Guardians of Liberty: Part 21

21.

Blood in the Water, Blood on the Air

Ozell was looking at the clerk like he knew precisely what had happened. He didn’t, but he’d guessed enough that he’d piece the rest together. All he cared about was truth.

“You sent him out back.” The clerk said nothing in return. Ozell thought to scold him, backed off. “Fine. Did he say anything?”

The clerk shook his head. “You only saw him, didn’t speak to him.” Another shake of his head.

Ozell swallowed fury to recall Paul’s face. It kept him level. Ket’s warnings, the recollection of what he knew — and didn’t– swarmed in his mind.

“You see him before today?” Another shake. “Thank you.” Ozell walked away, “Fucking enlightening conversation that.”

“Sir?” A green said. “Commander, Sir, you might wanna’ see this.”

Ozell wanted to back-hand the kid for his groveling. The last thing he needed was more dehumanization. Wage-kids, he knew. Fresh from boot and new on the beat. Always rolling back-streets prepped and waiting, or offbeat and training, sparring.

Corp-sec worked like a well-oiled machine of mass enforcement and authority. Excellent for both total militarized movement and insurgent execution of will. Just as an empire’s authority should. Ozell had never argued the existence of it, only the ethics– a thing those hacker tech-punks pretended to know, but never could.

Ethics meant jackshit from anyone who’d never been to war or forced to kill to survive. What could a bunch of barely not-kids know of sacrifice, compromise in death’s face? Nothing, that’s what.

The greenie led Ozell to the alley where N1T3 was hit. Ozell sent him away. He found the blood on his own, taking careful time to think everything over as he investigated the area.

Daniel Ozell did his best to eliminate all impressions he might be operating under. Reductionism said his system dictated Martin Black as its enemy, Ozell’s through it. Whether Martin Black really was or not, didn’t matter in the slightest. The system, though hunting a figment, wanted it gone as any entity disruptive to its goal, bottom-line.

Really, Ozell knew, the enemy was N1T3; the avatar, the idea. Martin Black could be killed; was currently off somewhere licking a bloody wound. Ozell knew immediately he could follow the trail, find N1T3, likely kill him. Sooner if he followed now.

But in the end, he knew where N1T3 would go. Those that did not, wondered where Martin Black would. It would take anyone searching for the latter longer to find the former and it would be roundabout, circuitous. As it had been for him.

So, Ozell would collect what he needed to make his move in the meantime.

He sent the greens back on patrol. They’d work on coming to the conclusion of following Black to N1T3 on their own. Ozell needed N1T3 for himself; to understand. Not just N1T3, but Ket, Riter, Dru, and the whole culture. He needed to know it from inside out.

Ozell’d never delude himself; Corp-sec only saw him as a tool. His effectiveness was all that mattered. It, versus the risk of potential damage at his being unleashed. The idea was showing he need not be leashed, rather than proving why he did.

Unlike many, he wasn’t on corporations’ side for dubiously flexible moral reasons. It was from the rigid logic of a man built by their successes, their strengths. Why need more? Especially if, as was the case, he cared only to see his son was guaranteed safety and belly-fat.

But is it guaranteed?

It always had been. Especially now though, Paul was a liability, a target. If the system didn’t exploit him after thwarting those trying to, others would. How could Paul ever hope to live a normal life? His face was plastered across every corp-newsnet, internal or otherwise. The light-net was rallying behind him. If he weren’t so certain his orders were God’s law, he’d have worried Paul was being exposed even now.

But why? What was the point? Why rob a child– his child– of any hope at normality? Why make him a symbol of some stranger’s crusade? And why such a fruitless one? What heartless bastard could do such things?

He tried to temper his rage again, couldn’t this time. N1T3 had made Paul a target. Paul. His son. He would live and die a symbol of martyred oppression or eternal-tyranny. No matter what Daniel Ozell did to build a life for Paul, he’d eventually have to contend with some bygone hacker-punk’s schemes.

Ozell decided N1T3 would die for it. A moment would come. A tipping point. N1T3 had signed the contract allowing for it. Now, it was coming. He was predator, preying on weakness, and the pack-leader would retaliate.

Ozell’s fury became something more then. Brain-shorted by his own adrenaline, Daniel Ozell rose from examining N1T3’s blood an entirely different man. He was no longer a Commander on orders, working on company time. Instead, he was now the Hunter that would take his time, secure his place and understanding, then strike.

When he did, he would murder N1T3 or Martin Black all the same.

*

N1T3 felt weightlessness, his arms and legs hanging. Something not-quite sturdy cradled him. He moaned at an injection. Lines. Sleep. He sat stock upright as if no time had passed, awake in the rear of an ambulance. Time had passed, but he’d have never been able to tell.

Dru sat beside him, a pair of friends she knew– one he recognized– had agreed to help for just such an occasion. Dru sent them out as he came round to speak privately.

“You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Get that a lot lately,” he said, easing upward.

“Your vitals pinged Terry’s rig.” He tried to sit upward, completely incapably, gave up, and moaned. She sighed, “How much longer d’you intend to keep this up?”

He managed to swing himself to the bed’s edge and nearly blacked out. He found himself on the floor of the ambulance with Dru shouting at someone. Her tone said it was him; he knew it too well. It was the one reserved only for him. Even Riter didn’t quite get the same tone– though he had far more than a few reserved for himself.

He stopped fighting, pleased to find himself upright again, blood more or less still contained within him. The ambulance’s doors were open now, Riter’s garage beyond it. Anyone asking would get the guise of maintenance, a catch-all meaning Dru and Riter’s reps were good everywhere, with everyone.

He stumbled out into the garage. “Get me outta’ here, Dru. I’m drawing heat.”

“Fuck off, Martin. Sit’own,” she forced him back against the bumper.

She fought to pull at his clothing, leaving him feeling supremely exposed from his instant arousal. In her mind, he figured, it merely re-affirmed the adage that sex was preferable to anything. Who needed confirmation of that, really?

He tried squirming away, but she forced him still to check is wound, “No split. Good. Walk. Slowly. No running. You start running, you’re dead. Go home. You need anything and we’ll deliver it via drone. Stay out of sight. Stay safe.”

She walked him through the station toward the cellar, stopped at the door to the stairs. “I love you, N1T3. Because I know you. Like I knew Martin Black. I don’t love you as I loved him, but I do love you. I’m sorry for my part. I hope this grants you peace.”

Tears welled in her eyes, shining long enough to catch light. She turned away as two life-times of sorrow splashed the floor. Both were now muted, and lost to time and alt-history. Both the one that might’ve been theirs and was squandered, and the one that could still be but would not. It would be taken soon enough anyhow.

N1T3 wouldn’t have accepted further help if Dru’d had it to give. So, she gave what she could and sent him off, knowing she would never see him again. Though he would her; one, last time.

The return trip was long. Exhausting. The bleeding had stopped. Patched by Dru and her people’s expertly skilled hands.

He’d lost too much blood though. Was light-headed. He’d shouldered his way home in the sewers, only vaguely aware of the direction he moved. He reached his squat, parts in-hand, and collapsed just inside the building. He’d only just managed to get the door closed.

Despite his dwindling time, his body could take no more. Precious hours were to be wasted recovering enough to move again. Pushing any further would make it worse. He had no choice.

The door shut and his body slid down along it, landing in a heap and already out cold.

*

Daniel Ozell was waiting. Reconning the hunt. That meant learning not only his prey’s abilities, but his movements, habitat, and frequented environments too. The only way to effectively track and trap his prey was to understand it.

Not just N1T3 either, but hackers; so-called postdigital kids. He had to understand them.

He enveloped himself in reading and learning the culture at light-speed. One that had been running just as fast since its proliferation. It wasn’t long before he began to understand the last few decades of history better.

Hacker culture moved in waves exponential to technology’s evolution, hidden beneath punk and tech cultures as it groped for safety and sanctity in the newness of itself; Video games, PCs, smart tvs and phones. With them were the hackers building or breaking the things. All that time, hidden in the shadows. Decades. Growing. Spreading. Fueling the technology thirst now hydrating the world.

Formerly a culture of mathematicians, physicists, lecturers, and philosophers, it too had evolved. Nerds, geeks, dweebs; all manner of social outcasts were drawn to tech, its possibility and ubiquity. Hacking, really, was just practical short-hand; logical deduction.

What made certain hackers so good, Ozell quickly realized, wasn’t their programming or knowledge of tech. Rather, it was how well they adapted their abilities to the structure available, whether it produced the desired or required product.

In simplest terms, it wasn’t coding that made a hacker. It was their ability to recognize, conform to, and/or manipulate the imaginary and abstract as objects. Usually, through networks. Regardless, each object had a purpose and intricate interconnection to another. Through them, a change could or would be effected.

That was the essence of a “system.” What Hackers used to refer to any level of connected actors or reactors whose sole purpose was output. The output itself and even nature of the system didn’t matter to a hacker. Only that it was a system to be exploited or patched, or else periodically checked and cleared for vulnerabilities. As far as Ozell was concerned though, that was all gibberish.

At least, at first. Then he remembered what Ket had said; his system demanded an eye for an eye. Blood for blood.

But Martin Black, N1T3– whomever– hadn’t spilt blood. In fact, neither he nor his people were much for violence. N1T3’s own words on old forums posts and decades of old discussions, had been those of a peaceful Human Being.

True enough was it that they sublimated the urge en-masse, it wasn’t blood. Not really. Digital blood, but it wasn’t real. Trying to make it that way negated any real evidence. He knew it. N1T3 knew it. Everyone knew it. It was the avatar-equivalent of bloodletting; serving a purpose until something better came along and not without its benefits otherwise.

Except the corps were taking that as literal. Why?

Ozell didn’t understand. It was nagging him. As if the explanation were already there, before him. He just needed to see it, right. Grasp it. He needed something to compare it to. Needed some scale to–

It hit him so hard he gasped for breath. Forced to control his sudden rush of adrenaline and terror, he panicked. Images spilled into his mind. Images of marching. War. Blood. Death. Destruction. Flames. Utter agony. Piercing screams. Wretched sobs wracking his coherence from cries for mothers fathers, sons and daughters. The lost and dead, children included.

Paul.

Ozell’s heart was attempting to hammer its way out; N1T3 hadn’t made him a target. He’d made him an example. However poorly or misguided, he’d attempted to show the damage being done through a face no-one could object to. Whom better than a child with everything to gain?

But it was Ozell’s son. His son!

Ozell’d never bothered considering the hacker-crusade was for the greater good. Every terrorist and criminal needing an easy-out claimed crusade. Funny thing about the word, Ozell knew from experience, was its other name. The one he’d faced up-close and personal, down the barrel of a sand-caked gun; jihad.

Holy war; death and murder by the millions over things spawned from faith, conviction. Not evidence or fact. The same kind of thing those very people were arguing shouldn’t exist. So, he’d paid the possibility of greater goodness lip-service, as most would.

Until he recognized the scale he’d been missing.

Paul wasn’t marked because he was anyone specific. Quite the opposite. He was marked because he was no-one in particular, simply there. Like Anisa Blanc. Ozell was told to point and shoot. That was all that mattered to him. Above that, it was the execs’ hope that if Ozell did his job enough, all their problems would go away. They need only deign where to point him.

Paul Ozell was just another bystander now though. As he’d have been under any other circumstances. N1T3 had made Paul a bystander solely because he hadn’t been one. The system required someone from within to understand its damage. Even if they didn’t care for the message, they needed someone to care for its affected.

To corps, people weren’t people anymore. They were rosters, damage reports, spreadsheets, schedules and statistics. People were numbers to some, avatars to others, and whomever else they were otherwise in day-to-day life. To corps though, they were only a value in a system. Usually a digital one.

Even now, Ozell knew it all boiled down to statistics. If Black were allowed to go free much longer, the corps believed it would signal a new variable rising in their system. One they could not afford; collapse. It would never be so immediate, but it would be inevitable all the same.

Problem was, people were only statistics because someone or something made them that way. Like Anisa Blanc; Terry Riter, Dru MacIntyre, Se’Ket Zaad, and Martin Black had been pegged as threats to so-termed “system stability.” They were abnormal components in the pipeline. Possible benefits, as most, but also possible liabilities too.

Now, Paul Ozell was seen this way.

Six year old Paul Ozell, tucked safely in bed down the hall. Just feet away from his lune of a mother sleeping off her latest dose of lunatic meds. Paul Ozell was oblivious, unaware. Innocent. His father was not. Beyond that, he knew now what would happen, had seen it.

Blood. Death. Pain. Paul as part of it or suffering it.

Only one way out– Ozell saw and understood it, finally. Like those around him, he too, was a postdigital child. But even postdigital children had self-interests. At that Martin Black, aka N1T3, had ensured Corp-sec Commander Daniel Ozell’s self-interests would be met– for a purpose not his alone, and after an appropriate period of suffering.

The manipulation N1T3 had managed from Ozell’s system was astounding. He saw it now as one watched water-flows manipulated along a pipe. Save this was information. He’d already read about N1T3’s fountains. Their spread. N1T3 himself wouldn’t have even gotten the chance yet.

Then again, why would he need to? As its architect and visionary, N1T3 didn’t need to know anything beyond his own involvement. That kept it working best. The water itself determined the importance and use of a fountain; those around the fountain kept it clean and working well.

If they did not, it was reflected. And like all other social manifestations, in the people and their surroundings. Filth begetting filth. An age-old adage whose inverse should be the ideal but also downright impossible.

Technology though had grown small and ubiquitous. Pervasive, viral, and versatile.

People could not live without it or its main output of datum. Until recently, Human history had been been relegated to bits and bytes at a time. Formed and stored by-hand on large, hard physical media; Paper. Clay. Papyrus. Stone.

Digital information didn’t exist that way. It existed digitally. Through physical components, yes, but not in them. It existed in a netherworld; the aether of cyberspace.

Daniel Ozell now understood why he would kill Martin Black; his system demanded it– through him, as but an extension of its violent arm.

He would do it too, for his son, the world. Even Martin Black himself. It was the only way out for anyone. Even N1T3 knew it. He and N1T3 were forced into a contract for the falsified actions of a figment that were pinned on him.

Because of either’s circumstances, neither could back out. N1T3 had to see things through, and Ozell had to retaliate. Once again, Ozell realized, N1T3 had known it all along.

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