Guardians of Liberty: Part 1

1.

Losing Home

Rain drummed at a steady spatter atop sheet-metal, occasionally breaking into sprints on gusts of cold wind. The rooftop shack, built twenty-stories above-ground atop a former office-building was once a mere lean-to over a series of electrical panels, pipes, conduit, and miscellanea that formed the building’s vital-systems loop.

Before, the place had leaked, bowed in the wind, and damn near blew down with each breath. Since then, its innards had been stripped, its holes patched and reinforced, its structure made sound, and the leaks more or less stopped. While it remained the size of a dual cupboard, forced to contain all the requirements for human living, it was enough to house everything needed for postdigital living as well– In other words, tech.

A lot of tech.

A grid-hack fueled all of it, mini-fridge and hot plate included. Though the former tripped breakers most wet days, the plethora of computer and server gear never wavered. It was too important, had its own electrical and digital taps, expertly applied and maintained. Meanwhile the bathroom was an old toilet just inside roof-access and jerry-rigged with rain catchers to flush and fill— or else, a proper angle off the rooftop to the desolation below.

Between bodily and technological functions Martin Black, better known as N1T3, might as well have been server equipment himself. He was jacked-in every moment; had learned to hack the world around it so he’d never have to leave the net.

The few people he did meet or see, came to him. Even the roughest knew not to violate the sanctity of his place. Not because they respected or feared him, but rather, because they knew of the importance of his mission. They wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

But there were no visitors today. No guests. At least, not yet.

Finally forced to get up or piss his pants, N1T3 stepped into the rain, unzipped, and let ‘er rip. Cold rain pelted down in five-pound drops over the distant drone and auto-car static wafted in from the nearby city. Gusts pelted sounds and rain in equal measure. Already layered in clothing from the drafty, sheet-metal walls, N1T3 barely noticed.

Urban-armor of layered cloth and leather served its purpose dutifully, no matter the weather. N1T3 was glad for that.

Rain and piss followed gravity down, meshing and melding until no difference remained. N1T3 blew a hit from beneath his layered hoods and finished with a waggle, shove, and zip. He about-faced for the shack and returned to work.

N1T3 knew nothing outside the net. There, he was a powerhouse. Unstoppable. Even if he’d managed time for a life outside it, he’d never have kept up with it. He was one of a handful of people whose life passed in written code, tested, compiled and made live for the sake of the greater good.

The “how” was a lot more difficult than the why, but the why was simple; people needed him. People like him. The how of that was equally as simple; to safeguard their freedom and liberty, no matter how overplayed it sounded.

The net was fracturing into two, distinct entities; the light-net and Darknet. The latter had ensured the fracture would never again threaten certain, basic freedoms. N1T3 and others like him, by design or coincidence, were its sentinels; guardians of liberty and freedom and leaders of a postdigital rebellion whose spine was an abstract. It existed only in concepts and theorems, and digitally rather than analog.

Static software in an eternally dynamic system.

In a pre-digital age, such sentinels were never needed. Neither they, nor those they were meant to serve, existed.

But things had changed.

The pre-digital age had given way to the postdigital with no delineation or hint of the transitory state between– that is to say, the nether-realm of quantum mechanics between 0 and 1. That fickle bitch of nothingness, in neither program nor switch, whose existence made possible compounding errors, ghosts, AI– everything damaging to a functioning system but that was ultimately life, the possibility of it.

That nether realm was the simultaneously all-important and utterly vestigial “in-between.”

Instead of being used for greatness though, its was used to gorge oneself in copious, material consumerism, and gorging of propaganda. Everyone knew it too. Yet none cared. All of Humanity was guilty, but some were still barely coping, if at all.

Others, like Martin Black– AKA N1T3, were doing their best to ensure the future wasn’t heading where it seemed to be. They’d seen Humanity’s treacherous path for what it was, were curious first off before coming to understand and acting reflexively in defense.

N1T3 personally recalled the Takeover; he and the other so-called “hackers” main question then had been, “should we do anything?” Media and propaganda said no. Counter-culture said yes.

But the question was never if the path existed, simply if it could be avoided or was worth the effort.

N1T3 made himself wealthy and famous in the meantime, but with the kind of wealth and fame that was shape-shifting and more infamy than not. He could be assured at least, he’d eat the rest of his life and never fear missing a meal– much more than could be said of the average person.

His main mission however, was ensuring people could one day learn to do the same if they so chose. Obviously, they hadn’t yet. Or at least not enough, judging by the world’s state. Society wasn’t ready for full-on change yet, but it was coming and they were warming to it. Meanwhile others, like N1T3, had and were waking to the present-reality, its ill and stagnated effects from the lack of change.

Meantime, N1T3 and his ilk were living gray lives. Ones assuring their asses could be hauled in, made examples of with their lives forever upheaved despite nothing lasting sticking to them. While in most circles, N1T3’s people remained unknowns; in others, they were the sole public-enemy.

He’d never understood it either.

N1T3 sat in his chair to watch the his feeds lighting up. Forums. RSS feeds. Newswire vids– Countless sources of information, self-curated and aggregated, were showing something massive had occurred, was occurring; a glitch in the society’s system for the worse.

He’d been up precisely long enough to piss. In that time, something had happened. Something big and bad. People weren’t sure of its entirety, but its existence was identifiable quickly by its negative space.

N1T3 was no stranger to net-side alarms. Often it was from other Hackers, Guardians like him going offline, not reporting in regularly (in their way), or altogether disappearing, sometimes for months at a time but never forever.

Forever wasn’t really a thing that existed in N1T3’s world. Despite its seeming existence in infinity, forever was a different concept. It was external to the world of systems, 0s and 1s. Infinity was a recursive loop running until the end of time.

Time was less than forever. Forever was beyond that of time’s meager constraints. It was the nothingness after universal heat-death. A world outside the world of systems, where its rules weren’t applicable. Indeed, a world and realm most Human-thought could barely breach.

N1T3 sat in his chair to watch the RSS feeds lighting up. He’d been up precisely long enough to piss. In that time, something had happened. Or, had begun to. Something people weren’t sure of, but whose existence was quickly identifiable by its negative space.

The hackers’ places were lighting up. People were going nuts. Billions of gigs were being exchanged in seconds. The net had slowed to a fraction its normal bandwidth. London-wide, the power was dipping, straining. The hackers, their people, were panicking. Markets would soon start fluctuating.

N1T3 stilled his racing heart long enough to think: A few hackers had gone offline earlier in the night. Not uncommon nor earth-shattering. Rolling brown-outs often tripped spliced breakers from rippling voltage. Nothing to do after but reset your systems or spend a few hours replacing grid-patches at-worst. Pains in the ass to be sure, but nothing life-altering.

Until today.

N1T3’s feeds were constant streams of intel scrolling by at lightspeed. Alarms were going off. Everywhere. Digital, silent alarms, but alarms. It didn’t take N1T3 long to figure out why; Clockwork had been offline hours now; too many hours. CW was the type of hacker that earned his name from a rigid adherence to certain protocols and schedules. Now, he was late.

More than that, everyone suspected he was involved with An33$A, another hacker who often went quiet the same times as Clockwork. Everyone figured they were fucking, or equally afflicted by some habit, but no-one had proof– just vague knowledge.

The hacker-world thrived off vague knowledge though. It was all any hacker needed to operate. Everything else was improv, reading between the lines.

News-vids were coming in; couple, presumed dead in a building fire. Poor side of town. Clockwork’s main server was down, its remote back-ups still running.

Any hacker running their own gear knew how to track certain things related to anonymous users. For people like N1T3, Clockwork, An33$a; anyone could pretend to be them, but only they could launch messages from one of their own servers.

And all of Clockwork’s servers were up, save the one he’d most recently been using to broadcast from. Exclusively. It was as if finding a person’s favorite shirt with them conspicuously absent, and it freshly bloodied.

N1T3 tapped a macro and readied a ping in a terminal, then macro’d another series of numbers. The pings checked out. All of them. Clockwork’s servers were up. An33$a’s too– except the ones suddenly confirmed as registered to a freshly burning building.

N1T3 was hyperventilating. He and the others hadn’t gotten where they were without seeing the forest through the trees. He racked a macro across the keyboard and the humming drives began to roar. Programs and messages executed in lock-step tandem, burning aged processors with the effort.

High-burst messaging systems N1T3 had long ago concocted began transmitting and posting pre-written messages. The drives ramped up. The screens flickering past were suddenly clear. A momentary, steady glow, and they flickered off. Fried plastics and metals smoke accompanied steel-warping thrums.

N1T3 wasn’t paying attention. He’d stuffed his bug-out bag of everything vital, then bolted for the rain just as the first wisps of over-volted system tinged his nose. The rig had already cooked itself off, was now making its point better known. N1T3 had designed it that way; the gray area of his life, his work and mission, demanded the contingency.

And not a moment too soon.

He hesitated at the door, ears and eyes peeled through rain. Something cracked behind him. A chunk of rooftop went missing. The softball-sized divot exploded into dust. He reacted, bolting again. Snap-shuffle rhythms from distant sniper-fire traced his path in hunks of pulverized building. N1T3 weaved on instinct, fleeing for the stairwell door; Inside was safety. Maybe. Probably not.

But it was better than this.

Each step was an eternity. Terror burned his veins and throat. His instincts and body said to work. It did. He wasn’t sure how. He managed a half-stumbling terror-sprint to hurl himself inside all the same. The door’s jamb sparked as he dove through. G-Forces slammed it shut.

Hyperventilating but unwilling to stop and breathe, N1T3 had only moments or minutes; neither was long enough. If what they’d done to Clockwork and An33$A held through, they were already in the building. Strike teams would be moving in.

Distant, feet pounded echoes up a stairwell confirming his fears. Corporate security was moving to eliminate a suspected terrorist– that’s what they’d bill it as. Clockwork, An33$A, N1T3 if he weren’t smart, careful. And now.

He slowed his pace to breathe, uncertain he wasn’t too terrified to move, and surveyed his surroundings:

He found himself in the uppermost lobby, more a maintenance area than anything habitable, but his toilet reminded him he knew the place better than he thought. A stairwell door burst open to the booted foot of a commando dressed in Kevlar. A flash-light swept its beam from the end of a rifle at the newly vacated area. The strike team filed in, silent– as if it were necessary after their obnoxious entrance.

They swept past the door to the bathroom, aimed for the steps ahead. A commando in the middle of the line paused at the open, elevator doors, leaned in to look down, flash-light sweeping the shaft into empty blackness below. Another lit the upper-edges from an angle, illuminating the forward corners.

Just behind them in the blackness of the door’s overhead ledge, N1T3 stilled himself, perched in utter disbelief at what was happening. Even the game corp-sec thought it was playing wasn’t being played right. He was glad for it of course, but the irony was there.

The pair of lights did one, last sweep, then pulled away. Boots tramped toward the rooftop door.

N1T3 considered stopping to check his pants, couldn’t. The place was too exposed. Soon enough they’d notice the server was fried, start locking down the building. They wanted to catch him sticking around, or deny any opportunity of ever coming back.

He finally breathed; he’d live. The shack was a home, but ultimately, his home was a digital one; an abstract. The idea itself modular, able to handle anything, in its way. He heard the rooftop door shut and fled for the shadowy stairwell. Even then he knew it was only his first encounter with corp-sec.

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