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.

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.

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.”

Guardians of Liberty: Part 11

11.

$trydr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Waiting for you.”

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

“Nothing but.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Psychological?”

“One triggers the other.”

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

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

“That was intense.”

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

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

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

“You blame ‘er?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As N1T3’s part in Ket’s play.

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

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

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

Guardians of Liberty: Part 10

10.

Fickle Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clockwork and An33$a.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The firehouse was occupied.

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

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

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

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

Then all at once, it stopped.

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

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

Guardians of Liberty: Part 9

9.

Ra710NaL3:

A Digital-Aquifer Manual

N1T3 sat before his computer.

He’d come up with the title in a half-second, but he stared it down for an hour before finally stepping away to do something else. By then the name had taken hold. With it were the mental-images of his creation, its uses.

Brewing since he’d parted with Ket, those images had worked their way into his subconscious. They continually shed viral vectors, forming bits and bytes rapidly giving shape to something grander: data, information, jigsawed bits of scrap-data that formed an image greater than even he could fully comprehend.

He knew Ket well enough; once he saw the Aquifer again, it would be pressed and dressed. Reduced to a pair of computers. One regular screen. One large one. The rest of it would be put to work in the background, interlinked to form the backdrop of her burlesque-like routines: those moments of mingled affluence and ambition when she dazzled for business or pleasure.

She’d never need the manual, of course. She knew how to do custom work herself; knew what she needed to run her “show,” could envision it. Because of her intelligence, she could build it too, but it was N1T3’s brainchild first, and he’d deserved the honors.

Most times, she just drew precise diagrams and paid craftsmen.

That was business, and Ket knew business. She knew time-to-profit ratios, took them to heart. If you weren’t breaking down hours into dollars and cents, you weren’t building, only sustaining. That was perfectly fine for some. Not her.

But the manual wasn’t for her. That was important to remember.

Sure, N1T3 would give it to her. She’d even read it. But it wasn’t for her. It was for all those people that came asking for explanation, to be directed to something specific: something a host like Ket could summarize. A manual.

Then, when pointed to, that manual could be easily and accessibly explained for free. In both plain and advanced language, building on itself therein via net-like structures, interlinking, so as to be understandable. Article-by-article, but also, articles-by-articles. It needed the same redundancy, ease of use and modularity as the servers.

It needed to be a product of its time and nothing else.

To do that, N1T3needed time. Not much, but enough. The safest way to ensure it was lying low, but he remained in need of supplies, and worst, a fugitive. Or at least, Martin Black was. Any and every thing now required more care and attention.

Above all, careful required relying solely on Ket. He’d been okay with everything thus far, didn’t find himself disturbed by the idea, but still didn’t like it. Mostly, because he hated sitting idly. To be told to– by one he viewed as a superior, no less, felt an insult.

He knew then, his fears were his own doing: He didn’t like sitting idly, but Ket would never have presumed superiority. She was, of course, an apex creature who’d found its niche and worked it like none other before, but it wasn’t superiority that drove it. Contrary, in fact. It was her knowing of herself, her kind, so thoroughly she became the arbiter of their nature.

But in her, and a select few others’ minds, she and N1T3 were equals. Peers. He’d simply been absent ‘til now.

Rather than feel shame, as he expected, he relaxed. It was a sign of his slow caution manifesting. He’d learned to take things as they were long ago, but implementing it was another story entirely. It was enough to catch some of the less-obvious Human-character defects: tension, its erosion on logic. That information was important when such ignored-defects could easily get one killed.

It was then that he sat down, not to write, but to plan the writing.

He needed resources. Food and water were covered. As he was well-enough hidden, his attention turned elsewhere: what he needed to live. Even Spartans still required simpler things; toiletries, consumables, things neither luxury nor necessity but that the world ignored and largely covered regardless.

But N1T3 was a fugitive. Or Martin Black was. Someone with his face, anyhow.

Anywhere corp-affiliation ruled was out of the question. Meaning somewhere to get in and out of quickly, where he’d be kept him from recognition. If he stockpiled, he’d be less worried, could focus on sustenance, but bulk-buying could draw unwanted attention.

Even if it required physically mapping the best routes, times, and places to simply buy stuff. He’d put something more-permanent in place.

He settled on a well-known convenience store he’d never entered before: a place he knew, but didn’t know him. The clerks there were Indian, the last of caste-less descendants trying make names for themselves by ferrying families into so-called promised-lands. These days though, no-one gave two shits how things ran, so long as they kept running.

N1T3 sympathized: the programmer’s eternal plight inherent their struggle, fractalized like all things to the whims of time and chaos.It was sheer luck he knew the few, particular places nearby that were that way as well. Whomever couldn’t be paid off, could be knocked off easiest with proper sleight of hand.

He’d hold the latter in reserve, obviously, but it wasn’t off the table. The resources were there. He needed them bad enough. The people involved knew why they could not offer them. Either they were willing to take some cash, lie, or were willing to look the other way while he robbed them. Anyone else was part of the problem, however unfortunately.

All anyone needed these days was an excuse to act. How or what-for mattered not. The few foolish enough to miss the connection between a refusal and later theft would only suit his purposes. Otherwise, they’d understand when they learned their resources were guaranteed, and his emphatically weren’t.

Sure, N1T3 could knock off a clerk without him ever knowing. But wasn’t it easier for him to lie, say it didn’t happen, then go through dealing with corp-sec? None of them owned the shops. Not really. Not anymore. Corporate banks did. They owned the land and deed, did nothing but extort. Why risk exposing one’s own, dirty secrets to help them?

When secrets were otherwise harmless, but enough to bullied or blackmailed over, it was guaranteed they would be. Way N1T3 saw it, he could pay you or they could. At least his didn’t come with strings wrapped around your throat.

Besides, who looked for a fugitive in a public place?

So long as N1T3 remained careful, he could pull it off. It was all about timing. He didn’t have to be idle. What better way to write a manual on an obsession than being forced away to engage it analytically? If its power were truly worthy of obsession, could be repeatedly proved as such by analysis, could it truly be a negative to do so?

Only by repeatedly analyzing it could one be certain, although N1T3 guessed there wasn’t truly an answer. Like many things in the post-digital world, it wasn’t the outcome that mattered. Rather, it was the system producing it, whether it functioned properly.

The penultimate manifestation: Humans would always make mistakes, but are not so bound to learn from them. What better way to find the true worth of anything than to force its confrontation and analysis? To make a social call-check, so robustly invisible, save to that all-seeing-eye of reductionism: Science.

N1T3 could think of no better explanation of the duality of need and desire than that of perfection-vs-its attainability. In the end, what it reduced to was irrelevant without the processes reduced. The reduction, or conclusion was simple; perfection was unattainable.

But the process of understanding why, of learning through experiential knowledge, was the reduced. Reductionists– scientists among them, knew that.

Thing was, reductionists were people like N1T3 and Ket. People eternally in the twilight between youth and the middle-age, vat-grown and incubated via trickled-prosperity. The elder brothers and sisters of N1T3’s generation had gotten it so near-to-right they would come round in time, but could not be the force necessary to change. Thus, it fell to the rest.

Likewise, the vibrance of youth spawned of the times and their effects, were too ingrained in their world to do more than conform. In that, they would do so spectacularly, N1T3 sensed. But it was N1T3, Ket, their ilk– those middle children between the two extremes that would dictate change. The rest would fall-in-line or fall-out completely: from understanding, rather than need or want.

The wrongness of the mentality that datum– information– didn’t matter was unacceptable in a postdigital world. It was an outdated, old set of ideas, predigital and in no way compatible with newly discovered reality. It came from a world of sensationalist tabloids and ailing print subscriptions– places where information went to die.

Now, information was the only thing.

Digitally, people no longer transmitted or received, they idled. Always. Whether it was in the form of text or imagery data, video or audio, all of the above and more, their brains transmitted to their bodies which then reacted according to specification. Their brains re-encoded the reactions into the aforementioned, re-transmitted it, and through the adapters they used to interface, linked to the net.

That was the net. Everything around it. Its interfaces.

Forays had been made into the world of advanced sensory stimulation; VR, pulse-feedback, electro-stims, all to various effects and uses, and for good or ill. Problem was, everything was proprietary, impossible to build alone or innovate easily on.

In simplest terms, closed hardware and software systems could only be developed by its creators. That unfortunate fact stifled any system. Sometimes however, it was necessary, if only for security’s sake. The instances where it was not, were obvious in their intent.

For instance, N1T3 personally knew of several, closed government networks remotely impenetrable. The physical levels of security betweendigital access and its repositories was so daunting that, though possible to overcome, there was no reasonable value to the effort to most.

A foreign agent could infiltrate their facilities themselves, work the systems just as easily. What did governments need people like N1T3 for then? The flip-side was though, who remained most in demand when the agents failed? Hackers. Mercs or loyalist fools, or outright ferals. Didn’t matter which, they were just the vessel through which the code flowed.

That was the double-edge blade forcing the Governments to cede territory– both literal and non, to the corporations: they refused to incorporate hackers. N1T3 knew of at least two, London-local deals signed in the last week by the Met, ceding area-security to local Corp-sec.

Aries and Warhound were at each other’s throats for those contracts. One’s militant overamped machismo against the other’s tech-junkie turned warrior-merc. The smoke of the first volley against the factions hadn’t even cleared yet, and already, they were on each other. If the general public had realized what was really going on, they’d have hardly believed it. It would’ve been confined to the province of man’s collective memory. That place reserved for myths and legends, and little else.

Technology was too powerful to be duped though. N1T3 reminded himself this was war; in times of caution, err on the side of caution. This war then, war if not for technology, through it. Thus, if through it, then for an idea. An idea that also happened to be the culmination of a species’ path from tree-hanger to zero-g orbiter.

Everyone wanted to feel that zero-g now. Better, everyone could. They knew if they’d all just shut up, pull together an agonizingly long moment, they could. Then, they’d never have to worry again. Humanity, in general, would never have to. This would secure their legacy. Their legacy’s legacy: a redundancy fractalized on micro and macro-scales and required for existence to continue. In this case, Human existence: postdigital as it now was.

And eventually, for a collective epitaph that read; despite each individual’s flaws, they gave their all and thrived. And for N1T3, his people– the postdigital ones, that thriving was via the idea that, overall, one could succeed because Humanity saw success as a foundation to herald its next, collective expansion. Its next Golden Age, but secured until the end of lifetimes and beyond, due to its effect.

History might not remember N1T3 or Ket, or any names forever, but it need not either. Knowledge of N1T3 and his ilk might become so commonplace as to become utterly obscure. The electricity in the light: there, but only for those looking deeper.

Meantime, that knowledge itself was redundant, archived due to the enormity of their contribution and its revision to base knoweldge.It didn’t matter who they were. It mattered what they did. The best way to do that, was to make them memorable, elevate them to Paragons. Not by lying about misdeeds, but honoring persistence over adversity in spite of them.

It was within the same, conceptual grounds not as stealing a fish to feed oneself, but as stealing a fishing pole to feed a village. Equal in micro scales, not macro. One was far more effective and worthy than the other.

And morally defensible.

Human society, on the whole, had lost something of that balancing in the trasition between pre-and-post digital. The digital age, such as it was, formed a blur of incessant, blazing, and stupefying revision. Like all things digital, it was bulk information relevant only to a certain subsection of the populous– and only at a certain time. Only target information mattered, and only to those it was relevant to, and only in the moment of relevance.

In a roundabout way, that made all potentially relevant information important. Always. Estimating what would or could be important was pointless, thus collecting as much as possible and safeguarding it became crucial.

That was the truth in the lie the Governments– and eventually Corps– fed to people about the importance of data collection. Difference to reality was– especially to the technologically clairvoyant, it was obvious the data collected wasn’t important to any beyond a specific, predatory subset of vicious entities.

In the end, history didn’t give two shits about where you bought underwear, or jerked off to. So, who did?

The reality was obvious to Martin Black even during adolescence, when he and his generation watched their parents rise for work, each day older and more agonized, less happy and telling themselves it would change. Told to learn from their parent’s mistakes, each thinker traced their lines of unhappiness inevitably to society’s holds, its damage.

N1T3 was one of them.

After decades of meditation on the subject, N1T3’s generation had finally decided there was but one way to avoid the damage of the system; avoid the system entirely. At least until it was fixed. The question was, how to fix it? It took N1T3 years longer than he ever hoped to figure it out, but he did.

In the meantime, his approach made him a fugitive. The only saving grace was that its timing couldn’t have been better. Now he had an excuse to bring it to a grinding halt. He damned well knew he would, too.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 8

8.

Drinking Deep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clear victors needed no swan songs.

At least, not yet.

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

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

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

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He grinned. “I’ll get on it.”