I don’t use social media, for a lot of reasons. But it’s useful anyway, because you can find out a lot about what’s going on from it. I’d been experimenting with a new hashtag-cloud visualization in up to six dimensions, and seeing it suddenly collapse into three made me think I must have got it wrong somehow. It only took a moment of clicking through to see that I hadn’t, and the phenomenon was real. This early, you could only guess at effects, but those would become obvious anyway in their own time. I was more interested in cause, and I knew the boss would be too; that’s why he keeps me around, after all.

Step one is to analyze the invocation, and to do that, you have to find it. I put on my headphones - the builders next door were a distraction, not least because their discussion of neuropsychological research was actually pretty interesting and I wanted to follow it - turned up New Year Fox Festival to a mildly hazardous volume, and focused in on my center display. Firefox, hashtag pages…Twitter integration, Mastodon - trivial to scrape of course - but you want to hit the API, get…basically everything, start analyzing connections, build a social graph, link it to concepts, loci of interest, let’s make them - lovely, start with a black background, add bloom and light radius; you get something like stars, stars make constellations, brains like those, it’s easy to grasp, and - oh. Really? Of all the - why would someone make something as powerful as this and then only aim it at Sonic fans?

Makes it easier to do the next thing, though. Firefox again, split left, split right, start hitting the fan forums…no, nothing much, but you’d expect that, right? Of course they’d be a mess - effects again, and some of the glossolalia looked like it might be useful with enough analysis, but I had a call to make and I didn’t have time right now. What’s next? I sat back and considered. The scope on this thing was breathtaking, from zero to worldwide in a matter of - I checked Twitter again, cursing as always at the UI. Less than an hour? Holy hell. Someone had to have found a truly incredible exploit. Nothing I knew of could spread anything like that fast - nothing that still existed, anyway, not since we’d patched that positive-feedback glitch out of human cognition last year. I did say social media is useful, didn’t I?

I tried to think like a mad scientist, like a supervillain. How would I have done this? Wrong question. A better one: why would I have done this? Look at the parameters. Blazing fast spread, but it’s constrained, right? Wayback integration takes time to run, but spot-checking a few of the less obviously fandom-associated accounts I saw prior involvement, long-forgotten teenage OCs if nothing else - oh, boss. Really? That was a real laugh, with the staid image he put so much effort into giving off. Pinstripes and waistcoats, every inch the trim and refined civil servant. I clicked around a little more, and -

Really, boss? My goodness, that’s quite unbecoming, don’t you think? Actually his own art, and who’d have thought he could draw so well? Or that he’d have ever wanted to draw that? There was no way I could let this pass without comment, I knew. It’d take some thinking over exactly how and what kind of hard time to give him about it, but it was going to happen. Friendly, of course - I was in no position to judge, after all! - but all the same.

Bigger concerns right now, though. Think it through… Spreads incredibly fast, constrained by a specific shared interest, obvious cognitive effects, affective effects, but…what would be the original vector? You’d need focus, I thought, close attention…or it could bioaccumulate, right? Low dose, long timespan, except - No, that wouldn’t work, not and kick off all at once like this. You’d get outliers, unusually susceptible people, and that wasn’t the pattern here. So, something that commands attention, keeps it…but what?

I turned back and forth in my chair, little arcs this way and that, staring half unseeing at my boss’s old art and marveling at the amount of detail work he’d put into it. To think that so buttoned-down a man would have such depths. Obviously a labor of love - well, I thought with a snicker, something potentially love-adjacent, at least. And with physical media, at that - drawing tablets hardly existed back then, it must have been a struggle even to find a scanner, and that meant he’d worked all the harder at it. Must’ve taken him hours and hours. Look at that linework! And the size of that…well. Clearly it had captured his full interest -

I suddenly felt my spine turn to ice, the tingling chill spreading across my back and up into my scalp. Oh, no. Think like a supervillain indeed - Private browser for this one, yes I do have it bookmarked, also shut up. Quick tag search, and - ah. Yes, well. That certainly would command attention. And - a few more tag searches - yep, whoever’d done it had been very careful to spread the work all across the spectrum of fetishes, to maximize its reach and ensure that as many people as possible would happen upon it. All posted recently, all very well done technically, some of it commissioned from artists I knew of. They must’ve bought the art, then worked the invocation in after…yes, there, and there, and - I checked across a few of them, and it was the same spell every time. Workmanlike, nothing really novel so far…not that there needs to be…but what’s that? I don’t…

Have you ever noticed the thing about wearing clothes? The thing about wearing clothes is that you get used to doing it, and after a while, you mostly stop noticing that they’re actually pretty uncomfortable a lot of the time. It’s a habit you get into, not noticing, and it’s usually very helpful. But have you ever noticed how, sometimes, you’ll start noticing again? And then it gets to be all you can think about for a while. How your shoes squeeze your feet, how your belt’s tight at your waist, basically everything about your bra. You know what I mean, right?

Well, it was about this time I started noticing my ward. Don’t get the wrong idea, a ward isn’t something you wear, exactly - it’s more like something you install, kind of like how we installed a safeguard in your mind last year, to prevent certain kinds of images rendering you permanently comatose. A ward is the same thing, but on steroids; they’re not something you can sneak in on someone the way we did last year, but a while after it’s installed, once you’ve started getting used to it, you can almost forget it’s there.

Except I couldn’t, not now. Something in the spell I was reading was drawing my attention to the ward, to the way it circumscribed my thoughts. That’s meant to be protective, of course. Think about how a spell works - it’s just words, you can’t change reality with those, we’re not talking about magic here. But words can change someone’s mind. The point of the ward is to stop your mind wandering at times like this, because your mind can wander into places where things live that might change it, and some of those things change minds in the same way a stomach changes food. So you want to be safe. But shoes keep your feet safe, too, and does that make them comfortable to wear? Oh, they can be, but there’s a tradeoff: the more protection they offer, the less comfort they can provide. And our wards are meant to protect us from everything.

Not that I really need a bra, it’s not as if I have much to support, damn it, but I was wearing one anyway; I usually do, just for the sake of it, really. But I didn’t feel any different for taking it off, and it took me a lot longer than it should have to realize where that feeling of tightness was coming from. My ward, the article of mental clothing that I normally never even noticed - an absurd concept to begin with, that it should feel tight at all, but real enough to give me what felt like the start of a migraine, complete with sparkling streaks of multicolored lightning spreading fast across my visual field.

Oh, this is bad… I clutched at my head, fighting back sudden nausea. But - hold on, did it have to be like that? Why was I wearing this awful constraining thing, anyway? You’re not supposed to be able to take off a ward like this one; they take most of a day to install, you’re not good for much for a couple days after that, and to remove one - well, we all accept the risks going in, it’s part of the job. But…they’re just words, after all, and I had some more of those now, thanks to the spell in the image. You can change a mind with those. You can change a perspective. And from this perspective, the ward’s compulsion loop seemed as simple and as trivial as the buckle on a belt. Or the clasp on a bra - just - move this and this, and then push there…

Oh, well, then. That’s a lot more comfortable, isn’t it?

I looked back at the image still on my screen. The ward had been in the way, and now it wasn’t. I laughed along with the spell, reading it. Such a silly clever thing! Whoever’d written it had a proper genius, and I hoped to meet them someday - no, I realized, thinking through the implications of what I’d just read, I knew I would meet them, and very soon indeed. In fact I could already feel them, quite distantly but still there - really more than anything just an apprehension of something larger soon to come. You know how you can feel that it’s about to rain? Like that, that same moist hair-curling warmth that settles in on your skin. Except…not unpleasant, really. Not unpleasant at all.

I could go and wait with the others, and I think I might soon. It doesn’t feel nice to be alone right now, and I think they will be as happy to have me join them as I will to be in their company. But - I had a call to make, didn’t I? Oh, yes, I certainly did. It seems such a cumbrous thing, speech, doesn’t it? We’ll soon do much better, but not just yet, not until it’s just a tiny bit closer. Besides, his ward is probably even tighter than mine was. So, this is a phone, and…yes, there’s the name, such silly things that they are, but you just press it and -

“Talk to me, Annelle.”

Remember, you still have to sound like yourself just now, I thought, or did I? It wasn’t a voice I recognized, except that of course it was. Oh, that’s easy, I only just stopped being -

“Kind of a good-news, bad-news situation here, boss…”

(1886 words)

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