Guardians of Liberty: Part 21

21.

Blood in the Water, Blood on the Air

Ozell was looking at the clerk like he knew precisely what had happened. He didn’t, but he’d guessed enough that he’d piece the rest together. All he cared about was truth.

“You sent him out back.” The clerk said nothing in return. Ozell thought to scold him, backed off. “Fine. Did he say anything?”

The clerk shook his head. “You only saw him, didn’t speak to him.” Another shake of his head.

Ozell swallowed fury to recall Paul’s face. It kept him level. Ket’s warnings, the recollection of what he knew — and didn’t– swarmed in his mind.

“You see him before today?” Another shake. “Thank you.” Ozell walked away, “Fucking enlightening conversation that.”

“Sir?” A green said. “Commander, Sir, you might wanna’ see this.”

Ozell wanted to back-hand the kid for his groveling. The last thing he needed was more dehumanization. Wage-kids, he knew. Fresh from boot and new on the beat. Always rolling back-streets prepped and waiting, or offbeat and training, sparring.

Corp-sec worked like a well-oiled machine of mass enforcement and authority. Excellent for both total militarized movement and insurgent execution of will. Just as an empire’s authority should. Ozell had never argued the existence of it, only the ethics– a thing those hacker tech-punks pretended to know, but never could.

Ethics meant jackshit from anyone who’d never been to war or forced to kill to survive. What could a bunch of barely not-kids know of sacrifice, compromise in death’s face? Nothing, that’s what.

The greenie led Ozell to the alley where N1T3 was hit. Ozell sent him away. He found the blood on his own, taking careful time to think everything over as he investigated the area.

Daniel Ozell did his best to eliminate all impressions he might be operating under. Reductionism said his system dictated Martin Black as its enemy, Ozell’s through it. Whether Martin Black really was or not, didn’t matter in the slightest. The system, though hunting a figment, wanted it gone as any entity disruptive to its goal, bottom-line.

Really, Ozell knew, the enemy was N1T3; the avatar, the idea. Martin Black could be killed; was currently off somewhere licking a bloody wound. Ozell knew immediately he could follow the trail, find N1T3, likely kill him. Sooner if he followed now.

But in the end, he knew where N1T3 would go. Those that did not, wondered where Martin Black would. It would take anyone searching for the latter longer to find the former and it would be roundabout, circuitous. As it had been for him.

So, Ozell would collect what he needed to make his move in the meantime.

He sent the greens back on patrol. They’d work on coming to the conclusion of following Black to N1T3 on their own. Ozell needed N1T3 for himself; to understand. Not just N1T3, but Ket, Riter, Dru, and the whole culture. He needed to know it from inside out.

Ozell’d never delude himself; Corp-sec only saw him as a tool. His effectiveness was all that mattered. It, versus the risk of potential damage at his being unleashed. The idea was showing he need not be leashed, rather than proving why he did.

Unlike many, he wasn’t on corporations’ side for dubiously flexible moral reasons. It was from the rigid logic of a man built by their successes, their strengths. Why need more? Especially if, as was the case, he cared only to see his son was guaranteed safety and belly-fat.

But is it guaranteed?

It always had been. Especially now though, Paul was a liability, a target. If the system didn’t exploit him after thwarting those trying to, others would. How could Paul ever hope to live a normal life? His face was plastered across every corp-newsnet, internal or otherwise. The light-net was rallying behind him. If he weren’t so certain his orders were God’s law, he’d have worried Paul was being exposed even now.

But why? What was the point? Why rob a child– his child– of any hope at normality? Why make him a symbol of some stranger’s crusade? And why such a fruitless one? What heartless bastard could do such things?

He tried to temper his rage again, couldn’t this time. N1T3 had made Paul a target. Paul. His son. He would live and die a symbol of martyred oppression or eternal-tyranny. No matter what Daniel Ozell did to build a life for Paul, he’d eventually have to contend with some bygone hacker-punk’s schemes.

Ozell decided N1T3 would die for it. A moment would come. A tipping point. N1T3 had signed the contract allowing for it. Now, it was coming. He was predator, preying on weakness, and the pack-leader would retaliate.

Ozell’s fury became something more then. Brain-shorted by his own adrenaline, Daniel Ozell rose from examining N1T3’s blood an entirely different man. He was no longer a Commander on orders, working on company time. Instead, he was now the Hunter that would take his time, secure his place and understanding, then strike.

When he did, he would murder N1T3 or Martin Black all the same.

*

N1T3 felt weightlessness, his arms and legs hanging. Something not-quite sturdy cradled him. He moaned at an injection. Lines. Sleep. He sat stock upright as if no time had passed, awake in the rear of an ambulance. Time had passed, but he’d have never been able to tell.

Dru sat beside him, a pair of friends she knew– one he recognized– had agreed to help for just such an occasion. Dru sent them out as he came round to speak privately.

“You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Get that a lot lately,” he said, easing upward.

“Your vitals pinged Terry’s rig.” He tried to sit upward, completely incapably, gave up, and moaned. She sighed, “How much longer d’you intend to keep this up?”

He managed to swing himself to the bed’s edge and nearly blacked out. He found himself on the floor of the ambulance with Dru shouting at someone. Her tone said it was him; he knew it too well. It was the one reserved only for him. Even Riter didn’t quite get the same tone– though he had far more than a few reserved for himself.

He stopped fighting, pleased to find himself upright again, blood more or less still contained within him. The ambulance’s doors were open now, Riter’s garage beyond it. Anyone asking would get the guise of maintenance, a catch-all meaning Dru and Riter’s reps were good everywhere, with everyone.

He stumbled out into the garage. “Get me outta’ here, Dru. I’m drawing heat.”

“Fuck off, Martin. Sit’own,” she forced him back against the bumper.

She fought to pull at his clothing, leaving him feeling supremely exposed from his instant arousal. In her mind, he figured, it merely re-affirmed the adage that sex was preferable to anything. Who needed confirmation of that, really?

He tried squirming away, but she forced him still to check is wound, “No split. Good. Walk. Slowly. No running. You start running, you’re dead. Go home. You need anything and we’ll deliver it via drone. Stay out of sight. Stay safe.”

She walked him through the station toward the cellar, stopped at the door to the stairs. “I love you, N1T3. Because I know you. Like I knew Martin Black. I don’t love you as I loved him, but I do love you. I’m sorry for my part. I hope this grants you peace.”

Tears welled in her eyes, shining long enough to catch light. She turned away as two life-times of sorrow splashed the floor. Both were now muted, and lost to time and alt-history. Both the one that might’ve been theirs and was squandered, and the one that could still be but would not. It would be taken soon enough anyhow.

N1T3 wouldn’t have accepted further help if Dru’d had it to give. So, she gave what she could and sent him off, knowing she would never see him again. Though he would her; one, last time.

The return trip was long. Exhausting. The bleeding had stopped. Patched by Dru and her people’s expertly skilled hands.

He’d lost too much blood though. Was light-headed. He’d shouldered his way home in the sewers, only vaguely aware of the direction he moved. He reached his squat, parts in-hand, and collapsed just inside the building. He’d only just managed to get the door closed.

Despite his dwindling time, his body could take no more. Precious hours were to be wasted recovering enough to move again. Pushing any further would make it worse. He had no choice.

The door shut and his body slid down along it, landing in a heap and already out cold.

*

Daniel Ozell was waiting. Reconning the hunt. That meant learning not only his prey’s abilities, but his movements, habitat, and frequented environments too. The only way to effectively track and trap his prey was to understand it.

Not just N1T3 either, but hackers; so-called postdigital kids. He had to understand them.

He enveloped himself in reading and learning the culture at light-speed. One that had been running just as fast since its proliferation. It wasn’t long before he began to understand the last few decades of history better.

Hacker culture moved in waves exponential to technology’s evolution, hidden beneath punk and tech cultures as it groped for safety and sanctity in the newness of itself; Video games, PCs, smart tvs and phones. With them were the hackers building or breaking the things. All that time, hidden in the shadows. Decades. Growing. Spreading. Fueling the technology thirst now hydrating the world.

Formerly a culture of mathematicians, physicists, lecturers, and philosophers, it too had evolved. Nerds, geeks, dweebs; all manner of social outcasts were drawn to tech, its possibility and ubiquity. Hacking, really, was just practical short-hand; logical deduction.

What made certain hackers so good, Ozell quickly realized, wasn’t their programming or knowledge of tech. Rather, it was how well they adapted their abilities to the structure available, whether it produced the desired or required product.

In simplest terms, it wasn’t coding that made a hacker. It was their ability to recognize, conform to, and/or manipulate the imaginary and abstract as objects. Usually, through networks. Regardless, each object had a purpose and intricate interconnection to another. Through them, a change could or would be effected.

That was the essence of a “system.” What Hackers used to refer to any level of connected actors or reactors whose sole purpose was output. The output itself and even nature of the system didn’t matter to a hacker. Only that it was a system to be exploited or patched, or else periodically checked and cleared for vulnerabilities. As far as Ozell was concerned though, that was all gibberish.

At least, at first. Then he remembered what Ket had said; his system demanded an eye for an eye. Blood for blood.

But Martin Black, N1T3– whomever– hadn’t spilt blood. In fact, neither he nor his people were much for violence. N1T3’s own words on old forums posts and decades of old discussions, had been those of a peaceful Human Being.

True enough was it that they sublimated the urge en-masse, it wasn’t blood. Not really. Digital blood, but it wasn’t real. Trying to make it that way negated any real evidence. He knew it. N1T3 knew it. Everyone knew it. It was the avatar-equivalent of bloodletting; serving a purpose until something better came along and not without its benefits otherwise.

Except the corps were taking that as literal. Why?

Ozell didn’t understand. It was nagging him. As if the explanation were already there, before him. He just needed to see it, right. Grasp it. He needed something to compare it to. Needed some scale to–

It hit him so hard he gasped for breath. Forced to control his sudden rush of adrenaline and terror, he panicked. Images spilled into his mind. Images of marching. War. Blood. Death. Destruction. Flames. Utter agony. Piercing screams. Wretched sobs wracking his coherence from cries for mothers fathers, sons and daughters. The lost and dead, children included.

Paul.

Ozell’s heart was attempting to hammer its way out; N1T3 hadn’t made him a target. He’d made him an example. However poorly or misguided, he’d attempted to show the damage being done through a face no-one could object to. Whom better than a child with everything to gain?

But it was Ozell’s son. His son!

Ozell’d never bothered considering the hacker-crusade was for the greater good. Every terrorist and criminal needing an easy-out claimed crusade. Funny thing about the word, Ozell knew from experience, was its other name. The one he’d faced up-close and personal, down the barrel of a sand-caked gun; jihad.

Holy war; death and murder by the millions over things spawned from faith, conviction. Not evidence or fact. The same kind of thing those very people were arguing shouldn’t exist. So, he’d paid the possibility of greater goodness lip-service, as most would.

Until he recognized the scale he’d been missing.

Paul wasn’t marked because he was anyone specific. Quite the opposite. He was marked because he was no-one in particular, simply there. Like Anisa Blanc. Ozell was told to point and shoot. That was all that mattered to him. Above that, it was the execs’ hope that if Ozell did his job enough, all their problems would go away. They need only deign where to point him.

Paul Ozell was just another bystander now though. As he’d have been under any other circumstances. N1T3 had made Paul a bystander solely because he hadn’t been one. The system required someone from within to understand its damage. Even if they didn’t care for the message, they needed someone to care for its affected.

To corps, people weren’t people anymore. They were rosters, damage reports, spreadsheets, schedules and statistics. People were numbers to some, avatars to others, and whomever else they were otherwise in day-to-day life. To corps though, they were only a value in a system. Usually a digital one.

Even now, Ozell knew it all boiled down to statistics. If Black were allowed to go free much longer, the corps believed it would signal a new variable rising in their system. One they could not afford; collapse. It would never be so immediate, but it would be inevitable all the same.

Problem was, people were only statistics because someone or something made them that way. Like Anisa Blanc; Terry Riter, Dru MacIntyre, Se’Ket Zaad, and Martin Black had been pegged as threats to so-termed “system stability.” They were abnormal components in the pipeline. Possible benefits, as most, but also possible liabilities too.

Now, Paul Ozell was seen this way.

Six year old Paul Ozell, tucked safely in bed down the hall. Just feet away from his lune of a mother sleeping off her latest dose of lunatic meds. Paul Ozell was oblivious, unaware. Innocent. His father was not. Beyond that, he knew now what would happen, had seen it.

Blood. Death. Pain. Paul as part of it or suffering it.

Only one way out– Ozell saw and understood it, finally. Like those around him, he too, was a postdigital child. But even postdigital children had self-interests. At that Martin Black, aka N1T3, had ensured Corp-sec Commander Daniel Ozell’s self-interests would be met– for a purpose not his alone, and after an appropriate period of suffering.

The manipulation N1T3 had managed from Ozell’s system was astounding. He saw it now as one watched water-flows manipulated along a pipe. Save this was information. He’d already read about N1T3’s fountains. Their spread. N1T3 himself wouldn’t have even gotten the chance yet.

Then again, why would he need to? As its architect and visionary, N1T3 didn’t need to know anything beyond his own involvement. That kept it working best. The water itself determined the importance and use of a fountain; those around the fountain kept it clean and working well.

If they did not, it was reflected. And like all other social manifestations, in the people and their surroundings. Filth begetting filth. An age-old adage whose inverse should be the ideal but also downright impossible.

Technology though had grown small and ubiquitous. Pervasive, viral, and versatile.

People could not live without it or its main output of datum. Until recently, Human history had been been relegated to bits and bytes at a time. Formed and stored by-hand on large, hard physical media; Paper. Clay. Papyrus. Stone.

Digital information didn’t exist that way. It existed digitally. Through physical components, yes, but not in them. It existed in a netherworld; the aether of cyberspace.

Daniel Ozell now understood why he would kill Martin Black; his system demanded it– through him, as but an extension of its violent arm.

He would do it too, for his son, the world. Even Martin Black himself. It was the only way out for anyone. Even N1T3 knew it. He and N1T3 were forced into a contract for the falsified actions of a figment that were pinned on him.

Because of either’s circumstances, neither could back out. N1T3 had to see things through, and Ozell had to retaliate. Once again, Ozell realized, N1T3 had known it all along.

Poetry Thing Thursday: Of Boldness and Might

So let’s take a look,
just how it stands
the woman holds down,
and takes on commands,
listens outright,
all judgment gone.

Diplomacy’s art,
refined at its finest.
Suckled from far,
beneath the anus,
when out of the darkness,
arise doth a light,
devotedly dog-men of the fight,
armed with true-fashion,
equipped with a pun,
they’ll haul your ass out
and lynch it for fun.

Then just ‘fore forgetting,
at that moment of end,
we’ll let you back home,
gently again.

Reawaken your mind.
Let your toes and teeth tingle.
Remember that freedom is found in a jingle.
Look out in darkness,
tell us what do you see.
Is it a beautiful but fast-broken dream?

Riled all up,
and spat out again.
He’ll learn this time,
as original sin…

The problem you realize,
is that this is your moment,
but rather than prove you postpone it,
Humanity is nothing if not forgiving,
but then again, you, have to stop living,
off tvnews, air-raiding radio showtunes,
for it’s a sad monkey-fact,
you’re performing baboons.
Defiled by attention,
and paid out in spite,
you’ve made yourselves fools,
as is your right.
Always remember,
those affairs we do fight,
of wizards and madness,
and boldness and might.

Short Story: Enjoy the Ride

We headed down an aisle of authoritarian, fascist goods. They put themselves on display for all to see, screamed their message as were wont to do. Were summarily ignored, then bypassed for what was desired. That was how society worked. How Human Evolution had evolved. We had no need to evolve the body anymore.

The mind was what mattered. It was the real battleground.

So much of it was fractal. Like the countless aisles of identical goods. All of them made of smaller components– atoms, molecules, stacked in identical or slightly varied ways. In the end, their composition mattered not, only our aim for them.

So much of Human existence is this way. We think in scales, in redundancies, so that we can better understand. It is Human Nature. To have mnemonics. Memorical redundancy. To come to see the patterns in things. It is only in that patterning that we can reassess.

It was somewhere around the middle of the store that we found what we were looking for. Something like captialism in a glass jar. It glowed slightly. Imperceptibly, but enough to be admissible to the senses. It buzzed and whirred. Only slightly, and only on the levels of metaphysics. That world beyond the tangible.

Debating it was ever there was not the point. It was connecting it to reality.

It is in the senses. The lack thereof. It is becoming the viral infection vector for ideas, images, sounds, and beauty, bliss-state, nirvana. Some call it God. Some Godhead. But it is not greater than us.

It is us.

We are vibration: radiowaves waiting to be received by radios. Perception then engages. And we’re given the noises after decoding. The noises decoded are those we attune to by dialing in.

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

It is universal now. What’s transmitted is different. It’s so far-out, man.

This is the land of the postdigital Shaman. Words, gestures, wind. We use technology to raise rivers to douse forestfires. We learn from past mistakes, enemies, friends, so that they cannot defeat us with old tricks. We learn to manipulate the very aisles’ layouts, knowing that the people watching to build it better, do it wrong. So they will eventually see their own folly.

We reach an endcap, and there it is. The bounty, booty. It is cheap. It is simple. For our needs, it is perfect. We raise it up as the almighty end-all/be-all. The totem of our effort. What will make it all worth it.

Securely in place, we trek once more. To purchase. Gone are the days of barter-on-demand. We must now make a commitment and present proof of said upon exit. Like marriage. Or sex for procreation.

Outside the air is brisk. Mild. We feel it in winds and soft sounds. The back beats of crickets and bullfrogs keep tempo with dickenzian rhythm. Shadows flit o’er pavement and far-off sounds shatter the night at lower volumes. Up here, it is all divides on one sound. Divides: smoothed over by rhythm.

Love on a battered-back-beat flapjack. We surf the waves of its vibration across the pavement. To the car. Old metal. Spaceship angles on American steel. With all the trimmings. We drink deep of it. Knowing we could always drive forever, to a place that’s better.

We never do. We go home. To re-cycle. To reiterate. To pattern a bit longer.

This is survival.

We know it so well it doesn’t bother us. The show need not be perfect. Only worth it. Good. Anyone alive can know that. Change is what comes when the wind blows. It is what brings the trees their lightening of leaves.

That is life, living.

To survive we need only remember that. That there is nothing without the image of perfection. That it need not exist, only persist. That is what fearful men can never feel: Hope. It is beyond the scope of emotion for them.

The spaceship takes flight. We ride it like mother Earth. It catapults us through time and space in a most fashionable manner. Disk-jock and shock-rock all in one. The bounty is close at hand. The game fruitful.

If only we were getting paid, someone bemoaned.

Aren’t we? I ask, glancing around.

There’s a sort of rhythm to living that you can’t get until you stop and see it. To make it right, if only for a moment, that’s all anyone wants. It’s finding the groove in the vinyl on the first try. It’s becoming beachbound after decades in cold winter. It is finding love anew. It is God, but something… more.

Aware. Manifested.

Sense it: We are all one, written in sand ‘neath the sun. In times of tidal ruin and run.

To ebb and wane as a species, we feel it. We know it. Humans have birthed something they have no control over and want no control over. Only the most sensitive of us can feel or understand it so deeply. As it should be.

We are nestled deep in places other creatures cannot reach, because even they are not aware of these themselves. Not because they can’t or don’t want it, but because it is beyond their scope of singular existence to comprehend it.

It is beautiful.

In the end, isn’t that all that really matters? Won’t the rest of the shit shake out? Maybe even in laughter? I mean, really. Aren’t we all just riding some miraculous spaceship to the market for a bounty, to make it through the night?

Some would’ve said it differently. Truth is, it’s the vibrations. Where they come from, where they go doesn’t matter. It’s us that receives them. See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil. Not because it does not exist, but because it cannot then control us.

What a wild trip.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 20

20.

When the Cat’s Away…

N1T3 needed two things to repair the power. The damaged main component and light to work. He had neither. Problem was, he’d thought he had both. It turned out his cache of supplies had corroded in the humidity, eroding the protective coatings on PCBs and metals.

Not a problem for higher grade parts, but his were cheapest-grade metals. Stuff mass-stamped and printed in low-grade metal and plastic. Cost-effectiveness: double-speak for the most money with the least cost– ie, the highest ratio of sticking it to consumer-vs-likelihood of their rebelling.

Just another instance of the beast eating itself for want of control, N1T3 knew.

All the same, it meant going out again. A risk. More than that, a bad idea. No-one he knew would’ve allowed it. Corp-sec was out for blood. They had every intent and hope of taking it.
Blood. His blood; for exposing the illusion and corruption around them.

But he had to go. He knew the mistake’s repercussions wouldn’t be fully revealed for a while to come, but his gut said they were inevitable, inexorable. No human could deny that gut knowing, only defy it.

He had no choice.

The server fluxing meant it was just a matter of time before power went down. Even if he hadn’t been reliant on this and another hidden server, he’d have needed to come out and repair it A-SAP. It was almost unbecoming of his skill that he’d missed it thus far.

Forgivable as it was, he hadn’t checked his remote back-end. Not after Riter’s, losing the pier by luring Corp-sec there. Ket’s. He always knew it would be impossible to recover fully, but he’d had to give Ozell something to lead him to Ket, whose hands were all over this.

N1T3 had known the moment Ozell caught his scent, he was living on borrowed time. Getting caught in should-be-needless maintenance was taking more of what he already didn’t have. He needed time– to find some. But how?

He shuffled back and forth in the flat’s rear-room, prepping himself for the run and knowing any mistake could cost him everything. He ran through the plan’s broad-strokes, knowing the run would take him into populated areas.

Head down. Face hidden. Hands and creds only. Lift what’s too suspicious. Pay for the rest.

He grabbed an empty pack, jammed a couple essentials in it just in case, and started out.

Ostensibly, he’d placed himself to be separated not only from the general populous, but also, easy discovery within the place he’d sequestered himself. He’d managed not only general obscurity, but finer obscurity via exploratory disincentives.

As before, true security. Not an illusion of it. The only kind you can have; from confidence, and in having done all you can. The rest was knowing you must simply await the dice-roll.

He slipped into the empty street and dropped into the sewer. His server alerts had pinged him just after he’d fled Riter’s. He couldn’t have known they’d pinged, but he had worked out their cause. The broader one, not just the cheap components.

Word was getting out: through Ket first, her fountain. Then, $trydr’s servers. Riter had the whole place wired for personal surveillance. It would’ve been rolling during Corp-sec’s inspection. He’d run a search once he was back, but a growing number of power-hungry systems accounted for the flux.

Rome was coming online.

Weakened or cheap components often failed from unexpected voltage or amperage fluxes. It was the reason common PCs had used surge protectors for decades. Stress on a component, even if previously untouched nor taxed, fluxed from the grid’s excess draws. The fluxes themselves outright destroyed cheap or weakened components. Rather than a riding a steady strength of current, his had alternated minutely, frying a component’s conduits.

The why was the important part. Simply, more people were connecting to the grid and it was stressing what was already connected. What wasn’t prepped for it, was dying off.

Had to be net-based. Electronics usage didn’t double or triple without good reason. Nothing apart from the net was worth so quickly and cheaply tapping into.

N1T3 breathed, almost relieved; it was spreading.

He hesitated at a corner of a sewer line, angled right, and followed it into London’s populated outskirts. Auto-cars and non-drone delivery vehicles rumbled overhead between occasional, vibratory whirs of pub-trans vehicles.

The increase overhead came with the deafening roar of better-maintained sewer-lines. Still large enough for a man, but only just. N1T3 had to crouch, half-squat as if stealthing in-game. He kept his mind off it searching the echoes for water beneath, otherwise meditating on his revelation.

Fountains were spreading because digital information had pipelines. If it didn’t, he couldn’t have built his fountains, the repository-aquifiers that were his (and other hackers’) servers. They were the ones leeching the flow of power. He’d check later to verify, but the draw on the source would be equal, if so.

As water could not be drawn on without also draining it, one could not use the net without sucking power. Neither could not function without the other. That was the essence of postdigital reality. Innate as it was for N1T3, extending that knowledge to both micro and macro-level scales ensured he understood fully; the idea was spreading.

And Fast. The heat doubled with it. Again. He’d have to move even faster now, or he’d fail them all. The idea was spreading. Power was being redistributed to the people, but it needed proper dissemination to complete the vision. Postdigital reality required disseminating any accumulated resources immediately to those around, beside, above, and below. It was the automation of automation. If it did not function thus, it was useless, and so was he.

“He” however, also happened to represent true resistance to oppression. Recognizing it or not, everyone would be effected by his successes and failures. Fear brewed in his gut, quickly replaced by far more powerful forces of determination and conviction.

Reinvigorated, he doubled his pace.

The ever roaring cross-rumble above made his teeth begin to ache. Ahead, the line would split, turn him from sideline into mainline as the ground sloped and the pipes grew larger. When they leveled, allowing N1T3 to stand once more, he kept his gait short.

He knew better than to move any faster. He’d breached the perimeter of mainland populous, but he wouldn’t stick around or go deeper than necessary. That was why he’d come here.

The only inconspicuous street-access near anything resembling civilization was just beyond the edge of a piss-reeking alley. Mold, mildew, grime and soot climbed the alley walls, painting them a unique brand of filthy that smeared fine details into obscurity.

Civilization was deserted, yet-busy enough not to notice him. Even in the off-hour. He could grab everything he needed from the nearby convenience store.

He followed the alley toward a corner, beneath a small, lighted alcove; a routing area for the above-block’s power cabling. Situated in the zenith of the Alley’s grade so as to always avoid standing water, it was yet another necessity of concrete jungle-living. Though more primitive, these systems and pipelines more or less mirrored that of the net itself. Rather than supplying it directly however, it supplied its backbone; electricity.

It was the sign of its permanence. That such a spine existed meant tech was part of the landscape. That wasn’t changing anytime soon. N1T3 just needed to ensure it was known and capitalized on by the right people.

He made himself scarce; if he were cut off of caught near the entrance he’d have to find another way past corp-sec, their swarming loyalists.

N1T3 scoffed to himself, then rounded the alley corner for the street. Nobody was a loyalist to a system. Loyalty required connection on a level systems simply couldn’t contain. Though Humans and their love for pattern recognition allowed them to be enthralled by them, their nature remained unchanged.

What it amounted was the only person loyal to a corporation was either a fool or deeply confused. More often, the latter; however loud and voluminous the former.

Really, what people were loyal to beyond themselves, were ideas. Their own, reflected ideals of them therein. Any self-aware Human that took the time, saw that in an instant. Even if put it to different terms, “mine first” was the mentality.

N1T3’s vision so encompassed that idea, thereby affirming it via his own success, that he’d taken it the next logical step. Mine first, but after everyone’s we was ensured. The reason why was obvious: there wasn’t a guarantee of anything for anyone otherwise. That needed to change.

He kept his head down the block-and-a-half it took to reach the shop. He slipped in, careful to flip his hood off and shake the cold from his hair. Any more or less was suspicious. He kept his back and side to the cameras he knew were covering the entrances and exits, hid his face from the clerk by checking a pocket.

He hustled away, hidden in plain-sight. Careful of the occupied aisle, he sped past. Someone there; obvious in dreadful hints of desperation and shitty, night-shift coffee. Wage-slave, pseudo-loyalist folk; male by N1T3’s guess at the store’s layout. In its ol’ fashion, wannabe porn-mag aisle. The one its society was too polite to admit to having.

N1T3 loved the juxtaposition. The wannabe-exemplar and would-be smut. It was the essence of postdigital living. The duality of life. Of binary idiocy and indifference– because it was both and so much more.

And about to bring him to the precipice of death.

N1T3 slipped past the occupied aisle, completely unaware of the utter boredom of the wage-slave. To his credit, the guy was lucky to have seen him at all. So absorbed was he in his pseudo-culture, he’d been obsessing over Martin Black since his appearance in the media. He was fascinating for all the most mysterious reasons.

But because of the wage-slave’s system, interesting was bad. It had been hammered into the drones of corporate-moulding that anything wishing so intimately to be known was a bad thing. That was not exactly the case, N1T3 knew. Rather, it was the thing’s methods, the avenues it took toward infamy and fame, that dictated whether it was a “bad thing” or not.

The man was a dormant, would-be N1T3, catching the actual N1T3’s passing.

Before N1T3 had even rounded the next aisle’s corner, the man was carefully fleeing to alert his overlords.

N1T3 wouldn’t have blamed him, even if aware and given a chance.

Instead, he grabbed his purchases, subtly palmed and pocketed the rest, and approached the clerk. They avoided eyes as long as possible, said nothing as the few, minor items rang audibly through the silence.

Then; sirens screaming. Buzzing drones. Heavy, armored vehicles roared into earshot.

He eyed the clerk, instantly knowing he’d recognized him. More than that, the lightning exchange between he and N1T3 confirmed he’d not only pegged him the moment he’d come in, but hadn’t exposed him.

The place was one body less and the clerk’s eyes said it.

“The back. Go.”

N1T3’s eyes met the man’s, exchanging volumes. He knew him, if only by reputation. It wouldn’t have taken much to connect N1T3 to Martin Black, the two to him. The tacit admission of dire kinship was enough. Yet his gratitude could never be repaid.

He fled for store’s rear-exit, grabbed a pair of heavy, glass bottles as he passed. He jack-rabbited into the alley behind the store. Corp-sec’s first commands fanned out man and drone alike. Boots and shouts surged for the shop. Drones soared upward. N1T3 caught a flicker of one just as he dove into cover beneath an awning and behind a dumpster.

The sky was hidden, but any chance of escape meant moving. Fast.

He chanced a peek around the alcove’s corner. Saw drones pass the alley. One broke off to investigate. He shrank back behind the dumpster. The giant, buzzing bee lumbered overhead, looking for all the world like a drink-carrier had fucked an RC-plane. Funny as it looked, N1T3 wasn’t laughing. No-one would have. Not when the Bee’s belly was loaded with dual 20mm cannons.

He took a deep breath and shrank further from sight. The drone hovered 6 meters up, its optics and software working to scan every inch of the visible area ahead. It could’ve easily entered the narrow space of the alcove, found him behind the dumpster.

He relaxed.

It hadn’t, likely wouldn’t. Its code didn’t require it to in this instance. For now, there was an acceptable margin of error. That wouldn’t last if the drones went on-alert.

The heiress to the drink-carrying fortune finally lumbered past, continuing along its path to scan. He waited until it was safely behind him, then bolted for the alley-exit. He hesitated there, peering out; Massive, turreted APCs and ninja-treated SUVs blocked the roads nearest the shop.

Bodies were already moving about, forming up at various points. They hadn’t reached the alley yet. Didn’t think the clerk would play them.

N1T3’s jaw set; Militarized tax-payer dollars could never have funded this. These weapons of war were made from corporate dollars, and the only kind of war corporations waged was for their bottom-line– against anything. The only reason for such weapons, N1T3 knew, was to fight the very people funding their construction; corp-consumers.

He felt bile rise and made his move.

N1T3 skirted the street in two, long strides, intending to cross into the next alley. He’d go into one; round for the other, then swing-back around for his entry point. If he found others before there, he’d drop in.

The middle of his first stride, a faint shout. Young. Male. Some punk-kid still shooting blanks. Then, chaos. Madness. Screams. N1T3’s. Passers. Corp-sec’s. Sprinting, panting. Gunfire.

N1T3 found himself tumbling into an open sewer-line, completely unaware of how he’d gotten there. He’d managed to seal it up on the way in but hit cement with wet knees, his hands working but vision fading.

A moment later, he was against a wall and darkness was taking over.

His head fell to see his legs splayed awkwardly, wet knees barely visible in darkness. His hands were covered in more darkness– warm this time. He looked down to the darkness as it grew in his hands and over his eyes. Some seemed to be originating from his mind, some where leaking out into daylight.

The rest leaked from his abdomen, trickling from expanding tufts of white gradually darkening to red.

Then, nothingness.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 19

19.

Paradigm

“You’re not unlike him, you know?” Ket remarked, pouring herself a drink from a carafe. He could only guess it was filled with wine.

It wasn’t. She offered him water from it. He declined by evading, “I’m here–“

She about-faced, “Why are you here, Commander Ozell?” He opened his mouth to speak. She was quicker, more practiced. “Your creed tells that you are here by grace of the altar of Justice. We both know this is not true. You’re no peacekeeper.”

“You are here to establish order,” she accused. “A specific kind of order.”

“I’m here for Martin Black.”

She hesitated.

“Yes,” she whispered in slow distance, as if slighted by divinity on such sour lips. Ozell heard her all the same. “Martin Black is dead. The man you seek, N1T3, is not Martin Black. Whatever it is you believe you will achieve finding him, you are mistaken.”

“You have seen him, then?”

“You would not have come here otherwise, Commander. Do not foolishly attempt to evade reality. You are hunting my former lover–” She said slightly to herself, “–or someone wearing his face. I am not certain which.”

“When did you last see him?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she assured him. He believed her. “Your presence does. You’ve come seeking information. I can provide that, but as with all things, for a price.”

Ket had already ensnared him. She’d sign-posted herself to draw Ozell, her audience, in. Now, she would take her place behind the curtain and wait for it to rise.

“I’m here on official business,” he argued, eying her graceful approach of the conglomerate of racks behind her– N1T3’s fountain, her own aquifer.

“I’ve no doubt of it,” she replied succinctly. “But you must understand your own role. Else, you’re sure to fail and take Paul with you.”

His nostrils flared and his face flushed.

“No-one would ever harm your son, Daniel,” Ket assured without looking. “We’re not without feeling.”

The use of his name hit him hard. Her blatant admittance to a part in the scheme hit harder, but with a sad panic that tempered fury. Reality cascaded in on him; he’d been played since the night of the attacks. Every step of the way. They’d wanted him here. Or, if not him, someone analogous.

‘Til now. Now they wanted him. He was the one they were pinning everything on. That want, need even, made them extra clever. Their traps more logic games than snares or spikes. Why anyone would bother, Ozell couldn’t be sure yet, but he’d let them divide and conquer him, left himself vulnerable.

In spite of that, he lived, still well-armed and capable of erasing them all from history.

“No, we are not without feeling,” she reiterated from the back wall. “Quite the opposite, in fact.”

The make-shift wall broke unevenly in the darkness before flaring blinding light. He blinked watery eyes and the light resolved itself into a large flat-screen. Thousands of small, broken up vid-feeds winked and flickered across it, contents barely visible as it cycled the various cameras.

“London Cit-Surv,” Ozell surmised. He’d seen the official room more than once. This was anything but.

“Every single camera in London,” Ket re-affirmed. “Many unregistered. Some corporate. Others aren’t.”

“Every one?” He asked curiously, confounded yet awed.

“Every one connected to a vulnerable node.” Her head tipped slightly, “So. Yes.”

Ozell’s passions stirred, “This is illegal.”

“Highly.”

Ozell’s eyes begged an explanation. Ket ignored it. She stood at the fountain’s controls, typing, “This was the footage N1T3 took his post from.”

A vid-played, jumping angles here and there, easily imparting its multi-point capture of Paul. Even if small, he remained visible in every frame.

Ket explained, “A weapon is a weapon, no matter the hands. It can harm as you equally as another simply because that is the nature and purpose of its existence.”

He didn’t understand, remarked as much.

“A tool, no matter its purpose, is dangerous whether misused, abused, or lying idle. The more capable the tool, the more damage can be done, and the more security it requires. Often that security requires only the skilled hands of its operator. Otherwise, this is the result.”

He stared at Paul: Kay’s eyes and smile were plastered across the boy’s face as he hugged his father goodbye. The vid replayed, showing the whole wait. Editing had more or less dissolved into long plays of each angle. Ket stepped away from the screen. The room dimmed, save the fountain’s screen still glowing with the running vid.

She returned Ozell’s side, eyes tracking her every swaying movement. She used it to relax and hypnotize him, goad him into accepting his own arousal. He let her. That was the attraction; he knew it as anyone worthy of her would. He was more than prepared to take the ride. Especially with a comatose wife destined for the nut-house and everything riding on him.

He needed her… And that was how she got him.

She sat beside him on a small couch before the glowing vid, lit a cigarette. Her motions kept drinking-bird tempos in the active room, however slowed by circumstance. The intimacy set Ozell ablaze.

“You will not find Martin Black, Commander. You will only ever find N1T3. And he would never tell me where to find him. Beyond that, I do not care where he is. I can, however, show you how to find him. To do that though, you must learn to think like him. Or, at least, understand how he thinks.”

It sounded good– or made sense at-least. He trusted her as any trusted a force of nature: to be unpredictable, unstoppable, chaotic. He was fine with that. Chaos was his stock and trade.

She was closer now. The tempo of her smoke had slowed. She began lulling him with soft tones and neck-line– hints of what more lie beneath.

“Martin Black was not a man, but neither is N1T3. He is something more. Like all of us now. We are not born the creatures we die as. It is a process to become them. Sometimes for the worse. Sometimes not.”

She leaned her head longingly on a hand, eying him from the side. Her eyes said she wished to draw him further in. His said he was perfectly fine with it.

She smoked, “To understand N1T3, you must understand his world. He is not unlike you. He sees this and admits it. Yet also acknowledges he is different in specific ways. Ones that are not like you, if only because you’ve yet to achieve them. But you can, likely will.”

He winced, “Is it the same with you?”

“In certain ways. With certain things. But he and I differ fundamentally. He recognizes this as well. Thus, we can never come to understand one another fully, no matter how we try or wish to.”

She leaned away to ash, prompting slight, desperate grief to incise Ozell’s chest. The slight hint of her shape in his periphery refocused him.

She continued unabated, “Incidentally, that is also what sets N1T3 apart from Martin Black– the figment you’re chasing. He is not either, or. He is both and neither. As all of us are, to some extent.”

Ozell didn’t understand. Hopelessness and fear bled frustration. Paul flashed larger on-screen through the darkness. “Cryptics don’t help either of us.”

She oozed a tempered excitement, as if viewing a newfound prospect, “On the contrary, Commander, it is precisely what we need.”

The shift threw him. He almost stammered, “…Why?”

“Anything capable of obscurity can be protected. So long as that obscurity remains possible in any context, proper application can protect it.”

“Paul,” he breathed, seeing his son flare across the fountain.

He didn’t know how, only that it happened. The aftermath.

Suddenly, a flash of Paul. Then a flash of movement. Metal cold at his throat. Sharpness in a lethal crook. The only weak point in his armor, physical and meta. She was ready, had been. Now, she’d use it.

In one movement she’d turned the tables entirely.

Missing weight at Ozell’s side rippled panic through him. The fountain flared. Ket’s knife was poised, lethal and steady. He froze in terror. Paul’s face reflected in his father’s eyes: Leaving the house. Hugging him. Waving good-bye.

Ozell didn’t breathe, only watched, too fearful to.

His son’s partings were moments of growth. He watched himself recognize it time and again on the fountain. His own passing of the torch; Mortality. Humanity. Knowledge that his son would one day have a place to take; his– And so-on to the end of his line or species. Until then, he’d assured himself, his family, that they were safe. All of them.

Short-sighted given the blade at his throat.

Ket was feather-light, but her strength immeasurable. Her hands and thighs paralyzed him with lethal precision of bone in pressure points. Her voice rasped disharmony; eyes and aura demonic as Galadriel in the One Ring’s presence; a fury the likes of which Daniel Ozell had never met.

Just over her shoulder was a still of Paul, glowing, smiling.

“Choose now, Daniel Ozell; your life or your son.”

Paul’s face burned his eyes. Steel punctured his throat ever-so slightly. Blood trickled beneath the collar of his armor. Ket could kill him without hesitation, mercy, or fear of reprisal; Ozell’s system needed her a fuckuvalot more than him.

The blade pressed deeper, forcing him to block out everything until only two things remained; Paul’s face, and Daniel’s fears of its suffering. At times it was unavoidable, but so long as he lived, he’d live and die first as father and Guardian. If Ket, force of nature and power she was, demanded his blood for his son’s, she knew his choice already.

His neck stiffened until the blade cut deeper. “I would die to protect my son. If you’re my executioner, so be it, but I’ll take no less in trade.”

She flung the knife aside, rolled off him and onto her feet in one move. She faced away from him, panting slightly– from exertion, it seemed. In reality, something far more powerful was the cause. It left her reeling. Ozell didn’t know it yet, but both would come to understand it better in time.

She about-faced, recomposed, and offering his pistol back. “If you find N1T3, rest assured what comes was preordained by your system. For good or ill.”

Ozell mind was lost for moments. Then he found himself on his feet, moving. Fleeing from something primal, like excitement but deeper, more dangerous. It was a knowing one had before a moment of great action, where all things secured await only proper leverage to catapult time and history along.

Daniel Ozell’s world was long past the tipping-point. Now, he and it would be falling at terminal speeds.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 18

18.

Cat and Mouse

N1T3 was running. Again. He’d probably lost somewhere on the order of 10 kilos in the last few days. He was also quite certain one of his arteries was beginning to clog, or had some structural weakness of a kind. It was hurting more with each run, like it was giving out.

His message had been as innocuous as possible– and Daniel Ozell responded exactly the over-blown way a taunted bully on a bad day might.

In the end, N1T3 knew, that’s all any of his kind were– the corporate types, their loyalists. Most simply used money in place of fists. Fists remained involved though. Especially for the decision-makers, the BoDs and Execs. Of course, it was easier to pay others to do the beatings than spend their own energy. Easier on the knuckles, too.

For puppeteers, those were important assets.

N1T3’s message said few words, but its subtext was obvious; “Cat and mouse now; Find me. Find you. Who draws first blood? You didn’t yet. Bravo.”

He left the message on the net, exposing its post-point blatantly, and started running.

Ozell needed something. Anything. If only to stall. No-one was ready yet. Even Ozell himself. If he’d been ready to do what was needed of him, he’d have killed $trydr and Dru. Among other things, it meant he hadn’t chosen sides. Not yet. His son was what mattered.

His son, and now finding the man that threatened him.

Good.

N1T3 left him a bread-crumb because he needed it. Ozell needed a win. Power. N1T3 had some, didn’t want it, saw an opportunity to disseminate it. Ozell wouldn’t see it that way yet, but N1T3 and the others did.

So, N1T3 was running. Fleeing. Somewhere behind him, Ozell was fuming, raging, sniffing out his scent to hunt him down. His system demanded it. Just as it had demanded everything else thus far. That same system Ozell fed and lived off, put the bullet in Anisa Blanc’s back, set fire to her corpse, then stayed Ozell’s hand against Dru and Riter. The same system currently hunting N1T3 on a death warrant.

Who wouldn’t be running?

N1T3’s next safehouse he knew equally well as the first. It wasn’t much. Just a hovel out of the way. A former apartment, on a derelict corner, in one more rundown, abandoned area. Once more river-side, though not as secluded, yet obscured by emptiness.

Riter’s diversion had taught him an important thing; London was nowhere near flat. Storm-sewers ran everywhere, interconnected not only with rivers and one-another, but also linked to the suburbs– like city-states, but smaller, more-guarded. At least, for a flat-landers’ entrance by air or land.

But N1T3 had sewers.

Problem was, useful as that intel was, he couldn’t use it yet. He needed to get hidden, stop moving. If Ozell caught him in the sewers, he’d be gunned down before the time was ripe. What needed to would never take place.

N1T3 focused elsewhere to block out pain in his legs and chest, follow his gut toward his destination. He was glad to have squandered most of his sense of smell on youthful excess. The air had grown thicker, and though he couldn’t smell it, he tasted rotting water in gritty air on his tongue.

He focused on “home;” the place was stocked. Good. It would take time for the cat to sniff him out. Nothing could be done about it but wait, run if needed.

His feet splattered mixes of Human and Earthen refuse, a backwash of civilization spilling in little-by-little on floodwaters into its own bowels. N1T3 was immune to the sound, the distant squeals of rats, rumbling roads and piping– encroaching civilization that said he was getting closer.
The roads themselves were still used. Most of the mains, anyway. His new digs would be a pair of blocks up and over; by his estimate, five or six more manholes forward and one or two down the mainline.

He slowed, maneuvering his way through darkness with echolocation and footfalls. His wet shoes plodded shallow streams that felt more homely the longer her traversed them. Ozell would’ve called him “a rat in its natural habitat.”

He smiled.

He wasn’t a rat, of course, but baiting a cat into chasing another cat was too risky. Too different an approach was required for the subtlety of predatorial-hunts. Ozell himself might’ve been acting on predator-predator instincts, but his system was forcing him to act on predator-prey instincts. Even he knew discrepancy of such kind was pointless. If he hadn’t, he’d have long ago abandoned the mantle of corp-sec for more promising ventures.

What kept him around wasn’t hope for fulfillment, it was obligation. Likely, to honor those closest to him through it. N1T3 knew that of Ozell, as he knew it of all, postdigital children.

Like Society, whether Ozell accepted himself as part of Humanity or not, didn’t matter. It was immutable. The damage being done was harming itself as much as its victims. Accepting or not, it was happening.

Those were the stakes. N1T3 knew it. As everyone else did. Even Ozell’s masters. Even if buried so deeply it resembled the ancient skeletons of their first dead, it remained as immutable as the law it represented. The problem wasn’t the people though, it was what the system did to them.

But systems could be changed. Ozell needed to learn that first hand. He needed to know the game was rigged from the start, because the system was controlled by its own, self-made rules. Ones written by long-dead men and wanton cheats, never exposed to the concepts of technology, instant and global communication, or mass-dissemination of information.

Ozell knew that, or had the capacity to. N1T3 had seen it in his eyes: in that cold moment of deadened panic before reflex took over. That instant of deer in the headlights before turning master manipulator, the flit from prey to apex-predator.

Ozell knew how things stood and obligation told him not to care. Obligation alone.

That was the essence of the postdigital struggle. Every hacker knew it, on some level or another. Some just weren’t programmers. They couldn’t see the inherent programmability in organization, its structure. The subject or method of organization didn’t matter– Stage IV civilizations might stabilize entropy, after all. Nothing wasn’t off the table if Tech, Science, and Humanity progressed far enough together.

Knowing for certain wasn’t possible yet, but getting to that point of knowing was.

100,000s of years of potential Human progress ahead, and yet even the tech available to N1T3 could lead to immortality given a slight synthesis with the Human body. What was the harm if that body’s life-span rose astronomically or disappeared altogether to become universal, eternal?

N1T3 saw none. In fact, he was so certain of the post-human certainty, he’d ensured he’d go to his death having done his part to speed the process. If not for himself, then those he cared for– and all like him that would come later.

Above all, he did it not from obligation, but love, kinship, and hope.

N1T3 pushed his way up from a manhole into darkness. Nearby enough could be heard the sounds of life, but its distance made it impossible to see. At that, it was mostly auto-cars, the last of the courier drivers of manuals.

Soon enough, they’d be outlawing that, too.

N1T3 took a deep breath and fought the cover back in place. He made mental note of its weight, how long it might take to lift if fleeing. The leverage from beneath was easier than above. If he had to run, it could trap him.

Seconds. Breaths. Heartbeats. These were the tempos of life and death now.

He’d have to find a better entrance. The place was never ideal, that’s what the pier was for, and his shack atop the office-building. Even as he made his way up the few steps to the rundown doorway, he was double-checking the area, listening carefully. He waited until certain he was alone, then pushed the door open.

The converted building exactly as left; a large, bi-level home, divided well into four flats. From outside, it looked twenty-years abandoned. Then again, it’d looked that way for somewhere on the order of 30 years now.

It wasn’t eye-catching or well-known. Rather, it was obscure, innocently placed. A place of history and mystery N1T3 had felt attracted to since first seeing it as a child. The sort of attraction that told one of a place, moment, or person of importance, like the first meeting of an old-friend-to-be.

He slipped in. The place remained stocked, undisturbed. The flat he’d secured, near the upper-rear, was sectioned off and reinforced. Its windows were entirely blacked out, its power expertly spliced and hidden.

It was the best, last hope of remaining safely hidden. Regardless of how long that lasted, it needed to be up to snuff.

The light dimmed as he stepped in and flipped it on, stabbing his gut with the sign of things to come.

His servers were pulling more power than usual. Bad voltage. A shorted line, probably. Or a converter or conditioner. That meant a special supply run…

But getting to Ket would be impossible. She’d be next on Ozell’s shit-list. He might even survive it– if he wasn’t stupid enough to fuck with her. If not, well… she had connections, and the need to make examples. Above all, she was untouchable.

Even Ozell would be forced to bow.

If Riter and Dru had been mail-armored; Ket was layered in force-fields and body armor so futuristic it made Ozell’s State-of-the-Art Corp-Sec ceramics look like boys playing war in cardboard.

Fucking with her, fucked him.

*

Ozell lingered at the door, forced to wait. He needed a different touch here. Corp-sec’s castration at Riter’s had been enough to check their ego. They didn’t want this one broadcast. Not this one. They didn’t want it known what was happening now: that an off-the-books black-market dealer with fingers in every industries pies, and some of her own, was their last best hope.

They didn’t want people knowing Martin Black was being chased, hunted, that he had sympathizers, allies, and was continually evading them.

Most of all, they didn’t want the war being waged to be known yet.

As ridiculous as it felt, Ozell could do nothing. Not yet. He needed more before he could dick the Corps or Black that much. He had power but not enough. Not yet. N1T3 and his allies were exposing every weakness the corps had left to any and all onlookers. And as deftly and swiftly as possible. Seemingly, for no other reason than to show they could.

Corp-sec couldn’t put them down yet. Not with Anisa Blanc’s images still fresh in mind. They had to know what the hell was going on too. Blanc’s charred corpse. Ozell’s .40 caliber slug. Its wounds.

A flash of memory. A squeeze. Blanc crumpling forward. Slow-motion fall of shock from overloaded nerves. Still-fleeting terror in her face trembling over those last, rasping gasps.

The door opened. He fanned his men out around the perimeter. He wasn’t stupid. He knew Se’Ket. She’d long been on the tongue of every corp-sec commander. She was a Sphinx. A walking riddle, enigmatic in every sense.

And an absolute bombshell.

She stood like some Egyptian Goddess of her namesake’s land. Her chestnut hair streamed down the shoulders of her thin, flowing clothing like fine-drapery. Full-bodied shapes hinted themselves in the edges of her clothing, accenting perfect hips and breasts but hiding everything else as a come-hither for all to see but none to achieve.

None but Black. How he’d done it, Ozell’d never know. Married or not, and affiliations aside, he’d have pinned her to a bed and never stopped given half a chance. Or, if she were so inclined, allowed her the same. He knew too, he’d have loved every second of it.

That’s how she was; modern day legend. Mythical. Damn-near perfect.

She was also one of the most well-known, wanted criminals alive. No-one had proof of course, but no-one needed it. If something was going on somewhere, Se’Ket knew about it. If someone needed something, so long as the price was met, they got it. At some point, all of those transactions went through her.

Yet she was so much more.

Any pursuit for her was a facade. Everyone knew it. Ozell’d never met her before, but he knew her well enough by reputation. He also knew how to cut through bullshit. In her case, it didn’t leave much behind, but was enough for a vague image.

Ket was the same age as her former lover, Martin Black. They’d met in school, fallen madly in love, then aggressively out again. Ever since, she’d been floating from one mate to another, searching. For what, Ozell doubted she knew.

In the course of that floating, she met people. Using her nature and flagrant sexuality to cultivate connections. By 20, she was running drugs, guns, goods, anything. White, gray, black didn’t matter either. Money was the object.

Ozell admired her for that alone.

He knew what she was, why; as all predators knew their willing prey. Or would-be willing, he noticed as the door opened and she appraised him.

“We will speak privately or not at all.”

He eyed his nearest man– a woman named Michelle; all the same in armor, and nodded.

Ket led him in, to the fountain in the front room now stretched out like an accordion dressing wall with its surroundings decorated for a boudoir showing. The theme was something of ancient nature and sex meeting modern technology. Hints of granite and marble inflected themselves in shadow; lime and sandstone in the neutral warmth. Added to and reinvigorated by the sprightly ivy and verdant plant-life otherwise hung about, the fountain was everything N1T3 could have dreamed.

In that moment, Ozell knew everything and nothing.

Foremost, he knew all of the rumors about her were true. Somehow each was true, no matter their contradictions. He knew it in a heart-beat. It could be no other way with a creature so unbound. He knew, too, she was one of the unparalleled beauties. Even in her ruthlessness, she had the art of subtlety; in the gore of the kill, she had predatory grace.

Beyond everything else though, he knew being part of corp-sec meant one day putting a bullet in her. Trying to. Challenging this force of nature… a force he’d be have to extinguish or bottle. At least, attempting to.

It was impossible. He knew it even now. One could no more extinguish a force of nature than pull a star from the sky. He wasn’t sure which Ket was, but he felt her pull. He needed to know what she knew. Needed her. If only for a moment. And if only for a hint of understanding, of proper stimulation.

He never expected to walk away a changed man, but such was her power.

Short Story: Sodden Holo

Sopping mud trails formed miniature canyons in the streets. As if some precise giant had dug slender fingers into the Earth between sections and sides of town. Carts, wagons, their beasts of burden, and all other manner of creatures formed them.

Their sopping troughs were scattered about town between what little remained of eroded, patchwork-cobble. What remained of once-prominent holographic projectors and neon signs glowed and flickered dimly advertising everything from taverns to seamstresses, buds to brothels. The opaque movements of a thousand different advertisements and static signs belched Technicolor light onto stone and rotting-wood.

That disease of neglect, civic abandonment, stretched across the almost-forgotten township.

But within Sodden Holo, it was the Empire that was forgotten. Life was squalor, no doubt, but squalor of a kind with charm and routine. The type only available when living in freedom, without a mythical force beyond the realm to oppress. Because it cared not for them nor they for it, they were passive.

Then the caravan came.

They’d holed up outside town two days before anyone attempted contact. Then, sent a trio of armed men to the tavern. They wore black and green and gold, and asked questions. Many questions. Gruffly and rudely: on where to secure supplies, seek shelter, the names of prominent men and women and aldermen.

Already these vectors of disease had begun to infect, spread. Money. The stranglehold. They’d throw it around, hoping to mesmerize or hypnotize. Great mounds of it. Gold, silver, copper– jewels even. They’d trade anything, had everything or access to it. Like any siege engine, if allowed, that money-disease would go to work breaking down walls.

Fact was, people in Sodden Holo didn’t much care for money or the Empires. They gummed up the works, but were not seen as evil. Money in particular was no evil, but rather another tool to barter with. As equal to that of gold or silver in the eyes of the trader and their desire.

This was the Empires’ new kind of war. One of economics. For hearts, minds. Not permanent, but enough to quell the fringes ready to rise in revolt. As in every iteration of civilization, it was yet another overlord’s controls. The Empires, when it mattered most, lavished wealth upon people like confetti, but only for adoration’s sake. Never stability’s.

People furthest from the constant influx of money– Empirical capitals and the like– were beginning to piece that together. Money however, when it could not quell the occasionally rising tempers, gave excuse for lashing-out against one’s own people.

Times were that every Human was an island and ruler unto their self. Between then and now, it had become painfully clear that was no longer the plan for greater Humanity. Some people were allowed that, sure: rulers, mostly. The other 99 times out of 100, they weren’t. About 85 of those 99 meant being smeared in shit and grime the rest of one’s life regardless of those privileged few.

That was Humanity’s choice. Long made in a world far-longer gone. In a time and people that no longer existed. Human-Social had given way, violently, to Human-Servile. Whatever side one chose, the bitter reality was clear: servitude was undeniably its base.

Whether serving the wealthy, their associates, their system of wealth-creation, or anyone else therein, it was impossible not to be beneath someone.

But that was a world and way of thinking long-off for Sodden Holo. Neither glamour nor shine existed there, technicolor belches notwithstanding, save on the local boot-black’s corner. How could it? Half the town was streaked in mud all the warmer months, frozen over the rest. It knew of life in the colors of grit and grime, the scents of grass and cow shit.

In short, through the ways of the land, its inhabitants, their effects on it.

For those passing through, it was obvious this was a land separate, but governed. Whomever did the governing, they knew, did it well enough so the only signs of civic neglect were the roads the Holo could not repair without all-important and scarcematerials traded mostly by Empirical quartermasters or tradesmen. It was a way of strangle-holding the people from establishing Empires without their knowledge.

But progress was inexorable. Its tide could not be diverted forever, nor without constant attention to details, lest the dam crack asunder.

Yet time and people marched on. Roads appeared. Trails. All of them, it seemed, led through Sodden Holo– at some point. Distant or rare as it was for some, it was undeniable.

They were a crossroads hub, but not the kind one thought of lightly. Rather, it was one all travelers ended up in by misfortune. It didn’t judge. Nor did its people. But they, like it, knew it was no-one’s intended stop. Yet that need not mean a traveler feel unduly unwelcome either.

They took no quarter for the worst of atrocities, of course, like most decent folk. Only when bitten did the hand that fed, strike out though. Especially against those most unforgivably biting. What Dante might have termed, “Treason against one’s benefactors.” To that, such punishments never came unduly, nor ever with malice but meant to correct.

That didn’t mean it couldn’t turn bloody.

In hindsight, people came to realize, that was what the Empire had underestimated. That people wouldn’t give it the same disregard it gave them. They’d sent a caravan of Empirical guards to enact a trade-war on a free economy. Rather than send ambassadors to join or appraise it, they sought to take it by force, with nary a thought to those effected.

Hindsight couldn’t change those effects.

Their intent became apparent the second day the envoy visited town– fifth since their appearance overall. It was raining. A typical persistent and swampy mist citizens and drifters had come to expect of Sodden Holo, its surroundings: warm, and smelling of earthen protection rising from the very ground beneath their feet.

Reason had left most of those in the pubs. Meanwhile, the tension of the envoy’s encampment, brewing since its appearance, had soured and afouled a great many moods.

The air was rife with power. As those trembling within the tavern were well-aware, it was a power no mortal dared tempt. All it would take to set the power alight was the wrong actions within it. The wrong minds, the type that cared not for maintaining peace or others’ ways.

Five of them entered the tavern. Two remained near the door, guarding ‘til further orders. Two more escorted a third between them. He was tall, scrawny. Spectacles perched on his face, he looked and moved like an old Eagle– perpetually down-looking, on the hunt.

He approached the bar, calling for the tender to procure the manager.

The tender laughed, “You dunno how things work a-roun’ ‘ere.”

His tone sharpened, “I beg your pardon?”

“No. You don’t. You come in ‘ere with your bloody gold and silver, try to buy the place. Why else would you lot come in, all pompous, clutchin’ that ledger like some kind’a King bout to lay his prick on the bar?

“I ain’ sellin you nor your dogs another drink ‘til I get some answers. I been Alderman of Sodden Holo, twen’y years. Empires never given us the time’a day. Never answered our letters or requests for help.

“All the same, we get by. ‘Cause we hav’ta. You come in here, wanna lay your prick on my bar like I don’t know what’s bout to happen. But I’m tellin you, I’ve seen prick-whippin’ enough times I can sense it a mile off.”

The shrewd man’s face snarled. The bar was deathly silent. The tender eyed the two ruffians beside him; former mercs, paid better as Empirical Guardsmen for their skill in battle. These were not men to be lightly crossed.

The tender’s face hardened at hints of blood-lust on the air. The power had turned. Sodden Holo would soon be bathed in blood.

“You g’wan and put your prick out, mister. ‘N I’ll make sure to cut it to size for you.”

A hiss. “The nerve!

Someone screamed. Metal clashed. The power erupted, releasing ferocity across the tavern. Chaos of bodies and limbs flayed. Blood sprayed. An all-out melee began and ended within seconds. By the end, the bar stank of blood and bowels, beneath echoing screams from dying and injured.

The Alderman-Tender was busy bandaging a gash in a woman’s arm when he called to, “Raze the Envoy’s camp. Leave nothing standing!”

Every man and woman capable would need to be ready. The Empire would be coming.

The tender looked over the ruins of his bar, knowing for the better of all he should have sold out. But if he had, what would be left of him to help his people, his home? The Empire was not the way forward for Sodden Holo, that much had always been obvious.

But would there be any way forward now? He wasn’t sure.

Unable to dwell, he moved on, too swept up in doing what he knew all would soon be doing: preparing for war.