingly, Reed drew a gun from its place in the closet. "Don't move," he said, pointing the gun like his firearms instructor had taught him, careful to keep his finger off of the trigger until he was ready to shoot.

"You seem confused," said Mr Tyler carefully. "I'm your only friend in the world right now. Why do you think it was me and not the feds that knocked on your door today?"

"I don't ... But I don't even know who you are," said Reed.

"I'm the guy that's in charge of cleaning up your mess," said Mr Tyler. "That cost me a pretty penny in Miami. Why don't we got to your office, where everything's set up. You can show me any codes or passwords I'll need to access your data."

"But I'm the one with the gun!" said Reed, who nonetheless followed Mr Tyler into the office where the headsets were set up.

As Reed entered the office, Mr Tyler spun around, taking Reed's pistol and slapping him hard with his free hand. "I don't like it when people point guns at me," he said. "Now, show me how to work your system here."

Defeated, Reed showed Mr Tyler the system, with Mr Tyler doing each stem himself before moving on. It took two hours to go over everything and pack Reed's four remaining NSEA headsets and computers into the large rolling suitcase on the bed. "Now the money," said Mr Tyler when they were done. "Whatever you've got left from Miami, and any other cash you've got squirreled away."

"But I, I need that," said Reed. "What do you expect me to do?"

"I saw a safe in your closet," said Mr Tyler. "Open it, give me the contents, and I'll be on my way."

Reed complied, hating himself for doing so, feeling like he was in a dream. Handing Mr Wachuski eighty thousand dollars and a Rolex worth another twenty, Reed began to understand that this was more than a robbery. Upon stuffing the money into the suitcase with the tech, Mr Tyler turned to face Reed, holding what appeared to be a flashlight in his hand.

"What's that?" asked Reed.

"The latest model of a gadget that kills without a trace," said Mr Tyler. "Don't worry. It's painless, which is better than you deserve after what you did to Mr Barabos."

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31 - A Conspiracy to Steal Our Fire

A month at the Colorado ecovillage was as long as Thomas was willing to be away from his home base and Anything Federation News. While Trish and Ana stayed put, he returned to Minneapolis and began getting caught up on work. At the same time, he shut down every part of NIS that had to do with the NSEA systems. The whole project was boxed up and shipped to an unused TAP property near the AFN office. Aside from what Reed had taken, all of the project's pieces were accounted for.

It was hard to remain vigilant against the threat of mind-controlled assassins. It was theoretically possible for one to always be around the next corner. To distract himself from this, Thomas started a new project. The first stage of this project was to construct two giant spheres in the industrial space where the NSEA headsets were. One day while working on this, he heard a noise behind him and found Mr Tyler, from Mr Wachuski's office, standing there with a suitcase next to him.

"I'm pleased to see you're in good health," said Mr Tyler. "Reed Johnson recently died of a heart attack in Sacramento."

"I see," said Thomas, suspicious. "Thank you for telling me."

"Everything he took from NIS is in the bag," said Mr Tyler. "Plus a little something for your trouble."

"It's all here?" said Thomas, moving to open the suitcase. He unzipped it and inspected its contents. "So no one else has this tech?"

"That's the idea," said Mr Tyler.

"Your handling of this matter is impressive," said Thomas. "I'll keep funding your fund."

"Great," said Mr Tyler. "But there's a bit more to it."

"You want more money?" asked Thomas. "I can increase my investment if need be."

"That would be most welcome, but I'm here to ask you to give a select group of approved individuals access to your BCI technology from time to time," said Mr Tyler. "They would, of course, work around your schedule."

Thomas looked around at the partially constructed giant spheres and the pile of boxed up tech. "Government or private sector?" asked Thomas.

"Funny that you think there's a difference in business like ours," said Mr Tyler. "You know, Johnson sold your secrets to Zee Corporation for a song and a dance. Fortunately, we were able to secure those secrets. It's in no one's interest for this particular secret to get out."

"No kidding," said Thomas. "And what will you do with the tech once you have it?"

"Above my pay grade," said Mr Tyler.

"Even with Reed dead, there is always the possibility that he created sleeper agents," said Thomas.

"Maybe, but I'd be surprised," said Mr Tyler. "From what I understand, his initial plan was to kill the elder Mr Barabos and take over NIS. When that didn't work out, he fell to pieces. I don't see him creating sleeper agents."

"Is his death officially known?" asked Thomas.

"He was ID'd correctly by the coroner and there may be a news story or two," said Mr Tyler. "NIS might consider putting out a press release about how you're all heartbroken that he attempted industrial espionage, but the work must go on. That sort of thing."

When Mr Tyler left, Thomas wheeled the suitcase he'd brought over with the rest of the boxed up equipment, threw a dingy tarp over the whole pile, locked the building behind him, and walked over to the AFN office. There, he found a dozen writers at desks in an area they called The Nest. Further into the building, Thomas saw that one of their reporters was in the green screen room, recording a segment. Passing the office of the junior editors, he eventually made it to his old office, which was now occupied by a new head editor, Rashonda Wells. Thomas didn't knock, and he found the editor hunched over her computer.

"This a good time?" asked Thomas.

"Oh thank god," said Rashonda, looking up. "I've got a story here that I don't know how to handle."

"Good to see you too, Rashonda," said Thomas. "Reed Johnson was found dead of a heart attack in Sacramento. The angle is how sad to see a brilliant mind go, even if he did try to rip NIS off. Maybe put Todd Harvey on it. I'll get him Dave Dhee's number for comment."

"Okay, but I still need your help," said Rashonda. "Harvey's latest piece says US foreign policy amounts to blocking cheap medications for the developing world while selling them weapons to kill each other."

"That sounds about right," said Thomas. "So what's the problem?"

"The problem is that I want him on a polonium story," said Rashonda. "Not the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. There's a bigger story here about polonium 210 in tobacco being the cause of lung cancer."

"I'm not following," said Thomas.

"The short version is that processed phosphate fertilizers introduce polonium into the tobacco plant." said Rashonda. "This then hits the smoker with alpha particles which cause the cancer."

"Okay, but why is this news?" asked Thomas.

"There are a few things," said Rashonda. "First, Big Tobacco knew about it for decades and didn't address it. They even tried to wash the radioactivity off of the leaves with non-polar solvents, which didn't work. The thing they never tried was using tobacco grown without the chemical fertilizers in the first place. And here's where it gets weird."

"Okay," said Thomas.

"After searching and searching, I couldn't find a single legit study that looked at the difference between organic and chemical tobacco in terms of health outcomes," said Rashonda. "So the scientific community knew that a chemical fertilizer was the origin of all of this lung cancer, but no one ever studied tobacco that didn't include the chemical input. Like, what the fuck?"

"That does seem fishy," said Thomas.

"Well, it gets better," said Rashonda. "Ever hear of Sir Richard Doll? He was a cancer researcher, the cancer researcher, really, who connected cigarette smoking with lung cancer early on. Way back in 1951. There's a mountain of research that was built on his work. But from what I can tell, he was as corrupt as the day is long."

"So ... ?" asked Thomas.

"Sir Richard Doll was paid enormous sums of money by Monsanto," said Rashonda. "Fifteen hundred bucks a day. He studied Agent Orange, a Monsanto product, and found that it wasn't carcinogenic. There's also record of him being paid by the Chemical Manufacturers Association, Dow Chemicals, and ICI. Keep in mind, those are just the ones we know about. And, surprise surprise, his findings always favored the people paying him."

"So you're thinking his early research was also tainted by industry?" asked Thomas.

"Yes, but not the tobacco industry," said Rashonda. "The chemicals industry and Big Ag. I think he used tobacco as a convenient scapegoat for the cancer causing effects of chemicals used in industrial agriculture. Blame the plant, not the toxic shit injected into the plant. That kind of thing."

Thomas sighed. "You're probably right," he said. "But maybe don't do the story."

"What?" asked Rashonda. "Why not?"

"T2 was convinced that there's a global conspiracy underway to steal our fire," said Thomas. "The idea was that the control regime is severing our connection with fire in both a mechanical and mythic sense. At the same time, tobacco clears the mind without producing intoxication in the addict. The control regime doesn't want clear minds. It wants repeat customers for pills that alter brain chemistry."

"Okay, but why shouldn't I do the story?" asked Rashonda.

"Because true or not, implying that tobacco could be made safer without industrial chemicals is probably more trouble than it's worth," said Thomas. "It's like claiming that cows eat grass in Iowa. Yes, any thinking person knows that cows do indeed eat grass. But in Iowa, where cows are fed corn instead of grass, admitting that cows eat grass is a good way to get fired from your job."

"So you'll fire me if I run the story?" asked Rashonda.

"I'd never fire someone for writing the truth," said Thomas. "Write what you want. But if you end up taking any kind of pro-tobacco stance, you might not ever be able to get another job in this industry."

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32 - Ogling the Spheres

Two dull metal spheres dominated the industrial interior of the building where Thomas had been spending much of his time. Each sphere was hollow and insulated, with an outer diameter of thirteen feet. Inside each were comfortable chairs, computers, and NSEA headsets.

While Thomas made and outfitted these spheres, four anonymous workers came and went, two men and two women. Thomas called them A, B, C, and D. In various combinations, these four would arrive, fiddle with the tech, spend time in one of the building's two offices, and leave. They had their own keys to the building, which had initially surprised Thomas though it should not have, and they mostly kept to themselves.

Having delegated all of his regular work to capable others, Thomas turned his focus exclusively to the spheres, and to programming software for the NSEA systems. Over time, AFN attracted a million subscribers, half a million families were renting-to-own on TAP properties, and the value of NIS exploded as blockchain tech grew from obscurity into something everybody was talking about.

Though he observed these developments and sent weekly letters to the whole network recognizing them as they unfolded, Thomas became increasingly absorbed with his work on the spheres, which he started calling the Mind Spheres. He wrote Mind Sphere programs and tested them on himself. Once a week, Thomas made an appearance at AFN, never once mentioning the secret project which had become his obsession.

A great deal of time passed. Years passed, and T2's legacy continued to bear fruit. Then, as the end of 2015 approached, things changed for Thomas. Ana, Trish, and Dave Dhee turned up in Minneapolis, banging on the door of the Mind Spheres building. Thomas was studying a computer screen when they arrived, and it took him a minute to even realize that someone was knocking. "Oh, hey," he said when he eventually opened the door.

"Hey, yourself," said Ana. "Don't you even look at your phone anymore?"

"Not really," said Thomas.

"What the fuck is that?" asked Trish, pushing her way into the building, ogling the spheres.

"Seriously!" said Dave.

"Alright, alright," said Thomas. "You may as well come in. But this project is as secret as it gets, and I'm counting on you to keep it that way."

"I can't believe you kept it a secret from us!" said Trish. "We expected to find you deep in cocaine and hookers. Or maybe lost in a painting, like what used to happen with T2. But this? What even is this?"

"I call them Mind Spheres," said Thomas, walking around a Sphere to show them its entrance. "I repurposed the NSEA systems to explore human potential."

"Why are there two?" asked Dave.

"For psychic research," said Thomas. "That'll be phase two. I'm still on phase one."

"I expect to hear all about it later," said Ana. "We have more important stuff to talk about now. Do you even realize that we've entered T2's red zone. You do remember about the red zone? This is the crucial moment everything he did prepared us for. And you're ... what? Playing mad scientist here?"

"So you're still thinking we can swing the Democratic Primary the other way, like T2 wanted?" asked Thomas. "Fine. I'm up for trying. There's a big whiteboard over there and we can order food. you want to hash this out, let's hash this out."

They sat on metal folding chairs in the larger of the building's two offices, eating sandwiches from the deli down the street. Ana had printed relevant sections of T2's timeline of the future, which she taped to the whiteboard. "So here's what we're looking at," she said once everyone was mostly done eating and chatting about everyday matters. "Hillary Clinton beats Bernie Sanders in the Primary and everything goes to shit. Ideas?"

"Just so we're clear," said Dave. "I didn't really know T2, so I don't understand the nuances of his plan. Is the objective to secure a Sanders win in the Primary, even if Trump eventually beats him in the general election? I mean, based on everything you've already shared with me, Trump has a billion dollars from the Koch brothers. He has Cambridge Analytica hijacking tens of millions of Facebook profiles to swing things his way. So, like, what does it matter who he beats in the general election?"

"It matters," said Thomas. "It matters because, in part, it will determine the lines along which people in this country become divided in the years to come. That was T2's thinking, anyway, and I trust him like I trust myself."

"So what are we looking at here?" asked Trish. "Campaign donations? Media blitz? What?"

"As much as I hate to say it," said Ana. "The whole process seems like it's already too corrupt to influence by traditional means. Thomas, have you read the briefing I emailed? Everyone else read it."

"Sorry," said Thomas. "But I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the situation from what T2 drummed into me, when he was alive."

"Okay, so why don't you take us through the next few months of this?" said Ana.

"Fair enough," said Thomas. "The short version is that the Democratic National Committee is not at all democratic. They've already selected Hillary Clinton despite the fact of her profound corruption. The most egregious example of this corruption was probably her approval of arms deals to Clinton Foundation donors when she ran the State Department. But whatever. The DNC wants her, not Bernie Sanders, so she's the one who'll win the election."

"At some point," continued Thomas. "A DNC staffer will become so fed up with the Clinton-DNC collusion that he'll leak a trove of damning emails to Wikileaks. The CIA will blame Russia for the leaks, and will convince mainstream media to start calling the leaks Russian hacks. Julian Assange will dispute this characterization. So will a diplomatic insider named Craig Murray. But the truth won't matter. By the time Broward County is caught literally destroying Sanders ballots , the election will long have been over."

"Fuck," said Trish. "Hearing it all summed up like that makes our job seem impossible."

"Only on the surface," said Thomas. "The momentum pulling us towards a Trump presidency is probably too great for us to overcome no matter what we do. But most of T2's wealth was passed to me. I could mobilize these funds to get Sanders the Democratic Party nomination. The big question in my mind is how to most effectively mobilize these funds."

An abstract image

33 - The Telepathy Test

After a bunch of tedious drama that seemed like it would never end, Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic Primary. Achieving this result required the full force of The Federation and nearly two billion dollars. Their victory felt short-lived. Immediately after the contest was won, the media establishment refocused the national conversation on Donald Trump and Russian electoral interference on his behalf. And when Donald Trump won the general election, it was as if their accomplishment had accomplished nothing at all.

Even so, events did begin diverging from T2's future history in small ways. His lottery numbers were now correct only about a tenth of the time. His sports scores were even less accurate. Many of the news stories he'd archived were never published. So they hadn't done nothing. They'd done something. They'd moved the needle.

Through it all, T2's financial market predictions remained remarkably accurate. The prices of currencies and commodities rose and fell exactly where T2'd said they would, no matter how far this timeline diverged from the future he'd recorded. It was almost as if the markets were tightly controlled, impervious to outside influences, despite appearances to the contrary. Trading on T2's information, Thomas kept expecting his luck to run out, but it never did.

Trish visited Thomas that winter. She moved into an extra room in his house, having vowed never to spend another winter in a mountainside treehouse. Thomas was glad for the company. His ongoing obsession with the Mind Spheres had not made him into a more social creature. The current conversation illustrated that.

"So while it's possible to encode false memories into working memory, encoding them into procedural memory is much trickier," said Thomas.

"Because of the folded 3-D geometries?" asked Trish, following along.

"That's right," said Thomas. "The sequential activation of folded 3-D geometries."

"And the false memories you're talking about ... ?" asked Trish.

"I've mostly been working with skills and languages," said Thomas. "Like, I've got a program that'll teach me other languages, but I forget them after a few hours."

"So we could go into your Mind Spheres, learn Japanese, then come out here and have a conversation with each other in Japanese?" asked Trish.

"Yup," said Thomas. "We could also learn martial arts, without the benefit of bodies trained in martial arts."

"Could we do blacksmithing?" asked Trish.

"Maybe," said Thomas, grinning. "The experiment I'm the most excited for though is the telepathy test. I can't do that one by myself. You want to volunteer?"

"What do I have to do?" asked Trish.

"Sit in a Sphere wearing a headset, and train the software to recognize you," said Thomas. "Then we both sit in Spheres, trying to keep our minds blank for a few hours while the software observes the relationship between our thought patterns."

"A few hours?" said Trish. "What about, like, twenty minutes?"

Enjoying the novelty of it, Trish agreed to the telepathy test, which ended up taking a couple of days. When they were done, reviewing the results, they found evidence that their minds in the Mind Spheres had indeed been connected, though not consciously. Thomas was thrilled. Trish was happy for him. To celebrate, they went out for Indian food.

"Okay I promise not to talk any more about the results," said Thomas, partway through the meal.

"Let's talk about how we were able to swing an election just by throwing giant piles of money at it," said Trish.

"I know, right?" said Thomas. "But all our money did was cancel out all of the money behind Clinton. We made the fight more fair and Sanders won it on his own merits."

"Yeah, okay," said Trish. "To be honest, more and more, I've been thinking about money as a form of mind control."

"It's definitely that," said Thomas. "Every jerk that's just doing their job for some tyrant is doing their job for money. But then, we've both got money and is it mind-controlling us?"

"Probably," said Trish. "But I've been thinking about it in relation to stories. Like, one of the most important powers money gives you is the power over shared stories. The ability to determine the features of our information landscape."

"For sure," said Thomas. "Working in news media sometimes feels like being caught in a maze made of big blocks of money, all insisting that their version of reality is correct."

"And then there's the government," said Trish. "Did you know there are government agents in Hollywood controlling the UFO narrative for reasons we can only guess at? But what I'm really thinking about is Reed. He was set for life at NIS. Why did he throw it all away? Was it just for money, or was there something else?"

"I think he saw the power of the tech and wanted to exercise that power," said Thomas. "The prospect of power is a seductive thing. And, as always, those seduced by power are unlikely to use it wisely. Just look at what the police did with their newfound power after 9/11. They did all kinds of stuff, with help from Homeland Security and other agencies. They militarized and started gobbling up NSA information when it suited them. They started brazenly stealing from people. What they never did, and probably won't ever do, was relinquish the newfound powers after the initial threat that created those powers proved largely ephemeral. "

"I guess it just bothers me that we could swing an election with a couple of billion dollars," said Trish. "What that actually means is that we don't even have a democracy. Not really. We have a system where the rich pay for opportunities to subject their subjects to propaganda to produce predictable election outcomes. God, it's so ridiculous it makes me want to scream."

"Don't scream," said Thomas. "Whether you see it or not, I think we actually did some good with our money. The way T2 told his story of the future, there was never any real discussion of class or class politics in the general election that followed the primary. In our new reality, when Trump won, it wasn't just one Master of the Universe beating another. It was a New York real estate tycoon beating a lifelong civil servant and champion of the working class."

"So?" said Trish.

"So," said Thomas. "Instead of being forced to always choose between two sides of a single elite agenda, we helped people see another side entirely. The side of average people, maybe. Even if that side didn't win, just making it more visible had to have some impact."

An abstract image

34 - The Vibe is All Wrong

When Thomas first told Trish about A, B, C, and D, she assumed he was joking. But then, while they were experimenting with the Mind Spheres, A and D showed up. Trish watched in fascination as these nameless workers in khakis and whites began using an NSEA headset and typing on laptops. "Are you seriously telling me that these people have been sharing your workshop here since the beginning?" she asked. "This whole time? And you've never even talked to them?"

"Not much to talk about," said Thomas. "I keep waiting for them to finish whatever it is they're doing, but they never finish. They just keep coming back. I call it a studio, by the way. Though I guess workshop works, too."

"And you're just going to go along with it forever?" asked Trish.

"Hard to say," said Thomas. "For all I know, they're building a mind control weapon for the military. But they could just as easily be applying the tech to the manipulation of artificial limbs. Or maybe they're doing something way weirder."

"Such as?" asked Trish.

"Instant education, like I'm doing," said Thomas. "Perhaps orgasms programmed into the mind. Extreme tolerance to pain. There are lots of directions to take it."

"Huh," said Trish. "Safer painkillers. We could sure use those. Though I did read that legalizing marijuana reduces prescription opioid deaths. But seriously. What do you think they're doing?"

"I'll be sure to ask Mr Wachuski the next time I see him," said Thomas. "I've tried talking to these ones here and they never respond."

"Crazy," said Trish. "I don't think I could handle it."

"Truth is I kind of like the mystery," said Thomas. "Playing with secret tech in this unlikely studio, watching these unknown persons come and go. You know, at first I thought they were CIA, but now I kind of doubt it."

"Oh?" asked Trish. "Why is that?"

"The vibe is all wrong," said Thomas. "They're not Ivy League and they don't strike me as soldiers."

"Did you hear the Los Angeles Times got caught clearing stories with the CIA before publication?" asked Trish. "Whatever. Anyway, who do you think they are?"

"Private sector, NID, DARPA," said Thomas. "From what I've been told, it's all pretty much the same when you get to a certain level. This crew definitely seems to be operating at that level. Technically, I suppose so are we."

"Technically, I'm one of the biggest landlords in the country and I live in a treehouse," said Trish. "I'm restless. Want to get out of here for a while?"

They walked through the cold winter afternoon to the coffee shop, which was one of the only places Thomas really went these days. There were no open tables, so they joined a pair of young men, who didn't seem to mind. One wore a gray hat and the other had a bright blue scarf. The pair were involved in a discussion about the new state of politics under Trump.

"I'm just saying he's a racist," said gray hat. "He's as racist as credit scores."

"Right, but I bet he doesn't get us into any new wars," said blue scarf. "Now I'm not saying he's good. Just ... bad in a different way than we're used to. He's friends with Jeffrey Epstein bad, not Timothy DeFoggi bad."

"DeFoggi?" asked gray hat.

"A career bureaucrat who got caught with kiddie porn," said blue scarf. "One thing I know for sure about Trump is that he's no bureaucrat."

Trish giggled. "You guys are great," she said. "I take it you didn't vote for him?"

"Nah," said Gray hat. "No one did. No one here, anyway. But we're just one spot of blue in an ocean of red."

"On another subject," said Thomas. "Are either of you old enough to remember 9/11?"

"I was in elementary school," said blue scarf. "All I remember is the grown ups getting all upset. I saw the towers get hit, but I was too young to understand what I was seeing."

"Same," said gray hat. "But I was even younger."

"And later, in school, do you remember what they taught you about the attack?" asked Thomas.

"That radical Muslims attacked us because they hated our freedom," said gray hat.

"And that all the victims and first responders were heroes," said blue scarf.

"Out of curiosity, were either of you ever taught that elements within the Saudi government supported the attacks?" asked Thomas.

"If that were true, then why did we invade Iraq?" asked gray hat.

"For oil, duh," said blue scarf.

"You know about the petrodollar, then?" asked Trish.

"I know they had oil and we wanted it," said blue scarf.

"So I'm clear," said Trish. "Your version of events is that the towers were hit by a rogue group of religious radicals, then we responded by invading Iraq to take their oil?"

"Yeah, basically," said blue scarf. "I'm not saying it makes sense, but that's pretty much what we were taught."

An abstract image

35 - About the Virus

Looking at the twenty panel painting on her wall, Ana focused on a particular area of the artwork. T2 had called this area the red zone. Important events were mapped out across the entire display. The red zone was reserved for events leading up to society's transition into a dystopia in 2020. Despite all of the time she'd spent with T2, Ana still found it hard to believe that things would get that bad.

Once a month, Ana did a conference call with Trish, Thomas, and Dave. These calls were supposed to be about keeping T2's dystopia at bay. None of them knew how to go about doing that, so the calls ended up being somewhat less focused. Today, they'd been talking about the Saudi backing of 9/11. Then the conversation veered into trickle up economics and metals price fixing by big banks.

Now, considering at T2's art, Ana tried to bring the conversation back to the matter at hand. "Come on guys," she said. "T2 gave up everything to put us in a position to make a difference when the time comes. And that time is coming."

"Anyone with a computer can get a job with NIS that pays a living wage," said Dave. "That's something."

"And anyone who can afford to rent can afford to rent-to-own a TAP property," said Trish. "We're up to three million units as of last month. Plus, anyone can camp for free at one of our ecovillages."

"Speaking of that," said Thomas. "What's going on with Harry in Colorado? I read in a blog post that he got kicked out, but never heard the story."

"Yeah," said Trish. "Harry started drinking again and groped someone. The whole village got together and decided to give him another chance. Then he did it again, so he's out, and he's banned from all TAP properties and operations. We put him on our official Shit List."

"Huh," said Thomas. "This is the first I'm hearing about this list. Is it public?"

"It's public, but we don't advertise," said Trish. "Mostly, it's used for internal TAP decisions. Like, whenever a new person shows up at one of the villages, someone checks to make sure they're not on the list. Anyone on the list can appeal their inclusion in it, but no one has ever appealed."

"Interesting," said Thomas. "But getting back to the matter at hand, I'm still not totally clear on what difference we're trying to make."

"You knew T2 better than any of us," said Ana. "What would he be doing if he was still alive?"

"Seriously?" said Thomas. "I feel like he'd be amazed by what TAP and NIS are accomplishing. Not to mention the influence we had in the last election. But whenever we talked about this moment, the lead up to the pandemic, he got kind of weird about it. Like he was traumatized by it, maybe."

"Yeah," said Trish. "A million dead and civil unrest will do that."

"A million dead?" asked Dave.

"That's just in the US," said Ana. "And just from the virus that starts spreading next year. Add to that a hundred thousand more deaths per year from drug overdoses. Spiking accident and murder rates. To be honest, I'm still having a hard time wrapping my mind around it."

"T2 always qualified that one million figure," said Thomas. "He said it included everyone who died with the virus, not just those who died from the virus. But even if the real figure ends up being twenty percent lower, that's still a nightmare scenario."

"And you're all convinced that this will happen?" asked Dave.

"T2 was never wrong about the big stuff," said Ana.

"Not to sound negative, but what do you think we could do about a virus?" asked Dave. "I mean, really?"

"About the virus?" said Thomas. "Probably nothing. But from what I understand, it was society's response to the virus, and not the thing itself, that made everything fall apart. Crazy policies that set the stage for widespread rioting. Corporate handouts and partisan squabbling, against a background of intense fear mongering. The Fed using their special computer to inject money into the financial sector, leading to runaway inflation. That kind of thing."

"You mentioned that by email," said Dave. "What I'm wondering is where NIS fits in. We have the third biggest blockchain in the world and we're a major player in the web microservices industry. We're big enough now that we're thinking of hiring our own lobbyist. But what can we really do about a virus? As in, biological, not digital."

"You could set up a way to track the propaganda," said Ana. "As we all know, media propaganda greatly intensified at the beginning of 2016. I'd like to see a system where I read a news article, then click on an app to see the source of the story. Whether the source is corporate of government or some think tank. I'd also like an app that shows me a story without emotional language or unnecessary phrase repetition."

"Interesting," said Dave. "Have you seen our censorship tracker? We log disappearing news items and censorship events across a few categories. I can find out if the project team is up for expanding to track propaganda, too."

"AFN could feature that on its site," said Thomas. "And do regular stories on the information it provides."

"That gives me an idea, but on another subject," said Trish. "TAP polling. Between grant recipients and tenants, we've got millions of people in our network. So we start surveying them, asking what they would do if there was a virus, etc.. It's basically a way of warning people about it without warning people about it."

"So you don't think we should actually warn people about it?" asked Ana.

"Maybe in a year, when it's supposed to begin," said Trish. "I mean, most of our people have already been exposed to the idea. T2 told everyone he could about his version of the future. But getting too loud too early about it seems like it might be a mistake."

"I kind of wish you'd kept me out of the loop on this one," said Dave. "I know what T2 believed, but actually having a meeting about it is surreal."

An abstract image

36 - They'll Do What Fat Leonard Did

Swarming dragonflies filled the sky at the edge of the group. Dozens of people, having finished their communal meal, sat, arranged in concentric circles, in a field of milkweed. Northern Wisconsin's summer sun gave the air a lazy quality. Lounging on a thin wool blanket, Thomas and Trish slowly packed up their eating utensils. Thomas watched the people walking by, looking for Ana, who'd said she might join them at this gathering.

"No way," said Thomas, recognizing someone and waving.

A man with an elaborately carved walking stick approached. He wore a hat with bells on it, a multi-pouch fanny pack, hiking sandals, and nothing else. "Mr Barabos, Miss Lupo," said Mr Wachuski. "What a pleasure."

"Mr Wachuski," said Thomas. "Is this a coincidence?"

"Here they call me Heron," said Mr Wachuski. "I've been going to gatherings for twenty years, when I can get away."

"Do you pray for peace with everyone on July Fourth?" asked Thomas.

"Peace is profitable and war is a racket," said Mr Wachuski. "More peace in the world could only be good."

"Is that what your anonymous workers are doing at the studio in Minneapolis?" asked Trish. "Making peace?"

Mr Wachuski looked at Thomas. "She knows?" he asked.

"She knows," replied Thomas. "But only her."

"In that case," said Mr Wachuski. "The contractors in question are establishing the state of the art. By all accounts, they've put us decades ahead of the competition."

"The competition?" asked Trish. "For mind control tech?"

"Indeed, though I'm sure you're aware that the technology has other important applications," said My Wachuski. "You're welcome to join me at my camp for refreshments while I wait for the bonfire in main meadow to get going. It's not far."

Trish and Thomas looked at each other. Trish laughed. "Sorry," she said. "It's just ... I never figured you for a nudist."

"I like to get naked and dance around a fire, howling at the moon," said Mr Wachuski with a chuckle. "Imagine my surprise at actually seeing someone I know at one of these things."

A ten minute hike brought them to Mr Wachuski's camp, deep in a stand of hardwoods. There, a painted woman named Web was serving coffee and tea from large stainless pots on a smoldering fire. A handful of others sat around or fussed with camping gear. The day's light was fading.

Sitting on a log, sipping slightly burnt coffee, Trish and Thomas were quiet, absorbing the scene. The forest was absolutely crackling with the energy of thousands of freaky people gathering. Shouts echoed through the area. "We love you!" people yelled, back and forth, throughout the vast encampment. "Wake up and rage!" hollered one group, somewhere nearby.

"I can offer you cookies and sugar cubes," said Mr Wachuski, finding a seat on another log.

"What kind of cookies?" asked Trish.

"The kind from the store, no additives," said Mr Wachuski.

Trish took a sugar cube and a cookie. Thomas accepted only the cookie. A pair of dogs ran by, nipping at each other. Tending the fire, Mr Wachuski waited for a pause in the activity. Then he took a deep breath. "I'm just going to call you Thomas out here, if that's okay," he said. "Thomas, we're reaching the inflection point that your predecessor was preoccupied with. But what about you? Do you think the pandemic he warned us about is indeed on the horizon?"

"I guess so," said Thomas. "Hard to imagine, out here in the woods. But yeah. It'll start this fall. By next spring, panicking governments will screw everything up. There will be civil unrest inside of a year. After that, well, I can't really picture it."

"You ever hear of Fat Leonard?" asked Mr Wachuski. "A contractor who bribed Navy officials with money and sex to funnel government funds his way. At least once, he had an aircraft carrier diverted. A whole aircraft carrier, sent to a port he controlled."

"Crazy," said Thomas.

"Indeed, but it illustrates a valuable lesson," said Mr Wachuski. "If one man with some money can influence military maneuvers in times of peace, consider the influence a more powerful actor might wield in a moment of crisis like the one we're looking forward to."

"You're talking about Big Pharma?" said Trish. "T2 said they become a global superpower when the pandemic starts. I mean, I know everyone's already on drugs and they basically engineered the heroin epidemic, but T2 said that what they'll do next is next level."

"They'll do what Fat Leonard did," said Mr Wachuski. "They'll make gobs of money by diverting society to a port they control. If what T2 said was true, and in all these years I've never had cause to doubt him, Big Pharma - in the guise of the medical establishment - is our first Fat Leonard. Then it'll be military contractors raking in billions from a war in the east. After that, who knows?"

"Okay, so what do you think we should do about it?" asked Trish.

"You know why I believe that all of this will happen?" asked Mr Wachuski, his pupils beginning to dilate as a sugar cube took effect. "Because Big Pharma and the medical regime have already done dry runs. With bird flu. With swine flu. The dry runs betray their ultimate objectives."

"Like when Saudi Arabia did a dry run of the 9/11 hijackings before finally carrying them out?" asked Thomas.

"Every team in every sport has in common that they practice," said Mr Wachuski. "But the most important question isn't what the other teams are practicing. It's what we ourselves have been practicing."

An abstract image

37 - Candles in the Forest

Pulling Thomas down a dirt trail through the dark forest, Trish squeaked and hooted in response to every sound made by the forest's many other inhabitants. Eventually, they came to a camp lit by torches, where everybody was eating popcorn.

"Popcorn!" said Trish, guiding them to an open area by a large fire. "I don't want any but I love the smell."

A guitar and a banjo played something festive. A man covered in dirt failed to keep a beat with a hand drum. Trish sprawled out on an area of packed earth. Thomas sat next to her.

"Did I seriously just get dosed by Mr Wachuski?" asked Trish. "Oh my god, there's going to be a global pandemic. What the fuck are we going to do?"

"Our best," said Thomas. "We'll do our best. There's no way it'll be as bad as T2's timeline. How could it be? Our world has already started to diverge from his and we've got The Federation."

"You know what I don't get?" said Trish. "Our rent-to-own properties. It really only cost a couple of billion to seed the whole thing, and now we're giving millions of people their rightful ownership stakes in the places where they live. Do you know what that means?"

"What does it mean?" asked Thomas.

"It means that anyone with a couple of billion could've done what we did, but they all chose to do things the wrong way," said Trish. "Rich people. The government. They're all the same. They're all against us. Oh my god! What are we going to do?"

"Right now, maybe just breathe," said Thomas.

"You know what I think?" asked a nearby woman. "I think people have already killed three-fourths of the insects off and sperm counts have been cut in half. Everything that we do to the world, we do to ourselves. And we don't just harm the planet, we're enthusiastic about it. We subsidize fossil fuels while Exxon pollutes communities of color. We're a people that's lost its way."

"Preach!" said the banjo player.

"So what do we do?" asked Trish. "Like, what would you do if you had the power to do it? I'm talking billions of dollars and tens of thousands of people? What would you do? You personally?"

"Give everyone ponies and toothbrushes," said a man in the shadows.

"Live music everywhere," said the banjo player.

"I think we should heal the wounded," said the preachy woman. "And give people places to just be, without someone profiting from the occupation of space."

"That makes me think of occupying space," said Trish. "As in, outer space. I hear they'll be mining the moon soon."

"Biggest cheese mine in the galaxy," said the banjo player.

"People are so divided and it's only going to get worse," said Trish. "Worse and worse."

"Oh, come on," said Thomas. "You, of all people, know that life is what we make of it."

"I know the gospel of T2," said Trish. "I know people are already drawing lines in the sand over things like race and gender while every real conversation about economic inequality gets sidelined. I'm sure they'll do just like T2 said and make the virus political when it shows up and starts spreading. It's hard to believe that people would be foolish enough to politicize a pandemic, but I'm sure they'll find a way."

"Say it, sister," said the banjo player.

"Pandemic?" asked the preachy woman.

"Yeah, it's starting this fall, but it won't bring the world to a halt until next spring," said Trish.

"What kind of pandemic?" asked the preachy woman.

"A novel coronavirus," said Trish. "COVID-19, I guess. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus. Covid is what they'll call the sickness caused by the virus."

"How do you know?" asked the preachy woman.

"I met a man from the future and he told me," said Trish. "Thomas here met him, too. He was Thomas' future self, in fact."

"It's all true," said Thomas.

"I've been visited by my future self, as well," said the preachy woman. "But the information I get is always less ... specific."

"One time I learned a song from a dream," said the banjo player.

A large dog ran through the area, impacting a log in the fire on its way past, scattering hot embers and ashes all over everybody. For a minute, they all attended to the damage, which was entirely cosmetic. Someone who'd been standing outside their circle came over and placed an inappropriately large pile of wood on the fire. Taking this as their cue to leave, Trish grabbed Thomas and they headed back into the dark forest.

As they walked, letting their feet find the packed earth path that their eyes couldn't see, Thomas looked up at the stars. Eventually, they found a blanket on the ground next to the path, surrounded by candles. Trish sat down and Thomas followed suit.

"Someone made a place for us!" said Trish. "Are they still here? Hello! Are you still here?"

"We're in the sky net," came a man's voice from above.

"It's sky people!" said Trish. "Thanks for lighting candles for us, sky people."

"Got any weed?" came the man's voice again.

Trish laughed, laying down. "So this is it," she said a minute later. "I guess, if the world really is about to fall apart like T2 said, laying here in the woods is a pretty good way to spend our time."

An abstract image

38 - Revealing Small Gods Within

When he was alive, T2 always made a point of warning people about catastrophes that were about to happen. Almost no one heeded these warnings, but he kept issuing them regardless, feeling a moral obligation to pass along to others the lessons he'd learned from his timeline. After T2 was killed, Thomas took over, warning people of the impending disasters that T2 had meticulously documented. Usually, people simply ignored Thomas as they'd ignored T2 before him.

When the pandemic began, nearly everyone staunchly ignored Thomas' warnings. It didn't help that these warnings were convoluted. His message was that the virus wasn't nearly as bad as it was made out to be, and that the thing to fear was actually society's response to the virus. Even with the full weight of AFN's news network behind him, this message mostly fell on deaf ears.

Scientists modeling the theoretical spread of the virus overestimated its dangers and recommended drastic policy measures guaranteed to do more harm than good. The so-called lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were among the worst of these measures. With information from T2 suggesting that lockdowns wouldn't meaningfully impact the spread of the virus, Thomas used AFN to oppose the lockdowns early on. The news network was consequently blacklisted by search engines and on social media.

No matter what The Federation did, the pandemic unfolded about how T2 had said it would, at least initially. Thomas found this intensely discouraging. But then something happened that surprised him. One of the warnings he issued actually made a difference.

In T2's timeline, as the pandemic was getting underway, four Minneapolis police officers casually murdered a Black man in broad daylight in front of a crowd of people. This had sparked the largest civil rights demonstrations in human history. Along with these demonstrations came civil unrest. In Minneapolis alone, angry mobs had burned down a police station and hundreds of other important buildings. The police stopped policing the city entirely and roving gangs of armed robbers took over.

Having warned many people of impending doom over the years to negligible effect, Thomas was surprised when the man he spoke to heeded his warning about the police. And when this man wasn't murdered on camera for the whole world to see, his death didn't become a catalyst for civil unrest to develop along lines that ultimately served the control regime's agenda of further power consolidation.

Instead, as the summer of 2020 wore on, more and more people began participating in demonstrations against pandemic policies, workplace exploitation and corporate welfare. These demonstrations had a strong civil rights component, but they weren't tied to legal proceedings related to a single man's murder. In a few cases, officials were pressured by protests to arrest criminal cops and charge them with crimes. But no matter how many problem officers were charged, the demonstrations continued gathering steam.

At the end of July, farmers got organized and poured one million gallons of spoiled milk all over Washington DC to protest policy decisions that harmed food producers. Amazon workers nationwide stopped work in August to protest poor working conditions and insufficient pay. Whistleblowers at news outlets and social media companies revealed a staggering level of press manipulation and censorship in support of the control regime's pandemic agenda. By September, in Minneapolis and most cities across the country, protests at the homes of elected officials were a regular occurrence, but the riots and looting of T2's timeline never materialized.

Trish had eventually decided to move in with Thomas permanently. Ana came to visit them in September. Trish continued running the TAP from Minneapolis, though she had signed over her Oregon treehouse to Pine Cone, who had been with the organization since the beginning. On a three season porch, sipping fresh juice, Ana was feeling reflective. "You know," she said. "Back when I first met T2, and the whole first part of being with him, I was still with the Bureau. Boy, was I convinced that they could do no wrong, even if they did make mistakes from time to time."

"And now?" asked Trish.

"Now I'm not sure," said Ana. "Back in 2014, an FBI informant hacked a major UK newspaper. That same year, it came out that they used a fake Associated Press story to catch one of their suspects. Mistakes are mistakes, but interfering with the free press should be off limits."

"Did you know that the only person locked up over the CIA's secret international network of torture prisons was a whistleblower trying to expose the wrongdoing?" asked Thomas.

"I know too many things like that," said Ana. "But the point I was getting around to making is that, with T2, he'd make mistakes all the time. We all did. But the way he set up The Federation, with NIS and TAP and the AFN, those mistakes were always contained. He never thought in terms of companies. He called the whole idea of companies magical thinking. To him, it was always just people in networks. An actual person was always accountable for the decisions that got made."

"You know what I've been thinking about?" asked Thomas. "We're not so many years away from the era T2 left when he went back in time to 9/11. I would've turned into him. But because he went back, I'll never be him. And, to be honest, I can't imagine taking a one way trip back in time for any reason."

"It probably helps that he made us all rich," said Trish.

"True, but the good we've done helps more," said Thomas. "We've created jobs and homes. Viable alternatives to predatory landlords. Financial services for the unbanked. The list goes on and on."

"We also prevented mind control technology from getting loose," said Ana. "T2's biggest mistake was paving the way for that tech, and it got him killed. But we made sure that it never fell into the wrong hands again. Speaking of that, Thomas, how's your research coming along."

"I've moved on from instant education to the production of religious experiences," said Thomas.

"It's totally cool," said Trish. "He started mimicking the effects of entheogens, and zeroed in on patterns that put you in touch with different parts of your divine nature. You should try it. I tried it and it was incredible."

"T2 would've loved that," said Ana. "He sometimes talked about wanting to do something similar, if he ever had the time. Tricking the mind into revealing the small gods within, he called it."

"I'm still working on the tuning," said Thomas. "It has to be tuned carefully to your neural signature, or the experience isn't as profound."

An abstract image

39 - 9/11 Redux

In November, the anonymous workers that Thomas and Trish had become accustomed to stopped showing up at the studio. Thomas wondered if their departure had something to do with the election, but it wasn't as if there was anyone to ask about it. He wasn't reckless enough to call up Mr Wachuski with questions regarding people that didn't officially exist. But, with them gone, an idea came to Thomas.

There were now dozens of NSEA headsets in the studio that no one was using. And their experiments, producing religious experiences with the headsets, had been quite successful. So they cleared out the space that wasn't dominated by the Mind Spheres, replacing piles of old tacky office furniture with an arrangement of two dozen comfortable chairs, each with a small table and a lamp next to it. Then they invited top people from the Federation to join them in Minneapolis for a mind-blowing New Year.

On Christmas Eve, Rashonda Wells and Todd Harvey from AFN showed up, having been invited by Thomas to tour the mysterious place he'd so often disappeared into. Trish met them at the door. Thomas was running late after attending a family event.

"Impressive," said Rashonda upon seeing the Mind Spheres.

"Is this some sort of virtual reality gaming suite?" asked Todd, considering the identical lounge chair setups.

"Not VR," said Trish. "The NSEA systems use electric fields and ultrasonic actuators to talk to the brain directly."

"How exactly does that work?" asked Todd. "I'm assuming you brought me here to write a story about it?"

"Let's wait for Thomas before getting into it," said Trish. "Tell me, are you working on anything big?"

"We're getting some blowback from our decision not to cover the Presidential election," said Rashonda. "If there's trouble at the Capitol on January 6 like you warned about, we'll cover that."

"AFN covers important stories," said Trish, shrugging. "There's nothing important about a corporate stooge being elected to office."

"We should have covered the election more," said Todd. "We actually gained subscribers by not covering it, but I still think it was the wrong move."

"It was my call and I stand by it," said Rashonda, who'd had this conversation before. "Did you know global poverty is doubling under pandemic policies? This new poverty is killing twenty thousand people every day. That's a million every two months. You want to cover politics? Cover the politics of that."

"I'd like to see an in-depth story looking at the similarities between the pandemic and 9/11," said Trish.

"How do you mean?" asked Rashonda.

"It's just something I've been thinking about lately," said Trish. "For starters, both 9/11 and the virus seemed to come out of nowhere, but really there was plenty of warning signs for both. Signs that experts ignored."

"Okay," said Todd, unconvinced.

"The real similarity is in the response," said Trish. "Three thousand people died in 9/11, but tens or even hundreds of thousands died in Iraq and Afghanistan afterwards. This virus might kill millions, but as Rashonda just pointed out, millions more are already dying because of how we're responding to the virus. And then there's the money."

"The money?" asked Todd.

"Here, I have data you don't have," said Trish. "Part of T2's legacy. By the time the dust begins to settle, our projections show that central banks will have injected some nine trillion dollars into economies to keep them afloat. The thing is, most of this money isn't going to the people who need it. It's going into the financial markets. Five of that nine trillion is being added directly to the wealth of billionaires. (alt link)"

"I don't see how that compares to 9/11," said Todd.

"They say they're doing one thing, but they're really doing another," said Trish. "Since 9/11, our foreign policy seems perfectly designed to manufacture terrorists, from drone strikes to torture to incarceration of militants in Iraqi prison camps. More terrorism means bigger security budgets, which always enrich the already-rich and make people less free."

"So you think pandemic policies are making the pandemic worse?" asked Rashonda.

"They're making the pandemic worse, they're transferring wealth from the lower classes to the elite, and they're making people less free," said Trish. "I honestly believe that these are the control regime's specific goals. What reminds me so much of 9/11 is how so many people are just going along with the program, trapped in fear, never once wondering why lockdowns and masks and the new vaccine keep failing to stop the spread of the virus. The reason is that they were never intended to stop the virus. They were intended to destroy our freedom, just like the response to 9/11 was, but in a way that's an order of magnitude bigger, and global. If we wanted to stop the virus, minimize its harms, we'd be following Sweden's lead."

Thomas arrived then, feeling like an interloper at having come into what was clearly a heated discussion. "What did I miss?" he asked.

"Trish thinks the pandemic is a 9/11 redux," said Rashonda. "I'm only half convinced."

"Give it a year and see what data comes in," said Thomas. "Now, has Trish explained what we do here?"

"Brain wave VR?" said Todd.

"Close enough," said Thomas. "Our particular focus is producing experiences of the divine."

"The ... divine?" asked Todd skeptically.

"Are you familiar with how entheogens work?" asked Thomas. "Our NSEA systems can produce religious experiences in a way that's similar to, say, magic mushrooms."

"So, digital drugs?" asked Todd.

"Sort of," said Thomas. "But with several key differences. The experiences are short. Fifteen minutes to start. And they are customized to each individual's neural signature. In fact, every aspect of them can be customized in the software that runs the systems."

"What about safety?" asked Todd.

"For now, the technology is completely experimental," said Thomas. "Trish and I have both used it extensively with only beneficial effects. But if you want to try it, you'll have to sign a disclaimer that gives you no recourse if the tech does you harm. And it might. We don't really know."

An abstract image

40 - The Cosmic Mystery of Building 7

Standing in the doorway with the door open, Thomas watched his breath become visible and then vanish into the icy night air. He'd just spent half an hour communing with an NSEA system. Feeling sharp and a little tired, Thomas regarded Eggs, who was pacing the sidewalk outside. Eggs was excited about the digital communion he too had recently experienced.

"Why would I ever do drugs again?" muttered Eggs. "What would it take for me to get one of those machines?"

"Not a chance," said Thomas. "You know the rules. You signed them."

"I know, I know," said Eggs. "I just ... can't believe we have to wait until tomorrow to do it again."

"You know what I realized," said Thomas. "You know T2? Claimed to be me from another timeline? That he went back in time to help us? Well, he never fully explained his time travel technology."

"Not even to you?" asked Eggs.

"The best I ever got was some nonsense about programmable matter and a bunch of hand waving," said Thomas. "Do you know what I think?"

"What?" asked Eggs.

"I don't think there was a time machine at all," said Thomas. "More specifically, I think that the time machine was the person himself, his consciousness, combined with the right computer program operating an NSEA headset."

"So you think T2 just poofed himself into the past?" asked Eggs. "Like, with mind magic or something?"

"After what you just experienced in your communion, can you really imagine the limits of this technology?" asked Thomas.

Trish joined Thomas in the doorway. "He telling you his time travel theory?" she asked Eggs.

"All in the mind," said Eggs. "For sure."

"Anyway," said Trish. "You guys should come back. The group discussion has started."

When the three of them returned to the main room, Molly Oliver from West Virginia was speaking. "I'm glad I did it," she said. "But you won't catch me doing it again. It's like, you've invented nutrisweet but my world is already filled with sugar. That plus unknown risks equals no thank you."

"I just find the whole thing so interesting," said Dave. "For some reason, it makes me think of UFOs. We tried the god program. Imagine if there was UFO experience program. I'd be willing to help write that program."

"Are you all kidding me?" said Pocket, from the Colorado TAP ecovillage. "That shit was so real! It was like waking up from the matrix. I don't even know if I'm here or in my mind, after that. All I know for sure is that I feel less afraid now than I did before."

"The religious experience is all about social obligations and rituals," said Trish. "It doesn't make sense to say the tech produces religious experiences. I see that now."

"Makes sense," said Molly. "The tech obviously can't replace religion. But if we're not careful, someone could come along and build a religion on top of it."

"Just one of the many reasons we all need to keep this thing a secret," said Thomas. "This technology isn't for the masses. It's far too dangerous."

"Remember, if you can make it, someone else can make it, too," said Todd. "You might not be the only ones to have it for long. If god-on-demand is the upside of the equation, what's the downside?"

"Mind control," said Thomas. "That's what Reed Johnson was using it for. To mind control Kyle Clinton Kissinger into assassinating T2, among other things."

"Is it true that Kissinger is getting out soon?" asked Pocket.

"Maybe," said Thomas. "My consultants say maybe this year. But even if we could prove he didn't do it, and he definitely did do it, the whole appeals process is designed to keep innocent people locked up. So our strategy is to try getting him paroled, and I'm told that's going okay."

"I had something weird happen during my communion," said Trish. "There was a moment when I felt like I was being bathed in divine light. That part wasn't new. I'd experienced experienced it before, during the experiments Thomas and I did. The new part, the weird part, was that my mind suddenly flashed to 9/11."

"Is that something you think about a lot?" asked Molly.

"Not really," said Trish. "But what flashed in my mind wasn't 9/11 in general. It was Building 7 of the World Trade Center complex. You know, the building that fell down as if by controlled demolition despite having never been struck by a plane. Well, I thought of that, and the message I got from my consciousness was that Building 7 was, like, some cosmic mystery, presented to humanity as a symbol of deeper mysteries we're struggling to come to terms with."

"Fascinating," said Dave. "How do you feel about this idea now that you're not wearing a headset?"

"I feel like anything is possible," said Trish.

"I had a different kind of profound revelation," said Dave. "It wasn't about people or events. More like the fine structure of reality."

"What did you see?" asked Thomas.

"It's hard to explain," said Dave. "It's like, what things reduce to. In computers, everything is reducible to binary. Ones and zeros. Presence or absence. But we're not computers. Our consciousness doesn't reduce to presence or absence. Instead, it reduces to a different kind of binary. A binary of associations and distinctions, determined by biological composition. I don't know how useful that is, but it sort of blew my mind."

"Can we come back to the idea that a UFO experience could maybe be simulated by the program?" asked Pocket. "Where I live, in Colorado, tons of people see UFOs. Thomas even saw one, when he was visiting one time. We see them, but we don't really know what they are. All we know is that they might be important. If you start simulating those experiences, would that make them less important somehow?"

The end.

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