Short Story: AuralAgent

AuralAgent: Rdy?

FitWix: Yes

That was all they’d ever needed. The moment the response went through, the op had begun.

In the frenzy that followed, neither was sure what was happening. Only once it was over could they have known what they were doing. It was simply too automatic: combined muscle-memory and focus.

In the moment, Aural knew only the swift motion of her body as it vaulted a concrete barrier. Her sneakers slapped asphalt, then sprinted for the doorway ahead. The building stood as any uncaring stone formation but with an undeniably sinister lean. It seemed the core of the place was so corrupt, even the very architects had found pleasure in malicious, contrarian angles, utilitarian minimalism, and drab monochromes.

Aural was different.

Like so many others in the world, AuralAgent and FitWix were fighting for their freedom. True, neither were physically chained nor bound, their lives were no less constrained. Information, like water, needed to flow cleanly and liberally. Above all, it needed to flow freely and for all.

It didn’t.

Aural flitted through the door. Wix guided her via a comm-implant. “Seven doors to the left, there’ll be a break in the hall. Take a left.”

She did. Careful of the darkness that had stirred no-one thus far. It would soon enough. An entire building rose overhead with innumerable bodies ready to rectify any perceived problem. She rounded the corner.

“Hallway juts right.” She followed it. He continued, “At the end of the hall, take the stairwell to the fourth floor.”

She was through the stairwell door when the first signs of commotion rose behind her. Night workers were shambling from their stupor, groping, grunting their way forward: Zombies drawn to the source of their work’s interruption rather than brains.

“Thirty seconds,” Wix said.

Aural passed the third floor, doubled her speed. The hack wouldn’t last that long. She knew it. Wix knew it. Thirty-seconds was their best estimate, but too many people were onto it now. So long as she made the fourth floor though, it didn’t matter.

Her legs went double time. Suppressed mania from ten years of track and field unleashed itself. Equally as long outrunning service agents, dodging COINTEL, Mercs, Hunters, and beat-cops funneled the mania through the adrenal regulators she’d developed. The end-result was extreme capacity for focus, no matter the circumstances.

Kind of had to be, when the penance for failure was something worse than death.

Aural burst through the fourth floor just as lights flickered on overhead. Even before “Time” came through the comm, the fluorescent fixtures had regrown their strength quickly. She passed along narrow corridors broken by closed-door offices around two large, central rooms.

“You only have access to the North server-room,” Wix reminded. “Once you’re in, pull what you need, then switch the privileges to South server-access.”

By the time he’d finished, she was in. The door shut behind her on a large room cluttered with data racks and terminals. Pristine draperies of bundled cabling poured from the ceilings, tell-tales of such unholy rooms that existed as fashion statements, rather than as altars to that most holy: information.

Such power, squandered and neglected. Aural hated it. Machine-space no corp deserved.

She streaked along an outer row, down abreast lines of server racks to one in particular. A terminal flicked out and her fingers went to work. All the fury of a postdigital child at war fueled her. The stab of keys was her battle-drum, their beating savage. The terminal screen flashed white-on-black text. Commands flowered into processes and calculations. Rocket-fueled bars flashed beneath skipping text-dumps.

All at once, it stopped.

She was reading something. 4-1-8 repeating in her head. Then, movement began again: Slower. Punctuating silences with mechanical frenzy. She checked her watch, set it to twenty seconds, hit “Enter”.

The system was cycling, the authorization switching over. The system itself reset instantly, but it took time for all the checks to go through the thousands of drives, leaving a golden window of thirty-or-so seconds where her stolen ID had both Server rooms’ privileges. If the system had worked otherwise, Aural would’ve had no chance. Not even with Wix on remote.

But fools came in all shapes and sizes, con-men too. One had sold the other a security system without telling them how to run it, its pros and cons. It was equivalent to building a chain-link fence and expecting privacy and enclosure. Never gonna’ happen.

“One for the Angels,” Serling would’ve said. “Just another mark,” the con-man said.

Aural knew the type, couldn’t begrudge ‘em. “Even Hawking fucked around on his wives.” Thing was, someone like her would’ve just used that as an in to fuck Hawking’s wife. So, usually, the message of “don’t be a cock,” was lost regardless of its destination.

Someone like her. But not her.

It could never have been her way. She accepted that. She lived with that. Her way was confined to duality, the day and night. Shadow and not. Like a hag living as a maiden beneath a glamour. It mattered not why, when the time came to burn her alive. Just that she burn. Gods forbid if that formerly-fair-maiden, now burned-alive-hag, had been what kept the pox away.

What’d it matter? They cursed themselves no less when it came, were no less dead, no more deserving of spite for having learned of their mistakes in it.

But Aural was the Hag beneath the glamour. Deceptive, and dangerously so. Truth was, Aural was plain, but good enough looking to disguise the rot in her soul. That was what made her truly monstrous. She knew it, accepted it. Why not? Not like it was going to change. Didn’t matter all the rot came from the gangrene of guardianship. She was the product of an upbringing that fought for what felt right and it had tainted her.

Forever.

She double checked her watch’s timer, grabbed a drive from bay 418 on her way out, then strolled to the next server room.

“Making good time,” Wix acknowledged.

She’d chosen him to plan the op because he’d do it right. Shift changes, lunch-breaks. That was how he thought: like a wage-slave. Former one, anyhow. He knew the ins of a corp-system, especially if that corp happened to be waging a shadow war against… well, everyone– and he knew how best to exploit those ins. Aural was simply skilled enough to risk her throat doing it.

She was under no delusions. Death would be the least of offenses against her if she were caught by anyone. A specific few would seize any opportunity to turn the public on her. Whomever was unleashed directly would be maneuvered into parading her withering bones about until growing bored and throwing her to what few wolves yet remained.

No amount of connections would change that, political or otherwise.

She found the last terminal, hacked it to locate the data-bay she sought. Moments later, she was out of the server room, door hissing shut in a huff of conditioned air. The lights were back on in the building’s corridors, along with their security cameras. Her face tilted downward, obscuring her features: her clothing the only thing out of place on security cams. Didn’t matter. By the time anyone could move against her she was out of the building, skirting darkness for the getaway.

The box-truck was running down the alleyway, steam pouring from its tail-pipe into the cold air. The door was visibly unlatched, a single strand of light glowing from a dim source within.

Aural was in, pulled up by two pairs of hands: Wix’s half-mutilated face taught with effort, the other Zu’s tight with fury. The kid looked scrawny, barely looked able to withstand a stiff wind, but was rooted when he pulled.

Deception. Good.

Such details were necessary in a good crew. You couldn’t plan ops without knowing how every operative would react. That’s why breaking up a winning team was suicide, and adding to it, worse. Principles of American Life disseminated worldwide along the worldly-pipes: what Aural’s ilk called the Net. Mostly too, disseminated by Aural’s ilk.

The truck was rolling when the doors shut again. Aural handed the drives off to Wit. His one, wrinkled eye drew up with a half-smile like Two-Face at a bank vault. A hiss of “Shit!” emanated from the truck’s cock-pit, CanUHLynn was reporting in on time.

Something was different. Spitzu’s voice was rumbling quietly. He called her forward, “Aural, man, get up here.”

She was there in an instant, reflexes and guts ready. All the same, nothing could’ve prepared her: A small tablet computer, acting as entertainment, was propped up and velcroed to a console in the dash. On it, a video replaying at the press of Zu’s finger.

A news-vid cut in, an image of a man Aural knew entirely too well. The rest of, too, through her. It would’ve been hard not to, given his associations.

The vid played again, Anchor to one side. “– to Former President Hubert Langley, whom sources say, “passed away in his sleep” last night according to his wife and former First Lady, Barbara. A press-release says–”

Mom? Dad? Her first two thoughts.

The third was the plummeting in her stomach. Weights on her shoulders and the vertiginous feeling of reality collapsing in 3D tunnel-vision accompanied it. Wix and Zu steadied her. Lynn’s hand grounded her, its grip strained on Aural’s as the other wrenched the wheel back and forth to disappear them.

“Laura?” Lynn echoed quietly.

The use of her name ripped her back. Laura Langley was AuralAgent again– at least, in part. The other part was moving slowly toward the rear of the truck.

“I have to call my mom, my dad just died.”

It was a dumb thing to say, she knew. They’d all just learned it together. Still, it seemed integral to accepting things. They let her go without word or ridicule, but each one feeling weight in their chests.

Not exactly the victory party she was hoping for.

Short Story: Natural Forces

Culture killed the corps. Lack of it, really.

Culture never fit with the rest of the Corporation as an entity. In retrospect, it was the tell-tale sign of their self-awareness. Culture’s a byproduct of collective, self-aware entities and their existence. Corporate culture though was bland and cold. Real culture was far too vibrant to be mistaken for the non-entity that was Corp culture.

It was night and day.

And in the minds of most people, that’s what it became. The cold, bland, workaday world for wage-slaves and sell-outs. The rest was night. And because of light pollution the corps sold us with bullshit lies, the nights were getting brighter and longer.

It wasn’t ’til Web 2.0 fractured that any change really became apparent though:

Digitally, Humanity had always looked like one, prosperous group formed of a melange of diversity. Fractured though, the two groups didn’t fit. Simply, one was much smaller– far too small to be doing what was being done. That defied visible reality.

Then came the black-market and the bit-currency boon. In the corporate world, the biggest fish ate first. For once though, the corps weren’t it.

Cameron Mobility sold the world its first Augment, but it was people that designed and built it. Specifically, black-marketpeople. In the same way open-source software was designed; in revision-states to rapidly hone designs through the dual forces of need and skill.

It was that same market, firmly ensconced in shadow and belonging to the palaces of thieves, hackers, fixers, their nets of scum and villainy, that finally did the world good.

Yes, the other bazaar. The digital one. Of blacks and whites. Ones and zeros. Where only desire and money existed. And only to serve one another. The same market that once pilfered tea, ran moonshine, hired out hitmen, and sold illicit goods globally.

It was the all-encompassing culture of need/want/payment. One of a new age going nowhere but forward and regardless of its supposed amorality. Nothing would stop it.

The why was simply; the culture really killing the corps was their own. Or rather, the veneer of one they’d formulated from the requirements for complicit employees. Corporate culture had no personability to it. At the end of a long day of number crunching, between work and dinner, no corporate occupier remained to cling to. No external influence for those few times it was needed.

Living without that inspired no security or comfort, and Humans rejected the unfamiliar.

The inherent flaw in the corporations’ system was that their sole concern was only and forever profit. It wasn’t profitable to be clung to; to keep the lights on after 5. To man the sails for the few nights that weren’t calm for the people temporarily below-decks.

After all, profits can’t be maximized with skeleton-crews costing the ship hazard-pay. Those were premium rate-times! Electricity was worth more then. Keeping lights on and people working thinned the margin. No matter how little the consumer needed them. That wasn’t the corporate way. Corporatism was living and dying by the dime, being always and forever in the black.

People didn’t get that guarantee, because they couldn’t give it.There was no corporate-prayer service for when baby’s diaper exploded across the kitchen, and parents need a solvent to clean with. There was no corporate-barricade barring the front door against their own, unwanted intruders. There wasn’t even a corporate-identity. The thing simply existing as part of an individual’s designation. Their actual titles were designed as reflowable to adjust to ever-shifting political-correctness.

But people were all of those things and more.

The mistake was moulding people to an existence between 9AM and 5PM. That world’s totality at your voluntary request, but nonexistent otherwise. And when it did not exist, you did not exist. It was no different than being released from chain-gang to pass time, too tired and battered to do more than daydream, intentionally.

And why wouldn’t people be so battered? Two generations of corporate formation and overt political-correctness had dulled even the sharpest wits. People needed only accept the bargain was good enough for slaves. Since slaves were good and slavery bad, it was good for you, right?

Most people swallowed it without resistance. The chains came later; after compliance but before realization.

The manipulation was obvious. More-so from the outside. Unfortunately few were heard through the din. General insanity had filled the world, post digital-age. Sheer-will oozed enough through to the more enlightened among them. Those few, also broken and damaged, saw no peaceful strategy remaining.

The message for them was clear; run.

The few whom did eventually became the Resistance’s spine and the nerves along its central column. They were more fortunate than most. No more or less intelligent, just aware and better-positioned. They saw enough of the barrel aimed at them to know to duck.

They jumped ship right up ‘til the war, ensuring the survival of the culture they defected to. Their own immortality assured therein. Living as they did ensured they remained important symbols, even if it was all they knew of how, why, what for.

Nowhere was this more obvious than the Aug movement, whose champions themselves formed the very leadership of Corp-Resistance. The results of those champions eventually led to the Fall. They’d begun the right way, simply shifted their focus after circumstances allowed– or rather forced, them to.

That base strategy was straight from the Corp-playbook; re-branding. It had another name too, one far more powerful to a disenfranchised group seeking something more; Evolution. The one the corps had used time and again to validate their actions. The difference was, the scale would allow change in totality, and with utterly no chance or path of reversion.

Of course rallying around Lemaire’s death was convenient; the Paris Incident and its ignition of the Two-Week War forced the few undecided to finally choose sides. The unfortunate side-effect was untold deaths from Corps bombing civilians and rioters alike. Basically, a tantrum of epic portion.

A toll that might’ve been entirely avoided was laid at the feet of every person, man, woman, and child for seeing the injustices and not fighting back. No matter the side of the fence, Lemaire’s death signaled people were no different to Corps than any other expendable resource.

Between rumored brain-hacks, the car-bomb, and the scapegoating of Aug aggression as its cause, it was a wonder the fuse burned so long between times. That it did was a testament to the kind of change people needed, hoped for. It was hesitation that admitted they didn’t want to fuck things up, were damned well working not to, but that peaceful routes were running their course.

And they did.

The fuse burned down, sparking a global implosion that resulted in total collapse of Corporate existence. Culture did that. Or the attempt at one. People were objects; materials, resources. That wasn’t right. Ethics aside, it held no logic.

People weren’t meant to be resources bought, sold, traded, or exploited– they weren’t supposed to be consumed; they were supposed to consume.

But they weren’t consuming and only a few others were. A very select few. So few, in fact, even fewer could overthrow them en-masse no matter their own power. If played right, they needed only tease the promise of what Corps had yet never offered; personalized personability.

The tailoring of anything to one’s desires and without judgment or restriction formed the true foundation of the Resistance. The cultural renaissance that followed saw the futility in things like market-power over-regulation and censorship, because markets regulated power naturally once large enough.

The only barrier to accepting it at the broadest level was feeling outside of it. One could refuse improving a systemic culture more easily if they were part of it themselves. Especially if that culture needed no foundational improvements.

Later, of course, the truth of the illusion was revealed and people had no reason not to accept the new culture, but the totality of the corporate collapse by then, had little to do with the war itself.

It was the people fighting that mattered. Each had their own ideas and visions of a place in this potentially open and globally-connected world. Whether that was through innovations in tech or philosophy, there was no reason people couldn’t negotiate compromise, save competition.

Competition though, no longer needed to exist. In the postdigital age, everyone was equal. The resources were all there; scattered, certainly, but there and only in need of re-distribution. Competition wasn’t necessary anymore, only intelligent planning.

The former was a remnant of the Pre-Human era that survived because of its robustness and ubiquity in a fear-driven world. No longer required, competition could be officially relegated to an exercise in adrenaline, or for conflicts on scales larger than yet-Humanly possible. Those involved in it were glad to have it, while the rest were glad to be rid of it.

Competition could survive as little more than a new-age art-form and thus had no reason not to.

It was simple physics; paths of least resistance. The more a thing clamored to fulfill its role, the more energy it expended and the less effective it was at survival, if only rhetorically.

In short; Evolution was the process of honing biological life to perfection through the mechanism of adaptation. The same went for revision with software, and could go for change with Society.

In other words, constant, minor adjustments and refinements ensured survival. Whether from intent or will, nothing need be handled differently anymore because everything could be quantified, somehow. Quantity itself then became an art; of machined numbers and datum, but an art nonetheless.

Most importantly, if input into the right system, such principles of postdigital progress could do anything, anybody wanted.

In that way, Lemaire’s Resistance wasn’t a resistance at all. It was simply a majority overthrowing a former minority. The newly-dethroned disseminated power gained and lost by the likes of snake-oil salesman, brill-creamed con-men, and dark-spectaled suits. They’d formed pacts to better position their marks to buy and sell them back and forth en-masse, and panicked to death when people finally realized it was happening and ended it.

It took time though– and because of the severity of the grievances, blood.

Yet the foresighted once more led the way to light. It just so happened, that light was also the Resistance, thereby bringing to the fight many whom might have chosen pacifism for sake of family or obligation. That same devotion however, then allowed those lost to become paragons to those that remained.

As if through sheer need of people, the remembered became symbols to rallyboth groups and individuals. It was in this way Lemaire’s death had caused the Paris Incident.

The truly egregious trigger-point for outrage was the volatile mixture of changing culture meeting the bombings that followed.Lemaire was corporate, but human. Used and discarded. She was, like all peoplenow; just a resource, a statistic. One who’d outlived her time in the black, was now in the red from the media-risk inherent in her. Therefore, corporate culture dictated she be zeroed-out as quickly, quietly, and cleanly as possible.

The cheapest, most effective way required exploiting her death at larger scalesto maximize effectiveness. The corporate way dictated a car-bomb to suittheir desires. In one move, they could placetheir currently-manufactured scapegoats– Augs– from the news of the week (Aug aggression) in bed with long-running narratives against conventional fuels and private transport.

That idea secure, they buried reality beneath vague reports, inconsistent datum, late retractions, and less-publicized revisions– for clarifications no less vague but masked as natural fog.

And it backfired. In Totalilty.

People had been at odds with the cultural-divide too long. Nothing remained to cling to of the corporate entity. Money was killing everyone. Any residual effects and influence of corporate veneer too weak to distract from that. Rose-colored glasses could no longer be any less-jaded. More than, that they could now take off the glasses, see the vibrant world beyond.

Ultimately, what killed corps was a simple reality: Corporate culture was a construct. Culture was a natural force.

Short Story: Cruel and Cunning

America.

Uh, Yeah. Okay.

Nobody’s sure what the hell happened. Even the people that were there– Corp. Wage-slave. Government. Innocent Bystander. Johnny Reb. No-one has an explanation. There is no clear record of what happened. All that’s ever heard is, “one thing led to another.” Or, “‘N that’s when all hell broke loose.” Never clear explanations, only vague outlines.

Truth is equally vague, but even a silhouette can tell all if well-enough formed by its negative space.

Less of the day-to-day is known, but the broad strokes are clear. Then again, Americans never functioned well on that time schedule. Inside, they were all fat suits sipping lemonade in the sun. Each one an island unto their self, untouchable and eternal.

Just like the ads promised.

Problem of course, was neither commercial nor lemonade was real. The lemonade was corporate-machine processed powder and water, spiked with ignorance and cynicism, and slowly but certainly eroding critical thinking patterns.

Because hey, who needs brains in constant, happy sunshine?

In reality, the ad was just a commercial. Subtle propaganda lulling people into buying the imagery they were being sold and most identified with. It was voluntary, mental slavery. Indenturing self to serve self for want of pure, ignorant bliss.

Then the real world broke in.

Trade-tower attacks woke a lot of people up. It’s the only explanation for what came after. Negative-space again. And without that influx of people being forced to stop, look, everything to come afterward– the crashes, the wars, The Fall– would never have happened.

Or it would’ve happened on smaller scales, and much later, when it no longer mattered what corps were doing because Humanity would have so far surpassed them– while being condemned in the process, of course.

But those things did happen; the towers did fell. The police-state rose in their place, and corps bought and built it through their universal currency of power. No-one would be stupid enough to argue that chain of events. Were they, that person would be calmly but quietly escorted away not to return until their age of reason.

That’s one thing the corps did teach; human-relations. Mostly, through being completely devoid of empathy or sympathy within it. Thereafter, people realized what they’d been missing from life. The utter lack of the Human element in a Human system was what formed the basis of all progress afterward.

That is why bitterness about the corps reign, by-and-large, does not exist: In the end, it was a willing trade for the growth society gained. It would not have been had they not grown, but they did. All sums totaled, Society accepted what had happened.

Corps had taken over because people let them. Then, in due fashion, Corps kept doing what they wanted on the basis that, well, people probably didn’t care enough to do anything about it. Some did. Then eventually all of them did, but only after being buried by the ignorant bullshit they’d built-up around themselves.

Negative space tells it all began for America, after the WTC attacks. Corporations began doing what they felt then. It was cruel and cunning, but not entirely unforeseen– and as a result, infinitely more egregious.

America was gearing up for war, supposedly to hunt those responsible for their fresh wounds. Meanwhile, Corp-reps– so-called “lobbyists,” pressed cases on overburdened and still-mourning government officials.

In time of course, they offered to “share the weight” by “shouldering responsibility;” all double-speak for the corporate take-over and transference– or theft, of power. By the same process, they eventually convinced the military to shift its focus before eliminating what they could of it.

Because what was good for America, was good for the world. And vice-versa. When America needed all the good it could get, no-one dared go against them. It took over a decade before most were even willing to admit that catch-22 as fact. Until then, things were going south. Fast.

And nowhere worse than state-side.

Sweeping reforms, pushed by lobbyist’s politicians on the take, rewrote whole law-books in legalese so thick even the best-educated couldn’t decipher them. In reality, they were coded transcripts of the take over. All very legal and by the books of course, but why not when the beneficiaries were writing them?

Stage set, America hit its first crisis since the attacks and the war; the ‘08 crash.

An economy once the world’s envy was instantly crippled. The financial sector, already bleeding from poor decisions, panicked and set in motion a near-total bankruptcy. Now, those suffering were the same corporations that had bought select, elected officials. Ones whom, due to the laws they’d written then, were allowed to remain in power. As repayment, the corps took billions in “bailouts” and ultimately, ran off with it.

No-one ever answered for the crime.

The American Way was shaken. Faith in it doubly-so. Then, controversial elections and divisive politicians– and once-solved human-rights issue– utterly fractured its foundation. War had reduced government trust to all-time lows and put people in fear.

It was painfully clear; America was but one, missed-meal from revolt.

The people there needed closure and certainty– for what they’d suffered and what they would yet be forced to. At an individual level, it’s citizens felt the same even if their methods differed fundamentally.

Negative space is certain; neither of those things ever manifested.

The corporations, whom caused the recession to begin with, used the guise of need to consolidate credit and capitol from bankrupted competitors. In this way, they bought and sold debts and contracts to collect on until only the very worst offenders remained for sale. Those unable to collect eventually sold off what remained to others and quit the game.

Again, all very above-board and legal, but ultimately, engineered.

With nowhere for those remaining assets to go but the hands of those hardest hit, the most affected vied for flotation devices to keep themselves from drowning while kicked for the shore of fiscal solvency. Their success cemented the foundation of all that came later.

Some corporations, with earnest hopes of repairing mistakes or not– and if only for their own survival– were given rafts. The rest sank and drowned in the first-come first-serve lifeboat handout.

The corps left, their execs were going down with the ship. Already half-soaked, and now scorned by one-time bribes inevitably for naught, they took what had come their way and ran via legalese loopholes they’d written themselves.

Once more, cruel and cunning.

In months, those left wished they’d done the same. Once they did, the markets had already flooded with reds. Nothing could be done but to let the corpses sink so any survivors might be picked from the flotsam afterward.

With an economy only barely in the black, it was a wonder any corp survived.

It’s also no wonder those that did became so immense. Suddenly left with so much abandoned property and credit, the most they could do was zero out what wasn’t useful, put the rest to work.

Worst case scenarios, were things going into long-term, digital storage as “resource” until it might be useful or “liquid” later. A property too rundown to use was worth more cleared. Whether the clearing was worth it, as always, was a matter of risk/reward ratios.

Meanwhile, new Titans were overtaking their elderly counterparts. Tech, net, and entertainment sectors flourished as industries par-none. These slick, new-moneyed college grads and dropouts with less street-wit than road-kill, overtook the eldest of the old-money’s projections.

Wealth even Scrooge McDuck couldn’t have dreamt.

Avarice in their eyes, the old-money bellied their way over like maggots crossing sidewalk. They began taking back what they’d abandoned, nosing their way in via advisory positions and consultancies to recon and research these new industries.

Only after better understanding, and dissemination of it through their circles and education, could the “old money” truly retake control through their specially-trained kids– from old-money schools– that learned to blend with their “lesser” peers.

In effect, the world was nearly destroyed by a group of college kids blending seamlessly with the rest. Yet the simple fact was, these groups were breeds apart. One more cruel and cunning than ever and couriering dangerous knowledge for one, specific purpose.

That purpose was cultivated over lifetimes of grooming from ever-crueler, more cunning mentors. Each generation, further-conditioned to use them without thought and at the best of times for desired effect. Generally, that amounted to twisting the knife so that their prey felt it. Pain was the length they’d go to, to get their object of money, using a knife eternally cutting people’s throats to pay when told or suffer a fate worse than death.

Seeing any resistance would be slow and difficult, would-be opponents merely jumped ship. Too comfortable, wealthy, and not needing nor wanting, they’d effectively exiled themselves only to possibly return afterward, if welcome.

Otherwise, fuck it.

When it became obvious the government was no longer listening, the economy had officially stabilized. Yet basic needs remained unmet. What once were “guaranteed rights” of the “greatest country in the world” were now “priced to match.”

Such basics to civilization as education and healthcare, free or near-enough since their conception, could and would bankrupt people. The subtle duality of that impliedif one could not affordone or both, one deserved neither.

In reality of course, controlling these two things most easily safeguarded against an unruly populous.

Generations raised with espoused values of education, goodness, and dreams were pushed to the brink. Force-fed them before the corps rigged the game,those dreams collided with reality when they otherwise need not have.Soon, people of legitimate value and motivation were left indebted before their lives might begin.

The problem? Their skills were equally valuable but more theoretical than practical, thus giving them no place in a machine of corporatism that cared only for numbers. Numbers are infinite; patience is not.

Enter the next American election.

Typically, American culture cycled with presidents. The era in question would’ve been no different were America’s culture not so twisted from the recent corporate history. Really,two, competing cultures existed none yet recognized:

One was personal, real. The other, corporate; an avatar-illusion built by corporate sales and P-R.

If people’d known then, the culture they fedvoting was the one what they were hoping to fight, they’d never have been swallowed by it. It never would’ve gotten so far. They’d have seized the booths put someone deserving in power without altering the system entirely. That of course, required the game be level– which it had not been.

For a very long time.

That it wasn’t, assured the eventual outcome. Only once the game and the system were revealed as two sides of the same coin could their whole be examined.Unfortunately, the US system of democracy was so corrupt everything was too little too late. Even the parliamentary systems ended with held ground, managing never to disappear entirely– if only due to their relegated position as bureaucratic, hard-copy, file-managament.

The US had allowed corps a foothold. With it, they then took control. Total control.

Negative space once more tells that America isolated itself. Politically. Socially. Economically. No longer a superpower, it withdrew from global markets, leaving fertile ground for corporate takeovers via the power-vacuum that remained.

Outside throwing oneself onto a pike, hoping to form the launch-pad for the next unlucky bastard trying to get over the wall, there was no hope. Getting out meant money, passports, digital and physical files going back years. Those lucky enough to make it over went alone, left everything behind, and never looked back.

It was the first time in history people weredefecting from the USA.

Little-by-little, the exodus continued until the war finally toppled the walls entirely and the tattered remnants wandered out. By then, the country was ruins– whether places or people. Infrastructure was gone. Financial records. Land-deed and title-information. Gone. No-one owned anything, and nothing made money anymore.

All anyone could do was flee for survival. Some went North, finding refuge in the Canadian wilderness whose more robust trades had survived. Although only largely from the same, laboriously slow death the governments themselves succumbed to.

Credit to them; the Canadians once more weathered the storm of their southern neighbors, though considerably more afflicted than usual. Negative space states the obvious cause as War. Just like everywhere else. It was merely indirect.

Paris looked better during the Incident’s fighting and Berlin looked better afterward than America ever would again.

In the same, ironic way Americans never seem to see coming, they’d finally gotten the wars they’d wanted. Real wars. Not manufactured, but from need. Their brutal atavism was simply the release of repressed rage building since the Atomic era erection and the Cold War blue-balls.

Without possessions to muzzle them, Americans became wild animals, lashing out.

Once Paris was retaken, fighting began everywhere. It needed to happen. Yet because of the takeover’s totality, it needed to be done without the aid of any arm of the “global” resistance. By then, it hardly mattered; people’d been worked to a frothing rage, rabid from the virality of the abuses against them.

America became an apocalyptic ruin without need for an apocalypse.

Three generations raised to believe in wholesome righteousness, force-fed violence and fear, had no other choice but to explode. It was only fears of the aftermaththat had kept people in-check. Once that became the lesser of evils, they reacted.

By then, post-apocalyptic scenery was better than reality’s concentration-camp walls.

Negative space dictates guerrilla warfare eventually won the day; individual stories, hearsay, rumors. They all agree that America finally won Vietnam, but only after playing host to it. Stories from combat vets are numerous, however dubious. Each one reveals, little-by-little, an inherent cell-structure in their tactics . How it was formed seems obvious in the way that wave-length, hive-mentality is obvious.

Certain places, hit repeatedly for supplies or to weaken corp lines, were done seemingly at random. The unspoken understanding between the different aggressor-groups that it was where best to strike and when. Cells were small enough to strike fast; in a matter of only days or weeks, whole campaigns were against single corps, bringing them down.

It was not without causalities or cost, as the ruins show. It was a system of warfare allowing for weakness to be located and exploited to its fullest and without delay. The same game the corps had tried to play, but were too big for, too slow. Just as the system before them. They’d simply been smaller and faster than them. Their prey numerous enough to overcome it. If only once. Individuals however, were much smaller, and even small groups of them were effective if their strategies were applied properly.

Eventually, they were. Entirely.

In the end what finally killed America’s corps was attrition. Irony is, it was the same way they’d taken power. Once more students became masters and the old guard fell. The final blow was struck perfectly, more cruel and cunning than ever before until all that remained were smoldering ruins of once-bloated, corporate corpses.

So there it is, for the record; America. Brave and bold. Right up ’til it imploded.

Hard Lessons: Part 16

16.

Your Time is Gonna’ Come

Dawn was growing. Its rays warmed the slick, half-frost formed atop the days of rains from the cooling wind. Angela had done all she could from home. Waiting longer only worsened matters. She’d rallied her people, whom were pinging various contacts or prepping for the shit-storm to come. She had only one decision to make now.

One that might well destroy her– to say nothing of her brother.

Angela stood before the three people she’d asked for help; those she trusted most and who’d gone out of their way for her; she for them. Even if one were as close to coworker as she could have, his disposition assured he reciprocated. After all, the others were technically her employees, were more family now than not.

None of that changed that three of the four of them could soon easily lose their livelihoods, possibly, their lives.

Angela took a deep breath, eyed Titus at one side of the island. He gave a resolute nod and dialed a cell phone. The inbuilt encryption took an extra moment to engage before the call was made.

Titus spoke without ceremony, but deep respect, “Madam, we may have a problem… No. Yes, Dale. The younger one, yes… Yes.”

Among other things, the half-conversation confirmed Curie had known of Lucas’ presence. Possibly everything since. How didn’t matter, only her reaction. That she’d obviously anticipated the issue was evidenced in the short time it took to reach Angela.

The inevitable moment came. Titus handed Angela the phone. She took a deep breath, lifted it to her ear, and gave a long, hard blink.

“Yes, Madam?”

“Listen well, Angela. I will say this once; you have damaged my trust in you.”

Angela swallowed, throat cut.

“However, given circumstances we’ll continue to do business, provided you retrieve the merchandise and answer one question honestly. If it is learned this answer is false, our relationship will be terminated, as will your access to my resources and contacts. Is that understood?”

Her throat healed instantly. “Yes, Madam.”

Curie’s charisma was aged, fine wine; the result of decades of the politesse of shadow dealings.

Her lethality was something else. Something supernatural. It cut through the audio compressed encryption, the distance– the whole damned universe, and held a knife to Angela’s throat. Then with still-water clarity, it became firm and mechanical.

“Is it remotely possible your sibling might have been working to compromise you? Think deeply. Answer honestly.”

Angela hesitated for several reasons. Chief among them was the question’s curious nature. It’d never occurred to her Lucas might be a plant. Especially now, it was obvious his focus was solely on one thing. Before, she’d been unwilling to admit what that one thing had been. Now, she knew if she didn’t admit, Curie would kill him.

Almost for that reason alone, she was willing to say no. Still, she hesitated. Respectfully more than anything. Curie’s mechanized confrontation with it meant, she was now staking her life on her feelings, whatever they were.

In other words, was she certain her brother wasn’t an imposter of sorts?

Angela knew for certain no-one on Earth– not even were Julia alive, could have so thoroughly duped her. The person she’d met, let her stay in her home, was Lucas. Warts and all, as they say. Which also meant she wouldn’t believe he was any more than a junked-out, manipulative loser running from debt.

That hard truth’s silver lining firmed her response, “No, Madam.”

A slight hesitation, as if Curie were eyeing fresh ink on a contract. “Very well.”

Her tone shifted as if akin to a sentencing, “Then meet the buyer. Explain the situation. I will arrange the details but he will deal with you as he sees fit. Though you remain under my protection for now, I stress that this is your mess. You are to clean it as quickly and discretely as possible or I will.”

Angela could only imagine what that meant.

“Yes, Madam.”

“You have breached etiquette. As such, you’re to take full responsibility. The buyer will be informed of this, but I expect you to address it as well. Ensure it never happens again.”

“Thank you,” she replied, suppressing the lump in her throat as her should-be severed head mysteriously attached.

She returned Titus’ phone. He stepped out to confer privately with Curie. Five, long minutes of utter silence bridged the gap to his return. No-one breathed. No-one wished to. Crystal watched Arthur, whom scrutinized Angela: her pale face glistening from eyes catching stray light through distant thoughts.

Titus returned quietly, shelling out a series of instructions and insisting they break for sunrise topside, immediately. Crystal and Angela would meet the buyer together. The former would while the latter explained things. It was as much for Angela’s protection as anyone’s.

Besides, Crystal’s identity was irrelevant. She had nothing to do with the job. The premature meeting and its circumstances were suspicious enough, compounding that with paranoia of an ambush was foolish. So, she rolled to an idle purr outside an old florist’s shop. The Roadrunner’s 440 echoed off the not-quite-abandoned-nor-painted part of town.

Her HUD disappeared to see Angela better. “Ping if you need me.”

Angela noticed, breathed gratitude. She slipped out alone. Crystal suddenly understood the old mafioso, their fears of being wacked.

Angela pulled open the darkened, empty interior of a former florists shop. The place was littered with the refuse of a thousand dead plants, sticks, and crumbling tendrils of ivy. The place was so long dead, even the mold had dried out.

A middle-aged man awaited her just inside; familiar, but in the manufactured way. A hit for the Man Zi Tong? A revenge play. No. He wasn’t armed, it was obvious. He thought himself above it. The vague hint of something scholastic to the air convinced her otherwise. He gazed up at the highest draping point of a once-grand kudzu, now withered to nothingness.

“Ms. Angela Dale, I presume?” He said, almost languidly.

She affirmed, and after a moment of respetful silence, explained her purpose there.

He replied with a discipline so stiff, it could only have been garnered from whatever scruples his illicit activities eroded or formed in him. “As I told your Madam, it is a most displeasing situation. However, I was assured you would rectify it. Unfortunately, she does not understand the extent of the severity this mis-step represents.”

“She does,” Angela corrected respectfully with a slight bow. “As do I.”

“Yet the problem remains.”

“Forgive me, but however unfortunate it is, it is coincidental rather than engineered. I promise this much to you.”

“As you promised timely delivery of my merchandise?”

A gut-punch, but hardly undeserved. She took it well enough, “Be that as it may, one does not punish the child for the warzone it finds itself within.”

He seemed ready to cut. His eye rose, teeth grit. He’d been bested– worse, stalemated. At least defeat was a reason to flip up the board and storm off.

Angela knew types like this, well-off Asians from homelands where life was discipline or death. Ideological languages of the Samurai and Shaolin Warriors were filtered through them via a sieve of generations of force-fed shadow-dwelling, its effects.

Angela continued formally, “As offender, it is my duty to mediate I will have the merchandise soon. This is merely a formality to ensure any blame falls where it belongs.”

He gave a single, deep nod, recognizing her flexibility to his customs, then frowned. “Be that as it may, the importance of these matters must be accounted for. Thus, my associates are forcing me to take it into my own hands. As you were no doubts informed, I can do you no harm nor hindrance without also scorning the Madam.

“As I’ve no desire to do either, you may leave unharmed to find … your brother.”

It came from his mouth with such repulsion Angela swallowed to clear it from her own tongue.

He continued thus; “Meanwhile, I will be seeking my merchandise. Rest assured, as you will find your brother soon, I will find it. Whether these two conflict is entirely up to you.”

Angela winced, concealing her fury poorly. The John about-faced and disappeared through a back door. Angela did the same through the front and slid into the Roadrunner with her gaze averted. Crystal waited. The car’s comm rang. Angela answered, toggled it to she and Crystal’s comms with a thought.

“You have something.”

Arthur echoed in their ears, “Not him. Locale. City-feed around midnight, he–“

“Arthur, the point please,” Angela said, audibly distressed.

He grumbled a reply, “The Factory. Meet Titus there.”

“That shit hole? I should’ve known.” Crystal was already heading for The Factory.

The ride was short, padded between bouts of Angela’s random, furious swearing. Crystal guessed her thoughts fed her fury, but didn’t much care to know the particulars. It wouldn’t have changed anything anyway, better to stay focused and keep from getting hit by shit, than try to redirect the fan.

They pulled up in the strip-joint’s lot. The gray shadows left the Factor unchanged despite the daylight hour, making Angela wonder if the place’s sordid patronage ever left. Gut instinct doubted it; parasites rarely abandoned hosts.

Titus approached the car and Angela specifically, his hand out. “Cee and I will handle this.”

“Titus–“

“Your brother, your game. But we’re out of time. You want him back? Leave this to me.”

She bit her tongue, acquiesced and sat still. She watched the pair as she fidgeted and squirmed, idly.

Crystal eyed Titus as they approached the door. “Plan?”

“Don’t have one.”

“You want me to–“

“No,” he said firmly, hesitating outside. “Wyatt’s a fixer. Cap him, you’re rogue. Has to be me.”

She gave a reticent nod, then pulled the door open. He stepped in with an authoritative spine, led her along the hall toward the club-proper. He surveyed the room with a wide sweep, located Wyatt, and headed straight for him.

The club’s never-ending procession of grease-balls and their eyes tracked his every step. They split toward Crystal; grease sloughing off air after her only to meet her leather’s thick armor instead.

“Ah! Titus,” Wyatt said with a grimy smile. “Didn’t think I’d see you.” He offered Titus a seat, half-sarcastically.

Titus took it all in stride; firm, indifferent, but with an obvious aura of threat Emilio all but disregarded. “Where is he?”

“Who?” Wyatt asked, shit-eating grin knowing damned well who.

Titus warned, “I won’t repeat myself.”

The slime-ball smile grew across Wyatt’s face, giving him the wide-mouthed grin of cartoon villains and fools. Somehow, it made him more disgusting. Crystal guessed Wyatt was the type of person the archetype was created for. Were it not for his obvious middle age, she’d have thought him the inspiration for even the eldest representations.

Wyatt suddenly sneered. “That’s right, Titus. You won’t. And neither will I.” He produced a cigarette, then drew over a reeking candle, hesitated to light it from its flame. “I’m not telling you shit.”

Wyatt leaned in to light the cigarette.

His face slammed the lit candle, shattering it. Crystal reacted, drawing her TMPs to spin about on the room that was drawing and diving for cover. Titus forced Wyatt’s bloody forehead against the table, shoving glass into it and forcing a pistol against his neck. He gave a wet squeal. The room froze.

Titus’ strength forced through the accumulated grease on the back of Wyatt’s neck to grip it like an iron vise. The semi-auto barrel pressed Wyatt, an unwavering certainty of death at any further bullshit.

“You’re alive because others deem it so. That can change. No-one will argue with Curie if I take you out. And she won’t argue with me if she feels I did what was necessary. That is the price you pay for operating the way you do. Everyone here knows it.”

Wyatt was instantly a weasel squirming along a table in its own blood and grease. Crystal’s hands were firm, ready.

“Alright. Alright!” Wyatt intoned, blinking at blood and glass. “Dale’s brother. Came in looking to score. Gave him some cash. Favor for a favor sort of thing.”

“Why?” Titus demanded coolly.

“Why not?” The vise tightened. He groaned, “Really. Baby Dale owing me a favor. Why pass that up? Everyone knows I wanna cut that bitch down a peg.”

“Stupid fuck,” Crystal mumbled.

No one heard her. At least, no-one admitted to it.

“You set up a deal. When? Where?”

“I can’t do that, Titus. Be as good as snit–” Titus’ grip tightened again. “Argh! Alright. North-docks. Abandoned warehouse. Smiley squint-eyed fish. Can’t miss it.”

“That all?” Titus equally asked and warned.

The first hints of actual sincerity entered Wyatt’s tone, “Yeah. Guy didn’t have a time. Kid didn’t mind. Gave ‘im a hold over. He was… shaking. Detoxing. While we were talking. Dealer’s smaller time but he needed a score too. Big enough to pack heat though, so I didn’t ask questions.”

Titus prepared to release him, “I find out you’re dicking me, I’ll be back.”

Titus released him. Crystal lowered her weapons. The room eased back into motion, however slowly from now-cooler grease. A few kept their weapons drawn to show the others their way out. The pair couldn’t have been happier to oblige.

They exited the club, met Angela, then got the hell out.

They split up in two cars headed for the nearby deal. City-feeds showed someone was there. If the feeds’ last few hours were to be trusted, so was Lucas. Angela could only hope they got there before the deal ended… or Curie’s John showed up.

Short Story: The Bovine Folk

Nobody ever asks about the Cows, the Bovine folk. Chickens, turkeys, sure; deer, yes. Bears and Tigers and Lions– well, the last ones speak for themselves. Literally.

Point is, nobody ever asks. Prob’ly, because those that know them know the truth already. Those that don’t, aren’t prepared for The Bovine Reality. All the same, where are they? What happened to them? Why? What the bloody hell could occur to an entire species that it was seemingly, however shoddily, scrubbed from reality?

Firstly, it’s not so much no-one knows as no-one wants to talk about it. The situation is yet another delicate, fractal-relic of the post human-dominance era. People– human people, don’t really know what to say. They’re just as perplexed by the whole thing as the rest of people– Evolved or not

Problem is, the only people that really might’ve ever understood some decisions are long dead and dust. Prob’ly less, now.

Digressions aside, Bovines had every reason, right, and allowance to leave, hate us, or war with us. For what little we know, they did, will. All of them. At least, if any stayed, they’ve kept hidden; prob’ly just to enjoy the peace, graze at-will.

But who were they, what did they look like? Like cows crossed with humanoid genetics. Like all Evolved.

They had more or less human features, save for the cases of all hoofed creatures– with mallets on the ends of their arms rather than dexterous digits. All of them adapted. Not a single Solsian creature living would begrudge another an opened door these days. Even less so for Bovines.

Not a single Bovine would ask.

Why should they? They were an entire species existing for no purpose but to serve another, superior one’s appetite. Once, anyway. Not so much anymore. People didn’t eat meat anymore. Meat was a luxury. Eating was utilitarian. Long gone were the days of meat and mead.

But that was okay. Because Sol, its peoples, had more than enough otherwise. If food was ever requested or desired, it was available. As for meats and their origins, in all but the seediest places it was the luxury it had become; expensive, complexly vat-grown, engineered for taste and satisfaction. It wasn’t meat. It was meat.

It was the connoisseur mindset for an aficionado niche. It was no more or less complicated than necessary. Food need only be guaranteed, not enjoyable– though preferably enough to hold off revolt. Anything more in the turbulent unrest after Contact was asking too much. Nobody denied that.

Contact and everything during, after– even a little before, was chaos incarnate. Its immediate echoes would continue resonating for generations, forever-after altering countless species and their futures.

Species aside, people needed some guarantees now; water and shelter were guaranteed by the simple immensity of the cos mos. Food wasn’t. Thus food was it. It was easiest conceit for all involved. Free food for all. Caches. Dumps. Drop-ins. Stamps. Every world, outpost, and settlement, no matter how big or small, played host to at least a few choices as to how and where to eat.

It was an imperative now, socially, that no-one starve. Food; guaranteed enough not to die between meals, was the conceit that united Sol.

Humans could never have done it on their own. They were too set in their ways. They needed a massive external lever, something to turn them away from being wholly-evil assholes their entire existence.

Contact threw a tens of billions of levers at-once.

While Contact did more good than the bad it could ever do, ultimately what mattered was, the good was in the universe was here to stay. At least for now. Sol, its one dwindling puddle of life, had surged, exploding like a geyser onto its surroundings. Earth-life took a foothold it wasn’t going to give up without one helluva fight.

Free food ensured it.

Then, the war ended. People were displaced. Society was upheaved. Food was guaranteed. Food! But food wasn’t all that should be guaranteed. Work. Want. Those were next. They came side-by-side with Earth-life’s expansion and transition into Sol-life.

Sol wasn’t like Earth. It was bigger. It stood for something. The flag of a Republic. Eight planets. A few dozen moons. Countless hunks of floating debris between to be mined– and well, mined– for resources and defense. When things came into order again, it seemed as close as people could get to utopia.

That was one thing even narrower-minded Evolved knew, if refused to admit: everyone owed Humanity for trail-blazing as the first, sentient, Sol-life. So far as it was known… or could be called such.

Chalking their failures up to an attribute of sentience than an Earth or Sol thing was likely for the best. If reality didn’t reconcile, so what?

People did go otherwise, though. Mostly, in the form of Anti-Humanists. Ironically though, so far as it’s known, not a single B’ohs risen in anger with these dregs. Arguably, they have the greatest motive, but absolutely zero capacity for contempt.

People– evolved and non-alike, believed them stupid; at that, they were likely of less-average intellect overall, but what people aren’t? It is always the outliers that dictate true capacity. As an old shuttle surpassing life expectancy by decades without a scratch or malfunction shows no signs of slowing.

B’ohs, like all Sentients, had their thinkers and their morons. Difference being, unlike most species, each had every right to be blood-rage furious. For no particular reason at all, if they felt it–

Yet none were.

Their species existed for the sake of Human sustenance. Thus, when no longer needed, they had no place in the worlds they’d suddenly been thrust into. Even if idolized and hoisted upward– that was worst of all for a species wishing for the peace of grazing verdant fields all day.

B’oh evolution had been so guided they’d no choice but to live as slaves or die on some butcher’s rack. Not exactly inspiring of poetical thought for a species newly granted it. So, what it came down to was need. A need to make their own way in the universe; their own story and path.

Sol would never have been capable of denying them that. It wasn’t Earth. It was bigger. Newer. Different. And undeniably better.

So, in herds, droves, pairs, and singles, the B’ohs set off for the unknown to settle and create their own future. No-one could begrudge them their one desire; to graze upon the universe’s endless verdant hills for eternity. After all, who wouldn’t want to?

Short Story: Fractured Nets

I don’t know what more can be said on the Paris Incident, but I know the Eur-Asiatic invasion was never avoidable. Sooner or later, all the Corps knew, the Great Wall would break and spill itself into the rest of the world.

Europe would always bear the brunt of it. Sooner or later, it was inevitable. There was nothing to do but steady on and hope. When the wave hit, we were either prepared enough to weather it, or prosperous enough to rebuild.

The Web 2.0 crash changed that.

What didn’t it do, really? It gave Corps more power; gave people something new to get high on; gave the builders exactly what they wanted. Most of all, people got a new reason to keep slogging through the daily grind of human existence. If only for a while.

The net-fracture was the unexpected treat helping to further cement our complacency. It kept us that much further from, as a whole, exploding into all out anarchy. The after-image showed what was really possible; what was really going on.

We couldn’t have known the extent of things then. The rebellion wasn’t public yet. There was no resistance to speak of. To us, its leaders were still pissants from a new generation of tech-heads and nerds stretching back before Lord Gates and his Microsoft billions. It was there progress had originated, had rooted through and mined all the veins it could.

Why re-tread ground in some other, only-vaguely dissimilar way, hoping for more greatness?

We, the public, were thinking of rocks when we should’ve been thinking about diamonds– the next overabundant, meaningless resource we could place arbitrary value on.

That concept was simply beyond most people though. The rest didn’t care to think on it. The true Human weakness, as a species, is its inability to recognize irony. Irony which dictates our immense capability for emotion yet forces us to live so stubbornly in one state. Humanity, that is. That same irony forces us to identify so wholly with those emotions, we refuse even the possibility of upsetting them.

Sad.

And pathetic.

If we’d paid attention even half-a-second longer than normal, we’d have seen reality crashing down on us. It didn’t require clairvoyance or precognition. Just attention. It was the same thing that had been happening. It was another merger, another monopoly, but of a context we didn’t recognize for little more than a merger then.

Web 2.0 buckled beneath the weight of its own propaganda. It was no longer a people’s gathering ground. It was a bloated creature of pus and bile cleverly disguised with warm themes and cunning language. It had many jobs, but all of them cutting; it was a masochist’s playground.

What took its place was a former dark-net, the former dark-net. The Darknet itself was merely a moniker, a name for the conglomerate of hackers and wannabes running tech gear with masking programs and no data-loggers. What no-one realized was how much more power they got when the nets fractured.

People wanting to, and working against the system, found a way to do just that. The corporations had inadvertently dug their own graves. Everyone knew it eventually, saw it for what it was, but it took time to figure out. Even longer to force the dying corps into the ground.

In simplest terms, the internet fractured from one, interconnected and ubiquitous system, to several whose interconnection was often one-way. That is to say, the light-net was accessible via the Dark-net, but not the other way ’round. The purpose was two-fold: The nature of the Darknet’s inherent security required safe-guards that barred all but the most complicated external access; while the corps wanted to ensure no-one from the light-net– or inside, got out.

The corps attempted to create digital moats around fortress-cities, more or less succeeding until Darknet users fired back through cracks in the system. The sparse revelations of the light-net’s flaws eventually led the Resistance to take hold, using such attacks only when it was most beneficial. They were sparse until the light-net responded with quietly-tightened security. By then, only the most die-hard loyalists and their confused kin, bothered using it.

The Corps’ biggest mistake will forever be stagnating, never evolving. That seems obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t then. People didn’t see the true force of creation Corps inevitably were. Of that, they most certainly were a creation of Humanity, by any empirical standards, and represented a new entity for the cosmic field-guide.

They weren’t quite alive, but they existed. They were particularly cunning, if only by way of hive intelligence. They could defend themselves through guard-dog lawyers and corp-sec ops. Most of all, they needed sustenance to survive. For a corp, that was money.

Corps could not survive without money. They lived and consumed,able to starve to death, one lay off after another,if not careful.The corps never did learn that.

At least, not until it was far too late.

No CEO or Board of Directors saw the truth for what it was; in the eyes of the machine, no-one was meant to be immune. Execs may not have been as susceptible to predation as most of the machine’s prey, but their money could feed the beast too. The way it was meant to be– between the beast or their money, was that the beast was allowed to win or it was game-over for everyone.

That is what the Corps never learned.

So, they fell to ruin in the shambles of their own stubbornness. Board-room warriors without any, real battle-prowess had been inbred for generations. Their ilk were now men whom grew fat off luxury even when besieged. Etiquette and protocol were ignorantly bred into those unsuited for their inherited stations. Dimwits became indistinguishable from honorable workhorses, until everyone ended up covered in shit from the fan.

And all the while, smiting their underlings; tightening fists to squeeze unneeded pennies from stone, lest it fatten a competitor’s bottom-line instead. It wasn’t done so brazenly of course, but what is?It was done “for efficiency,” “freedom.”

Corporate cards became conveyors of private, digital bit-currency run by the issuing corp, and useless elsewhere. Everything was handled by their software, and on their servers. A corp no longer gave a paycheck, it totaled your life’s exchanges digitally, deciding if you were in the red or black based on various work and purchase statistics.

Then the crash came, and the nets fractured.

As prepared as we could be, the first bits of wall and water rained down almost imperceptibly. Then, the Great Wall broke. The markets and nets flooded with people clamoring for pieces. New corps, new private-companies, subsidiaries, and assets.

In time of course, the Corps simply bought everything up, called it diversifying, and settled back into the groove with the board more cluttered with their assets than before..

Until then however, the fracture was doing something much more subtle and profound; it was funneling value into a universal currency. One only growing by the moment. That, by virtue of the technology backing it, was completely untraceable. It didn’t need to be. The currency was good anywhere and could be traded for anything. The issuer and purchase system were completely moot.

What mattered was money coming and going, somehow. That it came and went, and something was exchanged for it. That currency infected the world like a computer virus downloaded and opened a billion times a day, and spreading its influence with each iteration.

The Web 2.0 crash, in its roundabout way, was the closest thing to a miracle in the modern, digital day that could exist. It was completely prompted, expected, even programmed for. Yet the forces of mutation existing through-out the universe brought upon an anomaly that more or less solved– thus-far– an eternal problem; money. Mostly, backing its value.

How? Data.

What better than data? Data was the byproduct of all things. From the smallest subatomic particle to the universe itself, everything either is data or generates it by existing because it is record-able as data. The universe is composed of such preposterous amounts of information it can never be fully obtained. It can neither lose nor accrue value, because it simply is. Data is a constant. It is a single, fertile, and ever-replenishing thing by virtue of its nature.

Its size, so immense, can never be fully envisioned. It is the horizon of our observable universe and still more. Infinitely more. Information is everything. Our linking to that information, in form, matters not; only that we link. So why not make the information’s divisions, its pieces or bits, the backing of currency?

The idea mattered more than anyone could’ve anticipated.

Bit-currency was more than just a new dollar. It was something bigger. Something universal. Stable. It could be poked and prodded– mined– whenever needed. Something that let us do our thing, shut out the bullshit long enough to make sense of what was really happening, still come away with the bills paid. We didn’t need governments or Corps fighting over whether or not they’d take our hard-earned money because one person’s dollar meant less than another’s.

And just like that, creds were out and bits were in.

The Web 2.0 Crash left us entirely outside expectations. It was the anomaly in the system. The new-age Big-Bang. The final bit of pressure that cracked a nut. It opened our eyes to our ability to collectively will a problem’s solution into place. Let’s not worry about money anymore. Let’s just know it’s there when we need it, and can earn it if we’re willing.

Bit currency did just that whether you were a thief, an architect, a corp-exec, or a wage-slave. Bits simplified everything.

And all that time, the masses were figuring that out; counter-cultured, shadow-dwelling, Resistance leaders were lining their pockets with it. For years, they’d hoarded stockpiles of information. Even when no-one else was looking, and were still thinking about e-creds and dollars and yen, they’d been hoarding and squirreling it away.

The world willed it, but they made it happen; the black-markets, the shadow people, the hackers and wannabes and forward thinkers. And they all made off with that money-trailing after them, cackling like mad as we gawked, utterly destitute and morally bankrupt from the turbulence in the former money-system.

One that, like that version of us, no longer existed.

More than anything, the power of the net’s fracture told more than we realized; that it had always been there, the fault-line. We were always warned and told to be aware of our actions, and the workings beneath us. Yet we weren’t. The fracture was the result. It’s a shame it took so much bad to develop such good, but at the very least, it’ll never happen again….

Probably.

Hard Lessons: Pt 8

8.

All Work and No Play

Angela joined the madness of upper-class mallers’ sport and luxury sedans. A pair hid Angela’s black, Ferrari California GT behind their imitations of wealth and power. She preferred the juxtaposition; the Human inability to grasp irony meant none would be any the wiser either.

She preferred it that way. For a thief, hiding in plain-sight meant you were good– and safe.

Usually.

Presently, she awaited her mark’s armored SUV. Curie’s contact had finalized the details; his afternoon and evening this side of the week was a usual affair. Every Friday night he had her, Deangelo Harman took his young daughter shopping. It was partly to fulfill the custody arrangement with his ex-wife; partly just to avoid his daughter’s vapid ego.

Harman’s dossier reeked of money. The kind from an intellect that didn’t extend to human pursuits. No doubt he’d been the desperate loner that headed A/V and chess clubs, ran them like mafia families and Arthurian round-tables.

Angela couldn’t really blame the guy. Intellectual money usually made one stupid all elsewhere. Mostly, because it was impossible to escape the isolation of intelligence. That strange dichotomy of life– the cosmic balance that needs-must-always be maintained, decided it before Deangelo Harman every entered the equation.

In essence, he was smart, wealthy, and a complete fool. Especially with women. It was forgivable. Especially since it would make Angela’s job infinitely easier.

She checked herself a final time; reviewing the play.

Harman’s firm had contracted with Arc Systems, the largest software manufacture on Earth The writ demanded NDA-tight upgrades for network-controlled drones. Classified beyond even governments. It was private and profitable.

Though hardly true AI, Harman’s firm was to use its learning principles, applied to swarm theory, to design and code networks of drones for patrol and delivery flights across Jackstaff. Having already made his name design security software as a teen, Harman was contracted as talent. His firm’s inclusion was more incidental than anything.

Nonetheless, if successful, the project would launch its next phase, expanding to other cities and areas near Arc’s various HQs and areas of control. Evidently, Harman’s software would make that happen sooner or later. Someone would prefer it didn’t.

In theory, a simple job; lift an SD card from the mark.

But Harman rarely left home; had a closed, barely existent social life; nd other than these occasional trips with Sadiee, was unopen to the bump and grab necessary to pick-pocket him once, let alone twice as needed by the job’s secrecy.

A home job was equally unlikely. She’d seen the prints. His house was a fortress; physical and digital security mining and moating it with various levels of layers and pit-falls. Enough to put to shame even some of the more paranoid-thieves Angela knew.

In fact, she’d knocked off state-of-the-art systems with less tech.

To say nothing of the security escorts one expected of the wealthy and lonesome.

Raiding Harman’s fortress was a contingency, but for now, she’d lean on her feminine wiles. Hopefully passing for straight enough to get the job done. It’d been a while since she’d run the approach, but knew it was solid. Given the payout, it was also more than worth the attempt. If she managed it, the effort would pay off.

If not, improvise as always.

The armored SUV swung wide a few spaces from the Ferrari. To any passersby, they were just two more of the multitudes feeding consumerism. Modern super-malls were the sort of place Titans and kids went to melt plastic. Usually, enough to feed starving third-world nations.

Angela had done it herself enough times to know it well.

Security left first. Plain-clothes and blending well enough that Angela was impressed. She’d never have expected them to pull off such convincing cover. She saw right through it, but few others could. Her HUD auto-tracked them with opaque pips.

Harman slipped from the SUV. Sadiee took his hand and climbed down.

No more than thirteen, Sadiee already walked with the refined stiff-neck one unwilling to deign look at the withered masses she trod upon. Something primal in Angela flared. The girl was a brat. Spoiled rotten. She’d never work a day in her life. Never known the value of sweat on her brow.

She was new-age, prime meat; the next generation of ignorance that ensured thieving would continue to be lucrative well through the coming millennia.

More than that, Harman seemed proud of it; a moron in love with his own daughter’s domineering personality. Angela sensed she walked all over him. Probably, just as his ex-wife did.

And knew then exactly how to play it then.

Harman’s cronies were already inside as he escorted his miniature princess forward. Her walk said one thing, “I am here to spend money; his.

It never ceased to amaze Angela how many young women and men wore that pose. Adults donning it were even more bewildering. Mommy and Daddy-money kids were an epidemic in Jackstaff and other such cities. Then again, they had been for generations, that’s what made her work so lucrative.

People with money to burn required only the illusion of security; alarm systems, door locks, pass-codes and the like. Things to keep so-called refuse out. That was all that necessary to let them sleep at night, no matter how easy they were to bypass for someone skilled and trying to.

But People like Harman, whom needed security and built themselves fortresses and surrounded themselves with armed posse, knew true security. Not just disincentives and deterrents. Rather, the protection of valuables whilst letting moving about freely otherwise.

Thing was, the posse and fortress lulled Harman-types into the same complacency as all others.

In effect, it wasn’t just illusion that let them rest soundly, but it equally blinded them to true vulnerabilities. The kind Angela could exploit without lifting a finger.

She checked herself in the rear-view, straightened her brunette wig. She double-checked her tattoos, made sure none them shone through the bimbo-librarian-turned-huntress fashion appearance so common to wealthy prowlers.

She slipped from the car, black-leather heels like a dominatrix, if shorter. The door came in confident, measured steps. The kind a woman in such heels would use; disciplined, frightening, inviting. Above them, her slit dress wavered, revealing just enough of her shapely legs to confirm she was stunning.

Angela hated it. As cats hate hunting in floodlight. Part of her was panicking, searching for darkness to slink away into. The rest was calm, professional.

The .380 PPK/S strapped to her inner thigh helped. She’d half considered leaving it, but decided it would keep her from allowing anyone close enough. She’d breach Harman’s home-fortress before stooping that low.

She sauntered into the mall, settling into her role like an undercover agent for some acronym agency, but infinitely more experienced and nuanced. She owned every moment. Every step. Prepared to buy and sell it, eschewing market values as convenience charges.

She was the wealthy mogul looking for someone to make her as much money as eye-candy.

It wasn’t difficult to find him. She made a point of shopping first; indulging the cover, blending to absorb the mentality of the endless, excessive consumerism she’d decided a rich woman needed. Nothing she bought was useful. None of it her style. Rather, the Mogul’s.

Expensive perfumes. Jewels. High-fashion shoes. All of it demanded by the ego assertive woman she was playing. She’d keep it all too, in case it was needed for a future job or something otherwise. It wasn’t hard to make her move once she tracked him down again.

In the meandering way of a shopper, she passed from place to place before entering the department store she knew she’d find him in. Her eye flitted to capture the place as the security pips reappeared, scattering themselves across her HUD once more.

Clustered about the “young women’s” were Harman’s escorts. Hidden in plain-clothes and all appropriate, but distinctly male, and standout. Especially to the Mogul, the perceptive predator. Between she and her Mark, a whole store and a daughter with plastic to burn.

Angela took her time. Too obvious to go straight there. Besides, that required a different mindset. One open to failure. She wasn’t doing this again.

She perused high-end jewelry. Shoes. Slowly but surely weaving over. That cat was at the mouth of a meadowed plateau, Harman the prey at its edge.

She planned her move, Harman’s men pipped for reference. She needed to avoid them. Expertly. Not so much it was obvious. Not so little to get lose the edge. She had to think of them as the Mogul would; curious men hanging around, not threats to be avoided. Only once Harman revealed himself could she think of them as anything resembling security.

If her approach was off, the wind would shift without her.

Angela prepared, taking time to evaluate the air. The place was off. Not professionally, but socially. It put Harman and his ilk slightly out of place. Her moreso.

But nothing else existed save she, her mark, and their environment.

The last of the three stirred her gut. A department store like any other, but designer prices on brand-name labels. Old money didn’t work that way. Their every item was tailored. Locally or richly-imported through other old money, their family.

This was exactly the kind of place a Noveau Riche type like Harman would shop, because it was built for him. So the Old money could distinguish the New from rest but without being forced to share their traditions and ways.

In the end, they were two different animals. Harman the latter.

Like every new money tech-geek, Harman knew money like a fangirl knew their favorite pop-star. He could emulate it, romanticize it, lust ravenously for it, but ultimately it wasn’t him or his world. Not at his present social-level, anyhow.

Worse, he’d grown up middle class, left it behind in his late teens to found Harman Technologies. He knew the worth of sweat. After contracting with Arc-Systems, it was rumored HT was considering a merger with Med-Tek giant Cameron Mobility. The idea was to become part of its new software-wing; a role once filled by Arc alone but now demanding further utilization.

Initially, Harman Technologies had created network security software for local banks and other, high-profit establishments. After contracting through connections in banking and finance, Harman found himself in right place after right time, and increasingly filthy rich.

Now, he and his company mostly wrote upgrade software, patching vulnerabilities in the code of billion dollar bionic-prosthetics. AKA Augs. He sat beside literal Titans at the economic dining table. Not least of which, the Womack brothers; peers and personal friends of Harman whom were swiftly overtaking even Jobs’ wildest wet-dreams.

However much the black-markets modded– and thus finished them– it was these groups that had initially created the HUD implants being adopted by shadow-dwellers like Angela. The black market latched onto the idea, and before corporations or governments could wade through their own bloated bureaucracy, they were was already supplying it to the masses– for a nominal fee.

Fact was, all it took to make an implant was the right software in the right interface. Both of which had long since existed but required sophisticated implementation. After that was stream-lined there would be no stopping it.

In the case of Jonas, their former fence, it was a type of modified optimetrical device for needled eye treatments. Curious device, dangerous to the unskilled, but nothing prohibited. It simply wasn’t available to the general public due to cost.

But a legit-fence like Jonas could afford it on credit. More than that, any opportunist could make bank offering under-the-table services with it for cash cheaper than any “official” fee for a general waiver of consent– unspokenly agreed to before any meeting occured.

All they’d ever needed to get there was the chances to experiment; figure out it was possible.

They did, too. While the Womacks and Harmans of the world were making themselves new-age royalty with stock-profits from the aforementioned prototypes, people like Jonas, Titus, Crystal and Angela, were making the tech viable.

Yet another reason Jonas’ death was a loss, even if half the time she’d threatened it herself.

The thought refocused her. She understood Harman better now, their environment. Her cover shifted imperceptibly. She remained the old money bombshell, but it was now also a facade. Beneath it was the “real” girl; a confused new-money kid hiding in what she thought she was meant to emulate.

The predatory wanting to be prey but unable to admit it.

With that minor adjustment came with another. Then again. Minute revisions in muscular tension. Until her posture and walk were right. The flitting, most minor hint of vulnerability to the eye. A predator posturing, that really survived on luck, desperation, even pity.

Exactly like Harman.

Angela made her move, careful not to be caught watching him pocket his phone. She let her eyes be pulled toward his tones, used the Mogul-Pretender’s quick appraisal of form to see him pocket his phone. Left-pocket. Conversing with Sadiee. Eyes up. Linger. Away.

Smooth. Natural. No-one watching would’ve ever been the wiser. Even if she’d been caught.

Angela shifted, interested now. She let herself be pulled about by the personality’s quirks. They’d seen each other now, it was obvious. They liked what they’d seen, too. These two creatures, now stealing glances, needed closer looks.

Angela agreed.

She meandered toward the young women’s changing room, the restrooms near it. The pips disappeared temporarily. She looked herself over in the mirror, spent a moment appearing to freshen herself.

She was doing three things simultaneously; building cover, reinforcing it, and otherwise working a HUD-hack on the store’s wifi.

She was here, now, for a niece’s gift. Common ground. Her persona would need it to make her move. The makeup reinforced it. The more aged a young person looked, the more they felt it. For a woman on the hunt, that meant covering it up.

The final track was actually easiest, almost seamless nowadays. Her eyes flitted back and forth to command her HUD with muscle memory, peripheral locked on the broad strokes of a makeup brush. Her bypass didn’t even need to crack the unsecured network. Her HUD auto-located the security nodes, masked its identity as authorized, and accessed the linked Surv-cams nearest her. One-by-one they appeared as thumbnails, opaque when not in focus.

She minimized the least useful, reacquired Harman. His pip returned in her periphery, tracked him through the walls.

She waited, timing her moves. Harman was getting bored, anxious. He’d watched her go in, wanted his closer look. That was good. The male mind couldn’t comprehend the female one in such situations. That was a fundamental difference between the sexes.

She watched, awaiting the intended effect. All Harman needed was the excuse of time. He’d been bored with his daughter’s plastic-melting at the outset. This was a change of pace, if nothing else. It was exactly what she wanted.

Problem was, she had precisely one chance to get the phone out of his pocket, and one more put to put it back. She’d have to maneuver it, but so long as she got through the first, she could get through the second.

Harman bobbed with boredom on the feeds. He said something she couldn’t make out, face too far to read his lips. She knew it all the same; this was it. She exited the stall, slipped to the edge of the hall, still eyeing the cams.

Angela had never had so willing a mark.

She tasted Harman’s desperation, almost pitied him. He clearly had even less pull with women than she’d anticipated. It happened sometimes; like intelligence, money could insulate or isolate. More one than the other if those effected people had few social skills to begin with.

Harman’s social-stuntedness was obvious from the start.

Angela slipped out, catching his eye at the precise moment she needed. She could only imagine it from his perspective. Slow-motion. Eyes meeting, locking on. Brushing to feel the animal spark, caught in lust. Completely obliviousness to the moment.

All telltale signs of the hopeless romantic. The fool. The creature oblivious to the control his own glans were exerting. The animal lust was obvious in the air as she brushed and felt him stiffen; the utter, ingrained restraint that kept him from pouncing as nature dictated.

She smiled, drawing his eye to hide her sleight of hand and making for the young-women’s section. She could’ve signaled she liked what she saw, but she needed him thinking too quick for rationality. She wanted the glans to work against him, keep him from checking his pockets.

He bit it; hook, line, and sinker, disappearing into the men’s room with it.

Angela kept her cool, busied by clothing and half-heartedly fussing to stall. Meanwhile, the other hand pried it apart, removed the card, and reassembled it. She bided her time thereafter, taking in the posse, the girl. Letting them swarm Sadiee while utterly ignoring her.

More and more, they appeared there just for the girl. Made sense, in its way. Nobody would look twice at Harman alone. He was just another hipster living beyond his means. No-one knew him as the billionaire in plain-sight. The girl was different. She added a new element to the equation. It required compensation.

Angela played her part, phone palmed and waiting. Harman re-emerged. Rushed attempts at looking suave, that such men found compulsory, confirmed her brush had the intended effect. He was Jack Rabbit on date-night.

His best, nonchalant attempt at a return pass did her work for her. He took the long way ‘round back to Sadiee and her guardsmen, faintly brushing her back as he passed. Between the adrenaline and his hard-on, he could never have noticed the two fingers casually dropping the phone back into his pocket.

He returned to his daughter’s side, no doubt hoping to discern the performance’s next steps. He was turned but moments, speaking to Sadiee. When he rounded again, she was gone. No-one else had even noticed her. It might never have happened.

But it did.

Angela was already slipping into the Ferrari. She yanked her wig and glasses off, slipped the card out again, and slotted it in her own phone. Encrypted files displayed on the screen with the request of a password. She didn’t need to know anymore than the file-extension; the “.nppx” told her everything. She had what she needed.

She started the car, made for home, the night’s darkness rising with her. The Ferrari’s hands-free calling system pinged her HUD with an image of Arthur. She answered with a thought.

“Headed home. What d’you need?”

“There’s a problem.”

“With?”

“Your brother.”