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.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 20

20.

When the Cat’s Away…

N1T3 needed two things to repair the power. The damaged main component and light to work. He had neither. Problem was, he’d thought he had both. It turned out his cache of supplies had corroded in the humidity, eroding the protective coatings on PCBs and metals.

Not a problem for higher grade parts, but his were cheapest-grade metals. Stuff mass-stamped and printed in low-grade metal and plastic. Cost-effectiveness: double-speak for the most money with the least cost– ie, the highest ratio of sticking it to consumer-vs-likelihood of their rebelling.

Just another instance of the beast eating itself for want of control, N1T3 knew.

All the same, it meant going out again. A risk. More than that, a bad idea. No-one he knew would’ve allowed it. Corp-sec was out for blood. They had every intent and hope of taking it.
Blood. His blood; for exposing the illusion and corruption around them.

But he had to go. He knew the mistake’s repercussions wouldn’t be fully revealed for a while to come, but his gut said they were inevitable, inexorable. No human could deny that gut knowing, only defy it.

He had no choice.

The server fluxing meant it was just a matter of time before power went down. Even if he hadn’t been reliant on this and another hidden server, he’d have needed to come out and repair it A-SAP. It was almost unbecoming of his skill that he’d missed it thus far.

Forgivable as it was, he hadn’t checked his remote back-end. Not after Riter’s, losing the pier by luring Corp-sec there. Ket’s. He always knew it would be impossible to recover fully, but he’d had to give Ozell something to lead him to Ket, whose hands were all over this.

N1T3 had known the moment Ozell caught his scent, he was living on borrowed time. Getting caught in should-be-needless maintenance was taking more of what he already didn’t have. He needed time– to find some. But how?

He shuffled back and forth in the flat’s rear-room, prepping himself for the run and knowing any mistake could cost him everything. He ran through the plan’s broad-strokes, knowing the run would take him into populated areas.

Head down. Face hidden. Hands and creds only. Lift what’s too suspicious. Pay for the rest.

He grabbed an empty pack, jammed a couple essentials in it just in case, and started out.

Ostensibly, he’d placed himself to be separated not only from the general populous, but also, easy discovery within the place he’d sequestered himself. He’d managed not only general obscurity, but finer obscurity via exploratory disincentives.

As before, true security. Not an illusion of it. The only kind you can have; from confidence, and in having done all you can. The rest was knowing you must simply await the dice-roll.

He slipped into the empty street and dropped into the sewer. His server alerts had pinged him just after he’d fled Riter’s. He couldn’t have known they’d pinged, but he had worked out their cause. The broader one, not just the cheap components.

Word was getting out: through Ket first, her fountain. Then, $trydr’s servers. Riter had the whole place wired for personal surveillance. It would’ve been rolling during Corp-sec’s inspection. He’d run a search once he was back, but a growing number of power-hungry systems accounted for the flux.

Rome was coming online.

Weakened or cheap components often failed from unexpected voltage or amperage fluxes. It was the reason common PCs had used surge protectors for decades. Stress on a component, even if previously untouched nor taxed, fluxed from the grid’s excess draws. The fluxes themselves outright destroyed cheap or weakened components. Rather than a riding a steady strength of current, his had alternated minutely, frying a component’s conduits.

The why was the important part. Simply, more people were connecting to the grid and it was stressing what was already connected. What wasn’t prepped for it, was dying off.

Had to be net-based. Electronics usage didn’t double or triple without good reason. Nothing apart from the net was worth so quickly and cheaply tapping into.

N1T3 breathed, almost relieved; it was spreading.

He hesitated at a corner of a sewer line, angled right, and followed it into London’s populated outskirts. Auto-cars and non-drone delivery vehicles rumbled overhead between occasional, vibratory whirs of pub-trans vehicles.

The increase overhead came with the deafening roar of better-maintained sewer-lines. Still large enough for a man, but only just. N1T3 had to crouch, half-squat as if stealthing in-game. He kept his mind off it searching the echoes for water beneath, otherwise meditating on his revelation.

Fountains were spreading because digital information had pipelines. If it didn’t, he couldn’t have built his fountains, the repository-aquifiers that were his (and other hackers’) servers. They were the ones leeching the flow of power. He’d check later to verify, but the draw on the source would be equal, if so.

As water could not be drawn on without also draining it, one could not use the net without sucking power. Neither could not function without the other. That was the essence of postdigital reality. Innate as it was for N1T3, extending that knowledge to both micro and macro-level scales ensured he understood fully; the idea was spreading.

And Fast. The heat doubled with it. Again. He’d have to move even faster now, or he’d fail them all. The idea was spreading. Power was being redistributed to the people, but it needed proper dissemination to complete the vision. Postdigital reality required disseminating any accumulated resources immediately to those around, beside, above, and below. It was the automation of automation. If it did not function thus, it was useless, and so was he.

“He” however, also happened to represent true resistance to oppression. Recognizing it or not, everyone would be effected by his successes and failures. Fear brewed in his gut, quickly replaced by far more powerful forces of determination and conviction.

Reinvigorated, he doubled his pace.

The ever roaring cross-rumble above made his teeth begin to ache. Ahead, the line would split, turn him from sideline into mainline as the ground sloped and the pipes grew larger. When they leveled, allowing N1T3 to stand once more, he kept his gait short.

He knew better than to move any faster. He’d breached the perimeter of mainland populous, but he wouldn’t stick around or go deeper than necessary. That was why he’d come here.

The only inconspicuous street-access near anything resembling civilization was just beyond the edge of a piss-reeking alley. Mold, mildew, grime and soot climbed the alley walls, painting them a unique brand of filthy that smeared fine details into obscurity.

Civilization was deserted, yet-busy enough not to notice him. Even in the off-hour. He could grab everything he needed from the nearby convenience store.

He followed the alley toward a corner, beneath a small, lighted alcove; a routing area for the above-block’s power cabling. Situated in the zenith of the Alley’s grade so as to always avoid standing water, it was yet another necessity of concrete jungle-living. Though more primitive, these systems and pipelines more or less mirrored that of the net itself. Rather than supplying it directly however, it supplied its backbone; electricity.

It was the sign of its permanence. That such a spine existed meant tech was part of the landscape. That wasn’t changing anytime soon. N1T3 just needed to ensure it was known and capitalized on by the right people.

He made himself scarce; if he were cut off of caught near the entrance he’d have to find another way past corp-sec, their swarming loyalists.

N1T3 scoffed to himself, then rounded the alley corner for the street. Nobody was a loyalist to a system. Loyalty required connection on a level systems simply couldn’t contain. Though Humans and their love for pattern recognition allowed them to be enthralled by them, their nature remained unchanged.

What it amounted was the only person loyal to a corporation was either a fool or deeply confused. More often, the latter; however loud and voluminous the former.

Really, what people were loyal to beyond themselves, were ideas. Their own, reflected ideals of them therein. Any self-aware Human that took the time, saw that in an instant. Even if put it to different terms, “mine first” was the mentality.

N1T3’s vision so encompassed that idea, thereby affirming it via his own success, that he’d taken it the next logical step. Mine first, but after everyone’s we was ensured. The reason why was obvious: there wasn’t a guarantee of anything for anyone otherwise. That needed to change.

He kept his head down the block-and-a-half it took to reach the shop. He slipped in, careful to flip his hood off and shake the cold from his hair. Any more or less was suspicious. He kept his back and side to the cameras he knew were covering the entrances and exits, hid his face from the clerk by checking a pocket.

He hustled away, hidden in plain-sight. Careful of the occupied aisle, he sped past. Someone there; obvious in dreadful hints of desperation and shitty, night-shift coffee. Wage-slave, pseudo-loyalist folk; male by N1T3’s guess at the store’s layout. In its ol’ fashion, wannabe porn-mag aisle. The one its society was too polite to admit to having.

N1T3 loved the juxtaposition. The wannabe-exemplar and would-be smut. It was the essence of postdigital living. The duality of life. Of binary idiocy and indifference– because it was both and so much more.

And about to bring him to the precipice of death.

N1T3 slipped past the occupied aisle, completely unaware of the utter boredom of the wage-slave. To his credit, the guy was lucky to have seen him at all. So absorbed was he in his pseudo-culture, he’d been obsessing over Martin Black since his appearance in the media. He was fascinating for all the most mysterious reasons.

But because of the wage-slave’s system, interesting was bad. It had been hammered into the drones of corporate-moulding that anything wishing so intimately to be known was a bad thing. That was not exactly the case, N1T3 knew. Rather, it was the thing’s methods, the avenues it took toward infamy and fame, that dictated whether it was a “bad thing” or not.

The man was a dormant, would-be N1T3, catching the actual N1T3’s passing.

Before N1T3 had even rounded the next aisle’s corner, the man was carefully fleeing to alert his overlords.

N1T3 wouldn’t have blamed him, even if aware and given a chance.

Instead, he grabbed his purchases, subtly palmed and pocketed the rest, and approached the clerk. They avoided eyes as long as possible, said nothing as the few, minor items rang audibly through the silence.

Then; sirens screaming. Buzzing drones. Heavy, armored vehicles roared into earshot.

He eyed the clerk, instantly knowing he’d recognized him. More than that, the lightning exchange between he and N1T3 confirmed he’d not only pegged him the moment he’d come in, but hadn’t exposed him.

The place was one body less and the clerk’s eyes said it.

“The back. Go.”

N1T3’s eyes met the man’s, exchanging volumes. He knew him, if only by reputation. It wouldn’t have taken much to connect N1T3 to Martin Black, the two to him. The tacit admission of dire kinship was enough. Yet his gratitude could never be repaid.

He fled for store’s rear-exit, grabbed a pair of heavy, glass bottles as he passed. He jack-rabbited into the alley behind the store. Corp-sec’s first commands fanned out man and drone alike. Boots and shouts surged for the shop. Drones soared upward. N1T3 caught a flicker of one just as he dove into cover beneath an awning and behind a dumpster.

The sky was hidden, but any chance of escape meant moving. Fast.

He chanced a peek around the alcove’s corner. Saw drones pass the alley. One broke off to investigate. He shrank back behind the dumpster. The giant, buzzing bee lumbered overhead, looking for all the world like a drink-carrier had fucked an RC-plane. Funny as it looked, N1T3 wasn’t laughing. No-one would have. Not when the Bee’s belly was loaded with dual 20mm cannons.

He took a deep breath and shrank further from sight. The drone hovered 6 meters up, its optics and software working to scan every inch of the visible area ahead. It could’ve easily entered the narrow space of the alcove, found him behind the dumpster.

He relaxed.

It hadn’t, likely wouldn’t. Its code didn’t require it to in this instance. For now, there was an acceptable margin of error. That wouldn’t last if the drones went on-alert.

The heiress to the drink-carrying fortune finally lumbered past, continuing along its path to scan. He waited until it was safely behind him, then bolted for the alley-exit. He hesitated there, peering out; Massive, turreted APCs and ninja-treated SUVs blocked the roads nearest the shop.

Bodies were already moving about, forming up at various points. They hadn’t reached the alley yet. Didn’t think the clerk would play them.

N1T3’s jaw set; Militarized tax-payer dollars could never have funded this. These weapons of war were made from corporate dollars, and the only kind of war corporations waged was for their bottom-line– against anything. The only reason for such weapons, N1T3 knew, was to fight the very people funding their construction; corp-consumers.

He felt bile rise and made his move.

N1T3 skirted the street in two, long strides, intending to cross into the next alley. He’d go into one; round for the other, then swing-back around for his entry point. If he found others before there, he’d drop in.

The middle of his first stride, a faint shout. Young. Male. Some punk-kid still shooting blanks. Then, chaos. Madness. Screams. N1T3’s. Passers. Corp-sec’s. Sprinting, panting. Gunfire.

N1T3 found himself tumbling into an open sewer-line, completely unaware of how he’d gotten there. He’d managed to seal it up on the way in but hit cement with wet knees, his hands working but vision fading.

A moment later, he was against a wall and darkness was taking over.

His head fell to see his legs splayed awkwardly, wet knees barely visible in darkness. His hands were covered in more darkness– warm this time. He looked down to the darkness as it grew in his hands and over his eyes. Some seemed to be originating from his mind, some where leaking out into daylight.

The rest leaked from his abdomen, trickling from expanding tufts of white gradually darkening to red.

Then, nothingness.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 19

19.

Paradigm

“You’re not unlike him, you know?” Ket remarked, pouring herself a drink from a carafe. He could only guess it was filled with wine.

It wasn’t. She offered him water from it. He declined by evading, “I’m here–“

She about-faced, “Why are you here, Commander Ozell?” He opened his mouth to speak. She was quicker, more practiced. “Your creed tells that you are here by grace of the altar of Justice. We both know this is not true. You’re no peacekeeper.”

“You are here to establish order,” she accused. “A specific kind of order.”

“I’m here for Martin Black.”

She hesitated.

“Yes,” she whispered in slow distance, as if slighted by divinity on such sour lips. Ozell heard her all the same. “Martin Black is dead. The man you seek, N1T3, is not Martin Black. Whatever it is you believe you will achieve finding him, you are mistaken.”

“You have seen him, then?”

“You would not have come here otherwise, Commander. Do not foolishly attempt to evade reality. You are hunting my former lover–” She said slightly to herself, “–or someone wearing his face. I am not certain which.”

“When did you last see him?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she assured him. He believed her. “Your presence does. You’ve come seeking information. I can provide that, but as with all things, for a price.”

Ket had already ensnared him. She’d sign-posted herself to draw Ozell, her audience, in. Now, she would take her place behind the curtain and wait for it to rise.

“I’m here on official business,” he argued, eying her graceful approach of the conglomerate of racks behind her– N1T3’s fountain, her own aquifer.

“I’ve no doubt of it,” she replied succinctly. “But you must understand your own role. Else, you’re sure to fail and take Paul with you.”

His nostrils flared and his face flushed.

“No-one would ever harm your son, Daniel,” Ket assured without looking. “We’re not without feeling.”

The use of his name hit him hard. Her blatant admittance to a part in the scheme hit harder, but with a sad panic that tempered fury. Reality cascaded in on him; he’d been played since the night of the attacks. Every step of the way. They’d wanted him here. Or, if not him, someone analogous.

‘Til now. Now they wanted him. He was the one they were pinning everything on. That want, need even, made them extra clever. Their traps more logic games than snares or spikes. Why anyone would bother, Ozell couldn’t be sure yet, but he’d let them divide and conquer him, left himself vulnerable.

In spite of that, he lived, still well-armed and capable of erasing them all from history.

“No, we are not without feeling,” she reiterated from the back wall. “Quite the opposite, in fact.”

The make-shift wall broke unevenly in the darkness before flaring blinding light. He blinked watery eyes and the light resolved itself into a large flat-screen. Thousands of small, broken up vid-feeds winked and flickered across it, contents barely visible as it cycled the various cameras.

“London Cit-Surv,” Ozell surmised. He’d seen the official room more than once. This was anything but.

“Every single camera in London,” Ket re-affirmed. “Many unregistered. Some corporate. Others aren’t.”

“Every one?” He asked curiously, confounded yet awed.

“Every one connected to a vulnerable node.” Her head tipped slightly, “So. Yes.”

Ozell’s passions stirred, “This is illegal.”

“Highly.”

Ozell’s eyes begged an explanation. Ket ignored it. She stood at the fountain’s controls, typing, “This was the footage N1T3 took his post from.”

A vid-played, jumping angles here and there, easily imparting its multi-point capture of Paul. Even if small, he remained visible in every frame.

Ket explained, “A weapon is a weapon, no matter the hands. It can harm as you equally as another simply because that is the nature and purpose of its existence.”

He didn’t understand, remarked as much.

“A tool, no matter its purpose, is dangerous whether misused, abused, or lying idle. The more capable the tool, the more damage can be done, and the more security it requires. Often that security requires only the skilled hands of its operator. Otherwise, this is the result.”

He stared at Paul: Kay’s eyes and smile were plastered across the boy’s face as he hugged his father goodbye. The vid replayed, showing the whole wait. Editing had more or less dissolved into long plays of each angle. Ket stepped away from the screen. The room dimmed, save the fountain’s screen still glowing with the running vid.

She returned Ozell’s side, eyes tracking her every swaying movement. She used it to relax and hypnotize him, goad him into accepting his own arousal. He let her. That was the attraction; he knew it as anyone worthy of her would. He was more than prepared to take the ride. Especially with a comatose wife destined for the nut-house and everything riding on him.

He needed her… And that was how she got him.

She sat beside him on a small couch before the glowing vid, lit a cigarette. Her motions kept drinking-bird tempos in the active room, however slowed by circumstance. The intimacy set Ozell ablaze.

“You will not find Martin Black, Commander. You will only ever find N1T3. And he would never tell me where to find him. Beyond that, I do not care where he is. I can, however, show you how to find him. To do that though, you must learn to think like him. Or, at least, understand how he thinks.”

It sounded good– or made sense at-least. He trusted her as any trusted a force of nature: to be unpredictable, unstoppable, chaotic. He was fine with that. Chaos was his stock and trade.

She was closer now. The tempo of her smoke had slowed. She began lulling him with soft tones and neck-line– hints of what more lie beneath.

“Martin Black was not a man, but neither is N1T3. He is something more. Like all of us now. We are not born the creatures we die as. It is a process to become them. Sometimes for the worse. Sometimes not.”

She leaned her head longingly on a hand, eying him from the side. Her eyes said she wished to draw him further in. His said he was perfectly fine with it.

She smoked, “To understand N1T3, you must understand his world. He is not unlike you. He sees this and admits it. Yet also acknowledges he is different in specific ways. Ones that are not like you, if only because you’ve yet to achieve them. But you can, likely will.”

He winced, “Is it the same with you?”

“In certain ways. With certain things. But he and I differ fundamentally. He recognizes this as well. Thus, we can never come to understand one another fully, no matter how we try or wish to.”

She leaned away to ash, prompting slight, desperate grief to incise Ozell’s chest. The slight hint of her shape in his periphery refocused him.

She continued unabated, “Incidentally, that is also what sets N1T3 apart from Martin Black– the figment you’re chasing. He is not either, or. He is both and neither. As all of us are, to some extent.”

Ozell didn’t understand. Hopelessness and fear bled frustration. Paul flashed larger on-screen through the darkness. “Cryptics don’t help either of us.”

She oozed a tempered excitement, as if viewing a newfound prospect, “On the contrary, Commander, it is precisely what we need.”

The shift threw him. He almost stammered, “…Why?”

“Anything capable of obscurity can be protected. So long as that obscurity remains possible in any context, proper application can protect it.”

“Paul,” he breathed, seeing his son flare across the fountain.

He didn’t know how, only that it happened. The aftermath.

Suddenly, a flash of Paul. Then a flash of movement. Metal cold at his throat. Sharpness in a lethal crook. The only weak point in his armor, physical and meta. She was ready, had been. Now, she’d use it.

In one movement she’d turned the tables entirely.

Missing weight at Ozell’s side rippled panic through him. The fountain flared. Ket’s knife was poised, lethal and steady. He froze in terror. Paul’s face reflected in his father’s eyes: Leaving the house. Hugging him. Waving good-bye.

Ozell didn’t breathe, only watched, too fearful to.

His son’s partings were moments of growth. He watched himself recognize it time and again on the fountain. His own passing of the torch; Mortality. Humanity. Knowledge that his son would one day have a place to take; his– And so-on to the end of his line or species. Until then, he’d assured himself, his family, that they were safe. All of them.

Short-sighted given the blade at his throat.

Ket was feather-light, but her strength immeasurable. Her hands and thighs paralyzed him with lethal precision of bone in pressure points. Her voice rasped disharmony; eyes and aura demonic as Galadriel in the One Ring’s presence; a fury the likes of which Daniel Ozell had never met.

Just over her shoulder was a still of Paul, glowing, smiling.

“Choose now, Daniel Ozell; your life or your son.”

Paul’s face burned his eyes. Steel punctured his throat ever-so slightly. Blood trickled beneath the collar of his armor. Ket could kill him without hesitation, mercy, or fear of reprisal; Ozell’s system needed her a fuckuvalot more than him.

The blade pressed deeper, forcing him to block out everything until only two things remained; Paul’s face, and Daniel’s fears of its suffering. At times it was unavoidable, but so long as he lived, he’d live and die first as father and Guardian. If Ket, force of nature and power she was, demanded his blood for his son’s, she knew his choice already.

His neck stiffened until the blade cut deeper. “I would die to protect my son. If you’re my executioner, so be it, but I’ll take no less in trade.”

She flung the knife aside, rolled off him and onto her feet in one move. She faced away from him, panting slightly– from exertion, it seemed. In reality, something far more powerful was the cause. It left her reeling. Ozell didn’t know it yet, but both would come to understand it better in time.

She about-faced, recomposed, and offering his pistol back. “If you find N1T3, rest assured what comes was preordained by your system. For good or ill.”

Ozell mind was lost for moments. Then he found himself on his feet, moving. Fleeing from something primal, like excitement but deeper, more dangerous. It was a knowing one had before a moment of great action, where all things secured await only proper leverage to catapult time and history along.

Daniel Ozell’s world was long past the tipping-point. Now, he and it would be falling at terminal speeds.

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.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 16

16.

Two for Flinching

From the outset, Daniel Ozell never flinched. Vids didn’t lie. Now, N1T3 had become fascinated with it. Ket was chewing an imaginary thumbnail, a supplement for stress when her real nails were too valuable to damage. Riter stared off in thought at some place in the middle distance.

It was the first time they’d been together in eleven years– until Dru topped that by walking in, making it the first time the four had ever been together. It occurred to no-one. Only the slight hints of awkwardness belying otherwise total intimacy made any inclination toward it.

They sensed they were all unaware of it then.

Nonetheless, N1T3 was obsessed with the vid. The sound was off, had never been on. He was too expert at reading both text and lips to care much. His life was lived in thrumming fans, clacking keys, yet somehow he knew and understood this man– this creature– better than even himself. This modern man, whom instantly and totally adapted. In one breath.

That was the essence of the postdigital child. Yet this one had evidently been working to destroy itself. Knowingly.

Ozell’s eyes said it all: The scene. The slight hesitation. The stop. The breath of recognition. Of acceptance. Of inhalant abuse on the intoxicant of power. The one that meant SQ.CMDR – DIV\I OZELL, DANIEL was a hell of a model employee and about to become the new standard to be set by.

Not a prototype in the strictest sense but a showroom model, the expectation for mass-production perfection, its ultimate goal and purpose. One that, at all costs, knew the system would fuck him given even wind of need.

So, he’d fuck it right back, every chance he got.

N1T3 watched for the sixth time: Ozell instantly adapted. No hesitation. The mental process was autonomic. Muscular, micro-facial movements. The breath of a slump smoothing itself easily into squared shoulders, relaxed arms and torso, legs, and eyes. All of it relaying that every component had processed the same information and the mode-switch was made.

Only one such as N1T3, the others, could have seen or understood it.

It went something like this:

Start. Sensory boot: intake.

The first steps inside: POST.

Hardware/environment assessment.

Mode-cycle switch: engage.

N1T3 downright admired Ozell’s abilities. There was absolutely no lag. His mental system for adaptation was more advanced than N1T3 had ever seen from corp-sec. Let alone a jack-boot. Then he opened his mouth, and N1T3 wished to erase him from Time-Space; past, present, or future.

“People, please, I will speak to you shortly.”

Such nonchalance and smug arrogance.

N1T3 read it there; Ozell knew the score. It was the entire point to his mode-cycle. He knew five people had been hit. Two murdered. Now, he realized he’d have to answer for it– and instantly knew how to benefit– twist it to.

Ozell could squeeze someone else’s balls for a pay-raise over this. Or more. That much was obvious, but so was something else.

Ozell’s adaptability told N1T3 all he needed to know: he was a leader, would’ve put the bullet in An33$a’s back– another prototypical postdigital child. Her lover, “Clockwork” Mike Andover, former world chess-champion, bad-boy, and wunderkind-turned-rogue.

He let them cook her after he pulled the trigger. Daniel Ozell’d known it all along what was happening, had been okay with it. Why, was obvious: personal gain wasn’t just for corps anymore.

N1T3 read all of it in his eyes. in his evolution. Like him, Ozell was a predator. More practiced, practically speaking, but one-half the predator’s coin nonetheless. He could only exist because people like N1T3 did– hackers, rogues, sexdolls, freedom-exiles and vagabonds.

However, unlike N1T3, Daniel Ozell was a predator’s predator. A specialist and assassin not found save in the deepest niches of predatorial nature. Everyone in the room felt it then:

Daniel Ozell existed to kill them.

Ket was calm but firm, “It’s getting too hot. We should get you out of town.”

$trydr argued, “No. Too dangerous. Re-locate in town and lie low. We–“

Dru interrupted, “Can do no. more. than we are doing now.”

He looked about to argue but N1T3, unfazed and still mesmerized, interrupted, “He did it.”

Silence. Confusion. He paused the vid, skipping its UHD-res back frame-by-frame until where he needed it. He flicked at Ket’s server, left as he’d built it for now, and keyed up a few lines of custom code. The script engaged.

Animated, frame-by-frame stills of Ozell’s face: The gleam in his eye. Thoughts. One at a time in his head, cycling him from prey to predator with the releasing of skeletal muscles, posture. All of it habit. This was a creature made to hunt men, and once more being forced to when it had lost the taste.

They all saw it. The gleam. That almost imperceptible tic of the right eye’s outer-corner that spelled guilt. It slacked as the switch flipped, the mode cycled, and the predator re-emerged.

More than that, he wasn’t about to deny anything. He would admit a truth, however tacitly, and another after that– that he was about to do even worse this time ‘round. This, he knew, came as orders of overlords he knew valued him less than dirt. Overlords he, himself, would back-stab if ably suited.

Because that was the game he and they knew– knew, and didn’t mind.

N1T3 spoke, “Daniel Ozell put the bullet in Anisa’s back.”

Ket was least affected. Dru, most. Riter found himself ailed from it. Through them, N1T3 did too, however dully. Ket couldn’t be allowed to feel it. Even two for flinching in her line of work could permanently damage the goods. Good for business, bad for friendship.

“Anisa’s dead. Get riled up over her, it’ll only make you stupid. It’s what they want.”

$trydr looked ready to snap in defense of Dru. She interrupted before he could, stunning all but N1T3. A sudden silence hung in the air before he began to take notice of it. He sensed what was happening, ignored it. His mouth opened, Dru simply spoke faster.

“Ket’s right.”

That stopped N1T3 in his tracks. Mostly, because he was surprised how deep his and Dru’s connection still went. They were both irritated; one because they knew they were running out of time; the other because he was running out of time. In-fighting and debate was unacceptable right now. Feelings could wait.

“Knowing Ozell’s the one is important for one reason,” Dru said, sensing N1T3 nod.

He finished, “It gives us a target. Someone to pin this on. Someone aware.”

Ket and $trydr were frozen. Ket had heard but never seen the double-think Dru and N1T3 were capable of. It was no doubt what had attracted them to one another– even as children, they weren’t like-minded, but rather, one-minded.

If he weren’t so gut-certain N1T3 would soon be dead, $trydr might have been concerned. As much pain as it brought him to know, he knew too that N1T3 would be equally amused under better circumstances. Those were yet, if ever, to come.

Presently, circumstance dictated N1T3 and Dru were both right– but it pissed him off anyway.

“Should’ve known,” $trydr grumbled. He spoke aloud for the others, “Find what you can and get us all a copy.”

N1T3 was already typing, “Corp-sec Squad Commander Division One intell-strike. London Outpost. Married. Wife infirmed. Psychosis. Son adolescent. Man himself suffers PTSD from pre-takeover wars…”

Two hours and ten minutes later Ozell’s voice continued.

“… reprimanded twice in the field for acts unbecoming; assaults on fellow officers, and disorderly conduct. Signed Ret. Maj. Revyen McGuire; former C/o.”

Ozell wasn’t angry. He’d half-expected it. He respected the punk-shits for burning him like that. Class all the way. Well and truly worthy of the so-called paradise they occupied. That one amidst the shit-heap refuse that was their culture and world.

That was what he hated most of all; their utter immunity to irony.

They were kids, sure, but not really. They weren’t much younger than him in some cases, and nowhere near Paul’s age either. Caught in the middle of seemingly everything, they had no choice but to rebel. In a way, he pitied them. Almost sympathized.

Then, he read the last section of N1T3’s “release.”

Each syllable began to grate, his jaw setting further as he read, “Daniell Ozell, we have seen the lies in you. Answer for them. If not for your sake, then his.”

The image was innocuous. Almost mundane. Paul stood alone at a bus stop, waiting. It was the residential pick up. Fewer and fewer kids were attending Corp schooling these days, but it was generally agreed to be a result of less births in the corporate sector.

That was a pile of bullshit even Ozell’s less-perceptive colleagues had sniffed out.

Fact was though, the whole pickup area was under 24 hour surveillance. Corp-Sec was tightest there than anywhere. Even in the image, Ozell could see the subtle hints of his teams, watching, waiting, protecting. Doing their jobs– what they were paid to do. All they were paid to do. They made sure those kids were safe. If they weren’t, their parents didn’t work.

Ozell’d known that when he laid out the patrols, the angles. When he planned the surveillance. Everything in the image was a direct creation of his love for his son. It was his hope that others like him would do for his as he would theirs, when he wasn’t looking.

And from this, it looked like Corp-sec were sleeping on the job.

Worst of all though, it wasn’t the drone image meant to seem important. Rather, it was its ability to exist. It demanded examination, explanation; if Daniel Ozell’s child is so safe that he can walk to school alone, why is Martin Black a threat?

The question itself, required the full-scope of the situation be comprehended– that its’ social coding and conflict resolution be known:

If Martin Black was not a threat, then why was Anisa Blanc shot in the back, as tacitly admitted? The return-code question required to close the circuit and produce output then was; if Martin Black (threat 0+) and Anisa Blanc (threat 0) were equal, and neither’s death justifiable, is not your hunt simply murder-driven?

Then, the final return: If so, then why and on whose orders?

Ozell grit his teeth. The bastards as much as confirmed the war then and there, firing back as. Ozell knew would happen. He knew what would come next too; forced retaliation. From him.

The Corps had been itching for war. Nothing thinned the herd quite like it. Corps had never been to war. Not true war. They’d never seen what they could do. Neither had the modern man.

The Tree of Liberty would feed; blood or water, only the season’s star-shine could decide.

Until that moment, Ozell hadn’t known whom he’d be killing. He simply knew he’d be killing. Death, for an experienced dealer in it, was a mood formed of the depraved and their shadow games. Blood-thirst clung to air, thickening it. It stank like cooked bile on a hot summer’s noon. It made every breath taste of ash and fire with the intensity dictated by primal chaos.

Once it came, it would be Tantalus’ eternal thirsting forever more. Paradoxically however, it was not a thing’s existence that caused it. Rather, it was its total-need and utter-absence.

Blood on the air made Ozell rage. Figurative as it remained for now, he was still forced to calm himself. He did it the only way he knew how: analyzing what he knew had and would happen. Otherwise, he’d pop like a cork and take the whole damned post with him.

It would take time, but what little of the game and its players remained obscured was coming to light. The moment his kid showed up, Ozell knew that war was on. Moreover, he knew it was exactly what both sides wanted– however vastly differing their reasons.

Because both sides were terrorists, one just emotionally so. Hackers were the type that preyed on people’s hidden nature for their own ends. Corps were no less guilty. Whether altruistic or not in intent, it was predatory. Until now, he’d sympathized with the hackers personally, if little else

Then, they made his son the poster child for civil-war.

Short Story: The Journey

Light cut inward at right angles around ancient, concrete block that formed the maze-like entrance of a small, former temple. Once a way-station for pilgrims, in an eon of isolationist practices, it had fallen into utter disrepair. However hidden its would-be caretakers were, they existed– even if losing faith at the world’s state.

The land around the flat-roofed temple was now a barren wasteland of petrified trees and Earthen refuse composting since time immemorial. Such grave-markers for the salted-Earth’s civilization ran far and wide. Were it not for the fiefdoms formed of generational, dictated procedures filling settlements with tradeable goods, even the most skilled and nomadic hunters would have nothing to fill their bellies.

Managing without the interference of any Empire was considered myth: the land too poor a provider otherwise.

Though little more than facades for war-lords of untold power and resource, the Empires’ glorious acts were touted regularly by town and heraldry criers, even if their names were not. These acts ensured people remained just misinformed enough to be ignorant of their Emperors’ true movements and motives.

But there was no-one in the brick-and-mortar former-temple to give care to the Empires or their backward warring. All that remained was a skittering lizard, invisible in the darkness and camouflaged in the light via slow-shifting photo-pigments in its skin.

It one-two’d across the floor. Three-four’ing both legs inversely tandem at each other. The front and back feet came together, ending their gate nearly touching. Excellent for tree-hanging, but poor for any hope of speed.

It was doing its best however, at running flat-out. Angling right. Left. Right again. Were it not for its immense length, and thus intimidating stature, it might have been comical.

It was not.

From the rear, it was a sight of relief. From beyond, one of terror. The figure atop the sandy, trunk-mined hill did not hesitate. It knelt, hands together, whispering quickly. Harsh syllabic resonance whistled with feminine sharpness over wind from nowhere. Gusts kicked up. Dirt and sand pelted debris in gale-force winds that stirred but never moved.

The charging creature reached the hill’s apex. Dexterous hands flashed, extended outward: wrists together, hands in a V.

Gale-forces boomed, focused like compressed air bolts. Wind deafened and off-balanced the creature first. Low-pressure jolted air from its lungs. The distant whistle, howled. Petrified trunks and limbs cracked and shattered at weak-points.

A phantom beam cracked, blowing the creature backward off the hilltop. It cleared the hill-bottom, landing painfully against the temple’s stone. A snap gave way to an agonized wail as it landed on its back with a series of grunting writhes. It failed to move, instead moaning pitifully.

She appeared and knelt beside it, hands together and whispering once more. One hand stroked the great eye of the fading creature as it wheezed. She soothed it with an angelic hum, it harmonized with another subsonic one, vibrating from her hand and lulling the creature into death.

The life slowly left its body without difficulty or pain.

That was always their way– her way. Never anyone else’s. How could it be? So few people understood anything anymore, let alone of themselves. One day again perhaps, the world would come to know the goodness she did. Now however, even she could not negate the need to survive. Not when it counted most.

She sat beside a small fire just inside the temple so as not to suffocate herself, but to still bathe in warmth against the nights’ growing cold. She’d scouted the place the night before, using her mind in meditation to see within it.

Seers, they’d once called them, but with one’s eyes closed “seeing” felt a misnomer. She was a sensor. Like one of the old-world’s fabled optics. People didn’t know or understand that though. How could they? The Empires had been keeping them ignorant and hungry for a millennia now.

She rose to turn the spit a while, doing so in silent contemplation.

If the information she sought to confirm was true, a new world might come of it. Something once thought lost, reborn from ash like the mythical phoenix. There was only one way to find out.

She slept with the fire’s coals still burning. Then, having eaten and secured as much of the prey as she could carry, she set out, leaving the creature’s remnants for scavengers. Were it not for them, she’d mused, the creature she’d filled her belly would never have camped here.

After all, Lord Darwin was strong in his understanding of nature. And it was he whom assured a hierarchy of life existed and affected itself and its environment. The latter’s inverse was equally, if not doubly, true: The old-world had learned that lesson the hard way, and its descendants were still suffering for it. Would be, possibly for life– like millions, billions more.

But there was only one way to be certain of any of it…

It was but a few days later she found herself on her knees, beaten and weathered from rough terrain, and her bodily wounds paling in comparison to those in her heart. She stared upward in mixed disbelief and despair, as if learning her Gods had betrayed her. It was not Gods however, nor even man. It was the Empires.

She saw it now. They were bee-hives with no queen and only one goal: maintain the self-aware Hive’s existence. The truth was staring her in the face now. She might have believed it before, but she knew it now. The evidence was here.

Long seeking some thread of stability in her confused world of war, pseudo-magic, and demi-gods that set fires but could not extinguish them, she’d thirsted for understanding, knowledge. The coven hadn’t answered her questions, even after an entire adolescence in their care. However distant she might’ve been otherwise, lack of answers increased it.

But now, there was truth. A truth she’d seen only with her own eyes, but that she would kill to ensure was known. How? Without the Empires’ interference? She couldn’t say yet. She re-read the words before her, knowing it would have to happen sooner or later.

Her jaw stiffened; learning one’s namesake bore itself a badge of responsibility in itself. Confirming hers, ensured she’d hold it to the highest standard.

There, beneath the millennia of soiled signage, Usa learned of the United States of America.

Yet the Empires had assured their existence was myth, as were what remained of their beliefs. Usa knew now it was lies and would to go to war to prove it.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 2

2.

Making it Through

The last few levels were swarming. Like the zombie apocalypse vids popular when N1T3 was a kid. Except, instead of mindless drones shambling for meat, it was University and Marine washouts looking to hone blood-lust for the highest salary.

The second team of them appeared just below the fifth floor. They were tramping between foyers when he caught sight of them. That he’d made it so far without running into them told him the thoroughness of their search. He hesitated, holding his breath, and waiting.

If he knew anything of the growing plague corp-sec was becoming, it was their method of operation. Corps were all about area-denial, especially near their borders. N1T3 was technically bordering on their turf, he’d known it all along. Until now, it was the safest way to maintain supply-routes, but he had other places to crash.

Places he’d long ago planned to retreat to, if necessary.

Everyone like him had them. Never as a paranoid delusion, but rather, as a forethought to bulwark against tidal oppression. Problem was, N1T3 realized hiding against a wall; there was a major difference between planning for something and experiencing it.

With the latter now upon him, he wished he could have planned better. Then again, he’d never expected a corp-sec battalion to swarm. Even that had seemed the realm of delusion right up until Clockwork and An33$A bought it.

Now, he wished he’d bought a tank; a fighter jet. Or else built some sort of orbital platform to live on. Then, he wouldn’t be crouched in filth, heart ready to give out, with an army between he and any relative safety– an army looking only for him.

The feet tramped up, hesitated at a door. It opened, then closed, and everything was quiet. A door shut and latched below, forced him to swallow hard. He nearly choked, fought back for fear of the sound it might make.

His body launched itself down the next few floors like a ghost atop a bullet-train.

He knew only each step; the one to come. Each measured, planned without thought but on sheer will and want of survival. He found himself between the second and first floors in a breath. Inside the first in a thought.

He stopped, starring down the main-lobby of the office building at what had once been the front doors of an accounting firm. The lobby elevators bulged beside stairwells, taunting fattened caretakers into tempting the dual fates of poor, physical conditioning and heart-disease; and taunting N1T3 in to testing his luck that someone wasn’t watching.

He wasn’t how he’d made it past the first two teams. Making it this far made him want to re-examine his perception of the universe.

No time. The doors lay straight ahead.

Too obvious to run. Just beyond that last pair of elevators, squads of itchy trigger-fingers whipped into a frenzy from corporate propaganda. Hungry, abused dogs looking for a meal; N1T3 the jackrabbit. If they caught him, they’d fight over scraps for days.

His only hope was in the moment-to-moment. The step-by-step. Then again, hope was thin. Especially in the face of hot lead.

He shouldered his way along the wall, creeping forward as near to the corner as willing, and then some. He hesitated at a shuffle of clothing from one side. A hint to the shadows revealed the at-ease group of armored and armed wannabe-mercs; No-one had expected him to make it this far.

All the same, he wouldn’t overplay his hand. Not when one bullet shy of dead with hundreds in reserve. He had to play it just right, use the shadows, or he’d eat every one.

One breath at a time. He made for the far-side of the corridor, blending with the shadows.

He hesitated, corp-sec greenies stirring. The lifers, career soldier-types not good or smart enough for officer’s school, but unable to crunch numbers or run tech all day. Like most of corp-sec, these people were damaged goods. Less likely to be rabid, but no less prone to it.

Not surprising, considering what their job required of them.

N1T3 made himself as small as possible and slipped from the wall. He cut across shadows for a column, the cover it provided. He slipped out again, hoping to be lost in the background.

Suddenly, flashes:

A spot-light. His body tensed, worked. The hounds scrambled. The jack-rabbit took flight. Seconds. Days. Then a first spat of gunfire. N1T3 was half-way to the doors.

No-one could’ve expected the swiftness of his flight. N1T3 included. Pure terror fueled long-dormant energy reserves. His legs were lead, yet moved at light-speed. His heart had stopped but his body surged with fresh fluids.

He reached the revolving doors. Second and third rounds of gunfire ricocheted off metallic frames, rippled storm-proof glass. N1T3 stumbled, scrambled, re-centered gravity and fell into the street. His footing returned in time for beams to light over him. He sprang across the street, at full-sprint by the near-edge of the building.

Overhead, the buzz of unmanned drones running face-recog rained over N1T3. His body launched sideways, around, putting as much distance between it and they as possible before finding a way to break line of sight.

N1T3 was down 366th, around a corner, out of sight in a heart beat. The meat-drones had already lost him, but the metal ones were death on his tail. Their buzz was persistent, relentless, vibrating after him like cold death.

But they were programs. His malfunctioning mind knew. And really, he knew programs better than anything. Hardware. Filled with software written by he and his peers. All he needed was one, good angle. One moment of broken, line of sight. Enough for a second’s lost tracking.

He weaved to and fro, making toward the street’s far-side, and an awning there. It wrapped around its building, shielding the doorway from the elements by nestling it beneath concrete supports and glass panels.

His chance; he took it.

His legs pumped. Shoe-rubber smoked across concrete, asphalt. He was under cover. The drones appeared. Zoomed under the awning after him, followed it around– the obvious path; the one their simplistic programming determined he’d follow.

He ducked back and around the small, concave of steps between the door and the central awning’s support. He hesitated a blink, then booked it back into the open; back the way he’d come. The destroyed remains of the former London commercial-downtown became little more than a blur of neutrals smeared with red from terror and desperation.

N1T3 became conscious of himself again somewhere near his destination– and the smell of the stagnant Thames.

Rivers weren’t much use in an age of drones and automated transport; which meant an old dock, in disrepair and seemingly little more than forgotten sewage access, was hardly conspicuous.

All the same, he made sure he wasn’t watched or followed, stealthing through as many shadows as possible. The light he was forced to cross made him little more than a flit– a figment of imagination, appearing and disappearing in the corner of a blinked eye.

He slipped through the underground-access door, shut it just as quickly.

The pounding in his ears gave way to a distant, eternal drip of a neglected and ailing pipe. With it, some part of him finally relaxed. He knew the place well, had established it years ago. It was the same place he and his buddies used to go to get high as kids. The kind no-one knew about decades ago and history had ensured was forgotten since.

N1T3 was safe. If only for now.

He shuffled along the dark hall toward its center, a room where he’d stashed supplies long ago. His mind still fought to grasp what had happened; that corp-sec had actually found him– and right after Clockwork and An33$A bought it.

Bought it?

No. Were murdered. Hunted down. Exterminated. Why?

Why not? N1T3 and the other hackers had known for years the net was a ticking time-bomb. It was the only reason or explanation for why they could be prepared like they were. The problem was, they knew they were at war. As soon as N1T3 hit the net again, they’d know how serious things were.

Vets like him would already be packing up, hitting the road to reset just for safety’s sake.

Vets like him, if any existed still– N1T3 refocused, found himself leaning on a patch of damp, moldy wall with the same tranquility he could only imagine came at the first drops of euthanasia; released tension, lost fear, knowledge that this at least, was almost through.

He managed to float along its dissociative effects, manufactured of blood and fear, to the shadows of an already-darkened room. Beyond it, into another barred by a simple combination lock on an innocuous looking latch; enough to deter most intrusion. Any practiced sleuth would’ve noticed the age difference between lock and surroundings area. But a practiced sleuth wouldn’t have been there without knowing something was anyhow.

N1T3 entered a series of ones and zeroes on the combo lock, then let himself in through the narrow door. He emerged in something not dissimilar from where he’d come. The whir of old hard-coded builds kept the small, recycling humidifiers and de-humidifiers running. Their job crucial to keeping the servers optimal. If the air became over-saturated with heat or moisture, the gear suffered.

Because of their access-points, they could be adjusted and monitored remotely, but only if they functioned. Then again, programmer screwing up so crucial and simple a job wasn’t taking it seriously. That wasn’t an option anymore, even for the less-than-pros emulating N1T3 and the other Hackers.

This place, and any others like it, were about to become the last bastions of digital freedom. Corporations had assured as much tonight.

N1T3 had a few things to clear up and out, a few stress tests to run, but he settled into the place as if he’d never left it. He fell into writing up his story, splicing-code to ensure the information was relayed everywhere it counted. He finished, hunched over his keyboard and half-sinking forward in despair.

The code compiled and the bot engaged, posting to the series of forums and boards he frequented. He finally slumped back to stare at ceiling-graffiti he or someone else had left in their youth. The phrase was simple, resonant, and utterly hopeless; A better way?