Guardians of Liberty: Part 18

18.

Cat and Mouse

N1T3 was running. Again. He’d probably lost somewhere on the order of 10 kilos in the last few days. He was also quite certain one of his arteries was beginning to clog, or had some structural weakness of a kind. It was hurting more with each run, like it was giving out.

His message had been as innocuous as possible– and Daniel Ozell responded exactly the over-blown way a taunted bully on a bad day might.

In the end, N1T3 knew, that’s all any of his kind were– the corporate types, their loyalists. Most simply used money in place of fists. Fists remained involved though. Especially for the decision-makers, the BoDs and Execs. Of course, it was easier to pay others to do the beatings than spend their own energy. Easier on the knuckles, too.

For puppeteers, those were important assets.

N1T3’s message said few words, but its subtext was obvious; “Cat and mouse now; Find me. Find you. Who draws first blood? You didn’t yet. Bravo.”

He left the message on the net, exposing its post-point blatantly, and started running.

Ozell needed something. Anything. If only to stall. No-one was ready yet. Even Ozell himself. If he’d been ready to do what was needed of him, he’d have killed $trydr and Dru. Among other things, it meant he hadn’t chosen sides. Not yet. His son was what mattered.

His son, and now finding the man that threatened him.

Good.

N1T3 left him a bread-crumb because he needed it. Ozell needed a win. Power. N1T3 had some, didn’t want it, saw an opportunity to disseminate it. Ozell wouldn’t see it that way yet, but N1T3 and the others did.

So, N1T3 was running. Fleeing. Somewhere behind him, Ozell was fuming, raging, sniffing out his scent to hunt him down. His system demanded it. Just as it had demanded everything else thus far. That same system Ozell fed and lived off, put the bullet in Anisa Blanc’s back, set fire to her corpse, then stayed Ozell’s hand against Dru and Riter. The same system currently hunting N1T3 on a death warrant.

Who wouldn’t be running?

N1T3’s next safehouse he knew equally well as the first. It wasn’t much. Just a hovel out of the way. A former apartment, on a derelict corner, in one more rundown, abandoned area. Once more river-side, though not as secluded, yet obscured by emptiness.

Riter’s diversion had taught him an important thing; London was nowhere near flat. Storm-sewers ran everywhere, interconnected not only with rivers and one-another, but also linked to the suburbs– like city-states, but smaller, more-guarded. At least, for a flat-landers’ entrance by air or land.

But N1T3 had sewers.

Problem was, useful as that intel was, he couldn’t use it yet. He needed to get hidden, stop moving. If Ozell caught him in the sewers, he’d be gunned down before the time was ripe. What needed to would never take place.

N1T3 focused elsewhere to block out pain in his legs and chest, follow his gut toward his destination. He was glad to have squandered most of his sense of smell on youthful excess. The air had grown thicker, and though he couldn’t smell it, he tasted rotting water in gritty air on his tongue.

He focused on “home;” the place was stocked. Good. It would take time for the cat to sniff him out. Nothing could be done about it but wait, run if needed.

His feet splattered mixes of Human and Earthen refuse, a backwash of civilization spilling in little-by-little on floodwaters into its own bowels. N1T3 was immune to the sound, the distant squeals of rats, rumbling roads and piping– encroaching civilization that said he was getting closer.
The roads themselves were still used. Most of the mains, anyway. His new digs would be a pair of blocks up and over; by his estimate, five or six more manholes forward and one or two down the mainline.

He slowed, maneuvering his way through darkness with echolocation and footfalls. His wet shoes plodded shallow streams that felt more homely the longer her traversed them. Ozell would’ve called him “a rat in its natural habitat.”

He smiled.

He wasn’t a rat, of course, but baiting a cat into chasing another cat was too risky. Too different an approach was required for the subtlety of predatorial-hunts. Ozell himself might’ve been acting on predator-predator instincts, but his system was forcing him to act on predator-prey instincts. Even he knew discrepancy of such kind was pointless. If he hadn’t, he’d have long ago abandoned the mantle of corp-sec for more promising ventures.

What kept him around wasn’t hope for fulfillment, it was obligation. Likely, to honor those closest to him through it. N1T3 knew that of Ozell, as he knew it of all, postdigital children.

Like Society, whether Ozell accepted himself as part of Humanity or not, didn’t matter. It was immutable. The damage being done was harming itself as much as its victims. Accepting or not, it was happening.

Those were the stakes. N1T3 knew it. As everyone else did. Even Ozell’s masters. Even if buried so deeply it resembled the ancient skeletons of their first dead, it remained as immutable as the law it represented. The problem wasn’t the people though, it was what the system did to them.

But systems could be changed. Ozell needed to learn that first hand. He needed to know the game was rigged from the start, because the system was controlled by its own, self-made rules. Ones written by long-dead men and wanton cheats, never exposed to the concepts of technology, instant and global communication, or mass-dissemination of information.

Ozell knew that, or had the capacity to. N1T3 had seen it in his eyes: in that cold moment of deadened panic before reflex took over. That instant of deer in the headlights before turning master manipulator, the flit from prey to apex-predator.

Ozell knew how things stood and obligation told him not to care. Obligation alone.

That was the essence of the postdigital struggle. Every hacker knew it, on some level or another. Some just weren’t programmers. They couldn’t see the inherent programmability in organization, its structure. The subject or method of organization didn’t matter– Stage IV civilizations might stabilize entropy, after all. Nothing wasn’t off the table if Tech, Science, and Humanity progressed far enough together.

Knowing for certain wasn’t possible yet, but getting to that point of knowing was.

100,000s of years of potential Human progress ahead, and yet even the tech available to N1T3 could lead to immortality given a slight synthesis with the Human body. What was the harm if that body’s life-span rose astronomically or disappeared altogether to become universal, eternal?

N1T3 saw none. In fact, he was so certain of the post-human certainty, he’d ensured he’d go to his death having done his part to speed the process. If not for himself, then those he cared for– and all like him that would come later.

Above all, he did it not from obligation, but love, kinship, and hope.

N1T3 pushed his way up from a manhole into darkness. Nearby enough could be heard the sounds of life, but its distance made it impossible to see. At that, it was mostly auto-cars, the last of the courier drivers of manuals.

Soon enough, they’d be outlawing that, too.

N1T3 took a deep breath and fought the cover back in place. He made mental note of its weight, how long it might take to lift if fleeing. The leverage from beneath was easier than above. If he had to run, it could trap him.

Seconds. Breaths. Heartbeats. These were the tempos of life and death now.

He’d have to find a better entrance. The place was never ideal, that’s what the pier was for, and his shack atop the office-building. Even as he made his way up the few steps to the rundown doorway, he was double-checking the area, listening carefully. He waited until certain he was alone, then pushed the door open.

The converted building exactly as left; a large, bi-level home, divided well into four flats. From outside, it looked twenty-years abandoned. Then again, it’d looked that way for somewhere on the order of 30 years now.

It wasn’t eye-catching or well-known. Rather, it was obscure, innocently placed. A place of history and mystery N1T3 had felt attracted to since first seeing it as a child. The sort of attraction that told one of a place, moment, or person of importance, like the first meeting of an old-friend-to-be.

He slipped in. The place remained stocked, undisturbed. The flat he’d secured, near the upper-rear, was sectioned off and reinforced. Its windows were entirely blacked out, its power expertly spliced and hidden.

It was the best, last hope of remaining safely hidden. Regardless of how long that lasted, it needed to be up to snuff.

The light dimmed as he stepped in and flipped it on, stabbing his gut with the sign of things to come.

His servers were pulling more power than usual. Bad voltage. A shorted line, probably. Or a converter or conditioner. That meant a special supply run…

But getting to Ket would be impossible. She’d be next on Ozell’s shit-list. He might even survive it– if he wasn’t stupid enough to fuck with her. If not, well… she had connections, and the need to make examples. Above all, she was untouchable.

Even Ozell would be forced to bow.

If Riter and Dru had been mail-armored; Ket was layered in force-fields and body armor so futuristic it made Ozell’s State-of-the-Art Corp-Sec ceramics look like boys playing war in cardboard.

Fucking with her, fucked him.

*

Ozell lingered at the door, forced to wait. He needed a different touch here. Corp-sec’s castration at Riter’s had been enough to check their ego. They didn’t want this one broadcast. Not this one. They didn’t want it known what was happening now: that an off-the-books black-market dealer with fingers in every industries pies, and some of her own, was their last best hope.

They didn’t want people knowing Martin Black was being chased, hunted, that he had sympathizers, allies, and was continually evading them.

Most of all, they didn’t want the war being waged to be known yet.

As ridiculous as it felt, Ozell could do nothing. Not yet. He needed more before he could dick the Corps or Black that much. He had power but not enough. Not yet. N1T3 and his allies were exposing every weakness the corps had left to any and all onlookers. And as deftly and swiftly as possible. Seemingly, for no other reason than to show they could.

Corp-sec couldn’t put them down yet. Not with Anisa Blanc’s images still fresh in mind. They had to know what the hell was going on too. Blanc’s charred corpse. Ozell’s .40 caliber slug. Its wounds.

A flash of memory. A squeeze. Blanc crumpling forward. Slow-motion fall of shock from overloaded nerves. Still-fleeting terror in her face trembling over those last, rasping gasps.

The door opened. He fanned his men out around the perimeter. He wasn’t stupid. He knew Se’Ket. She’d long been on the tongue of every corp-sec commander. She was a Sphinx. A walking riddle, enigmatic in every sense.

And an absolute bombshell.

She stood like some Egyptian Goddess of her namesake’s land. Her chestnut hair streamed down the shoulders of her thin, flowing clothing like fine-drapery. Full-bodied shapes hinted themselves in the edges of her clothing, accenting perfect hips and breasts but hiding everything else as a come-hither for all to see but none to achieve.

None but Black. How he’d done it, Ozell’d never know. Married or not, and affiliations aside, he’d have pinned her to a bed and never stopped given half a chance. Or, if she were so inclined, allowed her the same. He knew too, he’d have loved every second of it.

That’s how she was; modern day legend. Mythical. Damn-near perfect.

She was also one of the most well-known, wanted criminals alive. No-one had proof of course, but no-one needed it. If something was going on somewhere, Se’Ket knew about it. If someone needed something, so long as the price was met, they got it. At some point, all of those transactions went through her.

Yet she was so much more.

Any pursuit for her was a facade. Everyone knew it. Ozell’d never met her before, but he knew her well enough by reputation. He also knew how to cut through bullshit. In her case, it didn’t leave much behind, but was enough for a vague image.

Ket was the same age as her former lover, Martin Black. They’d met in school, fallen madly in love, then aggressively out again. Ever since, she’d been floating from one mate to another, searching. For what, Ozell doubted she knew.

In the course of that floating, she met people. Using her nature and flagrant sexuality to cultivate connections. By 20, she was running drugs, guns, goods, anything. White, gray, black didn’t matter either. Money was the object.

Ozell admired her for that alone.

He knew what she was, why; as all predators knew their willing prey. Or would-be willing, he noticed as the door opened and she appraised him.

“We will speak privately or not at all.”

He eyed his nearest man– a woman named Michelle; all the same in armor, and nodded.

Ket led him in, to the fountain in the front room now stretched out like an accordion dressing wall with its surroundings decorated for a boudoir showing. The theme was something of ancient nature and sex meeting modern technology. Hints of granite and marble inflected themselves in shadow; lime and sandstone in the neutral warmth. Added to and reinvigorated by the sprightly ivy and verdant plant-life otherwise hung about, the fountain was everything N1T3 could have dreamed.

In that moment, Ozell knew everything and nothing.

Foremost, he knew all of the rumors about her were true. Somehow each was true, no matter their contradictions. He knew it in a heart-beat. It could be no other way with a creature so unbound. He knew, too, she was one of the unparalleled beauties. Even in her ruthlessness, she had the art of subtlety; in the gore of the kill, she had predatory grace.

Beyond everything else though, he knew being part of corp-sec meant one day putting a bullet in her. Trying to. Challenging this force of nature… a force he’d be have to extinguish or bottle. At least, attempting to.

It was impossible. He knew it even now. One could no more extinguish a force of nature than pull a star from the sky. He wasn’t sure which Ket was, but he felt her pull. He needed to know what she knew. Needed her. If only for a moment. And if only for a hint of understanding, of proper stimulation.

He never expected to walk away a changed man, but such was her power.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Lean Upon the Wicked

Lean upon the wicked.
Trod upon the lame.
Chase them through the thicket.
Hang them without name.
If judgment comes to call,
say it was a game.

This is the creed of a motherless breed.
This is the soul-darkened human seed.
This is the eyrie of an immoral steed,
pregnant upon invirtuous deed.

Death is on your ticket.
Freedom’s in your name.
Never can be resown.
We fight but not in vain.
Eyes and minds alight.
And burning as one flame.

This is the song, of a petulant need.
This is the cry, that we cannot concede.
This is a wound, borne of gluttonous greed,
bending like, unbroken reed.

Cry of the fallen.
Breath of the flame.
Forget the calling.
Strike without shame.
For when at last,
the flotsam’s gone to claim,
and tidal waves roll,
cling to the innocents
and not your goal.

This is the sigh of the chaos gone by,
This is the reel of impossible cry.
This is the sound of the freewheel afly,
remembered long past the day that we die.

VIN26- The Best “Worst” Decision

We all have wishes. Skee-Lo had the most, at least in the publicized market. I had the second, but mine was written in words across pages invisible to all. Even if they hadn’t been, it was doubtful anyone would have found them. Even then, they’d never have enjoyed them.
It was simple mathematics, really. Take the amount of people in the world, multiplied by the amount of non-Skee-Lo wishes, then divided by each level of exclusion required to reach them.
In my case, that was invisible pages, requiring active readers, whom would not only ferret them out, but also enjoy them. Recursion that deep requires consideration.
But it happened. All of those infinitesimally small chances, and it happened.
What the fuck was I thinking?

Initially, It was from loss. Something I needed to do. Music had failed… sort of. Then, anyhow. I knew my body was too damaged and my spirit too wounded to do anything else. So, I tried to heal. Not knowing I was seeking to heal.
My dumb-ass went and put pen to paper.

For non-writers: the feeling of writing is intoxicating. It is more than a drug. It is like missing a crucial part of your genetic material and needing to supplement it with lifelong therapy. It is my theory that writers are Bodhisattvas: that we were the first to be reborn as Human, and needed to identify one another.
So, we began writing.
Only then, because we knew it would take lifetimes to make work, could we begin to understand that it was us, ourselves, that were the Bodhis now. Those old stories, their Buddhas, had already ascended the Godly realms. We were last in line, but richer for it, because we’d get to share all that extra time with the rest of this existence.
Righteous.
Wicked. Righteous.

The point I assume in this theory is that we are all building toward Enlightenment, Nirvana, or the Liberation from samsara. The cycle of Birth, Dying and Death, and Rebirth. It has put all of us, through the aforementioned, nearer to attaining that.
Seeing that, understanding that, is the way forward for Humanity and each of us as individuals.
Now, at every turn, the systems we’ve built around us to aid this are working against us. Justice is unjust. Corruption is purity. Fleas are jumping ship, yet the bridge isn’t burning. All the same, we know the waters are disturbed there’s a smell about there air. Something bigger is afoot.

Vermin fear predators.

I remember a story about a rally cry being heard in the distance at war-time. The village nearby immediately mustered its defenses and revealed its number. The rally never came. Days later, an army thousands strong had been amassed to encircle the village. They surrendered wholesale.
“Deception is the Art of War,” so sayeth Sun Tzu.
“Justice is blind,” retorts Lady Liberty.
Neither is wrong, yet others still bleed. It hurts somewhere. Deep. Even if we don’t care… we do. Even when we have every reason, rhyme, and conviction in the world not to, we do. Deep down. That is the condition: Human. The soul. The conscience. It is the effect of violation in that which is otherwise your norm and comfort.
No matter how comfortable you pretend to be with it, how much you smother it, it remains.

Becoming a writer was one of the best, worst-decisions of my life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Short Story: Sodden Holo

Sopping mud trails formed miniature canyons in the streets. As if some precise giant had dug slender fingers into the Earth between sections and sides of town. Carts, wagons, their beasts of burden, and all other manner of creatures formed them.

Their sopping troughs were scattered about town between what little remained of eroded, patchwork-cobble. What remained of once-prominent holographic projectors and neon signs glowed and flickered dimly advertising everything from taverns to seamstresses, buds to brothels. The opaque movements of a thousand different advertisements and static signs belched Technicolor light onto stone and rotting-wood.

That disease of neglect, civic abandonment, stretched across the almost-forgotten township.

But within Sodden Holo, it was the Empire that was forgotten. Life was squalor, no doubt, but squalor of a kind with charm and routine. The type only available when living in freedom, without a mythical force beyond the realm to oppress. Because it cared not for them nor they for it, they were passive.

Then the caravan came.

They’d holed up outside town two days before anyone attempted contact. Then, sent a trio of armed men to the tavern. They wore black and green and gold, and asked questions. Many questions. Gruffly and rudely: on where to secure supplies, seek shelter, the names of prominent men and women and aldermen.

Already these vectors of disease had begun to infect, spread. Money. The stranglehold. They’d throw it around, hoping to mesmerize or hypnotize. Great mounds of it. Gold, silver, copper– jewels even. They’d trade anything, had everything or access to it. Like any siege engine, if allowed, that money-disease would go to work breaking down walls.

Fact was, people in Sodden Holo didn’t much care for money or the Empires. They gummed up the works, but were not seen as evil. Money in particular was no evil, but rather another tool to barter with. As equal to that of gold or silver in the eyes of the trader and their desire.

This was the Empires’ new kind of war. One of economics. For hearts, minds. Not permanent, but enough to quell the fringes ready to rise in revolt. As in every iteration of civilization, it was yet another overlord’s controls. The Empires, when it mattered most, lavished wealth upon people like confetti, but only for adoration’s sake. Never stability’s.

People furthest from the constant influx of money– Empirical capitals and the like– were beginning to piece that together. Money however, when it could not quell the occasionally rising tempers, gave excuse for lashing-out against one’s own people.

Times were that every Human was an island and ruler unto their self. Between then and now, it had become painfully clear that was no longer the plan for greater Humanity. Some people were allowed that, sure: rulers, mostly. The other 99 times out of 100, they weren’t. About 85 of those 99 meant being smeared in shit and grime the rest of one’s life regardless of those privileged few.

That was Humanity’s choice. Long made in a world far-longer gone. In a time and people that no longer existed. Human-Social had given way, violently, to Human-Servile. Whatever side one chose, the bitter reality was clear: servitude was undeniably its base.

Whether serving the wealthy, their associates, their system of wealth-creation, or anyone else therein, it was impossible not to be beneath someone.

But that was a world and way of thinking long-off for Sodden Holo. Neither glamour nor shine existed there, technicolor belches notwithstanding, save on the local boot-black’s corner. How could it? Half the town was streaked in mud all the warmer months, frozen over the rest. It knew of life in the colors of grit and grime, the scents of grass and cow shit.

In short, through the ways of the land, its inhabitants, their effects on it.

For those passing through, it was obvious this was a land separate, but governed. Whomever did the governing, they knew, did it well enough so the only signs of civic neglect were the roads the Holo could not repair without all-important and scarcematerials traded mostly by Empirical quartermasters or tradesmen. It was a way of strangle-holding the people from establishing Empires without their knowledge.

But progress was inexorable. Its tide could not be diverted forever, nor without constant attention to details, lest the dam crack asunder.

Yet time and people marched on. Roads appeared. Trails. All of them, it seemed, led through Sodden Holo– at some point. Distant or rare as it was for some, it was undeniable.

They were a crossroads hub, but not the kind one thought of lightly. Rather, it was one all travelers ended up in by misfortune. It didn’t judge. Nor did its people. But they, like it, knew it was no-one’s intended stop. Yet that need not mean a traveler feel unduly unwelcome either.

They took no quarter for the worst of atrocities, of course, like most decent folk. Only when bitten did the hand that fed, strike out though. Especially against those most unforgivably biting. What Dante might have termed, “Treason against one’s benefactors.” To that, such punishments never came unduly, nor ever with malice but meant to correct.

That didn’t mean it couldn’t turn bloody.

In hindsight, people came to realize, that was what the Empire had underestimated. That people wouldn’t give it the same disregard it gave them. They’d sent a caravan of Empirical guards to enact a trade-war on a free economy. Rather than send ambassadors to join or appraise it, they sought to take it by force, with nary a thought to those effected.

Hindsight couldn’t change those effects.

Their intent became apparent the second day the envoy visited town– fifth since their appearance overall. It was raining. A typical persistent and swampy mist citizens and drifters had come to expect of Sodden Holo, its surroundings: warm, and smelling of earthen protection rising from the very ground beneath their feet.

Reason had left most of those in the pubs. Meanwhile, the tension of the envoy’s encampment, brewing since its appearance, had soured and afouled a great many moods.

The air was rife with power. As those trembling within the tavern were well-aware, it was a power no mortal dared tempt. All it would take to set the power alight was the wrong actions within it. The wrong minds, the type that cared not for maintaining peace or others’ ways.

Five of them entered the tavern. Two remained near the door, guarding ‘til further orders. Two more escorted a third between them. He was tall, scrawny. Spectacles perched on his face, he looked and moved like an old Eagle– perpetually down-looking, on the hunt.

He approached the bar, calling for the tender to procure the manager.

The tender laughed, “You dunno how things work a-roun’ ‘ere.”

His tone sharpened, “I beg your pardon?”

“No. You don’t. You come in ‘ere with your bloody gold and silver, try to buy the place. Why else would you lot come in, all pompous, clutchin’ that ledger like some kind’a King bout to lay his prick on the bar?

“I ain’ sellin you nor your dogs another drink ‘til I get some answers. I been Alderman of Sodden Holo, twen’y years. Empires never given us the time’a day. Never answered our letters or requests for help.

“All the same, we get by. ‘Cause we hav’ta. You come in here, wanna lay your prick on my bar like I don’t know what’s bout to happen. But I’m tellin you, I’ve seen prick-whippin’ enough times I can sense it a mile off.”

The shrewd man’s face snarled. The bar was deathly silent. The tender eyed the two ruffians beside him; former mercs, paid better as Empirical Guardsmen for their skill in battle. These were not men to be lightly crossed.

The tender’s face hardened at hints of blood-lust on the air. The power had turned. Sodden Holo would soon be bathed in blood.

“You g’wan and put your prick out, mister. ‘N I’ll make sure to cut it to size for you.”

A hiss. “The nerve!

Someone screamed. Metal clashed. The power erupted, releasing ferocity across the tavern. Chaos of bodies and limbs flayed. Blood sprayed. An all-out melee began and ended within seconds. By the end, the bar stank of blood and bowels, beneath echoing screams from dying and injured.

The Alderman-Tender was busy bandaging a gash in a woman’s arm when he called to, “Raze the Envoy’s camp. Leave nothing standing!”

Every man and woman capable would need to be ready. The Empire would be coming.

The tender looked over the ruins of his bar, knowing for the better of all he should have sold out. But if he had, what would be left of him to help his people, his home? The Empire was not the way forward for Sodden Holo, that much had always been obvious.

But would there be any way forward now? He wasn’t sure.

Unable to dwell, he moved on, too swept up in doing what he knew all would soon be doing: preparing for war.