Xerxes was not amused.
As his assistant, Ander, rattled off the most recent financial figures, Xerxes could tell his underling knew what the precipitous drop in followers and micro-tithes meant for the Singularity Group. Xerxes could almost see the man’s knees knocking together in anxiety, though he had no reason to fear. Xerxes had a plan. Xerxes always had a plan.
“Thank you for your service to the Group, Ander. Please leave me to think.”
The young man bowed slightly and, as was customary among members of the Group, touched his fingers to his temple, closing a circuit embedded throughout his body, which then sent a localized ‘mazer’ microwave current to anyone he was locally tethered to, which at that moment was only Xerxes.
The current triggered a full-body ‘ping’ in Xerxes’ consciousness; a sixth sense of a sort, which was activated by a small magnetic field, which was in turn controlled by a chunk of code in Ander’s internal gadgetry. The field triggered nano-scale magnets implanted in key muscles and nerve-bundles throughout Xerxes’ body, causing them to vibrate ever so slightly. The result was an all-over feeling of lightness or stirring when a fellow member completed the fingers-to-temple ritual.
Although he’d been doing the ritual for years, and although the tech-injections required to implant the exo-cerebral chip and nano-magnets had been around for longer still, Xerxes still got a thrill from understanding exactly how it all worked while most of the world could only hypothesize. He knew and they didn’t because he invented the technology. And they didn’t.
The Singularity Group was a corporation, not a religion, though it was frequently compared to the latter. Xerxes often ruminated about how many financial benefits there would be to running a church over a business. And really, his was a religion that actually worked. Faith was unnecessary; his use of technology allowed for predictable miracles every single day.
Of course, the mass-integration of technology into meditative and communicative practices was only a small part of what made the Singularity Group so influential, and therefore so misunderstood — some might say distrusted — by those not in the fold.
There was also their namesake belief that the Singularity, a moment where humans and machines would merge so as to be indistinguishable from each other, was impending, and when it finally arrived all of the world’s problems would be systematically solved by highly rational, infinitely-intelligent, half-machine super-humans.
Just thinking about it brought a smile to Xerxes’ lips, though the smile disappeared when he pulled himself back to the issue at hand.
Since the beginning of the Singularity Group, when Xerxes incorporated as an investment entity, believers from all over the world made their pilgrimage to the Throne. The Throne was not a large chair, as the press seemed to assume when he first started making headlines, but a monastery. Outside were acres of well-tended farmland, maintained by followers who had yet to make the Leap: the ritual during which they would receive their implants. The repetitive work served to abolish the habits of everyday life, and allowed them to center themselves completely before joining the Group and dedicating themselves to achieving the Singularity in their lifetimes.
At the center of the farmland was a small building about the size of a basketball court which housed a tiny sand-and-rock-filled Zen garden, a featureless courtyard with yoga mats covering the polished stone ground, and the room where Xerxes received his visitors; the so-called Throne Room of the Throne, which contained a small wooden platform just big enough for a cushion and Xerxes upon it.
It was there he spent most of his time, as it was his place of relaxation, but also his hub of information. It was where Xerxes listened to news from his followers, and because of the technology built into the walls of the building, his reach was amplified. From his platform, atop his cushion, within the Throne, Xerxes could receive feeds from all corners of the world, and process them with the speed of an amplified intelligence. The information was funneled into a chip attached to his skull and displayed onto blink-powered contact lenses he wore on both eyes.
Xerxes’ Throne was his Bodhi Tree. His Walden. His Archemedean bathtub. It was there he felt most powerful.
And yet, even sitting in that spot, awash in inspiration from the feng shui of the building, buzzing with injected chemicals to artificially-inflate his energy levels and keep his mood balanced, and humming with a tiny trickle of electricity through his cerebral cortex to help spur inspiration, he was coming up short on solutions for his acolyte egress issue.
He’d managed to keep the outbound migration of his flock under the radar for almost a year, but the writing was on the wall, and even the dedicates who worked for him directly were starting to eye him askance when they didn’t think he would notice.
The micro-tithes, auto-deducted from bank accounts of Group members around the world to advance the Singularity, were disappearing faster than his treasury could handle. He quietly shut down one Initiation Center after another, and he’d completely lost contact with nearly all members in some parts of the world. Hundreds of thousands of his most zealous followers in Hungary and Chile, for example, had recently cut off communication with him and the Throne. It was a trend he was concerned might spread to other moderately-sized countries if a solution wasn’t found.
But before he could divine a solution, he had to identify the problem.
For the past two weeks he’d been performing split-tests and thinly-veiled surveys on every tenth member of the Group, and the results had been largely positive. His people were happy. They still felt they were working toward a good cause. They enjoyed the benefits of being a member of his organization, and they felt society was becoming ever-more accepting of them and their beliefs. Good progress, after all the lawsuits and lobbying in the rocky years, right after they hit the mainstream.
Perhaps the unhappy people had all left, giving him skewed results? It seemed unlikely. For there to be that kind of mass exodus, there would need to be a general sense of discontent. There would be a wave of woebegone whining, with high crests and low tides. To find nothing but still waters where he expected a roiling ruction alarmed him. Like an egret looking out over a too-still swamp, Xerxes knew there had to be alligators hiding just under the surface. What shape the beasts would take, however, he couldn’t fathom.
Xerxes noticed a soft pulsing of light around the edges of his peripheral vision, which indicated he had an urgent message waiting for him. Focusing his eyes on one of the many symbols on the wall that allowed for shortcuts while interfacing with his lenses, a semi-transparent inbox appeared on the wall in front of him, though the image was actually displayed on the lenses. He focused on the top unread message to open it.
The message was heavily designed, as had become the trend in the relatively outdated, but still-alive, world of email. This particular message was done up to look like a hand-written love letter from the Victorian era, wax seal and all. After admiring the handiwork, Xerxes read the message.
It pains us that we haven’t had the chance to speak in the past, but recent happenings have forced our hand.
Your embrace of technology and efforts to forward its entwining with humanity is laudable, but your devolution from genius-technologist to cult-leader has caused your balance of value to teeter in an unfortunate direction.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, your numbers are dwindling, and this is just the beginning. We’ve been nipping along the edges of your flock, but we’ll soon be recruiting from your ranks in earnest. We want you to know it’s nothing personal, but we do feel our cause is more virtuous than yours, and has a greater chance of success. We’re sure someone of your ‘spiritual’ affinity can understand our justification from the moral high-ground upon which we stand.
We are sending you this message not to warn or threaten you, but to thank you. What’s about to happen is possible because of your contributions to technology and planting of seeds which have led to higher adoption rates for technologies which otherwise would have taken much longer to become widely used on a global scale.
Despite this debt, however, we are sorry to inform you that the Singularity Group will soon be obsolete. No hard feelings.
Most sincerely yours,
Xerxes read over the message once more, trying to decide whether to trash it as a piece of online hooliganism that had somehow crept its way through his filters, or as a serious letter to be combed over by technical experts.
Perhaps it was a joke. Or a warning from one of his underlings. Maybe they were watching for a confused response, or some sign of weakness. “Ander!”
His assistant quickly stepped into the doorway and bowed slightly before responding. “What can I do for you, Sir?”
“The message that just arrived in my inbox. Will you please get me the tracking data attached to it? I’d like to know where it originated, and when it was sent.”
Ander’s face sharpened, his lips and cheeks and brow moving toward his bird-like nose, the way it did when he encountered a confusing instruction. “Sir?” He pulled a tile from his pocket and tapped the surface twice “I don’t have any record of you receiving an email to your inbox for almost three days. Nothing has needed your direct attention in that time. The mailroom has been able to take care of the day-to-day without issue.”
The mailroom was a collection of Xerxes’ followers around the world who had been part of the Group since it was nothing more than a yoga class full of tech geeks. Because of their seniority, they were trusted with the thousands of messages Xerxes received every day, sending out boilerplate responses and receipts for micro-tithes, but also doling out advice or answers to questions when warranted.
“I see.” Xerxes’ mouth thinned and jaw clenched as he thought. It was a full minute later before he realized Ander was still standing in the doorway, awaiting further instruction. “I’m sorry to pull you from your work, Ander. It was just a glitch with the lenses. I’ve got it sorted now. Thank you.”
Ander bowed and touched his fingers to his temple before leaving the doorway and returning to his desk just outside the Throne Room.
Xerxes closed his eyes and began a calming routine that would help him center himself and achieve higher levels of clarity. Once he was in a stable place once more, he would begin his online manhunt: to unmask ‘O,’ which was most likely short for ‘Opus.’ The most famous, and infamous, hacker collective in the world.
Xerxes began his search by churning through a mound of facts he already had.
The hacker network started showing up on usenet groups a few years back, first participating in press-garnering stunts, then organizing online raids against governmental resources with the hacker collective Anonymous. Finally, what seemed to be the modern incarnation of Opus emerged in Mexico, when a group of incensed vigilantes, hackers, protestors, and normal citizens decided to bring an end to the drug cartels’ rule over their government and lives.
After a particularly successful protest, which served as a cover for a strike against a cartel-run bank, corrupt cops chased down a dozen members of the group, losing them in a mob of sports fans. The protestors escaped by pulling on Mexican wrestling masks and blending in with the crowd.
That was the op and the storyline that fueled Opus’ quick rise to notoriety.
While other groups caused trouble wherever and whenever possible, sometimes taunting rival hacker groups or national interests, Opus focused on ending oppression and taking down the corrupt.
Their escapades in Mexico made the mainstream news the same year as a financial collapse; everyone was angry, and Opus was a group who was doing something tangible about it.
The result was a collective of people from all trades and backgrounds, not just hackers. They operated more like a brotherhood of spies than teenage griefers, and they avoided collateral damage whenever possible. The hackers in the group maintained the most public face (leading to their public image as something like a second coming of Anonymous, a similar group that had grown long in the tooth since starting in the early Aughts), but their actions transcended into the real world, as well.
No one had yet been officially tied to Opus, but their numbers were suspected to be in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.
Pausing his search for a moment, Xerxes chewed on a thought that was gnawing at his mind.
Why, if Opus was all about taking down corrupt individuals, would they be targeting him? He was not corrupt. He was a humanitarian, focused on improving the human experience. Why, and how, would they de-flock him, pulling away greater numbers than were already leaving?
Xerxes sucked on his teeth and ran his tongue along the roof of his mouth, unable to focus and bored with research. “Ander!” he shouted. His assistant stepped into the doorway and bowed his head. “I want you to do a little research for me. I’ll need the results of the search summarized and sent to my inbox so I can go over it when I have the time.”
“Of course, Sir. What would you like researched?”
“I’ve grown quite curious about this group, Opus. I’d like to know what they’ve been up to recently, and what they’re supposedly doing next. I’d like an overview of their organization, as well. I’m,” he paused not even a full moment over the lie, “hoping to see how they utilize technology to manage their infrastructure and exploits, so that I can update ours along the same vein.”
Ander nodded, his expression not providing any hints as to whether he believed the lie or not. He said, “Of course. Will there be anything else, Sir?”
“No Ander, thank you.” Ander touched his fingers to his temple and left. Xerxes sat alone on his cushion, trying to calm the buildup of tension in his skull. Meditation had never been so difficult.