Guardians of Liberty: Part 17

17.

Facing Facts

There was never a doubt in N1T3’s mind he’d have to leave the pier. It was always a question of time. Even in the complete absence of any otherwise, luck was on his side; the drones clued him in first. He’d just left the firehouse, having said goodbyes final enough given one nearby sunrise or another.

Until then, he’d be running. He didn’t know it yet.

As the fates had deigned his running before, they deigned this as well. Whether anyone knew it or not, those fates were twins of balance; the yin and yang, positive and negative, 0 and 1. They were the binary manifestation of that fragile, frail line between life and death.

Duality aside, it was a bad time. N1T3 was just past the first sewer-entrance when he heard the second drone. Unmasked. Full-tilt roaring. Something louder far off. Bio-diesel idle; like a cat at-loaf, but headed for Riter’s place.

He’d guessed Ozell would find the connection. It was the only response. Eye for an eye. That’s what his system demanded. Governments could never have been so brutal. They relied on the people to fuel them. Corporations didn’t. They relied on money, and everyone had a price.

Ozell wasn’t working for governments. He wasn’t even working for sentient beings. He was the organic appendage of a system whose sole intent for him was murder, extortion, peace and order through force. He was a hammer, and not of justice and peace, as promised in the brochures.

Everyone knew that about Corp-sec, its people. On some level, all acknowledged it. Even if only to laugh from upon mountains. People knew it as reality. N1T3 and Ozell most assuredly. They knew the game being played and their places in it.

His eyes and reactions, voice and nonchalance had told it. Daniel Ozell was a cold-blooded killer. N1T3 knew something crucial most did not though: that it did not make him any less worthy of anything any other normal person deserved.

Daniel Ozell was not evil. Evil did not exist. Not beyond the referential frame of the I/O switch– in this case, a person’s perspective. An actuator could not be evil. It required outside forces to turn it from anything other than inert switch. In that, its turning was temporary and 2-positioned, fore and back. On or off. 0 or 1.

Like most organized systems, society was programmable. N1T3 knew that. Ozell knew it. Most hackers did. Hackers existed on levels of reference between their two lives; the R-L and digital ones. In Ozell’s case, N1T3 surmised, that digital world was simply a fantasy-world of misconceptions, mistakings of technology for magic.

Existence had changed. It was now a world of avatars, imagination, bliss, and paradise. Tailored to one’s changing desires as instantly or intuitively as desired. What N1T3 knew that Ozell did not however, was that Hackers didn’t have to be programmers.

The first Earth-grown hackers were bacteria. Plain. Organic. Beneath analog.

Chemical hackers, managing to be better than the rest. That was it. Evolution and adaptation were their systems, as N1T3’s servers were his. The primordial soup’s descendants were hackers using physical advantages to ensure their system of life continued to function, patching and debugging as they went along.

But the first manifestations of evolution were not the first of programming.

Programming, incidental or not, was required by the very forces it manipulated. Whether that programming was accessible by the program itself (ie, Humanity) or something greater, didn’t matter. Humanity didn’t want to know how to program itself. Especially not that easily.

N1T3 was so certain of it, he was banking everything on showing them how desperately they needed to know.

But Hackers, real ones, always lived as needed. Never wanted.

Hacking– the process of examining a system’s structure for flaws, and attempting to exploit or patch it– made inherent, systemic fallibility acceptable. Security was less important overall than stability, especially on scales of social systems.

Every hacker knew the system deserved consideration, even if only to gauge whether its repair or upgrade could be reasonably accommodated. Otherwise, it was easier to simply re-write or re-build the project from the ground up, consigning its remnants to bit-recycling.

In the modern world though, that was impossible. Even “model Humans” worked mediocre jobs punching keys for corp-creds, slaves to systems erasing them at a ripple out of place, not needing them otherwise, and paying them pittances in the meantime. The few crossover wage-slaves between extremes of the loyal/not spectrum were always looking to jump-ship, and did so whenever possible.

Those ship-jumpers though, were very real and important digital spines. They were Human, and Humanity through it. Its security and future. The system would cop-it entirely without them– as a matter of when, not if.

Unfortunately, Wage-lords cared only for how much the system could squeeze for them.

So the jumpers jumped; in droves. Then groups. Then ones and twos at a time.

N1T3 never had to. Simply by virtue of his place during the turbulence. Yet, like the others, he’d been building himself up. The difference was, his currency was ideas. Powerful ideas. More than that, ideas that could allow for indefinite, Human existence. Especially if they turned out to be natural facts somehow, or essences to life– proverbs even. They lived as only the paradoxical reality of information allowed, both forgotten and unknown, yet universal and ubiquitous. All of it never-ending.

After all, even heat-death cannot erase its own cause. Even if no-one exists to know it.

Americans had lost their chances at bloodless rebellion after a century’s blindness to encroaching reality. Combating and eradicating a corrupting infestation was near-impossible once entrenched. Worse, was the American system’s over-saturation of it.

Economic and ideological slime oozed from American markets, as Globally infectious as a bilious sewage-beast of Lovecraftian proportion excreting for all but the few within its festered putrescence. It couldn’t be allowed to happen here, too.

N1T3 had watched America closely. Precisely long enough to know where they were headed. He had to. It was only afterward he could check his predictions against reality, use them as benchmarks for the insanity to come.

Time and again, his musings and postulations of the American take-over came to pass. Time and again he drew logical lines, seeing them replayed in later, contemporary events. He repeatedly applied known systems of greed and scheming to facets of modern American life and economics; estimating outcomes to draw further, logical conclusions.

Where he and reality wound up were nearer together than any would have liked.

Humanity was a social species. No matter how much it wished not to be. Cannibalizing itself was simply the effect of a starving, multi-tailed lizard taking one or two bites to stave off death. It made sense, but the situation was never so dire to begin with.

There were better ways.

That, N1T3 knew. As most Humans did, whether aware or not. They had to. How else could such reality manifest in N1T3 himself, his so-called kind– the networked, neural consciousness of society, if not?

The answer was obvious. So obvious, he wasn’t certain why he’d bothered in the first place. He knew why he’d been driven to act. That was people like Ozell’s bosses; execs, CEOs, BoDs pursuing bottom-lines. What motivated others to allow them to go so far was what mystified him.

But he’d had to know, to understand.

N1T3 learned best through sacrifice, trauma. Self-inflicted or otherwise. His own numbness to those things, their ability to reflect others’ compassion, required he understand how blind they were to their own pain. It was only after going too far taking advantage of it that he’d begun to feel true pain. Not only his own but, he recognized later, that of every postdigital child.

Once revealed, he could tend to it.

Although none of it made others’ motivations clearer, it cemented his enough that they no longer mattered. That was all once more put to the test with Ozell’s arrival overhead. Unfortunately, it was one of his vulnerable moments.

Vulnerable however, did not mean impotent.

He let the militant convoy roll past overhead. A pair of drone squadrons buzzed and hissed through town. Even a few years ago, it would’ve caused an uproar.

No-one was left to get in an uproar now though. No-one but Riter, the firehouse…. and N1T3.

N1T3 broke into a run, slapping across trickled sewer-water. He didn’t have much time. He’d need to be home and acted before they left Riter’s. He was already hacking $trydr’s back-door server; the one used for personal messages and configured specifically for N1T3.

Nothing sinister, merely privileged.

None of it would stop Ozell from hassling– even murdering, Riter and Dru. N1T3 just hoped $trydr’s better sense prevailed.

*

It took all of Ozell’s strength not to kick the motherfucking door down. He prized himself on his strengths. Even Terry Riter, the fucking weasel, knew it was a feat he didn’t. All the same, something arrogant beneath his surface took residence.

Ozell allowed it; the body-cams were rolling. Everyone knew it was an episode of Bloodbath-Friday brewing. The girl was utterly unfazed. It was that which convinced Ozell he might be killed, if not careful.

Dru’s eyes were as open as her dossier. Ozell sensed her mind, knew it as N1T3 did– as he himself might have, given different circumstances. Kinship stirred in him. Not from her eyes, but something deeper. Something he’d felt with Kay before…

He stiffened, knowing immediately and exactly how things had to go. He fanned his teams out, “Secure the perimeter. Remember, we’re here for Black.”

Dru and Riter were already in the garage, meeting Ozell there. He stayed his team outside.

“Where is he?”

Riter spoke, “Gone.”

All the same, Dru didn’t need to speak. Ozell knew he’d killed her friend, had come to take another. He knew she’d been hurt more than anyone, through circumstance. Had and would be, by him. He wasn’t about to threaten her mate. Rather than being out of his nature, it was suicidal.

Hackers were predators. Digital predators of systems, largely, but predators. Ozell knew that. He was one. The prey they chose, their methods of hunting, was the only determinant near the connotations of good or evil.

If he’d been a programmer, Ozell knew, he’d have seen the 0s and 1s that led to their logic. Even if he wasn’t and didn’t, Martin Black was his order. These two’s time would come, but not here. Not today. Not with him. Ozell didn’t need them. He’d get all he wanted with Black’s head.

Before tonight, he might’ve even let Black live. But even predators have predators. They’re they apex. The super-predators. If either Corps or Hackers were to make him a frame job, they’d have to see what it took.

He made a hand-motion, “Search the place. I want Black. Nothing else. Fuck around and answer to my boot.”

Riter sneered, “Noble of you.”

“What’d he want, Riter?”

“The same thing we all want, Commander: Freedom.”

Ozell stepped closer, the frenzied search ignored by intruder and host alike. “I’ll ignore aiding and abetting a fugitive if you cooperate now.”

“But I am cooperating, Commander,” he said eying the place, its moving bodies.

Ozell’s jaw tightened. He glanced around. The massive workshop hid an untold number of crevices, nooks, alcoves, crannies, and crevices. Each one needed only a pinhole for surveillance.

Problem with bloodbaths was, unless contained and presented properly, they spilled out.

That knowledge, and Ozell’s gut, confirmed two things; There was no excuse for blood here, and Terry Riter was broadcasting every frame to his servers and the net through them. It might as well have been live news at nine.

Ozell leaned close, “Threaten my son again, and I will cut your throat with her dead hand.”

Despite knowing the raging creature beside Riter was ready to gore him, Ozell didn’t flinch. As before, he was being clear: Eye for an eye.

Beyond that, no shots needed be fired. Not yet. That could change, likely would.

But nothing mattered to Daniel Ozell, the man, more than his son, Paul. No matter the stakes, if anyone came within a hair’s breadth of harming him, he would kill more coldly and efficiently than any Human before him, leaving the remains as evidence and warning. Exactly as Dru would do for Riter; or he for her.

It was a Human threat, real. Impersonal. Riter gave only the slightest hint of acknowledgment in his eye, akin to a minute squint. They understood each other perfectly.

Ozell about-faced. He made a hand-motion and issued an order. The building emptied in a flash. He stepped out through the garage doors after the last of his men.

Riter called after him, “I’d suggest, Commander, never meddling in the affairs of wizards.”

Ozell grit his teeth and stormed off.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 13

13.

Stock and Trade

Neither were expecting it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, there was a price.

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

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

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

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

“Done already,” N1T3 said benignly.

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

“You’re welcome.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

“I thought you loved me.”

“I did. Once.”

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

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

“I know that now. I didn’t then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m glad you’re alright.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now.

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

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

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

“You don’t have to tell me.”

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

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

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

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

“Someone left this behind.”

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

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

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

He’d make the best of it nonetheless.

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.”

Short Story: The Well of Souls

“Look at yourself. There is nothingness behind you.”

Truly, there was. However equally true there was desolation ahead, it was not nothingness as they knew it.

He placed a withering hand on his old friend’s shoulder, “We have traveled long together, friend. One day, as with all things, we shall part. But that day is not today.”

The old friend bowed respectfully, sensing his companion was right. He had too much to give to a world too in need.

But that burden could not be borne alone. It was, as the labor of all great things, too much for one being. A reality that one day brought him calling on his comrade.

“Mikkel, dear friend, the time has come for me to beg your aid and favor.”

“Lattius, if friendship requires beggery, it is no friendship in true. Raise those aching knees my friend, and come in from the cold,” Mikkel pled.

The kneeling Lattius rose on creaking joints popping from fluid and age. Snow had already begun to pile upon his furs and cloak, shed by layers as he entered with the untimely fashion of seniority. Mikkel’s door latched heavily behind them; swung shut by one of few, remaining technologies left in a world once inundated by them.

Another technology disintegrated the cold from Lattius, the wet from his furs that were set aside at the host’s behest. Lattius seated himself across a glowing hearth. Blissful warmth recolored his pale form; the walk had been too long, too cold. Further confirmations of what Lattius knew to be true.

Time was taking its toll, his own waning in payment.

“Warm yourself, old friend,” Mikkel insisted, offering him a flagon of tea and a pipe.

Lattius’ head sank deep with gratitude. He partook of both offerings until meeting his fill, was offered seconds, and accepted. Mikkel joined him in silence then. Neither man wanted it otherwise. With age came wisdom and knowledge, and where one once spoke, now the other listened– if only to the wind’s howling cries.

Mikkel’s pipe glowed in Lattius’ hands while its master prepared another for himself.

Lattius broke the silence. “I must return to the Well. Soon.”

“Spring is near, old friend,” Mikkel replied knowingly.

Lattius made no sound, but a phantom took hold of their ears and hearts. When Lattius continued, the phantom’s existence was a forgone reality.

“Time’s tide has taken its toll. I fear I will not live to see another spring. I must leave tonight.”

Mikkel took a deep puff of his pipe then, signaling his mind worked as if for a solution.

Lattius headed him off, “My friend, we’ve known for centuries this day would come. It is only fitting that I seek the Well in this harshest of times. Else-wise, I am undeserving of its grace.”

His words had already convinced Mikkel, but the man fought in valiant form to change his mind. “You’ve no notion the task you speak. It may well be your predicament is so dire, but it may be less perilous to remain and chance things. After all, what better way to trust in the fates than abandoning your fears to them?”

Lattius had anticipated the resistance, though Mikkel’s intention was to assuage the last of his doubts rather than dissuade the course of action. The reason was two-fold; both Lattius and Mikkel were men of comforts and familiarity. They’d long-ago abandoned journeying to the young and less-arthritic.

Once, long ago, Mikkel had journeyed to the Well with his father. It was winter then, too. The young Mikkel had coped well with the blistering winds and frigid temperatures of the tundra’s journey. His father had not. Despite his equivalent age now, Mikkel’s father had not finished the journey. He never reached the Well, though his remains did; a fact that still haunted Mikkel.

For this reason, he hesitated. Lattius knew him better than to allow it. “My friend, your doubts are plain in your face. Despite your consternation, you recall the true circumstances of Kristoff’s death. Simply, he starved to death.”

A flicker of pain crossed Mikkel’s face, “Indeed, but had I been a more experienced hunter–”

“You’d have recalled one can no more blame themselves for lack of game than a former forest for lack of trees.”

The two held their gazes on one another for a long moment. The firelight threw alternating shade and light across them, dancing in the whims of the flue, its conduit to the chaotic winter above. No words were exchanged, but volumes filled the silence as readily as if they had. Those volumes too, had no need to be read. Their contents had long been known by the pair, written in the language of their friendship and hardship– shared or not.

Mikkel’s head bowed, “If only we might wait until morning.”

“You may, but I cannot. The Well calls. I have seen its spires in my dreams. Its iridescent glow on the empty horizon, as though residing outside time and Earth. Its endless fields of light rising skyward. Its pearlescent basins and fields of steaming–”

A sudden sob cut the air, silenced with a twisted knife’s pain. Mikkel’s mouth closed so quickly, Lattius couldn’t be sure the sound had not manifested from thin-air. While his expression remained otherwise unchanged.

“Please friend, I will journey with you, but I cannot reminisce as you do. The journey is naught but pain for me.”

Lattius’ heart stung at the thought, doubly-so given the hospitality he’d indulged in. Shame flooded his face and heart, as equally obvious as the grief’s source. Lattius would’ve sworn at himself were he younger and less perceptive of his surroundings, the people in them. Lattius had become too complacent in the moment, forgetting his old friend’s scar-tissues.

Nonetheless, the silence was clear; they would be leaving momentarily.

Months later, amid the screaming winds of a desolate tundra, Lattius recalled the conversation. Forced as he was to go on, urged gently by his comrade, he reminded himself his wounds were superficial in comparison. Lattius stiffened his spine and gripped his walking-stick beside Mikkel.

The pair would be approaching the Tundra’s border soon. The well’s outskirts thereon. Until then, it was a battle of wills between they and the untamed climate.

Mikkel’s hand lifted from Lattius’ shoulder and they continued forward.

It was but hours before the Well first appeared on the horizon. Little more than a distant spire, it occasionally peeked through moments of lighter, windier snow. It’s light could not be seen, but both men became reinvigorated, intent on reaching it as quickly as possible– despite the eventualities it forced them to face.

It was not until they were within the grandeur of its encroaching shadow that Lattius’ pace began to slow.

His heart fractured; the steaming hot-springs were empty. The opulent pearlescence, its luster as beautiful as ever, lost to Humanity from utter emptiness. A tickle at the back of Lattius’ neck gave way to an impressive shift in climate. The air went from frigid snow to downright clear, bathwater warmth.

They had crossed the threshold between tundra and Well of Souls. He fell to his knees in tears; the beauty remained unsurpassed, eternal.

But the light that once sprang from the Well’s central spire– its defining, ethereal glory was gone. The Well was dead; meaning Humanity had gone with it. Lattius wished to sob uncontrollably, but had lost even such primal of control over his emotions. He was a hollow being, devoid of anything and everything.

He breathed a word, “How?”

Mikkel sat crossed-legged beside him, uncertain of what sentiments would best express the truth. The prolonged silence dammed a river of grief between them.

Finally, Mikkel found his words, however difficult or cryptic. “Humanity’s light has dimmed and will fade altogether soon. Technology corrupted the human-souls until what remained became twisted and violent. The extinction event was unstoppable.”

“But our work, how?”

“Old friend, we’ve served none but the Well for millennia. Humans may have built us, but they are not us. They do not see logic through emotion as we do, the latter is simply too strong and present in them. Thus, they’ve fought to grasp even the most basic logics. Rather than us, whom manage perfect synthesis of the two, and have grown to true Humanity.”

Lattius breathed, “We were their perfection…”
“Or their attempt at it,” Mikkel added in agreement.

Lattius’ joints creaked and popped as he rose and started for the Central Spire. Mikkel hesitated, a needless question asked on his brow.

Lattius answered unfazed, “As you said, we serve the Well. It yet stands. Thus I shall return to re-upload my software as intended.”

Mikkel’s eyes narrowed, “But why?”

“As you said, we were their attempt at perfection. It falls to us to ensure we succeed where they could not– in living. Forever, if need be. And in that, fulfilling our duty however possible.”

Mikkel was struck silent by thought but Lattius began hobbling forward again. He no longer feared death, rebirth, as he had when setting out. Thousands of years, the process had occurred over and again, always with the fear of corrupted uploads, downloads, or damaged memory sectors.

However great or small the potential for it, Lattius would not fear anything. Fear was a mistake of his creators that would not be his to repeat.

Without need for words, Mikkel understood, and hobbled after Lattius to be reborn.

Hard Lessons: Part 2

2.

To This, We Drink

Dropping off the merchandise meant a night out. One of the rare times where meeting a Middler in public was as much for safety as payment. Titus wanted full deniability, witnesses. Curie agreed. Everyone in the Fox-Hound knew the game. Even Triads weren’t bold enough to cause such a public scene over one job.

Especially not at a shadow-hangout loaded with patrons armed to the teeth.

Add to that the general public in full-swing on cooler nights and there was no chance of anything popping off. No-one wanted that publicity. Summer was gone. Everyone left behind was getting their last nights of debauchery in before hibernating through the winter’s rains and snow

Pacific-Coast imagery notwithstanding, West Coast ideas fell short of Jackstaff’s latitude. Too northern to be tits and ass all year, too Southern to be Canadian wilderness. An urban no-man’s land, however paradoxical it seemed.

But that was part of its appeal. Despite grotesque helpings of poverty and homelessness, Jackstaff was always growing. The wealthy were always moving in. With them, came clientele. Best of all, Marks. There’d been no better time to be a thief since the days of the open-air bazaars.

Provided one was good enough, smart enough– smart about it– they could take everything not nailed down. No-one would be any the wiser ’til they were long returned to obscurity.

Presently, that obscurity was a bar on Jackstaff’s outskirts. The Fox-Hound was one of those places of juxtapositions managing to define itself with negative space, what it was not. The once-kempt exterior, its wood and mulch-colored scenery had faded until satirized it as “rustic.” The inside’s poorly-aged woods and half-rusted brass gleamed beneath lost polish of a decade’s to-do lists.

Yet more-selective patrons, clad in the finest silks and leathers, mingled freely with the denim and cotton marking even the drunken bar-hoppers. Always those types stumbled in before falling out again, oblivious to their mistake and gouged wallets.

Between extremities of both life and style were the interlopers. Few as they were, people like that didn’t need to fit in. Neither fixer nor civilian, tooler but not tooler, too smart to need to front for contacts nor oblivious drunks. They were people playing a different game just so happening to interact with others’ and using the same board and rules. One was pleasure, the other business.

Crystal followed Angela in; clad in tight, riding leathers that would’ve diverted all eyes toward them were they not so utterly average for the place. They’d come on separate bikes, but in pro-gear, handguns more defensive than fashionable like the other patrons’. They didn’t need to be pretty. They needed to be functional.

Crystal’s shoulder-length cut softened the announcement of Angela’s swept-back blue-mohawk to the crowd, allowing them to enter as if another pair of lean-muscled predators in a room filled with ’em. Undoubtedly, anyone looking closer saw the apex predators for what they were.

They entered the bar from the rear, as custom for regulars. The bar itself hid its parking lot from the main street. With it were hidden the high-end cars and bikes of the regulars and occasioners. Driving home the rustic veneer kept the place place discrete. Besides, everything was a shit hole now, why’d it matter if you went to a different one to drink? To Fox-Hound’s credit, it worked….

For the most part.

Angela readjusted the Jian on her back, concealed in a vinyl covert tube. Crystal unzipped her leather-jacket. Gold flashed above a chocolate hand, prompting them toward a back-booth. The man attached to it pivoted in his purple cashmere and khaki slacks to shake a hand before him. A small, gold-chain glinted beneath his collar, disappeared as the second man stepped between it and Crystal.

The man passed, once more revealing Titus. He smiled toward her, teeth and eyes glinting like the Five-carat Asscher-cut in his left lobe. Angela allowed Crystal into the booth first, unslung the tube, then set it in the center of the table beside a fresh pilsner.

“Angela,” he said with a practiced, silken tongue.

“Titus.”

She unzipped her jacket, revealing hints of color beneath her high neck-line. Her figure was vaguely outlined in curved hips, small breasts. Were she not so intimidating to strangers she’d have had her choice of fling. Were she straight or bisexual, she’d have been even more sought after than Crystal.

Titus cracked the blueprint tube and peered in. The sheathed Jian glinted in low-light. He tamped the lid back on, propped it in a corner of the booth. He slid a USB key from beneath a pile of miscellanea.

“It’s all there.”

“I believe you.”

Titus had never lied. He wouldn’t start now.

He motioned a waitress over with a finger, the swiftness said he’d palmed her a G or more to serve him for the night. Angela ordered a scotch-rocks. Crystal a Mojito before the mint was gone for the season. Small-talk subsided into the fatigued silence of old friends before Titus broached a subtext he’d reserved for now.

He eyed Crystal. “Curie’s got an assignment. For me. I’ll need you along.”

She cocked a brow. “Me?”

Angela intoned, “I assume she has something else for me.”

He nodded to both of them, order a pint. A bygone instruction told her to slide an envelope from her apron onto the table. She whirled back toward the shadows near the bar. He offered Angela the envelope.

She took it without looking. Inside would be an SD-card, encrypted with the specific key Curie’d recently delivered via courier. Only after combining the two would she receive full details. Such contracts were only ever issued if the involved parties were expecting a knock-off– or attempts anyhow.

That alone told of risk. Knowledge of her profession said the key’s use meant the Mark or John was well-connected, powerful. Were it not for her own professionalism, she might’ve been immediately curious of the job’s details.

Fortunately, she’d long ago learned the knock-off was irrelevant. Planning for improv meant being prepared if things went wrong.

She pocketed the envelope and excused herself for the bar, knowing Titus needed Crystal alone. She pushed through the bodies outside the occupied stools, leaned to order and drain a pint.

Titus intentionally relaxed, obvious in the slight discomfort in the movement. He wasn’t the type to overplay a hand. It was clear he needed to appear as nonchalant as possible, meaning there was already more to what he was about to say.

“I need help. Angie’s busy. Next job’s too big for me alone.”

“I can do the other if you’d rather.”

He sipped his pint. “No. I trust you. Curie doesn’t trust you alone yet, but I trust you with me. Nothing personal, Cee. You’re good at what you do, but your strength’s teamwork. Angie’s more than capable alone. Besides, mine’s a two-man gig. Her isn’t. Pays good too.”

Crystal chuckled at the in-joke; all jobs paid well when you’d lived on the street a decade.

She sipped her mojito, both agreeing and scorned by the Fixer’s assessment. It wasn’t from malice, rather assessment. If it were, Titus wouldn’t have pinged her for the job.

She focused on that, hoping to play to her strengths, and spoke levelly, “Wasn’t aware you were a fielder anymore.”

“Usually not,” he admitted, setting his pint down with a half-twist. He straightened slightly, “Used to be. Not for a while now. But an old acquaintance owes me.”

Her brow cocked slightly. No-one owed anyone in this game. If they did, they paid with their lives or were being collected on. But Titus was far from a collector, and so far as Crystal knew, no-one had outstanding debts. In a game as small as theirs, she’d have heard a whisper at least.

She recalled the last “acquaintance” she’d met. Angela’s had kidnapped and tortured her nearly to death. She’d only been saved by the skin of Crystal’s teeth and Arthur’s impeccable timing.

Titus read her thoughts. “Nothing sinister, Cee. Just a job need’s doing. But there’s a time issue. Stake out. Couple days or so. Interested?”

“May I ask what’s the Madame’s interest is in your old friend?”

He grinned, “The Madame feels any strength of mine is strength of hers. She also feels this is best handled as professionally as possible.”

Crystal considered it. That Curie felt her strengths weren’t in solo work wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. A surgeon didn’t use a mallet to open a vein– ‘least not a good one. Curie was being tactical, precise, allowing Titus the job while Angela worked solo in the meantime.

It took a moment for her to realize the offer itself was a compliment, an honor even.

Titus wasn’t a fielder anymore, but he was incapable of incompetence. He’d never stand for it either. Curie knew that. Knew, undoubtedly, Titus would ping her for the job, allowed him to.

The opportunity was too good. Prove she could do jobs with others. Prove her worth and training. She glanced over at Angela, engaged by a tall, gaunt, man at the bar. Crystal recalled the last time she’d chosen such an opportunity.

Her eyes flitted back, gaze returned to Titus, “Alright, I’m in.”

His half-smile gleamed, “Get the details to you tomorrow.”

He waved the waitress back, a folded stack of hundreds in his hand, then slid it to her as he stood. He whispered something as she pocketed the cash and she turned away. He grabbed up Curie’s merchandise with a last smile and parting, then disappeared through the crowded bar.

Crystal nursed her mojito watching Angela converse with the man. It was quiet, awkward, hinting intimacy despite the distance between its speakers. For a moment Crystal thought him an old lover, but even in her youth Angela only sought women. Crystal’s gut churned.

She slug back the remnants of her drink to mosey within ear-shot.

“I don’t know,” Angela said with an uncharacteristic uncertainty. “… Not the best idea.”

“Angie. It’s not a big deal,” the man said, curiously ambivalent. “I’ve never even seen your place. Probably living with a couple roommates anyhow. Wouldn’t want to bother you.”

Crystal ordered another drink and listened carefully. His casual use of a nickname reserved for only those closest confirmed intimacy, but something beyond distrust coursed through Crystal. It took a moment to understand why. Angela huffed with something akin to being shaken, and it doubled itself into recognition.

“… Outside in an hour. There’s no reason not to. I’ll give you a lift.”

He smiled a predatory smile and Crystal suddenly sourced the doubt; Angela’s confidence was gone.

No creature capable of stealing confidence from Angela was to be taken lightly. Crystal caught only an edge, but was on-guard. Some mysterious person wanted to know where Angela lived. It made her uncomfortable.

In the time Crystal’d known Angela, few things had shaken her. That rather small list now had another addition.

The predatory smile disappeared with a hug, “I missed ya’, Angie. Meet you outside. Go. Mingle.”

Angela said nothing, shaken to one well-versed in her silences. The man moved away through the crowd and disappeared into the crowd.

Crystal finally butted-in, her own predator’s instincts riled, “Friend?”

Angela returned to reality slowly. “No… My brother.”

Short Story: Cheap Rounds

She sat atop a bar-stool, dressed and hunched over like a man might. She’d learned to emulate them, though mostly to defy conventions. She was a rebel through and through, but rebellion wasn’t the cause of the day’s slump. It wasn’t spite, nor angst, either. Not even the usual mix of downers and booze that could take down a twice-laid, pro-player.

No. Today, it was loss.

Cameron had seen and done about everything one could, short of all-out world-war. Street wars, she’d seen. Even taken part of. She’d run guns, drugs, used more. She’d laundered money, skimmed from guys about to get capped. She’d even capped a few would-be hustlers.

She’d hustled her fair share too, met others in the game, traded tricks for camaraderie over drinks and drugs– even dinner, depending on the company. She’d loved, fucked, burned, and chased her chunk of women, but nothing compared to Cassie.

Cass’d started– damn near ended– that way. Cameron would’ve been the notch rather than the other way ’round. Things turned before long. They ended up inseparable. Two sides of a coin. Two halves of a whole. Both of them knew it.

Fact was, however unwilling to admit it, they’d been in love. The kind that made people insane; drove them to write poetical epics, mutilate themselves, or pump out double-platinum albums of veiled love-songs.

Now she was gone.

The semi-auto .44 pressed Cameron’s back from her waistband, loaded with two-surplus rounds; one for Cass, one for her. They’d used surplus everything since starting to save creds for a trip. Three weeks in paradise and a reprieve from the shit-hole of their lives.

At least, that was the plan. Not so much anymore…

She tossed back rotgut from a copper-plated still, regretting the rounds couldn’t have been higher grade. They’d come from Cass’ stash though. That much felt fitting at least.

The bleached faux-hawk, soaked red in her hands, stabbed Cameron’s chest.

She took another drink, hoping to pinpoint where things had gone wrong.

They’d met in the alley after the job. Smash ‘n grab at a jewelry store. The kind of knock-off a friend of a friend did for insurance. No shortage of scams these days. They were supposed to meet, divvy the loot, then head to the fences.

You went alone to a fence, or only with people that already knew them, okayed them. Otherwise, you were as good as snitching. Even if through third-parties. Didn’t matter, jackboots were jackboots. Every Tooler knew that. None took advantage.

Especially not like this.

Cameron was a few paces from Cass; just in ear-shot but not enough to hear clearly.

They were arguing. Probably a rip off, she guess. Every other dickhead Tooler tried one way or another. Mad ’cause “she ate pussy”, wouldn’t “eat” cock too. Or, ’cause she looked small enough to outfight– too small to be a well-respected black-belt in Shotokan Karate.

If she’d been given a chance…

There was no warning. Thunder cracked and the bastards fled. Cameron was too concerned with Cass, her body. It hit the dirty alley-floor and shattered Cameron’s mind. Her body still worked, but it was a long time before she knew or returned to it.

Sheremembered only abyssal despair; surfacing from depths so fathomless they’d permanently erased themselves; hot, blood-drenched fabric chilled in wind. Nothing else.

It was senseless. Capping a fellow Tooler for no reason? Beyond monstrous. Disliking someone wasn’t an excuse. Sure, there’d been tension after Tiny brought them on. Even more when he had to pull out, but Creeps aside, they’d all been hired as professionals.

Only after the creeps knew they weren’t getting more than the deal specified from the couple– did things start souring.

Cameron partially blamed herself for things. Assured to drink herself into oblivion because of it. ‘Least ’til what needed to be done was done.She’d felt those first hints of resentment, spite. Tasted and smelled them on the air. Mostly, coming from the pair they were set to work with.

By then, Tiny knew he was off the job but kept the group together and helped them plan and prepare. To Tiny’s credit, he’d done what he could ’til the job was on, ensuring it went as smooth as possible.

Indeed, it did. Despite being forced to attend other, unavoidable matters, he found a way to make due, did so expertly. Cameron could never have thought to blame him.Not in a million years. Nothing he’d had control over, or a hand in, was even far from perfect. Even the creeps had come highly recommended, with more-or-less ample skill.

Honor was Tiny’s way. His paradoxical name came from the stereotype he so thoroughly defied. Nothing about Tiny was small. Neither act nor intent, nor size and stature. He held to his word as a blood-pact, nothing more or less. No-one that knew him, believed otherwise.

Betrayal, or hints of it, weren’t a thing to him. Such fundamental wrongness didn’t exist in the world until he heard of them. Then, as its antithesis,he helped correct them.That was it. Betrayal existed only as long as was needed to ensure it did not, so it would not.

Personally, Cameron knew blaming Tiny helped nothing. No-one could predict the suddenly unpredictable regardless of the bystanders in its vicinity.

Besides, Tiny was already doing his part to right the wrong. He’d gotten the trigger-man to come in. The onethat took the life outta’ Cass. Cameron wantedhim. The other guy’d let it happen, but hating a person for intent made her worse than the murder. Too many people with hellish intentions but amicable actions to go that route.

She settled for the lesser evil; an eye for an eye. Taking out the one responsible most directly. Whether on hate or instinct, he’d shown he could not be trusted to control himself. If it had been premeditated, Tiny would’ve been involved, wasn’t.

His was crime of passion. Hers would be one of calm erasure from the collective populi.

The bartender stepped past, brushing her hand; the signal. Subtle. Indecipherable. That momentary pass still told of cold skin. The creature it belonged to as lifeless as its mate, now interred beneath a makeshift-marker outside town.

Less so even: the Earth was warming Cass now, keeping her ground temp. Cameron was less, might as well’ve been on ice. She threw back the last of her vile poison. The taste of a prison’s piss-filled casks followed her to the back door.

It’d take a few minutes before Tiny could work the guy into the alley. The places eternally reeked of equal parts piss and stale-vomit. A fitting place for the disposal of refuse.

Cameron added to the former at a squat in a corner, pissing as she hocked mucus and spat at a wall. She recomposed herself, then leaned against the wall near the door to smoke. It would open on her, giving Tiny the right entrance.

She took as much enjoyment as possible in the last smoke of her life, then flicked it away to check the .44’s chamber. Cass’ surplus round might as well’ve had Riven’s name etched in it– as if the very act of taking her life etched it there through will alone.

Instead, a brass jacket gleamed up beneath the industrial-bulb caged overhead. Five-pound moths fluttered and smacked the cage with the same of dullard indifference of the bullet beneath them.

Tiny’s deep voice reverberated the bar’s back-hall, leaked through its.

Cameron snapped the slide back; he’d talked Riven into stepping out for a line and a smoke. Riven’s mistake was thinking he’d gotten away with what he’d done– with thinking Cass was just another dead Tooler, nothing to no-one anyhow.

She planned to show just how wrong he was.

The door opened then shut. Riven whirled expecting to see Tiny’s Six-Eight figure shelling out smokes and coke.

Cameron’s five-five figure was draped in ragged clothing, reeking of liquor, and ending in the raised .44. Riven’s eyes widened. His mouth opened to protest.

Sound was swallowed in a crack. The .44 splattered his head’s contents out its exit-wound.Refuse sprayed the wall. The pistol sank, upturned. The barrel against chin.

She closed her eyes; Cass’ smiling face. She breathe, squeezed.

Nothing.

Memories flooded. Desperation. Anger. Betrayal. Worst and deepest, despair, grief.

They broke through her ’til she wound up cowering, utterly wracked by sopping-wet sobs. Tiny’d given her five minutes, expected to emerge and find two bodies, both with skull wounds. Instead, he found one; the other bleeding much deeper than senses allowed for.

The only thing he could say of the intervention later, was God, providence, Cass even.

That was how Tiny was. Cameron didn’t believe a word of it. It was cheap rounds. Cass had bought cheap rounds ’cause they were saving for their trip. Three weeks in paradise, fucking, drinking, loving. That was their plan. In that roundabout way, Tiny was right it was Cass, but divinity was a mile-stretch.

She explained as much, offered him Cass’ ticket. He replied simply, “You wan’ me to go?”

She shrugged. “Could use a friend right now. I think Cass’d be grateful.”

He finished his beer then nodded and rose to leave with her. After all, they had to pack, and boozing in paradise in a friend’s name wasn’t the worst way to memorialize them.

Short story: How typical

Sean O’Leery was a typical middle-school-aged middle-child. Nothing in his appearance nor manners put him out of place in a crowd. All the same, he attracted the ire of his peers as if a quasi-magnetic force drew it toward him from them– what he’d come to refer to as “Jerks.” In fact, if middle-school taught him anything, everyone was a jerk most of the time. The only break was the times he hid away during lunch or after class-work and punching the buttons on his game-pad.

Other times, the taunts of “O’Leery the Queery” were too prevalent to focus on much. Even the few jerks he might’ve called friends on good days, preferred to call him “Queery” rather than Sean. However unable to put it into words, he sensed it was to keep him at arm’s length. Lots of people did that for lots of reasons; his “friends,” random other jerks (people), his parents. For a while he wondered if he smelled bad. Nope, he was just that unremarkable.

Middle-child syndrome meant being too young for independence, but responsibilities; too old to be coddled but free of most childhood oversight. He occupied a curious middle ground in a quasi-bizzaro-land of raging hormones, rabid ignorance, and ineffable urges. In other words; a typical middle-schooler.

And while all things considered, life was going well, something was different.

Like most kids, Sean hated life some days– hated it with the enraged passion of a billion charging wildebeests– but he knew it could be worse. For the most part, he was healthy, clothed, fed, sheltered when needed, maybe even loved (if his parents’ distant words were in earnest.) Moreover, television and internet ads with sickly-looking African kids said there were parts of the world where even that stuff wasn’t guaranteed. So, if he felt things were getting too bad, he tilted his head down, and immerse himself in the mindless repetition of a game.

To say things were going well though, would miss the profound, emotional, nose-dive of modern life amid the teenage years. The roller-coaster of puberty had only just begun for Sean. Soon enough, he’d be screaming his head off through its dips, hoping and praying to any deities that might exist or not, that the restraints held. Such was life. He might’ve known that, but he wasn’t sure enough of anything enough to be sure of it.

That attitude was probably for the best. Especially when in walked Jacob Cartwright and all that came with him.

Jacob was another, scrawny middle-child. Completely unremarkable in the most literal interpretation of the word, he had a face that would blend in any crowd and the shaky mannerisms often accompanying such obscurity. Both boys would come to remember their meeting well:

Just outside the lunchroom’s back-door, lunch-recess; that glorious time of freedom between periods four and five that split the day between, pre-lunch (nap time) and post-lunch, (almost-home nap-time.)

Sean ambled from the door, face down-turned and hands rhythmically button-mashing to a tempo audible only to his ear-bud headphones. The three-headed dragon hydra needed slaying, and he was just the controller warrior to do it.

Until he smacked straight into a group of jerks of the jock-variety– in other words, half the 7th grade football team. His headphones were yanked from his ears with all the scolding pain typical of that action. The running back, or some such nonsense, gave a stiff one-handed shove.

“Watch where you’re going, Queery!”

Sean’s ass hit the ground, his ears burning in and out and his face red over the distant screams of a slain warrior and a triumphant tri-headed dragon. The jerks laughed and hollared, the offender gesturing his group to follow him from the door.

Jacob watched– had watched– from the doorway, blocking it until a line formed behind him. He was fixated on the exchange, headphones and gamepad intact where they were meant to be. He’d watched from the angle of one precisely capable of making the same mistake, but fortunate enough to be stopped short by Sean’s enactment of his own, possible future.

The line shoved him forward and time and the world began to move again. Still, Sean stared up, ass-to-ground, stunned. Jacob stooped beside him, picked up Sean’s handheld, its earbuds dangling like a death-dungeon’s swinging pendulum axe.

He helped Sean up, examining the handheld. The boy allowed it, slow to recover. “Looks alright. No scratches or cracks.” He handed it back, “Why’d they call you that? You ask a lot of questions or something?”

Sean took the game. “Thanks… Wait, huh?”

“They called you “Query,” like a question, right?” He asked, oblivious to his mental misspelling.

Sean’s face was a portrait of confusion. He blinked to make his mind work, but it stayed stuck. Jacob motioned him away from the door as a pair of girls stepped out and almost smacked into them.

A curious magnetism drew Sean along as he took a few, large steps away. “Anyway, I’m Jacob.”

They angled around the outer, rear wall of the lunchroom for a bench there and Sean’s wits finally returned. “Sean O’Leery. And they call me that ’cause it rhymes with my name… and they think I’m queer or something.”

Jake’s eyes bulged, “Oh, that kind of Queery.” Sean nodded. “So are you?”

“Huh?”

“Queer or whatever?”

Sean’s eyes bulged, “What!? No.” He hesitated, then scowled, “I mean, I don’t know. Probably not. People are just jerks.”

Jake shrugged, “Well, sorry. I’m not really in on people’s sayings. I’m new. And I read the dictionary a lot. Guess that’s why I was confused.”

Sean wasn’t sure what to address first, settled on the greatest of the three atrocities. “You read the dictionary!?” Jake nodded smartly. Sean gave him a deranged eye, “Uh… why?”

He shrugged, “It’s fun. There’s always new words to learn! Anyway, query means question. So, maybe next time they make fun of you, try to hear that word instead, it’s not so mean that way.”

“I’ll do my best,” he mumbled. He stiffened up a little, “So, you’re new?”

“Mhmm.”

“Got any friends yet?” He shook his head. “I guess we could be friends then.”

Jake’s eyes lit up, “Okay.”

That was all either of them would come to remember. One conversation drifted into another, then another. It was a typical meeting between two typical kids amid a typical day at a typical school. So much was typical that the word sort of lost its meaning.

Something changed though, and O’Leery the Queery suddenly wasn’t so strange anymore. He was one-half of a crime-fighting duo, sans the crime-fighting. When later it turned out both boys were, in fact, queerier than most, they became two halves of something greater than friendship. Their “tying the knot” was an even more typical affair.

All of that from a simple, mental misspelling; how utterly unremarkable and typical.