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.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 15

15.
The Modern Man

Daniel Ozell’s comm-link whistled at his bedside table. His wife groaned, slapped a pillow against her head. Habit, these days. Ozell fell into his boots and started for the next room, comm-link hooked in his ear.

“Go ahead.”

The bathroom mirror stared back at him, its eyes met his, entirely indifferent to the information relayed. He’d been expecting the call, didn’t need more than details. Didn’t really need those either though. ‘Cause in the end, this was just the way the shit-birds overhead slept at night. They delegated, hands supposedly clean, never realizing the bathwater was just as tainted as the lubberkin within it.

Of course Ozell’d been expecting a call. His team iced two kids in a building the other night, and they weren’t the only with confirmed hits either. Four others did too: Wright’s. Martin’s. Jackson’s. And Ulreich’s.

An hour later, the news-vids are blaring that a building’s up in flames and the numbers are in…

Two for one. Ozell’s was the only one that might look suspicious. So, it’d be investigated. He’d get a call, just to confirm. A chewing out. Everything above-board looking, but ordered nonetheless.

He’d been around long enough to know damned well when he was running an S&D-op. He’d seen ’em in the wars, back before they were considered failed revenue-sharing schemes. Then, it was Governments kicking your ass out planes, telling you a flimsy sheet of silk was your best friend. Not inspiring amid thousands of feet of open air.

Even then he knew career-soldiering was over. Who wouldn’t take next-gen bullet-proof armor, automatic weapons, and a health plan instead of swilling desert with reclaimed nut-sweat? And why not? Bullets were plentiful as mosquitoes now and the bad-guys all had next-gen A-Ks. Worst, Kids get cavities. Paul’s baby teeth were falling out faster by the day. Not to mention Kay’s psych-meds, his own– how could anyone pass on that?

Daniel Ozell was a modern man, sure, but modern men broke down earlier by the day. Too much exposure to shit in the air, water, and food made the bones rot. All so some assholes could fake modesty, pretend they weren’t corruptible? Bullshit. If Ozell knew anything, it was that History was written by victors, and victors are just those that remaining after everyone else has bled out.

He who fucks nuns will later join the Church, so sayeth the Great Gig in the Sky.

Of course the corporations were fucking dirty. Nobody wasn’t. That’s why enforcers existed. Why they needed their own enforcers, as did those. That was the one thing those tech-heads had gotten right; redundancy.

But redundancy wasn’t meant to be digital alone. Physical essence was important too. That, they didn’t get. To a degree Ozell almost expected.

What he hadn’t expected but should’ve, was Martin Black (AKA N1T3), slipping away only to come back on him. He’d known even before the post-briefing that the numbers hadn’t added up. He heard the comm-calls. Counted the dispatch orders– privileges of being a squad-commander. Not high enough to plan the jobs himself, but damned aware of what they were– S&D or otherwise.

HQ’d expected some to get away, but others were ID’d top priority. He could tell by who was placed where. He’d been privy to the briefing before the squads, knew even then the eggheads were underestimating Black.

The whore and her boyfriend had been first on the list, they appealed to perverts, a group obsessive and reactionary. The need to exercise authority and put down possible outcry dictated overwhelming force against both of them.

But it didn’t erase the girl’s choking gasps. The cutting rasp of a murgled scream. The panic in her white, dying-fish eyes as her mouth moved breathless, tense-to-tremors limbs fighting to claw and drag their way forward. Adrenaline: like a deer in the wild with its chest missing.

More dead whores. That’s it.

Guilt panged his gut at its own harshness. He didn’t care, but he did feel it. He sighed, listening to some would-be superior prepping to chew him out for their own fuck-up.

Ozell sighed quietly to himself; Anisa Blanc wasn’t a whore. Not really. She was just kinky; a freak. He and Kay’d had enough wild times to sympathize– before the meds put her half-comatose all the time. Were it just her, Ozell might’ve quit the business altogether to chase one of those new-age Anisa Blanc’s, descend into the wells of madness with her– if only to understand them.

He would have, but not now. Paul was the future now. The question was whether that future was worth the sweat of his father’s brow that had tried to build it.

Ozell saw things one way and only one way; if slaughtering geeks half his age ensured his son never went without, it was his obligation as a father to do so. He hadn’t been sure that’s where things were headed, but it was a reality he’d prepared himself for. The shit had long been in the wind. Everyone was already aghast at it. It just needed that push to become reality– to hit the fan.

Now, the first shots had been fired. The Corporations were waiting to see what emerged from the ruins. Then, they would war. All of them; corps, people, wild animals, whores– everyone. Shit would light off like a fucking powder-keg, blow the arsenal, and the resulting cockup-cascade would level most of the world.

Whom or whatever remained afterward would have a lot of explaining to do– after all the fucking cleanup, of course.

Ozell’d seen the forest through the trees. Though he doubted others admitted it as he did, like them, he didn’t care. Whichever side emerged victorious didn’t matter two shits for eighty-percent of people. They’d fall-in-line or fall-out, didn’t need to give a shit the rest of the time.

Hacker-kids were just suffering because the world was shit, like everybody else. They were just loudest about it because they’d seized the means of communication.

Ozell might’ve sympathized, but they couldn’t have existed without the world they so despised. They hadn’t yet, and neither had he. Not really. He’d lived through at least some of that so-called pre-digital age. Enough to recall its emergence– if not fondly, than accurately.

And it mattered precisely dick to no-one anyhow.

No-one gave a shit about pre-digital history. No-one gave a shit about History, period. Not in anything non-media based, and not outside non-fictionalized material. Problem was, now there were times being romanticized that had barely fucking happened and didn’t last anyhow.

How could anyone be so dense? So sensitive as to romanticize so easily? It made him angry. It cheapened life. It was the very antithesis to what so-called postdigital children were supposedly so thoroughly devoted to– thought, freedom, Liberty, because who could be so truly in love with everything? It wasn’t possible.

It didn’t make sense and that made him angry. Not with the sheer rage of fury from emotion, but the calm, calculated anger of the rationally-calculating man. The rational man; the modern man.

Ozell wanted to spit in the face of all of those hacker-punks exposing people to shit like Anisa Blanc’s death. What was the point? Everyone knew it existed. Everyone knew it was happening. Of course they were trying to fix it, but the more complicated things were, the more there was to go wrong and the more care and time any solution needed.

This was fucking Society they were dicking with. Humanity’s future. People’s hearts and minds. Already battered and beaten worse by the day, they were now being forced to cope with a reality they didn’t need to. Doing what N1T3– that pissant prick had done, was like flashing gore genitals at an old lady, knowing she’d have a heart-attack, live, end-up in medical debt and be forced into a nursing home against her will.

And for what? To prove a point? Fuck off.

The real evil, the real darkness; was the distractions being used to pilfer the crowd for emotion. Same fucking thing the corps were doing, save with money. How could these assholes ever hope to win? Let alone with high ground?

He sighed again; fighting fire with fire solved nothing. It only burned more of the world down.

Ozell let his superior finish his bull-rushing with all the emotion of a slug on a sidewalk, and killed his comm-link. He engaged and read the public and corp-sec internal feeds via his optical and aural augments, their picture-in-picture divisions across his retinal implants.

Tactical augs were becoming more sophisticated by the day. He smelled hints of lucrative contracts on the wind; adrenal augs, hormone regulators, mental cloud computing. Problem of course, was finding programmers that weren’t also toeing the darkness.

And that was about to get a fuckuva lot harder. Lines had, and were, being drawn. The corps had fired first. Whether or not they wanted to admit it, they had. Even a so-called loyalist like Ozell knew it. There was no point denying it. Admitting it allowed one to plan for it.

So, he did.

Then, N1T3 released his images.

Ozell exhaled angrily, knowing he was once more being drawn toward the subject.

Every revelation from the hacker-world shocked people. Whether it tipped the scales into their favor was only ever a question of how depraved the act of provoking it was. That some pissant like Martin Black believed he had the right to rile such deep ire was a matter for another day. That Black believed his was the appropriate means for doing so angered something deep inside Ozell.

Something more than Human.

Ozell was dazed by thoughts as he suited up his ceramic-armored jacket and Guardian .40LX at his waist. He gripped his pistol and a HUD-reticle confirmed an active link. Ammunition and magazine counts appeared, linked via RFID to his HUD to give him total informational overview.

Just like all those hacker’s video-games, except he wasn’t afraid of live-fire. Living and dying by the sword meant nothing for an avatar or its owner. For him, it was day-to-day life.

He arrived at the outpost on time, as usual. The walk wasn’t far; just the edge of a former city-block beside Hyde Park. Guardian had bought the land, bulldozed about 200 years of middle-class history, and built grim, shit-colored concrete everywhere. They did their best to hide it, but a turd’s a turd.

Didn’t matter to anyone involved after the checks cashed.

Ozell found himself standing before the doors of the outpost, flicking his wrist to unlock the door with his badge: a fading remnant of the so-called digital world, Corps were already phasing out for paired HUD-comms and ID-frequencies, chained to them.

At the very least, Ozell figured, any possible “postdigital” reality would be more convenient. But that would happen anyhow. It was tech that did it. Not pissants like N1T3.

“The fuck kind’a stupid name is that anyway?” Ozell muttered, stepping through the door.

If his walk had been A Sunday Afternoon in the Park, the outpost was London amid the Blitz. It took a double-take– one where only his better senses kept him from drawing his sidearm. Then, he understood.

The main lobby, not meant for more than a few people at a time, was brimming with bodies. Sound and heat hit him like shock-waves, staggering him for the brief moment before for the crowd’s attention flocked to him.

Then, they pounced.

Like starving jackals on wounded prey, questions savaged him. Arms thrust phones, tablets, old-fashion digi-corders. It took him none of that half-second to regain his wits and understand exactly what had happened. He knew already; Llewellyn had fucked him.

Someone let all these fucking reporters in, knowing they wanted blood. Someone’s. Anyone’s. And only good blood would suffice– that from those above, always willing to risk those below but not themselves. So, it fell from Llewellyn’s cowardly-ass to Ozell’s unlucky one.

Worst of all, he’d handle it. They knew it he wouldn’t shove it off on another, unsuspecting sap. He had too much fucking honor. That, and because they knew he’d have the balls and skill to end it. Just like he ended those kids.

The Corp had known precisely what they were doing; Llewellyn, his “executive” ilk.

Ozell’s face slacked. Along with many other things, Ozell now had his own advantage. Fact was, in Peace-time, Executives ran things, but it was now War. No-one would admit it yet, but it was.

And War was Daniel Ozell’s specialty. Execs may have ordered the first shots fired, but Ozell, his ilk, were the ones that fired them. The show was his now. Whether they liked it or not.

VIN 23- Bullshit Without Context

Here’s my problem with the so-called light-net we use everyday: it’s full of bullshit.

Not the kind you think of first. Not ads, spam, morons– the elegantly meaningless bullshit spewn by people and organizations with no scruples and even lower intellect.

Rather, the deeper bullshit, after the moments of clarity from laughing, when you recognize the source. It’s the kind of bullshit where everyone needs to feel big sometimes, so they belittle, but its something more than bullying or memes can touch.

The net’s revealed one, crucial reality Humans have known but never faced before: Bullshit without context brings out our worst instincts.

Human History is rife with social catastrophes borne of crucial-yet-missed context. Nowadays most seeking to ridicule deliberately remove or ignore that context to a point of impotence. Doing so, they ridicule whole swaths of their species, whole disciplines of study, entire milennia of recorded history.

Rightfully or not, and just-so from circumstance rather than desire, makes no difference if it is devalued to impotence

Putting this more simply: it is foolish and unacceptable for any one of our species to isolate itself, let alone groups of us to– especially to other groups of our species.

No advanced society, awareness of status aside, would deliberately drive people to ignorance without ulterior motive. Ours does so, demonizing those its sees as peaceful, loving, accepting of change. In the meantime, and via others playing on fears or egos of their would-be-wards, are driven away from true knowledge and enlightenment.

Shame and fear turn people away from experiences. Often, based on others’ perceived reactions. Which they’ve no control over. That is therein turned to ignorance by circumstance, want of peace.

These are the effects of an aging system producing output errors visible only in its finest details. It is Chaos incarnate. Learning to spot the flaws in a system, social or otherwise, is what is required to prevent total collapse or decay.

It used to be that such ignorance was excusable due to Humaity’s isolated nature. Geography isolated culture, and culture insulated the individual against their neighbor.The Human-Mind, though capable of it, was not so thoroughly engaged as it now is.

Until recently, too much of life and time were spent in back-breaking labor and the simple assurance of survival. No mass-planning or growth could ever take place on the individual scale, let alone the social scale. The Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, Women’s suffrage, the French Revolution: all effects of Humans pressure-cooked to explosion.

Things are different now. Technology is at-play here. Television was big, but it didn’t fit in one’s pocket. It didn’t cast during storms. It couldn’t intercommunicate.

Predigital, Humans were auto-pilot only configurations. Technology has since reformed them into auto-pilot and operator configurations. Our ancestors’ ways will soon be lost to their efforts and those of their descendants. Very soon. Yet with so much change, so closely abound, Humans are forgoing all connection to sanity.

How? Allowing their species to repeat its own delinquently juvenile-mistakes. Overwhelmed or blind-sided, it must be overcome. The Human Condition is that Humans must thrive despite their flaws, always seeking the unattainable: perfection, because it is the ideal and ideals last longer.

Humans can overcome, yet our flaw is that we must when we should not have to. One need not touch a hot coal to be certain of its heat if history assures it. Rome fell because of simple problems people believed nonexistent, or at the very least, inexplicable.

This current madness is yet another “Gods Must be Crazy” of civilization. A culture shock to be sure, but so long as we keep our heads, survivable.

Until then, we are willingly complicit in the tainted pipe-lines, the civic laziness, their existence; whether by allowing others to drink or forcing them to. We may only change this if we, as a species, come to recognize it as only an extension of the Human Condition. We, as a species, must recognize Humanity is not ordered, but that order can and may exist. Chiefly; by Humanity, to aid its sustenance and growth– as a whole, as well as individuals.

If we do not come to recognize this, Insanity will take over. Chaos in the system will lead once more to its fall. And due to the datum– the contexts and subjects involved, possibly the Human species altogether. Whether that is through an evolution or extinction seems the only question.

Our species suffers when any one of us is disparaged in intelligence and opportunity. The sooner we realize this, the better off we’ll be.

A century ago, when governments controlled everything, they feared that. Who wouldn’t? Information, the right kind, could tip the balance of power in instants. The individual had no power, not as it was. They did however, have the ability to rally others. Which meant keeping dissent down for fear of being overthrown.

Especially then, it was a legitimate fear. Governments were relatively new. Monarchys, Tsardoms, empires– all the norm until too recently, and with a bad habit of rallying themselves like Napoleon after Elba. Often, they came back and retook more ground than before, destroying any new, systemic improvements to society for the sake of their own power.

Until society at-large, and those in places of power and control, recognize the pointless futility of attempting to flex authority over natural, systemic, societal evolution, our species can go no further. Worse, we might meanwhile go extinct as a result of the aforementioned few, their choices or lack thereof, and their effects.

A politician denying a factual report opens the door for others to do the same. When these same individuals form groups, their power heightens exponentially. They know this. Allowing for it is dangerous through the sheer fact that humans, no matter their ideology, are often wrong.

Beginning to understand my concerns better?

Guardians of Liberty: Part 14

14.

Planning Glory

N1T3 sat in the control room before a secure terminal rigged for access to the station’s servers but with no direct, external net-access. Riter would’ve set it up that way, forcing any extra-net-connections to be temporary, masked via dynamic, random, one-time addresses and connections.

Merely another level of security: a temporarily enabled function to ensure against intruders. Data rather than the machines, were what mattered. Machines could be replaced. Data could not. It could however, be backed-up. Infinitely.

Masking made sense for a static location. Dynamic addresses carried inherently more security. On one, digital-level, the servers always stayed put. On another, they never had a fixed address. Physically, of course, they were locable, but only accessible or identifiable to the properly skilled. Even then, there were no links, digital or otherwise, that one belonged in any way to the other.

Riter may have owned servers, but $trydr was an entity elsewhere. Living in a different world.

For now at least. Soon enough someone would track Martin Black here. Whether it was a simple conclusion, or a wafer-thin trail, something would lead corp-sec here to question, intimidate. Riter would tell the whole truth and nothing but….

For precisely as long as it suited him.

Like the rest of them, $trydr was a hacker. His status visible via his servers. True, you had to know the address, but if you did, you always knew where to find them, and thus him. Likewise, he needed to remain largely hidden through casual obscurity. The kind in a phone book; there, but gone in an instant, save to those seeking him.

Obscurity had first brought Martin Black and Terry Riter together as friends. That kind of youthful obscurity shrouded in the same, chaotic unknowns invisible to all but those momentarily living them. The friendship that endured two lifetimes, now looking to come to a close, would only do so in a way neither could avert nor regret.

N1T3 was being hunted. Likely due to his stubborn, fool-headedness, he’d be caught. Corp-sec’s trial-by-bullet would proclaim him guilty and sentence him to death in one squeeze. Whatever remained afterward was what he built until then.

The only way anyone could move past Martin Black’s failings to see the true moral of his life, they needed to see what N1T3 had done. Few could have helped him more than those few closest. $trydr’s honor-bound obligation ensured he helped. Not just because he was needed for it, but because everyone needed it; the concept of honor.

Digital honor. That was the importance of N1T3’s mission. The importance of the difference between Martin Black’s past and N1T3’s present: Humanity had changed, evolved, and could continue to. Change was finally possible, for the betterment of one and all, or not at all. Nothing between was allowable.

Like Ket, $trydr was committed, however currently indisposed. He’d let N1T3 have run of the control room. Somewhere Dru was sitting, dispatching calls relayed through from patient for doctor before ever seeing scrubs.

N1T3 took the opportunity to prep her proof for the net. He couldn’t release it yet, unwilling as he was to risk her or $trydr more of a target. By the end of the file, he wished he’d hadn’t bothered–however glad he was for his empty stomach.

The photos were captured with various changes in scenery and style, but formed the long, sordid details of a murder so gruesome and personal N1T3 wasn’t sure how anyone had survived it, let alone a whole world. He’d known Dru’s strength could be tenfold his, but never so viscerally. With it, was the reality of the world necessary for it to exist.

N1T3’s death, his life, mattered more to everyone else than to him. They felt what he could not. Not from incapability, but lack of opportunity that now looked never to come.

I loved Martin Black. I do not love N1T3.

N1T3 was a blank slate. He knew no-one and no-one knew him. The few that sensed the phoenix beneath the ash would help it rise, but the rest would wait. It was necessary. Eternally, the issue was time. Worse was the caveat of having no ideas to its remainder, save it was short and growing shorter. Time was the pulsing beat of a dying heart. Each rest longer and longer. Each pump slower. Until finally, those last breaths. Then, no more come.

The likelihood of those breaths being amid violence grew larger by the moment. Hope was making it worth every second until then. Only two paths remained available to that, but N1T3 would ensure he did all he could to allow for both. Both were important together. Duality was the core concept of binary systems, the shaft upon which the gear of the postdigital revolution would turn.

Embedding the knowledge that multiple solutions to problems always existed, into the social conscience, kept people from ever thinking they couldn’t exist. Ultimately, that was the point of the vision. The dream. The model society.

It would never be achieved.

That was also the point; have a goal to strive for, allow for healthy competition, level-fields, even dirty tricks, without also destroying the basis of all Human freedom: Unity. Such nuance kept a social society from devolving into a cannibalistic one.

Modern society was nothing if not cannibalistic. Corporations were a manifestation of the very necessity to safe-guard against it. Regulation had become so impossible though, that even the economies bidding off one another couldn’t see the next-level capability they weren’t utilizing.

Society had become global the instant wires spanning it interlinked. Up to then, geography had dictated cultures, but the utter lack of any, unified them all. Human-kind went with it.

The problem N1T3 and his ilk had encountered with it was greed. Manifesting unequaled fervor, it gorged itself on a new type of power. One that, by virtue of its own place before the power’s inception, allowed its individual components to obtain greater priority in its interior food-chain.

Businessmen become magnates and barons of resource. That money, gone by the fifth generation was now renewed on a new gold-rush: identity-theft. That, in itself, was the very darkness at the heart of all evil. The same, in fact, of someone willing to sell enchained relatives and rationalize it as skin-color.

But magnates were old-money types; didn’t give a shit about anyone but themselves. Why should they? No-one ever gave a shit about them. They had what they wanted and came when summoned until others stop noticing if they didn’t. That alone was the story of their entire generation, their father’s, and grandfather’s generations.

Tycoons, so far distant from Earth they knew only clouds. They’d built fortunes now squandered until Titans no longer. By then the generation’s lazy complacency made them fine with the idea. By then, all survival required was fucking over the rest of Humanity, but what did they care? They weren’t human anymore. They were more.

Now, so was Humanity.

Old-money thinking had collided with reality, the result was a postdigital epitaph being written in gibberish. Not exactly a fitting start for an advanced species.

So, N1T3 would change things. With his digital plumbing. His postdigital aquifers. Built with the few, meager resources at his disposal the only way he knew how: through the indifferent necessity of the binary system. The True and False. 0 and 1.

Perhaps, if he lived long enough, one day the world would carry more color again. He doubted it would come to pass. No matter how much he embraced the idea, prepared for it, he wasn’t likely to see its reality. That was okay though. He knew from the beginning it was a possibility, had never begun to envision himself as anything more than the first reference level.

Which he wasn’t. Not really. N1T3 was just another freedom fighter. A guardian of Liberty. One whom watered its tree, whether with blood or water, but only his own. That which he himself would take or shed, but only as he saw fit.

For this, he would give the last drop to succeed.

He found himself at his safe-house later in the afternoon, uncertain how he’d gotten there. Sleep was needed, Riter’s hospitality notwithstanding.

First, he needed to get Dru’s intel out. No-one would know it was her, but they’d know the information’s importance. Even if it were linked back to her, $trydr had every intention and instruction to blame N1T3.

He would. What difference did it make, save maintaining his own cover or not?

The world was growing more dangerous by the moment. N1T3’s vision needed more allies than him. If that meant sacrificing himself for them, he would. It was that important. Already guaranteed to live beyond him, as all things digital, this could earn something more– immortality in an already postdigital world.

Humans weren’t quite there yet, but it would happen. One day. How and why were yet to be determined. So long as they continued to exist, they would one day reach it whatever the compromises along the way. N1T3 was merely doing his part to ensure their survival until that point.

Unfortunately those opposing him had numbers. Infinitely more, too.

Then again, N1T3 knew systems, that it was next to useless to attempt understanding any one component without fully knowing the whole’s purpose. In other words, the Human element was never predictable, could only be accounted for in so far as could any unpredictability. It still didn’t prepare him.

The post went live 23:00, +96 hours after Clockwork and An33$a’s deaths.

N1T3 couldn’t handle his exhaustion any longer. He collapsed into bed, completely unaware of the chaos he’d awake to.

Short story: Fire Dark

Darkness loomed over the land like eternal midnight. A kind of darkness so deep, it became lit by its own obsidian, atom-honed edges. Amid it, were the gnarled roots of the tree of life. Ruts of Earthen-tangle deep enough to bury even the sturdiest climber. They reached upward into a stalk of barren, petrified limbs like old ventricles in a fossilized heart.

The stars seemed not to exist above them. Nor clouds or moon.

Dead leaves rustled in the distance, stirred from some forgotten hollow eternally belching them. War had swept through the land. Night came. Bombers spewed fire like dragon’s breath. By day, what lay not in ruin would slowly crumble to it.

Little was ever rebuilt. Most was cannibalized: chiseled away by the dual forces of need and time. Their actuators of brute force and terror. What remained was bone, fasting in darkness for eternity. Never to be seen again. Forgotten.

The spark of Humanity had dimmed, but so too had all else. Life itself, so far as all evidence suggested, was flickering and might soon fade. The terror that alone brought with it was underscored by one, haunting question: who would be last to go?

Day-by-day, what few abominable creatures managed to eke out an existence, did so by suckling moisture from corrupted dregs. Each breath, each drop, poison and necessary.

Those feeling the call, what might once have been termed honor, were rising in the stupor of all blood-drenched and ready to die. They knew of nothing. Felt nothing. Save the knowledge that death must be had, and the greater it, the greater the deed.

He was like that. Sitting across the fire, head draped in mail. Face empty and sallow. There was no telling how long he’d been on the road. His face, at first hidden, shorn with tattered links fraying from overuse. He’d tanked more than a few blows to the coif.

The crest-shield of a forgotten clan rest at his side, half covering the sword that now lay bare. Its hilt, still in-hand but resting rather than clasped. This creature knew only the ways of death and fire. Each step in its world was a battle against one for the other. Why, was not certain: only that something drove it onward.

Time passed. How long cannot be said. Omnipresent gloom turned morning into afternoon as much as evening into midnight. A heave of breath escaped the creature’s lips. A mannish sort of grunt. Mail scraped and strained. The creature rose as if mechanical, its sword metallic and polished in blood.

He stopped astride at the other creature’s gaze. The one whose perception made sure to ground his reality. Enough so it remained existent to uphold its shackles through him. He turned his face toward the gazing creature, something alike and different about it at the same time.

With a slight inclination of his head, the gazer corrected him.

Not that way. Death lies that way.

I seek Death.

The exchange thus ended, the creature turned again to leave. This time he did not step. On the ground the light sound of metal hitting stone.

Take it.

The gazer was standing now. Knowing he could do no better good than to aid the abomination. Even if he failed, he’d tried. That was more goodness than any else in the world. Especially in these times. As if the very soul and fire of Humanity rested on such actions, the armored creature defied will and turned back only a step.

There, he stooped. Lifting the trinket to the firelight reflecting off the obsidian skies. A gem glittered: hope’s eternal flame in abounding darkness. He removed a gauntlet, threading a gangrenous-looking digit through the ring. Then, fitting the gauntlet back on, he turned away hesitating only slightly in his step.

His coif shuffled in attempt to look back, but the angle of his destiny was too strong. The current of death too swift, and the fire too bright now. No longer healing, but burning. He breathed and started off again.

Armor echoed through the night for far too long. The remaining creature stood, one ring poorer yet richer within somehow. He knew not why. Only that he’d acted on a compulsion. As that of the creature whom sought that light so vehemently even death could not stop it.

Because in the end, it seemed, even the darkest soul carried light within it.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 13

13.

Stock and Trade

Neither were expecting it.

Later, N1T3 supposed that was the nature’s serendipitous sense of humor at work. Serendipity was one of those things any system allowed for because it could be so wholly beneficial. It tended to go by other, often harsher names: aberration, mutation, anomaly. Words with frightening connotations in a world post-Event Horizon, and postdigital.

Unfortunately, often times it was not the boon it could be. Anomaly to a healthy system was dangerous. A healthy system– or one outputting competently, required stability. Anomaly was the anti-force; the annihilator.

It also happened to be the driving force behind evolution, allowed by virtue of potential alone.

But even Dru hadn’t expected nature, of all things, to absolve them. Human nature or not, it was nature: undeniable, inviolable.

The firehouse contained a sprawling garage and workshop, several large rooms, a control center, and countless other rooms through its three-level expanse. However enormous to a normal person, it was home to her, as much as any supposedly haunted-but-not mansion bought on the cheap.

It was large, looming, with its presence, history, and personality. It had tics and flaws, strengths and weaknesses. Its walls echoed with millions of memories from a thousand people, all of their joy now reformed to deep consternation from recent and troubling events that would’ve affected the ghosts as equally as those now living.

If either N1T3 or Dru had been willing to believe in such things, they might have thought the station itself had conspired to ensure that routines, long-established, overlapped to collude entrapment.

Tea. It was Tea. Later, N1T3 would reflect Tea had absolved him. How droll. Dru would say as much herself. They’d agree to it as a foundational element of friendship.

In the end, what mattered was the weight lifted, the gain from its loss. That extra energy allowed for a tangible gain in momentum.

However, there was a price.

He found himself leaned against the far wall of the two-entry kitchen. It’s walls bled peeling paisley wallpaper that the vision if viewed too directly for too long. He sensed Dru bustle past. Unbeknownst to him, her morning routine of pre-lighting the building’s critical rooms allowed aging, stockpiled CFL bulbs to warm to full strength. Especially in colder months, it was important to a work-flow like Riter’s.

Going from room-to-room, project-to-project in moments barely left time to piss some days, let alone to linger for a light to warm up.

N1T3 had no knowledge of routines, only of Dru’s passing. He could track her, sense her. As predators sensed one another on a hunt. Hunting or not, it was the same sensory system. Sensory alertness amid Dru’s routine was rare though. Rarer still was her anger lasting more than necessary. She had no time, no spare energy for it. She thrived on seconds.

Dru finished her rounds, found herself in the kitchen, staring at a heating kettle.

“Done already,” N1T3 said benignly.

“I see that,” she replied, staring fixedly ahead.

All of reality had come to a halt. A distant memory of her mother flipped a remote-view switch in her head. She saw herself standing, fixedly, lost and not, just as her mother decades before her. Mentally superimposed over herself, her mother in some now forgotten ‘burb in a time that may never’ve happened. The flash trickled into realization.

Her routine had been wrenched, but it was innocent, helpful even. Yet, he’d caught her off-guard. She didn’t like that. She almost stammered, caught herself, then fished out two mugs.

“Thank you.”

His face pulled taught with guilt, hesitation. Just as he’d expected.

“You’re welcome.”

She felt her old wound, her fatigue, and set out a mug to wait. Unlike he and Riter, she’d only just awoken. She was day-shift. Light-watch. Her senses better attuned to it. Until battle stations were manned, everyone took watch. Where they went after was dependent on skill.

N1T3 wished to help. Taking watch for him though, meant making the place an immediate target. So, he made tea, slouched atop the small dining chair wedged between the table and wall.

Dru would never have sensed him there. No-one used the place. She didn’t care to sit so confined. Riter always sat across from it, able to see the kitchen’s main door; like his father had for 30 years. No-one occupied the other place long. Usually, they came and went, forced there as a matter of consequence. Almost begrudgingly grateful, though never disrespectful.

N1T3, on the other hand, filled the space naturally. As if made for him.

Yet he seemed nonetheless temporary, already fading: fuel dissipating its effectiveness with every moment it existed. Put to use or not, that fuel could burn down worlds or run engines of change.

Dru recalled the news, the secrecy. Remembered the risk inherent in his presence. That it was fine now, but wouldn’t be later.

More than that, she remembered Anisa. Her frail body burned beyond recognition but immediately identifiable by its torso ink. The few stray, frayed, blonde hairs that remained like some bully-child’s lighter-doll experiments. Charred skin like pebbles kicked off a precipice as the bag rolled back. Anisa’s mother, the bastard holding the bag too ashamed to meet her eyes.

Dru did. She knew the importance of it. Tears were admission that words could never do justice or bring peace– that true evil did exist, whatever its guise or name, and that this was the consequence of it. Most of all, that there was powerlessness to do anything, but that all had a choice in seeing it or not.

Now, N1T3 had arrived bearing possibility. For good or ill.

Dru about-faced, knowing the lay of the land. She crossed her arms, leaned against the counter. “I don’t know you, N1T3. I knew Martin. He hurt me…” Her sternness faltered only slightly. “Deeply.”

N1T3 bowed his head. “How are you now?”

The question caught her off-guard. If she’d had tea in her hand, she might have quipped something back then whisked herself along her routine, no more afflicted than before. She didn’t and couldn’t. A reply was necessary.

She heaved a sigh, equally catching N1T3 off-guard. “I am very tired. I am confused and frightened. And it’s making me very tired.” He straightened respectfully, equally exhausted but committed.

She closed her eyes and sighed defiantly, “I loved you.”

“I know.”

“I thought you loved me.”

“I did. Once.”

“Everything else– with Riter, your asinine ideas– none of that matters to me. In the end, it’s none of my business. But I loved you.”

It was a fair assault. He could reply, deflect, or take the blows.

“I know that now. I didn’t then.”

He’d allow her to expend her fight in this way if she so chose. Tanking blow for blow, matching her in determination with the stiff upper-lip of one receiving his lashes. Literally, if need be. Fact was, she didn’t need to lash him. All it would do was give her more work patching him up. She was far too tired already.

She sat beside him, “You do so much with so little, how?”

He eyed the middle distance, considering the question. “Need, I guess. I’m guaranteed only what I get. I find it best to use it fully. Doing so requires knowing how. That requires knowledge of many disciplines for each potential use.”

She was beginning to understand. “So to be an activist, you need to be a programmer?”

“To be an effective one,” he corrected. “But yes. Or to have some intimate link with programming. Enough even through a partner. Otherwise, you don’t understand the stakes in the fight.”

Dru saw where he was headed, “You’re trying to recruit me.”

“Never. Only remind you what’s at stake. You seem to be teetering. Please, choose. For your own sake. Find shelter until you’re needed.”

He expected her to reel, recoil. Instead, her face twitched. She fought back a tear that never manifested but he felt all the same.

“I made my choice long ago, N1T3,” she said firmly. “It was Martin Black whom refused to see that. Perhaps you may succeed where he failed, and find peace.”

The blow left him speechless. He took it with a graceful tilt of his head, as one bowing submission before an opponent on stalemate rather than sully either’s honor. It was as equally an act of common courtesy as it was of personal vulnerability.

Rather than recoil himself, he took the opportunity. “I do understand. I didn’t then. It’s little consolation, but –“

“Do not apologize,” she warned. “Accept it and move on different than before.”

A gleam in her eye caught his, prompting another bow, deeper than before. They felt one another’s thoughts in their chests as they had so many years ago. It was then he felt the pang of loneliness at his own, lack-of-presence.

N1T3 had expected many things but never this. Forgiveness, hatred, anger, and the like, he could handle. Even total indifference or loathing, but love was too much. Even if that love, its form was far from the intimacy they’d once shared, it remained tangible.

N1T3’s mistake, once again, was in expecting to have been a passing idea to her. As he’d been with all the others, save Ket. This time though, it was innocent; formed from the misunderstanding of what love really was, rather than what Martin Black had known it as.

Before he knew it, she’d pulled him up and wrapped her arms around him. Tight. Her face pressed wetly into his neck. He recalled her scent, forced himself still. She pushed away, and stepped back to swallow further tears.

“I’m glad you’re alright.”

He knew then what she’d seen, how and why:

She was a healer. In all respects. A channeller of the forces of nature to where they were needed to heal.

Anisa Blanc was dead though. There was no healing to be done there. Why, and how Dru’d been involved, N1T3 wasn’t sure. His gut clenched. He’d once more underestimated her, however fairly it disquieted him. His thoughts pulled his face, visibly enough Dru tracked them with her own gut feelings– the ones that were his as well. Together, they understood one another better, as well as themselves.

“Her mother came to me,” Dru explained, moving to pour her water.

He stood transfixed, sensing her need of a sieve for pain. He would oblige.

“She knows what really happened. They were close. Even if they fought over everything.”

He knew what she meant; An33$a was a hacker they’d known almost as long as each other. She was also a frail, neurotic shut-in with three-generations of house-wife psychic-baggage as her only form of life-advice.

To say the girl, Anisa Blanc, had been sheltered was an understatement. Anybody that had known her had known that. Even when it was happening, she knew it too– and rebelled every chance she got. As harmlessly and innocently as possible, and if only because it was all she had; her only fun.

But An33$a wasn’t that. She was something more. A force of primal sexual power that fucked Clockwork, a perennial God among hackers and the only one that could keep up with the pure, raw fury of force contained within that tiny, repressed package.

Unlike Martin Black though, Anisa Blanc had mastered the duality of on and off-line personas as capably as one could. It required masterful skill and sheer luck at times, but she had nothing but skill and time.

Finding the net, for someone like Anisa Blanc, was like finding air after being submerged since birth. They were separate worlds. The one she came from didn’t exist there, and vice-versa. They were polar opposites; extremes between gulfs so immense one side seemed mythical from the other.

An33$a and Clockwork had fucked for money. They’d stolen from corps. They’d ridden unimaginable highs and climbed from insurmountable lows. They were people, little more than kids, with universes inside them.

Anisa Blanc; a little girl from a mediocre part of the world, dead because someone’s bottom-line demanded it. Where she was from didn’t matter. Only that it was home. To those at-home, it mattered more than anything else in a world now more intimate than ever before.

It cut deep. Deeper than anything had a right to. It was going to keep cutting; deeper and deeper with every death. N1T3 could be next, likely would be. He knew it. Riter knew it. Dru knew it too.

Now.

“I saw her,” Dru said, avoiding turning as she sugared her tea. “Was like… someone had put her in that fire just to cook her, never intending anyone to look after taking her out.

“Her mother didn’t say a word. She… dissolved, into tears.”

A visible rattle shook her figure. He wished to reach out, didn’t. He’d seen her body too, but not so viscerally. He was lucky to be separated by his own, potential fate from reality’s demands, his own role in the fight.

“You don’t have to tell me.”

“I can handle death. I am no stranger to it. Blood and gore are my stock and trade.” She sucked in a breath and stiffened herself, swiveled to meet his gaze. “I cannot abide the idea that there are not only creatures whom perpetrate such acts, but do it so brazenly as to keep from hiding it.”

He followed her. Mostly. All the same, she swallowed hard and stuck a hand into her pocket, rolling something there between her fingers there. Then, she produced a fist and stepped over to the table.

She met N1T3’s eyes, “Nothing you could ever have done would change your courage now, in the face of what awaits you.” She flattened her fist against the table and slid it away at a slight crinkle of plastic. Left behind were an mSD card, and beside it in a plastic bag, a large-caliber slug.

The type one expected to find in corp-sec issued sidearms, rather than the middling and smaller calibers carried by cops and gangers.

“Someone left this behind.”

She remembered the autopsy. The M-E writing it off. Then waiting, mocking grief. Finding the hole. The slug left behind. Knowing how important it was. Knowing even then N1T3 would soon come, Riter would welcome him in, and he would be judged. Only then could she be his executioner, jailer, or savior.

She chose the last of the three, as he expected.

It was then that he knew everything until now had been, as when first seeing Riter again, her way of punching him in the face before a hug. Dru simply took her time with it, as allowed. Now, they were moving forward. There was no telling how long that would last, but both doubted it would be long.

He’d make the best of it nonetheless.

Short Story: AuralAgent

AuralAgent: Rdy?

FitWix: Yes

That was all they’d ever needed. The moment the response went through, the op had begun.

In the frenzy that followed, neither was sure what was happening. Only once it was over could they have known what they were doing. It was simply too automatic: combined muscle-memory and focus.

In the moment, Aural knew only the swift motion of her body as it vaulted a concrete barrier. Her sneakers slapped asphalt, then sprinted for the doorway ahead. The building stood as any uncaring stone formation but with an undeniably sinister lean. It seemed the core of the place was so corrupt, even the very architects had found pleasure in malicious, contrarian angles, utilitarian minimalism, and drab monochromes.

Aural was different.

Like so many others in the world, AuralAgent and FitWix were fighting for their freedom. True, neither were physically chained nor bound, their lives were no less constrained. Information, like water, needed to flow cleanly and liberally. Above all, it needed to flow freely and for all.

It didn’t.

Aural flitted through the door. Wix guided her via a comm-implant. “Seven doors to the left, there’ll be a break in the hall. Take a left.”

She did. Careful of the darkness that had stirred no-one thus far. It would soon enough. An entire building rose overhead with innumerable bodies ready to rectify any perceived problem. She rounded the corner.

“Hallway juts right.” She followed it. He continued, “At the end of the hall, take the stairwell to the fourth floor.”

She was through the stairwell door when the first signs of commotion rose behind her. Night workers were shambling from their stupor, groping, grunting their way forward: Zombies drawn to the source of their work’s interruption rather than brains.

“Thirty seconds,” Wix said.

Aural passed the third floor, doubled her speed. The hack wouldn’t last that long. She knew it. Wix knew it. Thirty-seconds was their best estimate, but too many people were onto it now. So long as she made the fourth floor though, it didn’t matter.

Her legs went double time. Suppressed mania from ten years of track and field unleashed itself. Equally as long outrunning service agents, dodging COINTEL, Mercs, Hunters, and beat-cops funneled the mania through the adrenal regulators she’d developed. The end-result was extreme capacity for focus, no matter the circumstances.

Kind of had to be, when the penance for failure was something worse than death.

Aural burst through the fourth floor just as lights flickered on overhead. Even before “Time” came through the comm, the fluorescent fixtures had regrown their strength quickly. She passed along narrow corridors broken by closed-door offices around two large, central rooms.

“You only have access to the North server-room,” Wix reminded. “Once you’re in, pull what you need, then switch the privileges to South server-access.”

By the time he’d finished, she was in. The door shut behind her on a large room cluttered with data racks and terminals. Pristine draperies of bundled cabling poured from the ceilings, tell-tales of such unholy rooms that existed as fashion statements, rather than as altars to that most holy: information.

Such power, squandered and neglected. Aural hated it. Machine-space no corp deserved.

She streaked along an outer row, down abreast lines of server racks to one in particular. A terminal flicked out and her fingers went to work. All the fury of a postdigital child at war fueled her. The stab of keys was her battle-drum, their beating savage. The terminal screen flashed white-on-black text. Commands flowered into processes and calculations. Rocket-fueled bars flashed beneath skipping text-dumps.

All at once, it stopped.

She was reading something. 4-1-8 repeating in her head. Then, movement began again: Slower. Punctuating silences with mechanical frenzy. She checked her watch, set it to twenty seconds, hit “Enter”.

The system was cycling, the authorization switching over. The system itself reset instantly, but it took time for all the checks to go through the thousands of drives, leaving a golden window of thirty-or-so seconds where her stolen ID had both Server rooms’ privileges. If the system had worked otherwise, Aural would’ve had no chance. Not even with Wix on remote.

But fools came in all shapes and sizes, con-men too. One had sold the other a security system without telling them how to run it, its pros and cons. It was equivalent to building a chain-link fence and expecting privacy and enclosure. Never gonna’ happen.

“One for the Angels,” Serling would’ve said. “Just another mark,” the con-man said.

Aural knew the type, couldn’t begrudge ‘em. “Even Hawking fucked around on his wives.” Thing was, someone like her would’ve just used that as an in to fuck Hawking’s wife. So, usually, the message of “don’t be a cock,” was lost regardless of its destination.

Someone like her. But not her.

It could never have been her way. She accepted that. She lived with that. Her way was confined to duality, the day and night. Shadow and not. Like a hag living as a maiden beneath a glamour. It mattered not why, when the time came to burn her alive. Just that she burn. Gods forbid if that formerly-fair-maiden, now burned-alive-hag, had been what kept the pox away.

What’d it matter? They cursed themselves no less when it came, were no less dead, no more deserving of spite for having learned of their mistakes in it.

But Aural was the Hag beneath the glamour. Deceptive, and dangerously so. Truth was, Aural was plain, but good enough looking to disguise the rot in her soul. That was what made her truly monstrous. She knew it, accepted it. Why not? Not like it was going to change. Didn’t matter all the rot came from the gangrene of guardianship. She was the product of an upbringing that fought for what felt right and it had tainted her.

Forever.

She double checked her watch’s timer, grabbed a drive from bay 418 on her way out, then strolled to the next server room.

“Making good time,” Wix acknowledged.

She’d chosen him to plan the op because he’d do it right. Shift changes, lunch-breaks. That was how he thought: like a wage-slave. Former one, anyhow. He knew the ins of a corp-system, especially if that corp happened to be waging a shadow war against… well, everyone– and he knew how best to exploit those ins. Aural was simply skilled enough to risk her throat doing it.

She was under no delusions. Death would be the least of offenses against her if she were caught by anyone. A specific few would seize any opportunity to turn the public on her. Whomever was unleashed directly would be maneuvered into parading her withering bones about until growing bored and throwing her to what few wolves yet remained.

No amount of connections would change that, political or otherwise.

She found the last terminal, hacked it to locate the data-bay she sought. Moments later, she was out of the server room, door hissing shut in a huff of conditioned air. The lights were back on in the building’s corridors, along with their security cameras. Her face tilted downward, obscuring her features: her clothing the only thing out of place on security cams. Didn’t matter. By the time anyone could move against her she was out of the building, skirting darkness for the getaway.

The box-truck was running down the alleyway, steam pouring from its tail-pipe into the cold air. The door was visibly unlatched, a single strand of light glowing from a dim source within.

Aural was in, pulled up by two pairs of hands: Wix’s half-mutilated face taught with effort, the other Zu’s tight with fury. The kid looked scrawny, barely looked able to withstand a stiff wind, but was rooted when he pulled.

Deception. Good.

Such details were necessary in a good crew. You couldn’t plan ops without knowing how every operative would react. That’s why breaking up a winning team was suicide, and adding to it, worse. Principles of American Life disseminated worldwide along the worldly-pipes: what Aural’s ilk called the Net. Mostly too, disseminated by Aural’s ilk.

The truck was rolling when the doors shut again. Aural handed the drives off to Wit. His one, wrinkled eye drew up with a half-smile like Two-Face at a bank vault. A hiss of “Shit!” emanated from the truck’s cock-pit, CanUHLynn was reporting in on time.

Something was different. Spitzu’s voice was rumbling quietly. He called her forward, “Aural, man, get up here.”

She was there in an instant, reflexes and guts ready. All the same, nothing could’ve prepared her: A small tablet computer, acting as entertainment, was propped up and velcroed to a console in the dash. On it, a video replaying at the press of Zu’s finger.

A news-vid cut in, an image of a man Aural knew entirely too well. The rest of, too, through her. It would’ve been hard not to, given his associations.

The vid played again, Anchor to one side. “– to Former President Hubert Langley, whom sources say, “passed away in his sleep” last night according to his wife and former First Lady, Barbara. A press-release says–”

Mom? Dad? Her first two thoughts.

The third was the plummeting in her stomach. Weights on her shoulders and the vertiginous feeling of reality collapsing in 3D tunnel-vision accompanied it. Wix and Zu steadied her. Lynn’s hand grounded her, its grip strained on Aural’s as the other wrenched the wheel back and forth to disappear them.

“Laura?” Lynn echoed quietly.

The use of her name ripped her back. Laura Langley was AuralAgent again– at least, in part. The other part was moving slowly toward the rear of the truck.

“I have to call my mom, my dad just died.”

It was a dumb thing to say, she knew. They’d all just learned it together. Still, it seemed integral to accepting things. They let her go without word or ridicule, but each one feeling weight in their chests.

Not exactly the victory party she was hoping for.