by Max Barry

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The Red Tape Singularity of
Scandinavian Liberal Paradise

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An Introduction

In The Beginning, there wasn't much of anything.

But empty canvases are boring, so then there were Things.

Eventually, there were enough Things to constitute a World.

And the World grew, and it learned, and eventually it died - like all Things.

And the canvas was empty once again, until Things returned with gusto.

This all went on again and again for a while.

It's what we call a cycle.

And the cycle kept on cycling, until something broke.

The great machine was stilled, the process froze.

On one very particular World.

And it is this World I now bring you.

It is not, on the whole, a particularly nice World.

By most metrics of niceness.

Drawn-out cold wars don't tend to be, though at the very least this one remains cold.

The wise and the ignorant alike siphon eldritch knowledge from the marrow of long-dead un-civilizations.

Most of them use it to hit people with metal bricks.

Some lean on a different sort of insight.

The sort that screams to them in feverish ramblings, via the torn-open byways of their own mind.

These two subsets of people don't tend to get along, and this is where a lot of the aforementioned not-niceness comes from.

It is a World of broken systems and functional absurdity.

It is large, and it is angry.

I hope you like it.

There are a few key players.

The Big Boys. Not actually the biggest, by population or territory, but the de-facto main character. Also a billions-strong incomprehensibly-governed superstate practically drowning in red tape of its own creation. Started out as one very angry man hell-bent on avenging millenia of strife. Rather improbably transitioned to a global hyperpower with terrifying geopolitical reach, a unique grasp on "magic" and a key role to play in how it all comes crashing down.

Scattered worshippers of something that isn't really a god. They're really into it, though, and He has yet to correct them, and in any case the difference is mostly a semantic one.
In the name of their unseen lord, they will usher in an apocalypse - to stave off something far, far worse.
Primitivist sorcerer-kings with extreme foresight.

Big kid on the block. Surface-ancap hellscape - really a handful of megacorps playing Lego with their citizenry. Authoritarianism through legal freedoms; if you're not open-carrying an MBT, expect to be jumped by corporate death squads at your local fast food joint for funding a competitor. Plays at being a loosely-bound collective - in truth, a more-or-less unified corpo-oligarchy. Eyes locked on the brewing conflict with their worldly neighbors, though they're starting to catch onto what's really going on. Their leader in particular is worth watching.

Old, established, powerful. Still manage to keep up honest-to-god old-fashioned colonial holdings in a world that can tentatively be called "post-modern". The last empire. A bit geriatric when it comes to adapting their worldview, but the sun's not set on them yet; thus they keep at it. Slumbering giant even among slumbering giants, though the goalposts are beginning to shift.
Rising internal strife happens to coincide with the world generally going to the dogs - either might make or break them.

Something of an underdog. Still a hyperpower, still massive; fallen on hard times, comparatively speaking. Through the terrorism, and the natural disasters, and the ever-looming existential threat few can properly grasp or classify, there is still hope.
Will hope be enough to save a nation? Probably not, but they also have mechs.

Yar har, fiddle di dee. Among the many, many pirates of the world, perhaps the best organized. Actually recognized as a legitimate state by most people, despite the constant swashbucklin'.
Smart enough to leave the bigger fish alone, competent enough to run circles around most equals and lessers - at least, as far as naval matters are concerned.
Perhaps not as overtly crucial to proceedings as some; nonetheless, there is a role in store for them.

Size isn't everything. Although in this case, size is ameliorated through cheating. Content to sit on their mountain, munch wafers and watch the world burn. Have yet to comprehend that they are in the path of the fire. Not only that, but the fire has a very particular bone to pick with them. Also the fire has a gun. The gun is proverbial; impending cataclysm is not.
They have cool hats, but probably not for long.

Actually, size is everything. And they don't have it. Lacking resources, manpower, and any real idea of what to do, a bitter dictator and his thrall populace carve their way through the polar ice in search of answers. And they will find them. Whether or not these answers should be found is another question entirely.
A nation-sized mistake, poised to perpetrate something far grander. Things are going to get messy.

Nobody to turn to, nobody to trust. An ill-fated militant expedition, long-separated and divorced from its former nation of origin. Now merely a roving band of survivors, struggling to carve a living out of the ever-shifting icy wastes. The cold is a fearsome enemy indeed, but it takes something of a backseat in the presence of temporal instability and roaming swarms of mind-eating shadow creatures. Unfortunately, something even worse is about to unfold right on top of them.

Not very nice people. Not really people, in all honesty.
They bide their time. Their walls are sturdy, their blades sharp, and their minds set.
Technically this is all their fault, and someone's about to come over and kick them in the shins for it.