Guardians of Liberty: Part 6


Ain’t That a Bitch?

He was kicked back in his cot, thinking. He did it often enough to have formed a routine with it. Usually, before puzzling out bad code or troubleshooting something. This time, its origins eluded him.

At first, he figured it for his parting from Ket. Her words rang clear long after she’d left. They stung, but he’d expected worse. Only while breaking into his new rations, eating, then sorting them to to be stashed through his safe-houses, had he begun to understand her words’ true source; grief.

His and Ket’s relationship dictated she got last licks. Especially after the way things went afterward. Simple fact was, he knew Ket. Everything she did was carefully planned, executed. She’d expected their reunion all along, however uncertain of its particulars.

He also knew she phrased certain things in certain ways, however unafraid to speak her mind. Anyone but N1T3 might have missed the subtle reality of what she’d said. Then again, she always said more with what was left unsaid.

It was only then, flipping mental switches at random in aimless thought, that it came to him: she had loved Martin Black. Did not love N1T3.

A few of the million, random switches in N1T3’s head flipped together randomly. Right place, right time: Loved. Past tense. Not. Present. She had loved Martin Black because of his passionate love for her, but that had long since ended. Martin Black no longer existed. The man that had taken his place was N1T3, and she did not love N1T3…

But that did not mean she could not.

N1T3 was something more than a man now though. More than a symbol, even. He was an actuator of change. The lever identified and appropriately fitted to ensure the system(s) he was part of functioned properly, nominally. Who could love that? What was there to love?

Transactional. Business-like. A cog in a machine. It’s what he’d become. The thing he’d always feared being, hated having to be. Then again, there was no guarantee he would forever be that way. He might, provided he made it through the madness to come, find the Human within again.

Until then everything he– and thus they– did, would be transactional, passing.

The wound was deeper than he’d thought, yet he lived. Because he lived, he learned. So long as those two things continued, so would he. Whatever that meant about Ket couldn’t be known yet.

With that, he rose from the bed and flicked off a message-alert. It had been 22 hours since they’d first met. Impressive, even for her. Though he admitted that meant he’d somehow underestimated her. He didn’t like the idea; it meant he’d miscalculated somewhere.

That only happened if you slacked off. Cut corners. Like the hacker kid that started the raids.

There was a way to cut corners right, of course, but you had to know what you were doing. You needed to be so far beyond recognizing you were doing it that you’d come back ‘round to forgetting it again through muscle-memory.

With code, it was keeping something structured so it never exceeded the line between small and large, project and undertaking. That was easy if you knew what you were doing. Easier, if you were experienced enough to know how to do it.

But miscalculation meant errant thoughts. Broken code. Unforeseen consequences. It meant the systems in question had begun to run rampant and unguided by their parameters. The digital equivalent of cancer; viral injections riding collective missteps and spreading disaster with quiet, insidious corruption in cells at a time. Cell-by-cell. Bit-by-bit. Byte-by-byte. Until all required erasure and reset.

Except in this case, that corruption was mental. The consequence, death– or near enough.

N1T3 was immediately certain of the misstep’s source. He’d written Ket off as a variable. One for whom constance did not exist. The truth was, Ket would always be a wildcard. Even when and where he least expected it.

Most people would’ve been stopped at the gates of understanding Ket, never even allowed in the grounds. Martin Black had made it in by sheer grace of fortune and luck. Now, because of his transformation, N1T3 was not only within, but part of the heart of the mansion. There were no deeper secrets to be known. He, like a reserved few others, had reached the very core of her palace of arms, traps, and facades.

More than that, he’d been led in. By virtue of his past applied to the present.

He’d been cast from Eden for feeding Eve a poisoned apple. Rather than blame her for the rest of history, he left and returned a wiser man, prepared to accept his mistakes. It was a conformity– the same thing the corps wanted– those now hunting him and sworn as his enemy, but he accepted it. Irony dictated it run deeper than anything the corps could have reached, and that made it different, acceptable.

It was the difference between love and sex. Passion and commitment. 0 and 1.

Corporate marketing knew all about that difference. Their PR and ad departments had been trying to sell sex that didn’t exist for decades. Now, people were finally tired and irritated by it, unhappy. N1T3 had seen it everywhere; in shambled economy, the crippled markets, the greed-laden stock and media manipulation. It was outright propaganda and failed control measures take to extremes.

People world-wide had already been battered by war for a decade and more. Then, their governments failed them. Back then, it was people like N1T3 hardest hit. People that found themselves out of options. Society had herded them through educational degradation and indirect, ethnic cleansing, and let them out into a desolate, barren pasture expecting them to graze.

No-one knew then whom to blame, but postdigital children like N1T3 and Ket had been watching. Now, they were figuring it out. Fast.

In the end, they realized, it couldn’t be the governments. Governments were too big. Even then, they were too indebted globally and locally from wars; prison industrial complexes they’d built up; black-market bazaars they were half-fighting, half-funding. They were already drawing blood from people. There was nowhere deeper to go.

Not for them, anyhow.

The next logical source was politics as a whole, but in effect, politics had never changed. The game had always been the same. Although the source seemed perfectly political, it wasn’t until shortly after that the source’s politics– and lack thereof, truly revealed themselves.

That was done through legal bribes, lobbying; via third parties effectively laundering said money through themselves to their politicians of choice. Again, nothing new, but the reasons and intent behind it were. Entirely.

N1T3 remembered sitting in the now-rundown apartment with Ket the night the DCA had passed. It was then they knew the days of the net were limited. They’d begun stock-piling then, squirreling away bits and bytes in their own little ways.

It was never so big then as it became, but few things so volatile remain stable.

He and Ket both knew the future was bleak, regardless of whether they shared it or not. For those moments they loved, they loved deeply and madly. They were storing motivation, joy and euphoria, to sandbag them against the coming storm.

Then, when it came, it damn near drowned them. The aftermath left them seeking joy and euphoria elsewhere. The greater storm collectively growing though, the one that came about once a century, had already begun through them; revolution was incubating in them.

It just so happened their own revolutions coincided not only with one another, but with the world’s. That, above all, ensured the next one would be done right, or not at all.

In the end, he found that as the source of his misstep; thinking he could outwit a system he was the product of. The programming had been done, the system engaged. Now, the output was coming through.

Yet all of their worth and aligned stop-bits meant nothing in the face of what he was planning. He, and the others like him. Without him, they would fail. Vice-versa. The question then became, she could love N1T3, but could he love her?

Caution and delicate finesse. He wasn’t very good at it, but he was learning.

He found her waiting for him again. She had a habit of that; everywhere early, appearing to have nowhere to be. Like you weren’t important. Weren’t worth more than a passing interest. Fact was, if you were smart, you knew she wasn’t that way. That was Ket’s facade. The one she wore regardless of company. Taking it off was simply too time-consuming, too pointless.

If you knew her, and she was there, it mattered. If you were a fool in love, you were torn between worlds. If you ‘d been the latter and were now the former, you were in as deep as you could get. All the same, there was distance. No kiss today, but then nobody’d tried to kill him yet.

Herself included.

She kept to the outer edges of the main room, circling like a stalking predator. She did it subtly, slowly enough it was only obvious to one whom knew her so well. N1T3 didn’t bother following her with his eyes. It was an intimidation tactic meant for the facade-goers, the ones come to see the show; Vampirella. Bride of Frakenstein. The Tigress pacing her cage.

It wasn’t meant for the people whom actually knew her. Whom knew the act was required to keep her in the motions. That the show could easily be ignored, the information retrieved through it anyway otherwise.

But then, what was the point of being there?

She circled in aural-stereo. Her voice and essence orbited his head. His eyes fixed ahead and glazed, speaking volumes without words as he voluntarily submitted. The very air hinted at questions and immediately answered them. He recalled just how much a force of nature she was, and felt comforted by the momentary obscurity she provided.

“I know what you’re doing,” she said finally, decisively.

“Can it be done?”

She circled back in front of him, stopped. “Nothing’s impossible. Not with the right tech. You know that, N1T3.

“I don’t follow,” He admitted.

She stepped away before stopping to about-face like a headmistress. “Tech is like every force; it is dictated by referenced levels of rules interacting via context. For minerals, in markets, it’s rarity. For gems, its clarity and cut.” He nodded, catching on. “For tech, it’s revisional history and progenitor.”

He knew what she meant; all progress was the culmination of thousands of next-generation, referential changes. In essence, successively refining a variable-based system with each new iteration. It was a brute force hack beginning at 0000 and ending at 1111, each time stopping to check for a solution. That was society. History. Existence. It was cause and effect. Karma.

But that was it. There was nothing beyond it. The extent of its supposed divinity was its order in the chaos that ruled the universe otherwise. Tech though, wasn’t a benevolent manifestation of divine connection. It was an indifferent variable in an equation. Not even numbers could define it as more.

Tech was merely a mechanism of action. The rest was up to chance. Really, it was all up to chance, but try explaining that to billions of people over the net.

Simply, in tech; be it in design or sales, some things were variables and others, constants. Their output decided by the type of system involved, its internal components and their arrangement.

Ket was a variable; even within her own, personal constants. It was the reason she’d scoffed at his supposed offer of payment for food, never wrote him off otherwise. N1T3 was the opposite; a constant despite his own variable; such as the part of him that had loved her, even if now a newborn phoenix risen from ash.

He made no inclination otherwise toward it. He didn’t need to, They were still tailor-made for one another, but by way of mass-production’s interchangeability rather than artisanal want or desire. The difference was a want-or-not of illusion, delusion. Their lines therein.

Ket was theatrical, grand. She needed movement. Martin Black had been fine without it; with wallowing, daydreaming. She wanted to show, to display, always. He wanted to watch, admire. All of that was different now. Then, he’d not recognized his own part in the play. Nor its purpose. Now, he did.

And he’d come to play it because it needed to be played. Otherwise, there was no telling how many more would die.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 5



“Never would’ve thought you had the balls to contact me again.” She said, rightfully.

He didn’t move. Her fingers thrust her switch-blade deeper into his side, blade still retracted.

“I swear to you, Martin, I’ll do it.” His steady silence conveyed his belief. The blade eased back, though by no means away. “Convince me not to.”

“Five confirmed hits. All corp-sec. I was one of the lucky ones. We’re off-grid. Wanted. Hidden. But they’re coming for all of us, Ket. You’ll be later. All of you.”

She sucked wounded air through her teeth; a sign of the last vestige of hatred for he and his eternal rightness escaping. Her grip remained firm. “Putting me under fire’s your response?”

“You’re smarter than this, Ket. Our past is behind us. Our future is dark. I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t need you. And I wouldn’t need you if this weren’t bigger than myself or us alone.”

Another hiss, albeit quieter. Her panthera purr in full-effect, “What makes me care, Nite!?”

Addressing his persona directly said was willing to deal. However quickly that could change was another matter.

“Ket, Corp-sec’s murdering hackers.”


“And Clockwork. Five hits. Two deaths. Three others that made it away, including me.”

She finally eased off. It was subtle, but the knife retracted. Noticing was as important as it was civil. Ket was the kind of woman who thrived off the smallest measures of affection. If ignored or shunned, things went haywire. It extended elsewhere to her personality, of course– and especially in his presence, was lethal if not given considerable attention.

He knew that now. He hadn’t before, but now he was older, wiser, considerably more flexible in mind if not body. That was fine, she was enough of the latter for both of them, even if he couldn’t enjoy it himself presently.

She knew he’d sensed the easing, and with it, sensed his attempts at maturity. Too many years and too many missed opportunities had passed for them to deny the spark’s existence. Besides, the spark was never the problem, the idiot trying to control the fire was.

“Turn around,” she said, easing to full height.

He found her presence more gracefully imposing than he remembered. She was Venus Di Milo; larger than life. Eternal. He knew it. She knew it. He was her love; she, his. Yet their time together had taught them that, then at least, they couldn’t stand being together.

All the same, he saw her again; the olive skin, muscled as some ancient warrior goddess. Like every other time, it was as if the first time. She threw herself at him, kissed him deep, hard, wet, sloppily. He submitted fully.

A moment later it was over and the world was rushing back.

As if nothing had ever happened, she retook her rigid grace and led him forward into shadows. She spoke like a General meeting a trusted informant, on-edge but openly-so; from the severity of circumstances surrounding their very meeting, if nothing else.

Ket was business-like. N1T3 allowed her to set the tone. To her credit, she spared him further groveling. “Everyone saw what happened last night. No-one’s surprised it happened. Just at how.”

She led the way between a pair of old buildings, weathered by time and soot-blackened from an eon of pollution. N1T3 suddenly understood how the original torries felt. If this what they pined for, they could keep it.

N1T3 knew where she was leading him, but refused to believe it until he arrived. He’d only just seen her again, after years, and it seemed nothing had changed.

Well, almost nothing.

She led and conversed with gestures completely unaltered despite the years. Two conversations still took place at once. The surface one, audible and obvious; the other in a subtext of shared memories and memetic resonance from shared, mental-wavelengths.

Ket was doing it on purpose of course, as much for his sake as hers. Looks and gestures were easier than unnecessary words. Losing that had been one of the realities of their relationship that made her detest him so. He doubted she felt any hint of intimacy now, regardless of the kiss. It was a simple effect of being glad he’d survived; more Human than personal.

She turned transactional, business-like despite the obvious intimacy belying their words. Ket was little if not a career-woman at heart, however it manifested. It was that world that raised and bred her, taught her how– if need be– to take it out.

She, like N1T3 was one of those stop-bits. The 1s ending binary-strings of 0s; referential identifiers– embodiments of society via their existence at particular points in space and time. In effect, they were two of the postdigital-world’s first fully-digital children, formed and perfected en-masse whilst in-transition between worlds– the pre and postdigital.

But like N1T3, Ket was more than just that. Everyone that knew her, knew it. She could do whatever she wanted in both worlds; the remnants of the old and the blossoming new one, that was knowingly building itself in her image.

She had connections, money, property. Wit and clout to keep and protect them, illicit or not. Was the prototype chosen for mass-production, knew it, and used it.

And everyone let her.

She led N1T3 inside a neglected building, through it to an apartment. Even then, part of him refused to believe reality. He ignored the disbelief, knowing it would transform eventually.

The place was considerably more rundown now, partially reclaimed by nature. Otherwise, it was empty and undamaged enough to have kept anyone from squatting. It might still be reclaimed by one determined enough, but no-one would be.

The place meant nothing to anyone. Even those that knew of it most intimately. For any, it was merely another reference point. A place of known-congregation, now abandoned but capable of purpose. Any purpose– and thirsting for one at that.

That was one of the things Corporate lifestyle never understood. Mostly, because it required feeling. Not necessarily intense feeling, but any feeling.

The place felt as a refuge or sanctuary might, via obscurity; through a want of steel and stone to sing so its inhabitants might breathe again beneath it. Those feelings were what gave credence to Japanese Shinto Kami, their sister belief-systems dictating spirits resided in all things.

In a way they were right, however unwittingly after thousands of years of proven science, via electron microscopes, advanced physics and metaphysics. What Shinto called soul and energy, scientists called matter and energy; the effects of super-strong bonds formed in infinite ways, and radiating properties like auras; hot and cold, powered or not, 0 or 1.

Ket led him into their old room, a padlock already removed from it. They’d taught each other a lot over the years. Nothing consciously of course, but over the same half-telepathic link that had kept her from killing him only moments ago.

She let him, shut the door behind them.

It was smaller than he remembered. What wasn’t these days? He figured it an effect of age. After you’d seen so much, a single room could never be so large again– save if containing a live nuke. Then again with Ket, there was no telling; it very-well might– especially given the rather large, tarp- covered pallet in the center of the otherwise-empty room.

He hesitated just inside. She pushed past, whipping the tarp off. There, in three tiers, were a series of Rations purchased in bulk.

“You knew?”

“I had them stashed years ago.”

He stepped forward to examine them, squinting at her, “For me?”

“Yes,” she replied curtly. Then, “No-one’s surprised. I know you too well. It was this, or you’d be dead. Either way, I’d move ’em.”

He eyed her, searching for anything beyond the business-like facade she’d put on, finding only it. She was on now, thus he needed to be. Otherwise, he might as well have ended with the blade. He produced a flash-key.

“I’m insulted,” she remarked.

“Not for this,” he corrected respectfully. “I need something else. Two things. Actually.”

She wiped off her smugness and pricked up her ears. He produced a list. “This. Quantity there.” “And something… defensive.”

She eyed him through a squint, “Dangerous.”

He said nothing. What could he say? He knew it was dangerous, but the whole world was dangerous. Especially now. And especially for him. Yet he’d take the risk over losing the chance. Way he saw it, he’d be murdered or die going out. The responsibility to his mission dictated he protect himself if necessary, though if only to an extent of attempting to protect it.

Ket caught the wave of his thoughts, his mind-frequency attuned to hers. She folded the page, took the flash-key. “Two days. Meet me here then.”

“If it takes less?” He asked, only internalizing the, “where will I find you?”

She eyed him levelly, a fairly-injured party still nursing its wound, however potentially forgiving. “I never left.” He winced. She expected as much. “Let me make one thing clear; I loved Martin Black. I do not love N1T3.”

The Collective: Part 9


Rude Awakening

The group returned to Tokyo unscathed. Nothing had changed; either the Collective wasn’t sure of the damage done yet, or they were expertly keeping it quiet. Lex guessed the latter. Rachel agreed; it was doubtful anyone in the Collective was willing to admit defeat, let alone when it spelled disaster for the world’s economy. Credits were still good for the moment, despite not being backed by anything hard, but the news would eventually get out.

Containment was one of the few things the Collective hadn’t been able to exert over the Sleepers. Their lives in the virtual worlds were all connected by RSS-feeds, news blotters, chat-logs, forums; information flowed freely through them all. The Collective had learned the hard way long ago that the more one attempted to manipulate its flow, the more pressurized it became. All the same, contingencies would be enacted to keep people from waking, rioting once the news got out. Lex aimed to make any countermeasures pointless.

She and the others were ready to move almost as soon as they reached Tokyo’s limits. The deaths of Steinsson and Andersson would ensure that the final, few members of the Collective were even more heavily-guarded than the last. Without a doubt there’d be whole GSS contingents between the remaining four members of the Collective and Lex’s group.

They were secondary targets now though. The main targets were already sighted, and their last asset was ready to take the playing field. He’d been informed of his duties on return from Switzerland, all relevant information transferred to him. His allegiance had been assured by the murders of Li and Kay before him, the continued deaths of the Collective further ensured he would honor their deal. Regardless, it wouldn’t be long before the Sleepers woke, with or without him.

Lex and the others piled out of the van long enough to eat, rest, and await nightfall. They vacated a hideaway beneath Tokyo’s streets as the last rays of sunshine were snuffed out, gave way to Tokyo’s neon, light-polluted glow.

Lex led the way through alleys toward their destination. Vehicles were too easy to track given their sore-thumbed obviousness on empty streets. They were easily concealed along the surface all the way to the target building; a giant, server-storage site that stole most of the nearby real-estate with an impressive expanse. It looked about as futuristic as it was; all angles with windows that formed an upward curve along two-thirds of its front, ended with the lowest third’s roof. The rest of the building rose like a giant, crystal chrysalis into the sky. If Lex had to guess, she’d have said there were roughly a hundred and twenty floors between the lobby and the roof. At its very top would be her targets.

She split off from Rachel and the others at the rear-entrance. There was an almost mournful look in the latter’s eyes, but both women knew there was nothing to be done about it. Rachel was needed elsewhere and Lex’s assignment was something she needed to do herself.

She stealthed her way through empty, service hallways. The narrow paths cut through the building’s interior to a grand lobby. Granite floors and marble-topped half-circle reception-desk sat beneath a quarter-wall that split the lobby in half, extended sky ward to the crest of the curved windows. The Global Entertainment logo of a wire-frame globe with solid continents stared down.

Lex passed it, careful not to be caught on any of the dozens of cameras around, and skirted the walls for the elevators at the back of the lobby. She stepped inside an elevator to await the signal, watched a small LED screen glow with an animated version of the globe-logo. It flashed to a face and Lex’s eyes narrowed on the man she’d ordered to speak for the Collective.

His Japanese features were obvious, pristine, but he hadn’t been glitzed with make-up– the sweat that gleamed off his face said as much. In fact, Lex knew for certain he was hiding in a hole, broadcasting through a remote up-link the team maintained from a server-room.

He cleared his throat, “On behalf of Global Entertainment, I would like to speak with you, our loyal audience, for a moment.” Japanese subtitles repeated his words in character script as Lex’s jaw tightened. “Two days ago, the final reserves of Platinum and Gold bullion that back our digital currency were destroyed. For those that do not know, it is these reserves that all money is based off. In effect, our entire economy has been eradicated.”

Lex quit listening. By now there would be chaos across the ‘net. The two Collective’s members on-site, heads of tech Kazue Matsuoka and her lover Maja Stroman, would be scrambling to shut down the link, confused as to why they couldn’t. Lex hit a button for the top-floor penthouse. The elevator lurched upward. She was the distraction, meant to buy time to finish the broadcast, enact the final part of their plan.

Lex touched a communicator in her ear, “I’m moving up.”

Rachel looked back at Ryo as he hunched over a keyboard on the edge of a floor-full of servers. He pressed his ear as he worked, “The broadcast is thirty seconds out. I’m hacking the system now. You’ll be the only functioning elevator. There’s a whole contingent in the penthouse. Be ready.”

Lex’s hands clenched into fists, “Just get it done.”

Rachel cast a look between Yang-Lee and Kaz, racked the bolt on a GSS rifle, “Here we go.”

The elevator-doors opened at the penthouse floor. Twelve rifles lit up the insides. For a moment there was nothing but the sounds of sustained fire. Someone shouted something in Japanese, and it stopped. The squad leader pointed to two of his team, sent them in to scour the elevator with a pair of gestures. They inched forward, leaned into their rifles, with rigid bodies. The rifles swept left and right inside, up and down, found nothing. They relaxed in confusion, turned back to face the rest of the squad.

The squad’s arms lowered. A near-silent of metal on fabric swished. Lex’s boots slammed a vent cover atop the elevator. She plunged through, landed blades-out. The swords angled up, stabbed in at the spines of both men. Blood sprayed from punctures as the blades pierced their fronts. Rifles rose again, chattered against Lex’s double-wide meat-shield.

Holes riddled the dead men. The blades propelled them forward. Lex growled, burst from the elevator with a flying leap, flipped up, over the line of armed men and women, landed behind the squad leader. Fire lagged behind, followed, went silent before it killed the commander.

One blade went left, the other right. A pivot turned to a pirouette. A hand followed through. Lex mentally counted down; Eight.

A wide leg sleep, low gravity. Two bodies tumbled, stunned. One more fell from a dual slice across the belly. Seven.

The sweep turned acrobatic. A flying round-house staggered another man. A blade sliced a second’s throat beside him. Six.

She began another landing; a blade cut the calf of a woman. The other plunged up, in, and out her sternum. Five.

A wide, uplifted sweep, lacerated another woman’s torso. Four.

Lex’s legs drew nearer, body upright. The three staggered men began to recover. She whirled with a spin, made circles to aim. A stab inward through the heart of the last man standing, and one on the ground. Two.

With another sweep, and a fluid shift, she kept the last men down. The blades whirled, plunged down through soft bodies. Zero.

She hesitated a moment to control her breath, then ripped the blades out to survey the carnage.

Tell-tale abstracts of blood were painted across the penthouse’s beige walls. Corpses lay where they’d fallen; some atop one other, others sequestered, alone. All were covered in blood. The penthouse’s hardwood-floor was a crimson pool of still-warm blood beneath Lex’s boots. She straightened with a whirl of her blades. Blood flung from the tips as she marched forward along the wide hallway, into a massive, main room that looked out on Tokyo with a bird’s -eye view.

The sight was breathtaking. Tokyo was a glowing jewel of prosperity in an otherwise blackened sea. Lex was compelled toward the windows. She took a few steps to the large, six-person dining table atop a platform. It shined from a lacquer finished that mixed the faint neon of Tokyo with the room’s low sconces on its supports and walls. For a moment, Lex almost regretted what was about to happen. The click of a pistol’s hammer reminded her of its necessity. From the sound, she guessed something German.

“Miss Stroman. Nice of you to join me.” Only the faintest of feet scuffed wood from a corner of the room, “Tell your wife to stay or I kill her before she reaches the elevator.”

The German woman’s hard-angled face sneered, pulled high-lighted hair tighter around her round forehead. Lex didn’t move. Stroman shot a glance sideways, froze her wife with a look, “Your reckoning has arrived, Alexis.”

Lex ignored her, “It really is a beautiful view here at the top.” The German took a few steps forward, angled wide around Lex with the gun on her. “Join us, won’t you Kazue?” The Japanese woman remained frozen. “Very well then.”

Stroman took the platform’s steps one-by-one, settled even with Lex. The gun’s aim was firm, “Whatever you intended to prove ends here.”

Lex’s body remained steadfast. Her eyes swept the multi-colored beauty ahead, “Maybe.” Stroman’s left hand gripped the pistol beneath the right, further steadied her aim. Lex sensed the shift, waited, her eyes on the horizon, “Then again, perhaps I’ve already completed what I set out to do.”

As if flicked by switches, Tokyo’s city-blocks went dark one-by-one. Stroman didn’t notice until the lights went out above her. Kazue spoke from the corner of the room, “Maja!”

She glanced sideways to see the emerging darkness. Lex struck. In one move, she had Stroman by a wrist, gun pointed outward, away. Stroman eyed the blade hilt-deep in her gut. She grit her teeth, bucked back and forth. Kazue gasped, began to sob in the corner.

Maja’s mouth leaked blood, “You… Bitch…”

“The Sleepers are awakening,” Lex said coldly. “In two minutes power will return across the city long enough for an EMP to detonate.” Stroman fought with her last ounces of life against the grip on her wrist. Lex’s hand was firm, “In two and a half minutes, your world will be ours again.”

She ripped the blade from Stroman’s torso. Her body tumbled down the platform’s stairs to the floor. Kazue launched herself across the room, fell into howls beside Maja. Lex dislodged the gun’s magazine, tossed it across the penthouse. She turned, blade pointed downward, for Kazue.

“You’re a monster!” The woman screamed at Lex. She repeated the phrase, shoved her face against Maja’s chest to weep.

Lex stared down while the words echoed through her head. She didn’t doubt their truth, but couldn’t deny it was the Collective that had made them such. All she’d done was set out to right the world’s balance. There was never a choice for her but to ensure the Collective’s debts were repaid in blood. There was no system left to punish them. No courts to hold them accountable. No police to arrest them. They’d seen to that. With it, they’d as much signed their own death-warrants as formed the monster bound to slaughter them one and two at a time.

“You know what has to happen, Kazue,” Lex said. She ignored her, but her cries went silent. “The Sleepers must awaken. The debt must be repaid.”

Kazue sniffled. She kissed Maja softly on the lips and cheek, rose with a final breath. Her eyes were hard, tearful, but accepting. They met Lex’s. Kazue swallowed hard, stiffened her neck and spine with a small pair of nods.

Lex made it quick; a lone thrust through the heart. Kazue went limp against the blade, fell beside her lover as it retracted. The power faded back for a brief moment, then the sound of something like metal grating shook the building. A wave rolled out across Tokyo. The penthouse lights flared brightly, then died out. A door opened near the elevators, a shielded flashlight attachment on a rifle blinding Lex even at the distance. It lowered to reveal Rachel’s face, the others behind her.

Rachel jogged forward, met Lex halfway up the hall with a pant, “We’re ready to move. We’ll have to take the tunnels, the streets are already turning into chaos.”

“No,” Lex said defiantly. “No-one hides anymore. Hold your own, but don’t harm anyone. The GSS will be inbound. We need to ensure the people are protected.”
Rachel gave a nod, leaned to look past at the two bodies beside one another, “Stroman and Matsuoka?” Lex gave a sole nod. Rachel huffed from exertion, “Good. Come on.”

The rest of the group turned for the stairwell. Lex hesitated, mind caught in Kazue’s willing sacrifice. She hadn’t begged, or pled, merely accepted her fate. Lex sympathized, started forward to follow the others down the thousands of steps to the lobby.

The Collective: Part 8



Lex stamped a boot on a rear bench-seat of a cargo van. Her body seemed gyroscopically stable against the Alps’ rough roads. She tightened her laces while Rachel jostled absently beside her. Her eyes had been empty since they’d left Japan. Full-days of boat and car-rides had gotten them across the Asian continent and upward into central Europe, but in all that time, neither she nor Lex had said much. They merely ate, stopped occasionally to rest, resupply, or sleep.

Now the journey was almost over. After they took the vault, they would rocket back to Japan, finish what had been started. The way forward however, would be no easy task.

The Collective housed their vault in the basement of a castle once belonging to a Swiss Baron– a literal dungeon dated to the late fourteenth century. The Baron had been murdered in his sleep by Hitler’s Schutzstaffel while his other forces made their French push. The insurgency however, was thwarted by the Baron’s security forces before it could become a full-blown Casus Belli and drag the country into war. Switzerland remained neutral but the castle changed hands more times than Lex cared to count– all of them greased by dirty money.

She sank beside Rachel whom hunched over in her coat against cold that leaked in. The engine and transmission strained beneath them, urged onward by a heavy foot. Yang-Lee’s scarred face peered back from the passenger-seat, “We’re close.”

Lex readied herself at the rear-doors, “Pull off the road. We’ll walk from here.”

Minutes later Lex and her team, Rachel included, began to hike the final, long twist of road that led to the castle. They emerged on the far-side of a wide curve. Mountains loomed with an ubiquitous boldness to their right and in the background, but the spectacle ahead was curiously level given its craggy surroundings. Jagged, tooth-like ramparts and walls formed a wide barrier between a courtyard and the road with turrets every hundred meters. Gray and white patchwork prevailed through-out the weathered stone-walls. Off-center, but even with the road, stood the gate in all its impenetrable stubbornness.

A man with a rifle patrolled along the wall, security lighter here than it would be inside. The place would be filled with armed GSS Emergency Response Squads– the most elite of the elite not deployed to external security teams. They would bleed all the same.

“Kaz,” Lex said to the Japanese woman. “Go.”

She needed no further instruction. The man had yet to spot them, his mind fatigued to complacency by boredom. Kaz was behind him in a flash, her feet silent. The only sound was that of the blade as it pierced his back, cracked his sternum, and emerged from his chest. He fell face-first into the snow, dead and bleeding.

Lex and Yang-Lee were at Kaz’s side as she stooped to rifle through his pockets. Rachel and Ryo approached, their heads swiveling. The former was more paranoid than the strategic latter. Kaz rose, a key-card and radio in-hand, passed them to Lex. She stuck the radio’s ear-piece in to monitor the GSS frequency, moved them up to an arched, wooden door in the wall beside the massive gate.

The key-card touched a panel beside the door, scanned a magnetic stripe. The door eased open on a small, quiet hydraulic. Lex stepped in, nearly blind from the relative darkness.

She kept her senses honed, whispered at the others, “The rampart will lead into a tunnel. From there, we follow passages to the vault. Stay sharp.”

Rachel was silent, unsure why she was even there. Though Lex assured her she would be safe, there were more than a few doubts to her sincerity. More than likely, she would be looked to for any unforeseen developments that might arise. The only explanation Rachel could surmise verged on wafer-thin; she might know how the Collective think.

Whatever the real reason for her presence, she kept dead-center in the line of bodies that stalked the shadows beneath the ramparts. Centuries ago, this place would have been filled with the stinking bodies of medieval soldiers ready to fight and die for their home or Monarch. Now, it was desolate, empty. Its wide, arched passageways were more a curious, historical oddity than anything. Most certainly they were no longer necessary as secondary pathways to the turrets above.

They managed to find the cross-chamber that led to the vault unimpeded. The retro-fits became more obvious as the group dodged the sweeping gazes of security cameras. Old, crumbled stone transformed to restored brick work, finally morphed into steel plating that covered the walls, ceiling, and floor, reinforced them against whatever intrusion had been thought of. Evidently the Collective didn’t expect anyone walk through the side door, much less with minimal force.

They found another, circular cross-chamber with a pillar in its center. It led around to three, other pathways. From the database Andersson had given her, Lex knew two passages led to the upper-levels and the castle’s Great Hall. The third then, led to the vault and the first of its security measures. Casual footsteps echoed over the sound of voices. Lex and the others hurried to back up, out of sight.

A German voice spoke patchwork English, “Herr Steinsson hat arrived.”

“Yeh?” An Irish man’s accent asked. “What’s ‘e want?”

Der Kommandant sagt es ist about die monthly inspektion,” the German replied.

The Irish man said something as his voice curved around the inner-portion of the cross-chamber. It began to fade away, trail off down the second passage that led to the upper-levels. Lex stealthed forward, double-checked the chamber, then urged the others back into place.

The first of the security measures began just inside the passage to the vault. It wasn’t immediately obvious, and in fact, Lex wouldn’t have known were it not for Andersson’s intel. The steel-plated floor was randomly pressure-sensitive with no external indication of triggers; a singular height and shined to a high-gloss.

Thankfully, “random” actually meant patterned in a non-obvious way. Much like a musical phrase, there were obvious repetitions with only mild variation, then wild variations on either end of the phrases that led into one another. Together, they formed a mental picture in Lex’s mind that would zig-zag her across the floor-tiles.

“Step where I step and nowhere else,” Lex said quietly.

She planted her foot on the first plate, reassured herself by putting her other down and standing still for a moment. She admitted a small relief to herself, then closed her eyes to envision the layout. Left two, up one, right one, up two, left two, up two, right two. She stepped through the first series of tiles. The others followed carefully. Their eyes darted between their own feet and those of the person ahead. Each step was a vise around their hearts that tightened the further they progressed.

At the right, ninety-degree angle the hall formed, Lex stopped, stared ahead. She knew what lay unseen, between her and the massive, three foot-thick, circular-door. She also knew what would happen if she blundered forward; the castle would go on lock-down. The vault’s entry systems would be isolated, locked out of the castle’s security network until remotely reconnected. Meanwhile all GSS assets in-country would be diverted to neutralize the threat while panels in the ceiling opened, emitted hydroflouric acid and methoxyflurane gas. In other words, they’d be awake just long enough to go into shock, then die from cardiac arrest while unconscious– or else live disfigured the rest of their lives in prison.

Lex breathed, prepared. She pulled a small, cylindrical emitter from a pocket, the size of a D-Cell battery, but black with a hard shell. Its bottom-half twisted to engage it. Then, with another, careful motion, Lex followed the zig-zag of free-plates to the center of an invisible laser emitter. She stooped down, placed another cylindrical-device that misted the air every few seconds.

Rachel watched faint outlines of red-lasers bowed upward above Lex. The others engaged their countermeasures, followed after her. The mist caught the edges of the next set of emitted lasers. They bowed upward, reshaped by the static-discharger in Lex’s hand as she approached. Rachel held her discharger, heart in her throat as they made a start-stop progression while Lex placed the misting canisters. At the line’s rear, Ryo retrieved each one, then proceeded forward. As the last of the mist settled and Ryo moved from range, the lasers relaxed, ensured the group they would be forced to leave as they’d entered.

Lex’s goal was within reach now. No-one would stop her– not even the men in the security room that monitored the vault from the cameras at either side of it. With a final, calculated step, she passed from the mine-field of pressure plates and onto a wide, singular section of floor before the vault door. It spanned at least as much of the door’s sweeping gait, more even, it seemed.

The others followed, disengaged their countermeasures. Kaz and Yang-Lee split for the cameras, cut open their insulated wires to splice small, box-like devices to them that magnetically latched to the cameras’ bodies. They backed away from their respective cameras; Yang-Lee stood sentinel at the edge of the lone plate, faced the way they’d come.

Kaz returned to Lex’s side, “We’re ready.”

Lex nodded, “Ryo?”

He stepped past for a large panel beside the door. A hand-print scanner was housed in a touch screen below a retinal scanner and voice-print lock. In addition, numbered keys said a code was necessary to breach the state of the art security. Ryo had none of those things. Instead, he produced slam-bore from his pack, punched through the panel’s half-dozen screws, then pried it from the wall. The panel came loose, caught by Kaz’s hands. It jostled as he fished through the wires, spliced them to a bundle of cable connected to a hand-held tablet computer.

A full minute later hydraulics hissed over a series of loud clicks. Giant, steel bolts grated metal on metal as they slid back, in. The group stepped aside for the vault door to ease open, reveal its innards and their bounty. They stood in awe for a moment– even Rachel’s eyes gleamed dully at the hundreds of tons of gold and platinum bullion. A smug, knowing smile crept across Lex’s face.

This was the bulk of the world’s economy. It made Fort Knox look like chump-change. Despite the comparatively small vault, the bullion here was two and three times as valuable as Knox in its heyday. What was more, it was the Collective’s only physical measure of wealth. Long before the Sleep paper money had become useless, but even digital currency required physical assets to remain fiscally solvent, its value relative to what backed it. With a well-placed explosive, Lex planned to destroy– or at least nullify– the Collective’s stock-piled wealth.

“Take only what you can without being weighed down,” Lex said as she entered the vault. “Don’t get greedy.”

They entered the marble-floored vault. Lock-boxes formed mausoleum-like walls around the massive carts of gold and platinum. Kaz and Yang-Lee went to work to hack more cameras in the room’s corners then joined in ransacking the carts. They filled canvas packs with as much metal as they could carry.

Lex took a wide path around the vault, set small, thermos-like devices in its corners: they could never destroy the vault, or indeed even the metal in it. What they could do was turn the room into a super-powerful magnet so strong it– and everything inside it– would deform. The devices would create a singularity of unrivaled proportions by building to critical mass. The vault would contract, re-fuse until no larger than an SUV. The molten ball formed wouldn’t cool for weeks, months even. The repository would be eradicated in one, fell-swoop, its value gone.

The group procured their metal, then readied to make the trek back. The vault door swung shut as the super-magnets’ timers engaged. In a little less than five minutes, they would activate, begin to build up their polar charges, and the chaos would begin. Lex moved quickly back across the safe plates, through the lasers, and into the central passageway.

The timer was already down four-minutes when they reached the pillared cross-chamber. Lex shoved her bag of bullion into Rachel’s hands, “Go with them, I’ll meet you in Tokyo.”

Rachel was suddenly irate, “What? Are you crazy? Where are you going?”

“Steinsson is here,” Lex replied with a knowing look to the others. “Viktor Steinsson is a member of the Collective. He can not be allowed to live.”

“Forty-five seconds,” Kaz said with a look to her watch.

Rachel argued over her, “You’re crazy, Lex, you can’t–”

“Get out!” Lex ordered with a caustic hush.

“Come on,” Ryo said, pulling Rachel along.

Rachel watched Lex as the seconds ticked down. She suddenly drew her blades, disappeared around the pillar. Rachel swallowed acid; as much as she’d been against Lex, she was the closest thing left to a friend. Between what the Collective would do, and her weariness at the others like Lex, she didn’t want to be without even the minor rapport they’d built.

Rachel’s safety was admittedly nearer in Lex’s mind than her own as she sprinted through the maze of main-passageways that curved around, back, straightened out, and widened again. Her blades gleamed while her feet beat a gallop along plated floors toward a pair of men. They turned in time to be cut down, cast aside from the passage’s center. Lex followed through without a missed beat. Her blades dripped trails along the zig-zag of stairs that led up to the Great Hall.

She exploded onto the marble floors just as alarms screamed through the castle. The magneto-bomb had been detected. In moments it would reach critical mass, destroy the world’s last repository of hard currency. Nothing could stop that now, but Lex wouldn’t have let it anyhow.

Orders were shouted all around the Hall, echoed through its expanse over boots that marched down toward the vault. Lex saw the castle’s blue-prints in her mind, knew Steinsson would be in the security room just off the right side of the hall. Her feet danced poly-rhythms near a door over a melody of steel cutting skin. She severed the jugulars of a pair of guards there. More began to appear, their attention directed elsewhere form the chaos downstairs.

She shoved her way through a heavy, wooden door. The narrow hall beyond was long, filled with doorways of various non-importance. Her goal lay dead ahead, behind an open doorway with bodies that moved every which way around chromed-out tech.

She made the door in a few steps, bolted inside with a flurry of movement. She whirled round, blades cutting. The commotion inside barely registered the deaths of three security techs. Steinsson turned, the glaring eyes accented the white of his thinning hair. His recessed hair-line made jagged points of already-angled features.

Lex’s blades thrust and sliced, incised and slit their way across the room. Her body followed, the entities inseparable in their blurred motions. Before Viktor could react, Lex’s brought the katanas’ hilts together in a deep lunge. The blades sank into him, pierced clean-through with a splatter of blood that painted an abstract on the wall and tech behind him. The blades slid out in time to spin, catch two GSS guards on either side beneath their helmets.

Blood spilled from freshly cut throats as she came about, blades in their downward-point. Three GSS officers stood across the room with raised rifles. They shouted commands in various languages over the wail of klaxons. She refused to flinch. A man fingered his trigger.

A burst of fire riddled his body from the doorway. A second cut down the man beside him. The third turned as Lex’s right-hand blade sailed through the air, into his chest at an angle. A third burst cut him down simultaneously. He fell, dead. The smoke of the gunfire cleared in time for Lex to catch Rachel in the doorway.

For a moment both women were too shocked to move. Lex shook it off first, sprinted forward, retrieved her blade then made for the door. She drug Rachel with by the shoulder until she regained her wits.

“I wasn’t going to come back for you,” Rachel panted, in-step with Lex.

“Not now,” Lex said as they entered the Great Hall for the castle’s main door.

Sunlight beckoned them forward from the open doors, kissed them with its frosty presence. The courtyard was empty. Distant metal grated, ground as something behind them exploded. Neither woman paused to look back. Instead, they rushed for a door in the wall they’d entered through, took the rampart’s interior in a few steps, then shoved their way back into the day-light.

Their chests heaved, feet slipped on icy snow, caught traction on the road. Limbs pumped with aching muscles to launch them down the mountain, around the winding corner toward the awaiting van. Kaz had already angled it around, the back-doors open and the engine running.

Lex shoved Rachel inside as she climbed in, “Go! Go!”

The van started into a gallop, assisted by the road’s steep grade. The rear-doors slammed shut as Lex and Rachel pushed themselves up from the floor, fought opposing gravity to re-take their seats over a wheel.

Rachel swallowed hard with a look to Lex beside her, “We… actually made it.”

Lex gave a long sigh to recompose herself, “Yeah. We did.” She glanced at Ryo across from her, “The metal?”

He looked sideways at the pile of bags that clanked and clanged from the road’s twists and turns. Lex threw her head back, relieved, and leaned against the van’s wall. Her head rolled along her neck to meet Rachel’s eyes.

“Thank you.”

Rachel winced, grimaced. Then, with a small nod she replied, “You’re welcome.”

Missed Part 7? Read it here!