Warren Ellis: "Lich-House," a short story

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By Warren Ellis

"Binary Predator" by Daniel Martin Diaz


In 2013 at Institute for the Future, the non-profit forecasting thinktank where I'm a researcher, we explored what we're calling the Coming Age of Networked Matter. Over the next few decades, a confluence of breakthroughs in physics, engineering, biology, computation, and complexity science will give us new lenses to observe the wondrous interconnections surrounding us and within us. In the future we're moving toward, we won't only observe complex systems, we'll also modify and even create them in vivo and with purpose. It will be an era of huge possibility, daunting pitfalls, and high weirdness.

To help make this future tangible, we commissioned some of our favorite writers of speculative fiction — Cory Doctorow, Rudy Rucker, Ramez Naam, Bruce Sterling, Madeline Ashby, and Warren Ellis — to write short stories tied to our research theme. The anthology, titled An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter, contains six stories all released under a Creative Commons license. The accompanying art is by Daniel Martin Diaz.

We are thrilled to premier these stories on Boing Boing. At IFTF's site, you can watch an animated author interview and find out how to win a limited edition print copy of the book and a t-shirt. In August, the entire book will be available as a free PDF at IFTF.org. — David Pescovitz

The white room is bleeding to death.

A white vestibule, with white floors and white walls and a lit white ceiling. The only other color is red. A crack in one wall, exposing a raw fistula in the bioelectric packeting. Blood leaks from the hole, down three inches of slick white wall, to pool on the floor. A broken heart in the interstitial net of veins and wires that makes our houses live and breathe.

Somebody has murdered the house.

* * *

Whoever it is, they are disguised in different blood. human blood is net- worked. The intruder is wearing nine pints of a"dumb" perfluorocarbon emulsion, highly oxygenated. The intruder's clothing is similarly stupid. Scavenged materials, hand sewn. Its security measures are dead, stabbed by the intruder, and it is bleeding out, but it can still see.

The house is not intelligent in any human sense. It has attempted to report its wound to the network. It does not understand that some form of help will be on the way. It simply reports, and logs the digital result of that report. In this instance, it has written that the local grid appears unavailable. This is not because of the hole in its wall but due to an environmental denial-of-service attack. The street, and much of its flora and fauna, are flickering on and offline. The house has begun to dump the record of its dying gaze into the storage vault in its foundations.

The house will die slowly. It will hold on for as long as it can and record as much as it can.

The house didn't recognize anyone at the door until it was too late. Even now, with the intruder moving through the vestibule into the hallway corridor, the house is having difficulty gathering data on the figure. The intruder's head and hands are covered in metamaterial sheathing, studded with ultraviolet LEDs.

The house, with its throat cut, cannot shout an alarm. Outside, it is causing the flowers in the yard to change their colors, petals turning fluorescent orange. This is the most it can do to signal a home invasion at this time. Inside, it grows more limited by the moment. The hallway is already colder. As the temperature drops, the house studies the intruder for hot spots, while pinging the outside world for a connection eighteen times a second. The house, in its chilly algorithmic way, will fight until it can no longer.

* * *

The walls of the vestibule began to pit. Its flooring had gone gray and was taking on the texture of river mud.

The hallway carpeting almost imperceptibly rotted away, revealing complex systems of runnels incised into the flooring.

The intruder was in the living room now. The television wall was showing nothing but a swirl of RGB, its screen spasming in the corners, surface rippling and twisting. The sofa and armchairs were forgetting their shapes and were unable to log in to the cloud for a reset.

The large Klimt curtains over the windows were an unnecessary affectation in the days of responsive glass. They functioned as simple still cameras, polymer lenses and plastic batteries in the weave, with a simple telephony aerial that'd get an image file out over the cellular air. Within a few minutes, the occupant's security service would receive a JPG of a figure apparently without face or hands, even these basic lenses entirely defeated by the intruder's imaging countermeasures.

The hot spots on the figure were now showing the house how the intruder dressed. This led the house to discover two epithelial cells on the cuff of the left glove. As the intruder stepped back into the hallway, the house was able to ping them, to no end. However, a third, longer epithelial was located in the back seam of the intruder's hood. This scrap of skin, caught in the seal and no more than three millimeters across, was networked. The hood had at the very least been handled by someone whose employment contractually required total tracking. When the house stroked it with a gentle wave of radio energy, it gave up its name and number. The house stored that in the hard vault. If the eDoS attack hadn't been in effect, the house may well have been able to track that cell's digital spoor across the network and into a human operating system. In serious circumstances, law enforcement decisioning systems could select cerebromedullospinal disconnection for that human to prevent flight previous to questioning.

Decisioning systems were not artificial intelligence. They were calculations of the network.

Not a concern for the human intruder in the house, of course, even if the street had been on the grid. The human in the house was aggressively non-networked.

The human occupant slept on. The house was unable to warn her. It was possible that the maintenance-related empathetic simulators in the occupant's body, which provided a general alert to failures in the house system, might eventually wake the occupant, but their effect was extremely low level so as not to impair the occupant's own ability to function. After a long day, a digitally generated sense of unease usually wasn't enough to rouse anyone from a night's sleep.

Power circuits were starting to give up now. The dining table had responded to a connectivity interruption of more than a moment by compacting itself. The dining room itself, noticing that its lighting was strobing, shut its light fittings off entirely so as not to disturb any occupants.

That room was empty. The intruder was in the kitchen. The electricity was already dead here. The fridge had gone to its power-cut setting, busy battery-run hands working inside it to strip and crush the foodstuffs within by animal and vegetable and order of expiration date. The packages were trying to signal their suppliers, with no luck.

The intruder walked back and began to ascend the stairwell. Her steps were just a little louder now because all the downstairs flooring was hard and resonant, its claddings wished away by the house. The vestibule walls were rotting heavily now, sliding from their frames and collapsing into thick, knobby cones before falling to the floor and deliquescing into the runnels that the mud had evanesced to uncover.

The intruder stepped onto the edges of each stair, as the strip of decorative carpet pinned down the middle of the staircase unwove itself, its soft strands of neutrally toned programmable matter breaking down into wisps of biodegradable anti-bacterial mist. The stairwell walls were dripping and pattering gently, and the trickle of liquid along the runnels and down into the containment bins under the house was getting louder. At this point in the process, the slow death of the house sounded not unlike some ambient relaxation soundfile.

At the top of the stairs, the intruder drew a weapon. The house, still with eyes to see through, zeroed in on it. It was a handgun. An offline handgun, and therefore illegal in this particular geographical location. The house was unable to consult a library about the weapon. Not that this would have mattered or made any difference. The weapon was actually a Colt M1911A1, a semi- automatic pistol designed in 1924 and used deep into the twenty- first century by the FBI and various special operations forces. There was nothing clever or beautiful about it in a modern sense. It had none of the immensely useful and impressive innovations of the contemporary world. It just killed people.

The handgun was in fact so simple that the house, in an ordinary moment, had more than a dozen ways to counter it. In the case of semi-automatic fire, the house could even have caused air molecules to clump into socks of matter dense enough to net the bullets before they reached a target. None of this could happen.

Up here, there were only three rooms. At the back of the house, there was the bathroom, darkened. Next, a second bedroom used as a storeroom, dark and its door wide open. At the front of the house was the master bedroom, wide and spacious, elegantly designed. The occupant preferred to go to bed with the door open just a little. In the first couple of weeks of the occupancy, the house had studied the fractions of that partly opened door and calculated an average. Since then, the house had taken care of that door. The house watched, and managed, the smallest parts of its anthropic usage. It made the occupant feel like her house liked her: that her house could feel and think.

The intruder entered the room, damp shoes on a hardwood floor. This was not a pistol that needed to be cocked. The safety, oiled and well cared for, slid silently under the intruder's thumb.

The wall between the dining room and the kitchen let go in a rush, a sudden river of wet matter hitting the flooring like a mudslide.

The occupant woke just as the intruder took another step into the room. The combination of sound and motion detection gave the occupant a jolt.

The intruder raised her weapon. The occupant slapped her bedsheet. The matter of the sheet remembered the strike pattern and collimated into a hard wide blade of something strong enough to take the impact of a bullet. It was purchased as a non- networked, last-ditch protective measure. It was often awkward and annoying. Just blearily groping around in bed for a dropped phone—some people still had cause for secure handset phones, some people had issues with soft eye cauls—could set the thing off, instancing a bedside tableful of things on the floor or a sharp smack in the throat. She brought her knees up to prop the sheet as she twisted around to pull her own handgun from under her pillow. The house's security systems, like the gun, were part and parcel of her particular form of employment.

The M1911A1 went off like a thunderclap. The bullet shattered on the sheet. The intruder fired again—the house could still see, and added its calculation of gunshot residue volume to its rolling report—and the sheet took the second bullet but cracked into three pieces a second afterward. The occupant already had her gun. She had closed her eyes during both gun flashes, and her night vision was relatively intact. She brought the gun up with a well-practiced straight-thumbs combat grip.

The gun was networked. Modern firearms were capable of many wonderful things. A networked gun watched and listened to the world around it constantly in a variety of manners, consulting many different behavioral databases every second. Its own decisioning systems could select modes of response to a threat and even lock out lethal operations in non-lethal circumstances. It could kick out a nanosecond high-voltage electrical pulse over the air that would render the human target relatively safely unconscious for five to ten minutes. It could dial the impact yield of an explosive bullet down in accordance with information continuing to be revealed about the target while that bullet was in flight, turning a fatality into a nominally survivable wound. Or otherwise. Some state-of- the-art handguns used networked ammunition that could change their shapes in similar manner, flattening out for a stun strike or screwing into a hard point for armor penetration. Given the times, the disruptive nature of any informational technology and the sheer hot hellish tangle of the societal condition, networked firearms were strange legal miracles.

And when the network was down due to a DoS attack, they simply didn't work at all.

The trigger didn't even squeeze. The gun refused to operate because it couldn't find the network that granted it legality of use. It locked up.

The intruder put two bullets through the occupant's heart and two through the occupant's forehead.

The bed, dumbly, began to attempt to soak up the sudden spill of liquid.

The air scrubbers had already failed, and so bitter clouds of nitrate and soot circulated around the room. The house logged this, too. Gunshot residue was still almost impossible to wash off by conventional means.

The intruder turned at the acid, jagged sound of water pipes being withdrawn from the bathroom.

The floor scarred with runnels and tilted two degrees toward the staircase. A gentle camber to facilitate drainage. The bed shuddered, trying to process the corpse, and then died itself, forgetting its memoryforming and sagging like a euthanized lapdog. The walls began to bleed from ten thousand tiny pinpricks.

The intruder had to wait for a moment longer to ensure her target was irretrievably dead. The occupant's onboard system was prevented by the eDoS from uploading basic audiovisual memory take, and the headshots should have destroyed her offline storage as well as her brain, but internal medical operations were tricky things these days. The heart was still twitching weakly, little red oil spills bubbling and leaking across the desert of the occupant's skin. The flesh did not knit over the bullet holes. The eyes did not judder with the telltale of secondary neural processing. The redness pooled and was still. The networked attributes inside her, still running off piezoelectric stores, would have been screaming for help. People like this had two deaths. The computing elements inside them took several minutes longer to go the way of the flesh. Right now, they were ghosts rattling inside a locked box of meat.

The intruder went quickly to the upstairs corridor, replacing the gun in her jacket. Along the hall, the bathroom was tearing itself down. A slamming of hard polymer doors indicated that the storage room was being sealed. The ceiling crackled, taking on a texture like wicker overhead. The house was gathering itself for its death throes. All the floors were cantered, the melting walls running through the channels underfoot toward the staircase. The stairs themselves had flipped in the last minute, reconfigured into a smooth ramp to ease the passage of the house's liquefying carcass.

The ceiling convulsed and tore open, releasing a torrent of fluid down into the corridor, splashing the intruder and making the floor even more dangerously slick. Even the intruder, at this point, imagined the dying house laughing at her, spitting its hateful revenge in its last extremity. Looking up in search of further dank waterfalls, she imagined for a moment that she could see the night sky through the ceiling. Five seconds later, she realized that that was exactly what she was seeing. The house was coming down.

The intruder attempted to make her way down the ramp in a slow and controlled manner, one hand on the wall and the other on the bannister. The hand on the wall sank in by an inch or so. It was like trying to find purchase in a vat of warm oatmeal. The bannister began to break up in her grip, damp compost in her palm. The sound of running water was starting to become deafening.

The intruder crouched like a skier and, fingertips on the wall for guidance, slid down the ramp in fits and starts, desperate not to fall backward or pitch over forward into the ground floor face- first. If nothing else, that could have torn the mask, and she had to consider that the house might yet have an eye working.

Foam jetted from the house's exposed bones. It was time for the structure's final teardown.

There was a sudden, awful explosion of noise, and a large gray box smashed through the downstairs ceiling and through the hallway floor. It was the storage room, retaining the occupant's goods and deploying them down into the foundation unit below the house for safekeeping. The place was heaving like a stabbed animal scrabbling for breath. The foam was dissolving the house's hard superstructure.

It would shortly begin to destroy the intruder's shoes and any other clothing it hit. It was also destroying the occupant's body.

The intruder drew the M1911A1 again and tossed it on the floor, up against the corner of the living room doorway. The foam would tear down the gun as surely as it would the rest of the hard superstructure, reducing it to a slurry of its consistent minerals. Upstairs, the occupant's own mineral content was being scavenged from her corpse and sequestered in the foundation unit for later exploitation. The intruder waited as long as she dared to see some of the foam touch the pistol and to witness the violent chemical reaction it touched off. She turned her back on the fizzing, fracturing iron and headed for the vestibule.

The house was entirely blind now and could only hear the intruder, splashing through its rendered fats, moving through the hollows left by its drained marrow with all speed toward its slack mouth.

The intruder tossed the knife she'd used to kill the house on the vestibule floor. It began to smoke and pucker as the house's liquids washed over it. The intruder did not slow down, because she could feel the soles of her shoes becoming soft and tacky. They'd been coated in materials resistant to home teardowns, but the environment was intense and she'd been dawdling in comparison to the mission's timed test runs.

The house died as the intruder stepped through the front door.

The intruder took note of the orange blooms outside, recognizing them for the silent alert they were intended as. No one else

seemed to have paid them any attention: the locals were either asleep or shouting and hitting things to make their network connections come back. She figured she had possibly one more minute before the house made itself impossible to ignore. She turned right and walked quickly through the dark, listening to the air. The eDoS was still in effect. There were no drones in flight. She tugged the metamaterial mask off and then peeled off the gloves, stuffing them inside the hood and pushing the whole mass of fabric into a pocket. Everything she was wearing would have to be destroyed, but right now there was no point in prioritizing anything. She was concerned about the shoes tracking muck and corroded detritus down the street, but there was very little she could do about that without discarding the shoes right there in the gutter, which created its own problems.

So she walked on to the end of the street, running her fingers through her hair to try and get rid of the matting that wearing the mask had caused. As she turned the corner, the house filled in its own grave.

The whole structure collapsed down into foam and gel. With a crackle she could hear at the street corner, the ground-floor surface mosaic'd itself. Thousands of tiny metal cubes separated with clacks, turned themselves into wafers, inverted themselves, and slotted themselves down into the foundation unit. Every last drop of moisture from the liquefaction of the house sucked down into the unit's vats. Where the house had stood there was now just a plot, a section of green garden behind a smooth dark square metal surface that glistened under the ambient glows of the night. A space like an extracted tooth in the jawbone of the living street.

She was already around the corner by the time the neighbors emerged from their homes to stare at the deleted house.

Within another minute, she'd made it to the next street, where her ride awaited, her driver sitting within her static car. The car was quite deliberately within the radius of the eDoS. When the network went down, the self-driving car stopped moving. It was the only visible car within a couple of blocks. No one was out on the street here.

Cars had surprisingly little onboard memory. They registered how many people boarded them but didn't retain logs of, for instance, people getting out of them while they were dead in the road due to being offline. There were a great many privacy issues around cars and how they reported. This made car software porous enough, in fact, to be cheatable.

This car had already been told that tonight it had never had a passenger.

The woman who owned the car opened the door, stood, and saw the woman who'd killed the house approach. The intruder was relieved. She smiled, still brushing her hair out. Everything had gone according to plan. Now they'd wait perhaps a minute longer for the eDoS to end, the car would start, and they'd be off to their next staging post for clean-up and debrief.

The driver raised her arm. The intruder waved back. The driver shot her through the heart with a gas-fired ballistic knife. There was nothing of the modern world inside the woman who killed the house, and so she just died right there like the people of old.

The driver tossed the knife handle. It landed in the gutter by a drain and began to foam and fizz. The driver got back into the car. Within thirty seconds or so, the car came back to life and, with a simple canned apology, resumed its transportation of the driver to the next staging post, where it, too, would be murdered.


Click here to watch an animated interview with Warren Ellis about this short story.

Warren Ellis

Warren Ellis is the award-winning writer of graphic novels like Transmetropolitan, Fell, Ministry of Space, and Planetary, and the author of the "underground classic" novel Crooked Little Vein. The movie Red is based on his graphic novel of the same name, its sequel being due in summer 2013. His Gravel books are in development for film, with Tim Miller attached to direct, and his novel Gun Machine has been pre-emptively bought for television. Iron Man 3 is based on his Marvel Comics graphic novel Iron Man: Extremis. He's also written extensively for Vice, Wired UK, and Reuters on technological and cultural matters, and is co-writing a video project called Wastelanders with Joss Whedon. Warren Ellis is currently working on another novel for Mulholland Books, and a nonfiction book about the future of the city for Farrar Giroux Straus.

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Text © the author and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Artwork © Daniel Martin Diaz and used with permission.