Guardians of Liberty: Part 13

13.

Stock and Trade

Neither were expecting it.

Later, N1T3 supposed that was the nature’s serendipitous sense of humor at work. Serendipity was one of those things any system allowed for because it could be so wholly beneficial. It tended to go by other, often harsher names: aberration, mutation, anomaly. Words with frightening connotations in a world post-Event Horizon, and postdigital.

Unfortunately, often times it was not the boon it could be. Anomaly to a healthy system was dangerous. A healthy system– or one outputting competently, required stability. Anomaly was the anti-force; the annihilator.

It also happened to be the driving force behind evolution, allowed by virtue of potential alone.

But even Dru hadn’t expected nature, of all things, to absolve them. Human nature or not, it was nature: undeniable, inviolable.

The firehouse contained a sprawling garage and workshop, several large rooms, a control center, and countless other rooms through its three-level expanse. However enormous to a normal person, it was home to her, as much as any supposedly haunted-but-not mansion bought on the cheap.

It was large, looming, with its presence, history, and personality. It had tics and flaws, strengths and weaknesses. Its walls echoed with millions of memories from a thousand people, all of their joy now reformed to deep consternation from recent and troubling events that would’ve affected the ghosts as equally as those now living.

If either N1T3 or Dru had been willing to believe in such things, they might have thought the station itself had conspired to ensure that routines, long-established, overlapped to collude entrapment.

Tea. It was Tea. Later, N1T3 would reflect Tea had absolved him. How droll. Dru would say as much herself. They’d agree to it as a foundational element of friendship.

In the end, what mattered was the weight lifted, the gain from its loss. That extra energy allowed for a tangible gain in momentum.

However, there was a price.

He found himself leaned against the far wall of the two-entry kitchen. It’s walls bled peeling paisley wallpaper that the vision if viewed too directly for too long. He sensed Dru bustle past. Unbeknownst to him, her morning routine of pre-lighting the building’s critical rooms allowed aging, stockpiled CFL bulbs to warm to full strength. Especially in colder months, it was important to a work-flow like Riter’s.

Going from room-to-room, project-to-project in moments barely left time to piss some days, let alone to linger for a light to warm up.

N1T3 had no knowledge of routines, only of Dru’s passing. He could track her, sense her. As predators sensed one another on a hunt. Hunting or not, it was the same sensory system. Sensory alertness amid Dru’s routine was rare though. Rarer still was her anger lasting more than necessary. She had no time, no spare energy for it. She thrived on seconds.

Dru finished her rounds, found herself in the kitchen, staring at a heating kettle.

“Done already,” N1T3 said benignly.

“I see that,” she replied, staring fixedly ahead.

All of reality had come to a halt. A distant memory of her mother flipped a remote-view switch in her head. She saw herself standing, fixedly, lost and not, just as her mother decades before her. Mentally superimposed over herself, her mother in some now forgotten ‘burb in a time that may never’ve happened. The flash trickled into realization.

Her routine had been wrenched, but it was innocent, helpful even. Yet, he’d caught her off-guard. She didn’t like that. She almost stammered, caught herself, then fished out two mugs.

“Thank you.”

His face pulled taught with guilt, hesitation. Just as he’d expected.

“You’re welcome.”

She felt her old wound, her fatigue, and set out a mug to wait. Unlike he and Riter, she’d only just awoken. She was day-shift. Light-watch. Her senses better attuned to it. Until battle stations were manned, everyone took watch. Where they went after was dependent on skill.

N1T3 wished to help. Taking watch for him though, meant making the place an immediate target. So, he made tea, slouched atop the small dining chair wedged between the table and wall.

Dru would never have sensed him there. No-one used the place. She didn’t care to sit so confined. Riter always sat across from it, able to see the kitchen’s main door; like his father had for 30 years. No-one occupied the other place long. Usually, they came and went, forced there as a matter of consequence. Almost begrudgingly grateful, though never disrespectful.

N1T3, on the other hand, filled the space naturally. As if made for him.

Yet he seemed nonetheless temporary, already fading: fuel dissipating its effectiveness with every moment it existed. Put to use or not, that fuel could burn down worlds or run engines of change.

Dru recalled the news, the secrecy. Remembered the risk inherent in his presence. That it was fine now, but wouldn’t be later.

More than that, she remembered Anisa. Her frail body burned beyond recognition but immediately identifiable by its torso ink. The few stray, frayed, blonde hairs that remained like some bully-child’s lighter-doll experiments. Charred skin like pebbles kicked off a precipice as the bag rolled back. Anisa’s mother, the bastard holding the bag too ashamed to meet her eyes.

Dru did. She knew the importance of it. Tears were admission that words could never do justice or bring peace– that true evil did exist, whatever its guise or name, and that this was the consequence of it. Most of all, that there was powerlessness to do anything, but that all had a choice in seeing it or not.

Now, N1T3 had arrived bearing possibility. For good or ill.

Dru about-faced, knowing the lay of the land. She crossed her arms, leaned against the counter. “I don’t know you, N1T3. I knew Martin. He hurt me…” Her sternness faltered only slightly. “Deeply.”

N1T3 bowed his head. “How are you now?”

The question caught her off-guard. If she’d had tea in her hand, she might have quipped something back then whisked herself along her routine, no more afflicted than before. She didn’t and couldn’t. A reply was necessary.

She heaved a sigh, equally catching N1T3 off-guard. “I am very tired. I am confused and frightened. And it’s making me very tired.” He straightened respectfully, equally exhausted but committed.

She closed her eyes and sighed defiantly, “I loved you.”

“I know.”

“I thought you loved me.”

“I did. Once.”

“Everything else– with Riter, your asinine ideas– none of that matters to me. In the end, it’s none of my business. But I loved you.”

It was a fair assault. He could reply, deflect, or take the blows.

“I know that now. I didn’t then.”

He’d allow her to expend her fight in this way if she so chose. Tanking blow for blow, matching her in determination with the stiff upper-lip of one receiving his lashes. Literally, if need be. Fact was, she didn’t need to lash him. All it would do was give her more work patching him up. She was far too tired already.

She sat beside him, “You do so much with so little, how?”

He eyed the middle distance, considering the question. “Need, I guess. I’m guaranteed only what I get. I find it best to use it fully. Doing so requires knowing how. That requires knowledge of many disciplines for each potential use.”

She was beginning to understand. “So to be an activist, you need to be a programmer?”

“To be an effective one,” he corrected. “But yes. Or to have some intimate link with programming. Enough even through a partner. Otherwise, you don’t understand the stakes in the fight.”

Dru saw where he was headed, “You’re trying to recruit me.”

“Never. Only remind you what’s at stake. You seem to be teetering. Please, choose. For your own sake. Find shelter until you’re needed.”

He expected her to reel, recoil. Instead, her face twitched. She fought back a tear that never manifested but he felt all the same.

“I made my choice long ago, N1T3,” she said firmly. “It was Martin Black whom refused to see that. Perhaps you may succeed where he failed, and find peace.”

The blow left him speechless. He took it with a graceful tilt of his head, as one bowing submission before an opponent on stalemate rather than sully either’s honor. It was as equally an act of common courtesy as it was of personal vulnerability.

Rather than recoil himself, he took the opportunity. “I do understand. I didn’t then. It’s little consolation, but –“

“Do not apologize,” she warned. “Accept it and move on different than before.”

A gleam in her eye caught his, prompting another bow, deeper than before. They felt one another’s thoughts in their chests as they had so many years ago. It was then he felt the pang of loneliness at his own, lack-of-presence.

N1T3 had expected many things but never this. Forgiveness, hatred, anger, and the like, he could handle. Even total indifference or loathing, but love was too much. Even if that love, its form was far from the intimacy they’d once shared, it remained tangible.

N1T3’s mistake, once again, was in expecting to have been a passing idea to her. As he’d been with all the others, save Ket. This time though, it was innocent; formed from the misunderstanding of what love really was, rather than what Martin Black had known it as.

Before he knew it, she’d pulled him up and wrapped her arms around him. Tight. Her face pressed wetly into his neck. He recalled her scent, forced himself still. She pushed away, and stepped back to swallow further tears.

“I’m glad you’re alright.”

He knew then what she’d seen, how and why:

She was a healer. In all respects. A channeller of the forces of nature to where they were needed to heal.

Anisa Blanc was dead though. There was no healing to be done there. Why, and how Dru’d been involved, N1T3 wasn’t sure. His gut clenched. He’d once more underestimated her, however fairly it disquieted him. His thoughts pulled his face, visibly enough Dru tracked them with her own gut feelings– the ones that were his as well. Together, they understood one another better, as well as themselves.

“Her mother came to me,” Dru explained, moving to pour her water.

He stood transfixed, sensing her need of a sieve for pain. He would oblige.

“She knows what really happened. They were close. Even if they fought over everything.”

He knew what she meant; An33$a was a hacker they’d known almost as long as each other. She was also a frail, neurotic shut-in with three-generations of house-wife psychic-baggage as her only form of life-advice.

To say the girl, Anisa Blanc, had been sheltered was an understatement. Anybody that had known her had known that. Even when it was happening, she knew it too– and rebelled every chance she got. As harmlessly and innocently as possible, and if only because it was all she had; her only fun.

But An33$a wasn’t that. She was something more. A force of primal sexual power that fucked Clockwork, a perennial God among hackers and the only one that could keep up with the pure, raw fury of force contained within that tiny, repressed package.

Unlike Martin Black though, Anisa Blanc had mastered the duality of on and off-line personas as capably as one could. It required masterful skill and sheer luck at times, but she had nothing but skill and time.

Finding the net, for someone like Anisa Blanc, was like finding air after being submerged since birth. They were separate worlds. The one she came from didn’t exist there, and vice-versa. They were polar opposites; extremes between gulfs so immense one side seemed mythical from the other.

An33$a and Clockwork had fucked for money. They’d stolen from corps. They’d ridden unimaginable highs and climbed from insurmountable lows. They were people, little more than kids, with universes inside them.

Anisa Blanc; a little girl from a mediocre part of the world, dead because someone’s bottom-line demanded it. Where she was from didn’t matter. Only that it was home. To those at-home, it mattered more than anything else in a world now more intimate than ever before.

It cut deep. Deeper than anything had a right to. It was going to keep cutting; deeper and deeper with every death. N1T3 could be next, likely would be. He knew it. Riter knew it. Dru knew it too.

Now.

“I saw her,” Dru said, avoiding turning as she sugared her tea. “Was like… someone had put her in that fire just to cook her, never intending anyone to look after taking her out.

“Her mother didn’t say a word. She… dissolved, into tears.”

A visible rattle shook her figure. He wished to reach out, didn’t. He’d seen her body too, but not so viscerally. He was lucky to be separated by his own, potential fate from reality’s demands, his own role in the fight.

“You don’t have to tell me.”

“I can handle death. I am no stranger to it. Blood and gore are my stock and trade.” She sucked in a breath and stiffened herself, swiveled to meet his gaze. “I cannot abide the idea that there are not only creatures whom perpetrate such acts, but do it so brazenly as to keep from hiding it.”

He followed her. Mostly. All the same, she swallowed hard and stuck a hand into her pocket, rolling something there between her fingers there. Then, she produced a fist and stepped over to the table.

She met N1T3’s eyes, “Nothing you could ever have done would change your courage now, in the face of what awaits you.” She flattened her fist against the table and slid it away at a slight crinkle of plastic. Left behind were an mSD card, and beside it in a plastic bag, a large-caliber slug.

The type one expected to find in corp-sec issued sidearms, rather than the middling and smaller calibers carried by cops and gangers.

“Someone left this behind.”

She remembered the autopsy. The M-E writing it off. Then waiting, mocking grief. Finding the hole. The slug left behind. Knowing how important it was. Knowing even then N1T3 would soon come, Riter would welcome him in, and he would be judged. Only then could she be his executioner, jailer, or savior.

She chose the last of the three, as he expected.

It was then that he knew everything until now had been, as when first seeing Riter again, her way of punching him in the face before a hug. Dru simply took her time with it, as allowed. Now, they were moving forward. There was no telling how long that would last, but both doubted it would be long.

He’d make the best of it nonetheless.

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