Guardians of Liberty: Part 12

12.

Decentralized Conscience

The vision came in flashes. Impressions overlapping of historical and fictional realities. As if a digital image composed of multiple others, each flash was a reality to come. Each one, the minute breath of wind slowly forming a word stretched too far in space and time.

Darkness. Fires burning. People marching. Tattered Flags. Bodies. Ruins. It was coming. Nothing could change it. Only between here and there could anything be done. And only after, an outcome decided. Nothing beyond or otherwise would change.

The system was set. Through-put was in motion. Output was inevitable– whatever the cost or damage. In the middle would be N1T3’s postdigital, social spine. His aquifers, fountains, their idea; gathering places tuned by their most frequent users and owners. Joy. Civilization. Mental and social stimulation. Freedom.

Any purpose to tailor the system to, socially, would come by way of organic need. Like Rome and its pipes. N1T3’s pipes were digital, true, but pipes nonetheless. Postdigital children– like N1T3, Ket, Riter, Dru– were conquering with them, gaining authority, but the system was decentralized and thus so was any power they might have had through that authority.

It was a collective Human-conscience made manifest. Rather than from within however, it was being piped-in and through all of civilization in as high a volume as its source allowed. Its delivery was digital, rather than analog; bits in place of water. Its purpose and point were need and solution. It was both miner and ore. Centrally accessible and yet universal. Adaptable, yet rigid. Flowing, yet fixed.

Like Dru, N1T3 knew.

Dru1d was a special case. Almost hadn’t been. She’d gradually evolved into more, proving not only her resilience but character therein. Like Ket, she was more than human, but unlike her not quite a force or direct fount of nature’s power.

Rather, Dru was a reactant. The type to respond, rebuild, heal if necessary. In a way, it was N1T3 she thanked for that blossoming into a person: adult and woman. In another way, she absolutely detested him for Martin Black’s part in her past, wounds that would never heal, scars that could never be forgotten.

Martin Black had betrayed her. Deeper than even Ket. Dru and Martin had known each other too long. Their relationship began in a day of fluttered lashes and butterflies. Childhood tingles of delight disguising deep, true love. Impossible as it seemed, such was the way of children. It would pass–unless recurring.

Especially in wake of unfulfilled promises, those recurrences added up. Their embittering effects,as all postdigital children knew, were inevitable. But their catalysts were not. For Dru, those catalysts were most painful to bear. N1T3 was one; if not in cause, then subject.

Forgiveness of any kind was doubly hard for Dru. N1T3 had burned her not just personally, but through others. Notably, $trydr. The baggage of Martin’s friendship burdened her even now. Whether she cared for her own, aged wounds or not, she’d still have to care for those caused by Martin.

N1T3 reconsidered Riter’s assessment and in spite of everything, sensed him correct. Dru would forgive him one day. Beyond Riter’s own knowledge of her, its proof was evident in her help. It was the defiance of one hating another’s guts whilst still stitching them back in place.

It was the mentality of a healer– a true healer.

One, above all, who’d made it her personal mission to prove Martin Black wrong: that she was more, a means of support, and there to stay. In his case, a friend whether he liked it or not. When confrontation came, as N1T3 knew it would, he’d freeze for a moment. That slight hesitation would confirm everything he’d been forced to recalculate.

She’d know then that she was right. He’d know, too. His actions thereafter would determine their future– if there was one.

In the end, N1T3 knew it was Dru’s way, knew her path to forgiving him as he knew her heart: from knowing his own. They had shared something, long ago. What, neither knew, but Martin had forever damaged it.

N1T3 could never forget that.

Now, Martin was gone and N1T3 remained. Probably, only for now. Corp-sec was still hunting him. They’d still kill him. The die had been cast. The future foretold. He, like Clockwork, and An33$a would die against corporations in open war; in opposition to a stranglehold over information, freedom.

I loved Martin Black. I do not love N1T3.

Like Ket, Dru did not know N1T3. She knew only someone wearing the mask of Martin Black and all he was to her, the world. Yet N1T3 knew her, but not in the ways now mattering most. Worst, he might never get the chance to.

Flashes of the logic-vision were still indecipherable. Too muddied in grays. Colors. Absolutes. The knowing of something terrible and precise, yet cryptic and vague. The knowing of Death; its presence on the horizon.

Dru hadn’t seen those visions. Not yet. Not until $trydr re-encrypted and passed them off.

“She shouldn’t know,” N1T3 said, finally breaking the silence.

“I can’t keep it from her.”

“She won’t ask.”

“She’ll know.”

“Terry,” he said, with deeply serious eyes. “I do not deserve the easy forgiveness of pity. If she’s to forgive me, she must do it her own way.”

“I will not keep secrets from her,” he vowed.

“I wouldn’t ask you to,” N1T3 assured, equally grave. “I’d only ask you not volunteer anything. If she should ask, by all means explain. Fill in anything she might miss. Only then can she understand and see it too, but help her. Don’t force her.”

“You’re asking a lot.”

“I only ask that you love your wife.”

He grit his teeth. It was a cheap-shot. They both knew it. Riter took it. Cheap or not, N1T3 was right. $trydr gave a heaving sigh, then a fading growl.

“Very well.” He recovered, cleared his throat. “Then we begin now. Time is running short.”

For me, especially.

N1T3 refused the thought further leverage, even to acknowledge Riter’s passive sensing of it. N1T3 needn’t go further on the thought anyhow. Riter was the call-check. N1T3 had passed it long-before it was ever made: a working system didn’t need revision until it was to be improved.

Then, all that mattered was whether output improved.

For now, the vision was most important, N1T3’s communication of it. A clear one. N1T3 was wanted; slated to be made an example of. He could be dead from one moment or the next. In a way, it was usual. In another, it was worse than nuclear. The vision couldn’t be allowed to go with him. It needed transference, back-up. As many levels of redundancy built in as possible, and as fast as possible.

Ket was one level, but only one level. And the more the better.

Between Ket, $trydr, and N1T3, they could do enough to make the idea take hold on their own; give its existence its own redundancies by exhibiting its very utility, but only if the idea were completely and properly relayed.

$trydr and N1T3 sat across from one another at a small, foldout table in one corner of the room. The former sat upright spryly, lighting a long-stem pipe with a wood match. He looked dangerously fantastical. N1T3 had never seen such greatness manifest in a postdigital child.

Yet there it was.

“Begin simply,” $trydr instructed.

In a postdigital world, whether the object of discussion was a system, person, event, feeling, or something other, didn’t matter. Properly conveying which it was, did. Only then could true exchange and understanding begin. The rest was done by feel. If a feeling was off, the transfer-rate or method was off. Change it. It was a self-correcting system, self-limiting via its variables. A basis of knowledge– the Human one at least.

N1T3 had been through it once, more or less, with Ket. She felt things more than $trydr, but he needed no less understanding. It was only Martin Black’s posthumously-recognized talent of trafficking in both psyches that allowed N1T3 to convey to both worlds at once. That duality meant he could speak to anyone.

If Christ had been so good, there’d be less doubt in the world.

“Knowledge. The net. Liberty.” N1T3 began.

$trydr gave a tired breath beneath his throat. It might’ve been a groan were he not so certain of the conversation’s importance. N1T3 wasn’t likely to waste his time with this as an amateur might.

He continue unabated, “It’s information. It needs to be protected and secured.”

“Crypto evolves, N1T3. Always.”

“Not just the machines,” he corrected. “The idea. Information is not the type of resource capable of mismanagement. It is not a consumable. We cannot cope without it. We cannot exist without it. It is us– as much as water, blood, or carbon.”

$trydr’s hand rose, “You’ve no need to rush here. So long as you’re within this building you’re protected. That will not last should they come to call, but until then, you needn’t speak with more speed than necessary.”

N1T3 heaved a tired sigh. “I’m running out of time and have even less of it each moment.”

$trydr’s wood-bark face, eternally carved to wisdom, lifted a brow. “Even for old friends?”

N1T3 relaxed, taking $trydr’s pipe as it was graciously offered. He lit a wood match on his boot, let it flare, then began to puff. The scent and taste of something lemon and honey lit his sinuses beneath cool, mellow smoke. He let it swirl about his airways and tongue, savoring it.

Then, he began. “The Human race’s future is indivisibly linked to information, Riter. Our species’ very existence demands that, with one, comes the other. History has shown this–“

“Thus far,” $trydr reminded.

N1T3 gave a slight nod with another long draw of smoke. “We are now in an age where technology presents the possibility for true equality among all peoples.”

“Through the delivery of information,” he surmised. “Its anonymity or not.”

N1T3 nodded. He sat forward, deliberately setting the pipe on the table’s edge. Riter watched with equal deliberateness. It teetered on the edge, its contents still fresh.

A moment of mental anguish gripped $trydr. The pipe teetered, ready to spill. $trydr verged on panic. N1T3 read it in his eyes– that distant, internal willing to keep things from going wrong.

“Yet, the status quo remains unchanged,” N1T3 said, lifting the pipe again and setting it in the center of the table, his point made.

Riter’s eyes followed.

In that instant, $trydr saw hints of what N1T3 was getting at: it wasn’t that authority was safe in their or anothers’ hands, but rather it was only safe in all of their hands. Or more succinctly, information was never safe in any one person’s hands. It had to be so pervasive as to be obscure, relevant only to the Seeker, so abundant as to be benign.

And it wasn’t.

Information was being monetized, milked, stolen, hoarded– even by the very people trying to safeguard it. Forcing them to change tactics to truly preserve it was the goal. Making those same forces of resistance flexible was needed to maintain order.

N1T3’s Aquifers. His fountains. His Roman-era monuments: more than just an idea, they were a statement. Humanity had been here before. It could be here again. Most of all, it was here now. And it was teetering.

Rome fell from the top-down from laziness and bad piping. Science, having not been advanced at the time, and yet to contend with the dark ages, remained in its infancy.

What was the postdigital world’s excuse, N1T3 asked.

$trydr saw then, it wasn’t just a question, but a demonstration of his detractors’ wrongness. Those detractors, in this case, were the system; corporations masquerading as independents but buying lawmakers by the truckful.

The problem was, as any could see, this was a rather profitable way of doing things. Dirty or not. In revealing and pinpointing how they were doing it, why, those like N1T3 had made themselves targets.

It change nothing, $trydr argued. They were aiming for N1T3, but they’d cut down his allies all the same. It was simply that no-one wanted to be the first to do it. Yet. Once it started, it wouldn’t end.

It wasn’t just N1T3. It was all postdigital children. The watchers. The ones stuck between permanent adolescence and the encroaching, utter oblivion of old-age. Of course they were frightened, $trydr knew. They had every right to be. Few were anywhere near as insulated as he himself, Dru, or their own through them– and that insulation was paper-thin, worst of all. All it did was isolate them for those that might’ve otherwise sympathized.

Once, Martin Black might have been part of that circle. N1T3 was not. It was then $trydr was forced to confront his own part in things. N1T3 watched it rise with dread in his heart and tears in his eyes.

He spoke softly, “No feeling creature blames another for forgetting its name in fright. It does remain however, that fear or the bearer must pass, so that others might know or learn it.”

Another cheap shot. This one at himself, to his own feelings. $trydr’s chest tightened and his face soured with pain. N1T3 put his head down, hands cupped around the pipe, and pressed it forward across the table.

From his place, $trydr saw N1T3; the formless, faceless lump, bowing before him for forgiveness. Not only for Martin Black, but the burden N1T3 now forced him to bear. If N1T3 should fall, those he knew well would not be far behind. Either they would be forced to take flight, live on the run or underground, or die for what they knew had begun.

As binary as the world it came from. The one of hunter or hunted, powered or not, 0 or 1. Nothing $trydr or anyone else could do could change that. Sooner or later, his friend would be dead, a martyr for his– everyone’s cause.

$trydr leaned forward, eyes only hinting wetness. He clasped his hand atop N1T3’s, “We will make it glorious, my friend.”

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Guardians of Liberty: Part 11

11.

$trydr

A face emergedlike the Cheshire cat appearing from darkness. N1T3 was Alice. In place of glowing bulb-eyes were others much more keen and calculating. The scruff-jawed face, aged as N1T3’s, held a wisdom many years beyond even the eldest of those N1T3 knew.

One, fluid motion, propelled $trydr forward. A fist collided with N1T3’s jaw, as the opposite pulled him into a hug. N1T3 recovered immediately, finding himself led forward as if nothing had happened.

He rubbed his left jaw, “Could’ve warned me, Riter.”

They passed into a stairwell, ascending toward the station-proper. “I was glad to hear you weren’t dead,” $trydr said, leading him past a formerbunk-room and toilets,now altered in purpose.

“Never would’ve expected to hear that,” N1T3 admitted. “Appreciate it though.”

N1T3 rubbernecked; the station was largely unchanged since youth.In a way, so wholly different it could never be anything near the same. Mostly, it was missing the people. The ones that made it okay to be a burnout, so long as you contributed.

Usually, that’d meant keeping the place from the scrap heap. Other times, it was stockingit with food and other essentials. He and Riter were gophers then. Kids taught right and wrong from sweat on their browand goodness in their hearts. Not arbitrary rules, to be bent with the right social status.

Riter’s father was an old man even before he was born; he’dremarried late,during a 20-year career firefighting. After Riter, hewent on to be Chief another 20 years– well-past normal retirement.But Riter’s old man had done few things right. He gambled and owed money, fought, occasionally drank too much, and often ended up riding the station’s couch from it.

All the same, none would’ve spoken ill of him. He knew right and wrong, if only because he toed and crossed that line too often himself.

When he finally died, Riter was forced to leave the station– the place he’d spent his whole life. That is, until he’d somehow occupied and fortified it. If $trydr was stayinghere, as he was beginning to suspect, N1T3 knew where he’d set up. Knew it… like he knew he’d find him here.

Fact was, it only made sense for a former Chief’s son to buy his father’s old station-house after it was salable. Only a fool wouldn’t have seen its value. So long as one could afford it, why not? Like N1T3, Riter had plenty stashed in assets and currencies. In the end, the how made sense but thewhy perplexed him.

$trydr glanced over his shoulder as he ascended a pair of steps.He hesitated with a warm nod, then ushered N1T3 into the office. A memory of the dispatch desks, half-empty, superimposed onto their new reality of total-occupation of tech.

The windows were low-lit, covered by cloth to let just enough light in to show day, but not betray a light or two being on low at night. At that, the room was low-lit. The glow of monitors supplementing cool light from a few dozen clusters here and there; in corners, along walls, and scattered about a central section of former desk-consoles.

Servers. Cheap. But liquid cooled. Silent. Powerful. Riter shut the door behind N1T3 and began to lead him around. Each cluster was running open software– and given Riter’s paranoia, secured by nonsensical alpha-numerics and heavy encryption.Perfect.

“I still don’t understand what you’re doing here.”

“Waiting for you.”

N1T3 hesitated, eying a monitor, “All this…. it’s legitimate?

“Nothing but.”

If N1T3 was surprised before, he was utterly stupefied now.

He suddenly understood; like Ket, Riter had been waiting for him. Over the decade since Martin Black’s demise, his former comrades had been building a shrine to his ideals. Not to him per-se, nor even his words, but his ideals nonetheless.The same ones he’d helped spread in the time-before, was helping to secure the future of now.

Except, they weren’t his ideals. Not really. He knew that now. They never had been, for that matter. He simply knew and spoke of them first, before the masses caught on. When the others were still struggling to find their words. Not from malice, but immaturity.

Martin Black had been forced to live lifetimes before his time. In that, he gained a wisdom that made N1T3 the force he was. The problem was, that blinded him to certain, other aspects of himself that were immature. Again, not from malice, but simple lack of contextual maturation.

Because of that, too, N1T3 had learned how indelible the ink of life was. Was determined to find a way to make the most his, by ensuring no-one ever had to fear nor experience that indelibility early.

He began to nod, “You want me to link them.”

$trydr smiled, “Still sharp. Good. You’ll need it.”

N1T3 stopped at a server running an open file-browser. He knew $trydr’d left it open for him, like he knew everything else. He knew too what he’d find in it. He didn’t really care to look, but did for the sake of respect. The effort Riter would’ve gone through to collect the data was worthy of gratitude, if nothing else.

N1T3 began sifting the open directory. Thousands of image files appeared as just-discdernible thumbnails. With them came thousands, then millions of moments. They hit N1T3 in the gut harder than Riter had in the face. He doubled over, having preferred a repeat of that instead.

A series of pained moments. Flashes of light. Darkness. Shadows moving.

He found himself on his hands and knees, the weight of Riter’s hands on him. A third-person’s presence; slender-boned fingers at his neck. Dru1d. Of all things, N1T3 never expected to find $trydr’s wife tending to him.

N1T3 was braced on the floor, hands holding him up. The gut punch had winded, staggered, and rattled him. If he’d been in a boxing ring, it would’ve been a two-hit, one-round fight. A disappointment, in a way.

His viscera returned as she lilted, “… normal for something like this.”

“Psychological?”

“One triggers the other.”

Her voice rubbed his ears like silken woodwinds. His rumbled like a floor-tom. N1T3’s world focused. “I’m fine now.” He rose slowly. “Better anyhow.” They spotted him upward. “What the hell happened?”

“Memory recall,” she said firmly, already on-guard. “It’s painful.”

“That was intense.”

“You repressed a lot, Martin,” $trydr said. “It’s going to take time for it to decompress.”

“But it will. Soon,” she warned, about-facing to storm out. “I’d suggest you have something for his head then.”

N1T3 supported himself on a nearby console while $trydr brought chairs, “Angrier than you now.”

“You blame ‘er?”

N1T3 remained silent, waiting for Riter to stop and sit himself, and deeply considering the question. Close as the three had once been, Martin Black’s wounding carelessness affected healers worst of all. At that, N1T3 was certain Dru was. Not a false healer either, but a true healer; one whose essence aligned with her polarity.

Not only had she been directly wounded by Martin, she’d spent the better part of the time between tending to wounds he’d had a hand in creating. From her perspective, how was he not to blame?

N1T3 finally sighed, “Not in the least, Riter. Never.”

He managed a small smile, a wise-glint conveying a depth of gratitude. “Then in time, she’ll heal. That’s what she does.”

He thought to inquire further, but knew her time would come. Even if it was only a parting word, she would have her say. He only hoped she’d be gracious enough to allow him an apology– maybe one day, forgiveness.

He hoped, then remembered he might not live long enough to see it.

With all the weight of the world crushing into him, N1T3’s reality manifested on his features. In that moment, time ceased to exist for $trydr. He saw his old friend now as pale, shadowy husk of his former self. Worse, he saw now the madness that had begun in earnest. Not only N1T3’s, but his own part in it.

As N1T3’s part in Ket’s play.

$trydr had always known he had a part to play, how to prepare for it. Only until the play was in motion would they know if he’d done enough. Now, he understood and saw N1T3’s reality better than any before, and it was bleak. Bleaker than even his own reality, by virtue of their differing statuses.

In that moment too, N1T3 saw the look he’d had himself when he’d seen the vision of the future. Not through supernatural or precognizant power, but logical deduction. That moment of lip-parted terror-eyed recognition.

The one that ended in seemingly one, credible way: with N1T3 as martyr.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 10

10.

Fickle Youth

N1T3 paced himself over a mound of debris. The London Riots had been worse this time ’round. Military arms were too advanced. Civilian arms too accessible. Luckily, most damage was by nonlethals. All the same, a rubber bullet hurts no matter how alive you are afterward. Besides, the damage wasn’t done during the riots. It was the aftermath.

The ’08 crash was a great moment of effect in Human history. In the pejorative sense, that is. Not necessarily because of its subjects or its benefactors either, but because of the method by which it was discovered– and summarily ignored, by the people paid to care.

Nobody could deny who benefited from the state of things. It wasn’t the people being targeted— those like N1T3, Ket, An33$a, Clockwork that were trying to keep society from being poisoned. It was those fighting them tooth and nail to pour the stuff in. In short, the obvious benefactors of the hunt were those doing the hunting.

Meanwhile, the hunters underhandedly double-dealt blame on those they were supposed to be feeding. Any time or period of history thus-far passed would have seem such treachery beheaded, shot, drawn and quartered, and bronze-bulled for their flagrant disrespect. Not just for their fellow man, but for their species as a whole.

Until such an equivalent was met, the world wasn’t going to get better until after it got worse. Much worse.

Part of N1T3 remembered the madness as he followed the utterly emptyA200 through Deptford. The roads had been in flames from the cars that lined the streets ablaze in mile-long lines. The occasionally distant rock and shatter of a fuel tank broiling into combustion had barely honed the scattered madness of smashing windows and chanting.

Home was North, now, but in those moments it hadn’t existed for anyone. Then, any hovel you could hole up in or hollow out to avoid death, beating, or innocently-bystanding was home. The now-abandoned Greenwich University lay to N1T3’s East, where the smoke had plumed from the night the CRA past.

He cleared his throat painfully. Ahead, lay narrow English roads built for a time and world so far gone it might never have existed.

The place was dead. Zombie movie, Human-ambush scene dead.

He hesitated, listening for the sake of instinct alone. Distant observers always seemed a given, but he made himself look busy a moment then thoroughly scanned the area.

Not another soul for kims. That was how the world had turned. Big, massive Metros of former, smaller neighborhoods. Suburbs now forming unholy swaths of corp, or bank, or etc-aligned and occupied land, or owned and abandoned land.

Automated currents and channels of auto-cars and corp-courier traffic connected various oases of life, but thesedeserts separated them. Visited by life, but only in passing. Humanity had more or less forgotten about the outlying, in-between areas; conceptually and otherwise.

In some cases, separate but adjacent city-blockssaw traffic once a week and consistent jams each day. Companies like Hyper-Dyne and Third-Rail wanted it that way: when they weren’t goring each other for market-share of transport, they were deliberately clogging arteries of society and calling it progress because others never stopped moving, flowing.

In the end, there was only one, positive effect of universalizing transport; networking it.

N1T3 hesitated at the apex of a corner. A distant observer’s presence prickled the back of his neck: a personal sixth sense grown from decades of introversion, hiding in crowds, fearing public recognition.

A hint of sound. Far too distant to make out. Too quiet.Something was watching.

How? He’d have sensed other rats through the ruins. That was how they ended up in such large masses: they gravitatedtoward one another like ferrules to magnets. Really, it was only food that drew rats together, but in this case N1T3 mused, he guessed that was the need to stay off-grid.

All the same, someone was watching. A half-second of recalling his surroundings and he knew who.

He dropped from sight into the nearest open manhole. Another sign of society’s implosion. The same sewage lines here connected to others, forming a network that drained into the river. Near one of its outflows was his hideaway.

Sooner or later that hideaway would be compromised. The hope was to have outgrown it by then. Eventually it would be just another crash-pad where kids got high, drankstolen beer in cans at a time, and convinced themselves the best was yet to come.That was the real joke though.

Things wouldn’t get better. How could they without working to make them better? What kid had the power to do that? What adult had the freedom to? Each knew their place in the world was secure, immutable. But was it really?

Of course not.

N1T3 dropped to the sewer floor and kept low. He knew the roads well enough to follow their drainage, was already mentally and digitally mapping the rest. For safety’s sake, he’d have to barricade and secure various entrances, but could likely move about unimpeded.

He hesitated inside, whipped out an old phone long ago converted to a digital note-pad. It automatically offloaded all new data anytime it was in range of his systems. Effectively, syncing his day to his vast, personal networks, both local and remote.

A digital note-taking system followed him anywhere he went. When he logged into anything personal, it appeared. Most people would’ve lost their minds for something that good; paid their souls for it. He did it himself. From widely available, free resources. Then, released it free.

And people wondered why tech-minded were angry at the world’s state…

He made his way through the grid-work, mapping what he could and notating the rest. He’d add to and refine the data later. He focused instead on making it through. He was near Deptford Fire Station. Directly above were narrow, once-prominent middle-class streets, emptied on the orders of CEOs of the Big-13’s banks.

Pre-digital, it was a world of pristinely-manicured 20×20, bi-and-tri-level cells, filled to brimming with the naivete of youth.Those youth inherited the cell and its reality, and the world outside summarily showed its indifference and collapsed. People had nowhere to go but beneath its weight.

The cramped aftermath felt more homely and freeing than a clean-street ever could.

It hit him then; the Station. He knew the place well enough to find it through any darkness. So long as he knew where he was, his sense of direction would do the rest.

He finally understood the sound he’d heard. Why he’d been allowed to hear it at all.

Drone-sounds were never good. Not these days. Once, those high-pitched thrums meant fun or awe. Now, they meant terror and fear at-best. Unlawful hassling, shakedowns and harassment, usually. And at-worst, dehumanizing violence…

Clockwork and An33$a.

Spykids tended to modify their drones to run silent, if only from their own desire not to hear them. Especially for a hobbyist hiding in a derelict part of London, no doubt of the same mind as N1T3, it would be foolish not to stealth your drone.

N1T3 knew then he’d been diverted into the sewer. Compelled there. By knowingly-manipulated instincts. Problem was, confirming his hunch exposedhim, but rooting out the controller might mean aid, resources. Or at least marking out an enemy, if it was one.

Find the operator’s hideaway, then.Likely impermanent. Passing attention, if nothing else. That meant getting close enough to see the operator face-to-face; risks forboth parties, but an easy trap too.

Anyone smart enough to find and understand N1T3, his movements, enough to divert him knew he’d figure out their reality a moment later. Were it not for his physical proximity to such a familiar– and otherwise utterly unremarkable landmark, he’d have immediately been on the defensive. Fact was, few whom knew N1T3 also knew Martin Black.

Fewer still knew either intimately enough to reassure the latter, however symbolically, of difference between friend or foe.

N1T3 relaxed then; he just had to find his way in.

He circled the block’s intestines three times before he saw it. Cleverly exposed, just precisely so as to discourage further inspection. In this case, a benign series of old bricks and tools so obviously out of place there was no way they weren’t a marker.

He dug carefully. Between a collection of tools and holsters was a door handle. It slid open on a heavier, thicker door behind it, unsecured by the looks of the un-padlocked door.

The firehouse was occupied.

N1T3 guessed it wasn’t who he’d hoped for. If so, why not signal him personally? Was concealment so important? Or was it concealing one’s association instead? The only way to know was to enter. The door itself would decide.

He opened it and crept in, heart pounding. He knew the place well. Knew its every corner and crook. As Martin Black had once known it. More, he knew inside lay a room and a way up into the station, and somewhere a confrontation.

He stepped into the center of the pitch-black room, and breathed “Stryder.

Deep curls of laughter echoed from the shadows, rebounding with added energy in defiance to physics. The echoes cut air like sabers from all sides, cutting his brain and body, yet leaving him whole.

Then all at once, it stopped.

Sweet, delicious silence reigned long enough to wilt into dismay.

At that precise moment, a voice challenged, warned, threatened, and welcomed him, “Hello, Martin.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 8

8.

Drinking Deep

He was astonished. Not at his success, her faith in it. It would’ve been another knock against him were he not so certain unpredictability were part of her package. She delighted in it. He enjoyed it well enough too, if only to make things easier later on.

Calculated on her part or not, she’d awed him again. This time in devotion, commitment. If only to his ideas: her own belief of their power– natural forces courted great power and nothing less, after all. This, she believed, was as grand as he dreamed. More-so.

He spent six hours prepping the parts, examining them all in detail. She’d had the place and her day prepped to watch. Nothing if not thorough, curious. Ket had always been that way. Like the Goddess of her namesake; Se’Ket, Ket. Feline grace. Poise. Panthera appeal and ferocity.

She said little, spoke only when he took breaks to stretch or eat. Otherwise, she was observant, as comfortable a student as she was a teacher, artist, or scholar. Even if it required theatrics.

That was what he’d loved about it her, but then, that was what everybody loved about her. He simply loved it for a different, deeper reason. She loved him as she loved them all, as her adoring audience, but had chosen him for his promise. He was their emissary but her concubine; temporary pleasure, passing seasons.

Martin Black had misunderstood the nature of that relationship. He was special, but not that special. Not yet. Not then. He could have been, but then, the madness. N1T3’s rise.

Now, N1T3 had the same potential, but he wasn’t seeking to use it. They no longer played games, nor needed to; he loved Ket. She knew. That was all that mattered. It was a simple, binary yes or no, on or off, 0 or 1.

For anything to come of it required so much between here and there N1T3 might no longer exist. To say nothing of if he’d survive.

He’d been fighting to swallow that fact over the five, monotonous hours of the server build. His request and payment, had been for a series of SBECs with associated cabling and storage gear. He received several networkable storage servers. Frankensteined bit-boxes with basic command terminals, sure, but far more than required for proof of concept. Cheap, but effective and powerful, and designed to do little more than manage a few network connections, store a few terrabytes.

It was perfect, but far more than he’d paid for. He took issue simply: “More than I paid for.”

She stood beside him, arms crossed, “Consider it my personal investment.”

More than that he knew, it was the symbol of her commitment. She was entrusting him with her future as much as anyone’s, he needed to remember that as much as anyone in the know. What better way than to idolize his ascension? What more fitting way to ensure he was taken seriously? Especially if she felt all he needed was to do it, there was no reason not to.

Clear victors needed no swan songs.

At least, not yet.

He stood before the server, finally seeing it for the work of art it was. For a decade he’d been learning, refining, theorizing. He’d designed a million and one ways he could do it, but had never actually done it. The opportunity had never arisen.

He’d built servers for himself, but ramshackle, patchwork things. Like his old shack, they were never meant to be the work of art this was. At that, it was the most elegant combination of utter-junk and clever-recycling. Exactly the sort of thing the world needed now.

He’d dreamed of it for years; servers, like cell-towers, encompassing all of Earth’s habitable face with chaotic, but total coverage: constant, digital buoys and beacons, both reading and writing information from the waves they rode. Each one gridded, overlapping, and connected to its neighbors. Above all, each one free and filled with information from passersby depositing and hosts curating.

Those resources, always accessible, had yet to become attainable for one reason or another. The motivation remained buried and unbidden to the surface, slumbering. The attacks on the Hackers had simply forced N1T3 to react. He’d never thought, even given the chance, he could do it with any degree of style or lasting impact.

Until now.

It looked vaguely Romanesque, both in purpose and form. It hadn’t been intended as such, but rather came together as a naturalized shape. He’d never imagined anything quite so vivid, but he saw now the duality of Roman column and postdigital necessity.

Like a shaft of mech-gear covered in tech, the aquifer formed a black-metal rack and pipe wireframe of a Roman column. Its base was octagonal rather than square, and sat on evenly spaced wheels. While its skeletal paneled-sections were flexed and presently locked, like an accordion with its straps bound close behind it.

It was as much workstation as low-lit cinema, warm but open to cooling. Most of all, it could easily shapeshift, re-form:

A series of R-L wire-frames of steel rack-mounts, lever locks, and moddable peripherals weighted peg-board flattened or locked stiff against panels on hinges, or in various positions. Each interface therein was secured but articulable in most ways. Each station, or panel, connected to the next allowing for expansion into a single wall, or total reformation of the panels’ components themselves.

A single station could occupy all panels, or all stations one panel, depending on type, configuration, and desire. Vice-versa depending on the tech’s inter-chaining. A more complex job than simply flipping a switch, sure, but not more than a few minutes of dedicated work either.

Despite her tendency to exaggerate, Ket guessed she’d taken longer to set a dinner-table than it took to demonstrate the aquifer’s use. That was good, she felt; it better fit the collective consciousness. More importantly, it could move. It didn’t have to.

Her emphasis on remaining close while he worked assured him of her investment: this would be her server. Her personal one. The one she relied on most but that others could interact with. It would be aquifer and fountain in her courtyard, centerpiece to her plays.

More than a bit-player now, he’d also become a craftsman. Something he’d never imagined himself. The difference was, he’d crafted an idea and built it in tech. One she would and could rely on– as any could, would, and should.

Until now, no-one had seen the importance of data. Not its security, but its existence and universality. Data was eternal in the eyes of a species naturally forced to live moment-to-moment. When that species then began to evolve, seeing they’d been right, they began to wonder why was data eternal?

The answer, N1T3 and Ket knew, was becoming clearer by the day.

Eternity was important to a sentient, living being without it. Anything regarding it was not only a doorway to knowledge, but an ideological beginning that would overtake and utterly transform its world. One could not consider the idea of immortality without considering the idea of what they might do with all that extra time.

Until now though, no-one had known how to manage or care for that idea. It was entirely new; as if Humanity suddenly realized it needed water, so dug a well. Then, knowing nothing of how to ensure it remained wet or clean, drank deep.

Like him, Ket had that knowledge. More than that, she had connections– popularity. What she didn’t have, he did. What neither had, she knew how and where to find it. As with the case of the servers themselves.

She’d set the terms of the deal, and so long as she didn’t burn him, was more than entitled to alter them. Especially if it meant getting more than either bargained for with no further risk. Then again, that meant greater responsibility to bear, and that could backfire superbly.

He hadn’t considered it until now, but aquifers needed to remain equal parts secure and not. They needed general oversight and protection. Otherwise, what good were they? More than that, they needed to remain clean.

Rome fell from unclean water. It wasn’t their fault, of course, their sciences were underdeveloped. To the Romans, lead existed only as a material to be formed. Not feared. What fear could a material bring anyhow? It was the Gods which saw to things.

It wasn’t until centuries later Human society was saved from the dangers of lead by scientific progress. But in a world where every person was a scientist, politician– and many other things– rolled into one, what good was turning to them?

Not everyone was perfect for the job, and that was acceptable, but they were all capable of it. It was impossible for that to be wrong and the world world the way it was. That was the theory behind the aquifer; self-regulation worked because any one participant could be wrong, thus each investigated themselves, to eventually base their knowledge off evidence therein.

Poorly-based conclusions in that evidence then lead to the miscalculation of compounding errors in Social understanding and Human living, borne of the neglected foundation of internal Human coexistence. Like with all systems however, the only way to correct these issues was to engineer their correction in successive revisions.

Or in other words, revolutions, waves, the massive, generational shifts recorded for all time in Human consciousness, deeper even than genes.

N1T3 discussed this with Ket. A pair of fingers curled about her cigarette as she replied simply, “That why it’s so important we do it.”

He cleared his throat, if only to admit his own discomfort to himself. She knew where it was headed, let him speak anyway.

“They want me dead, Ket.” She eyed him for signs of fear, backing down. He caught her expression, sensed its meaning, then corrected them both. “I may not live long is my point.”

“Then you need something of you to remain accessible, regardless.”

He thought to deride, but curiosity got the better of him. “A manifesto, you mean?”

She caught his shift, “I was thinking more… a product manual.”

He grinned. “I’ll get on it.”

Guardians of Liberty: Part 5

5.

*Ahem*

“Never would’ve thought you had the balls to contact me again.” She said, rightfully.

He didn’t move. Her fingers thrust her switch-blade deeper into his side, blade still retracted.

“I swear to you, Martin, I’ll do it.” His steady silence conveyed his belief. The blade eased back, though by no means away. “Convince me not to.”

“Five confirmed hits. All corp-sec. I was one of the lucky ones. We’re off-grid. Wanted. Hidden. But they’re coming for all of us, Ket. You’ll be later. All of you.”

She sucked wounded air through her teeth; a sign of the last vestige of hatred for he and his eternal rightness escaping. Her grip remained firm. “Putting me under fire’s your response?”

“You’re smarter than this, Ket. Our past is behind us. Our future is dark. I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t need you. And I wouldn’t need you if this weren’t bigger than myself or us alone.”

Another hiss, albeit quieter. Her panthera purr in full-effect, “What makes me care, Nite!?”

Addressing his persona directly said was willing to deal. However quickly that could change was another matter.

“Ket, Corp-sec’s murdering hackers.”

“An33$a.”

“And Clockwork. Five hits. Two deaths. Three others that made it away, including me.”

She finally eased off. It was subtle, but the knife retracted. Noticing was as important as it was civil. Ket was the kind of woman who thrived off the smallest measures of affection. If ignored or shunned, things went haywire. It extended elsewhere to her personality, of course– and especially in his presence, was lethal if not given considerable attention.

He knew that now. He hadn’t before, but now he was older, wiser, considerably more flexible in mind if not body. That was fine, she was enough of the latter for both of them, even if he couldn’t enjoy it himself presently.

She knew he’d sensed the easing, and with it, sensed his attempts at maturity. Too many years and too many missed opportunities had passed for them to deny the spark’s existence. Besides, the spark was never the problem, the idiot trying to control the fire was.

“Turn around,” she said, easing to full height.

He found her presence more gracefully imposing than he remembered. She was Venus Di Milo; larger than life. Eternal. He knew it. She knew it. He was her love; she, his. Yet their time together had taught them that, then at least, they couldn’t stand being together.

All the same, he saw her again; the olive skin, muscled as some ancient warrior goddess. Like every other time, it was as if the first time. She threw herself at him, kissed him deep, hard, wet, sloppily. He submitted fully.

A moment later it was over and the world was rushing back.

As if nothing had ever happened, she retook her rigid grace and led him forward into shadows. She spoke like a General meeting a trusted informant, on-edge but openly-so; from the severity of circumstances surrounding their very meeting, if nothing else.

Ket was business-like. N1T3 allowed her to set the tone. To her credit, she spared him further groveling. “Everyone saw what happened last night. No-one’s surprised it happened. Just at how.”

She led the way between a pair of old buildings, weathered by time and soot-blackened from an eon of pollution. N1T3 suddenly understood how the original torries felt. If this what they pined for, they could keep it.

N1T3 knew where she was leading him, but refused to believe it until he arrived. He’d only just seen her again, after years, and it seemed nothing had changed.

Well, almost nothing.

She led and conversed with gestures completely unaltered despite the years. Two conversations still took place at once. The surface one, audible and obvious; the other in a subtext of shared memories and memetic resonance from shared, mental-wavelengths.

Ket was doing it on purpose of course, as much for his sake as hers. Looks and gestures were easier than unnecessary words. Losing that had been one of the realities of their relationship that made her detest him so. He doubted she felt any hint of intimacy now, regardless of the kiss. It was a simple effect of being glad he’d survived; more Human than personal.

She turned transactional, business-like despite the obvious intimacy belying their words. Ket was little if not a career-woman at heart, however it manifested. It was that world that raised and bred her, taught her how– if need be– to take it out.

She, like N1T3 was one of those stop-bits. The 1s ending binary-strings of 0s; referential identifiers– embodiments of society via their existence at particular points in space and time. In effect, they were two of the postdigital-world’s first fully-digital children, formed and perfected en-masse whilst in-transition between worlds– the pre and postdigital.

But like N1T3, Ket was more than just that. Everyone that knew her, knew it. She could do whatever she wanted in both worlds; the remnants of the old and the blossoming new one, that was knowingly building itself in her image.

She had connections, money, property. Wit and clout to keep and protect them, illicit or not. Was the prototype chosen for mass-production, knew it, and used it.

And everyone let her.

She led N1T3 inside a neglected building, through it to an apartment. Even then, part of him refused to believe reality. He ignored the disbelief, knowing it would transform eventually.

The place was considerably more rundown now, partially reclaimed by nature. Otherwise, it was empty and undamaged enough to have kept anyone from squatting. It might still be reclaimed by one determined enough, but no-one would be.

The place meant nothing to anyone. Even those that knew of it most intimately. For any, it was merely another reference point. A place of known-congregation, now abandoned but capable of purpose. Any purpose– and thirsting for one at that.

That was one of the things Corporate lifestyle never understood. Mostly, because it required feeling. Not necessarily intense feeling, but any feeling.

The place felt as a refuge or sanctuary might, via obscurity; through a want of steel and stone to sing so its inhabitants might breathe again beneath it. Those feelings were what gave credence to Japanese Shinto Kami, their sister belief-systems dictating spirits resided in all things.

In a way they were right, however unwittingly after thousands of years of proven science, via electron microscopes, advanced physics and metaphysics. What Shinto called soul and energy, scientists called matter and energy; the effects of super-strong bonds formed in infinite ways, and radiating properties like auras; hot and cold, powered or not, 0 or 1.

Ket led him into their old room, a padlock already removed from it. They’d taught each other a lot over the years. Nothing consciously of course, but over the same half-telepathic link that had kept her from killing him only moments ago.

She let him, shut the door behind them.

It was smaller than he remembered. What wasn’t these days? He figured it an effect of age. After you’d seen so much, a single room could never be so large again– save if containing a live nuke. Then again with Ket, there was no telling; it very-well might– especially given the rather large, tarp- covered pallet in the center of the otherwise-empty room.

He hesitated just inside. She pushed past, whipping the tarp off. There, in three tiers, were a series of Rations purchased in bulk.

“You knew?”

“I had them stashed years ago.”

He stepped forward to examine them, squinting at her, “For me?”

“Yes,” she replied curtly. Then, “No-one’s surprised. I know you too well. It was this, or you’d be dead. Either way, I’d move ’em.”

He eyed her, searching for anything beyond the business-like facade she’d put on, finding only it. She was on now, thus he needed to be. Otherwise, he might as well have ended with the blade. He produced a flash-key.

“I’m insulted,” she remarked.

“Not for this,” he corrected respectfully. “I need something else. Two things. Actually.”

She wiped off her smugness and pricked up her ears. He produced a list. “This. Quantity there.” “And something… defensive.”

She eyed him through a squint, “Dangerous.”

He said nothing. What could he say? He knew it was dangerous, but the whole world was dangerous. Especially now. And especially for him. Yet he’d take the risk over losing the chance. Way he saw it, he’d be murdered or die going out. The responsibility to his mission dictated he protect himself if necessary, though if only to an extent of attempting to protect it.

Ket caught the wave of his thoughts, his mind-frequency attuned to hers. She folded the page, took the flash-key. “Two days. Meet me here then.”

“If it takes less?” He asked, only internalizing the, “where will I find you?”

She eyed him levelly, a fairly-injured party still nursing its wound, however potentially forgiving. “I never left.” He winced. She expected as much. “Let me make one thing clear; I loved Martin Black. I do not love N1T3.”

Guardians of Liberty: Part 4

4.

Supply Lines

It was four hours before N1T3 returned to reality again.

Those four hours passed in the same, formulaic haze of micro-instants his escape had. Blocks of code meant chunks of time spent forming and refining structures, running simulations.If he didn’t, when the time came to put things into motion, the whole damned machine would freeze. It would smoke and grind its gears, disassembling through a cock-up cascade of unequaled proportions.

He’d written what was needed, prepped it to go on old SBCs he’d stashed for just such occasions. The systems themselves were small, cheap, could fit practically anywhere and ran on virtually no power. Alone, they weren’t much, but chained via wireless networks they could used for anything, if executed properly.

Cloud computing on a burgeoning scale few had yet to imagine, fewer still to recognize as already upon them.

Before N1T3 could turn anything into a permanent refuge– digital or otherwise, he had to secure himself supply lines, avenues of aid and support. First and most formidably crucial, was food. For the time being, he had running water and enough stashed filters otherwise to last a good while.

Cheese cloth and fish-filter charcoal could purify even the most questionable water. In the mean time, he’d begun filling old bottles and jugs collected from the environment. He’d plan further ahead later, covered now barring some unforeseeable incident.

Chiefly, getting food meant bulk-buying. Sending a massive load of ration-style nutritional meals somewhere unsuspecting was the only way. From there, N1T3 could stash it in chunks at a time– squirrel it away between safe-houses around the city, outer and inner.

It would require false IDs, creds, Darknet supplies no-longer available on the Darknet. Which meant finding them on the black market. Not a difficult task, but not exactly safe when hunted like a dog who’d just mauled a sniveling child.

N1T3 needed someone he could trust. Someone that worked markets like a pro, knew how and when to burn someone or not. At that, it needed to be someone self-aware. At least of the war that had begun. Burning N1T3 now wouldn’t make sense for anyone invested in that world. The digital realm was under siege, and those aware or concerned about it were honor-bound to aid one another.

Those not were far too dangerous.

N1T3 knew of only one person that could run markets like he needed, was invested, and still in the game. Unfortunately, he also knew that one person was just as likely to welcome him with a hand-shake as a dagger to the gut.

He dreaded the idea but saw no options; he was up a creek without a raft– paddles weren’t even ideas.

He hovered over his keyboard with unnatural hesitation. The Digital realm was his. No-one disagreed. Like other board-jocks, he was an avatar of something bigger, deeper; a networked intelligence operating as any logic entity would.

The R-L realm was entirely different.

The flesh-verse was no more or less genuine than the digital one, but you were more likely to survive encounters in one than the other. Especially if one of those encounters happened to be someone that had as much as sworn a blood oath to do you in as anyone could.

He sucked it up and hit “Enter.”

A half-hour later he was closing combo-locks along the main doors. More tricks he’d learned over the years; low-level social hacks. Good deterrents were never meant to be impassable, but rather so simple as to be deceptively manipulative. In effect, poorly securing certain places meant discouraging tampering via hacking passersby into believing nothing of import could be stored so insecurely.

Anyone determined enough would get in, regardless. Those doing so knowingly, most of all. Simple dual padlocks of average, nondescript nature were much more organic to an environment still pre-digital than touchscreens and glowing LEDs. Especially in an area already abandoned, they were simply more, forgotten refuse.

It was society-hacking through the medium of the mind, as coding through a keyboard.In the event anyone did find the place and was determined to get in, they’d find themselves unable to do much more than scrap gear, pilfer stored rations, or wait to be caught.

Aside from trash, N1T3’s safe-houses were empty. His clothing was disposable enough to be unworthy of mention.He had little else. In spite of that nothingness, N1T3 still had valuable bit-currency.

Like… a lot.

Way more than he could ever need, and spread through various unnamed accounts capable of being transferred into any currency necessary. He could buy and sell through anything through any anonymous contact. Even if he needed to build an ID profile first– nothing for a hacker.

That brought him back to task.

N1T3hustled along the alleys of an outer London ‘burb, nearly lost for where he was. The once-historic skyline was gone, now replaced by light-polluted skies and miles of drab concrete. Perma-overcast hinted smog-buried sunrays that never cut through the filth. What remained of once-prominent structures were unrecognizable, or altogether hidden.

London was what Ancient Egypt might’ve have been without their culture; average, boring, poorly infrastructured and superbly scrambling to compensate. Just like the rest of the world. Just as the Corporations wanted them; so they were spun, easier to manipulate.

N1T3 crossed a street, unconcerned with hiding. Gray haze hid him from distant observers. Besides, no-one was hunting him here. Not in the immediate sense. Corp-sec was still cooling its heels and no-one that might’ve seen him otherwise could’ve connected him with Martin Black. Not yet.

N1T3 hadn’t even awaited a reply. There was no point. The message was sent. Received too, he sensed. In a short while he’d either be making a play, or dead. Either was equally likely. Such uncertainties lent credence to theories of divinity, but fate was really always dead-even odds of alive or dead.

That was the universe’s way of maintaining balance between limitless reference points: Ultimately, everything always resolved back into a simple yes or no, on or off, 0 or 1. No matter how complex.

N1T3 emerged from the shadow of an old awning and leaned beside a battered wood-shack. The place had once been a public park before inflation took over and drove municipal governments into destitution. Nature had since taken it back. The park’s once-lush and primly groomed grounds were overgrown like a Congolese jungle. The former suburb and its centralized patch of neglect hell-bent on reclaiming what it called its own.

N1T3reached his destination, almost certain he was dreaming. He figured then he’d been killed, was living out his final moments bleeding out on a rooftop somewhere. Then, a smell hinted the air; earthen, fertile. It sliced through the smog like a Katana, utterly ignoring the wet-death clinging to the cool air, and cut straight through him.

He realized then why he’d loved her, would always love her. She didn’t need sight, or sound. The very air sang of her presence. She was, as she’d always been, a force. Wild. Untameable. Eternally unchained and radiant. Above all, unending. He loved her…

And she hated him.

Sometime after their first few months, things went south. Fast. Neither’d known why. N1T3, then Martin Black, had acted a fool in love unable to accept change. Like one too, his stupor damaged an otherwise delicate-yet-crucial piece of their relationship through simple jealousy.

Feelings aside, Martin’s own youthful foolishness exacerbated otherwise immature-but-harmless tendencies. He smothered her, in doing so, crushing a part of her reliant on extreme delicacy to function.

And continued making it worse by acting like an ass for far too long afterward.

It was over a decade ago now, but it remained Martin Black’s “Most Infamous Hour.” Mostly, as the result of a long, slow road getting there. Passion meant nothing if one side blundered into love through it. Then it became obsession. Passion was a force, like her. Love was a contract, a system. A cold world of yes and no. He was young and foolish, and in love worst of all.

Now, he was forced to go crawling back– at least, that’s what it might look like. If he weren’t careful. Ultimately, he’d do his best to control himself, but he could never make promises. It wouldn’t be wise or fair anyhow.

Yet she was on the air, already intoxicating him. He felt his muscles relax. All of his once-anxious energy gone. Those fears, the very ones that had torn them apart, so damaged their relationship, withered to agony and dust from their decade of separation.

But the sudden feeling in his back was her knife. Unopened. Vertical, spring-driven blade.If he didn’t answer sufficiently and sincerely, she’d kill him. He strained for a breath, but the slight twitch ready to launch itself into his kidney forced a pause.

She was giving him one last chance to think clearly. Now or never.

He took it, if only to show his complacency. Heat on the wind said she felt something too. Still.Hated it. Hated him for it. Like a cursed sculpture refusing to be finished. She’d tried to eradicate the feeling from her life. Tried with all of her might to erase him, couldn’t. She hated him– everything about him, too.

Most of all, she hated herself for loving him back.

Martin Black had wounded her so deeply no healing aura could repair it. Yet the heat, breath, and scent on the wind told him he could play it right if he tried. If he really cared to. He couldn’t be sure he wanted to. Not yet. Not really. There was too much to be done. Too much more important than them, bigger than them. They’d have to look past their past mistakes, focus on the present, or die.

She hated them both for that, too.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 3

3.

Gather Round the Stone

N1T3 awoke like a hungover noob, head ringing from an ear-piercing ping.

His net-scraping alert system was pinging his rig. Before collapsing like a lump of bled meat, he’d set it to monitor various search terms, and compile them for later review. Then, he’d used it to relay his story, his survival.

All the same, net-silence was witnessed in the time between sending and receiving his ping. The cause was obvious; the Hacker community had gotten the message loud and clear. It was scrambling. They wouldn’t have had time to recover from last night. Not yet. Not fully.

N1T3 figured his escape had fouled up corp-sec’s plans, but enough to save anyone else? He wasn’t sure. His story would’ve put to flight all but the thickest hackers. He just hoped it was enough.

Hope was still thinner than he’d have liked.

But stock had to be taken. Corp-sec couldn’t work in the day as it did in the night. Plus, a sudden repeat of last-night wasn’t possible. Corp-sec couldn’t run such blatant ops so often or even the light-net propaganda couldn’t keep the suspicion off.

And the last thing Corps wanted now was further awareness of what was happening. They’d take a loss before misstepping that greatly.

What was happening, N1T3 knew, was a corporate takeover. A total takeover. In fact, it had been happening for close to a decade. Roughly the same amount of time he’d been out of circulation with the general populous.

He now had only borrowed time, and not much of it. Not unless truly hidden again; an impossibility given he was likely at the top of corp-sec’s hit-list.

The Hackers wouldn’t kid themselves; a first volley had just been fired and a war declared. Would-be leadership was being targeted. N1T3 and others like him, murdered for the sake of the ever-hungry, corporate bottom-line.

Now was time for strategy.

In the game they all knew to be playing, the Corporations had just made their opening gambit. Not clever as they went, but effective. Then again, death– attempted or otherwise– seemed a hell of a lot more than simply effective. It was repugnant.

Especially in a world with no need for violence.

N1T3 and the others knew that to be their world. Even if it wasn’t a practical reality yet. It would get there, given time. Society had evolved infinitely more, better ways of handling problems. Violence was brazen and downright foolish for the damage it did.

In a postdigital world, even a little damage was infinitely more destructive.

It was avoidable, too so long as those individuals involved not already so vested, afraid, or lazy to otherwise prevent it. Well it had been avoidable. Even if no other corp-sec targets survived, rumors would get out– someone would learn the truth.

N1T3 rolled on his cot to stare at the grafitti’d ceiling. Eons of spray paint formed a base-coat beneath words and doodles in varying states of decay. Some were recognizable enough. Slogans were abundant. Written in satire or well-meaning mischief. None mattered.

Bits and pieces of another life attempted to rise in the back of N1T3’s mind. He held them back, falling from the cot onto the floor still fully-dressed. He’d been too wrecked to even remove his armor-thick layers of warmth.

Even if he’d wanted to, the adrenaline and exertion had taken too much from him. He’d collapsed into the sleep of the recently near-dead, then awoke wishing he hadn’t.

The irony was too palpable.

Childhood in the changing world of London had prepared him for irony, but not like this. London’s strive to remain prim, proper, and staunchly conservative despite being hollowed inside-out by crooks, corps, and here-the-under-sign’ds was a joke in comparison.

He fell to his feet, barely noticing their utter ache. He was never meant to be a foot-soldier in a battle. Rather, he was an intelligence officer. Unfortunately, in a battle for intelligence, he was exclusively targeted.

He managed a piss in the old bathroom. The plumbing and electricity still functioned via some overlooked allotment for the city. He’d spliced the power anyhow, so as not to draw attention, but no-one cared about excrement unless it was backing up on them.

In that way, N1T3 had upgraded. In every other way, he’d gone underground.

Trace-back the error.

Back at his workstation, he sifted remote logs from his old server before it went offline. As a general rule, all server logs were exchanged a few times a day. Usually, as little more than a boring, routine list of averages never requiring further investigation.

This time, the logs were off the charts. Alert codes in three and four-letter chains. Power-spikes. Voltage jumps. CPUs and GPUs maxing. Drives failing. All of it in seconds. Obviously, N1T3 was the cause. He’d written the program. Initiated it– just before being chased across a rooftop by sniper fire.

Still, it was nice to know his work wasn’t all for nothing.

He surfed the dead-server’s logs. Nothing. All routine. A few pings here and there, but all systems. No user-pings. All redirects. None explained anything.

He sank in his chair, a stiff, metal, folder he’d have to find a way to replace. Yet another of the victims of the night.

He winced:Chalk-up the tally.

The thought reminded him of Clockwork, An33$A. He realized how insensitive he’d been. Reality forced him forward. The night was over now, or rather, near to beginning again. This was his revelry, that moment of procedure that allowed one to take stock.

The damage. He hated the idea, but all involved needed to know the extent.

Over the course of a series of forum messages and links, he gathered the general feel for the night, what had and might happen:

Corp-sec had run a smash and grab op to crackdown on a series of bleeds in the power-grid. Not uncommon, especially in the inner-city.

Power was at a premium, after all.

It was harder to trace elsewhere where voltage didn’t dip naturally because it wasn’t taxed as often. So, they found it.

A hacker fucked up. It happened. A younger one. One still cutting teeth and shooting metaphorical blanks on a cheap rig. Probably with less know-how than an oyster sucking cock.

All the same, a near-freak occurrence given circumstances. Rather than run somewhere hidden, the kid ran a line in from a rooftop, splicing into an old line connecting one region of the city to another.

What the kid didn’t know was that no section of power-grid couldn’t be shut down entirely without losing sparse levels of surveillance. What, in effect, formed a fortress-cities’ outer ramparts, moat, and sentries. All points where the fortress walls met the outside world, corp-sec often checked.

Because the kid didn’t know shit, he missed that these were digital defenses. Requiring power. Simply shutting out power-hacks from those areas meant shutting out the areas themselves.

What were a few, slow-drip leaks in no-man’s land when the grid was taxed so much worse elsewhere? On the other hand, the taps going over the walls, or nearest them, were considered the most traceable.

It was the difference between tracing wires one at a time, or in giant telecomm clusterfucks.

Few people realized how important that obscurity was. Power was power. One electric, the other ethereal. The few that did, had little choice but to remain outside its cloaking shadow. The few that couldn’t, fought for survival everyday.

So, the rest took notes to better understand how to exploit the weakness or avoid exposure. Unless Humanity fell, they figured, the observations might be valuable to someone somewhere. But nothing was valuable to a kid-Hacker with starry eyes.

The universe is a big place, after all.

N1T3 wanted to curse the kid, that he’d been smart enough to figure out everything and bright enough to know how it all worked, but dumb enough to get it all so wrong. Worst of all, to write it all down– or at least something that had given something away.

N1T3 still wasn’t sure what.

He wanted to curse the kid, but fact was, the coming conflict couldn’t be avoided. It was Human nature, the consequence of self-guided Evolution.

Specializing in number-letter strings and strong hunches meant nothing against automatic weapons. They had their place certainly, but in Human hands. Not postdigital, post-Human hands.

Even the notes ending up in corp-sec hands through happenstance was fine, provided they did something benign or unexpected with it. Yet they knew its value as anomaly, aberration.

And seized it.

That was dangerous. Corp-sec had seen the power of Hackers, their value. Despite obscurity. Then, somehow traced them physically.

Anomalous enough, but N1T3 doubted even allowing for schemes, corp-sec couldn’t afford more exposure right now. Which meant he wouldn’t know how it had been done. Not yet.

And he might make the same mistakes they’d all, already made.

He needed time. However much he had would be less than he needed. Sure, if Gen-pop got wind of corp-sec moves too fast, media-spin couldn’t take effect properly.

But flip-side, N1T3 and the other Hackers couldn’t force the Corps’ hand either. And neither side could move without assured, widespread adherence to their orders.

Things not going the right way couldn’t be going any way. There was no room for gray here. There was only yes or no. On-off. 0 or 1. Anyone trying to find middle-ground would be swept into one or the other unwillingly. It was best to let things simmer as they were– if only long enough for the dust to settle.

He finished his recollection and research, then addressed his alert with his full attention; a growing archive of everything regarding the building he’d left behind, its surroundings, An33$a, Clockwork, other hackers he knew of.

In it were the countless attempts at exclusive snippets from various light-net media agencies. All of them fronts or affiliates of the big-4. Each sang the same tune; fire in an abandoned, London building becomes arson, becomes terrorism, becomes heroic peace-keeping gone awry.

And there, nestled beneath the updates, misinformation, and outright lies was Martin Black. At-large. Presumed dangerous. Wanted in connection with domestic terrorist activities.

N1T3 smiled; domestic terrorist, for coding. Typing. Calling bullshit. The corp-media was already pinning him as another violent revolutionary.

How they’d found him was one thing. Finding out who he was really, was another entirely.

Mostly, because the information was utterly useless. Martin Black had long ago ceased to be; had long ago become N1T3.

The latter’s infamy was built off legends his fellow code-jocks told of him. Originating in the old vets that knew him as the up-and-comer he’d once been, and the encyclopedia of history, tech, and code he became, he’d surpassed any and every expectation and challenge.

To Hackers that knew him, he represented something more, as a symbol of their innate ability to redeem. To revise. To learn and grow.

Yet, the reports shook N1T3 deeper than he liked. Martin Black was his name, his childhood, his life. A part of him forgotten in the consequence of time. Something phantom yet cross-fading eternally with the present.

At least, until the war was over. Now, it had only just begun. Who knew if he’d live to see its end? What mattered was ensuring the proper stratagem remained even if he– or no-one else for that matter, remained with it. In essence, ensuring the Hackable nature of society was always known.

If there was anything N1T3 was capable of, it was that.