Short Story: Enjoy the Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is us.

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

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is survival.

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

That is life, living.

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

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

If only we were getting paid, someone bemoaned.

Aren’t we? I ask, glancing around.

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

Aware. Manifested.

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

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

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

It is beautiful.

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

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

What a wild trip.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 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.

Poetry-Thing Thursday: You ask, Yet I Answer

You ask me what love is,
yet I do not know.

I know that I have loved and lost:
the feelings of life and entertainment,
all at mercy of soul’s cost.

You ask me what love is,
but I do not know.

I know only warmth and vibration:
delivered through aetheric space-time,
from the source of cosmic machination.

In the end,
what do my meanings matter?
Do you not,
know them yourself?
Then look toward the lingering,
of the inner soul-health.

It is what’s needed
‘tween the dwindlings of time,
and if gone unheeded,
the Mariner’s last rime.

You ask me what love is,
yet I haven’t a clue.

But I have a deep-down feeling,
that you know,
really,
you do,
yet still,
you go on reeling.

You ask me what love is,
I haven’t the faintest,
for all I know,
is when it is true.

Short Story: The Nature of Love

Madness. Chaos. Disorder. All in flashes that burn retinal nightmares into the mind. Blood and screams. Far off smoke, nearing. Smells of sulfur, gunpowder, death. Once-tall buildings lay in ruins, any former majesty that kissed or embraced the sky with its dark beauty of Human progress now regressed and weeping; mounds of rubble that burn, scream, and bleed.

He was torn from sleep beside her, sensing her nightmares. He hadn’t seen the images, but knew she was living them. Nightly. Cost of a rising action in Human Evolution forcing him to coddle her to sleep every night, but also hold her tight anytime she tossed and turned, wept or screamed.

He wrapped his arms tight around her. Amber flax, frayed at their ends and needling his skin at breath. She needed a mother. Someone to care for her properly. Someone whom knew what they were doing. A woman– Christ, anyone– he needed them himself.

But all this madness, this chaos… It was too dangerous to go out into. To seek one. Especially for her. Whomever she was.

He’d never gotten her name, but she had one. Who didn’t? Worse, she couldn’t have been ten years old, yet was fully-aware as any adult. More-so, even. Most of them couldn’t recognize the futility in clinging to something that no longer meant anything to anyone but her– and thus, no-one at all.

It broke his heart just once but was all he needed.

She stilled in her sleep. No longer twitching. He’d have another two or three hours before they’d be apart long enough for the twitching night-terrors to restart. He held her anyway. Tight against him for warmth, emitting what little remained in him.

He wasn’t doing a good enough job. He knew that much.

He rested his head on the straw-stuffed sacks they’d collected to call a bed. The distant drip drip, DROP of leaky infrastructure echoed from somewhere too far off to care, but not enough to ignore. Often enough he welcomed the tempo it gave to his thoughts.

Not tonight though. Tonight was just dripping randomosity, chaos incarnate to mirror the rest of the world. Or maybe, simply, to act as an extension of it.

In the mornings he’d often wake to find her sitting, staring into the distance. No doubtthe tragedies she’d seen replayed in her mind. For as many times as he’d seen her bony spine through her ratty clothing, he’d seen memory torture her face.

He tried to comfort her once, but she shied just enough. This, and daytime, weren’t what he was needed for. Only night. And only so she might sleep peacefully.

It stung, but he obliged without hesitation.

She’d spoken a little that first night he found her on the rooftop, ready to jump. He wasn’t sure she’d been all that lucid. She was wounded, mortally. At least for the skills of a child. He put a tourniquet above her wounded leg, tied it off, set the bone and stitched the skin. Skills he’d learned somewhere through life but couldn’t place.

It was poorly done, but it kept her alive.

She’d cried wet rivers of tears, and not oneaudibly. She made no sound, sob, or screamof pain, however much he’d promised she could Whatever she’d been through was worse. He couldn’t begrudge her the strength she’d gained, but he could hate that she’d been forced to gain it.

What little he’d gotten out of her was like pulling teeth. He’d let her rest for a few days before trying again. He’d only bothered the first time ‘round to keep her mind off her bone pain. Over a few nights, he got the general gist of things. Most of which centered around the chaotic global war and rebellion.

Everybody knew the madness was under a smokescreen. The media corporations and companies had aggressively taken-over or quashed any attempts at remaining “free-press”. Freedom of information no longer existed beyond a theoretical (and outlawed) concept. Information was now being held hostage, even by the so-called “good guys.”

Fact was, they both knew, no-one was good anymore. There was “bad,” and “less bad.” He wasn’t sure which he was, but hoped the latter, for her sake. She felt the same, though never admitted it.

No-one knew the true causes of the battles, the wars, the attacks. Just that they were happening. Orwell didn’t want his name anywhere near this clusterfuck. Who could blame him? Evidently, she felt the same, if only because she might now believe such parts of her, name included, were dead.

Probably because they were. Along with her parents. Her friends. Any hopes or dreams she had of ever living a normal existence.

It was another normal morning when she spoke again. Normal of course, being relative. By now, everyone living knew that much. The point remained valid in his mind.

“We need to leave this place.”

He wasn’t sure he’d heard her right– or at all.Rather, it felt as if he’d thought her words in his own mind. But how? It was impossible.

Nonetheless, the severity of her statement was witnessed in the few, meager packs at her feet.

“We can’t go anywhere. They’re looking everywhere for anyone able to fight or–”

Don’t finish the thought.”

It definitely came from his own mind. Her mouth hadn’t moved. Had he lost it somewhere in the process? No. It had to be her. Somehow. He didn’t know how, but he knew.

She gripped his hand, forced a pack into it. He moved to protest, but her eyes met his.

One echo in his mind ordered and pled at-once, “please.”

His eye twitched disbelief, allowing her to usher him along with what remained of their valuables– bare necessities of few toiletries, a half-molded scrap of bread, and a pack of canned non-perishables. She’d already layered her few clothing articles collected for colder nights, presumably having packed his away.

Before he’d regained his wits, they were far beyond the drainage outlet they’d take refuge in. Its massive, grated gate, easily picked and re-locked, had been left askew. They wouldn’t be coming back. Not surprising, but how had her voice done that? Was it him? Was it her? Was she really there at all?

Such questions need answers,” her voice echoed within him. “But now’s not the time. We must get as far away as possible. Now.”

He shook off the last of his confusion and stopped, hand held in hers as she’d led him forward. “No.” She didn’t hesitate, just simply tugged him onward until he went no further. Then, she released him and turned to look upward, “There. Wait.”

He whirled ‘round, “I don’t–”

You will.”

He waited, staring at the empty blue sky, wishing its weren’t just more of the smokescreen.

Then, he saw it: like a dart thrown from Olympus, streaking white smoke and rocketing toward their newly-vacated hideaway.

His eyes lit up, body lurched to shield her. It was pointless.

The missile struck the former hideout. Rubble gravitated inward then back out with a shockwave of heat and G-forces that rag-dolled them across the dusty ground. He landed winded and coughing, scrambling to find her another in the sudden cloud. She found him first, doubled over a rock, wracked with dry breaths that didn’t wish to come. He’d broken half his ribs, knew the feeling too well. It would kill him if he weren’t careful.

She forced him flat, then knelt beside him, hands over his battered abdomen. A minor flicker of light, like heat, emanated from her hands and into him.

“They’re hunting us now. All of us. You’ve helped me and they know. The things I’ve seen, what I can do, have me marked for a fate worse than death. You’ve been kind to me, so I will tell you there is much you do not know, but if your virtue is as it seems, you’ll learn the rest in time.”

She removed her hands and the pain was gone. He breathed normally: broken ribs, mended.

“Wh– how’d–”

“Once,” she said gravely. “They called us Seers. Now, we are the Hunted. And they, the Hunters.”

Something mechanical screamed past overhead, beyond the dust cloud still descending.

“Come, they’ll check for bodies soon. If we’re caught, they’ll spare us no horror.”

He pushed himself up, determined to follow, but confused. “How d’you–”

“It’s why the want me. I do not know anymore than you, save that we must counter them. Be the reaction to their action. That means leaving. Now.”

She led him forward at a brisk walk, but he’d already left his body, was following on instinct. He wondered what the hell he’d gotten himself into, if the girl could ever be safe. Or now, him with her.

He shouldered his pack, damned determined to ensure she was. Even if to his last dying breath. Such was the nature of love.

VIN26- The Best “Worst” Decision

We all have wishes. Skee-Lo had the most, at least in the publicized market. I had the second, but mine was written in words across pages invisible to all. Even if they hadn’t been, it was doubtful anyone would have found them. Even then, they’d never have enjoyed them.
It was simple mathematics, really. Take the amount of people in the world, multiplied by the amount of non-Skee-Lo wishes, then divided by each level of exclusion required to reach them.
In my case, that was invisible pages, requiring active readers, whom would not only ferret them out, but also enjoy them. Recursion that deep requires consideration.
But it happened. All of those infinitesimally small chances, and it happened.
What the fuck was I thinking?

Initially, It was from loss. Something I needed to do. Music had failed… sort of. Then, anyhow. I knew my body was too damaged and my spirit too wounded to do anything else. So, I tried to heal. Not knowing I was seeking to heal.
My dumb-ass went and put pen to paper.

For non-writers: the feeling of writing is intoxicating. It is more than a drug. It is like missing a crucial part of your genetic material and needing to supplement it with lifelong therapy. It is my theory that writers are Bodhisattvas: that we were the first to be reborn as Human, and needed to identify one another.
So, we began writing.
Only then, because we knew it would take lifetimes to make work, could we begin to understand that it was us, ourselves, that were the Bodhis now. Those old stories, their Buddhas, had already ascended the Godly realms. We were last in line, but richer for it, because we’d get to share all that extra time with the rest of this existence.
Righteous.
Wicked. Righteous.

The point I assume in this theory is that we are all building toward Enlightenment, Nirvana, or the Liberation from samsara. The cycle of Birth, Dying and Death, and Rebirth. It has put all of us, through the aforementioned, nearer to attaining that.
Seeing that, understanding that, is the way forward for Humanity and each of us as individuals.
Now, at every turn, the systems we’ve built around us to aid this are working against us. Justice is unjust. Corruption is purity. Fleas are jumping ship, yet the bridge isn’t burning. All the same, we know the waters are disturbed there’s a smell about there air. Something bigger is afoot.

Vermin fear predators.

I remember a story about a rally cry being heard in the distance at war-time. The village nearby immediately mustered its defenses and revealed its number. The rally never came. Days later, an army thousands strong had been amassed to encircle the village. They surrendered wholesale.
“Deception is the Art of War,” so sayeth Sun Tzu.
“Justice is blind,” retorts Lady Liberty.
Neither is wrong, yet others still bleed. It hurts somewhere. Deep. Even if we don’t care… we do. Even when we have every reason, rhyme, and conviction in the world not to, we do. Deep down. That is the condition: Human. The soul. The conscience. It is the effect of violation in that which is otherwise your norm and comfort.
No matter how comfortable you pretend to be with it, how much you smother it, it remains.

Becoming a writer was one of the best, worst-decisions of my life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Short Story: Sodden Holo

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

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

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

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

Then the caravan came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hindsight couldn’t change those effects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His tone sharpened, “I beg your pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hiss. “The nerve!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.