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.

Advertisements

Preview: Guardians of Liberty

Guardians of Liberty
(Beginning 5/25/18)

Martin Black, aka N1T3, is a hacker between worlds. Centrally located on the fine-line between hero and villain, his world is one of Corporate dominance and slavery. Now forced to flee for his life because of it, he knows corp-sec are coming– and they’d prefer him dead to alive.

Going off-grid proves more dangerous expected, but N1T3’s few, effective resources make it impossible not to. More importantly, he must; a logic-vision of formed of careful and meticulous analysis, makes it clear that the time is now or never to safeguard the future of not just technology, but Humanity as well.

Until then, his society is hurtling headlong toward disaster. Aided by a few, choice friends, N1T3 must find a way to safeguard the vision or risk seeing a second Roman-Fall. Given the way things are going in his world, too, it could be the last.

But will it be? Find out here starting next Friday, May 25th , 2018 on the Logbook.

Guardians of Liberty is a postdigital novella set in near-present day London, heavily combining technology, programming, freedom, and their inherent conflicts with pulse-pounding results. Don’t miss it!

Excerpt from Ch 1: Losing Home

Things had changed.

The pre-digital age had given way to the postdigital with no delineation between itself and not, or even the transitory state between. That is to say, the nether-realm of quantum mechanics between 0 and 1. That fickle bitch of nothingness between program and switch whose existence made possible the idea of AI, ghosts– anything damaging to a functioning system.

But that was ultimately life, or the possibility of it. The simultaneously all-important and utterly vestigial “in-between.”

Short Story: Riders

She was seeing it all through his eyes, would be until it was over. That was how it worked. Riders were like ghosts; like the little, niggling thoughts in the back of one’s mind that drove them to do a thing they normally wouldn’t.

That was how the agency liked it. More importantly, that was how Riders needed it. To allow further levity meant revealing more of the Host’s takeover. Two-twenty-three didn’t think she couldn’t handle that anyhow; the final moment of betrayal in their hearts was too much already. It was like hating yourself for so crassly leading to your own demise.

She couldn’t bear to think of feeling that the whole ride, especially knowing it was validated.

No, it was best for Hosts to live in as utter an ignorance as possible. She made sure they did, too, as every other Rider. It was an unspoken agreement that Riders do their level best to whisper thoughts that kept their hosts calm while re-forming them.

It was like the oxygen mask on a plane, deploying as it went down; Riders soothed for the sake of all aboard so the Hosts accepted their fate.

Fact was, Riders were necessary. Even if they didn’t quite understand why. Even if they never saw the full-effect of their Ride– the actions of their host– there was always an explanation, a bigger picture. The Agency assured it, promised it.

Riders couldn’t handle riding pointlessly anyhow. They’d all heard the stories of the first Hosts, their Riders. 223 didn’t need to be reminded, it was part of their training to know it. A body could only play host to more than one consciousness for a few days, a week at most. After, both Rider and Host began to lose the delineation of one and the other. It was an effect, the Agency said, of becoming too exposed to the mental processes of one another.

In essence, because both consciousnesses were encountering new methods of processing thought, they began emulating them in bits and pieces. That was perfectly fine for the short term, enlightening even, but the longer it lasted, the more permanent it became.

The block was simple human thought; certain thoughts took longer to unravel or understand as a result of mental intermediary between them and action. Generally, those intermediaries were often evaluatory, acting as filters of morality, experience to dictate decision making.

But a ridden Host had shortcuts, even longer paths. Their Rider did too, if only temporarily. The longer that connection was maintained, the longer those basic requirements were over-written, over-stayed or altogether avoided.

As a result, traits of both Rider and Host bled between them, freely exchanged. Before long, the lines blurred to non-existence. Then Rider and Host became part of one another in a sort of quasi mental-merge.

But since the Human psyche wasn’t meant for such uses or abuses, it wasn’t long before both Host and Rider were utterly insane. They became unwitting schizophrenics, completely unaware that the voices they were hearing were one another’s. The only way to really handle them then was to eliminate them.

Reasons there were two-fold; if for some reason knowledge of Riders were discovered, the consequences could be disastrous for every universe involved. More than that, it meant mistakes had been made, needed to be corrected as cleanly and painlessly as possible.

223 wasn’t a pup by any standards. She’d been a Rider nearly forty-years. Course, that was by a measure of time that didn’t exist where she hailed from. Though ostensibly human, her people had long outgrown the need for singular universal inhabitance.

In fact, if the Agency were true, the Riders efforts were to raise remaining universes’ to their level. 223 believed the Agency’s aims at least. But as much as she believed in it, as a goal-oriented entity, she had a hard time believing in its people.

After all, they were human– or near enough– and especially susceptible to error and manipulation. Riders were a pure manifestation of that.

Still, she saw his world through his eyes and would until she backed out, was pulled out, or the Host was killed. The harsh reality of being a Rider was ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the Host ended up dead, in trouble with authorities, or worse. The rarer good ending did exist, and a Rider was guaranteed to have a few over time, but they were far enough between to easily forget them otherwise.

It was all for the greater good, the Riders knew, and it was never a comfort.

223’s current ride was no different from any of the other forty-years of Hosts. She rode three to four new Hosts a week these days, but had long ago abandoned hope the odds of good-to-bad would be altered in any way.

To do so was pointless. All hoping could lead to was damaging her back home. Either through some misguided attempt to help, rebel, or more emotional scarring than was necessary.

Still, she admitted that familiar pang of pity for the guy as he straightened his poorly knotted tie in a mirror. He was a well-meaning dud, but a dud nonetheless. The Multiverse was swarmed by them. It was sad in its way, so much wasted potential.

He grabbed his suit-jacket, completely unaware of the phantom taking possession of him. Before long, she had him waltzing about his kitchen to kiss his wife and kids good-bye, grab his briefcase and coffee, and slip out the door.

223 slotted herself into the correct mental state. Good riders could do it instantly, but the best took their time, got to know their Host first to develop the right empathy, the right control. 223 was nothing if not one of the best.

Thing about it was, the Ride was really just that; a ride. Good Riders knew how to nudge their Host onto track with a few, specific thoughts, nudges that turned out to be all anyone ever needed.

They weren’t really thoughts though. That was important to remember. More like feelings, shadows of feelings, shifts or sparks sometimes so deep in the psyche a person didn’t know they existed. They were phantom’s phantoms, ghostly shadows of desires, dreams, hopes. They were the little darknesses Jung built his career off.

At least, most of the time. Sometimes they were lights, but those lights were rare.

In forty years, 223’d learned to tell when big events were near. She’d been through a few; armed revolutions, bloody coups, massive, sexual awakenings– her personal favorite– and everything in and around. They were all experienced through various Hosts, eachusually only for a short period.

Usually too, the closer the event was to its climax, the darker the rides were.For some, it was assassinations, suicides, public or private but with massive repercussions. Sometimes, it was a cheating or cheated-on spouse meant to become the next Gloria Steinem or Jane Roe.

This time, it was looking bigger, darker. She wasn’t sure what, but the rides had gotten darker. Moreso than she’d ever seen. Whatever was set to happen, even this waltzing family-man had his dark part to play.

His day wasn’t rough. She’d seen worse, but she nudged him at every necessary turn. It was a testament to her skill that mere hours allowed her to turn the wife-loving, tax-paying smartly-dressed family-man into one of the most depraved monsters to have ever walked his Earth.

It started with a near accident in his brand new Lexus. The car was fine, but left him covered in coffee, neck to navel. The second nudge came minutes later at a store, when stopping to buy a new shirt. Only few pennies off the exact change, he was forced to use a credit card.

Such little things could be important; tiny sparks that fed big fires, stirring massive resentment via the way people viewed the world at-large. 223 was almost proud of how easy it had been to turn him from upstanding citizen to monster brewing.

The next nudge came an hour later. He’d changed from the ruined shirt but the suit-jacket and tie were still drying. He was forced to shake hands with his company’s CEO for the first time, neither looking nor feeling his best.

In the back of his mind, a pill of rage had formed.

223 hated herself for being so damned good, but a Rider directed their Host as per the Agency’s objective. It could take minutes, it could take days, but sooner or later the Host wound up where the Agency wanted them.

If it weren’t 223, she knew, it would’ve been someone else. Someone that might’ve made their Host suffer unduly, whether through malice or ineptitude.

223’s skill allowed her to ride The Host’s humiliation all day, nudging and prodding him into the rabid, froth of bilious fury she needed. He arrived home an hour before his wife and children a miserable wreck, then soused himself to the gills until they appeared.

The show began.

223 half-suspected the wife was a Host too. It seemed too-well played, too-well matched, for she alone to have done it all. Whether the wife was a Host too she’d never know. It didn’t matter anyway.

It took all of ten minutes before two, upstanding people became absolute, raving animals.

The wife hurled insults better than 223 expected. The husband hurled them back. Then, some plates and glasses. The children cowered, bawling in a corner further scarred with each moment.

223 couldn’t focus on them, they’d be provided for. Hell, for all she knew, they were the point of this.

Then it happened; the Wife lunged, struckhim. Humiliatied, terrified, and cooked to a boiling rage by the heated nudge of a phantom Rider, he struck back. The wife reeled back, slipped on broken glass, and slammed the back of her skull on the edge of a counter. She was dead before the crack finished resonating.

The children erupted in screams.

The last nudge. 223 watched the Host drop to his knees, lift broken glass. He jabbed, pulled. Arterial bloodspurted and sprayed the air like a demented fountain.

Then, his body hit the floor. She felt it then; that last feeling of betrayal oozing through her, but not at her. Never at her. Always at the host. Child-screams faded into the light of the Rider’s chair, and she felt it automate and sit her upright.

She fell from it into a desk chair, body shaking with grief. She slugged back something vaguely liquor-like to settle her nerves and poured. She lifted a pen, slid an ancient-looking notebook from a drawer of the glass and metal desk, and began to write:

20,073. Male. Caucasian.

Short Story: Between Worlds

The air percussed with bursts of fury and fire. Screams of the fallen pierced off-beats. Somewhere nearby, a chain gun was spinning up. It chattered persistence like angry hornets eternally dive-bombing an aggressor. Overhead, smoke parted, reveal the flit of chopper blades over a blinking belly light.

Seamus Mann, Captain of the Flying Vipers, whirled a pair of fingers in the air imperceptibly. All the same, they prompted shadows to slough from the darkness. The dim lights flickered, disturbances too fast to ever be focused. They ducked, weaved, snaked between burnt out cars, over-turned steel dumpsters.

Falling casings of the sputtering chain-gun formed a lit fuse in the night. It glinted and gleamed from the far-end of a spray of demon’s-fire. The impacts sparked fuel canisters, lit the foreground with explosions. Fire-light sputtered, finally revealing the Vipers’ bodies fully.

They kept low, carbine rifles and PDWs sweeping small arcs from their places in the diamond formation. In their center, kept low and covered, was a cowering figure. It half-fell, scrambled up, urged on Viper before and after it. It crossed light again, resolving further into the wired terror-fatigue of a peasant refugee.

Mann ordered the chopper down. The VIP fell-in, team after him. Mann and his partner and Lieutenant, John Findeberg, covered the team from either side of the doors. They piled in and ascended with the chopper, disappearing behind a flicker of smoke.

Across the team’s vision, “Mission Complete” appeared.

They emerged from the V-R headsets to the tread-milled floors of the stadium. The overhead lines feeding their electronics went slack. The noise-canceling headphones and aural VR gave way to the cheering crowd, coaxing them to normality after the jarring shift between worlds.

Mann relaxed to see their opponents doing likewise, however more sullen. He eyed the scoreboard, but if there’d been doubts, they weren’t his. He graciously congratulated the team, then planted a sloppy, wet one on Findeberg before the teams shook hands and hustled from the arena.

The cheering victory meshed seamlessly with the introduction of the next match, and after a quick shower, the Vipers made to celebrate and join the festivities. John and Seamus went along, drank and smoked their shares, deliberately catching the rest of the night’s tournament.

In the end, its outcome was less important than studying the games themselves, their players. All the same, Seamus had no doubts they’d make the championship. The team was sloshed now, but only two games remained ’til the championship.

Tomorrow, the Vipers would face London-based Churchill’s Heat. If history held, it would be a tough fight. Ultimately, the Vipers would win. It wasn’t arrogance. Seamus simply understood what made a team work well together. The SAS had done that for him, at least. More importantly though, John understood it. And Cammie and Cherry. And Mack and Jones.

They were all aware of it; communication. In-game and out.

That was what Seamus had brought to the table long, long ago, why he’d been made Captain. Before the Vipers ever went pro. Indeed, before they were the Vipers. To function well as a team in any setting, two things had to be certain; a chain of command and the assurance of no personal interference come game-time.

For the most part, that’s how things were. For Mann, the team, the league even, it was their no drug-policy. Not for fear of an edge but from its clouding the mind worse than any substance ever could. Exceptions existed, of course, but this one’s were so few as to be unworthy of mention until relevant.

2AM, Seamus escorted John’s stumbling-drunk form through the hotel suite door and to the bedroom. He shot down the cloying demands for sloppy sex, too sober anyhow. He insisted John sleep, slipping out in the mean-time to mix himself a scotch-rocks.

The suite door rustled the carpet, preceding heavy, tamping feet entering behind him. Seamus didn’t need to look; goons beside an equally goonish, rotund mafioso. These were the only types rude enough not to knock but smart enough not to kick the door down.

“This’ a private room. What d’ya want?”

An almost charming laugh. “Seamus Mann, Captain of the Flying Vipers, a team set to take the championship this year. A pleasure.”

Seamus downed his drink, poured another. He rounded on the men, confirming his suspicions entirely, and stepped to the counter between them. “You know who I am. I couldn’t give a cunt’s fuck who you are. I’ll say it again, this’a private room, what fuck d’you want?”

The mafioso eyed his goons. “Not going to offer your guest a drink?

“Guests are invited. You’re an intruder,” Seamus corrected.

The nearest goon laughed, “Like ‘e’d be able to do sum’in ’bout it any’ow.”

Seamus kept silent, awaiting the inevitable answer. Finally the Mafioso seemed to recognize his need to oblige.

“Very well,” he began. “You’ll lose your game tomorrow. Or I’ll return. You don’t want that.”

Seamus was profoundly amused. He laughed once, spine stiff, and threw down his scotch. He thumped it on the counter, resigned to the reality the man had faced him with. The man’s utter contempt echoed through the silence.

Seamus poured himself another, pushed past the goons to face the mafioso at arm’s length. “Yeah, aw’right. Be seein’ ya then.” He sipped his drink, never breaking eye contact, and swallowed. Then, with a deadpan, he eyed the door. “Now fuck off, Sally.”

The mafioso’s eye twitched. He nodded to his men, made for the door, hesitated there, “Lose, or I’ll be back.”

The door shut. Seamus smiled to himself.

The next night, he stood in the hotel suite’s kitchenette, waiting with glass in-hand and a bottle before him. It was as much a celebration as a eulogy. The Vipers were headed to the championship against Cambridge’s Castle Wrackers. Churchill’s Heat had put up one hell of a fight over a series of bomb-runs and S&D matches.

It was a well-earned victory, close, but even then Seamus would’ve been satisfied for that battle as an end rather than the upcoming championship. The Wrackers were push-overs. The Heat had the same spark of greatness the Vipers had. He almost felt it a shame to put them down. Then again, they fought well, and without hard feelings, that was more important in the league.

Seamus let John go out partying without him for a bit, kept him safe and occupied while he awaited for the mafioso’s manifesting. He hoped to get through it in time to drink too, celebrate, but the night wasn’t wasted so long as John remained safe.

The mafioso finally manifested across the suite from Seamus only a half-hour later than he’d hoped. The guy was almost-impressed that Seamus faced him so willingly. He smiled, nodded. His goons drew their weapons and fired. Smoke and plaster filled the air over wooden debris.

Seamus was gone.

The furthest goon dropped to a knee. An ethereal shimmer was swallowed by flashing steel. A blade punched through the goon’s throat, spray-painting the air with blood. Another breath. The blade disappeared. The remaining men reeled in terror. The ethereal shape withdrew. The blade flicked, decapitated the second goon. A final, resonant note of air and steel, relieved the mafioso of his upper-skull.

Bodies fell about, leaking blood and bodily fluids as the ethereal form re-solidified. Seamus set the blade aside to sip his scotch. He winked on a mil-grade HUD implant, engaged the comm-dialer, and spoke only his address and room number.

These weren’t the first idiots to have tried. He doubted they’d be the last. The SAS had taught him that, and more. Especially after the ghosting-Augs and gene therapy had ensured he’d never be able to do anything as poorly as a normal human. It was fine, he didn’t mind anyhow. All that gear was just going to waste in him otherwise. All that mattered was John and the team were safe.

He checked the time on his watch, showered. He returned to find plastic-suited people securing body-bags and tending to various fluids. With a scrawled check and a signed waiver, he checked his watch again; they’d been timely. He still had a whole night. That was most important. After all, like their communication, the team’s bond was key to their success.

Shame he couldn’t follow the philosophy himself.

Short Story: Dead Men

It wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t. Not in a million years. Jake was dead. The trial was over. Martin was cleared of all suspicion. He’d done everything right. He’d passed all the detectors. His lawyer had made all the right arguments. Yet here he was, staring at what appeared to be a live image of Jake Cooper; recent adulterer and still-fresh corpse. The body hadn’t begun to decompose yet.

It had to be a tech trick, he knew. There was no explanation otherwise. He’d broken Jake’s neck himself. Felt the snap. He’d done it in just right, too. He’d had to. Otherwise, there would’ve been no doubts of reality.

As it was, he’d almost cooked his own goose leaving evidence suggesting he knew of the affair. The prosecution had a field day with that. Both Martin and his lawyer stood firm; he knew, but he’d still been deciding how to handle it. He was torn between disbelief and refusal to admit it to himself.

It worked. That was what mattered. The courts, the jury, the judge, his lawyer, everyone believed his version. They believed, per usual, he and Jake had been drinking heavily at his home; that he’d passed out on the couch; that Jake got up to piss; that inebriated as he was– and his BAC concluded– he fell, broke his neck against the bathroom sink; that he wasn’t found until Martin awoke around noon, hung-over and in a panic.

Everyone believed it. All of it. It was a masterful play. One for the ages. If he could only tell someone.

Courtney was still off somewhere, quietly mourning the asshole dicking her despite the five-year relationship with Martin. She was the type to want cake and eat it too. Or in this case, want cock and eat it too. He should’ve known years ago.

He found out in the most mundane way. It still angered him to think about it. He deserved better than looking at Courtney’s phone, being suddenly met with Jake slamming her from behind. Hell, they’d been friends twenty years. He wasn’t even snooping. He was looking for something from an old party. A picture of the two of them. If he’d wanted to snoop, he would have.

But then, there it was: her getting railed from behind. In front of a dirty mirror. Her face half-visible and Jake’s blotted out by the flash. All the same, Martin recognized the tattoos, had seen that filthy mirror often enough. He didn’t need to guess anything.

In hindsight, Martin was proud of himself; of his handling of things. Premeditated murder notwithstanding. He didn’t fly off the handle, and for all he knew, Courtney still wasn’t sure he’d seen the picture. The trial’s nonspecific terms, and his own lies, put the revelation on a discussion that had never taken place. The conversation said the adultery was formed of another, drunken circumstance. Courtney too, enjoyed getting shit-faced. And dicked too. The two collided.

She was just lucky he couldn’t bring himself to off her too.

Martin had killed Jake with his bare hands. Premeditated. No fit of passion. No irrational rage. Rather simple, measured vengeance. Intentional. Indifferent. Not cold. Not hot. It just was.

Just as it was that Jake now stared at Martin from the other side of a vid-call.

Tech. Pre-recorded.

But Jake didn’t know shit about computers. He worked janitorial. He wasn’t the brightest bulb. For that matter, neither was Martin. Nonetheless, he didn’t know shit about tech. He could barely program numbers into his cellphone– though apparently he knew how to coordinate taking a photo with dogging his best-friend’s girl.

The dead-stare in Jake’s face contained the slightest hint of amusement. It told of more to the state of things than a simple VOIP-call.

“SurprisedI’m back from the dead?” Jake asked suddenly. Martin vaguely noticed his own repulsion. “I seethe terror in your face. Don’t worry. My death’s our little secret… for now. I just wanted you to know why I did it. I figured the time would come, sooner or later, when you’d find out.”

Martin cast aside all doubts of a recorded message. It was clear by his implication. Jake managed to pre-record and program a vid-call. He wasn’t sure he’d ever known how to, but he was too focused now to care.

“Fact is, Mart, you’ve always been a cunt.” Martin reeled. “Can’t say I really cared for you most of the time, but brothers’re brothers, right? Can’t choose your family. Just happens. Something kept us friends all these years. Until…”

“Until you start railing Courtney, you fucking asshole,” Martin blurted.

There was a laugh. Too on-point and lag-free to be software. Or maybe not. Fucking eerie. It forced a shudder along Martin’s spine. Goosebumps rippled his limbs.

Jake was chuckling, “Yeah. Courtney.” A “hmm” trailed off into an obvious “mmm.” Martin grit his teeth. Jake ignored it, either in life or death, whichever was represented. “Fact is, Marty ol’ boy, you were a cunt. A royal one. You treated her in accordance with that mentality. You manipulated her with small nudges, quiet words. Everything an asshole does.

“And you drove her straight to me. And I let you. Because she deserved better. Hell, you didn’t even know how to fuck ‘er. Just spasmed on top’a her like a dying fish. Then you had the nerve to go and off me for giving her what she wanted. What she needed.”

Martin’s eyes doubled in size.

“Oh yeah, I know. Dead or not, I know.” He smiled, chuckled. “Funny thing is, Martin, I know a helluva lot more’n you do. A helluva lot more’n you think. For instance, I know how to wire an entire apartment for video and sound without making it look it. I know how to continuously offload that data to an encrypted, remote-server, to spool forever– or until the cameras are destroyed.

“I also know how to automate a botnet to search for relevant news keywords and program it to await specific phrases. For example, “Idiot fuckhead cleared of murder charges in killing of friend.” Then have it send the collected data… well, wherever I want. To an old girlfriend, say.”

Martin’s pulse began to race. He wanted to flee, knew it would do no good. Not yet. He had to know the rest. Had to know what else he was missing.

Jake smiled; a sinister smile. It told Martin more was coming than he wanted. “I know how and when to strike to get the best drop on people. I also happen to know there’s no conceivable way a dead man can be convicted of murder. Even if he were, I know he wouldn’t have two shits to give anyhow.”

The sinister smile tightened. Darkened corners emerged in Jake’s face that terrified Martin. He’d never seen such a monstrous creature before, especially not one in the guise of someone he knew so well.

“Most of all, Martin, I know if you mix a series of house-hold chemicals into a clay-like block and place it in the vicinity of a proper, electrical charge, it will level a building. A charge that, say, could easily be generated by the short in an overclocked computer chip.”

Martin was up, fleeing. Malevolent laughter followed him. He bridged half the distance to his door. Then, nothing– for dead men do nothing more.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: The Cracking Spade

The rumble of a diesel idle,
sounds through a still,
and dead-quiet night.
Elsewhere,
its echoes are drowned,
in the crack of an earth-splitting spade.

Day-old death,
lingers long after diesel leaves.
Still the spade cracks,
forming the shallow grave,
meant to entomb a truth,
no-one will know exists.

Somewhere, close-by,
scavengers have awoken.
Called by promise of decay,
they follow their noses to the sound.

In the shadows they linger.
Unbidden. Unseen.
E’er circling, e’er waiting,
to strike.
More and more,
accustomed to the spade.

Going unheard,
as they chance closer looks,
hidden by the moonless sky,
they are, as if, non-existent.

When at last the spade pauses,
it has long been too late.
The wretches are in place,
breath stinging the air.

The spade rises,
but cracks no more.
Rises in place.

Then falls,
bearing witness,
to yet another,
fading cry.

Short Story: Rock ‘n Roll Lifestyle

Scents of fresh cigarette smoke mingled with stale beer and dry sweat; the same scents that greeted Ethan every early afternoon at work. The painful truth of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle was that it didn’t really exist, never had. In fact, one of the few things it accurately claimed to have was long nights and late mornings, and even those weren’t the same, really. Fringe benefits, Ethan called them, hard truths of sound engineering for the local dive.

That’s all he could ever think to call the Club. It had an official name, but nobody used it– a claim to Ethan’s generational droves offlowing apathy. The Club wasn’t a club. It wasn’t even a bar, though it had one. It was a collection point for the aimless and brainless to nightly smash into each other. If they weren’t doing that, they were smashing other shit into their brains or veins. Regardless of its seeming differences, the road taken was always the same: ride the groove of the latest, least-audibly offensive metal jocks stuck in Podunk like the rest.

Every night was roughly the same. Unless the joint was bust from a cancellation, the band or bands arrived, set up, ran sound check, then lingered until their slot whilstdoing their best not to drink away the night’s profit. Most did. If, after the long wait, they were still fit to play, they went onto the makeshift stage and did their best to murder a set or two. By the end of it, the drinkers were drunk, the stoners were high, and everyone else was everywhere in between.

More often than not, Ethan watched from behind the mixing board. Drugs and booze made their way through the crowds. He could always tell the inebriated minors from the crowd; they didn’t move in time with it, as if knowing they stood out and completely incapable of helping it. No one cared. What was a few wasted teenagers to a crowd?

It wasn’t just the music and intoxicants that drew the kids either. The girls did their best too. If the bartenders and concession girls didn’t appeal, there were always the few regulars– cougars and their younger counterparts on the hunt for more stamina and cum than brains. Sometimes, even the occasional flamer or dyke surfed the crowd. Like the others, they too, found their select few to get something from or give something to.

Ethan still laughed at the thought of his closest brush with the rock ‘n roll lifestyle: He went to piss, walked in on a freshmen poking “Lightning Lucy.” She was fast, easy. Before Ethan knew what was happening, he was suddenly double-teaming Lucy with the freshmen– who was more and more jealous of the fact.

But Lucy was quick and easy because she wanted to be. It made life easier. The last thing she wanted was strings. By the end of it, Ethan figured he’d done the kid a favor: gave him a story to tell and made the break easier. The last thing anyone wanted was a love-sick hanger-on, Lucy especially.

That was the closest Ethan had come to the rock ’n roll lifestyle he’d been promised. Even then, he had a hard time believing it had happened. Life was hardly as fast and easy as the legends made it sound. Mostly, it was standard fare; sit at a board, keep the lights green, and ensure no-one skipped out on the tab.

Maybe that was why it felt like every other day to Ethan. Maybe it was just his generation’s total apathy from the knowledge that they’d missed “the good ole’ days.” Maybe it was nothing, or everything, or some of one thing and a little or none of another. All he knew, was after the fact, he knew even less than he’d thought he did.

He took his place behind the board to watch the lights. The latest incarnation of wannabe rock-star nobodies were on stage. They droned on with the same bullshit metal sound Ethan heard night after night. There was nothing original in town nowadays. The only thing that distinguished one set of screeching vocals and open-string pounding from the next were the various shades of gray eyes or their faces. The bands around were as dead as the horse their music beat.

The guys on-stage that day were no different. The only thing even relatively noteworthy was their singer’s utter lack of vocal enthusiasm. He looked like a caricature of late Floyd-era Syd Barret; on stage, head down, guitar hanging; no life whatsoever to him. The only real indication of his continued existence was the noises emanating from below his head. He seemed to be doing his best to do nothing at all, and was succeeding expertly– not that he’d have noticed nor cared. Someone had left a hang-dog expression hanging too long, and this was the result.

The drummer finally exploded with rage, angry at another night potentially ruined. It was then the singer came to life… in the most awful way Ethan’s apathetic generation could muster. He rounded toward the drummer, suddenly raised a loaded .45.

Where it came from, Ethan still wasn’t sure, all he knew was the sound of a round fired off into the drummer’s forehead. Then another, into the bass player as he booked it for the door. The third cut down the rhythm guitarist at the edge of the risers. After him, one-by-one, went all of the crew and the hangers-on that had tried to flee but weren’t quite fast enough.

The barrel angled onto Ethan and the frozen, deer in the headlights expression remained unchanged. The rampaging frontman stopped, stared. To an outsider, he looked as if trying to decide if Ethan were a man or an armless marble statue. Something suddenly shifted in the guy’s face. The gun turned on the shooter, and the guy let himself out as he had his mates.

Through all of it, Ethan was frozen, petrified. Terror had coursed through his veins. He was terrified, of course, but also utterly confused and entirely confused. A creature of such despair and hang-dogged emptiness had managed to erupt into a ball of fire. It was as if the last pocket of existence inside a formless shell had burst forth to ensure it be remembered, for good or ill. It was safe to say it had completed its task.

Ethan was more concerned for himself; a dozen people were murdered in front of him, and he could do nothing but blink. For a while, he wondered if someone had slipped him acid or peyote again. Instead, the police and EMT’s arrived to find him standing, staring, traumatized.

It took a long while to coax him back to reality. In the end, he returned from his curious fugue state unharmed carried on with life. The Club eventually began functioning again too, as much as it could be said to. Ethan wasn’t sure what life he nor it led, but something told him neither qualified as rock ‘n roll.