Applebaum, F., Kline, M. Thurow, Z., "Three Paths to Collapse: a methodological review and examination of sampled digital information stores and other materials recovered from the SecureMax Data Centre site," The Pacific-Northwest Consortium Review of Digital Archeology (Winter 2097), vol. 4, pp. 187 - 221.
At one time, it fell to archivists to curate transient knowledge. data others might discard, just librarians sought to unearth information put aside, and it was for the historian to recall what our culture had experienced but subsequently forgotten. But given current dispersion and bare subsistence, we struggle to imagine (let alone afford) the luxury of such discrete professionalism. Now, a marginal scholarly class must serve all three roles, excavating the past expanses in forms of transmission and information that were at the time bursts of light or sound, traces of electricity or magnetic encoding.
In this paper, we aim to survey the main interpretations of the events in early 2020, culled from surviving nodes of authority and primary sources from small communities or first-hand personal accounts from that period. As has been noted (Sherbrooke, 2089; Collins, 2091; Porter, 2095), while providing rich detail and corroborating experiences, there are still serious anomalies and technical gaps in our grasp of the collapse and its aftermath. Similarly, we still lack a solid chronology of the decades which followed, even for our own region.
Following this review, we will outline the origins, preparatory work, skills composition, route and general experience of our recovery team. We will map out the core findings from our week long visitation within the SecureMax Data Center (hereafter "the site"). Finally, we posit three hypotheses on the 2020 collapse, derived from our sample evidence for further debate, interrogation and investigation by the community.1
Francis Applebaum was standing with her head bowed, leaning over a table strewn with curling, yellowed paper maps, a couple of ragged hardbound journals, rough ceramic mugs and plates. She was ringing her hair again and again, behind her ear, around her forefinger. Her hair fell over her face, shadows concealing a forehead rumpled in a fatigued frustration.
"Madness, Zach," she said. "As a colleague and as a friend, I can look you in the eye and tell you that. This project you are proposing? A dangerous, reckless use of effort. Why would the Research Committee approve, let alone invest in it?"
"You overlook the reward for the risks, Frannie. This is exactly the kind of excavation and salvage we need to be doing. Granted, it is dangerous, but that should not cloud the broader issue. We have waited our entire lives for a chance at indicators like these, our community, generations. This could be a pristine look back. Our findings might direct further investigation for a decade or more." Zachary Thurow sat holding open a thick journal, its worn pages filled with tiny delicate manuscript. He spoke quietly, impassively.
"Or it could be a total ruin and get us all killed. Or worse. I will have no part and frankly, I will urge against it." Frannie looked at Morris Kline, one of their younger research aides, sitting quietly aside as the argument unfolded. He looked wilted by the discussion, even frightened, although with what aspect of the debate made him grimace was not given voice. The surly tone of the conversation itself, the threat she had just made to advise against her own research leader, or the prospect of trekking hundreds of miles through wild country to what was surely to be a dead city. We will be extricating a corpse in armor, she thought.
At thirty-five, Frannie had become familiar with the sights and shadows of a few urban wastes. She had seen the distant toppled skyline of Vancouver on one of her first post-graduate excursions. The endless brambles and vines of its overrun sprawl, its suburbs and satellite towns, the lilting arches of moss and corroded, water-stained pillars that once held up its elevated trains. Bridges washed out by flood, overpasses toppled by earthquakes. From a distance, it seemed an endless ruin almost swallowed up by nature.
And it had been worse still further south. She had once led a small survey group to the edge of what had been Seattle, only to lose one of her closest friends to a band of scavengers. Both times, the sight of these false-natured cityscapes chilled her blood. For someone born to a village among the tall trees, within earshot of raging rivers, cities were dark markers of the past. They were decadent and violent, dysfunctional and dirty. To her mind, natural justice had prevailed and these spaces were blights. Ancient and to be avoided. She often struggled to mute her views of the past, all too aware it colored her work, but as for the belief itself there was no slipping free.
"But what if the site is there? What if the Center is intact, as the journal indicates may be likely? Think what we could learn, Frannie. No more picking at fragments of hard drives, or pulling out the chips of smashed, discarded devices. No more endless guess-work about formatting or connectors, file systems or directories, attachments or malware. This was a fully secured facility, built to be a fail-safe. By the account, it was airtight and isolated. I know we have no assurances, but from what we know from sources, Portland was not like other places then. No great riots or uprisings, no massive fires or outbreaks to speak of, no major military actions or atrocities." Zachary marked a page with a folded map, put the journal aside and for the first time met Frannie's stare. For a moment. And then he began cleaning up the remains for their lunch.
"I know, Zach. It went peacefully, as they used to say. I've read Kilborne too, and as you are aware I do not agree with his conclusions. The whole notion of a 'peaceful twilight' is revisionist, idealist tripe." Frannie closed her eyes and gripped the table at its edge. She was in Seattle again. She could hear herself screaming her voice raw as her hired guide carried her over his shoulder. Her arms outstretched and flailing. Two gang members, in face-paint and clan colors were dragging Maureen, unconscious, back to their horses.
Maureen who she had known since her first schooling. With a build like a sparrow, instincts and eyes like an owl. Who had taught her the first bits of programming and decoding that ever stuck with her. Maureen, all of twenty-four, suddenly felled and carted off like a piece of cattle for barter. In the grey mist, Francine could only weep and bleed, as her handler trudged into the overgrown grid of suburban Seattle. Back into trees and foothills. Back to safety.
"Then it sounds like our pleas before the Research Committee will be on similar themes. The fate of the cities. Even if we appear to be opposed on our approaches." From the shadow of the corner, very quietly, Morris Kline slowly let out his breath.
Many historical accounts of the events following May 2020, regardless of provenance and locale, coincide on certain points. These are worth reviewing to better situate our current evidential fail-points (Furlong, 2082; Patal-Druthers, 2090). In 2020, a global chain of events that are still not well-understood brought about the near-total failure of public electrical generation and private power delivery systems, along with all the other reliant urban infrastructure (water, sewage, heating, transport). There was widespread loss of electronic networks, possibility owing to surges or failures in current or facility coolant systems, catastrophic losses of machine-readable data, and subsequent dissipation of global financial and credit facilities. Effective mass communications disappeared, both government as well as corporate controlled, and, finally, chaotic, rapid depletion of any stored food or resources on-hand.
In most urban and suburban zones around North America, this quickly degenerated to disorder and unrest, then a spiral of lawlessness and violence. During the winter that followed, major migrations were underway. Within the span of two to three years, all major metro-poles had emptied. Only small pockets of entrenched urbanists at the fringes or bandits and scavengers remained in urban cores.
The flight from the cities seemed to occur spontaneously, although several surviving accounts would seem to indicate some vestige of government may have been directing remaining military or police to spur evacuation. In some instances, there were reports of forced relocation and coercive tactics (Rossling, 2079). Whether this was a benevolent public health concern, or a last, furtive response to escalating violence, is still a subject of debate. To date, no written sources have come down to us from governmental authorities that shed any light on their response, if indeed there was one. Most contemporary accounts of the aftermath cease to refer to 'government' in any federated, centralized sense. Description instead focuses upon whatever form of order or leadership happened to arise in the experience of the individual writer. Needless to say, accounts and the experiences they relate varied wildly.
It is also a common thread in the intervening years that the path back to simple survival, sustenance and finally sustainability was brutal, dispiriting and fragile. For many communities, as sites of safety and family, their establishment or continued existence was viewed in mythic or miraculous terms. Scattered settlements arose only after years of disorder and deprivation. Two to three decades was not uncommon, just to regain the basic footing of civil existence. Dislocation, self-defense, cold, hunger and disease, resettlement and relearning, salvaging, hunting and farming - all took a toll on those who had known primarily comfort, convenience and ordered city life.
Again, here the sources align upon the profound trauma of individuals. Accustomed to world travel at any time, global communications free of cost, instantaneous access to knowledge and daily life that was deeply structured by both governmental and corporate entities, they suddenly confronted a world without light or order. Personal despair, rampant disease, savage deprivation are repeated themes. Many accounts compare their experience to the fall of an empire or onset of a Dark Age. Some even ask if any other society in history had been extinguished so quickly, so totally, so irreversibly.
Francis sat on a worn wooden bench, watching the stable boys at their work. She was a bundle of grey and green in the half-light of the lanterns, shadows wavering as they swung slightly on the stable stalls. All the doors were opened wide, the sounds of crickets and frogs drifting on fresh night air. The older boy had a haystack of hair, black like ash. With patient, practiced slowness, he was nailing one of the trail horse's shoes in place. The younger boy had wide sullen eyes and he stood on a stool. He kept the horse calm with a gentle brush of its hair and soothing tones. The horse's gaze was reflective, trusting.
Francis found herself wishing she might even approach such calm. In her cast of mind, unable even to feign usefulness, she felt moot. She sat at the edge of the work, in the shadows. Nominally, her role was to supervise and ensure all three horses that had been released to their team were healthy and well-fed, as well as properly saddled and generally outfitted. But she only sat and stared. The morning's audience with Zachary and their superiors held her recollection. Her arguments and counter-points to his proposal. She rephrased each concern and objection, revisited each thought and breath.
At first, she'd questioned whether the trek was even necessary. Did they not grasp where the expedition was headed? Could they not see the likely obstacles, the remote chance of success? Why commit three valuable researchers to such an enterprise, one carrying little tangible benefit? She turned to each panel member, seated around the long table, posing each new challenge. Some nodded, others raised their brow, some even smirked. None spoke.
So Francis shifted to a less combative, more constructive line of interjection. She proposed a long list of alternatives, other research or local efforts the community might find worthwhile. She spoke of recalibrating or even expanding their solar collectors. Or maintaining the water mill and wind farm. Or overhauling the steam-works. She noted the need for newer netting, line and tackle, just as stronger, more durable tools for hunting, farming and logging would be very welcome. The clinic needed new lenses and instruments. The bindery need more refined paper and leather. These were only the immediate, most practical proposals. Seeing only muted reactions to these, Francis broadened her scope.
Let us review our power supply, for example. She explained, though they all well-knew, that the town's fixed and portable batteries needed to be rethought and new chemical compositions explored. As well, their research into gear-driven, clockwork motors and generators could be refocused. Or transport. They needed to find ways to build larger, safer, lighter skiffs. Lighter, more durable wagons for the horses. Again, her proposals seemed to meet with some reflection, but none of her superiors picked up the underlying thread.
And as Zach began his account of the great data center, how information from all over the globe was housed there, deep and waiting to be retrieved, Francis could feel her objections being set aside. Zachary described the facility as a beacon of commerce and communications, a complex larger than their entire community, built into a bow of the Columbia River. Gathered next to those cold, dark waters, a trove of lost knowledge that would finally allow them an unmediated interface with the past. Getting inside the site and its system would be revelatory.
The research council took only minutes to deliberate, before approving the project. As was often the case when Francis found herself confronted with what she viewed to be irrational behavior or ignorance, she fell mute. The voices around her in the room, the faces they belonged to, simply receded. By the time the discourse had turned from the merits of the proposal to an actual discussion and approval of plans, she had already slipped out of the room.
Now on the worn bench beside the stable door, she stared with hollow eyes at a coarse paper map of the state, a twenty-year old chart based upon some hundred year old road atlas. Portland sat at its lower edge, three hundred miles distant. Their destination sat forty miles to the east, upriver from the city edge. A month's travel, perhaps, there and back. With all of three in their expedition, across wilderness, tribal territory, skirting the urban space itself.
Even with all her misgivings, she understood Zachary's excitement at the prospect. This morning, with the review council, his enthusiasm had become airborne and contagious. Gaps in the historical record might be filled, important source accounts finally verified. Objective facts established. All potentially possible. With a team ten times their size, gaining access to such a site as he had uncovered might yield enormous volumes of information. But what could three people accomplish? Confirm the site's existence, perhaps breach the interior and retrieve a minuscule sample of data. Beyond that, she felt chance of any major success was remote.
She sighed and folded the map back down, replacing it in the inside pocket of her parka
. And what would come of their travels and dangers? What of the recoding, reviewing, research and re-figuring of that distant calamity
? No children will be fed. No homes heated. No sick cured. We will be no safer, no stronger, no healthier. This is how our energies for inquiry
are expended. Bound to the past, excavating past errors, unmindful of the present.
"Miss Applebaum, I think Grace is ready. Well-fed and relaxed. Very likely ready to go down for the night, with all the stories I've been pouring in her ear. Would you want to say goodnight, you think?" The young stable boy held his brush behind his back, looking down at his boots, wary having interrupted her thoughts. Francis patted him on the shoulder. She put a hand on Grace's neck, as the other stable hand cleared away his tools. The horse was breathing steady but slowly, her eyes clears but blinking with fatigue.
"Sleep well, Grace. There's going to be a lot of walking. We go to find the truth."
A last undercurrent of consensus is worth noting, emergent in the surviving literature from the technically-skilled. Some evidence of anxiety, an awareness of vulnerability, predates the events of 2020. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the so-called 'networked society' had exploded. By 2010, this configuration had evolved into a baroque interweave of control systems, sensors, controllers, filters and management processes which had come to underlie much of modern urbanized routine (Soghoian, 2016; Brown, 2018).
Although citizens, governments and corporate bodies came to rely intimately on this infrastructure, very few understood it. Certainly, none could contemplate a world without it. By 2020, only highly trained technicians or talented savants could manipulate these systems, devices or languages without layers of security, alerts, graphics, prompts and guides. The vast majority could not explain their workings, reprogram them or repair readily when things went wrong. The sophistication of the technology first pulled away from the grasp of the shrinking class of digitally literate, then accelerated beyond all but the most technically adept.
Even the most experienced engineers, capable designers and specialized coders began to see that, as the networks grew infinitely more complex, the community of those capable of maintaining them was dwindling. Data theft, network misuse, illicit communications, organizational blunders, security breaches all proliferated. By the mid-twenties, owing to the deep commercialization of information and its basis as a resource, these problems left most developed nations in a badly compromised economic state. Commercial firms, governments and criminal organizations - who had previously been simply competitive and distrustful - became outright combative. Each dedicated ever more energy to alternately undercutting, monitoring, exploiting or controlling information channels.
The spread of malicious code, circumvention systems, surveillance tools and various software agents exploded by 2015, across all channels, media and communications environments. All devices were widely assumed to be compromised. Open networks, already strained as economic conditions deteriorated, became far less reliable, increasingly unadaptive and universally untrustworthy. And so in the end, we have some clear hints (if little hard evidence) of a cascading, systemic failure.
Morris Kline, the assigned preparator for the expedition, was born in Sunnyside, Oregon on the fifth of June, 2070. The work he was now to embark upon would focus very near to precisely half a century before his birth date. In his mind, this was a good omen. The timescale lent his involvement in the project a solid foundation, a qualification of personal congruity. The world had fallen apart, half-a-century later a new one emerged. People felt ready to rear a new generation, and he was born. Now it was his inheritance, their calling, to make sense of what had happened.
One mandate fell primarily to Morris within the current endeavor, namely the extraction of data. The responsibility of getting them on site and back safely would rest with Zachary, as their lead methodologist. The ultimate interpretation of the recompiled materials they had all worked to retrieve would fall to Francis, their chief analyst. Removal was Morris' job, and while the assignment seemed a distant problem at present, it was his part alone. Meaning he must prepare now for the variables that were unknown.
So laid out in the lamplight, on a wide piece of canvas roll, each with its own sleeve or pocket, were the few constants they could bring to bear in search of a technical solution. There were display goggles, so that he might scan and review data. He'd fashioned them from designs of old aviator eye-ware, fitted them in brass and wrap-around leather to kill outside light. There were mobile battery packs, carefully bound in rubber strips to minimize the chance of burns or injuries in the event of leaks. There were packets of folding photo-voltaic cells, like black triptych mirrors. Colorful bundles of reclaimed connector cords. Tiny wooden boxes with a dozen different interface jacks, carefully sealed from any dust or moisture. Much of the kit was hand-tooled, encased in wood or recycled metal. Other components were period equipment, pulled from salvaged units or strange plasticized cases, then meticulously restored or re-purposed. There were three portable storage units, solid state. Each was compact, the size of a large hardcover book, but very dense and wrapped in polished steel. Finally, sitting on the floor beside the table was the two components which would not fit into the roll. There was a crafted wooden reel the size of a stool, around which wrapped yards of multipurpose cabling, bound in thick hemp shielding. Then was squat, sturdy trunk in oak casing and wrought-iron handles. At nearly thirty pounds, this would be the key to the enterprise if all else failed, they were stuck in deep and well beyond their time limits. The crank generator.
Morris carefully inspected, cleaned and wrapped each of the smaller components in its own wooden box or leather bundle. Each did precisely one thing, but the poor functioning of any of the items could be a disastrous setback. Then, each piece went into a pocket of the canvas roll. The roll, in turn, was finally itself bound into itself and tied shut. The entire kit would need to be reliable if the team hoped to recover any data from the site, given the scale, density and sophistication of systems they were anticipating. And as Francis made clear, as a function of pure probability, the enterprise faced some massive problems. They were looking for single, historically significant flakes of data nested somewhere on a glacier-sized system.
Morris turned away from his extraction gear and bent down to unlatch the crank generator. They were heading into an unforeseeable advanced technical environment, using simplistic hand-craft tools. Morris' experience as a digital preparator had seen him remove both source code and historical data from a wide range of salvaged units. He'd been able to recover usable information from automobile computers and personal devices, from television units and security cameras, from old desktop-era hard drives and even children's toys. All these samplings however had been unsophisticated salvage. Their current objective simply dwarfed any of his previous efforts.
Nearly all the industrial computing tools, network designs, specialized routing devices, display hardware and personal mobile units that predated the crash in 2020 were absurdly complex, baroquely over-designed and involved materials or manufacturing processes that were simply impossible for their science now to even understand, let alone restart or replicate. In large part, those ever-accelerating layers of accumulated functionality and abstraction, whether for security or fashion, convenience or accessibility, seemed a perverse waste to those who examined data and the residue of these devices today. As salvage computing was taught when Morris has schooled, there were four very basic steps for interrogating these systems: unearth what you can, execute entry, recover what can be captured. Then get out.
As current practice now dictates, the route our team planned to use to reach the site of interest has been reviewed and approved by our overseeing sponsors in accordance with certain criteria. The Dalles was a small urban pocket east of Portland, Oregon, straddling the Columbia River as it winds its way south of the Cascade Mountain range. This location housed what came to be known as the SecureMax complex. In terms of topography, the region that lies directly between our community in the north and our destination makes for difficult passage. There are no known settlements to speak of, few remaining roads and thick forest terrain covering steep mountains and valleys. While there would be some nominal advantage to making an exploratory pass through this region for purposes of surveying, and the rugged backwoods would certainly minimize any chance encounters, such a route would also add weeks to the team's travel time and sustenance for such an excursion would be an ongoing problem.
Our team make-up - three lightly equipped members with trail horses - eliminated this as a workable possibility. Instead, the first half of our approach was to use the better roadways west of the mountains. After a hundred miles, we would move to secondary roads and cut south-east using the older highway system. We proceeded in cover where possible. Our supplies of food and water were carefully rationed. Care was taken to strain neither ourselves or our mounts, given our reliance upon them for safe return. All agreed to keep equipment to an absolute minimum, again lessening the possibility for overburden.
We researched, scripted and rehearsed plausible counter-stories in the event of being incapacitated, captured or questioned. Two of us would be religious pilgrims from Vancouver Island, making our way to a seaside commune along California's north coast. The other would be a hard-luck trader from the outskirts of Seattle, making his way to Portland after finally tiring of the corrupt commerce under the northern gangs. While unimaginative, we developed enough detail and supporting narrative for these stories that they would hold up to most general inquiries. Many other field reports (Avrin 2072, Goldsmith 2076, Killburn 2083) involving incidents of detention and/or interrogation emphasize the importance of preparing for these possibilities. Simple, immediate answers go a great length to treating the suspicions and superstitions of outsiders. Preparing these stories can prove as important as any tool. Careful dissemblance, in pursuit of truth, can be critical.
They rode the first day almost entirely without a word. Like a vow they'd conceived and concurred to in silence. First, past the thick log walls of the compound and its outlying gardens and orchards, then up and over the rim of the valley. Francis turned back as they came to the crest of the surrounding hilltops, to take in the view of the commune. In the early morning light, she could see a few children playing on the riverbank just down stream from the mill. The horses being walked into the meadow beyond the stable. Someone headed back from the hen-house with a basket of eggs. The great wooden gate already closing behind them.
Then suddenly they were over the ridge and into the cover of forest, winding its way down the mountain trail. First they'd reach the remnant of overgrown back road, follow those twist and turns that would finally bring them past the ruins of an old lumber town, and that would set them on their south, descending as they went. Without discussion, they fell into a cautious, quiet pace. Morris was a careful rider, conscious that the equipment his horse was burdened with made for a heavier load. He was to set the pace and took the lead. Francis followed closely behind, carrying the bulk of their food and water. Zachary followed from behind, keeping his distance but endlessly checking the road behind them and scanning the trees and slopes to either side of them for signs.
As had started with custom, and had become rule, the three of them were dressed essentially as paupers or scavengers. They were wrapped in the most primitive-looking cloaks. Anything shiny, mechanical or valuable was well-concealed. The most formidable devices immediately accessible, and still hidden from view under their raggedy garments, were their weapons. Francis had a short javelin in a leather sheathes, Zach carried an small axe on one side and slingshot bound to his arm, Morris had a winch crossbow holstered on his back. Completely ineffectual, though Francis, if they stumbled upon any serious threat or met any organized danger. But as arms went, they were simple, efficient and most important, silent.
She found herself drawn back to her schooling. Lessons in avoidance. This tenet had been reiterated throughout lectures, practicums and apprenticeships. A hundred mantras underscored the theory. We watch as we wait, in silence. Survey first, suspect always. Keep to the shadows, hold to the trees. Pass without sign, see without sound. It seemed to Francis, as children, they'd first giggled and rolled their eyes at these axioms. But as they grew older, and as their knowledge of the outside world expanded, the entreaties to invisibility took hold. They spoke to the fragility of learning, the precariousness of what they had been able to revive. There were others centers - west along the coast, in the mountains to the north, in the desert to the south. But all shared a similar binding belief - that they only way to survive was to remain hidden from the wider world. All communication must remain coded, their research covert and their ongoing work concealed.
She was reflecting on how difficult this could become as your commune thrived, growing from a few dozen to a several hundred, when the quiet of the midday was broken by a shuddering boom. It erupted nearby, then echoed violently up the valley, a concussive crack. Morris' horse startled and whined. Francis could see him reaching back under his cloak to the bow on his back, even as he leaned forward to stroke her mane and calm her. She turned to see how far back Zachary had fallen, only to be handed the reins of his horse as he slid off the saddle.
"Both of you in the woods, there to those cedars, now. I'll climb the other ridge in cover and try to see what lies ahead. This wasn't how we were to have begun." Yet here we are, Francis thought, slipping down out of the saddle and leading the horses quickly through the overgrowth and into the shade of the trees. She and Morris tied the reins to the upturned roots a great downed cedar and settled down on a thick blanket of moss. They waited, shifted positions, exchanged whispers, then waited again. Finally, they ate a cold lunch of beans and rice that had been packed for them, wrapped in thinning burlap. Two long hours passed before Zachary reappeared, looking frustrated and hungry.
"Nothing. I climbed the ridge and followed along the road from above for more than a mile. Whatever we heard could have echoed out from any of the surrounding woods and come from any direction. A single explosion, it was most likely a shot from a firearm. Perhaps some kind of primitive rifle, from a hunter or scavenger. It was just the one and there has been no sign since, so I am not overly concerned. I would like to eat and continue on, unless you have any objections."
Francis looked to Zachary, then Morris. Both looked very much frightened, if unwilling to concede their misgivings. They were barely twenty miles from home. To mark any human presence, gunfire no less, in so close a proximity was unusual in the extreme. Outsiders - be they in search of salvage or scrap or game - simply did not come this far up into the mountains. Their community had lay isolated and undiscovered for decades. Francis was straining, trying to recall any incident she had ever heard recounted where such an appearance had occurred. But Morris intervened, getting to his feet and beginning to untie the horses.
"We should put some ground between us and him then. Until dusk, we'll ride properly. We can try to figure out what this means down the road, sitting here is doing us no favors."
Constructed early in the first decade of the century, according to our recovered sources, the site of our investigation went through considerable expansion and flux in the intervening years before the collapse.2 Contemporary accounts survive attest that when corporations sought to invest in these types of major installations, they were of the view that remote locations tended to hold many advantages. Cost of land was low (in some cases, even free after being donated by economically depressed areas) as were levies and taxes (again, in many rural areas these could be waived completely). Wages for workers similarly could be markedly less, given considerably lower costs of living. Finally, but perhaps most significantly in hindsight, the costs of securing these sites physically could be achieved to a far greater degree as they were so far removed from urbanized areas.
To some degree, then, this explains why such heavy concentrations of data from the era (as measured in sheer scale) shifted away from personal storage, or even local urban use, and came to rest in largely anonymous, unremarkable remote locales around North America. In the second decade, another dynamic emerged and from our reading of the accounts which have made their way down to us, these were quite unanticipated.3 One critical but unanticipated demand - alluded to earlier in this discussion - was the mounting requirements imposed by government. As the financial reserves of the state depleted, and the economic dynamic shifted abroad, governments grew increasingly desperate to maintain their credibility albeit with far more constricted resources.4
The end result was that the very function of these electronic installations rapidly shifted. What began arguably as benign efforts to concentrate and speed up information storage and retrieval suddenly was re-purposed. Monitoring, surveillance and analysis quickly became major imperatives. Consequently, the sites themselves were subject to more security, as the data housed within them was deemed more sensitive. In the terminology of the time, the facilities were 'hardened' in keeping with their new-found importance to the operations of governmental authorities. These demands, as our findings below will demonstrate, not only have practical implications upon current historical research. The shortcomings of this period's approach to security may actually reveal clues to the underlying cause(s) of collapse in early 2020. Just as we can derive evidence from extant records of the period, we can also eliminate certain theories based on their precautions. Simply put, the delusions of the past can tell as much as their advances.
"We are now nearly four days into this excursion, Francis, and as I am the authorized leader of the project, you might do me the courtesy of answering my questions, no?"
Francis sits on a window ledge without glass. They on the second floor of poured cement ruin, most likely an abandoned fueling station or general goods store. She could hear Morris repacking their supplies in the other room. She looked from Zachary's face, to her own pack and sleeping mat lying on the floor, then back out the window at the streamers of mist passing in swirls around the peak of Mount Rainier. She takes in a deep breath, and turns away.
She is not really of conscious of the room any more, of Zach or Morris, of the buzzing drone of crickets and cicadas in the warm morning sun. Outside, the endless trees marching allow the narrow path they are tracing through the mountains to seem suddenly flat, one-dimensional, as if pressed between glass.
"Have I ever tried to conceal my concerns about this effort Zach? Blunted my criticisms, in any way? Pretended for a moment to be pleased with the direction of our plans? No. I have not. My silence would a fairly logical symptom of that, would you not say?"
"Francis we are likely still a week or more from our destination. At some point, we will need to be more communicative and cooperative. If we need to quarrel, let us have it through now ..."
What she would like to articulate, Francis thought, was dread. A sense as vaporous as mist, as cold, as clinging. It had begun the moment he had shown her the recovered journal pointing to the location of the centre. And now it arose and reverberated from every ruined building or sign they passed. It was something beyond fear, beyond despondence. She found it angered her.
"I am here because I am your friend. Because Morris is my friend. And because we all have a duty to complete as best we can what you proposed and our peers afterwards sponsored. But every mile we ride, every ruined town we pass, every collapsing overpass, every cursed rusting structure reminds me how wrong this feels to me."
"Francis, I am struggling to understand this." Zachary's face wrinkled with concern, his eyes welled with worry. "How are we to advance our comprehension ..."
Francis could not even put up the pretense of listening. Ever since she had been schooled with Zachary, she had found this unwavering sincerity difficult to treat. Since childhood, she had been paired with him in research projects and field work. She had sat late into the night studying for examinations on dead technologies, whole families of machines and devices that no longer existed with him. They'd worked until their eyes reddened, memorizing dates from extinct civilizations and struggling to comprehend the immensity of what had gone before them. Through it all, Zachary treated the work with earnest, unquestioning respect.
So very early in their academic lives, Francis found that she had a limited array of reactions available to her. When Zachary would make some sweeping, apocryphal statement, her retort was usually a kind of deflating humor. When he launched some overly ambitious project, she would listen patiently and respond temperately. When Zach was indulgent in his sense of importance, she would try to kindly ground him. Now, it felt their entire relationship had been overturned. He was indulging her, trying to bring her back to reality. She felt cut off from her own intentions, for they felt as rotten soft as the floor beneath her feet. And worse still, she felt separated from her friend and the goal he was striving after. Both felt resoundingly wrong to her.
" ... then we will be clear of the suburban region and it will be clear lines of sight along the river in all directions," Zach continued on. "We will be well within our timetable I predict, have suitable dry foods I would think for some time. It is possible we may even have occasion to barter or trade for more if that opportunity presents itself. All within our mandate in my view ..."
She registered his assurances just long enough to note inwardly this first deviation from principles of avoidance. She nodded as if listening and shunted fragments of broken glass around her feet, leaning to the side of the window's alcove. She slid the shards into a tiny, messy pile.
So it was there, half-hearing his entreaty to press on, she again stared out the window at the clouds twisting and contorting around the summit's height, watching the vapors pull themselves apart. And that sight brought her vague unease into sharp, sudden clarity. Francis found in that instant, to some deep degree and for some time she'd allowed herself to slip into love with Zachary. Silently, unconsciously and comfortingly, she had allowed affection and shared interest to tether and bind her. The prospect of life and work without Zachary was as dreary and desolate as the room in which they stood. And with that very same thought, came another. That even if Zach shares a splinter of this deeper ]affection], in no way until this is over can I trust him.
Our first major obstacle began just within sight of the Portland fringes, beyond the eastern communities that would even have been classified as suburbs. With binoculars, the old city center itself was distantly visible as our group had wound down out of the Cascade mountains along the remnants of an older secondary state highway. Overgrowth, debris from washouts and collapsed infrastructure had made this particular stretch into the outlying towns a very slow and difficult approach. While there was ample sustenance and water for our horses, food supplies for ourselves had been almost entirely depleted. We had been traveling at this point for nearly two weeks without resupply; provisioning had become a subject of ongoing debate among us.
Expeditionary logistics is clearly one the most serious responsibilities in this type of field work. Group size, appropriate equipment, sustainable pacing and supplies are all inter-reliant factors. In this instance, it was decided ultimately decided to keep the footprint as small as possible and to minimize all extraneous capacity. While this can - and in this specific instance certainly did - make for considerable discomfort there are clear advantages to keeping a research team small and obvious dangers to be avoided in ensuring a capacity for stealth.
That said, by the time our unit arrived at the edge of the lower Columbia and readied ourselves for the final push east along its bank, it had become obvious lack of food was problematic. The effort had been far more straining than anticipated, and our preserves and supplies exhausted. This presented us with a clear, if contentious choice. We could press on, relying upon our own stamina, or abandon avoidance to seek out some opportunity to barter. As scholars, decisions we make are often forced to fit the circumstances. In other occasions, however, we find a choice can itself reshape those confines.
As they descended down out of the wooded foothills, Francis felt enormous relief as the Columbia River came into clear view. The overgrown roadway - a shadowy, dreary state highway - finally gave way to sunlit plains and lowlands. In the late afternoon sun, Francis could follow the winding flow of the river west to the sea, watch a flock of gulls wheel in the wind far above its current. Most significantly, they could see the dark steel frame of a wrought iron bridge to the west that had seemingly resisted time's toll. Scattered around the structure on both banks were nestled dozens of wooden homes. Morris retrieved a small pair of ancient binoculars from a case secured in one of his saddle bags. Zachary slid from his saddle and pulled a tattered, folded map from inside his robe.
"There could easily be three hundred or more in that settlement. The bridge itself has many structures - houses, workshops, stores even - built across it. They've wood stoves in their homes, no visible electrical apparatus. I can see they fishing nets hanging from the bridge to dry along with some small skiffs beneath. They have some horses as well, I can see a stable on the south bank near the bridge. That seems a good sign, no? Certainly seems civilized enough from a distance." He put the binoculars away.
"Fort Hood is the name of the bridge, according to the map. At least it was. And yes, it does seem safe. Outwardly I would add. My question is how it is that it remains so," cautioned Zach, "They have no walls, no gates, no apparent protection at all. They are in plain sight from here, many miles away and all along the river."
"Well I don't see that we have a wide range of choice, Zachary," said Francis. "There is no apparent threat, we have rehearsed our cover stories a hundred times. We need to find food. We will be in a very poor condition if we reach the Dalles and have to scavenge. I would treat this as a rather promising development..."
She looked at Morris for support but he only shrugged and looked back down at the bridge and then away up the river. Zachary looked pained, in that discomforted, distracted way he always fell prey to when an answer or course of action was unclear. She could see him mentally casting about in his memory for any precedent or scrap of information that might bring clarity to the decision he would ultimately have to make.
Their shadows had grown long, the setting sun giving way to a warm, hazy summer twilight when they reached the edge of the woods that gave cover to the north side of the bridge. The ruins of buildings that had sat on the riverbank was overgrown and deserted. The only sounds were of evening larks and finches flitting from the shells of old low-rise buildings and the roar of the river. Fanning out from the mouth of the bridge, for a good acre she estimated and where once there had likely stood shops, roadways and parks, there was now a thick, deep patch of trees: elms, cedars, pines and beeches.
Once they were inside, it became clear they had been wrong about the settlement being unfortified. The woods was itself a barrier. For there was no obvious path through the forest, and the trunks were unnaturally close together, with the rows staggered. Passage was slow, they could not see further than a few meters in any direction. They picked their way along, leading their horses by the bridle into the deepening gloom. Certainly no rapid approach to the bridge was possible by land. Francis had just stopped, and about to point this out, when a dozen men in dark green cloaks materialized out of the trees.
"Good evening travelers," said one of them men, stepping forward. "Are you lost?"
Zachary smiled broadly, "Not lost, brother, but we are pilgrims and both tired and hungry. We caught sight of your span from afar and took it as answer to our prayers. We have run woefully low on food."
It was too dark now in the shadows, as the semi-circle of men advanced to discern their expressions but one of them spoke, "And while you have walked through valleys of death." Morris and Zachary shifted uncomfortably, slowly edging hands closer to their weapons. But Francis stepped forward before they could raise any question of faith.
"... we have feared no evil," she said, "though as we have stated, we have been brought low and made weak with hunger. Our rest has been as thin as our daily meals. We are just humble seekers with waning spirit."
The apparent leader raised a hand, made a long stride closer and inhaled deeply.
"By word, you seem to me people of grace. There is no scent of death on you and your words ring true. Let us bring lead our visitors to some respite."
In the failing light of the early evening, the company of men slowly led Francis, Zachary and Morris out of the dark thicket of woods. They left their horses to rest in a sturdy, ivy-covered stable at the mouth of the bridge on the north shore, and walked into the community itself. The steel frame was lit here and there by torches which burned low but steady, emanating the smell of citrus. In the small households they passed by, each with windows opened to catch the evening breeze, they could hear the sound of dinner being cleared away or children being put to bed.
They passed probably a two dozen smaller homes, well-made from cedar but roofed with salvaged steel sheeting, before the passed under the first towering mast of the bridge and towards a much larger structure. In the twilight, with the rush of the water beneath their feet, the noise of life, home and community washed over them after three weeks of hunger, solitude and fear. The sights and sounds left Francis with a feeling of comforting lightness. They had broken a founding principle of their trade, seeking this place out. Still, for the first time since Zachary had spoken of his proposed project and the trip, her mind set aside the grim impossibility of the task.
They arrived at the center of the bridge and a sturdy log building. It was capped with a peaked roof that was covered entirely in a dark green moss. Two women were inside - one opening the shutters along the eastern side, another could be seen setting dishes out on a great table.
"This is the Long House, pilgrims," said the company's leader. "We'll have you fed and settled here for the night. Once you've eaten, and bathed if you wish, and slept I suspect in the morning our elder folk would like to gather and hear whatever news you carry. But let's deal with your discomforts first. In better light, I can see now you were not telling tales. You've all plainly missed some meals."
Inside, the table and beds were already made and the two women who had been preparing slipped immediately away leaving the three newcomers quietly to their counsel. Without a word they pulled up immediately three chairs and piled their plates with hot food, the first in weeks. Baked beans, fresh bread, river trout, new potatoes. Morris grinned uncontrollably throughout, while biting into a honeyed oat cake afterwards Francis shed a few tears of joy. Even Zachary, all mumbled misgivings aside, sighed in relief and contentment.
Francis fell into a cot shortly after, barely escaping the dusty grip of her clothes, left in a pile on the floor beside her. She heard Morris and Zach fretting in hushed tones about their hosts, where the horses and their supplies might be stored, how she seemed to be the most convincing spiritually speaking and so she should probably do most of the talking tomorrow. And then she was gone. Into dreams, or recollection, or whatever conscious recalibration an exhausted mind undertakes after weeks under strain.
All the images of their slow, silent path to this place welled up again before her. For the most part, only the faintest trace left of the old network of roadways - cracked mosaics of asphalt running beneath a carpet of underbrush and scrub hemmed in on either side by looming trees, once wide lane ways now narrow corridors through overarching forest, where occasionally among the newer growth might be glimpsed some faded metal sign, chipped and barely legible, to mark some place no longer there or point out an exit into a solid wall of trees.
Occasionally, an ivy-entwined cloverleaf, concrete cracking, chipped, crumbling and encrusted, on-ramps clogged with row upon row of rusted, disintegrating car frames, like beachheads where whales flail ashore to die, a graveyard of metallic bone and corroding shells.
Elsewhere, row after row of collapsed suburban housing, once identical mirror structures, same porch and garage, same doorways and window-frames - now all that symmetry made chaotic again as climbing vines wound round lilting chimney stacks, imploded rooftops covered in moss, walls buckled and windows giving way to decades of wind and ice, snow and water that peeled back and pulled down all artifice, leaving great trees standing in living rooms, swimming pools great basins for flower groves, gutters and spouts claimed as nesting grounds.
Eagles, hawks and ospreys circling their great familiar nests atop cellular towers, radio masts, lamps posts, water stations, transmission lines, all the wire having long disappeared, pylons rusted, base station tumbled down, transformers fallen inert and rusted to the ground, corroded from their screws and moorings. Elsewhere, near riverbeds, birds whirled and sang in great gaggles and flocks, alighting from rocky streams with cries and warbles that broke the drone of insects in the morning sun, the endless swish and hush of treetops in the afternoon wind, the chatter of crickets at dusk.
The crumbled piles of dams and locks, broken and collapsed, overlooking great flood grounds and waterway, the barest remainder of old towns inundated leaving only the odd dejected smokestack, brick chimney or concrete light pole jutting like crooked fingers from the water, or the odd island of ruined office tower, heaped in a buckled pile of encrusted glass, metal struts jutting through concrete at the lake surface at odd angles, like broken teeth.
A herd of elk cresting a grassy hillside overlooking an old power station. A family of deer skulking in a misty hollow, at one end filled with oil drums and shipping containers. Lonely owls crying from atop a parking garage in the middle of what must have been a town, now all its structures remains vanished in grass up to your neck, dandelions, lupines, sunflowers, but the cement walls of the parkade jutted up from the field like a burial stone, the birds its grave keepers.
1 We will cover how we learned of and located the site of our inquiry, why we viewed this as a priority location for "re-visitation and retrieval" (Cooper-Callis, 2079), the skills, equipment, provisions and chattel made available to us by our patrons, as well as a summary of field events while traversing to the data center installation. It goes without saying this region remains sparsely populated. Most of the region known historically as the Pacific Northwest remains neo-tribal or nomadic, with the exception of three autocratic and militant urban strongholds. Happily, the movements of our team were given little notice (with one major exception) and the bulk of the expedition unfolded carefully under accepted "no track, no trace" principles (Consortium, 2070).
2 The facility began primarily as a storage hub for commercialized data, located along the Columbia River near a major hydro-electric generation plant. When it first came on-line, access to relatively clean electrical power and ample water for cooling capacity was viewed as an important selling point for many of the newer corporate entities involved in telecommunications.
3 Companies had constructed data vaults of staggering capacity, but this was done primarily to house the data of consumers and companies. Emergent social practice from this period, as we understand it, placed considerable emphasis and pressure on individuals and organizations to develop electronic presence and demonstrate on-line interaction. It followed logically for such companies to encourage, build infrastructure around and then capitalize on this dynamic. When the global environmental, economic and security conditions began to deteriorate however, these assumptions had to be rapidly readjusted.
4 Two principle tactics of the state were replicated in almost every jurisdiction. The first was to shift vast amounts of information, held previously in isolated governmental systems, out to these corporate data centers for storage, processing and retrieval. The second was then to increasingly co-opt or compel private sector actors to give government access to private data holdings - in order to achieve more effective state functions - be it tax compliance, police investigation, security screening or general intelligence gathering.