Guardians of Liberty: Part 17

17.

Facing Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were better ways.

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

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

But he’d had to know, to understand.

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

Once revealed, he could tend to it.

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

Vulnerable however, did not mean impotent.

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

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

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

Nothing sinister, merely privileged.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is he?”

Riter spoke, “Gone.”

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

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

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

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

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

Riter sneered, “Noble of you.”

“What’d he want, Riter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ozell grit his teeth and stormed off.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 16

16.

Two for Flinching

From the outset, Daniel Ozell never flinched. Vids didn’t lie. Now, N1T3 had become fascinated with it. Ket was chewing an imaginary thumbnail, a supplement for stress when her real nails were too valuable to damage. Riter stared off in thought at some place in the middle distance.

It was the first time they’d been together in eleven years– until Dru topped that by walking in, making it the first time the four had ever been together. It occurred to no-one. Only the slight hints of awkwardness belying otherwise total intimacy made any inclination toward it.

They sensed they were all unaware of it then.

Nonetheless, N1T3 was obsessed with the vid. The sound was off, had never been on. He was too expert at reading both text and lips to care much. His life was lived in thrumming fans, clacking keys, yet somehow he knew and understood this man– this creature– better than even himself. This modern man, whom instantly and totally adapted. In one breath.

That was the essence of the postdigital child. Yet this one had evidently been working to destroy itself. Knowingly.

Ozell’s eyes said it all: The scene. The slight hesitation. The stop. The breath of recognition. Of acceptance. Of inhalant abuse on the intoxicant of power. The one that meant SQ.CMDR – DIV\I OZELL, DANIEL was a hell of a model employee and about to become the new standard to be set by.

Not a prototype in the strictest sense but a showroom model, the expectation for mass-production perfection, its ultimate goal and purpose. One that, at all costs, knew the system would fuck him given even wind of need.

So, he’d fuck it right back, every chance he got.

N1T3 watched for the sixth time: Ozell instantly adapted. No hesitation. The mental process was autonomic. Muscular, micro-facial movements. The breath of a slump smoothing itself easily into squared shoulders, relaxed arms and torso, legs, and eyes. All of it relaying that every component had processed the same information and the mode-switch was made.

Only one such as N1T3, the others, could have seen or understood it.

It went something like this:

Start. Sensory boot: intake.

The first steps inside: POST.

Hardware/environment assessment.

Mode-cycle switch: engage.

N1T3 downright admired Ozell’s abilities. There was absolutely no lag. His mental system for adaptation was more advanced than N1T3 had ever seen from corp-sec. Let alone a jack-boot. Then he opened his mouth, and N1T3 wished to erase him from Time-Space; past, present, or future.

“People, please, I will speak to you shortly.”

Such nonchalance and smug arrogance.

N1T3 read it there; Ozell knew the score. It was the entire point to his mode-cycle. He knew five people had been hit. Two murdered. Now, he realized he’d have to answer for it– and instantly knew how to benefit– twist it to.

Ozell could squeeze someone else’s balls for a pay-raise over this. Or more. That much was obvious, but so was something else.

Ozell’s adaptability told N1T3 all he needed to know: he was a leader, would’ve put the bullet in An33$a’s back– another prototypical postdigital child. Her lover, “Clockwork” Mike Andover, former world chess-champion, bad-boy, and wunderkind-turned-rogue.

He let them cook her after he pulled the trigger. Daniel Ozell’d known it all along what was happening, had been okay with it. Why, was obvious: personal gain wasn’t just for corps anymore.

N1T3 read all of it in his eyes. in his evolution. Like him, Ozell was a predator. More practiced, practically speaking, but one-half the predator’s coin nonetheless. He could only exist because people like N1T3 did– hackers, rogues, sexdolls, freedom-exiles and vagabonds.

However, unlike N1T3, Daniel Ozell was a predator’s predator. A specialist and assassin not found save in the deepest niches of predatorial nature. Everyone in the room felt it then:

Daniel Ozell existed to kill them.

Ket was calm but firm, “It’s getting too hot. We should get you out of town.”

$trydr argued, “No. Too dangerous. Re-locate in town and lie low. We–“

Dru interrupted, “Can do no. more. than we are doing now.”

He looked about to argue but N1T3, unfazed and still mesmerized, interrupted, “He did it.”

Silence. Confusion. He paused the vid, skipping its UHD-res back frame-by-frame until where he needed it. He flicked at Ket’s server, left as he’d built it for now, and keyed up a few lines of custom code. The script engaged.

Animated, frame-by-frame stills of Ozell’s face: The gleam in his eye. Thoughts. One at a time in his head, cycling him from prey to predator with the releasing of skeletal muscles, posture. All of it habit. This was a creature made to hunt men, and once more being forced to when it had lost the taste.

They all saw it. The gleam. That almost imperceptible tic of the right eye’s outer-corner that spelled guilt. It slacked as the switch flipped, the mode cycled, and the predator re-emerged.

More than that, he wasn’t about to deny anything. He would admit a truth, however tacitly, and another after that– that he was about to do even worse this time ‘round. This, he knew, came as orders of overlords he knew valued him less than dirt. Overlords he, himself, would back-stab if ably suited.

Because that was the game he and they knew– knew, and didn’t mind.

N1T3 spoke, “Daniel Ozell put the bullet in Anisa’s back.”

Ket was least affected. Dru, most. Riter found himself ailed from it. Through them, N1T3 did too, however dully. Ket couldn’t be allowed to feel it. Even two for flinching in her line of work could permanently damage the goods. Good for business, bad for friendship.

“Anisa’s dead. Get riled up over her, it’ll only make you stupid. It’s what they want.”

$trydr looked ready to snap in defense of Dru. She interrupted before he could, stunning all but N1T3. A sudden silence hung in the air before he began to take notice of it. He sensed what was happening, ignored it. His mouth opened, Dru simply spoke faster.

“Ket’s right.”

That stopped N1T3 in his tracks. Mostly, because he was surprised how deep his and Dru’s connection still went. They were both irritated; one because they knew they were running out of time; the other because he was running out of time. In-fighting and debate was unacceptable right now. Feelings could wait.

“Knowing Ozell’s the one is important for one reason,” Dru said, sensing N1T3 nod.

He finished, “It gives us a target. Someone to pin this on. Someone aware.”

Ket and $trydr were frozen. Ket had heard but never seen the double-think Dru and N1T3 were capable of. It was no doubt what had attracted them to one another– even as children, they weren’t like-minded, but rather, one-minded.

If he weren’t so gut-certain N1T3 would soon be dead, $trydr might have been concerned. As much pain as it brought him to know, he knew too that N1T3 would be equally amused under better circumstances. Those were yet, if ever, to come.

Presently, circumstance dictated N1T3 and Dru were both right– but it pissed him off anyway.

“Should’ve known,” $trydr grumbled. He spoke aloud for the others, “Find what you can and get us all a copy.”

N1T3 was already typing, “Corp-sec Squad Commander Division One intell-strike. London Outpost. Married. Wife infirmed. Psychosis. Son adolescent. Man himself suffers PTSD from pre-takeover wars…”

Two hours and ten minutes later Ozell’s voice continued.

“… reprimanded twice in the field for acts unbecoming; assaults on fellow officers, and disorderly conduct. Signed Ret. Maj. Revyen McGuire; former C/o.”

Ozell wasn’t angry. He’d half-expected it. He respected the punk-shits for burning him like that. Class all the way. Well and truly worthy of the so-called paradise they occupied. That one amidst the shit-heap refuse that was their culture and world.

That was what he hated most of all; their utter immunity to irony.

They were kids, sure, but not really. They weren’t much younger than him in some cases, and nowhere near Paul’s age either. Caught in the middle of seemingly everything, they had no choice but to rebel. In a way, he pitied them. Almost sympathized.

Then, he read the last section of N1T3’s “release.”

Each syllable began to grate, his jaw setting further as he read, “Daniell Ozell, we have seen the lies in you. Answer for them. If not for your sake, then his.”

The image was innocuous. Almost mundane. Paul stood alone at a bus stop, waiting. It was the residential pick up. Fewer and fewer kids were attending Corp schooling these days, but it was generally agreed to be a result of less births in the corporate sector.

That was a pile of bullshit even Ozell’s less-perceptive colleagues had sniffed out.

Fact was though, the whole pickup area was under 24 hour surveillance. Corp-Sec was tightest there than anywhere. Even in the image, Ozell could see the subtle hints of his teams, watching, waiting, protecting. Doing their jobs– what they were paid to do. All they were paid to do. They made sure those kids were safe. If they weren’t, their parents didn’t work.

Ozell’d known that when he laid out the patrols, the angles. When he planned the surveillance. Everything in the image was a direct creation of his love for his son. It was his hope that others like him would do for his as he would theirs, when he wasn’t looking.

And from this, it looked like Corp-sec were sleeping on the job.

Worst of all though, it wasn’t the drone image meant to seem important. Rather, it was its ability to exist. It demanded examination, explanation; if Daniel Ozell’s child is so safe that he can walk to school alone, why is Martin Black a threat?

The question itself, required the full-scope of the situation be comprehended– that its’ social coding and conflict resolution be known:

If Martin Black was not a threat, then why was Anisa Blanc shot in the back, as tacitly admitted? The return-code question required to close the circuit and produce output then was; if Martin Black (threat 0+) and Anisa Blanc (threat 0) were equal, and neither’s death justifiable, is not your hunt simply murder-driven?

Then, the final return: If so, then why and on whose orders?

Ozell grit his teeth. The bastards as much as confirmed the war then and there, firing back as. Ozell knew would happen. He knew what would come next too; forced retaliation. From him.

The Corps had been itching for war. Nothing thinned the herd quite like it. Corps had never been to war. Not true war. They’d never seen what they could do. Neither had the modern man.

The Tree of Liberty would feed; blood or water, only the season’s star-shine could decide.

Until that moment, Ozell hadn’t known whom he’d be killing. He simply knew he’d be killing. Death, for an experienced dealer in it, was a mood formed of the depraved and their shadow games. Blood-thirst clung to air, thickening it. It stank like cooked bile on a hot summer’s noon. It made every breath taste of ash and fire with the intensity dictated by primal chaos.

Once it came, it would be Tantalus’ eternal thirsting forever more. Paradoxically however, it was not a thing’s existence that caused it. Rather, it was its total-need and utter-absence.

Blood on the air made Ozell rage. Figurative as it remained for now, he was still forced to calm himself. He did it the only way he knew how: analyzing what he knew had and would happen. Otherwise, he’d pop like a cork and take the whole damned post with him.

It would take time, but what little of the game and its players remained obscured was coming to light. The moment his kid showed up, Ozell knew that war was on. Moreover, he knew it was exactly what both sides wanted– however vastly differing their reasons.

Because both sides were terrorists, one just emotionally so. Hackers were the type that preyed on people’s hidden nature for their own ends. Corps were no less guilty. Whether altruistic or not in intent, it was predatory. Until now, he’d sympathized with the hackers personally, if little else

Then, they made his son the poster child for civil-war.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Wandering

Wandering and wandering
and wandering we go
where we’re stopped
by whom and the how,
only the notions,
of father time can now tell.

Because in the end
what they call sin
is thinking with
alternative win–
corruption unseated,
mind boggles it, when,
they don’t see it coming
get steamrolled in spin

“If only, if only,”
the cry in the night,
those four sacred words,
turn to sand from might,
like the ancients of old
for what time doesn’t bare us,
was written, foretold,
no need to embarrass,
nor spoil it, see,
for those wee little four words,
contain infinity.

But never fear,
for madness is near,
and love-a-rub dubbing,
kindly riding in rear.
Decipher their words,
but know not their meanings,
for these processions, herds,
and wanton unleanings,
are really the yearnings,
of creatures quite feeling.

All quite like us,
and no wonder, you know,
when wandering and a-wandering
and-a wandering we go.

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.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Beauty-Suicide

In the West,
with the rest,
should’ve guessed,
but was blessed,
on the edge,
of time’s ledge.

So indeed,
we concede,
that belief,
is a leaf,
on a wind,
in a bend.

What a task,
could the mask,
upon such a face,
of such a race,
contrive to hide,
beauty-suicide?

Perhaps when,
“we were then,”
is a thing,
to seldom sing,
and recompense
becomes suspense.

We must wonder if she’ll ever come back.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: Rise Up and Resist

Dollars and cents,
numbers and sense,
pick up the creature,
that crawls from the tents.
Madness abounds,
chaotic, disordered,
hold onto the rails,
the madman’s unbordered.
Fight for your rights,
or watch ‘em erode
from hatred and ignorance,
the seizuring toad.

We once knew normality
but like a cold poverty,
it turned to disease,
with terrible property.

Yet all the same,
still do we live,
and in night we sing,
solemn,
“Rise up and Resist!
Remember Humanity!”

Praise others compassion,
but raise up your fist,
to defend against fashion–
whether old or new,
they’re odes to few
and we must resist,
or mellow like dew.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 6

6.

Ain’t That a Bitch?

He was kicked back in his cot, thinking. He did it often enough to have formed a routine with it. Usually, before puzzling out bad code or troubleshooting something. This time, its origins eluded him.

At first, he figured it for his parting from Ket. Her words rang clear long after she’d left. They stung, but he’d expected worse. Only while breaking into his new rations, eating, then sorting them to to be stashed through his safe-houses, had he begun to understand her words’ true source; grief.

His and Ket’s relationship dictated she got last licks. Especially after the way things went afterward. Simple fact was, he knew Ket. Everything she did was carefully planned, executed. She’d expected their reunion all along, however uncertain of its particulars.

He also knew she phrased certain things in certain ways, however unafraid to speak her mind. Anyone but N1T3 might have missed the subtle reality of what she’d said. Then again, she always said more with what was left unsaid.

It was only then, flipping mental switches at random in aimless thought, that it came to him: she had loved Martin Black. Did not love N1T3.

A few of the million, random switches in N1T3’s head flipped together randomly. Right place, right time: Loved. Past tense. Not. Present. She had loved Martin Black because of his passionate love for her, but that had long since ended. Martin Black no longer existed. The man that had taken his place was N1T3, and she did not love N1T3…

But that did not mean she could not.

N1T3 was something more than a man now though. More than a symbol, even. He was an actuator of change. The lever identified and appropriately fitted to ensure the system(s) he was part of functioned properly, nominally. Who could love that? What was there to love?

Transactional. Business-like. A cog in a machine. It’s what he’d become. The thing he’d always feared being, hated having to be. Then again, there was no guarantee he would forever be that way. He might, provided he made it through the madness to come, find the Human within again.

Until then everything he– and thus they– did, would be transactional, passing.

The wound was deeper than he’d thought, yet he lived. Because he lived, he learned. So long as those two things continued, so would he. Whatever that meant about Ket couldn’t be known yet.

With that, he rose from the bed and flicked off a message-alert. It had been 22 hours since they’d first met. Impressive, even for her. Though he admitted that meant he’d somehow underestimated her. He didn’t like the idea; it meant he’d miscalculated somewhere.

That only happened if you slacked off. Cut corners. Like the hacker kid that started the raids.

There was a way to cut corners right, of course, but you had to know what you were doing. You needed to be so far beyond recognizing you were doing it that you’d come back ‘round to forgetting it again through muscle-memory.

With code, it was keeping something structured so it never exceeded the line between small and large, project and undertaking. That was easy if you knew what you were doing. Easier, if you were experienced enough to know how to do it.

But miscalculation meant errant thoughts. Broken code. Unforeseen consequences. It meant the systems in question had begun to run rampant and unguided by their parameters. The digital equivalent of cancer; viral injections riding collective missteps and spreading disaster with quiet, insidious corruption in cells at a time. Cell-by-cell. Bit-by-bit. Byte-by-byte. Until all required erasure and reset.

Except in this case, that corruption was mental. The consequence, death– or near enough.

N1T3 was immediately certain of the misstep’s source. He’d written Ket off as a variable. One for whom constance did not exist. The truth was, Ket would always be a wildcard. Even when and where he least expected it.

Most people would’ve been stopped at the gates of understanding Ket, never even allowed in the grounds. Martin Black had made it in by sheer grace of fortune and luck. Now, because of his transformation, N1T3 was not only within, but part of the heart of the mansion. There were no deeper secrets to be known. He, like a reserved few others, had reached the very core of her palace of arms, traps, and facades.

More than that, he’d been led in. By virtue of his past applied to the present.

He’d been cast from Eden for feeding Eve a poisoned apple. Rather than blame her for the rest of history, he left and returned a wiser man, prepared to accept his mistakes. It was a conformity– the same thing the corps wanted– those now hunting him and sworn as his enemy, but he accepted it. Irony dictated it run deeper than anything the corps could have reached, and that made it different, acceptable.

It was the difference between love and sex. Passion and commitment. 0 and 1.

Corporate marketing knew all about that difference. Their PR and ad departments had been trying to sell sex that didn’t exist for decades. Now, people were finally tired and irritated by it, unhappy. N1T3 had seen it everywhere; in shambled economy, the crippled markets, the greed-laden stock and media manipulation. It was outright propaganda and failed control measures take to extremes.

People world-wide had already been battered by war for a decade and more. Then, their governments failed them. Back then, it was people like N1T3 hardest hit. People that found themselves out of options. Society had herded them through educational degradation and indirect, ethnic cleansing, and let them out into a desolate, barren pasture expecting them to graze.

No-one knew then whom to blame, but postdigital children like N1T3 and Ket had been watching. Now, they were figuring it out. Fast.

In the end, they realized, it couldn’t be the governments. Governments were too big. Even then, they were too indebted globally and locally from wars; prison industrial complexes they’d built up; black-market bazaars they were half-fighting, half-funding. They were already drawing blood from people. There was nowhere deeper to go.

Not for them, anyhow.

The next logical source was politics as a whole, but in effect, politics had never changed. The game had always been the same. Although the source seemed perfectly political, it wasn’t until shortly after that the source’s politics– and lack thereof, truly revealed themselves.

That was done through legal bribes, lobbying; via third parties effectively laundering said money through themselves to their politicians of choice. Again, nothing new, but the reasons and intent behind it were. Entirely.

N1T3 remembered sitting in the now-rundown apartment with Ket the night the DCA had passed. It was then they knew the days of the net were limited. They’d begun stock-piling then, squirreling away bits and bytes in their own little ways.

It was never so big then as it became, but few things so volatile remain stable.

He and Ket both knew the future was bleak, regardless of whether they shared it or not. For those moments they loved, they loved deeply and madly. They were storing motivation, joy and euphoria, to sandbag them against the coming storm.

Then, when it came, it damn near drowned them. The aftermath left them seeking joy and euphoria elsewhere. The greater storm collectively growing though, the one that came about once a century, had already begun through them; revolution was incubating in them.

It just so happened their own revolutions coincided not only with one another, but with the world’s. That, above all, ensured the next one would be done right, or not at all.

In the end, he found that as the source of his misstep; thinking he could outwit a system he was the product of. The programming had been done, the system engaged. Now, the output was coming through.

Yet all of their worth and aligned stop-bits meant nothing in the face of what he was planning. He, and the others like him. Without him, they would fail. Vice-versa. The question then became, she could love N1T3, but could he love her?

Caution and delicate finesse. He wasn’t very good at it, but he was learning.

He found her waiting for him again. She had a habit of that; everywhere early, appearing to have nowhere to be. Like you weren’t important. Weren’t worth more than a passing interest. Fact was, if you were smart, you knew she wasn’t that way. That was Ket’s facade. The one she wore regardless of company. Taking it off was simply too time-consuming, too pointless.

If you knew her, and she was there, it mattered. If you were a fool in love, you were torn between worlds. If you ‘d been the latter and were now the former, you were in as deep as you could get. All the same, there was distance. No kiss today, but then nobody’d tried to kill him yet.

Herself included.

She kept to the outer edges of the main room, circling like a stalking predator. She did it subtly, slowly enough it was only obvious to one whom knew her so well. N1T3 didn’t bother following her with his eyes. It was an intimidation tactic meant for the facade-goers, the ones come to see the show; Vampirella. Bride of Frakenstein. The Tigress pacing her cage.

It wasn’t meant for the people whom actually knew her. Whom knew the act was required to keep her in the motions. That the show could easily be ignored, the information retrieved through it anyway otherwise.

But then, what was the point of being there?

She circled in aural-stereo. Her voice and essence orbited his head. His eyes fixed ahead and glazed, speaking volumes without words as he voluntarily submitted. The very air hinted at questions and immediately answered them. He recalled just how much a force of nature she was, and felt comforted by the momentary obscurity she provided.

“I know what you’re doing,” she said finally, decisively.

“Can it be done?”

She circled back in front of him, stopped. “Nothing’s impossible. Not with the right tech. You know that, N1T3.

“I don’t follow,” He admitted.

She stepped away before stopping to about-face like a headmistress. “Tech is like every force; it is dictated by referenced levels of rules interacting via context. For minerals, in markets, it’s rarity. For gems, its clarity and cut.” He nodded, catching on. “For tech, it’s revisional history and progenitor.”

He knew what she meant; all progress was the culmination of thousands of next-generation, referential changes. In essence, successively refining a variable-based system with each new iteration. It was a brute force hack beginning at 0000 and ending at 1111, each time stopping to check for a solution. That was society. History. Existence. It was cause and effect. Karma.

But that was it. There was nothing beyond it. The extent of its supposed divinity was its order in the chaos that ruled the universe otherwise. Tech though, wasn’t a benevolent manifestation of divine connection. It was an indifferent variable in an equation. Not even numbers could define it as more.

Tech was merely a mechanism of action. The rest was up to chance. Really, it was all up to chance, but try explaining that to billions of people over the net.

Simply, in tech; be it in design or sales, some things were variables and others, constants. Their output decided by the type of system involved, its internal components and their arrangement.

Ket was a variable; even within her own, personal constants. It was the reason she’d scoffed at his supposed offer of payment for food, never wrote him off otherwise. N1T3 was the opposite; a constant despite his own variable; such as the part of him that had loved her, even if now a newborn phoenix risen from ash.

He made no inclination otherwise toward it. He didn’t need to, They were still tailor-made for one another, but by way of mass-production’s interchangeability rather than artisanal want or desire. The difference was a want-or-not of illusion, delusion. Their lines therein.

Ket was theatrical, grand. She needed movement. Martin Black had been fine without it; with wallowing, daydreaming. She wanted to show, to display, always. He wanted to watch, admire. All of that was different now. Then, he’d not recognized his own part in the play. Nor its purpose. Now, he did.

And he’d come to play it because it needed to be played. Otherwise, there was no telling how many more would die.