You can’t live this joyless existence forever; there is nothing in your life that brings you happiness. And then, one day, you discover your passion. Let’s say it’s music. It becomes an important part of your life.

You have just taken your first step into the world of cults.

The AIs observe the amount of time you spend listening to music and how much happiness it brings you. They tag you as a suspected Aficionado, put a note in your file, and lurk, waiting to see if you go farther. As long as you keep your love of music to yourself, and buy all your songs from The Music Company, you should be safe.

Eventually, you meet someone who shares your passion. You talk excitedly while on the bus, mostly heaping disrespect on The Music Company’s current offering. When you exchange contact information, the two of you become a cult, defined as “a conspiracy of two or more persons cooperating in pursuit of selfist ends.” At this point, the AIs decide to slap you down; they cite you for disparaging The Music Company’s AIs and impose a social merit penalty.

You now have a decision to make: you can pull back from music entirely, or you can decide that you’re willing to pay the price. You do the latter; music is the only thing that gives your lonely existence meaning.

You become a full-fledged Aficionado. It’s not an organization in any sense, just a community of like-minded individuals who love music. Your life gets harder, with longer commutes and shabbier living quarters, but on the whole you’re a happier person. You and your fellow Aficionados get together in chat rooms; once in a while you party in a safe house, with all your electronics in an isolation box, and listen to music downloaded from pirate web sites. You talk more freely, though you are always on edge. Even if you can successfully evade the AIs, there might be an UCE spy in your midst.

Inevitably, there is a crackdown. Word gets around, and within minutes everyone has gone to ground. The entire music scene shuts down for a few days, and you go into hiding. When the heat is off, one of your friends is missing. You survived this time, but that cannot go on forever.

Kinds of Cults

Cults come in many kinds. Most people have at least some distinctivist tendencies; these are tolerated, up to a point. Other sorts of cultism strike directly at the heart of Panglobal society; they are strongly repressed and frequently criminalized.

Distinctivist Cults

These are nothing more than communities of people who share some common passion, such as music, and socialize with one another. They are not, in most cases, heavily penalized unless they engage in black market activity or annoy someone in a position of power.

Aficionados. Lovers of music, particularly that from ancient times. They gather in one another’s apartments for clandestine listening parties where they explore forbidden tunes. Some learn to sing or to play an instrument.

Hoofers. People who enjoy archaic dance forms, such as salsa, square dancing, and the cha-cha-cha. They congregate in nightclubs and take over the dance floors late at night when everyone else has gone home.

Foodies. People who enjoy fine food. They learn to cook and have elaborate dinner parties using ingredients repurposed from their refrigerators or obtained on the black market.

Fashionistas. Clothing cults. They do a lot of mixing and matching, creating a special look from pieces of this and bits of that. Many of them learn to sew and become expert tailors.

Audiophiles. People who collect high-quality audio equipment on which to play archaic recordings of ancient music. They are a sub-cult of the Aficionados.

True Fans. People who love the game of baseball as it ought to be played, with real rules and the outcome not determined in advance. They love outer-district baseball, they mock the umpires in the major leagues, and they make pilgrimages to Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, where they still play honest baseball, as fierce as ever.

Gamers. Gamers congregate in commercial VR parlors and stage epic battles where everyone agrees not to cheat. They also find their way onto the dark web and play ancient games on networks of bootleg servers.

Literati. These are people who enjoy reading ancient works of fiction. They maintain private libraries and loan books to one another.

Religious Cults

In theory, everyone has ‘freedom of belief.’ In practice, all religions are considered cults and are persecuted mercilessly. They are allowed to maintain places of worship, as per ancient law and tradition, but anything they do outside their sanctuaries will be closely scrutinized for violations. They rarely speak to anyone about their beliefs; doing so will be construed as proselytizing, which can land them in jail. With their distinctive manners of dress, they are easily identified.

Abrahamics. Adherents to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While they continue to hold differing beliefs about their ancient God, they no longer fight amongst themselves as they used to. Few of them remain, and they live a precarious existence. Copies of their holy scriptures are highly prized, handed down from generation to generation. They mostly live in isolated communities outside of the cities and keep to themselves. They dress in traditional garb of black and white and have an undeserved reputation for fanaticism.

Wiccans. Neo-paganism continues to thrive in urban areas, where any tree can become a temple. They usually dress in long robes of brown or green during their rituals. Their religious practices and beliefs are as disparate as ever; they do not consider uniformity a virtue.

Scholars. Those who believe in objective truth are a threat to the established order. A whole range of scholarly pursuits, such as history and geography, fall under this ban; there is no truth, save that which UCE and The Companies proclaim. Many of them collect books full of ancient knowledge. While this is not illegal, the authorities will confiscate them on the thinnest pretext.

Buddhists. Though uncommon, this ancient religion continues to find adherents. They still wear saffron robes and shave their scalps, which they do not cover with manes.

Followers of the Way. A late 21st century religion so mysterious that even I don’t know what they believe.

Outlaw Cults

Certain cults are diametrically opposed to central tenets of UCE ideology. Adherents are severely punished, and most of their practices are illegal.

Anti-Mentorists. As explained in the section on childrearing, all children must be handed over to a mentor no later than their fourth birthday. Some birthgivers (so-called ‘parents’) illegally seek to retain custody of ‘their’ children. This is always a felony; nothing is so damaging as to a child as maternal love. Members of this cult face lengthy prison sentences if caught.

Anti-Moderationists. Moderation is a life-saving medical procedure used to prevent and treat genderism, yet some people consider it an abomination, and refuse treatment. Openly speaking out against the practice is a class II felony.

Tobacconists. Some people continue to crave tobacco. This is highly illegal, with long prison terms for anyone caught in possession of even a single cigarette.

Tokers. While recreational drugs are both common and legal, marijuana has come into disfavor. The Drug Company makes no money on it.

Genderists. Those who refuse to accept the biological fact that there is no such thing as gender are hounded to the ends of the earth.

Cultist Codes

Cultists recognize one another by distinctive modes of dress and other signals. If you are a Fashionista, for example, you wear novel combinations of colors and a daring mane when in public. Despite the risk — you know the AIs are watching — you advertise your presence, in hope of meeting others of your kind. There are also special codes you can use to pass on urgent information. For example, two red earrings indicates that a crackdown is in progress and that everyone should go to ground.

The AIs penalize your social merit score for showing these cultist indicators, but they do not eject you from the premises or ban you. They still want your money.

Cults in Popular Culture

‘Outlaw terrorist cults’ form a near-universal backdrop in videos and virtual reality games, where they are portrayed as dangerous fanatics lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce and brainwash the public. Think comic book villains. Thank goodness for the UCE police and the Guardians, those heroic warriors for truth and justice.

Anti-cult crackdowns dominate news coverage, 24 hours a day. The authorities are constantly uncovering fiendish plots to undermine civilization, and cultists are universally portrayed as violent nut-jobs. When a flash mob jumps a group of cultists, the cultists are inevitably portrayed as the aggressors.