Guardians of Liberty: Part 5

5.

*Ahem*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ket, Corp-sec’s murdering hackers.”

“An33$a.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, almost nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And everyone let her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She let him, shut the door behind them.

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

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

“You knew?”

“I had them stashed years ago.”

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

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

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

“I’m insulted,” she remarked.

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

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

She eyed him through a squint, “Dangerous.”

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

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

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

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

Short Story: The Princess and the Brain-Hack

The children gathered round in a crescent as he sat before a dingy, concrete wall, twice as ancient as him. His steel-grayed hair and piercing, ice-blues were accentuated by sagging cheeks and creases. Like him, the room was drab, with a sort of accumulated dust that could only come from having lived history.

Whether he’d played a major role in that history, or would still, was just one of the fascinations the younger children speculated on. The curious, old-man before them was no mystery to the older children. They knew the truth of course, but the others were too young to learn it. They had to be protected from grisly realities to ensure they didn’t become cold humans that made them.

The old man’s eyes pulled tight. His mouth drew a smile, “You wish to hear a story, no?”

A curious, Nordic accent mingled with his French. The children’s heads nodded, as they chorused “Oui” in a collective sing-song. He chuckled to himself.

“I know only one,” he said firmly to quiet them down. “But I shall tell it as though I lived it.”

He made small gestures with his hands and the bright LEDs overhead dimmed until only one remained above, at half-power.

“It begins with a princess in a tower, toiling away at tedious work,” he said. The children readied themselves in anticipation. “The most beautiful princess in the tower worked day after day, slaving for masters in fine silks. These masters were wealthy beyond any in the land, past or present. Yet despite all their wealth, they enslaved everyone in the land to do their bidding, increasing it each day, each moment; the princess included.

“Allowed as she was to return home each night, the Princess was forced to return each day, toiling as before, lest her masters grow angry and imprison her.

“So night after night, the Princess returned home, unaware of her masters’ wicked plans for her and others like her. She was a beautiful tool, they said, to be used for evils when needed, and discarded like after. She and all others like her were regarded this way; some were so wholly faithful to their masters, they felt the same. Thus day after day they toiled, enslaved, only to believe themselves safe from the treatment during the night.

“Then one night, the Princess’ wicked masters cast a veil of confusion about her mind. In her state, she knew not who she was, and her masters took advantage of this. They sent her out to do evil only to have her return the next morning, none the wiser of her actions. So powerful was the confusion, they were able to continue the madness months before she could begin to suspect it.

“But before then, her masters had found her capacity for evil was beyond any other’s. For, in truth she was a Princess, and princesses have their own power. With her, they brought destruction to many of their enemies. Through them, the Princess stole, deceived, even murdered under her wicked masters’ veil of confusion. Yet each morning she awoke, utterly unawares of her wickedness.”

The old man’s face sank into sadness, his voice with it. It seemed as if a thousand, terrible memories befell him all at once. Even to their young hearts, it was a cutting pain to see someone of such renown feeling such dread.

“Then came a night when the beautiful Princess could no longer sleep. Her masters watched her carefully, but allowed her not to do evil. Then another night passed similarly. She twisted and writhed in sleepless agony. More time passed. The Princess worsened. Each night she suffered amid more nightmares than before. It was then that the Princess’ family began to take notice.

“Where, by day she had always risen and worked with promptness, now she slogged on, too tired from the sleepless nights. Indeed, everyone whom joined the Princess each day in the tower saw the same change.

“It was, the Princess said, nothing to be concerned for.

“But her younger sister, just as beautiful and even more stubborn and less-mannered, insisted she visit an enchantress to put her mind at ease. There, the sister said, she would be put into a deep sleep of living dreams, and forced to face the ills haunting her dreamworld and keeping her from sleep.

“The sister however, also kept secret her own fears; fears seeded by rumors of others whom had shown the same, worsening symptoms as the Princess, and were said to have been subjected to a great confusion then used for evil in the night. Suspecting the Princess was also a victim, the sister kept quiet for fear that the Princess’ masters might strike them both down before they could learn the truth.”

The old man’s tone turned empty, unfeeling, yet it infected his story with more life; “So thus the Princess was taken to see the enchantress. There, she was put to the deep sleep, and for a long while, did not stir. Then, under the careful guidance of the Enchantress’ words, she soon began to navigate the dreamworld.

“It felt hollow, the Princess remarked, filled with memories that appeared her own, but which broke her heart and tortured her good nature. She watched as bits and pieces of past nights began to return. One upon the other, wickedness and evils stacked and fitted back in place as though a shattering mirror played in reverse.”

He took a deep breath to warm himself against terrible emotions, memories. No doubt he’d drummed them up to better instill the tale’s importance. He steeled his nerves with an encompassing glimpse of his audience; they were captivated, thirsting for the tale to continue.

“When the Enchantress’ deep sleep broke, the Princess awoke shaken. The veil of great confusion her masters had imbued broke too. She found her memory filled with all the evils she’d done unknowingly in her masters’ names.”

The otherwise indifferent face became embedded with a deep frown. “So the sister began to tell of the evil and wickedness by the Princess in her masters’ names. By doing so, she sought justice against those who’d stolen her sister’s mind, tarnished her innocence. All the while, the Princess grew more distraught, fearful of what she’d done; that her masters might use her again in such a way.

“Alas, the masters had other plans. They commissioned an conjurer to kill the Princess to protect themselves, fearing her story might rile the peasants of their kingdom on whose complacence they relied on for their wealth.

“So, under cover of night, the masters schemed. The conjurer-assassin went quickly to lay a trap for the Princess. Upon rising, he planned, she would once more make to toil away in her masters’ tower. Instead, he would spring a trap, swallowing the Princess in a great ball of fire. Sure enough, when the Princess rose again, she stepped outside only to be instantly swallowed by the great fire. It then disappeared with her, never to be seen again.”

He watched the children carefully. Some faces ebbed on tears. Others were still enthralled, sensing the story wasn’t over. A few children though, were the most captivated, yet least affected. They had, he knew, something more special about them; a type of imagination distinguishable by the very look on their face. Indeed, these children were unknowingly the group’s greatest thinkers.

The old man continued, “With the Princess’ death, her masters’ kingdom was up-heaved. Peasants rebelled against in outrage at the Princess’ death. All over the kingdom they wreaked havoc on the lands and possessions of the masters.

“But alas, this too was not meant to last. The masters set loose great, fire-breathing dragons whom smote the land wherever the peasants rose. For fourteen days and fourteen nights, upheaval passed, then the fire-breathers came and quelled the chaos. The Dragons appearance may have subdued the people, but their thirst for justice remained. Indeed, none so boldly ruling by fear can hope to forever contain such deep unrest.

“Through two years of toil and worsening wickedness from her old masters, the world mourned the Princess’ loss. During that time, small groups worked in secret to exact revenge on her masters in her memory. By ways sabotage and subterfuge, the avengers destroyed and thwarted, or deceived and cajoled against them in the Princess’ name. It was not enough, for the land remained in the darkness of the tower’s great, looming shadow.

“Even today that shadow persists, but something unknown to the Masters in the tower is that the Princess yet lives! For two whole years, a great sorcerer worked in secret with her sister to resurrect the dead Princess to lead the people against her old masters.”

Faces around the room seemed in disbelief, or indeed astonishment, but the old man could see the few he’d mentally noted before working something out. He suppressed a smile to ensure he finished appropriately.

“Upon returning from the dead, she immediately began to lead the people in hopes of one day liberating those still toiling as she once did. It is said, even now, she trains avengers in growing numbers. As well, it is said she slept so long in death, she trains and plots day and night without interruption. Such is her will.”

His head gave a small, slight bow, “And that is all there is to tell… for now.”

The children clapped excitedly, already wishing to hear it again. Only those few he’d mentally noted seemed satisfied, having obviously worked out something the others hadn’t. The children disappeared soon afterward.

A middle-aged woman approached, her body gleaming with battle-scarred black and chrome, bionic limbs in place of natural ones. Renee Lemaire was every bit as beautiful as the story told, however wisely worded for children’s ears. She was tall, well-muscled where not augmented, and had a wily cunning from years of fighting Corporate “masters.” She had the look of a warrior Goddess and loving mother.

She approached, “You have the list?”

“Oui.” He handed over a touchscreen data-tablet. Across it were a few names, “Those are the only I saw in this group. Perhaps one day we’ll have more effective means of pinpointing them.”

She eyed the list, “You’ve never been wrong before, Sven. Not once. I trust you to find them better than any other method.”

“Perhaps,” he replied, leaning tiredly on a table to look at her. “But I am an old man, Renee. And none of us can escape death forever. Not even you.”

She gave a bittersweet smile, “You know what they call it, the older ones?”

“The story?”

She gave a nod. “They call it the Princess and the Brain-Hack. Eventually all of them call it that. They don’t get it at first, but at some point, it always gets around that it’s a true story. My story.”

Sven thought carefully. “Are they aware it is a test?”

She shook her head, “A few, but critical thinkers are too precious to let that secret slip.”

He softened severely, then a throaty laugh emanated from him. She sensed its cause and laughed with him. The Princess and the Brain-Hack. She had to admit, it had a certain ring. Maybe one day it would even have an ending; after she finished burning the Corps to the ground. Until then, she didn’t mind being a beautiful Princess with a cause so powerful death couldn’t keep her from it.

She smiled. After all, she was Renee Lemaire; myth, legend, formerly brain-hacked princess, and evermore a rebel.