Guardians of Liberty: Part 4

4.

Supply Lines

It was four hours before N1T3 returned to reality again.

Those four hours passed in the same, formulaic haze of micro-instants his escape had. Blocks of code meant chunks of time spent forming and refining structures, running simulations.If he didn’t, when the time came to put things into motion, the whole damned machine would freeze. It would smoke and grind its gears, disassembling through a cock-up cascade of unequaled proportions.

He’d written what was needed, prepped it to go on old SBCs he’d stashed for just such occasions. The systems themselves were small, cheap, could fit practically anywhere and ran on virtually no power. Alone, they weren’t much, but chained via wireless networks they could used for anything, if executed properly.

Cloud computing on a burgeoning scale few had yet to imagine, fewer still to recognize as already upon them.

Before N1T3 could turn anything into a permanent refuge– digital or otherwise, he had to secure himself supply lines, avenues of aid and support. First and most formidably crucial, was food. For the time being, he had running water and enough stashed filters otherwise to last a good while.

Cheese cloth and fish-filter charcoal could purify even the most questionable water. In the mean time, he’d begun filling old bottles and jugs collected from the environment. He’d plan further ahead later, covered now barring some unforeseeable incident.

Chiefly, getting food meant bulk-buying. Sending a massive load of ration-style nutritional meals somewhere unsuspecting was the only way. From there, N1T3 could stash it in chunks at a time– squirrel it away between safe-houses around the city, outer and inner.

It would require false IDs, creds, Darknet supplies no-longer available on the Darknet. Which meant finding them on the black market. Not a difficult task, but not exactly safe when hunted like a dog who’d just mauled a sniveling child.

N1T3 needed someone he could trust. Someone that worked markets like a pro, knew how and when to burn someone or not. At that, it needed to be someone self-aware. At least of the war that had begun. Burning N1T3 now wouldn’t make sense for anyone invested in that world. The digital realm was under siege, and those aware or concerned about it were honor-bound to aid one another.

Those not were far too dangerous.

N1T3 knew of only one person that could run markets like he needed, was invested, and still in the game. Unfortunately, he also knew that one person was just as likely to welcome him with a hand-shake as a dagger to the gut.

He dreaded the idea but saw no options; he was up a creek without a raft– paddles weren’t even ideas.

He hovered over his keyboard with unnatural hesitation. The Digital realm was his. No-one disagreed. Like other board-jocks, he was an avatar of something bigger, deeper; a networked intelligence operating as any logic entity would.

The R-L realm was entirely different.

The flesh-verse was no more or less genuine than the digital one, but you were more likely to survive encounters in one than the other. Especially if one of those encounters happened to be someone that had as much as sworn a blood oath to do you in as anyone could.

He sucked it up and hit “Enter.”

A half-hour later he was closing combo-locks along the main doors. More tricks he’d learned over the years; low-level social hacks. Good deterrents were never meant to be impassable, but rather so simple as to be deceptively manipulative. In effect, poorly securing certain places meant discouraging tampering via hacking passersby into believing nothing of import could be stored so insecurely.

Anyone determined enough would get in, regardless. Those doing so knowingly, most of all. Simple dual padlocks of average, nondescript nature were much more organic to an environment still pre-digital than touchscreens and glowing LEDs. Especially in an area already abandoned, they were simply more, forgotten refuse.

It was society-hacking through the medium of the mind, as coding through a keyboard.In the event anyone did find the place and was determined to get in, they’d find themselves unable to do much more than scrap gear, pilfer stored rations, or wait to be caught.

Aside from trash, N1T3’s safe-houses were empty. His clothing was disposable enough to be unworthy of mention.He had little else. In spite of that nothingness, N1T3 still had valuable bit-currency.

Like… a lot.

Way more than he could ever need, and spread through various unnamed accounts capable of being transferred into any currency necessary. He could buy and sell through anything through any anonymous contact. Even if he needed to build an ID profile first– nothing for a hacker.

That brought him back to task.

N1T3hustled along the alleys of an outer London ‘burb, nearly lost for where he was. The once-historic skyline was gone, now replaced by light-polluted skies and miles of drab concrete. Perma-overcast hinted smog-buried sunrays that never cut through the filth. What remained of once-prominent structures were unrecognizable, or altogether hidden.

London was what Ancient Egypt might’ve have been without their culture; average, boring, poorly infrastructured and superbly scrambling to compensate. Just like the rest of the world. Just as the Corporations wanted them; so they were spun, easier to manipulate.

N1T3 crossed a street, unconcerned with hiding. Gray haze hid him from distant observers. Besides, no-one was hunting him here. Not in the immediate sense. Corp-sec was still cooling its heels and no-one that might’ve seen him otherwise could’ve connected him with Martin Black. Not yet.

N1T3 hadn’t even awaited a reply. There was no point. The message was sent. Received too, he sensed. In a short while he’d either be making a play, or dead. Either was equally likely. Such uncertainties lent credence to theories of divinity, but fate was really always dead-even odds of alive or dead.

That was the universe’s way of maintaining balance between limitless reference points: Ultimately, everything always resolved back into a simple yes or no, on or off, 0 or 1. No matter how complex.

N1T3 emerged from the shadow of an old awning and leaned beside a battered wood-shack. The place had once been a public park before inflation took over and drove municipal governments into destitution. Nature had since taken it back. The park’s once-lush and primly groomed grounds were overgrown like a Congolese jungle. The former suburb and its centralized patch of neglect hell-bent on reclaiming what it called its own.

N1T3reached his destination, almost certain he was dreaming. He figured then he’d been killed, was living out his final moments bleeding out on a rooftop somewhere. Then, a smell hinted the air; earthen, fertile. It sliced through the smog like a Katana, utterly ignoring the wet-death clinging to the cool air, and cut straight through him.

He realized then why he’d loved her, would always love her. She didn’t need sight, or sound. The very air sang of her presence. She was, as she’d always been, a force. Wild. Untameable. Eternally unchained and radiant. Above all, unending. He loved her…

And she hated him.

Sometime after their first few months, things went south. Fast. Neither’d known why. N1T3, then Martin Black, had acted a fool in love unable to accept change. Like one too, his stupor damaged an otherwise delicate-yet-crucial piece of their relationship through simple jealousy.

Feelings aside, Martin’s own youthful foolishness exacerbated otherwise immature-but-harmless tendencies. He smothered her, in doing so, crushing a part of her reliant on extreme delicacy to function.

And continued making it worse by acting like an ass for far too long afterward.

It was over a decade ago now, but it remained Martin Black’s “Most Infamous Hour.” Mostly, as the result of a long, slow road getting there. Passion meant nothing if one side blundered into love through it. Then it became obsession. Passion was a force, like her. Love was a contract, a system. A cold world of yes and no. He was young and foolish, and in love worst of all.

Now, he was forced to go crawling back– at least, that’s what it might look like. If he weren’t careful. Ultimately, he’d do his best to control himself, but he could never make promises. It wouldn’t be wise or fair anyhow.

Yet she was on the air, already intoxicating him. He felt his muscles relax. All of his once-anxious energy gone. Those fears, the very ones that had torn them apart, so damaged their relationship, withered to agony and dust from their decade of separation.

But the sudden feeling in his back was her knife. Unopened. Vertical, spring-driven blade.If he didn’t answer sufficiently and sincerely, she’d kill him. He strained for a breath, but the slight twitch ready to launch itself into his kidney forced a pause.

She was giving him one last chance to think clearly. Now or never.

He took it, if only to show his complacency. Heat on the wind said she felt something too. Still.Hated it. Hated him for it. Like a cursed sculpture refusing to be finished. She’d tried to eradicate the feeling from her life. Tried with all of her might to erase him, couldn’t. She hated him– everything about him, too.

Most of all, she hated herself for loving him back.

Martin Black had wounded her so deeply no healing aura could repair it. Yet the heat, breath, and scent on the wind told him he could play it right if he tried. If he really cared to. He couldn’t be sure he wanted to. Not yet. Not really. There was too much to be done. Too much more important than them, bigger than them. They’d have to look past their past mistakes, focus on the present, or die.

She hated them both for that, too.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 3

3.

Gather Round the Stone

N1T3 awoke like a hungover noob, head ringing from an ear-piercing ping.

His net-scraping alert system was pinging his rig. Before collapsing like a lump of bled meat, he’d set it to monitor various search terms, and compile them for later review. Then, he’d used it to relay his story, his survival.

All the same, net-silence was witnessed in the time between sending and receiving his ping. The cause was obvious; the Hacker community had gotten the message loud and clear. It was scrambling. They wouldn’t have had time to recover from last night. Not yet. Not fully.

N1T3 figured his escape had fouled up corp-sec’s plans, but enough to save anyone else? He wasn’t sure. His story would’ve put to flight all but the thickest hackers. He just hoped it was enough.

Hope was still thinner than he’d have liked.

But stock had to be taken. Corp-sec couldn’t work in the day as it did in the night. Plus, a sudden repeat of last-night wasn’t possible. Corp-sec couldn’t run such blatant ops so often or even the light-net propaganda couldn’t keep the suspicion off.

And the last thing Corps wanted now was further awareness of what was happening. They’d take a loss before misstepping that greatly.

What was happening, N1T3 knew, was a corporate takeover. A total takeover. In fact, it had been happening for close to a decade. Roughly the same amount of time he’d been out of circulation with the general populous.

He now had only borrowed time, and not much of it. Not unless truly hidden again; an impossibility given he was likely at the top of corp-sec’s hit-list.

The Hackers wouldn’t kid themselves; a first volley had just been fired and a war declared. Would-be leadership was being targeted. N1T3 and others like him, murdered for the sake of the ever-hungry, corporate bottom-line.

Now was time for strategy.

In the game they all knew to be playing, the Corporations had just made their opening gambit. Not clever as they went, but effective. Then again, death– attempted or otherwise– seemed a hell of a lot more than simply effective. It was repugnant.

Especially in a world with no need for violence.

N1T3 and the others knew that to be their world. Even if it wasn’t a practical reality yet. It would get there, given time. Society had evolved infinitely more, better ways of handling problems. Violence was brazen and downright foolish for the damage it did.

In a postdigital world, even a little damage was infinitely more destructive.

It was avoidable, too so long as those individuals involved not already so vested, afraid, or lazy to otherwise prevent it. Well it had been avoidable. Even if no other corp-sec targets survived, rumors would get out– someone would learn the truth.

N1T3 rolled on his cot to stare at the grafitti’d ceiling. Eons of spray paint formed a base-coat beneath words and doodles in varying states of decay. Some were recognizable enough. Slogans were abundant. Written in satire or well-meaning mischief. None mattered.

Bits and pieces of another life attempted to rise in the back of N1T3’s mind. He held them back, falling from the cot onto the floor still fully-dressed. He’d been too wrecked to even remove his armor-thick layers of warmth.

Even if he’d wanted to, the adrenaline and exertion had taken too much from him. He’d collapsed into the sleep of the recently near-dead, then awoke wishing he hadn’t.

The irony was too palpable.

Childhood in the changing world of London had prepared him for irony, but not like this. London’s strive to remain prim, proper, and staunchly conservative despite being hollowed inside-out by crooks, corps, and here-the-under-sign’ds was a joke in comparison.

He fell to his feet, barely noticing their utter ache. He was never meant to be a foot-soldier in a battle. Rather, he was an intelligence officer. Unfortunately, in a battle for intelligence, he was exclusively targeted.

He managed a piss in the old bathroom. The plumbing and electricity still functioned via some overlooked allotment for the city. He’d spliced the power anyhow, so as not to draw attention, but no-one cared about excrement unless it was backing up on them.

In that way, N1T3 had upgraded. In every other way, he’d gone underground.

Trace-back the error.

Back at his workstation, he sifted remote logs from his old server before it went offline. As a general rule, all server logs were exchanged a few times a day. Usually, as little more than a boring, routine list of averages never requiring further investigation.

This time, the logs were off the charts. Alert codes in three and four-letter chains. Power-spikes. Voltage jumps. CPUs and GPUs maxing. Drives failing. All of it in seconds. Obviously, N1T3 was the cause. He’d written the program. Initiated it– just before being chased across a rooftop by sniper fire.

Still, it was nice to know his work wasn’t all for nothing.

He surfed the dead-server’s logs. Nothing. All routine. A few pings here and there, but all systems. No user-pings. All redirects. None explained anything.

He sank in his chair, a stiff, metal, folder he’d have to find a way to replace. Yet another of the victims of the night.

He winced:Chalk-up the tally.

The thought reminded him of Clockwork, An33$A. He realized how insensitive he’d been. Reality forced him forward. The night was over now, or rather, near to beginning again. This was his revelry, that moment of procedure that allowed one to take stock.

The damage. He hated the idea, but all involved needed to know the extent.

Over the course of a series of forum messages and links, he gathered the general feel for the night, what had and might happen:

Corp-sec had run a smash and grab op to crackdown on a series of bleeds in the power-grid. Not uncommon, especially in the inner-city.

Power was at a premium, after all.

It was harder to trace elsewhere where voltage didn’t dip naturally because it wasn’t taxed as often. So, they found it.

A hacker fucked up. It happened. A younger one. One still cutting teeth and shooting metaphorical blanks on a cheap rig. Probably with less know-how than an oyster sucking cock.

All the same, a near-freak occurrence given circumstances. Rather than run somewhere hidden, the kid ran a line in from a rooftop, splicing into an old line connecting one region of the city to another.

What the kid didn’t know was that no section of power-grid couldn’t be shut down entirely without losing sparse levels of surveillance. What, in effect, formed a fortress-cities’ outer ramparts, moat, and sentries. All points where the fortress walls met the outside world, corp-sec often checked.

Because the kid didn’t know shit, he missed that these were digital defenses. Requiring power. Simply shutting out power-hacks from those areas meant shutting out the areas themselves.

What were a few, slow-drip leaks in no-man’s land when the grid was taxed so much worse elsewhere? On the other hand, the taps going over the walls, or nearest them, were considered the most traceable.

It was the difference between tracing wires one at a time, or in giant telecomm clusterfucks.

Few people realized how important that obscurity was. Power was power. One electric, the other ethereal. The few that did, had little choice but to remain outside its cloaking shadow. The few that couldn’t, fought for survival everyday.

So, the rest took notes to better understand how to exploit the weakness or avoid exposure. Unless Humanity fell, they figured, the observations might be valuable to someone somewhere. But nothing was valuable to a kid-Hacker with starry eyes.

The universe is a big place, after all.

N1T3 wanted to curse the kid, that he’d been smart enough to figure out everything and bright enough to know how it all worked, but dumb enough to get it all so wrong. Worst of all, to write it all down– or at least something that had given something away.

N1T3 still wasn’t sure what.

He wanted to curse the kid, but fact was, the coming conflict couldn’t be avoided. It was Human nature, the consequence of self-guided Evolution.

Specializing in number-letter strings and strong hunches meant nothing against automatic weapons. They had their place certainly, but in Human hands. Not postdigital, post-Human hands.

Even the notes ending up in corp-sec hands through happenstance was fine, provided they did something benign or unexpected with it. Yet they knew its value as anomaly, aberration.

And seized it.

That was dangerous. Corp-sec had seen the power of Hackers, their value. Despite obscurity. Then, somehow traced them physically.

Anomalous enough, but N1T3 doubted even allowing for schemes, corp-sec couldn’t afford more exposure right now. Which meant he wouldn’t know how it had been done. Not yet.

And he might make the same mistakes they’d all, already made.

He needed time. However much he had would be less than he needed. Sure, if Gen-pop got wind of corp-sec moves too fast, media-spin couldn’t take effect properly.

But flip-side, N1T3 and the other Hackers couldn’t force the Corps’ hand either. And neither side could move without assured, widespread adherence to their orders.

Things not going the right way couldn’t be going any way. There was no room for gray here. There was only yes or no. On-off. 0 or 1. Anyone trying to find middle-ground would be swept into one or the other unwillingly. It was best to let things simmer as they were– if only long enough for the dust to settle.

He finished his recollection and research, then addressed his alert with his full attention; a growing archive of everything regarding the building he’d left behind, its surroundings, An33$a, Clockwork, other hackers he knew of.

In it were the countless attempts at exclusive snippets from various light-net media agencies. All of them fronts or affiliates of the big-4. Each sang the same tune; fire in an abandoned, London building becomes arson, becomes terrorism, becomes heroic peace-keeping gone awry.

And there, nestled beneath the updates, misinformation, and outright lies was Martin Black. At-large. Presumed dangerous. Wanted in connection with domestic terrorist activities.

N1T3 smiled; domestic terrorist, for coding. Typing. Calling bullshit. The corp-media was already pinning him as another violent revolutionary.

How they’d found him was one thing. Finding out who he was really, was another entirely.

Mostly, because the information was utterly useless. Martin Black had long ago ceased to be; had long ago become N1T3.

The latter’s infamy was built off legends his fellow code-jocks told of him. Originating in the old vets that knew him as the up-and-comer he’d once been, and the encyclopedia of history, tech, and code he became, he’d surpassed any and every expectation and challenge.

To Hackers that knew him, he represented something more, as a symbol of their innate ability to redeem. To revise. To learn and grow.

Yet, the reports shook N1T3 deeper than he liked. Martin Black was his name, his childhood, his life. A part of him forgotten in the consequence of time. Something phantom yet cross-fading eternally with the present.

At least, until the war was over. Now, it had only just begun. Who knew if he’d live to see its end? What mattered was ensuring the proper stratagem remained even if he– or no-one else for that matter, remained with it. In essence, ensuring the Hackable nature of society was always known.

If there was anything N1T3 was capable of, it was that.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 2

2.

Making it Through

The last few levels were swarming. Like the zombie apocalypse vids popular when N1T3 was a kid. Except, instead of mindless drones shambling for meat, it was University and Marine washouts looking to hone blood-lust for the highest salary.

The second team of them appeared just below the fifth floor. They were tramping between foyers when he caught sight of them. That he’d made it so far without running into them told him the thoroughness of their search. He hesitated, holding his breath, and waiting.

If he knew anything of the growing plague corp-sec was becoming, it was their method of operation. Corps were all about area-denial, especially near their borders. N1T3 was technically bordering on their turf, he’d known it all along. Until now, it was the safest way to maintain supply-routes, but he had other places to crash.

Places he’d long ago planned to retreat to, if necessary.

Everyone like him had them. Never as a paranoid delusion, but rather, as a forethought to bulwark against tidal oppression. Problem was, N1T3 realized hiding against a wall; there was a major difference between planning for something and experiencing it.

With the latter now upon him, he wished he could have planned better. Then again, he’d never expected a corp-sec battalion to swarm. Even that had seemed the realm of delusion right up until Clockwork and An33$A bought it.

Now, he wished he’d bought a tank; a fighter jet. Or else built some sort of orbital platform to live on. Then, he wouldn’t be crouched in filth, heart ready to give out, with an army between he and any relative safety– an army looking only for him.

The feet tramped up, hesitated at a door. It opened, then closed, and everything was quiet. A door shut and latched below, forced him to swallow hard. He nearly choked, fought back for fear of the sound it might make.

His body launched itself down the next few floors like a ghost atop a bullet-train.

He knew only each step; the one to come. Each measured, planned without thought but on sheer will and want of survival. He found himself between the second and first floors in a breath. Inside the first in a thought.

He stopped, starring down the main-lobby of the office building at what had once been the front doors of an accounting firm. The lobby elevators bulged beside stairwells, taunting fattened caretakers into tempting the dual fates of poor, physical conditioning and heart-disease; and taunting N1T3 in to testing his luck that someone wasn’t watching.

He wasn’t how he’d made it past the first two teams. Making it this far made him want to re-examine his perception of the universe.

No time. The doors lay straight ahead.

Too obvious to run. Just beyond that last pair of elevators, squads of itchy trigger-fingers whipped into a frenzy from corporate propaganda. Hungry, abused dogs looking for a meal; N1T3 the jackrabbit. If they caught him, they’d fight over scraps for days.

His only hope was in the moment-to-moment. The step-by-step. Then again, hope was thin. Especially in the face of hot lead.

He shouldered his way along the wall, creeping forward as near to the corner as willing, and then some. He hesitated at a shuffle of clothing from one side. A hint to the shadows revealed the at-ease group of armored and armed wannabe-mercs; No-one had expected him to make it this far.

All the same, he wouldn’t overplay his hand. Not when one bullet shy of dead with hundreds in reserve. He had to play it just right, use the shadows, or he’d eat every one.

One breath at a time. He made for the far-side of the corridor, blending with the shadows.

He hesitated, corp-sec greenies stirring. The lifers, career soldier-types not good or smart enough for officer’s school, but unable to crunch numbers or run tech all day. Like most of corp-sec, these people were damaged goods. Less likely to be rabid, but no less prone to it.

Not surprising, considering what their job required of them.

N1T3 made himself as small as possible and slipped from the wall. He cut across shadows for a column, the cover it provided. He slipped out again, hoping to be lost in the background.

Suddenly, flashes:

A spot-light. His body tensed, worked. The hounds scrambled. The jack-rabbit took flight. Seconds. Days. Then a first spat of gunfire. N1T3 was half-way to the doors.

No-one could’ve expected the swiftness of his flight. N1T3 included. Pure terror fueled long-dormant energy reserves. His legs were lead, yet moved at light-speed. His heart had stopped but his body surged with fresh fluids.

He reached the revolving doors. Second and third rounds of gunfire ricocheted off metallic frames, rippled storm-proof glass. N1T3 stumbled, scrambled, re-centered gravity and fell into the street. His footing returned in time for beams to light over him. He sprang across the street, at full-sprint by the near-edge of the building.

Overhead, the buzz of unmanned drones running face-recog rained over N1T3. His body launched sideways, around, putting as much distance between it and they as possible before finding a way to break line of sight.

N1T3 was down 366th, around a corner, out of sight in a heart beat. The meat-drones had already lost him, but the metal ones were death on his tail. Their buzz was persistent, relentless, vibrating after him like cold death.

But they were programs. His malfunctioning mind knew. And really, he knew programs better than anything. Hardware. Filled with software written by he and his peers. All he needed was one, good angle. One moment of broken, line of sight. Enough for a second’s lost tracking.

He weaved to and fro, making toward the street’s far-side, and an awning there. It wrapped around its building, shielding the doorway from the elements by nestling it beneath concrete supports and glass panels.

His chance; he took it.

His legs pumped. Shoe-rubber smoked across concrete, asphalt. He was under cover. The drones appeared. Zoomed under the awning after him, followed it around– the obvious path; the one their simplistic programming determined he’d follow.

He ducked back and around the small, concave of steps between the door and the central awning’s support. He hesitated a blink, then booked it back into the open; back the way he’d come. The destroyed remains of the former London commercial-downtown became little more than a blur of neutrals smeared with red from terror and desperation.

N1T3 became conscious of himself again somewhere near his destination– and the smell of the stagnant Thames.

Rivers weren’t much use in an age of drones and automated transport; which meant an old dock, in disrepair and seemingly little more than forgotten sewage access, was hardly conspicuous.

All the same, he made sure he wasn’t watched or followed, stealthing through as many shadows as possible. The light he was forced to cross made him little more than a flit– a figment of imagination, appearing and disappearing in the corner of a blinked eye.

He slipped through the underground-access door, shut it just as quickly.

The pounding in his ears gave way to a distant, eternal drip of a neglected and ailing pipe. With it, some part of him finally relaxed. He knew the place well, had established it years ago. It was the same place he and his buddies used to go to get high as kids. The kind no-one knew about decades ago and history had ensured was forgotten since.

N1T3 was safe. If only for now.

He shuffled along the dark hall toward its center, a room where he’d stashed supplies long ago. His mind still fought to grasp what had happened; that corp-sec had actually found him– and right after Clockwork and An33$A bought it.

Bought it?

No. Were murdered. Hunted down. Exterminated. Why?

Why not? N1T3 and the other hackers had known for years the net was a ticking time-bomb. It was the only reason or explanation for why they could be prepared like they were. The problem was, they knew they were at war. As soon as N1T3 hit the net again, they’d know how serious things were.

Vets like him would already be packing up, hitting the road to reset just for safety’s sake.

Vets like him, if any existed still– N1T3 refocused, found himself leaning on a patch of damp, moldy wall with the same tranquility he could only imagine came at the first drops of euthanasia; released tension, lost fear, knowledge that this at least, was almost through.

He managed to float along its dissociative effects, manufactured of blood and fear, to the shadows of an already-darkened room. Beyond it, into another barred by a simple combination lock on an innocuous looking latch; enough to deter most intrusion. Any practiced sleuth would’ve noticed the age difference between lock and surroundings area. But a practiced sleuth wouldn’t have been there without knowing something was anyhow.

N1T3 entered a series of ones and zeroes on the combo lock, then let himself in through the narrow door. He emerged in something not dissimilar from where he’d come. The whir of old hard-coded builds kept the small, recycling humidifiers and de-humidifiers running. Their job crucial to keeping the servers optimal. If the air became over-saturated with heat or moisture, the gear suffered.

Because of their access-points, they could be adjusted and monitored remotely, but only if they functioned. Then again, programmer screwing up so crucial and simple a job wasn’t taking it seriously. That wasn’t an option anymore, even for the less-than-pros emulating N1T3 and the other Hackers.

This place, and any others like it, were about to become the last bastions of digital freedom. Corporations had assured as much tonight.

N1T3 had a few things to clear up and out, a few stress tests to run, but he settled into the place as if he’d never left it. He fell into writing up his story, splicing-code to ensure the information was relayed everywhere it counted. He finished, hunched over his keyboard and half-sinking forward in despair.

The code compiled and the bot engaged, posting to the series of forums and boards he frequented. He finally slumped back to stare at ceiling-graffiti he or someone else had left in their youth. The phrase was simple, resonant, and utterly hopeless; A better way?

Guardians of Liberty: Part 1

1.

Losing Home

Rain drummed at a steady spatter atop sheet-metal, occasionally breaking into sprints on gusts of cold wind. The rooftop shack, built twenty-stories above-ground atop a former office-building was once a mere lean-to over a series of electrical panels, pipes, conduit, and miscellanea that formed the building’s vital-systems loop.

Before, the place had leaked, bowed in the wind, and damn near blew down with each breath. Since then, its innards had been stripped, its holes patched and reinforced, its structure made sound, and the leaks more or less stopped. While it remained the size of a dual cupboard, forced to contain all the requirements for human living, it was enough to house everything needed for postdigital living as well– In other words, tech.

A lot of tech.

A grid-hack fueled all of it, mini-fridge and hot plate included. Though the former tripped breakers most wet days, the plethora of computer and server gear never wavered. It was too important, had its own electrical and digital taps, expertly applied and maintained. Meanwhile the bathroom was an old toilet just inside roof-access and jerry-rigged with rain catchers to flush and fill— or else, a proper angle off the rooftop to the desolation below.

Between bodily and technological functions Martin Black, better known as N1T3, might as well have been server equipment himself. He was jacked-in every moment; had learned to hack the world around it so he’d never have to leave the net.

The few people he did meet or see, came to him. Even the roughest knew not to violate the sanctity of his place. Not because they respected or feared him, but rather, because they knew of the importance of his mission. They wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

But there were no visitors today. No guests. At least, not yet.

Finally forced to get up or piss his pants, N1T3 stepped into the rain, unzipped, and let ‘er rip. Cold rain pelted down in five-pound drops over the distant drone and auto-car static wafted in from the nearby city. Gusts pelted sounds and rain in equal measure. Already layered in clothing from the drafty, sheet-metal walls, N1T3 barely noticed.

Urban-armor of layered cloth and leather served its purpose dutifully, no matter the weather. N1T3 was glad for that.

Rain and piss followed gravity down, meshing and melding until no difference remained. N1T3 blew a hit from beneath his layered hoods and finished with a waggle, shove, and zip. He about-faced for the shack and returned to work.

N1T3 knew nothing outside the net. There, he was a powerhouse. Unstoppable. Even if he’d managed time for a life outside it, he’d never have kept up with it. He was one of a handful of people whose life passed in written code, tested, compiled and made live for the sake of the greater good.

The “how” was a lot more difficult than the why, but the why was simple; people needed him. People like him. The how of that was equally as simple; to safeguard their freedom and liberty, no matter how overplayed it sounded.

The net was fracturing into two, distinct entities; the light-net and Darknet. The latter had ensured the fracture would never again threaten certain, basic freedoms. N1T3 and others like him, by design or coincidence, were its sentinels; guardians of liberty and freedom and leaders of a postdigital rebellion whose spine was an abstract. It existed only in concepts and theorems, and digitally rather than analog.

Static software in an eternally dynamic system.

In a pre-digital age, such sentinels were never needed. Neither they, nor those they were meant to serve, existed.

But things had changed.

The pre-digital age had given way to the postdigital with no delineation or hint of the transitory state between– that is to say, the nether-realm of quantum mechanics between 0 and 1. That fickle bitch of nothingness, in neither program nor switch, whose existence made possible compounding errors, ghosts, AI– everything damaging to a functioning system but that was ultimately life, the possibility of it.

That nether realm was the simultaneously all-important and utterly vestigial “in-between.”

Instead of being used for greatness though, its was used to gorge oneself in copious, material consumerism, and gorging of propaganda. Everyone knew it too. Yet none cared. All of Humanity was guilty, but some were still barely coping, if at all.

Others, like Martin Black– AKA N1T3, were doing their best to ensure the future wasn’t heading where it seemed to be. They’d seen Humanity’s treacherous path for what it was, were curious first off before coming to understand and acting reflexively in defense.

N1T3 personally recalled the Takeover; he and the other so-called “hackers” main question then had been, “should we do anything?” Media and propaganda said no. Counter-culture said yes.

But the question was never if the path existed, simply if it could be avoided or was worth the effort.

N1T3 made himself wealthy and famous in the meantime, but with the kind of wealth and fame that was shape-shifting and more infamy than not. He could be assured at least, he’d eat the rest of his life and never fear missing a meal– much more than could be said of the average person.

His main mission however, was ensuring people could one day learn to do the same if they so chose. Obviously, they hadn’t yet. Or at least not enough, judging by the world’s state. Society wasn’t ready for full-on change yet, but it was coming and they were warming to it. Meanwhile others, like N1T3, had and were waking to the present-reality, its ill and stagnated effects from the lack of change.

Meantime, N1T3 and his ilk were living gray lives. Ones assuring their asses could be hauled in, made examples of with their lives forever upheaved despite nothing lasting sticking to them. While in most circles, N1T3’s people remained unknowns; in others, they were the sole public-enemy.

He’d never understood it either.

N1T3 sat in his chair to watch the his feeds lighting up. Forums. RSS feeds. Newswire vids– Countless sources of information, self-curated and aggregated, were showing something massive had occurred, was occurring; a glitch in the society’s system for the worse.

He’d been up precisely long enough to piss. In that time, something had happened. Something big and bad. People weren’t sure of its entirety, but its existence was identifiable quickly by its negative space.

N1T3 was no stranger to net-side alarms. Often it was from other Hackers, Guardians like him going offline, not reporting in regularly (in their way), or altogether disappearing, sometimes for months at a time but never forever.

Forever wasn’t really a thing that existed in N1T3’s world. Despite its seeming existence in infinity, forever was a different concept. It was external to the world of systems, 0s and 1s. Infinity was a recursive loop running until the end of time.

Time was less than forever. Forever was beyond that of time’s meager constraints. It was the nothingness after universal heat-death. A world outside the world of systems, where its rules weren’t applicable. Indeed, a world and realm most Human-thought could barely breach.

N1T3 sat in his chair to watch the RSS feeds lighting up. He’d been up precisely long enough to piss. In that time, something had happened. Or, had begun to. Something people weren’t sure of, but whose existence was quickly identifiable by its negative space.

The hackers’ places were lighting up. People were going nuts. Billions of gigs were being exchanged in seconds. The net had slowed to a fraction its normal bandwidth. London-wide, the power was dipping, straining. The hackers, their people, were panicking. Markets would soon start fluctuating.

N1T3 stilled his racing heart long enough to think: A few hackers had gone offline earlier in the night. Not uncommon nor earth-shattering. Rolling brown-outs often tripped spliced breakers from rippling voltage. Nothing to do after but reset your systems or spend a few hours replacing grid-patches at-worst. Pains in the ass to be sure, but nothing life-altering.

Until today.

N1T3’s feeds were constant streams of intel scrolling by at lightspeed. Alarms were going off. Everywhere. Digital, silent alarms, but alarms. It didn’t take N1T3 long to figure out why; Clockwork had been offline hours now; too many hours. CW was the type of hacker that earned his name from a rigid adherence to certain protocols and schedules. Now, he was late.

More than that, everyone suspected he was involved with An33$A, another hacker who often went quiet the same times as Clockwork. Everyone figured they were fucking, or equally afflicted by some habit, but no-one had proof– just vague knowledge.

The hacker-world thrived off vague knowledge though. It was all any hacker needed to operate. Everything else was improv, reading between the lines.

News-vids were coming in; couple, presumed dead in a building fire. Poor side of town. Clockwork’s main server was down, its remote back-ups still running.

Any hacker running their own gear knew how to track certain things related to anonymous users. For people like N1T3, Clockwork, An33$a; anyone could pretend to be them, but only they could launch messages from one of their own servers.

And all of Clockwork’s servers were up, save the one he’d most recently been using to broadcast from. Exclusively. It was as if finding a person’s favorite shirt with them conspicuously absent, and it freshly bloodied.

N1T3 tapped a macro and readied a ping in a terminal, then macro’d another series of numbers. The pings checked out. All of them. Clockwork’s servers were up. An33$a’s too– except the ones suddenly confirmed as registered to a freshly burning building.

N1T3 was hyperventilating. He and the others hadn’t gotten where they were without seeing the forest through the trees. He racked a macro across the keyboard and the humming drives began to roar. Programs and messages executed in lock-step tandem, burning aged processors with the effort.

High-burst messaging systems N1T3 had long ago concocted began transmitting and posting pre-written messages. The drives ramped up. The screens flickering past were suddenly clear. A momentary, steady glow, and they flickered off. Fried plastics and metals smoke accompanied steel-warping thrums.

N1T3 wasn’t paying attention. He’d stuffed his bug-out bag of everything vital, then bolted for the rain just as the first wisps of over-volted system tinged his nose. The rig had already cooked itself off, was now making its point better known. N1T3 had designed it that way; the gray area of his life, his work and mission, demanded the contingency.

And not a moment too soon.

He hesitated at the door, ears and eyes peeled through rain. Something cracked behind him. A chunk of rooftop went missing. The softball-sized divot exploded into dust. He reacted, bolting again. Snap-shuffle rhythms from distant sniper-fire traced his path in hunks of pulverized building. N1T3 weaved on instinct, fleeing for the stairwell door; Inside was safety. Maybe. Probably not.

But it was better than this.

Each step was an eternity. Terror burned his veins and throat. His instincts and body said to work. It did. He wasn’t sure how. He managed a half-stumbling terror-sprint to hurl himself inside all the same. The door’s jamb sparked as he dove through. G-Forces slammed it shut.

Hyperventilating but unwilling to stop and breathe, N1T3 had only moments or minutes; neither was long enough. If what they’d done to Clockwork and An33$A held through, they were already in the building. Strike teams would be moving in.

Distant, feet pounded echoes up a stairwell confirming his fears. Corporate security was moving to eliminate a suspected terrorist– that’s what they’d bill it as. Clockwork, An33$A, N1T3 if he weren’t smart, careful. And now.

He slowed his pace to breathe, uncertain he wasn’t too terrified to move, and surveyed his surroundings:

He found himself in the uppermost lobby, more a maintenance area than anything habitable, but his toilet reminded him he knew the place better than he thought. A stairwell door burst open to the booted foot of a commando dressed in Kevlar. A flash-light swept its beam from the end of a rifle at the newly vacated area. The strike team filed in, silent– as if it were necessary after their obnoxious entrance.

They swept past the door to the bathroom, aimed for the steps ahead. A commando in the middle of the line paused at the open, elevator doors, leaned in to look down, flash-light sweeping the shaft into empty blackness below. Another lit the upper-edges from an angle, illuminating the forward corners.

Just behind them in the blackness of the door’s overhead ledge, N1T3 stilled himself, perched in utter disbelief at what was happening. Even the game corp-sec thought it was playing wasn’t being played right. He was glad for it of course, but the irony was there.

The pair of lights did one, last sweep, then pulled away. Boots tramped toward the rooftop door.

N1T3 considered stopping to check his pants, couldn’t. The place was too exposed. Soon enough they’d notice the server was fried, start locking down the building. They wanted to catch him sticking around, or deny any opportunity of ever coming back.

He finally breathed; he’d live. The shack was a home, but ultimately, his home was a digital one; an abstract. The idea itself modular, able to handle anything, in its way. He heard the rooftop door shut and fled for the shadowy stairwell. Even then he knew it was only his first encounter with corp-sec.