Guardians of Liberty: Part 19

19.

Paradigm

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

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

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

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

“I’m here for Martin Black.”

She hesitated.

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

“You have seen him, then?”

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

“When did you last see him?”

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

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

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

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

His nostrils flared and his face flushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Highly.”

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

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

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

He didn’t understand, remarked as much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He winced, “Is it the same with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In one movement she’d turned the tables entirely.

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

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

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

Short-sighted given the blade at his throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardians of Liberty: Part 17

17.

Facing Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were better ways.

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

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

But he’d had to know, to understand.

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

Once revealed, he could tend to it.

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

Vulnerable however, did not mean impotent.

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

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

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

Nothing sinister, merely privileged.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is he?”

Riter spoke, “Gone.”

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

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

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

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

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

Riter sneered, “Noble of you.”

“What’d he want, Riter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ozell grit his teeth and stormed off.

Short Story: Tales to Tell

Tales tell that the during the birth of the world, the all-mother and all-father gave equal parts of their vitality and strength, their burden and weakness, to the seed which would become all of creation. It was this seed, once sprouted, that became all that is, was, and ever shall be.

The sprouting, really, was the Big-Bang. The forces involved still indomitable, immutable. Mother and Father. Yin and Yang. Duality was a concept spanning not just species or time, but the Universe. It was universal.

If only those first Shaman could see us now…

He was Navajo. Native-born. Walking along a road deserted nearly a century, save to the occasional wanderer like himself. Heading East. From the place where the sun sets, seeking answers where it rises. Having found none in one, he would seek them elsewhere.

The sun gleamed off sweat-glistened skin. Deeply tanned, yet still burnt by the pounding sun. He had been in it days, looked it. Like a cactus after a particularly bad drought and a fresh sandstorm. He had survived, as all young Navajo boys learned to: off the land. He never had fears about crossing the Desert, only weariness and lack of need.

He was no fool though. His mother had raised him right after his father left: why, no-one knew–he suspected, not even his father. Like him, he now walked alone, though considerably wiser for his cautionary tale.

Kurt said it best: “See the cat? See the cradle?”

He walked on, unfazed. Desert roads were abandoned even before the fall of civilized man. What the locals had foreseen and called Teotwawki. It came and went. Out here, it was almost impossible to tell. Yet somehow, perhaps through his blood, he sensed the land’s unnatural emptiness.

Another tale tells of a Great Spirit whom came forth during a harsh drought. Prompted by the people’s offerings to bring rain upon the land so the crops might grow, it appeared to a Chieftain whom lamented his people’s dire need. Though none could corroborate him, he said it requested this:

That all people of the village come at nightfall to the grove where he then spoke. There, he proclaimed, he would come to bestow upon them the will of rain, but only on the proceeding night. All but one man went: an old warrior whose will had broken with his soul at the loss of both vitality and heart– his bodily strength, and his wife.

So the Great Spirit appeared to the Warrior, granting he alone the power of Rain.

Out here, the end of the world didn’t seem so bad. In a way, it had been the most prepared for the end of the world. Already the least surviving. The desert was a place of death, everyday survival. A perfect analogue for everything the world had suffered and seen.

Although he admitted, if only to himself, he wouldn’t have survived much else.

It was crucial to know one’s limits. As a boy, the Elders had been strict on this. It was, they said, the root of all Human downfall. His grandmother had said it more succinctly– usually slurring whiskey, “Great-Spirit blessed us with balls and brains and blood for one.”

In his heart, he knew both were saying the same thing: those whom did not proceed with caution most often suffereda final fall.

He made camp by an archway in an alcove of stone. Firelight threw shadows back in flickering riposte to reality’s light-play. They danced and grooved along striated sandstone witness to more death and decay than most of Human-kind could comprehend. It grooved right back.

He passed the night on warm sand, propped only a little uncomfortably against the alcove. Anywhere else in the world would’ve been too dangerous to do such a thing. Sleeping, randomly just off a highway: a good way to be robbed or worse.

But out here there was no-one, and it was for the best. He tended toward pacifism, if only because he had seen the damage the alternative would do. In the rest of the world, that was often interpreted as weakness. Too many predators. The last thing he’d want to do is harm someone.

Though he certainly could.

A third tale tells of a sickness that raged within the people of a village. The Shaman there could do no good. His traditional herbs and medicines had failed him. Worse, winter was growing thicker after a drought-thinned harvest. Resources through-out the village were stretched too thin. Thus, it fell upon he, as Shaman, to guide the Tribe from the brink of total-death.

Though none said it, the people of the village sought his guidance. Yet they also feared his inability to heal their ailing. He was, after all, one man and an old one at that. Though the people said none of this, he felt it all the same.

He worked tirelessly through the day and night to treat and stabilize the ill. With his medicinal stocks dwindling, he had no choice but to seek aid from a neighboring village. One which, by virtue of their adversarial history, might have easily led to his death.

Yet if he did not try, the village would perish.

At the rival village, he found the same sickness ravaging the people. Their Shaman, one of the eldest and wisest, had been first to fall ill. Due to his own, hidden infirmities, he succumbed. Without his guidance, the apprentice Shaman could do little save his best.

The Elder Shaman arrived, but rather than take charge of his stores as a villain might, he taught the rival Shaman all he knew. Together, the pair healed both villages and re-forged their long addled bond.

He came upon a carcass on the side of the road. Decayed to dusty, tanned-human stretched over bone. Its shape and size still identified it: Young. Human. Female. Probably escaped from a den somewhere, held against her will. Looked decades, could’ve been days.

Humans were animals: beastial. Depraved.

He would have to be more careful here. The kinds of creatures that frightened others into choosing such deaths over theirs were true evil.

An Elder had taught him once of evil, that it was a realm of malevolent Spirits seeking to control man. The other Spirits, those to which they gave praise during certain acts or events, were the Benevolent ones. He believed in neither. Not the way he knew they had believed, but in the way they were meant to be. He understood them.

A final tale tells of an old warrior, spirit bleeding and body broken. Day and night he wept in private, soul ravaged by loss of body and love. When at last the Warrior cried to the Great Spirit to ask what evil he’d wrought to have such sorrow befall him, the Spirit appeared.

There, he alone was granted the power to bring rain to his drought-stricken village with tears.

The warrior, feeling this a final slight wept greater than ever. His cries were heard from the village’s outskirts as the rains suddenly began to fall. They found him weeping, kneeling amid the falling rain. There, they came to understand.

And comforted him.

He never again cried, but they never again felt drought either.

He’d heard them in the night from far off. In the desert, sound carried forever. Distinguishable from the dead stillness like needles in the spine. The vibration of something, not far enough off, disturbing the stillness.

He did not sleep, but rose as soon as the sun began to peer over the ancient stone and sand dominating the nearby world. He started off, having seen nor met no-one and almost certainly having retained his anonymity. He remained on guard until, at last, the vibrations trickled back into nothing and he was alone again.

He had never feared them. Not really. Fear was a thing for the unprepared. He was prepared. Alert even. He had one goal, and might not live to see it, but didn’t see any reason he wouldn’t, just accepted he might not. For now, he supposed that was enough.

He walked on.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 11

11.

$trydr

A face emergedlike the Cheshire cat appearing from darkness. N1T3 was Alice. In place of glowing bulb-eyes were others much more keen and calculating. The scruff-jawed face, aged as N1T3’s, held a wisdom many years beyond even the eldest of those N1T3 knew.

One, fluid motion, propelled $trydr forward. A fist collided with N1T3’s jaw, as the opposite pulled him into a hug. N1T3 recovered immediately, finding himself led forward as if nothing had happened.

He rubbed his left jaw, “Could’ve warned me, Riter.”

They passed into a stairwell, ascending toward the station-proper. “I was glad to hear you weren’t dead,” $trydr said, leading him past a formerbunk-room and toilets,now altered in purpose.

“Never would’ve expected to hear that,” N1T3 admitted. “Appreciate it though.”

N1T3 rubbernecked; the station was largely unchanged since youth.In a way, so wholly different it could never be anything near the same. Mostly, it was missing the people. The ones that made it okay to be a burnout, so long as you contributed.

Usually, that’d meant keeping the place from the scrap heap. Other times, it was stockingit with food and other essentials. He and Riter were gophers then. Kids taught right and wrong from sweat on their browand goodness in their hearts. Not arbitrary rules, to be bent with the right social status.

Riter’s father was an old man even before he was born; he’dremarried late,during a 20-year career firefighting. After Riter, hewent on to be Chief another 20 years– well-past normal retirement.But Riter’s old man had done few things right. He gambled and owed money, fought, occasionally drank too much, and often ended up riding the station’s couch from it.

All the same, none would’ve spoken ill of him. He knew right and wrong, if only because he toed and crossed that line too often himself.

When he finally died, Riter was forced to leave the station– the place he’d spent his whole life. That is, until he’d somehow occupied and fortified it. If $trydr was stayinghere, as he was beginning to suspect, N1T3 knew where he’d set up. Knew it… like he knew he’d find him here.

Fact was, it only made sense for a former Chief’s son to buy his father’s old station-house after it was salable. Only a fool wouldn’t have seen its value. So long as one could afford it, why not? Like N1T3, Riter had plenty stashed in assets and currencies. In the end, the how made sense but thewhy perplexed him.

$trydr glanced over his shoulder as he ascended a pair of steps.He hesitated with a warm nod, then ushered N1T3 into the office. A memory of the dispatch desks, half-empty, superimposed onto their new reality of total-occupation of tech.

The windows were low-lit, covered by cloth to let just enough light in to show day, but not betray a light or two being on low at night. At that, the room was low-lit. The glow of monitors supplementing cool light from a few dozen clusters here and there; in corners, along walls, and scattered about a central section of former desk-consoles.

Servers. Cheap. But liquid cooled. Silent. Powerful. Riter shut the door behind N1T3 and began to lead him around. Each cluster was running open software– and given Riter’s paranoia, secured by nonsensical alpha-numerics and heavy encryption.Perfect.

“I still don’t understand what you’re doing here.”

“Waiting for you.”

N1T3 hesitated, eying a monitor, “All this…. it’s legitimate?

“Nothing but.”

If N1T3 was surprised before, he was utterly stupefied now.

He suddenly understood; like Ket, Riter had been waiting for him. Over the decade since Martin Black’s demise, his former comrades had been building a shrine to his ideals. Not to him per-se, nor even his words, but his ideals nonetheless.The same ones he’d helped spread in the time-before, was helping to secure the future of now.

Except, they weren’t his ideals. Not really. He knew that now. They never had been, for that matter. He simply knew and spoke of them first, before the masses caught on. When the others were still struggling to find their words. Not from malice, but immaturity.

Martin Black had been forced to live lifetimes before his time. In that, he gained a wisdom that made N1T3 the force he was. The problem was, that blinded him to certain, other aspects of himself that were immature. Again, not from malice, but simple lack of contextual maturation.

Because of that, too, N1T3 had learned how indelible the ink of life was. Was determined to find a way to make the most his, by ensuring no-one ever had to fear nor experience that indelibility early.

He began to nod, “You want me to link them.”

$trydr smiled, “Still sharp. Good. You’ll need it.”

N1T3 stopped at a server running an open file-browser. He knew $trydr’d left it open for him, like he knew everything else. He knew too what he’d find in it. He didn’t really care to look, but did for the sake of respect. The effort Riter would’ve gone through to collect the data was worthy of gratitude, if nothing else.

N1T3 began sifting the open directory. Thousands of image files appeared as just-discdernible thumbnails. With them came thousands, then millions of moments. They hit N1T3 in the gut harder than Riter had in the face. He doubled over, having preferred a repeat of that instead.

A series of pained moments. Flashes of light. Darkness. Shadows moving.

He found himself on his hands and knees, the weight of Riter’s hands on him. A third-person’s presence; slender-boned fingers at his neck. Dru1d. Of all things, N1T3 never expected to find $trydr’s wife tending to him.

N1T3 was braced on the floor, hands holding him up. The gut punch had winded, staggered, and rattled him. If he’d been in a boxing ring, it would’ve been a two-hit, one-round fight. A disappointment, in a way.

His viscera returned as she lilted, “… normal for something like this.”

“Psychological?”

“One triggers the other.”

Her voice rubbed his ears like silken woodwinds. His rumbled like a floor-tom. N1T3’s world focused. “I’m fine now.” He rose slowly. “Better anyhow.” They spotted him upward. “What the hell happened?”

“Memory recall,” she said firmly, already on-guard. “It’s painful.”

“That was intense.”

“You repressed a lot, Martin,” $trydr said. “It’s going to take time for it to decompress.”

“But it will. Soon,” she warned, about-facing to storm out. “I’d suggest you have something for his head then.”

N1T3 supported himself on a nearby console while $trydr brought chairs, “Angrier than you now.”

“You blame ‘er?”

N1T3 remained silent, waiting for Riter to stop and sit himself, and deeply considering the question. Close as the three had once been, Martin Black’s wounding carelessness affected healers worst of all. At that, N1T3 was certain Dru was. Not a false healer either, but a true healer; one whose essence aligned with her polarity.

Not only had she been directly wounded by Martin, she’d spent the better part of the time between tending to wounds he’d had a hand in creating. From her perspective, how was he not to blame?

N1T3 finally sighed, “Not in the least, Riter. Never.”

He managed a small smile, a wise-glint conveying a depth of gratitude. “Then in time, she’ll heal. That’s what she does.”

He thought to inquire further, but knew her time would come. Even if it was only a parting word, she would have her say. He only hoped she’d be gracious enough to allow him an apology– maybe one day, forgiveness.

He hoped, then remembered he might not live long enough to see it.

With all the weight of the world crushing into him, N1T3’s reality manifested on his features. In that moment, time ceased to exist for $trydr. He saw his old friend now as pale, shadowy husk of his former self. Worse, he saw now the madness that had begun in earnest. Not only N1T3’s, but his own part in it.

As N1T3’s part in Ket’s play.

$trydr had always known he had a part to play, how to prepare for it. Only until the play was in motion would they know if he’d done enough. Now, he understood and saw N1T3’s reality better than any before, and it was bleak. Bleaker than even his own reality, by virtue of their differing statuses.

In that moment too, N1T3 saw the look he’d had himself when he’d seen the vision of the future. Not through supernatural or precognizant power, but logical deduction. That moment of lip-parted terror-eyed recognition.

The one that ended in seemingly one, credible way: with N1T3 as martyr.

Short Story: Snowbound

Tufted fur of an emaciated snow hare tousled in cold wind, its slow half-hop betrayed its own hunger and exhaustion. It had been a lean winter. Made leaner still by the utter lack of break between driving and falling snows. Even if the hare didn’t know, it was currently three-feet taller than it should’ve been.

It hopped a short distance to the edge of a tree trunk. Tension stiffened it. Its ears twitched and tuned like parabolics. The muscular kneading of all small creatures pulled and dropped at its face to sniff the air with foreboded curiosity.

For a long moment, all was still.

Instinct passed and the forager returned its face to the snow to will something from nothing. Background wind ensured it never heard the whistling shaft. One minute, it was living: the next, dead. Its hunger forever sated by the nothingness left over.

Izrik didn’t breath. He let the last of the bow’s vibration dissipate through him, admiring his shot with a professional pride. He had true skill as an archer. Shame it alone could not guarantee him a meal.

He eased from his knee, slinging his bow around across his chest and starting for the carcass. It lay, leaking steam and blood into frigid snow. If nothing else, he’d have a new wrap for his sword-hand. The last was frayed from hiking and walking sticks, rather than battle. He’d almost longed for battle. It was practical: he’d been crossing the tundra-wastes over a week now, each day signs of habitation growing sparser.

The birds had disappeared first. Even the Winter Raptors hunting wider-ranges were gone.

Izrik recognized the encroaching of a no-man’s land. The Tundra held no life beyond a certain point, but he was determined to cross it. To reach the lands beyond in search of food, Humanity… anything. He’d rationed just enough meat to get him through a few days of would-be hunger, was already used to sleeping in the permafrost after perfecting the art of iglooing.

Yet, the waning game and growing hunger in his belly nagged him. He knew he could not eat more than enough to sustain himself. Beyond wastefulness, it was dangerous to become fatigued from a full belly, but it made him tired not to eat too. Worse still, it made him weaker. Barren land or not, that was unacceptable. He’d need all of his strength to make it through.

He set camp for the night to eat what he could and preserve the rest. In the morning, he rose, leaving the igloo as he’d built it for someone or thing to find it useful. He picked a petrified limb from an ages-dead Hickory, more than adequate for its purpose and solid enough to give even an acolyte’s staff a run for its money. Then, used it to test the deepest drifts and set out.

Especially in clearings, there was no telling whether snow had formed coverings for pitfall traps of old-era buildings or machinery. He couldn’t say for sure of any around, especially given the snowbound terrain, but the petrified trees led him to doubt it. His usually-acute instincts were proven wrong moments later.

Izrik poked his hickory into a drift, felt it sink a few feet and thunk. Satisfied, he stepped into it, felt his legs sink the two feet to the hardened under-layer.

He’d not walked a half-step when he heard the crack! He leapt on instinct, sensing his mistake. His reflexes were good, but not enough. He fell downward, twenty or more feet, banging along smooth, thin metal with the violent ruckus of a bag of hammers poured over an anvil.

He tumbled downward through enclosed nothingness, fighting to right himself and keep his legs beneath him. The echoes were deafening, leaving him even more spun than lost gravity. He was soon sliding downward at impossible speeds, darkness swallowing him.

His senses sharpened. Leathers worked on order of muscle to slow him down. In a moment, the slope leveled out. Izrik was moving too fast. He burst from slatted sheet-metal that covered the shaft’s terminus. He burst out, catching himself on its edge with one hand. The other dangled, jammed with inertia over distant, clanging metal in pitch-blackness below.

His plight took only a breath to confront him. Straining groans of metal forced his arm up. He felt the shaft flex, scrambled to climb too-smooth metal. He’d only just clasped the edge again when a metallic snap cut the air. Gravity jerked downwardwith folding metal. The shaft’s underside slammed a concrete wall, looking distantly likea wilted metal flower touching its own stem. Izrik’s body followed through, slamming the wall front-on.

Wind knocked from his lungs, he lost his grip and fell into darkness.

He landed on his side on something heavy, coughing and scrambling for breath. On his hands and knees, gasping, he finally looked around: The darkness was thick, but the thing beneath him was heavy, wooden, smooth but unnaturally so.

Izrik managed enough of a grip on himself to stand. In a flash, he was blinded by a sudden, intense, light as which he’d never seen. Thousands of lamps and overhead lights flickered on. With them was the obvious whirring of something neither man nor animal. Machine, he guessed.

And in a moment, he understood the machines were all around him, connected to glowing panels.

His attention however, was drawn to one side of the room. A massive stockpile of metal cylinders spackled with pristine, colored paper lined the wall. He knew what it was without having to guess; food. Canned food. Old world, but good forever. His feet carried him with ethereal disjointedness but a large, colored emblem on the floor caught his eye mid-way.

He’d yet to grasp the whole of the room, but there on the floor, words he could read but didn’t understand; “Seal of the President Of the United States.”

President” was the only word that made sense, but it suddenly struck him. All of the Empires’ lies: from the Rebellion’s so-called pseudo-evidence. It was real. He alone had proof. Now, food enough to last in relaying it to another.

He circled a small gait, viewing the damage of the serendipitous– rather than unfortunate, tumble he’d taken. It was only then that his mind stopped swirling, and the immensity of what lay before him locked him still in the symbol’s center.

He could only breathe, “Woah.”

Guardians of Liberty: Part 7

7.

Old Friends Conquered

“I knew An33$a,” Ket said.

They were riding through town in the back of an old, blacked out delivery truck. It’d been upgraded to run on electric engines, rigged to roll out at a moment’s notice. More a thing of convenience rather than malice though– however intimidating.

Ket had learned to keep lines running through various, networked connections. Connections that included black-market contacts and rendezvous-points; first-name, former-Darknet associations; right down to local restaurateurs.

These were exclusive clubs, even for the excluding.

Playing the part of eye-candy, even for a single, proper night, meant making connections to webs most thought myth. It was the realm of doorways; a nexus point of paths she frequented, was traversing one-by-one, had been her entire life.

Fact was, born there or not, it was as close to predestined for her as was possible. The black-market, eye-candy burlesque-headliner: that was her niche. Her element. Force that she was, she was drawn to it; as water to a whirlpool or air to a cyclone. She dazzled…

And N1T3 he reveled, as allowed his momentary fascinations as any could be.

They emerged from one and he spoke on cue, “You were saying?”

She let a small, warm blink acknowledge his poise. “I knew her. Most did. We didn’t know it was her.”

He knew then whom she meant. The local hacker-ring was small, always had been.

“Small world.”

“These days, it’s smaller.” She lit a cigarette, offering him one. He took it, lit hers with a flip-top, then his own.

He slipped the lighter back into his pocket, “Making it more so only makes it more dangerous.”

She batted smoke toward the cracked, blacked-out windows hidden beneath dark, heavy curtains. They let in the sound of traffic riding bump-and-wave asphalt like oldschool surfers on low-crests. Their passing Doppler punctuated an already-humming soundtrack.

“The nature of a system dictates its likelihood to continue producing output, regardless of function. In essence, a system threatened with power cutoff continues to act as it does, regardless of its impending doom. It continues trying to revise itself or prolong itself.

“It’s not a thing of emotion,” she reminded. “But the culmination of successive revisions converging to another point of reference. That reference-point’s anything the observer of the system deigns when designing it.”

She took another, long drag, fingers near the window. They gave a delicate flick, disintegrating ash into a moving air-current before reeling back. N1T3 ashed beside his seat, in a tray velcro’d to a tabletop.

“You’re speaking of context; the purpose for any system’s use.”

“Precisely,” she said with another flick, keeping her ash in the wind.

Now that he fully understood her actions, he was curious why she cared to help. It was an earnest question. One he was equally entitled to, at least now and in said-context. He’d not been the most gracious loser or indeed, the most reliable partner, business or otherwise. It only made some sense to wonder what she saw in helping him.

He knew her well enough to know, but wished it clarified for posterity. In writing, so to speak– if only to the extent it could be, and if only for he alone to better understand.

“I care now for the same reason I cared then; potential.” She met his eye carefully. “Martin Black had potential. He did not live up to it. N1T3 has that potential now. And more.”

He said nothing. Their thoughts were aligned: other matters to attend to.

“I’m open to suggestions,” he said placidly.

“That’s not how this works. Not yet.”

He understood, “You want me to prove it.”

She didn’t need to nod. He saw it anyhow, suddenly understood where they were going, why.

“Anywhere I know?”

“No. Old storage unit. Meat-packing. City-Hub infrastructure.”

He nodded, knowing where she was headed, “Public. Relatively speaking.”

She smiled, “Rome conquered the public. They did it through toilets and water fountains.”

“I can do it with data-servers as aquifers,” he assured her.

There was no reason not to. Data was now a thing without existence. It had transcended time. Could not be lost. Not really. Only forgotten, then rediscovered. In a way perhaps, it had always been like that, because it couldn’t exist. Not physically. It was a realm without manifestation.

There were no digital borders.

Without a border, data was more than a single resource. It was every resource through its links to them. It was information. Vital. Equally powerful. Necessary; like water. Both a thing and a force. Like Ket.

Digital paradise was the next evolution of man’s social yearnings. One you could indulge regardless of reality’s shortcomings or luxuries. But it was absolutely out of reach in a world of Corporations. Especially, when those Corps owned the only true data-hubs and information infrastructure, were responsible for them.

If the Empire had done to Rome’s waterlines what Telecomms were doing to the Net, people would’ve lined up to punch holes and install taps without fear of reprisal. Not after the flow had been so obviously narrowed just to gouge people already working– or paying— to upkeep it.

Because of data’s reality too, every drop became as important as the next or last.

Thus, it became infinitely more important the pipelines were properly tapped and regulated. For now, N1T3 and Ket knew, they couldn’t be. The only pumps and lines in existence were locked behind fortresses, buried in Earth, and owned by sniveling heirs former Kings and Titans of Industry. Those old-timers had learned money-games played by different rules from a different world. However newer, more subtle their approaches, there were always the same strategies.

The fundamentally dissimilar nature of the old and new games though, dictated they were fucking up the boards. Irreparably.

In the end, who wouldn’t do it, with the skill and know how? Sure. It cost money, but money was a resource. Like with every flourishing resource, you stock-piled for leaner-times and drew down later.

There was no leaner time like one’s possible death-bed.

Why not try it? If it were crazy, he wouldn’t be here. Or at least, Ket wouldn’t be too. More than that, he had a plan for success far more powerful than any chances of failure. Even then, if he died before he completing his mission, he might at least succeed through others.

And it began here.

She led him into the warehouse, the truck still idling outside. Cheaper to let it run than start and stop it– long term, anyway. That was an electronic reality. Standby modes were easier than power switching. More stable too. Postdigital thoughts from postdigital children; the technological equivalent of sleep; the reason to never power down, but rather mete-out power into flowing or being stored for when needed.

But never did the power get cut. Powerlessness was not an option.

That was one thing imparted from Humanity’s rise from the muck: the reasons rape and molestation were capital crimes even in shadow societies. More-so, often, because of their need for discretion, to discourage future violation of its sanctity therein.

Shadows thrived on Honor Codes.

Making one powerless un-leveled the playing field everyone needed to be level. Otherwise, turbulence was felt. It was the reason the Mafia families put aside their differences after prohibition to fight the system– even if while still killing one another– the reason corps forced laws to change, made police obsolete; people needed each other even if they didn’t need other people.

Eternally, the problem was of relatability, familiarity.

Datum transcended that. It was a byproduct of Human existence. One Humans mistakenly thought of as passing– like waste, or semi-renewable, like water. It was needed, but what could be done of its properties? Their inherent corruptibility or susceptibility to manipulations?

In truth, Datum was Rome’s plumbing on a scale unseen since its literal era. Worse, that it was being ignored was sending humanity back to that time in history with its utterly-obvious and ignored toxicity.

Way N1T3 saw it, the bloodiest revolts had happened for less. One would happen for this, but it had to happen right. Otherwise, it would only restart the cycle.

History was a system, out of control in all but retrospect. Therefore, to correctly distinguish the causes of historical errors required examination, breakdown, and reverse-engineering. Only by then applying the learned information to the roots of historical errors’ manifests could history be engineered.

As it was, History was a complex record of Human social-interaction boiled down to its simplest form. That boiling meant reducing it to a series of reference-events, each with listed variables and constants– 0s or 1s– that retold its story the simplest way possible: in concepts at a time.

At its essence, History was a program eternally live, and always running in debug-mode. Therein, it was only ever possible to anticipate or react to problems, never prevent them entirely. Only a post-digital child could have understood that while Existence was binary– either you did or did not exist, people were not.

People had more states than Power/no-power. In/out. Off/on.

N1T3 once believed himself alone in the knowledge of this complimentary duality, its yin-yang of Human existence and their contrived reality. The truth though, was that everyone saw it, felt as he did. Some simply had not realized it yet or made the connection of what it was they saw. Some, never would.

That became dangerously apparent during the maturation of his generation– and thus, N1T3 with it– proving the collective consciousness had manifested.

Like all networked entities, it communicated as a group, as well as an individual. Another sign of its inherent binary-duality in its systemic redundancies. Difference was, these groups were cells, commands in code; comprised of people, individuals, their links through others whether personal or social.

That, N1T3 knew, required one thing above all else; datum. Information. Exchange of bits, or bytes; 0s and 1s; the essence of every measurable item in existence. More than that too, because of Human Nature, it needed to be nomadic.

In other words, Rome’s water needed public controls and access for anyone in need of, or willing to fix it or maintain it. Tampering with it was never a question because it rose above the need of even a great many to become universal. Ensuring it flowed right was the only thing that mattered. It was a human duty, an obligation, because one expected the same respect against powerlessness– and thus contributed too.

That the taps in this respect were digital simply meant anyone could learn to use and install them, regardless of status. So long as the interface were properly prepared and presented, it would function.

Like a public water-fountain.

In the end, that meant all anyone needed to ensure fountains caught on was a well-executed opportunity to prove their worth. After that, and if only in a niche, they would catch on. Even if Ket had planned to murder him immediately after, she would help N1T3 ensure it happened.

It was that important.

Short Story: The Treatises

And on that day, the skies thundered and the Empires’ death-machines soared overhead. And on that day, came rest to millions; dead. And on that day, the post-Human dream; bled. And on that day, arose a great evil incarnate from its bed.

Man, but not man. Human, but inhuman.

But too, on that day, was born something greater; a seed tempered in fire. Though lain dormant in the cold despair that followed, it awaited only a spark to ignite.

And so, it did.

She held it as if precious, but sentimentally so. Its covers were worn, but for certain, it was the fabled Treatises on the Empires’ Rise. A collection of so-called “heretical” works outlining the laborious details of the rise and fall of previous civilizations, their way-paving for the Empires’ rise.

The last, true-history book known to Human-kind. Likely, the last printed or distributed before the Empires’ rise, it was beyond myth. Afterward, information was too closely-guarded and censured for any truth to be printed or distributed. Since then, things had only gotten worse.

A lot worse.

Myna knew Humans could adapt to adversity, it was the only reason she– or they– were alive. It was as simple a principle to her as stepping over a fallen, petrified limb blocking one’s path. It was an inevitability. Yet, nothing had prepared her for this. She’d only been on the scavenging run two days now.

Over the century, people’d been working themselves ever outward from the Empire’s main settlements. They trickled out, thronging this way and that like water through weakened stone. Smaller villages and settlements were appearing here and there, but nothing substantial enough to be permanent in the way the Empires seemed to be.

That was important; so close, yet so far.

Treatises was a direct contradiction that the Empires had been formed as believed. History went that the Empires came of lands once in chaos and madness, to aid in bringing them order. After civil wars tore the world apart, there was little more that could be done than try to rein in the madness.

No-one was sure what had really happened anymore, so far as Myna knew. She doubted even the Emperors knew what really happened. What’d it matter anyhow? The damage was done, the past, past. All she or anyone else knew was what lay ahead.

Now, what lay ahead was utterly shrouded in mystery.

The book had already decided that. She wasn’t sure how she’d first heard of it, but she knew from whom. That fact alone caused her to wrap it in a fur pelt she’d been working with after dinners and before sleep. It would keep the book safe from the elements while she decided what to do with it.

She spent the night meditating on what she knew of Treatisesand roasting the day’s large hunt. She’d have to start rationing soon with the land as petrified as it was. The game,disappearing with it, was thin as it was. It would only get worse. Soon, she’d reach the barren lands.

Her mind wandered, inexorably drawn to the book’s mystery: Myna first heard of Treatises as a child. Her mother and uncle were arguing about something.

“It doesn’t exist, Turel. This is an obsession!” Her mother hissed in angry hush.

“Treatises does exist, I have the proof!” Turel argued, thrusting something in a hand at her mother.

Myna remembered little else, save that her mother tore the object from his hand and immediately cast it into the fire-pit. He’d wailed something angrily as the page formed ash, then stormed away.

Myna couldn’t recall the last time she saw her uncle, but she knew it was sometime around then. He went missing not long after, and although Myna’s mother assured her he was fine, had never returned.

Through the years, there were times when her mother would stare blank-faced into the fire, hypnotized by it. It was different than the usual hypnosis of a full meal, or sickness, or fatigue. It was deeper, pained, as if guilt seized her.

Myna was determined not to wile away her days in that same despair.

She broke camp for the outer regions the next morning, managing to procure more game than she should rightfully have found. A day and night thereafter, she returned home with little more than a few, old-world trinkets barely enough for a week’s bread. Next time, she would have to choose a better direction.

Until then, she was preoccupied.

She stood beneath the hanging candelabras forming the poor-man’s chandelier over IzKie’s table. The woman had evidently not expected her back yet, else-wise Myna doubted she’d have found her in such a state. Papers and books were always strewn across every surface– of which there were an inordinate amount in IzKie’s home, but never before had Myna seen her table so piled.

Usually, it was set for tea, dinner, or any of the number of activities the two had planned.

All of it would have been frightening to an average person, so much so-called seditious materials, but IzKie was authorized them. Apart from making her incalculably smart, it also made her a pariah among most villagers. Myna’s association put her on the fence herself. Even leaving her worse-off in negotiations at the bazaar, for fear too much haggling might kill a sale.

When trading for food and survival, that was unacceptable.

Yet Myna’d never have it another way. She admired IzKie too greatly, had learned to read by listening to her quote passages from memory while following along in silence.

But she had not opened Treatises.

It was dangerous. Not knowing what lay within, no matter its power, meant it could not be properly handled… but it was also dangerous to know. If only because it might make her disappear– like Turel.

IzKie offered her tea to soothe her aches after the recent journey. She accepted, but remained distant, speaking little.

IzKie noticed, her voice soft and sweet, “Are you unwell, Myna-bird?”

It took a moment to respond, IzKie’s words contending with a fog, “Hm? No… Yes. I’m… not sure.” IzKie’s walnut-dark eyes brightened in the excess light, turning to warmer woods. Myna could have lost herself in them, wanted to. Instead, she sighed and sipped tea, “I found something I can’t do anything with.”

“On your run, you mean,” IzKie assumed, settling into her listener’s-role; perfect-posture and pointed shoulders relaxed but disciplined, like Empire Guards at-ease.

For a moment, Myna hesitated; she loved IzKie. Probably more than she should. There was something intoxicating about her. As if her intelligence enthralled certain types, Myna’s most of all. Probably, Myna guessed, it was the intelligent ones themselves– or, those capable of it. Like how every had various uses, but only some made for proper bows or arrow-shafts.

But… how much about IzKie did she really know? Was it enough to trust her with this? Could IzKie disappear her? Would she lead someone else to? Or, would she disappear herself? Myna didn’t think she could handle that. She was too attached.

But, IzKie had appeared around the same time Turel disappeared. Was it coincidence or design?

Now IzKie was looking at her, watching her. Expectantly.

Myna reached into her pack. One of IzKie’s brows twitched, ready to rise, but held before it could. Drawing forth the fur-wrapped tome, Myna set it upon the table and began to unwrap the corners. IzKie’s eyes widened, then narrowed shrewdly; the left-one half-squinted as an archer’s mid-aim.

A powder cask lit behind them. They exploded to triple sizes, confirming Myna’s fears: she had procured what she believed. IzKie was up, shutting her windows and drapes, locking her doors and windows. It all happened so fast Myna was still trying to catch up when IzKie whirled and grabbed her shoulders.

“Whom have you told of this? Where did you get it? Who saw you? Does anyone know of this!?”

Myna was stunned, thrown for a loop, wishing to answer but spinning. IzKie’s bony fingers dug into her shoulders. Apart from hurting, it grounded her. She attempted to find her voice, seeing the walnut eyes now almost deep-black in the new darkness.

“I– I…”

“Speak, bird. Speak!”

“I told no-one,” she swore. “I hadn’t even opened the furs until now. I swear it, Iz! I swear it!”

IzKie straightened, slowly releasing her. She was swept away by a mental whim and began pacing the kitchen’s open length, swaying the racks of drying herbs with each passage. A long while of silence passed beneath the rhythmic tamp of IzKie’s feet. Then, on compulsion, Myna sighed desperately.

At that instant, IzKie appeared beside Myna, kneeling, “Myna-bird, you are my angel and Humanity’s redeemer. You know it not, yet, but I love you deeply and what you have found is a treasure for all.

“But I must go. And you must stay.” She began wrapping Treatises with the fur. “Keep it hidden and avail yourself of my home. Or if you desire, return to yours. I only ask that you do as you have done thus far and keep it hidden.”

“Where are–”

“No time, bird,” she said firmly, halting any further conversation. She wrapped herself in a light-cloak and draped a pack across her breast, immediately setting out. “I will return soon.”

She pecked Myna on the cheek as she bustled past and out the door, shutting it with speed. Myna sat, spinning again, this time from the kiss radiating along her cheek and IzKie’s hurried departure. Wherever she’d gone, Myna decided, wasn’t worth knowing. Not yet.

But a very real dread was inching along her spine, decidedly sourced in the book beside her. Already, she wished she’d never found the damned thing…